Football's 2009 Big Ten conference is largely reminiscent of basketball's Big Ten conference the preceding season. They came in with relatively low expectations and, by the end of the season, appeared to be a conference on the rise. The bowls have become a huge source of optimism for fans of college football's longest standing conference, with the Big Ten winning its four most prominent bowl games:
Champs Sports Bowl: Wisconsin 20 - Miami (FL) 14
Capital One Bowl: Penn St. 19 - LSU 17
Rose Bowl: Ohio St. 26 - Oregon 17
Orange Bowl: Iowa 24 - Georgia Tech 14
Perhaps most notable about the Big Ten's bowl dominance was the fact that each Big Ten team in the four games listed above was an underdog (Penn St.-LSU was nearly a pick'em game) in Vegas. The Big Ten, by all accounts, vastly exceeded expectations, and nearly went 7-0 in the bowl season (Michigan State led in the fourth quarter against Texas Tech, Northwestern lost in overtime against Auburn, and Minnesota lost by one against Iowa State).
And let's be clear; these games were a clash of styles. Wisconsin beat the athletes at the "U." Ohio St. beat the Pac-10 spread. Iowa took care of a gimmicky, option offense. And maybe--just maybe--while Rich Rodriguez presumably watched the Big Ten compete with the nation's best, the thought crossed the embattled coach's mind that Michigan was doing something right before he got here.
Maybe, just maybe, a team can win in the Big Ten with the type of players used by Lloyd Carr when Michigan thoroughly dismantled Tim Tebow and Florida at the 2008 Capital One Bowl. Maybe, just maybe, throwing out the playbook used by Yost, Crisler, and Schembechler was not the brightest idea. Maybe, just maybe, it was not the best idea to stop recruiting the likes of Chad Henne and Mike Hart--the top-flight NFL prospects whom Michigan could attract with their cold-weather grind-it-out style of play.
The problem with Michigan football fans today is that we are so faithfully devoted to the winged helmet that we are willing to move the bar each year for a coach who has yet to win more than two games in the Big Ten. When he got here, we expected to win the Big Ten in 2010. After a three-win 2008 season, we just wanted to reach a Bowl Game in 2009 and compete with the class of the Big Ten in 2010.
Now, we'd be content with a seven-win season against the likes of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Bowling Green. Now, we simply roll our eyes when Tony Grimes eschews the Wolverines for Maryland, Mississippi, or some school with a warmer climate than Ann Arbor. Now, we hope that our defense couldn't possibly be any worse, even after losing Brandon Graham, Stevie Brown, and Donovan Warren.
Is Rich Rodriguez the best coach for the current Michigan team? Absolutely. Would any available coach win more games for Michigan in 2010 than Rodriguez? Probably not. But that's not my question today, as I reflect on 2009.
Are we building a championship program?
I surely don't think so. And if you don't, after 2 seasons and nearly two complete recruiting classes, it may be time to begin thinking about competing with the rest of the rising Big Ten.