After years of being the public’s Power-5 punching bag, these are high times for Big Ten. Thanks to Urban Meyer, the conference laid claim to a national title in 2014. The Big Ten had five teams in the top 15 of the final CFP rankings in 2015 and the Big Ten’s overall strength crept a little higher. In 2016, it was four inside the top ten and the conference reputation got another little boost.
Why now? The popular answer to that question has always been a coaching upgrade and I believe it’s the right answer. I remember prior to the 2014 season holding a “coaches draft” while having a beer with a friend and we set out to draft, snake-style, coaches from the SEC and the Big Ten. I probably have that napkin with the full list somewhere, but let’s just say it wasn’t kind to the Big Ten. Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio did just fine in this exercise, but beyond that you may have had the Big Ten’s third- or fourth-best coach coming in behind someone like Dan Mullen, who was probably the SEC’s eighth-best coach that year.
Those days, at least according to ESPN’s Brian Bennett, may be over. In his latest article he writes that the Big Ten has the best roster of coaches of any conference in 2017. Meyer, Dantonio, Jim Harbaugh and James Franklin draw top billing, but here’s how Bennett assesses the next tier:
[Paul] Chryst is also a perfect fit for the Badgers, just as Pat Fitzgerald is at Northwestern and Kirk Ferentz is for Iowa. Fitzgerald’s 11-year run in Evanston seems unusually long except when compared to Ferentz, who’s going into Year 19 with the Hawkeyes while showing signs of slowing down.
Nebraska’s Mike Riley is one of the most respected coaches around, and while it’s fair to question whether he was the right fit for the Cornhuskers, he has won 10 of his last 14 games in Lincoln. Illinois’ Lovie Smith has plenty to prove as a college coach but had a strong track record in the NFL.
It’s that group that really clouds the issue. You’ve essentially got four coaches who are a “great fit.” That’s better than a terrible fit, obviously, but on the list of things you want from a new coach, where does fit rank? For me it’s way down the list — give me adaptability, vision, motivation, acumen and recruiting all ahead of fit — though it seems to always be one of the presumed criteria when schools are in the market for a new coach.
Beyond that, you’ve got what seems to be a pretty good back-end of the roster full of some up-and-comers. The addition of P.J. Fleck (Minnesota) and Jeff Brohm (Purdue) boost a promising profile that started to form, at least a little bit, around Maryland’s D.J. Durkin. Jury’s still out on Rutgers’ Chris Ash, and it’s sort of an impossible job, but I think he can coach. And Tom Allen (and his defense) was the best thing about Indiana last year. We’ll see if that’s sustainable.
In short, I can buy the argument. The Big Ten’s coaching roster is as deep as its been since Nebraska has been in the conference. But it seems like there’s the potential for some movement here. There’s the impression in Big Ten circles that Dantonio should’ve done more on the recruiting front while Michigan State was winning big. With a rough season and rougher offseason in 2016, it’s fair to take a wait-and-see approach with the Spartans. Minnesota and Purdue probably aren’t going to be contending for conference titles any time soon, but I’d bet at least one of those new coaches raises his school’s profile noticeably. And then there’s Maryland. The East might just be too top-heavy and cutthroat for Durkin to make much of a dent, but he’s playing all the right cards so far.
As for Nebraska? I’d put it squarely in the middle of all of that and that’s a strange place to be.
The Grab Bag
- The NCAA women’s volleyball championship is returning to Omaha in 2020. You know what that means: Sold-out crowds and the Huskers in the Final Four. Nebraska has made it the previous three times Omaha has hosted the championship.
- Sam McKewon of the Omaha World Herald looks at the 10 Huskers who made the biggest moves this spring.
- Athlon Sports analyzes Wisconsin’s 2017 schedule.
- ICYMI: Nebraska Coach Darin Erstad was less than pleased with the Huskers’ performance last night in a 5-2 loss in Omaha to Creighton.
Today’s Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.