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Ohio State, Illinois, and the new normal of the Leaders Division

Illinois and Purdue have had highly disappointing seasons, contributing to a historically "meh" season for the Big Ten. The scary thing for the conference, and maybe Ohio State's future playoff hopes, is that they might not get a whole lot better.

Womp womp.
Womp womp.

If the Second Tier of the Big Ten was ever going to make a move, this was the year. Ohio State and Penn State are on probation, Wisconsin and Michigan State graduated all their skill players, and Michigan and Nebraska, while talented, are flawed. Iliinois and Purdue, lead by strong defensive lines and wide open spread offenses, were supposed to be dark horses to steal the Leaders crown from Wisconsin, or at least make things interesting. That was the offseason narrative.

How would you describe their seasons now? Tire fire? Dumpster fire? Great Chicago Fire? No matter what arson related superlative you chose, the two squads combine for exactly zero Big Ten wins, and have both fan bases calling for the heads of their coaches. Is that the answer? Is Purdue a Danny Hope pink slip away from the upper echelons of the conference? Would Illinois be looking at a January bowl game if they hadn't duffed the Tim Beckman hire?

It's true that neither coach came into their positions with impeccable credentials. Hope was a merely okay 35-22 with Eastern Kentucky (he went 9-3 and lost in the first round in his best season), and the highest he's been able to lead Purdue is to a Little Caesar's Bowl win and a 7-6 record. He's also mishandled his QB situation and been beset by horrible injury luck. Beckman is still in his first year, after compiling a respectable 21-16 record in three years at Toledo. Beckman also made a royal ass out of himself in trying to recruit Penn State players post-scandal, has overseen a massive regression of a purportedly talented defensive unit, and and oh yeah, committed an NCAA violation by chewing tobacco on the sideline. If you want to claim that leadership from both sides has been lacking, well, you'll get no argument from me.

But would firing these guys solve their problems? Can Purdue and Illinois count on getting a much better coach? Are these jobs even any good anymore, and if they are, which one is better?

I think most sports fans would say that Illinois is the better coaching job. The casual thinking is this is because Chicago is in Illinois, and Chicago is a very big city that by statistical averages, must have a lot of very good football players, who would be dying to play football for Illinois if only somebody asked them politely. But alas, the Illini coaching staff has habitually been staffed by hopeless rubes who probably eat ketchup on their hot dogs and stuff, so Chicago remains untapped. Purdue, on the other hand, is in a made-up town in Indiana that smells bad.

This isn't really accurate though. Well, the stuff about Chicago anyway. West-Lafayette IS made up and if it did exist, I'm sure it would smell terrible.

First, the University of Illinois is not in Chicago. It is located in Champaign (well, Urbana-Chamaign), which is 138 miles south of Chicago, or about a 2 and a half hour drive, depending on how bad traffic is on 57. Purdue, on the other hand, is 123 miles from Chicago. It's actually closer! The University of Wisconsin is only 148 miles from Chicago, and is actually closer to many of the stronger suburban schools than Illinois. Both Michigan State and Iowa are about 4 hours away, and Northwestern, a school you might have heard of, is within walking distance. It's not like Illinois has some great geographic or cultural monopoly on the city.

Second, the dirty little secret is that Chicago, hell, ChicagoLand, is not actually a great place for high school football. As a basketball recruiting ground, Chicago is elite, but for a variety of reasons, the surrounding area doesn't produce that many great players. In the Rivals 2013 top 35 players for Illinois, only 4 come from the actual city of Chicago, and none are higher than 3 stars (Michigan State signed one of them, as has Illinois). Cincinnati, a city a fraction the size of Chicago, has 6 3-star prospects. The best high school talent in the state is in the western and northern Chicago burbs, but the Illini have no promise of holding on to those players. The state's top recruit, 5 star RB Ty Isaac out of Joliet, is going to USC. 4 star OL Ethan Pocic is LSU bound. Illinois snagged one top 10 kid, a QB out of suburban Bolingbrook, but those recruits are certainly no sure thing.

Purdue is in a bigger talent desert. Indiana doesn't produce enough high school talent to support 1 BCS caliber school, let alone Indiana and Notre Dame as well. The Boilermakers have only secured 2 of the top 25 players in the state, #4, a 4 star QB in Danny Etling, and #24, a 3 star athlete in David Yancey, losing players to disparate schools from Georgia and BYU, to regional powers Notre Dame and Ohio State. Hope, to his credit, has recruited out of state well, especially in Florida, something the administration may want to think about should they decide to fire him.

The recruiting issues of the Big Ten have been written about before, but Illinois and Purdue have other problems. Neither school has a long, rich tradition of excellence to draw from. Before the Tiller era in West Lafayette, the Boilermakers have been mostly irrelevant, save for a stretch in the 1970s, and they haven't won the league since 2000. Illinois has been hamstrung by inconsistency and Ron Zook, and has finished higher than 4th exactly once since 1991.

Most importantly though, is the budget situation. Purdue has the smallest Athletic department budget of the 11 B1G schools that reported data in 2011 (Northwestern, being a private school, didn't share their data), and Illinois was 9th, spending 59 Million and 73 Million, respectively. When you don't have access to a deep recruiting pool nearby, you need to spend money to recruit and retain a strong coaching staff (including assistants), and to recruit outside of their area of influence. With those resource levels, it will be very hard for either school to get the personnel they need to overtake their more well-heeled peer institutions, especially given the kinds of athletes Urbz is going to be bring to the table.

This is bad news for everybody. It's bad for Ohio State, since a weak Purdue and Illinois squads, plus Indiana (you're not there yet guys) and a sanction-riddle Penn State means the quality of their conference slate will be dragged down. It's bad news for the Boilermakers and Illini, since a Buckeye/Badger chokehold on the division title will make it difficult for them to build positive recruiting momentum and snap out of their funk. It pains me to say this, but Gene Smith knows whats up. If he thought the conference was going to be a grind for the next few years, he wouldn't be trying to so hard to upgrade the non conference schedule.

I don't know if ditching Beckman and Hope is the answer; I think Beckman at least *probably* deserves another year. I'm hoping both schools can figure it out though, since their rising tide will lift all boats, including that hulking battleship lurking on the banks of the Olentangy.