CHICAGO — The Southeastern Conference has turned the Big Ten from slow-footed Northern punching bags into a bona fide Yankee football punchline in recent years.
The SEC owns an 10-7 edge against the Big Ten in bowls the last six years, which sounds modest until you look more closely at the games. The SEC’s average margin of victory is 17 points. The Big Ten’s is seven. Seven SEC’s wins were by 13 or more points. Only one Big Ten win — Iowa’s 31-10 thrashing of South Carolina in the 2009 Outback Bowl — featured a margin of victory exceeding 10 points.
There was unquestioned top-ranked Ohio State falling to No. 2 Florida 41-14 for the 2006 BCS title. Making the loss even more publicly damaging was the lobbying effort by many around the Big Ten to give Michigan a rematch with Ohio State over Florida. Michigan later dropped its bowl game.
Ohio State lost by 14 points to LSU for the 2007 BCS title. After the 2010 season, Alabama destroyed Michigan State 49-7 in the Capital One Bowl and Mississippi State drubbed Michigan 52-14 in the Gator Bowl. The Big Ten’s only bowl win against the SEC that year doesn’t even count. Ohio State beat Arkansas 31-26 in the Sugar Bowl but the Buckeyes vacated the victory because of NCAA violations.
The SEC has won the last six national championships. The Big Ten has won two national titles in the last 44 years
Michigan strong safety Jordan Kovacs takes those statistics personally. The Michigan senior started in the Gator Bowl debacle, and now the Wolverines have a shot at redemption against defending national champion and SEC member Alabama in the Sept. 1 opener. The high-profile programs will meet at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“There’s no doubt that the Big Ten has had its knocks, particularly against the SEC,” Kovacs said. “So that’s a huge game for us. It’s a huge game for this conference. Whenever you see the rest of the Big Ten play against an SEC school in bowl games and whatnot, you’re always pulling for the Big Ten. Not only are we representing ourselves and representing the university, but we’re representing the Big Ten, which nothing to carry lightly.”
Kovacs’ preparation for the game borders on obsession. He admits to watching video of Alabama during his Physics II class — “I should have been paying attention” — and he knows Alabama’s players by name. He called the opener “a true measuring stick” of Michigan’s offseason progress and said Alabama is “going to be the best team I’ve ever played.”
“That’s the only thing we’ve been thinking about for quite a while now,” he said.
Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson also feels the responsibility for waving the Big Ten banner. Michigan was 11-2 last year and is this year’s league favorite. The game sets the tone for Michigan’s season — and Robinson’s Heisman Trophy chances — depending on the Wolverines’ performance and game outcome.
“If you want it, you get ready for them, you want to be prepared for them, you have to watch enough film on them,” Robinson said. “It’s an honor to play against them, to be in the night game against them.”
Speed — SEC speed — often marks the difference between the leagues. It’s a term that loosely contrasts the speed between good and great defensive players. Kovacs considers the term as somewhat of an insult when it’s applied negatively to other programs.
“I’ve heard it,” he said. “I’ve heard it quite a bit. They always talk about SEC speed on defense, particularly in the front seven. Maybe it’s true. We’ll find out. I won’t admit it until after September 1.
“They get a lot of the credit – and rightfully so – they’ve had a lot of success the last several seasons, not only with their national championships. A tough conference and obviously very fast and got playmakers, and they’ve got players on Sundays. We know they’ve got a lot of talent, they’ve got a lot of great athletes. But we like our team as well.”
When asked why there’s no positive term for Big Ten speed, Kovacs said, “I don’t know if it’s our style of play, and obviously we don’t have much respect because we haven’t been successful in the past in bowl games against the SEC.”
Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer led Florida and the SEC to a pair of national titles, including the win against his current squad. He said college football is “very cyclical” and doesn’t see the Big Ten languishing behind the SEC forever.
“The Big Ten for many, many years was without question the No. 1 conference in America,” Meyer said. “Right now we’re not, but there’s a lot of coaches and players right now very intent on making it the best conference in America.”
A Michigan win briefly redefines the Big Ten after an offseason of turmoil. A win wouldn’t erase the ongoing Penn State scandal or suggest the SEC’s dominance is eroding, but it would shift the Big Ten back into a positive light, at least for one weekend.
“We’re not only representing our school; we’re representing the Big Ten,” Robinson said. “We’re representing each other. When we’re playing on the football field, we’re representing everybody that’s behind us.”
That might even include Ohio State and Michigan State – at least for one night only.