Alabama coach Nick Saban, left, and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer pose with the Sugar Bowl Classic trophy during a press conference in 2014.
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TAMPA — When Ohio State and Vanderbilt met Oct. 14, 1933, only a smattering of fans showed up to Ohio Stadium despite the unseasonably warm temperatures that crept into the mid-70s.
The cavernous football cathedral, just 11 years old at the time, had a seating capacity of 66,210. The attendance was 21,358. The Buckeyes won 20-0 in an uneventful game that has but one lasting memory: It was the first game between Big Ten — then known as the Western Conference — and Southeastern Conference schools.
Eighty-four years later, debate about conference supremacy among the leagues’ athletic directors, coaches, players, and fans burns bright with a blue flame.
“I can tell you this: we at the Big Ten don’t want to be like the SEC in any way, shape, or form,” then-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said in 2012 before exiting to — Arkansas in the SEC.
The Big Ten has an opportunity to shut out the SEC this season. Northwestern already defeated Kentucky in the Music City Bowl, and the Big Ten was 2-0 in the regular season. If Michigan beats South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, it will be a clean sweep, which hasn’t happened since 1993.
In 153 all-time meetings, the SEC holds an 89-62-2 advantage against the Big Ten. In bowl games, the SEC is 51-30. The two most high-profile games the conferences have played occurred in the 2006 and 2007 national championship games, when Ohio State suffered back-to-back blowout losses to Florida and LSU. The SEC hasn’t had a losing decade against the Big Ten since the 1970s.
During the Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke eras, Michigan contributed to the Big Ten’s national woes. But it’s actually propped up the conference against its chief rival, the SEC — especially if you forget about that 41-14 loss to Alabama in 2012. The Wolverines are 14-7 all-time against the SEC, including a 4-0 record against Florida and 2-2 mark against the Crimson Tide.
There were murmurs about a Big Ten resurgence in recent years — Ohio State won the national championship in 2014, the arrival of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan elevated the downtrodden program, and Penn State and Wisconsin have soared.
In the past five seasons, the conference is 33-29 against Power Five leagues. But the conference hasn’t scored a single point in a playoff game since the Buckeyes defeated Oregon in the first College Football Playoff championship game, and the Big Ten was left out altogether this season.
In its place is the mighty SEC, with Alabama nudging Ohio State to the side. The one-week debate, which felt like an entire lifetime, featured college football’s most powerful programs. The SEC might have a two-teams-to-none advantage over the Big Ten in this season’s playoff, but that’s not to say it’s lapping college football like it did a decade ago.
When the conference won seven consecutive national championships from 2006-12, it was the undisputed kingpin of the sport. It never was more apparent than in 2011, when Alabama and LSU played in the championship game in New Orleans. Four different teams won those seven titles, and the average margin of victory was 17 points. The final score was only within a touchdown once.
The SEC has lost some of its luster during the first three years of the playoff. It’s only captured one national title, and Alabama is the lone dominant program. Traditional powers Florida, LSU, and Tennessee are a combined 112-75 in the past five seasons, an average record of 7-5. Until Auburn’s November surge, the Tigers also were entangled in mediocrity.
A Michigan win over South Carolina in the Outback Bowl would cap a remarkable 8-0 record for the Big Ten this season.
When Urban Meyer arrived at Ohio State in 2011 and challenged Big Ten coaches to start recruiting more aggressively, it had an impact. Meyer, who spent five seasons at Florida and defeated the Buckeyes 41-14 for the 2006 title, cited the SEC’s superior athleticism in stating his case for why the Big Ten lagged behind.
“Having played in the SEC, the talent level is just off the charts with the athletes,” said former Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson, who recently transferred to Michigan. “But talent level is all relative. Obviously, the Big Ten is an incredible conference with a lot of great players. You’re going to play against talent wherever you go.”
Big Ten coaches, while miffed, heeded Meyer’s call and stockpiled their rosters with talented players, oftentimes from the south. In 2012 — Meyer’s first season as OSU’s coach — the Big Ten had two teams ranked in the top 30 recruiting classes. Currently, the Big Ten has six of the top 30, according to ESPN. The SEC has eight.
“I think the Big Ten has picked it up,” said Allen Trieu, a recruiting analyst for 247Sports.com. “Ohio State, in the last 10 or so years, has consistently recruited at a national level. Michigan has for a majority of those years as well. But now you have Penn State recruiting at a high national level. You add in that some of the other schools in the conference have picked it up — Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern, Minnesota have all turned in recent class rankings that are among the best in school history. As a whole, there has been a rise in the way the conference has recruited.
“It is part of the college football arms race. I think the Big Ten has gained respect. For one, there are a good number of conference players from a variety of schools getting drafted and thriving. That helps. You have very notable coaches, recognizable names at many of the schools, and then you consistently have teams that are competing for playoff spots. That trickles down and helps the conference as a whole when it comes to visibility and perception.”
Harbaugh, James Franklin, Scott Frost, Paul Chryst, and Jeff Brohm are among the strong coaching hires. Ironically, it was Bielema who left Madison for Arkansas after winning three consecutive Big Ten championships because he felt like he couldn’t win a national title at the school. Bielema was fired in November after a 29-34 record (11-29 in the SEC) in five seasons at Arkansas.
Six years after Meyer’s initial comments, he issued a different statement at this season’s media day gathering in Chicago.
“I don’t think there’s a gap at all. And that’s no disrespect to other conferences,” Meyer said. “I’ve coached in the SEC East when that was one of the strongest in the country, and I think the Big Ten East right now is every bit as strong as I can remember the SEC East.”
In the past decade, the SEC is 24-15 against the Big Ten and half of those victories have come by at least two touchdowns. During that same period, the SEC is 18-10 in bowl games, which brings us to the most popular argument in the Midwest: SEC schools won’t play in the north.
Missouri and Vanderbilt are the only SEC schools to play in a Big Ten team’s stadium dating to 2008 (LSU played Wisconsin at Lambeau Field in Green Bay). Only three of the 39 games played since 2008 have occurred north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
The Big Ten has put a dent in the SEC’s superiority, and the SEC has become a top-heavy league with a sizeable gap between Alabama and the rest of the teams. Still, there is work to be done for the Big Ten. In recent seasons, Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan State have joined Ohio State in the top 10 of the rankings, although the conference still lags behind in marquee games.
The Big Ten was 3-7 in bowl games last season. But a Michigan win against South Carolina on Monday would cap a remarkable 8-0 record for the conference this season.
Perhaps signalling a textbook maneuver in college football’s civil war.
“I’m sorry, but seriously boys, has the @bigten lost a bowl game?!??” ESPN broadcaster Kirk Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback, tweeted Saturday. “Keep piling it on boys!!! What happen to ‘strong, physical, SLOWWWWW B1G?!?!?’ Hahahahaha!!!!!! Love it!!!!! Go @bigten!!!!!!!!!!!”
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