In the aftermath of Saturday night's masscare at The Coliseum, the predictable outrage from the media has begun. Mark Kriegel, the designated hatchet man at Fox Sports weighed in with what's only a harsher version of what's being said elsewhere--
"What you are left with is less an implication than an emphatically harsh reminder that the Buckeyes do not merit any discussion for the title game. Let them go back home and beat Troy 106-0 next week. Let them run the table in the Big Ten. So what? With Saturday in evidence — Ohio State and Michigan crushed — the Big Ten doesn't seem so big anymore."
Throughout the national commentary isn't just the point that OSU should not be in the '08 title game---that's hardly an unreasonable suggestion, given the Bucks struggled past Ohio and the only Big Ten wins of note are Wisconsin's win at Fresno and Penn State's win over Oregon State (hardly the stuff of which national resumes are built). It is reasonable to say that a true national championship team out of the Big Ten should be able to go undefeated this year. No, what's the grinding part throughout much of the commentary is the attitude--sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit--that OSU really didn't belong in the 2006 & '07 either. championship games and only the alleged weakness of the Big Ten put them there.
Bull. This doesn't survive even modest scrutiny. The results of the last two national championship games have shown us that the best in the Big Ten doesn't match up with the best of the SEC. A combination of the last two Rose Bowls, plus Saturday night, plus the last six years generally would suggest that Southern Cal would have provided the best possible opponent. But here's the problem--the past two seasons USC hasn't bothered to show up for games that don't involve the national spotlight.
Lest anyone forget, the USC of last season (you know, the ones who presumably should have been on the field against LSU in January) lost at home to Stanford. And lest anyone think that this is really evidence of the Pac-10 being strong top-to-bottom, Stanford lost to Notre Dame. At home. As did UCLA. In 2006, the mighty Trojans tanked against the Bruins and Oregon State. We can give USC their due--when they're ready to play, they have a much higher ceiling then Ohio State. But it's time to give the Bucks their due as well--they've showed up and played consistently each week, not treating certain games as though it's beneath them to play. And that is as much a part of getting to a championship game as winning the big ones is.
Okay, OSU & Big Ten critics ask, what about the other leagues? We'll give the critics the benefit of the doubt and assume they can't possibly mean the Big East or ACC. West Virginia could have kept Ohio State out of New Orleans last January, but the Mountaineers lost at home to Pitt. The same Panther program that can't get over the hump against mediocre non-conference competition. And the ACC hasn't won a BCS bowl game since 1999.
What about the Big 12? Here, the media's shortsightedness comes into full view. While Ohio State is bashed from pillar to post for Saturday and the past two championship games, the Big 12 gets a free pass for Oklahoma losing the last two Fiesta Bowls, including one to Boise State. OU also has the honor of being picked apart by USC in a thrashing for the 2004 national title. Yes, the conference did produce a national champion in Texas, who won a great victory over a great Trojan team. But that thrust is easily parried away with the point that Ohio State won a national championship by beating a great Miami team. Those games were only three years apart. Not that much has changed and there's nothing to suggest that going through the Big 12 is harder then the Big Ten. Particularly when the Big Ten wins the annual showdown in the Alamo Bowl virtually every year.
So we come full circle. The best possible championship game the last couple years, and perhaps again this year, would have been the SEC champ vs. USC. But until the Trojans learn to show up every week, a spot is going to open for someone else. Ohio State earned that chance more then anyone. It's time for the media to call off the dogs.
The teams most affected this year by the Big Ten's image hit will be Wisconsin & Penn State. The Badgers will have to keep a close eye on the fortunes of Fresno State if they hope to rise in the BCS standings. Teams that get hyped as the next midmajor Cinderella and then lose, have a way of collapsing afterward. Fresno could fall apart, and UW not get credit for playing a better Bulldog team in September then will exist later on. That's only hypothetical of course, but it's a hypothetical that's very realistic and would be very damaging to any Badger hopes of being in Miami.
Penn State will have to keep a similar eye on Oregon State, but they'll have an easier time getting respect because of their national reputation. The Nittany Lions also have a powerful intangible in their favor--the impact of a possible retirement by Joe Paterno. Voters might be moved by sentiment if the Lions get into a close vote. While it's not fair to other teams, there can be no doubt of this--no one's earned a sympathy vote more then Paterno, who was denied a share of the 1994 national title as voters rushed to reward Tom Osborne with his first crown. And his undefeated teams of 1968, 1969 & 1973 were left similarly unrewarded. If he gets a break, no one in Happy Valley owes anyone any apologies.