The Case For The Big Ten

To believe many, the national title game between Ohio State and LSU will be a referendum between the Big Ten and the SEC, and many think it will show the latter conference is ahead. With that in mind, BSB looks into the facts surrounding the rivalry between the two leagues. Today, the case for the Big Ten is presented.

One of the major talking points heading into the Jan. 7 BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans is the relationship between the allegedly dominant Southeastern Conference and the Big Ten/Ohio State. With that in mind, BSB tackles the topic of whether or not there is any validity to the talk. Today, we lay out the case that the talk is just talk. Tomorrow, we see what evidence the SEC can point to in order to assert its standing.

It's safe to say that much of the nation believes that the Southeastern Conference played the best football in the land during the year 2007, that the teams in the conference have an edge in speed and athletes that make their teams collectively better than those in any other league in the land.

As a result, there's a good chance that LSU will defeat Ohio State in the upcoming BCS National Championship Game.

It also seems safe to say that most of the people who believe that do not play their football in either of those conferences.

Just ask Ohio State wideout Brian Hartline, whose brother Mike suits up as a backup quarterback for SEC member Kentucky.

"I talk to guys that are in the SEC and they don't even think that (the SEC is so much better)," Hartline said. "It's more people outside that think that. I've talked to some of the players down in Kentucky that are so impressed with how fast we are at Ohio State when they get to watch us."

That was a message agreed upon by Ohio State's national championship game opponent, head coach Les Miles of LSU. The Elyria, Ohio, native spent his youth in northern Ohio before matriculating to the University of Michigan for his college days, so perhaps all those years in the north watching Big Ten football have instilled Miles with a respect for the Buckeyes.

"I can tell you that the Ohio State team is a tremendous opponent," Miles said. "I was brought up on that rivalry as I grew up in Ohio and then attended Michigan, so I have great respect for Ohio State, great respect for their players and coaches. They're a very fine football team and it will call us to compete, I promise you."

When the debate is broken down to its sheer essence, a number of facts must be taken into account when discussing a speed gulf between the two conferences. The simple fact is that the teams in each conference play different styles of football, so to paint a broad brush across the landscape as representative of the way one conference plays when compared to another can be folly.

That point is driven home when an observer looks at LSU. In many ways, the Tigers look like a so-called "Big Ten team." In many situations, they line up in a two-back set and hand the ball off to their feature back, tailback/fullback Jacob Hester, a 6-0, 228-pound bull.

The Tigers also can morph into four- or five-wide spread sets, which is something Ohio State has tinkered with as well during head coach Jim Tressel's reign.

"The thing about LSU is, for one or two plays, they can look like a two-back Big Ten team, and then they'll have five wide receivers," Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman said.

The Numbers
A number of statistics would seem to show that any advantage that the SEC has over the Big Ten and Ohio State is and has been meager at best.

This season, the SEC went 40-8 during nonconference play to lead the nation's Division I Football Bowl Subdivision conferences in nonleague winning percentage at 83.3. Right behind? The Big Ten, whose teams went 35-9 during nonconference games for a winning percentage of 79.5.

Many would argue that the Big Ten's nonconference slate was left wanting, but SEC teams played only five nonconference games against end-of-season top-25 BCS competition and finished 1-4. Missouri (Big 12) beat Ole Miss 38-25 Sept. 8, West Virginia (Big East) beat Mississippi State 38-13 Oct. 20, Clemson (ACC) won at South Carolina 23-21 Nov. 24 and South Florida (Big East) beat Auburn 26-23 Sept. 8.

No teams from the SEC and Big Ten met head-to-head during the 2007 season, making last year's bowl season the last time teams from the leagues met. And who held the bowl edge just a season ago when the Big Ten and SEC met? The conference to the north, which put together a 2-1 record.

When it comes to talent on hand, it's hard to argue the SEC has had more during the past few seasons. During the last five years, SEC teams have had 200 players drafted, the most of any conference, for an average of 16.7 players per school. On the other hand, 183 Big Ten players have been chosen by the NFL, an average of 16.6 per school.

And last but not least, which team has produced the most NFL draft picks over the last five years? Ohio State, which has had 39 players tabbed.

The Speed Factor
Of course, the major thing pointed to by analysts to show why the SEC is better is the speed of the teams in the league. While there certainly are some very fast players in the league, Hartline said it's very difficult to say that that's truly an important factor

"I think that's the biggest misconception out of everything," he said. "When it comes down to it, if you can run you're going to play college football. There's only so fast you can be, you can only be so strong. Unless someone is not human, we're just as fast as they are, at least the top 11 on each side of the ball, and that's what it comes down to."

Any difference between the speed of the game, Hartline said, is that SEC teams seem to play at a faster tempo with less time between plays. He added that it might appear that teams are faster because of the amount of big plays, which is aided by the style of play in the league.

"The biggest comparison I saw is the ability for the big plays is a lot bigger because everybody plays man," Hartline said. "In the Big Ten I think almost everybody plays zone, so it kind of prevents the big play."

Hartline appears to have somewhat of an ally in Miles. The coach said that he did not believe that a lack of speed was Ohio State's problem a season ago when the Buckeyes lost to Florida in the national title game, despite perception.

"I certainly think that it may not have been speed that may have been the cause," he said.

When it comes down to it, Hartline said the Buckeyes can use the talk as motivation going into the title game.

"Really it's a funny thing that goes on that really has no stand, but it doesn't matter," he said. "Our 11 will play their 11 and we'll determine it that way."

Check back tomorrow for part II of this series. BSB staffer Rich Exner contributed to this article.

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