As its teams enter training camp and prepare for the 2008 season, the Big Ten's reputation as a powerhouse college football conference is still taking hits on the national front. The 3-5 record in last season's bowl games, coupled with Ohio State's second straight loss in the national championship game, seemed to intensify the salvos.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who has been to the title game three times in his seven seasons directing the Buckeyes, said that while he might understand the origin of some of the bad vibes sent the Big Ten's direction, he thinks it is unfortunate that the league would be downgraded simply because his team lost in the final game of the bowl season.
"I know from our standpoint where it comes from. It's that we played in the national championship the last two years and haven't been successful," Tressel said. "Should that paint a picture of our whole conference? I don't think so."
Tressel, whose team is ranked No. 3 nationally in the first ESPN/USA Today 2008 coaches poll just released, has gone 23-3 the last two seasons, including an 11-2 mark in 2007 in what was projected to be somewhat of a rebuilding year. He hopes the Buckeyes and the Big Ten Conference are judged on their body of their work, not a single game here and there.
"I think our guys love to compete, and I hope they've learned lessons from those two games," Tressel said. "Hopefully, they've learned lessons from the other 24 games they've been a part of over the last two seasons, too. But it also makes me feel a little disappointed that our performance in two championship games, I guess, brushes with a wider brush, or whatever they say. But I don't think it's unfair. But what I think doesn't matter. What happens in the games matters."
Illinois coach Ron Zook said at the recent Big Ten preseason football meetings that what the conference needs to do is win the big one, and the criticism will stop.
"I'm sure nationally that we have [taken a hit] a little bit, and I think it's so important - I heard coach Tressel say this - it's important that we go win," Zook said. "There's not a whole lot we can say until we go win. There's no doubt in my mind that the Big Ten Conference is a great, great conference. Now until we go do that, then there's not a whole lot we can say. I think it is important that we take care of business that way."
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema gets irritated by the criticism targeting the Big Ten, and even that specifically targeting Ohio State, since it focuses on just a couple games and not what Bielema considers a more accurate big picture.
"No one can argue with Ohio State's past history and tradition," he said. "They put themselves in the national championship game in back to back years. Obviously, things didn't fare well for them in those games."
On the plus side, he cited Michigan's bowl win last season over a Florida team that was "a heartbeat away" from playing in the national title game, and Wisconsin's recent bowl victories over Auburn and Arkansas, and its narrow loss to Tennessee.
"So if you want to group and gather, make sure you have all the things gathered together appropriately, because I really believe the Big Ten conference is strong as ever, and we go out and play anybody on any given day."
A recent ESPN.com piece reflected the national disdain for the Big Ten and Ohio State, its preseason favorite to win a fourth straight conference championship. The story on the Web site named the Buckeyes as the country's most-hated team.
Ohio State senior defensive back Malcolm Jenkins is not surprised by the tone of some of the remarks that are directed at the Big Ten, and the Buckeyes.
"I'm not shocked by it at all," Jenkins said recently.
"I think there's a lot of people around the country who just don't like Ohio State. If it's because of our success, that's fine. And if it's due to the fact we lost those championship games, well then I can't fault them for that either. People have strong feelings about college football. That's just the way it is."
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