April 18, 2024

SEC Unbiased: Big Ten is catching up to the SEC

The SEC has dominated college football for a decade. However, there is a clear power shift occurring in the Big Ten. In this week’s installment of SEC Unbiased, David Bradford claims that the Big Ten is catching up quickly to the SEC.

KNOXVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 15, 2016 - Tennessee Volunteers Head Coach Butch Jones and Nick Saban during the game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics

In college football, the coaches—not the players—are the superstars.

When you think of Alabama, you think of Nick Saban. When you think of Ohio State, you think of Urban Meyer.

In the NFL, individual players receive most of the shine. But while college football has its share of superstar players—see Lamar Jackson—with rosters looking drastically different from year-to-year, the only constant is the head coach.

The SEC staked its claim as the nation’s premier conference in the mid-2000s due to its wide array of outstanding coaches. Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2006. Three years prior, he had won a national championship as the head coach at LSU. Three years later, Alabama returned to the top of the mountain. Meyer was named Florida’s head coach in 2005, fresh off navigating the Utah Utes to an undefeated 2004 season. The next season, Meyer’s Gators drubbed Ohio State in the National Championship, the first of seven-consecutive titles won by an SEC team. Les Miles took over the job in Baton Rouge from Saban and led the Tigers to a championship in 2007. Bobby Petrino transitioned from a brief stint in the NFL to Fayetville in 2008 and led Arkansas to back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2010 and 2011.

In 2016, the SEC coaching landscape looks a little different. Saban is still steering the ship for the Crimson Tide, but Meyer left Gainesville in 2010 and now coaches the Ohio State Buckeyes. Miles was also fired earlier this season and Petrino is enjoying success in his second go-around at Louisville.

Without those marquee names, the coaching situations in the SEC have transformed into a complete disaster. Saban is still orchestrating the greatest dynasty in college football history, but clouds of mystery loom over numerous programs in the SEC, especially in the (L)east.

Meanwhile, over in the the Big Ten, a few superstar coaches have set camp and established powerhouses. In addition, a handful of coaches reside at up-and-coming programs.

Because the quality of coaching is increasing in the Big Ten and decreasing in the SEC, the former is slowly becoming the preiminent conference in college football.

Here’s the proof.

Paul Chryst, Wisconsin: The Badgers know how to make a game ugly, but that’s exactly why they have a quality win over LSU and two close losses to Michigan and Ohio State. Credit Chryst for taking his talent and making the absolute most out of it.

Mark Dantonio, Michigan State: The Spartans could go 2-10 this season, which is a steep decline after making the College Football Playoff last season. But there’s no need to panic in East Lansing. Sparty has won at least 10 games five times since 2010 under Dantonio. He’s too exceptional of a coach to completely write him off. The only true concern is Harbaugh’s presence in the state of Michigan, which will likely steal recruits away from Dantonio.

Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern: Let’s take a moment to realize how hard it is to win at Northwestern. First off, it’s basically an Ivy League school. Second off, it was arguably the worst program in college football history. Third off, it’s in the state of Illinois. Fourth off, in the 100-plus years the Wildcats were a program prior to 2012, they compiled two 10-win seasons. Since 2012 under Fitzgerald, they’ve matched that total. Fifth off, they wear purple.

Kirk Ferentz, Iowa: Ferentz is slightly overrated as a head coach. In 18 seasons at Iowa, the Hawkeyes have only finished a season ranked six times. But it doesn’t matter to the folks in Iowa City, as they recently extended Ferentz through 2026. Whenever he retires, the whole program might as well go down with him.

James Franklin, Penn State: Franklin made Vanderbilt a respectable program. That’s not an easy thing to do. Now, he’s turning around the football culture in Happy Valley. I don’t want to say the Nittany Lions are back just yet. While the win over Ohio State is impressive, more needs to be seen from the offense. Still, this is a team that can win nine games.

Jim Harbaugh, Michigan: Harbaugh is the most awkward human being on Earth. However, he turns around every program/franchise seemingly overnight. Stanford went from irrelevancy to the Orange Bowl in four years. San Francisco went from the doormat of the NFC to three-consecutive conference championship games. Michigan went from a powerhouse of yesteryear to the No. 2 team in the country in a season and a half.

Urban Meyer, Ohio State: Anytime Meyer loses a game, it’s worthy of a documentary. This is his fifth season in Columbus. In that time, the Buckeyes have gone 56-5. They’ve won at least 12 games in each of the last four seasons and captured a National Championship in 2014. Despite fielding such a young team this year after losing nearly everyone from the previous four years to the NFL, Ohio State has wins at Wisconsin and at Oklahoma; and are very much in the thick of the CFP race.

Mike Riley, Nebraska: You want a coach who’s won a pair of Grey Cups? Mike Riley is your guy. You want a coach who coached in the NFL and was sabotaged by his franchise when they drafted Ryan Leaf? Mike Riley is your guy. You want a coach who is the all-time leader in wins at THE Oregon State? Mike Riley is your guy. Mike Riley. What. A. Guy.

Love Smith, Illinois: Right now, Illinois is an awful football team. But give Smith some time to recruit and he’ll have this program in bowl games for years to come. His sales pitch is easy: If I can get Rex Grossman to a Super Bowl, then I can get you anywhere.

Kevin Wilson, Indiana: The Hoosiers made a bowl game last season and have played Ohio State tough in back-to-back seasons. Not too shabby.

Coaches at Maryland, Minnesota, Rutgers, Purdue: Either too early to tell, or you lost back-to-back conference games by scores of 58-0 and 78-0 (looking at you Rutgers).

Penn State upsetting Ohio State was the best thing that could’ve happened for the Big Ten. Wisconsin losing to powerhouses such as the Wolverines and Buckeyes by a combined 14 points is also beneficial for the conference. It shows a level of competitiveness that is sorely lacking in the SEC. Alabama is clearly the conference’s best team and has separated itself from the rest of the pack by such a wide margin that entering last Saturday’s matchup with Texas A&M —the second best team in the SEC— the Crimson Tide were favored by nearly three touchdowns.

That’s not to say the Big Ten doesn’t have its share of blowouts (still looking at you Rutgers), but normally when the top teams square off, the games are closer.

Is this to say the Big Ten has already surpassed the SEC? No, but the gap is closing. What Big Ten programs lack are the athletes. While I’m positive Ohio State and Michigan could compete with Alabama, the Crimson Tide would roll over every other team in the Big Ten with ease. The same goes for Texas A&M, LSU, Auburn, Ole Miss and maybe even Arkansas.

The real edge lies in the SEC East, which has become a laughingstock of a division. If Butch Jones is the best coach out of the bunch, then you have a real problem on your hands. Just take a gander at the coaching situations at Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. It’s either unproven, inexperienced or a complete dumpster fire.

Even the West has its problems with coaching. Bret Bielema —who used to coach Wisconsin to Rose Bowls— has ushered Arkansas into a state of stagnancy. Gus “Bus” Malzahn can’t be trusted to put together a complete team at Auburn. Dan Mullen can’t solve the Rubik’s Cube that is life without Dak Prescott. Kevin Sumlin finally got over the 5-0 hump, but questions about the Aggies’ pedigree remain.

And don’t even get me started with Ed Orgeron. If this man keeps the LSU job, then the Tigers are willingly accepting their plunge into the shadow realm.

The SEC has dominated for so long, that it’s difficult to imagine a college football world where it isn’t the power conference. While it still is today, it doesn’t run as deep as it used to and doesn’t carry the same aura of invincibility it did a few years ago.

Edited by Dalton King 

Featured image by Donald Page, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics 

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Follow me @DavidJBradford1 on Twitter, email me at dbradfo2@vols.utk.edu for any questions.