Even in a 'weaker' division, Illinois football has stiff competition.
Latest complaint: The Big Ten’s new geographical divisions are unbalanced because the conference’s top-ranked football teams, Ohio State and Michigan State, are in the East.
No argument there. The Spartans outmuscled Urban Meyer’s gang in last season’s championship playoff, and the Buckeyes return in 2014 favored to represent the league in the first four-team NCAA playoff.
But if Illinois is in the weaker division, don’t discount the tradition and momentum of West tri-favorites Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa. In the ebb and flow of recent history, we’ve watched them reach the championship level.
Take the last 20 years:
— Wisconsin: Starting in 1994 (just after the Badgers’ 10-1 season in 1993), the Badgers have won or shared five conference titles. They captured the first two conference playoffs in 2011 and 2012. They’re 10-9 in bowl games and show an astonishing 10-year record of 62-7 at Camp Randall Stadium. No wonder they draw 80,000-fan crowds.
— Nebraska: The Cornhuskers claimed three national championships in the mid-90s and have won 11 of 18 bowl games since 1994. Incredible successes under Tom Osborne built high expectations, and coach Bo Pelini is under the gun even though he has won at least nine games in each of his six seasons.
— Iowa: The Hawkeyes are 8-6 in bowls since 1994, posting consecutive records of 11-2, 10-3 and 10-2 in the early 2000s, and going 11-2 in 2009. When they tumble, they tend to rise back up. The Hawkeyes have beaten Penn State in 8 of 11 meetings.
It takes players to produce wins, and it takes wins to attract players. These three programs are well stocked and riding upward momentum with Saturday sellouts and consistently physical performances.
The Badgers, Huskers and Hawkeyes are on the dead run, and the starter’s gun just sounded for the Illini, who must first bypass Purdue, Minnesota and Northwestern before challenging the top of the division.
Two issues, one solution
With NCAA leaders sitting down Thursday to consider governance rules for the top five conferences (autonomy is coming), Illini AD Mike Thomas has already targeted $3 million for improvements related to (1) meals numbering 19 per week for roughly 500 athletes, (2) continuing education for non-graduates who wish to return and (3) post-graduate medical considerations. Hundreds of thousands for an athletic stipend will likely crowd into Thomas’ budget a year hence.
Here’s an (expensive) idea for killing two birds with one stone. Instead of constructing a standalone “restaurant,” which is one of the considerations, how about tackling Memorial Stadium’s long-overdue horseshoe and building a squared-up seating section closer to the field, thereby clearing room in the rear for a varsity eating area next to Florida Avenue. A structure with multiple stories there is being evaluated.
Even as the horseshoe’s $99 season tickets have become the most popular in the stadium, there’s been talk for several decades of renovating those ancient seats, which date to the Red Grange era and are located too far back because they formerly covered a running track.
Forced into immediate changes, the DIA will use the Colonnades to handle the huge load of feeding athletes, thereby forcing cancellation of various events there and creating a special problem for non-football athletes on Saturday game days.
That wasn’t the original plan for the Colonnades.
Not going anywhere
Commissioner Jim Delany, the clearest and most forward-thinking influence in college athletics, isn’t slowed by Midwestern doubts about adding Rutgers and Maryland to the Big Ten.
Population and marketing opportunities in New York and D.C. are enormous and are there for the taking. In early moves, the Big Ten has set up offices in New York and D.C., tacked on the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, agreed to Gavitt Tipoff basketball games with the Big East in 2016, and gone so far as to move the Big Ten basketball tourney to Washington in 2017.
Meanwhile, Mark Silverman has moved with surprising swiftness to complete distribution deals with Cablevision, Time Warner and Comcast out there. Western Big Ten teams may grumble about game travel, but the TV money just keeps pouring in. Get used to it. Rutgers and Maryland are here to stay.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.