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Published: Monday, 1/3/2011

Big Ten's honor rests on backs of Buckeyes

NEW ORLEANS -- Ohio State now holds in its hands the Big Ten's last shot at respectability.

Call it Black Saturday. New Year's Die.

The Big Ten went 0-5 in the prestigious January 1 bowl games. Three of them, including Michigan's epic 52-14 loss to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, were decided by halftime.

Now, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon can get around to his incisive, inclusive, deep, no-stone-unturned review of Rich Rodriguez's program.

It will go something like this:

DB: "Come on in, coach."

RR: "Thanks, Dave."

DB: "You're fired."

RR: "OK."

We can debate whether the Wolverines deserved a New Year's Day bowl. The answer, of course, is they did not, but losing by 38 points and allowing 485 yards to a purely average, middle-of-the-pack Southeastern Conference team from a place called Starkville is above and beyond the call of du-du.

Denard Robinson, 11 carries for 59 yards? Michael Shaw, four carries for 19 yards? Really?

Of course, the Wolverines were offensively prolific when compared to their instate brethren, Michigan State. Good ol' Sparty, one of the conference's tri-champions and the odd one out in what now seems like a laughable BCS bowl debate, instead played the fourth-place team in the SEC, Alabama, and was outgunned 546-171 in yards and 49-7 in points.

Minus-48 yards rushing by a Big Ten champion? Really? Nice effort. Sorry about your luck.

But back to Michigan. Brandon has butchered this whole RichRod thing somewhat sloppily, unless, of course, he has Jim Harbaugh as his coach-in-hiding until after tonight's Stanford-Virginia Tech game in the Orange Bowl. Either way, he has left Rodriguez to twist mercilessly in the wind like a pinata for five weeks and a whole recruiting class could be affected.

On the other hand, Rodriguez's buyout dropped from $4 million to $2.5 million at the instant the ball dropped and the calendar flipped. So, to paraphrase Carl Spackler in Caddyshack, the Wolverines "got that goin' for 'em, which is nice."

Not much else nice has happened to the Big Ten. Sure, Iowa, despite a suspension-racked roster, upset Missouri in the Insight Bowl and Illinois handled Baylor in the Texas Bowl, but those are like the corn chips and microwaved Velveeta dip that goes on the appetizer table before the real food.

The entrees show up on New Year's Day, but the Big Ten did not. In addition to those previously mentioned noncombatants from the Great Lakes State, we had Penn State and its five interceptions bowing to a so-so team dressed in Florida colors, Northwestern giving up 552 yards to an uncelebrated Texas Tech unit, and Wisconsin failing on a late, two-point conversion against TCU in the Rose Bowl.

The latter wasn't an upset, but it was the Big Ten's presumed biggest and baddest going against a nonautomatic qualifier in a BCS game, and it will be perceived by some as another slap in the conference's face.

Zero and five, they went.

Mark Schlabach, a writer for ESPN.COM, suggested Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney might opt to change the titles of the league's soon-to-be divisions from Legends and Leaders to Losers and Laughingstocks. Pretty good line, actually, and well worth borrowing.

The Big Ten will go to divisions because Nebraska leaves the Big 12 and comes on board next fall. So we should probably mention that the Cornhuskers, who beat Washington 56-21 on the road early in the regular season, put up 189 yards worth of offensive fight in a Holiday Bowl rematch and lost to U-Dub 19-7. That should land Nebraska in the Laughingstock Division.

Now, only Ohio State can step up and save the day.

The Buckeyes meet Arkansas of the SEC here tomorrow night in the Sugar Bowl. OSU is playing in its sixth consecutive BCS bowl and its ninth overall, the most of any school from any conference. A year ago, the Bucks beat Oregon in the Rose Bowl. The Razorbacks are in their first-ever BCS bowl one season removed from a three-point win over East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl. At last check, Ohio State is a 3 1/2-point favorite.

But -- and, yes, with the Buckeyes comes a but -- this may be an unfocused team, one that has been inundated with questions about its eBay offense. Or it could be a ticked-off team that is tired of a lack of respect because of those off-field issues or its humdrum schedule or its 0-9 bowl record all-time against the SEC.

If that should fall to 0-10, it officially becomes a bowl season wipeout for the Big Ten.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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