It’s the recruiting, stupid.
Want to know why the Big Ten stinks, by elite football standards, anyway? Blame lack of talent.
Yes, it seems strange to say that about a conference with such a gridiron tradition, but when you consider it has become fodder for Alabama, Oregon State, UCLA and, yes Hoosier fans, Ball State, well, the truth hurts.
The SEC, the Pac-12 and the Big 12 are recruiting better and the results have shown up during non-conference play and during the postseason.
In case you missed it, the SEC has won six straight national championships.
This season, Notre Dame dominated Michigan State at home, 20-3, and the Spartans figured to be the Big Ten’s best team. Alabama crushed Michigan. Oregon State beat Wisconsin. UCLA beat Nebraska. Iowa State beat Iowa.
Ohio State, which was lucky to beat California, is the highest ranked Big Ten team at No. 16, and that’s partially negated by it being ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA sanctions.
And then there’s Penn State, which figures to drop to MAC level talent due to its NCAA sanctions over the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Ohio State (3-0), Northwestern (3-0) and Minnesota (3-0) are the only remaining undefeated Big Ten teams, and this is no murderers’ row in the manner of the SEC -- Alabama (3-0), LSU (3-0), Georgia (3-0) and South Carolina (3-0) -- or the Pac-12 -- Oregon (3-0), Stanford (3-0) and UCLA (3-0).
The Big Ten is 4-8 against major conference teams and Notre Dame. Northwestern has beaten three teams from major conferences -- Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College. It almost certainly will be 4-0 when it hosts IU on Sept.29 (no way it loses to South Dakota on Saturday).
But we digress.
You could argue this is the worst the Big Ten has ever been, even though, with 12 teams, including traditional powers Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska, this is the biggest it’s ever been thanks to expansion.
"I know (the perception) is out there," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "I heard it when I turned on ESPN or any other channel.
"There's one answer and that's to go win those non-conference games. It's not because of a lack of players or a lack of coaching. They just have to find a way to close the deal."
Michigan (2-1) will get a chance to close the deal against No. 11 Notre Dame (3-0) on Saturday. The Irish already have beaten Michigan State and Purdue of the Big Ten.
"People are going to make comments based on their own opinions," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "Obviously, if we want to change that, we have to do something about it."
Better talent will make that easier. How is the Big Ten doing in recruiting? If you look at the team rankings for the Class of 2013 from Rivals.com, a national Internet recruiting service, Michigan has the nation’s No. 2 class. Ohio State is at No. 9. Illinois is at No. 25.
The rest of the top 25 is loaded with SEC and Pac-12 teams. USC is No. 1. LSU is No. 3. Florida is No. 5. Alabama is No. 6. Georgia is No. 7. Auburn is No. 8. Texas A&M (now in the SEC) is No. 10.
Notre Dame, which is still independent in football and is in the ACC otherwise, is at No. 4.
A lot can still change before February’s signing day. Perhaps more Big Ten teams will crack the top-25.
Here’s the bottom line -- if the Big Ten wants to be considered an elite conference, it has to play like it. Tradition is irrelevant. It has to beat the good teams. It has to dominate bowl games. It has to win a national championship again.
And it starts with better recruiting.