<
>

Paging U-M: Big Ten needs you!

The announcement on Tuesday that Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller will miss the season after reinjuring his throwing shoulder should have set off alarm bells at Schembechler Hall. That's right: Michigan must be on high alert.

Consider the reaction to the Miller news: The Big Ten is doomed, fuhgedabout the playoff. ... Well, maybe Michigan State will save the league. ... Or Wisconsin, with that easy schedule. ... Is Iowa be a dark horse? ... What about Nebraska?

No one mentioned the Maize and Blue.

If a similar Big Ten calamity had occurred 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 60 years ago, there would be a standard response: Don't worry, there's still Michigan.

Miller's injury underscores the urgency for Michigan to rise. And the Big Ten needs Michigan now more than ever.

"We definitely can and we definitely need to get back up to that level," said Marlin Jackson, a two-time All-American cornerback at Michigan and a co-captain in 2004, the most recent Wolverines team to win a Big Ten title. "Not only for the sake of Michigan football but for the sake of the Big Ten Conference."

The list of reasons for the Big Ten's downturn is lengthy, but Michigan's decline should be near the top. There are parallels between Michigan's plight and that of the league it so desperately wants to conquer.

Like Michigan, the Big Ten is enduring its own drought: no national championships since 2002. Like Michigan, the Big Ten's claims of elite status, based on history, no longer hold up. The Big Ten and Michigan waste no opportunity to celebrate historical achievements, but recent history has been unkind to both.

"You can go by the conferences," former Purdue coach Joe Tiller said. "Alabama needed to be great again. They weren't until Nick [Saban] got there, but that's a standard-bearing program for the SEC. Every conference has those types of programs, and Michigan is one. For Michigan not to be a powerhouse, it does affect your conference, how it's viewed.

"When you have a team like Michigan, with the tradition they have and all the resources they have, they should be a national player year in and year out."

There's one area where the Big Ten and Michigan are thriving -- the bottom line. The Big Ten brought in $318.4 million for its most recently reported fiscal year (ending June 30, 2013). Michigan finished fourth nationally and second in the Big Ten in total revenue for the 2012-13 season ($143.5 million). Athletic director Dave Brandon has made brand building a chief priority at Michigan, and, although not all of his initiatives have been embraced, the dollars continue flowing in.

Yet the revenue spike hasn't translated to championships for Michigan or the Big Ten.

"In some ways what's happening to Michigan is also happening to the Big Ten," said author John U. Bacon, who examined Michigan and three other Big Ten programs in his latest book, "Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football."

"The money has never been bigger," Bacon said, "both coming in and spending, going out, yet the results aren't what Michigan fans expect. They're not abysmal results on the grand scale, but Michigan fans have been spoiled. You cannot get 110,000 people interested in 7-6. People who are paying for those tickets, guess what, they are expecting a run for a Big Ten title."

Gauging the relationship between revenue and winning can be tricky. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany last fall said that although having greater resources generally equals more success, "It's not a one-to-one relationship."

Michigan has upgraded its football investments in recent years: a $226 million renovation of Michigan Stadium; opening the spectacular Al Glick Field House in 2009; a recently completed $9 million renovation of Schembechler Hall; and shelling out for top assistant coaches such as defensive coordinator Greg Mattison ($851,400 salary in 2013) and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier ($830,000 salary this year).

But other Big Ten programs have made similar moves, with facilities and with coaches. The initiatives certainly haven't hurt, but how much have they helped? The league still isn't winning national championships or dominating in recruiting.

What the Big Ten needs, league observers say, is for its traditionally great programs to be great again.

"Four of the seven most successful programs in the history of college football are in the Big Ten: Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska," said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, the former coach at Indiana, LSU and Vanderbilt.

"The historic, successful programs have to be better to lift this league up. That's what's happened in the SEC. That's what's going to happen in the Pac-12, too. UCLA has gotten good; USC has to get good; and then Oregon has gone from a regional program to a national program.

"All conferences need their historic programs to rise. The Big Ten and Michigan is an example."

Michigan doesn't appear in the preseason polls. No playoff projections include the Wolverines. But coach Brady Hoke is entering his fourth season with a roster made up mostly of players he recruited. He likes his team's competitiveness and closeness.

The schedule isn't easy, but two of Michigan's three marquee road opponents -- Ohio State and Notre Dame -- have suffered major personnel losses in the preseason.

It will take a big leap for Michigan to put itself in playoff contention. But the Wolverines are capable.

"We embrace the expectations and the traditions and won't ever shy away from them," Hoke said. "You always have urgency."

The urgency is there for the Big Ten, which was knocked to the mat Tuesday.

It's time for Michigan to answer the bell.