LINCOLN, Neb. — It wasn’t intended as a slight or an insult. If anything, it was a compliment.
Nebraska coach Mike Riley said during his Monday news conference that the Big Ten doesn’t have an identity, that the once-held notion that all Big Ten teams played the same style of football just wasn’t true anymore.
Maybe it was at some point, but not in 2016, he said.
“It’s hard to put conferences in a box,” Riley said. “There’s more variety in leagues than ever before. I think there used to be an identity that was real. We’ll see all the stuff about weather, and it’s power stuff. (Now) a lot of people are blending things pretty well. I think that the whole country in some fashion has come that way, and it’s hard to identify by conference what a team will look like.”
The Big Ten was typically characterized as boring, full of plodding, low-scoring teams who run the ball well and have a good run defense. Essentially, Iowa in 2015. But, as Riley noted, Iowa, or any team like Iowa, isn’t the norm anymore, and Nebraska’s next three opponents, Indiana, No. 8 Wisconsin and No. 2 Ohio State, help underscore that point.
Let’s start with Wisconsin, because the Badgers best represent the old Big Ten: run the ball, stop the run, keep the score low, play in the cold and score just enough to win. The Badgers have already played in three games this season that were decided by less than a touchdown and rank in the top three in the Big Ten in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense. They are a hard-nosed Big Ten team. Pretty simple.
Indiana, on the other hand, is the antithesis of the traditional Big Ten. The Hoosiers run a spread offense, sling the ball around and win in shootouts. In 2015, six of Indiana’s games were won or lost in the 40s or 50s. In 2016, Indiana has the No. 1 pass offense in the conference and averages nearly 10 yards per throw. The Hoosiers are traditionally what you’d expect to find in the Big 12.
And at No. 2 Ohio State, historically the Big Ten-iest Big Ten team in the Big Ten, this season isn’t even close to what was the conference “status quo.”
Ohio State is ninth in passing touchdowns and seventh in pass efficiency in the NCAA. They’re third in scoring offense, followed by Michigan, which is fourth, and fifth is total offense. The Buckeyes are a scoring machine that plays good defense, not a team with great defense that scores just enough.
In fact, Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska, three of the top four Big Ten teams, are all in the top 35 in total offense in the NCAA.
Riley’s point was that teams can’t prepare for one kind of game anymore. Not every team runs in the Big Ten. Not every team throws in the Big 12. Not every SEC team has a great defense. It complicates game-planning each week, preparing for different styles and different schemes, and can make recruiting tough, both for schools and recruits, as both sides try to find the right match.
Sure, it make things more difficult for coaches. But for fans, it’s awfully entertaining.