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Gans: Big Ten teams disappoint in 2012 (Sept. 25)

Sam Gans | Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Say that it’s because of some tough out-of-conference games. Blame the NCAA sanctions. Cite the shift in demographics from the Midwest to other areas of the nation.

No matter the reasons, September has shown one thing about the Big Ten: It’s not a good football conference in 2012.

Through week four of the college football season, before conference play has even started, the Big Ten is already all but eliminated from BCS title contention, with just three undefeated teams left.

One of those teams, Ohio State, normally would be a realistic contender at this point. There is only one problem: The Buckeyes are ineligible to go to a bowl game.

I have great admiration for the play of the other two, Northwestern and Minnesota, up to this point in the year. However, I don’t see either of them as real threats. After all, the last time either of them won 10 or more games was when the Gophers went 10-3 in 2003. The Big Ten, underwhelming as it may be, consists of tougher opponents than either have played so far.

The only BCS conference with fewer undefeated teams is the ACC, and that is largely because they have already begun conference play (the only losses Clemson, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech have are to other ACC teams). The Big Ten and Big East each have the same number of undefeated squads, and this despite the fact the Big East has four fewer teams and is widely considered the worst BCS conference in college football.

Every team in the Big Ten besides Ohio State, Northwestern and Minnesota has at least one loss. This includes preseason top-20 teams Michigan (now out of the top 25 with two losses), Wisconsin, Michigan State and Nebraska. With the performance the Big Ten put on display in September, it is unlikely any one-loss Big Ten champion would be chosen for the title game over a one-loss SEC, Big 12 or Pac-12 champion or 11-1 Notre Dame (yes, I went there, but relax, readers, it’s just a hypothetical).

So the leaves haven’t even changed colors yet and the Big Ten already knows almost certainly that none of its teams will be playing Jan. 7 in Miami.

But it’s not even just that the Big Ten has lost, but how they’ve played. Michigan State didn’t just lose to Notre Dame, the Irish dominated in the trenches in East Lansing, and the Spartans struggled the next week against 0-4 Eastern Michigan. Wisconsin lost to Oregon State and beat Northern Iowa and Utah State by a combined seven points. Illinois lost to Louisiana Tech by 28 points. Iowa fell to Iowa State and Central Michigan. Indiana dropped a game to Ball State.

And all of that is before factoring in Penn State and the absolute mess its program is in at the moment, both on the football field but even more off of it.

The Big Ten is entrenched as the fourth-best conference in America, according to USA Today analyst Jeff Sagarin’s computer ratings. The Big Ten is closer to fifth-place ACC than third-place Pac 12.

It’s easy to believe this is a fluke. The Big Ten has won four BCS bowl games in the past three seasons. Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska are three of the top programs in college football history, and many of the other members have a strong history on the gridiron.

It’s a proud conference, and one that traditionally plays some of the best, though perhaps not the most exciting, football in the land.

Just not this year.