Loren Tate: Buckeyes need better Big Ten
If Big Ten was any better, Ohio State might not be on the outside looking in
Urban Meyer, victorious in all 21 games he has coached at Ohio State, would like to see a stronger Illinois.
Oh, not so good that they’d defeat the Buckeyes on Saturday but sufficiently competitive to make an Ohio State victory meaningful. In fact, he’d like to see the entire Big Ten pull out of the doldrums ... a fact he made obvious earlier when he called for stronger football recruiting than he was witnessing in the conference.
He didn’t move north to be part of the “Big One and the Unlucky 13,” as may be the case in 2014 when he expects the Buckeyes to be even better.
The problem is obvious. The unbeaten Buckeyes can’t gain on Alabama and Florida State for a spot in Pasadena’s BCS championship game because their strength of schedule is too weak.
In four nonconference romps, the Buckeyes played one team from the five power conferences, California. And the Bears are 1-9. Ohio State’s first three Big Ten games against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa were too close to cause Southerners, who have feasted on the Buckeyes routinely in bowl games, to look up and say, “Wow!”
Even with a 7-0 start, the Buckeyes fell too far behind Alabama and Florida State to catch up (assuming those two stay unbeaten). You don’t move the needle by whipping hapless Purdue 56-0 or hammering an Illini defense that ranks 114th out of 123.
With Michigan tumbling, it appears the Buckeyes will be able to point to just one Top 25 victim in the regular season, and Wisconsin (a 31-24 loser) is so low in the BCS poll at No. 22 that the Badgers must defeat Indiana, Minnesota and Penn State to stay on the list.
Of course, if Michigan State reaches Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game against Ohio State, that’s another matter. The Spartans are just a couple of questionable pass-interference calls against Notre Dame from being undefeated.
Out of the hole
Minnesota, resting on an 8-2 record this week, has put together the first four-game conference win streak since Tony Dungy was a freshman there in 1973.
This four-game spurt, which featured three-point wins against Northwestern and Indiana, has drawn national attention because it was accomplished without coach Jerry Kill. But what it really demonstrates to Big Ten critics is how far the conference has slipped.
As noted, only Michigan State and Wisconsin appear in the BCS Top 25 with No. 3 Ohio State. As for recruiting, the SEC has 10 teams on Rivals’ Top 25 list, while the Big Ten has two: No. 7 Ohio State and No. 18 Michigan.
Penn State wasn’t expected to maintain its traditional level due to NCAA sanctions. But when Michigan and Nebraska sink from their historic status, the rest of the nation notices. Lady Luck helped Michigan escape Akron 28-24 and UConn 24-21, those squeakers setting the stage for losses to Penn State, Michigan State (what a pounding!) and Nebraska.
All these developments detract from what Ohio State is attempting to accomplish. The rest of the nation thinks Meyer’s gang is skating on ice that is much too smooth.
And the Buckeyes are advised to look in the rearview mirror. Big 12 buffs who saw Baylor blitz Oklahoma 41-12 believe the unbeaten Bears will have the RPI to catch Ohio State if they finish with wins against Texas Tech (7-3), Oklahoma State (8-1), TCU (4-6) and Texas (7-2). Any reasonable viewer would say that’s a tougher schedule than what awaits the Buckeyes.
Mum’s the word
For Meyer this week, the biggest concern was putting a muzzle on receiver Evan Spencer, a product of Vernon Hills and son of Ohio State’s third-leading rusher Tim Spencer.
The junior, who shows 21 receptions this season, opined that Ohio State would “wipe the field” with Alabama or Florida State.
Of course, this didn’t go over well with the head coach, who worries about “bulletin-board material” ... and we can only imagine what Evan thinks the Buckeyes will do against a lesser foe like Illinois.
We’ll never know because Meyer, in expressing his disappointment, said Spencer “won’t speak to the media for a long, long time.”
This serves to remind that we don’t always hear what players and coaches truly feel. They’re usually on their guard, making it a lot more fun when they’re not.
We hark back to another Illini-Buckeyes game in 1994 when coach Lou Tepper became upset after crack linebacker Dana Howard broke the pattern, boldly predicting an Illini victory in the Horseshoe. Howard backed it up with 14 tackles and an interception in a 24-10 triumph.
Coaches want confident players, then insist that they conceal those feelings. Give me Dana. And Evan, too.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.