Commentary

Big Ten masses' opportunity to rise up

Originally Published: June 2, 2011
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

The last time Ohio State and Michigan debuted new head football coaches at the same time was 1929. It was nothing special.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson, Al Borges
AP Photo/Tony DingMichigan's fortunes will largely depend on Denard Robinson's comfort in new offensive coordinator Al Borges' pro-style offense.

Sam Willaman went 4-3-1 with the Buckeyes. Harry Kipke went 5-3-1 with the Wolverines. Ohio State won the head-to-head matchup (in mid-October, of all times), 7-0.

If past is prologue in any meaningful way, it could be where the two finished in the Big Ten standings that year. Ohio State was tied for fifth, Michigan tied for seventh. Purdue won the league.

The point is, 2011 already was a year of radical transition from tradition for America's most intransigent league -- Nebraska arrives, two divisions form, a championship game is played. Now 2011 could shatter the status quo, providing the opportunity the oppressed Big Ten masses have been waiting for.

In theory, almost everyone now has a chance.

Until Monday, this still looked like Ohio State's league to lose -- even with a handful of key players sitting out the first five games, and without coach Jim Tressel in charge on those first five game days. But after the man who has owned the league resigned in disgrace on Memorial Day, the door to the throne swung wide open.

Unless interim coach Luke Fickel is Luke Skywalker and backup quarterback Joe Bauserman plays like Joe Montana. Neither of which is likely.

Not only is Tressel gone, but it's now conceivable that quarterback/serial car shopper Terrelle Pryor will miss more than five games as well. The NCAA, investigating Pryor's profligate automobile usage, could add to his penalty. Or, given the lynch-mob mentality currently percolating in Columbus, the scarlet-and-gray scapegoat who wears No. 2 could be made so unwelcome that he leaves school.

(The inclination of many Ohio State fans to spend this week demonizing Pryor while making excuses for the fraudulent Tressel is disturbing. Which one is the millionaire adult with the Dudley Do-Right image, and which one is the college kid? I wonder if the criticism of Pryor would be anywhere near this intense if he'd actually turned out to be the second coming of Vince Young and been a better player and leader.)

By any rendering, the previously favored Buckeyes now appear to be far from a sure thing in the (gag) Leaders Division. And who knows, a potential postseason ban delivered by the NCAA Committee on Infractions could make it all academic anyway. (The Buckeyes are scheduled to meet before the COI on Aug. 12, with a ruling not likely to come until well into the season.)

In the (ugh) Legends Division, Michigan looks like it will be highly mediocre for the fourth straight year -- and that might be an insult to mediocrity. Brady Hoke takes over the Wolverines and must try to pound a talented square peg named Denard Robinson into the round hole of coordinator Al Borges' pro-style offense. And Hoke must hope that a pathetically porous defense finally resembles what Michigan teams are supposed to look like on that side of the ball.

In sum, there is a real chance that both the Buckeyes and Wolverines will be pretty average at the same time. That happens almost never. Only once in the past 23 seasons has neither Michigan nor Ohio State managed to win at least nine games (2001).

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikOhio State's transition from the Jim Tressel era may leave a void at the top of the Big Ten standings that new arrival Nebraska will be keen to fill.

Others have had their moments of glory in recent years, including BCS berths for Wisconsin, Iowa, Penn State and Illinois in the past four years. It can be done -- but perhaps now more than ever. The league's vast middle class should have renewed offseason energy, charged by the chance to fill a vacuum concurrently left by the twin titans.

Nebraska, coming off a slightly disappointing final year in the Big 12, will have a chance to take over a league it just joined. The two teams that tied Ohio State for first last year, Wisconsin and Michigan State, have a chance to contend again -- even though the Badgers are rebuilding their offensive line, and even though the Spartans used a lifetime supply of pixie dust to win 11 games last season.

Iowa now has the league's best coach in Kirk Ferentz, but he certainly does not have the league's best talent. Northwestern could make a move, if quarterback Dan Persa is healed from a torn Achilles tendon. Penn State was young last season (except at head coach) and should be improved from a soft 7-6.

And then there is the lower class. Purdue simply cannot have any worse injury luck than it did last season, so that's one place to start. Illinois lost three high-impact players to early entry in the NFL draft but does have eight home games. Minnesota and Indiana at least get an optimism injection from new coaches.

As it stands today, all the Big Ten commoners have reason to believe.

Michigan proved the past three years that one program's immersion in turmoil can be another program's opportunity to step forward. Now Ohio State's foundation-jarring scandal adds another element of turnover to a league already lurching into unknown territory.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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