One ESPN Plaza
Bristol, CT 06010
January 5, 2015
James E. Delany
Big Ten Conference
5440 Park Place
Rosemont, IL 60018
Dear Commissioner Delany:
Hope you had a happy holiday season. It certainly looks like your New Year is off to a rousing start.
Look, I'm in kind of an uncomfortable position here, having to write something I've never written before -- a letter of apology. It seems I inserted my size-11 foot into my mouth back in mid-August. My wife and kids (as well as many -- OK, most -- of my readers) say it happens all the time, but I can't ever recall doing it quite to this extreme.
You probably remember that Ohio State announced on Aug. 19 that quarterback Braxton Miller, the reigning Big Ten MVP and a popular Heisman Trophy candidate, would miss the entire 2014 season because of a shoulder injury. Without Miller, the Buckeyes were going to have to start redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, who had never played in a college game.
As a result, I wrote the following in a column on ESPN.com:
Tuesday's news that Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller will miss the upcoming season with an injury to his right (throwing) shoulder seriously deflates the Buckeyes' hopes of making the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff. Their national championship aspirations seem all but over -- 11 days before they'll open the season against Navy in Baltimore on Aug. 30.
Hey, so much for waiting for the games to be played, right? A few paragraphs later, I even went so far as to write that the entire Big Ten conference was done. Talk about making blanket assumptions -- that was about as wide as the holes in Indiana's secondary (sorry, I couldn't help myself)! Anyway, back to what else I wrote (and got wrong):
But make no mistake: Miller's injury has dramatically deflated hopes at both Ohio State and in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes were ranked No. 5 in Sunday's preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll and were considered the league's best chance at making the playoff.
Well, I actually felt like Nostradamus or at least Jimmy the Greek for more than a few weeks. Wisconsin lost to LSU 28-24 in Houston in its Aug. 30 opener. The next week, Michigan State lost 46-27 at Oregon, the Buckeyes fell 35-21 to Virginia Tech at home and Michigan was shut out 31-0 at Notre Dame. The dominoes were falling right into place.
Now, you have to admit that the first Saturday of September was a really bad day for the Big Ten, losing three high-profile games by double digits. Talk about getting your pants pulled down. Michigan was held scoreless for the first time since 1984, ending its NCAA-record streak of 365 games with points. Ohio State dropped its first home opener since 1978, and it was the first time since Sept. 17, 1988, that all three Big Ten heavyweights lost on the same day.
I'm sure it wasn't much fun around the Delany house that Sunday. I mean, come on, Big Ten teams also lost to two Mid-American Conference foes and Nebraska needed a miracle to beat, ahem, FCS opponent McNeese State. After witnessing that disaster, you couldn't have been very excited about your conference's prospects for the future.
In the loss to the Hokies, Barrett looked completely overmatched, completing only nine of 29 passes for 219 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. With such a lopsided loss at home, I didn't think there was any way the Buckeyes would be able to climb back into position to secure one of the four spots in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
And let's face it: With Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin each losing in the first two weeks, you couldn't have liked your league's chances of making the playoffs. With only four available spots for the Power 5 conferences, somebody was going to be left out. And it sure looked like the Big Ten was on the outside looking in.
After only two weeks, you probably felt the way a lot of Michigan fans have felt the past few years, holding out hope for the impossible. Come on, did you really think anyone else from your conference could contend for the playoffs? Did you really think Nebraska's Bo Pelini or Iowa's Kirk Ferentz would finally lead their respective teams to the promised land? Yeah, me neither.
But as I was running my mouth and beating my chest back in mid-September, you were college football's voice of reason and patience. As you told my colleague Adam Rittenberg on Sept. 7: "We're not feeling very good but the facts are the facts. I would just say with 50 percent of the nonconference games and 100 percent of conference games remaining, it's premature to make any judgments. It's September 7, not December 7. I would hate to think after two weeks we'd pick any teams for anything."
You know what, Mr. Commissioner? You were right, and I was wrong. In fact, I was dead wrong. When I wrote that column on Aug. 19, I had a momentary lapse of judgment. I forgot who was coaching Ohio State. The Buckeyes are playing Oregon in the Jan. 12 College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T because they're smarter than everyone else in your league. They hired Urban Meyer.
And I'll say this only if you promise to keep it a secret because Alabama fans will surely get upset if they hear it: Meyer might very well be the best coach in college football. He won two BCS national championships at Florida and has won everywhere else he's been. As South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier famously once said: "Anybody can win at Alabama." Go try to win at Bowling Green and Utah like Meyer did.
Meyer showed us once again this season why he's a football assassin. After the Buckeyes lost Miller before the season even started, Barrett became a Heisman Trophy candidate and then they lost him to a fractured right ankle in the regular-season finale. How many teams in the country could beat Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten championship game and then Alabama 42-35 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, one of the two playoff semifinal games, with a third-string quarterback under center? Then again, Cardale Jones sure doesn't look like a third-stringer. Boy, I'm glad I won't have to settle that quarterback debate this spring.
Fortunately, I wasn't the only person underestimating the Buckeyes. It seems like most of us in the media were too preoccupied with who was playing quarterback for Ohio State. We didn't pay enough attention to everybody else on the field. Ohio State is loaded on the defensive line and it has plenty of playmakers around Jones on offense. Ask Alabama. The Crimson Tide hadn't been pushed around like that since ... well, their last bowl game.
And it's not only Ohio State that should make you proud, Mr. Commissioner. Rutgers and Penn State won their bowl games, and then Wisconsin defeated Auburn 34-31 in overtime in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day. (Hey, don't let Coach Alvarez and the Badgers get too full of themselves. Everybody beat up Auburn after Nov. 1.) Other than Ohio State, Michigan State might have had the most impressive bowl performance, coming from 20 points down in the fourth quarter to defeat No. 5 Baylor 42-41 in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.
Overall, Big Ten teams went 5-5 in bowl games, the first time your league has finished .500 in the postseason since 2009. And there's still a chance Ohio State can put the cherry on top by knocking off Oregon in the title game. Man, aren't you glad you were able to put the Bowl Championship Series in the rearview mirror once and for all? Do you remember New Year's Day 2011, when Big Ten teams went 0-5 in bowl games? It was ugly. I would have wiped that one from my memory banks. I bet that performance ruined your holidays.
Thankfully, it's a new year and a new era in college football, and your conference has a golden opportunity to rule the roost. For the first time in a long time, a Big Ten team can win a national championship. How long has it been? Twelve seasons? Really? Man, it sure didn't seem that long ago. Let me check the record books. Yep, the last Big Ten team to win a national championship was Ohio State, which defeated Miami 31-24 in double overtime in the BCS title game after the 2002 season. Your league won one BCS title in 16 seasons of the BCS era, but now it has a chance to go 1-for-1 in the College Football Playoff.
Again, I hope you'll accept my sincere apologies for doubting the Big Ten, and best of luck in Texas next week. With the way the Ducks played against Florida State, you'll sure as heck need it.