IOWA CITY, Iowa – Hayden Fry is largely responsible for breaking the stranglehold that Ohio State and Michigan had on the Big Ten football standings throughout the 1970s.
Iowa’s breakthrough season in 1981 marked the first time since the 1967 season that somebody besides either Michigan or Ohio State represented the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl.
The Big Ten hasn’t been the same since, although, there are signs it could be reverting back to the days of the big two and little eight, only now it would be called the big two and little 12.
Eighth-ranked Wisconsin is fighting hard to stay among the elite and would help its cause immensely by defeating No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday in Madison, Wis.
The Badgers have outperformed Michigan for much of the past decade, but now Jim Harbaugh is coaching his alma mater and the results have been immediate and dramatic.
In less than two seasons, Harbaugh has lifted Michigan back to elite status in stunning fashion.
Rutgers is hardly a quality opponent, but it’s still an FBS team from a power five conference that Michigan defeated 78-0. The Wolverines also defeated Wisconsin 14-7 in a game that was closer than some probably had expected.
Nebraska is showing signs of life under second-year head coach Mike Riley, but still has a ways to go before regaining anything close to elite status.
Michigan State had been elite for a while, winning at least 11 games in four of the last five seasons, but now the Spartans are struggling at 2-3 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten.
Iowa flirts with elite status every now and then, including winning 12 games last season, but it’s hard for the Hawkeyes to sustain it under veteran head coach Kirk Ferentz. It was the same way under Fry, who coached at Iowa for 20 seasons from 1979-98.
The Hawkeyes will bring records of 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten into Saturday’s game at Purdue. That is far from being elite.
Penn State also hasn’t been elite for nearly a decade and has shown few signs of climbing back to that level under third-year head coach James Franklin.
As for the other seven teams in the conference, well, good luck. Northwestern won 10 games last season and 10 games in 2012, but the Wildcats are similar to Iowa in that sustaining success is a problem.
It’s hard to think of a time when Ohio State hasn’t been elite.
But Urban Meyer has taken the dominance to a different level. Ohio State is 55-4 under Meyer, winning the national title in 2014.
To put that in perspective, Iowa has lost four of its last eight games dating back to last season.
Thank goodness for geography and for Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany’s willingness to put Ohio State and Michigan both in the Big Ten East Division because imagine what could happen if they weren’t in the same division.
At least now the teams from the West Division still have a chance to make the championship game.
Unless something changes in a hurry, the Big Ten seems on the verge of reliving the 1970s when it comes to football.
All the schools either have or are in the process of upgrading their facilities in order to keep up with the football arm’s race.
The problem is keeping up with Buckeyes and Wolverines in recruiting.
They had the best players by a considerable margin in the 1970s and appear to again now, along with elite head coaches.
Iowa is at a completely different level now compared to the 1970s when it was horrible most of the time. But the current level still isn’t anywhere close to Ohio State, and the Wolverines, who play at Kinnick Stadium in a night game on Nov. 12, are coming on strong.
The Big Ten might have to expand again in order to prevent another Ohio State-Michigan takeover at the top.
It probably wouldn’t matter, though, unless Alabama joined the conference.