The first shots were fired by Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany shortly after Florida trounced Ohio State in the BCS National Championship Game in January 2007.
In an open letter, a bitter Delany denounced the SEC as a conference built around speed and attacked the character and intelligence of its players. Essentially, Delany, relying on a variety of well-worn stereotypes, insisted that SEC players weren’t smart enough to play in the Big Ten, and that his league offered a better balance between academics and athletics.
Almost five years later, the SEC’s vise grip on college football has only grown stronger with six straight national championships in the books heading into the highly anticipated Jan. 7 match-up between Alabama and Notre Dame in Miami.
Meanwhile, the Big Ten’s star is fading, at least for this season and the foreseeable future. Two of the premier programs in the conference (Ohio State and Penn State) were banned by the NCAA this year from playing in bowl games, and 2012 has been, by all accounts, a miserable campaign for the Big Ten, which has failed to make a dent nationally.
The battle lines between the SEC and Big Ten even extended to the discussions that led to the creation of a four-team playoff starting in 2014. By all accounts, the SEC got everything it wanted.
Delany sought semifinal games at campus sites. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive didn’t. The SEC won as the semifinals will rotate among the BCS bowls.
Delany wanted conference champions – and as few “at-large bids” as possible — for the four-team playoff. Slive insisted on the playoff consisting of the “four best teams.” The SEC won on that issue as well.
The SEC’s dominance over the Big Ten extended into the regular season with a half-dozen schools from the former conference crowding into the Top 10 on a weekly basis.
Right now, the highest-ranked Big Ten in the BCS standings is Nebraska at No. 16. Six SEC teams, all in the Top 10, are above the Cornhuskers. Moreover, the conference’s representative in the Rose Bowl (Wisconsin) has lost five games, the most ever for a Big Ten team headed to Pasadena.
But all those uncomfortable details will be conveniently forgotten if the Big Ten is able to beat the SEC in three New Year’s Day bowl games in Florida.
SEC teams are favored to beat Big Ten opponents in all three games, though, including South Carolina’s match-up against Michigan in the Outback Bowl. Then again, Big Ten schools are underdogs in all seven bowl games, a testament to the league’s lack of depth.
In the last two years, the SEC holds a 5-2 edge over the Big Ten in bowl games. The conferences rarely square off during the regular season (Northwestern beat Vanderbilt in Evanston, Ill., earlier this year), so bowl games are considered the best measuring stick for comparing the leagues’ strength.
So far, neither Steve Spurrier nor Michigan coach Brady Hoke have been drawn deep into the SEC-Big Ten rivalry, carefully sidestepping the topic in order to avoid giving the opponent any bulletin board material.
A few of the Wolverines, though, have spoken about the conference battle.
“I like it. It’s a big chance to make the Big Ten the main conference in the NCAA,” Michigan senior defensive tackle Will Campbell said. “There is more at stake this year with Big Ten teams going against the SEC.”
Two years ago, the SEC swept three New Year’s Day meetings against Big Ten schools, including Alabama’s 49-7 demolishing of Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl and Mississippi State crushing the Wolverines, 52-14, in the Gator Bowl.
It was a dark day for the Big Ten, and even Delany, the conference’s biggest promoter, acknowledged his league’s shortcoming after it went 0-5 on that New Year’s Day when he quipped, “We didn’t produce any legends.”
Last year, in addition to USC’s 30-13 victory over Nebraska, Florida beat Ohio State in the Gator Bowl and Michigan State outlasted Georgia in overtime, 33-30, in the Outback.
The SEC-Big Ten rivalry should continue unabated in future years because of Urban Meyer’s move from Florida to Ohio State and, earlier this month, Bret Bielema’s stunning decision to leave Wisconsin, regarded as a plum job by many national analysts, to take over as coach at Arkansas.
Besides coaching the Buckeyes, perhaps the most hated team in Big Ten country outside the state of Ohio, Meyer made few friends in the Midwest when he cited “speed in the defensive front seven” and then “speed overall” as the biggest reason for the SEC’s national dominance during Big Ten Media Days in July.
While evading any in-depth discussion of the topic, Hoke said that the Michigan players are taught that the school and seniors come first, then conference loyalty.
“You always are playing (for the conference),” Hoke said. “But I think you’re playing for Michigan and your seniors first. We’re proud to be in the Big Ten. Why we wouldn’t want to represent (the league) and that be part of our focus ... It would be really bad for us not to feel that way about the Big Ten.”