The Big Ten has been fighting a perception for the last few years that it has fallen a step behind the rest of the major college football world, and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio was armed with a quick rebuttal when the question came up again Tuesday.
As Dantonio’s seventh-ranked Spartans prepare for a showdown with No. 3 Oregon on Saturday in a week that also includes Michigan visiting No. 16 Notre Dame and eighth-ranked Ohio State hosting Virginia Tech, the coach was asked if the Big Ten needs marquee wins to fight that perception.
“We won the Rose Bowl last year,” Dantonio said, “so what are you talking about? It’s one game that we can control and we won the Rose Bowl. That’s the best we can do.
“Everybody has to play the games and that’s why they play them. We beat Georgia a couple years ago, but the perception still exists. You just line up and play games. I think that people get caught up in looking at a whole group of people and casting them into one group.”
In the first year of the new playoff format, it could be argued that perception has never been more important.
This year, a 13-person committee is responsible for choosing four teams that will compete for the national championship. No computers. No polls. And that relatively small group of people has been instructed to place an emphasis on strength of schedule in its evaluation process.
“I’m sure there are people that want to say if we win the game the Big Ten is strong and the Pac-12 is weak or vice versa,” Dantonio said. “But I don’t really buy into that philosophy.”
In a conference like the Big Ten that is considered softer than, say, the mighty SEC, the opportunities to pile up wins that would impress the committee during the conference season aren’t quite as bountiful. That’s why Wisconsin’s loss to LSU last weekend was particularly stinging for the Badgers, who do not play Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State this season.
“Quality wins, big wins, all those things are always important,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “This is such a mental game played from the neck up in your everyday approach and your preparation. The enthusiasm that comes by that is always good for anybody’s program.”
The Big Ten had an impressive opening weekend, going 12-2. But many of those games were played against lightweights while the conference lost two of the games that featured reputable programs from the power conferences — Wisconsin to LSU and Northwestern against Cal.
Ohio State had to slug it out with Navy to outlast its unconventional triple-option offense and now has to shift gears to play the Hokies, and Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer wasn’t ready to say how his players will respond this weekend.
“We’re not ready yet,” Meyer said. “This is a much different opponent than we had last week.”
As of right now, the only team on the Buckeyes’ remaining schedule that is currently ranked in the Top 25 is Michigan State on Nov. 8.
Hoke recalled how legendary Wolverines coach Bo Schembechler always referred to the game against the Irish as “a measuring point” for the rest of the season.
“We can’t worry about anybody else,” Hoke said. “We’ve got to worry about what we’re doing and people are going to write what they think period about the Big Ten. From that standpoint we hope the conference does well, but we’ve got a lot on our plate going into South Bend.”
But the biggest game this weekend, no doubt, will be in Oregon. The Ducks’ high-flying offense against the Spartans’ physical defense. And no matter how much Dantonio wants to downplay it, a win for Michigan State would be a win for the Big Ten.
“We’re in a great conference,” Dantonio said. “This is about Michigan State and Oregon and how we match up. But there’s no question we go there representing the Big Ten just like we do in every game and everything we do. I’m comfortable with that, but I think it’s more about how we play, how our players play against their players and how we match up individually in our little battles.”