The Big Ten needs a Valiant bowl season
The first car I remember riding in on a regular basis was a Plymouth Valiant. It was a hideous-looking automobile, roughly the color of a pumpernickel bagel, with an AM-only radio and bench seats that could have accommodated the population of several Caribbean islands. I was a small child, and this car possessed an oafish charm. It was plodding but effective.
Is the Big Ten doomed to follow in the footsteps
of the Plymouth Valiant into obsolescence?
I've been thinking about that car a lot lately, as the American auto industry teeters on the verge of extinction. But I also thought about that car last weekend when the college football bowl pairings were announced, because I've begun to realize that what happens over the next few weeks might be the Big Ten's last, best chance to avert the perception of its own obsolescence.
I grew up in the '80's, in the era of college football independence (and East Coast independents), so it still kind of amazes me how people seem to ascribe such importance to conference affiliation. But I also understand that the entire BCS system, despite its secondary reliance on esoteric computer rankings, remains the most prominent exercise in subjectivity in modern sports. The whole thing is essentially based on an educated guess, and in any situation like this one, where individual voters have the final say, perception is crucial.
So in order to simplify our vision of the landscape, we have developed a major-conference shorthand: The SEC is absurdly fast; the Pac-10 is generally underrated (due to lack of East Coast television exposure); the Big 12 is replete with prolific quarterbacks; the Big East and ACC are wildly inconsistent; and the Big Ten -- well, the Big Ten is the least modernized of the major conferences. The Big Ten is the Edsel. The Big Ten is slow and plodding and dull and backward-thinking. And that's why this BCS season matters more for the Big Ten than it ever has before: because it's increasingly perceived in the same way as the American auto industry -- as a once-great product of middle America that is in the midst of an irreversible decline.
It's true, of course, that just as the Big Three automakers have often sabotaged themselves, the Big Ten has not exactly embraced innovation, either. This is a conference whose three most famous coaches (Paterno, Schembechler and Hayes) are renowned for their overarching conservatism. This is a conference that has long adhered to the trends of the past -- and often still does. Even their attempts to embrace modernity (i.e., Rich Rodriguez's debut season at Michigan and Penn State's hyperbolic "Spread HD" offense) have so far come across to a large swath of the nation as clumsy and second-rate. All this was reinforced by Ohio State's embarrassing performances in two consecutive championship games, but let's face facts: The stereotype existed long before then, and it has the potential to linger on into the future.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Who doesn't want to party with Joe Paterno?
For instance: The most crucial game in the Big Ten conference this season was Penn State's 13-6 win at Ohio State, featuring the league's two most exciting and mobile quarterbacks; yet it was dictated entirely by defense. On the game-winning drive, Penn State recovered a fumble, then advanced 38 yards for a touchdown without completing a single pass.
Now, because I had a personal stake in one of the teams in this game (in this case, the winning one), I thought it was beautiful. But I am also a realist, and I know this game is not perceived by most of the nation as representing the future of college football. This is why Penn State might have somehow been shut out of the national championship game even if it had gone undefeated (and if, say, Alabama had defeated Florida). This is why the Big 12, which had five of the top 10 scoring offenses in the nation and produced three of the most exciting offensive units in the modern history of college football, was considered the best conference in football this season (even though no Big 12 team was ranked higher than 20th in scoring defense). The Big 12 represents the future: the notion that you can actually outgain every opponent you face and win a national championship. Their coaches are quirky men with pirate fetishes, and their quarterbacks have names such as Colt. It's all quite exciting.
And the Big Ten? Its coaches have hip-replacement surgery and wear sweater vests, and its running backs have Depression-era nicknames like "Beanie." It's all about perception: hence, the notion that the Big Ten cannot compete anymore in a modern world, that it's a plodding sedan in an era of hybrids. That's why the conference finds itself at a watershed moment, with six of its seven bowl teams considered underdogs, and its top two teams (Penn State and Ohio State) set to face programs (Texas and USC) that embody the ridiculously wide-open future of the game.*
There is a way to do this, and to do it with enough panache to negate the failures of the previous few seasons. In Terrelle Pryor and Daryll Clark, Ohio State and Penn State have two of the more dynamic quarterbacks in conference history. With two strong performances in BCS bowl games over the course of four days, they can not only shatter the stereotype of their conference, but -- by winning against quality opponents by playing both offense and defense -- can also restore balance to a sport that seems caught up in the irrational exuberance of 61-41 final scores. There is little doubt at this point that the spread offense is the future of college football. But it does not have to render the legacy of the Big Ten -- a legacy of linebackers missing front teeth and running backs built like, well, Plymouth Valiants -- entirely obsolete. In football, at least, I'd like to think that a little bit of ugly can still be beautiful.
* While it's true that USC has the top defense in the country this season, the Trojans are still recognized as the pioneers of the offensive surge of the past decade. Also, Pete Carroll, unlike approximately 81 percent of the coaches in the Big Ten, seems like a good dude to party with.
Michael Weinreb's book "Game of Kings: A Year Among the Oddballs and Geniuses Who Make Up America's Top High School Chess Team" has been released in paperback by Gotham Books. He is working on a book about sports in the 1980s. He can be reached at michaelweinreb.com.