ORLANDO, Fla. — In the wake of Rutgers' 13-10 overtime loss to Virginia Tech in the Russell Athletic Bowl, I'd love to impart some deep, analytical wisdom about the Scarlet Knights' eventual entrance in the Big Ten.
But it's late on a Friday night, there's a guy standing in the postgame press conference with suspenders attached to sweatpants, a flash monsoon outside, and I just watched a game with more punts (21) than points (20) in regulation. A repugnant display of offensive football. A game that makes the case for slashing many bowls.
None of the Scarlet Knights is in much of a mood to talk about a Big Ten spot 18 months in the future. And last year I came to this bowl to watch Notre Dame and Florida State ugly it up, predicting neither one of them would be as good as Nebraska this season. What a fat chunk of wrong that was.
So my mind drifted to the existential meaning a game like this had for a guy like Big Ten boss Jim Delany. How a game like this points to the flaws of the league as it stands — and perhaps necessary change ahead.
Would Delany have been encouraged by the turnout of Rutgers fans on one side of a relatively empty, aging stadium?
Would he like the fact that Rutgers coach Kyle Flood — like Michigan State's Mark Dantonio and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz — needlessly threw his lot for next year behind an inaccurate, immobile quarterback named Gary Nova, minutes after he completed 17 of 40 passes.
“Nothing I saw from him made me think I should make any changes,” Flood said.
“I'm confident in Gary as our starting quarterback.”
Nova, mind you, completed 31 of 65 passes in the two games before the Russell Athletic Bowl, both ugly losses that cost the Scarlet Knights a BCS berth. He's a poor thrower. He lost 44 yards this year as a runner. Rutgers' offensive design is fine, but its personnel at quarterback couldn't crack half an egg against Big Ten defenses. Which, of course, makes Rutgers like many Big Ten offenses.
And that's a weakness of the Big Ten — the intractability of some coaches and teams, this steadfastness to a style of play that resembles the SEC without all the speed that the SEC employs on its rosters. There's a handful of mobile quarterbacks in the Big Ten — Braxton Miller, Taylor Martinez and Denard Robinson — who happen to be the most explosive and best quarterbacks, too. Yet it sways few coaches to change. Maryland and Rutgers simply add two more plodding, pro-style attacks to the list.
Does Delany like the sudden, inexplicable traffic snarls brought on by equally inexplicable, awful driving in Orlando? And by awful I mean hilarious: Cars refusing to stop for ambulances; cars slowing to a crawl in interstate traffic; tour buses bolting out into intersections; violent U-turns; multiple vans trying to turn into the same lane at once. It's a unique cultural experience. I don't know how it plays for a family of five on a bowl trip.
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Now that the Big Ten has secured the Orange Bowl as a second potential major bowl berth in the new playoff system, would he explore severing ties with the Capital One Bowl, which plays in an old stadium situated in a rough part of town, surrounded by faded-paint towers of tourist traps? Orlando is overexposed and increasingly, crushingly expensive for Big Ten fans. Waiting in line is a pastime here, and the town cannot be invaded by bowl fans when the highest Disney World attendance in each calendar year — we're talking hundreds of thousands of visitors over five days — is this week.
I saw a fan in a Tom Brady throwback Patriots jersey — on Saturday — before I saw a Husker fan in a Rex Burkhead jersey. (And that's not on Rex or Husker fans.)
Can Delany appreciate that, at some point, more inventory and more money for each league team has diminishing perception returns if the overall Big Ten football product gets worse? That Big Ten Network money can be a poor alternative for fielding six or seven great teams carrying the league's flag in bowl season?
A few hours after the Russell Athletic Bowl, Minnesota blew its bowl game against Texas Tech. The first league loss in what could be several over the next week. Or the second, if you count Rutgers. Maryland, the other entrant to the Big Ten in 2014, didn't make a bowl. I keep hearing that North Carolina and Georgia Tech might be on Delany's gotta-have-them list; neither team moves the pigskin needle. I know there's a larger goal at stake with the Big Ten's pursuits. Demographics. Markets. Academic funding. Leverage. I know good football is a bit down on the list of priorities.
But it'd be nice to see that Nebraska didn't trade in a good century of relationships solely to be in one division of a 14- or 16-team corporation of “mutual interests,” or whatever elusive term Delany, a skilled lawyer, might use. It'd be nice if better football was part of the package. That was hard to see in Orlando on Friday night. May Nebraska's showing Tuesday — against a far better Georgia team compared to Virginia Tech this year — wash away some of this swampy stench.
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