The specific issues are as varied and sundry as the teams themselves; Michigan can't develop a consistent offensive plan outside of "Denard Right" and "Denard Left", Michigan State struggles to throw the football to their own players efficiently, Ohio State can't get off the field on 3rd down, and Iowa is OMGLOL Iowa. There are structural problems that many Big Ten teams are struggling with as well though, and simple playbook tweaks or a returned emphasis on FUNDAMENTALS in practice won't be enough to return our league to greatness, or at least competence.
Here are some of the reasons why the Big Ten, as a conference, has been less competitive over the past few years, and what can be done to address it.
1) The Big Ten is not effectively recruiting.
First, I understand that you don't have to have a team full of 5 star recruits to be successful, and that even Rivals and Scout's ratings are wrong sometimes. These are imperfect measurements at best but...strong recruiting classes *are* correlated with athletic success. Here is how many Big Ten teams stacked up over the past few years, using Rivals recruiting rankings. To give context, I'll throw in a few non Big Ten teams as well.
2009- #3 Ohio State #8 Michigan, #17 Michigan State, #24 Penn State #25 Mississippi State , #28 Nebraska, #29 Illinois, #31 Kansas, #38 Rutgers, #39 Minnesota, #41 Kentucky, #43 Wisconsin.
2010- #12 Penn State, #18 Mississippi, #20 Michigan, #22 Nebraska, #25 Ohio State, #30 Michigan State, #39 Baylor, #40 BYU, #42 Iowa
2011- #11 Ohio State, #15 Nebraska, #21 Michigan, #29 Louisville, #30 Iowa, #31 Michigan State, #34 Kansas, #35 Penn State, #38 Boston College, #39 UCF, #40 Wisconsin #42 Illinois, #93 Purdue (lol)
2012- #4 Ohio State, #7 Michigan, #25 Nebraska, #28 Utah, #29 Vanderbilt, #33 Purdue, #36 Colorado, #43 Iowa
2013 is shaping up to be a little better for the Big Ten, as they have 9 teams currently in the top 50, but Penn State could easily drop from that list, and there are lot more teams clustered in the high 30s/mid 40s. Scouts rankings aren't a lot better, as the Big Ten has never finished higher than 4th (and as low as 6th) in recruiting from 2006 onward.
It is no secret that the Big Ten thinks rather highly of itself. If you want to be an elite conference, you have to start getting elite talent. Mississippi State and Kentucky are never going to compete for a league title, and they're academic doormats in boring towns. No disrespect to Brigham Young, but they don't sell coke on campus, banned drinking, and are located in a bizzaro mountainland with no black people. Vandy is Vandy. If you fancy yourself a good Big Ten team, you should never lose out on a recruit to one of those schools.
I understand that the demographics of this country are changing. Folks are moving out of Iowa and Michigan and moving to North Carolina, Virgina, Georgia and out west, which further dilutes and already stretched talent pool. If our mid-ranged teams can't beat out midmajors or terrible SEC and Big 12 schools for players, we're going to really struggle to beat good teams on the football field.
Possible solution – open up the scheduling and hire staff specifically to compete in new pipeline states.
The most fertile recruiting grounds in the Big Ten footprint are in Ohio, Western PA and parts of Michigan, areas that are dominated by Ohio State and Michigan. Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota might only produce two dozen D1 recruits between them, and even those recruits won't be locks to stay instate (or even be good enough). That means that everybody, not just OSU and Michigan, will need to be able to get players from Texas, Florida and along the East Coast.
Right now, Iowa has a paltry 8 players on their roster from Florida, Texas, and California. Wisconsin has 17. Minnesota has 27. All three schools draw primarily from their own states and neighboring areas, and there just aren't enough good football players there.
There are lots of reasons for a recruit to pick a Purdue, Wisconsin, Iowa or Michigan State over an SEC or Big 12 school. Generally, B1G academics are going to be better, the structure of the league is more competitive, the schools are full of tradition, and you probably have a better chance at a BCS-caliber bowl game. One way to help make that case would be to play more road games in new recruiting footprints. Despite what you might have heard, Purdue is a real university and they have a history of developing quarterbacks. Playing a game in Florida, Texas, North Carolina etc can help spread that brand.
Failing that, schools have got to find ways to better develop pipelines outside of their own state. If you can get an assistant with ties to the Virgina Beach/Houston/South Florida area, you gotta do it. Ohio State and Michigan are already national brands and will be competitive with recruits wherever they go.
2) The Big Ten is struggling with an identity crisis.
What do you think of when you think of Oregon Football? Outlandish uniforms, relentless team speed, plug and play running backs that go for 1,300 a season, and a mascot that won't take no shit. Alabama? Punishing offensive lines, a swarming defense, and suffocating precision that squeeze the life out of you. USC? Song girls, skill players galore, and a pro-style offense that churns out excellent QBs. LSU? Crazy coach, crazier fans, punishing running backs and defense. All of these schools have an identity.
What about Illinois? When I think of Illinois, all I can think about is "Illinois can't have nice things", and Eddie George running for 3 miles of yardage against them; I can't think of an Illinois football identity. Iowa? Iowa is AIRBHG and Kirk Ferentz smelling his own farts while wearing a turtleneck insulated with buyout money while his Hawkeyes lose 9-4 to directional Michigan. Indiana football is just the sad trombone noise on an infinite loop.
There has been some progress made on this front with Michigan State, and some bad luck (Exhibit A: Purdue's walking wounded quarterback corps), but on the whole, there are lots of teams crying out for something to make them theirs.
Possible solution – wholeheartedly embrace innovation and gambling.
Mike Leach would have absolutely pillaged the Big Ten. Even if he never recruited elite caliber players, his relentless focus on doing a few things particularly well (simple plays run out of multiple formations, high efficiency passing) and his unique offense would have given people fits. Three yards and a cloud of dust might have worked thirty years ago, but the game has changed to reward speed and the ability to attack open space more, and teams need to adapt.
Paul Johnson has proved the haters wrong and has found success running the triple option in a major conference. Why shouldn't a team like Indiana at least think about running something totally unconventional? If it doesn't work, well hell, you were going to lose anyway. If it does, you force a team to gameplan for something completely different on a short week, and you catch a few teams unaware. If not the option, then maybe the Pistol, or the Air Raid, or the Hurry Up, or getting wideouts involved in the rushing attack, or something. Pick something that sets you apart from everybody else, and work relentlessly to make that particular innovation your own.
3) The Big Ten's coaching ranks are not that strong right now.
Well, maybe "not that strong" isn't fair, but they certainly aren't established. Illinois and Penn State are breaking in new coaches, along with Ohio State (although Meyer is much more of a proven commodity). Minnesota and Indiana are on year two of their rebuilding projects. Michigan's Brady Hoke had a statistically lucky year one, and the Wolverines certainly aren't setting the world on fire in year two. Purdue's Danny Hope is 18-22 after 4 seasons. The shortcomings of Iowa's Kirk Ferentz have been well established.
Really, only Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Northwestern can point to having successful coaches with multiple years of experience at their school. That's only a third of the Big Ten, and that has to count for something.
Possible solution – wait it out and pray that the new hires stick.
Jerry Kill seems to be doing a great job in Minnesota, but who knows how things will do with Indiana, Illinois, Penn State and Iowa. Michigan may not even be a 100% sure thing, even though they are recruiting excellently. If any of the new guys turnover, the Big Ten would do well to bring in an already experienced name, rather than a MAC guy trying to get his next step up.
4) The Big Ten has incurred the wrath of an angry injury God.
Purdue QBs. Iowa and Ohio State running backs. Michigan defensive backs. Indiana quarterbacks. Multiple teams have had promising seasons or position groups decimated by untimely injuries, and lack of depth and preparation time has robbed squads of success. In addition to not having the best athletes, the Big Ten has also been flat out unlucky, and it's hard to overcome both.
Possible solution – start oversigning.
Just kidding, that isn't going to happen.
Embrace voodoo, prepare sacrifices for AIRBHG
Well, it worked for LSU didn't it?