Meanwhile, the SEC was exploiting its home states’ booms in population and in football prospects and plowing unprecedented cable television revenue into higher coaching salaries, bigger stadiums and better facilities. Elsewhere, upstarts like Baylor and Oregon developed innovative offensive schemes that would go on to change the way many teams in other conferences played.
The SEC is not exactly going anywhere — Alabama is having one of the great runs of success in college football history — but any fair assessment of the landscape would suggest that the Big Ten is challenging for the distinction of being the top league.
Four Big Ten teams are ranked in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 — three are in the top six — with a fifth, Michigan, likely to make its way back in. Purdue has its most promising coach in a decade, Jeff Brohm, and Minnesota and Maryland recently hired two of the most coveted young coaches, P. J. Fleck and D. J. Durkin.
In the three years of the four-team College Football Playoff, the Big Ten has always had a contender — something that cannot be said of the Big 12 or the Pacific-12. And that national title drought? It ended in the 2014 season, which was capped by Ohio State’s victories over Alabama and Oregon in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
In many ways, the Big Ten has ridden the same characteristics that delivered Baker to Columbus: good coaching, stability, recruiting prowess and luck.
Baker switched his college commitment in the fall of 2014 when it became likely that Florida would change head coaches. It helped that Ohio State’s Meyer and his staff, according to Baker, “never gave up on me.”
“Florida was going in their own direction,” Baker said in a recent interview. “I loved Florida. For my future, it wasn’t the best option.”
Credit Kamil Krzaczynski/USA Today Sports, via Reuters..
The Big Ten was never going to be down forever. Its biggest teams are too prestigious, and its fan bases too large and too valuable to broadcasters. It presciently introduced the Big Ten Network a decade ago, and new television contracts that bring in $240 million a year solidified its place as the richest conference in college sports (challenged only, of course, by the SEC).
But the arrivals of several pedigreed coaches — Meyer, who joined Ohio State in 2012; James Franklin, who departed Vanderbilt, of the SEC, for Penn State before the 2014 season; and Jim Harbaugh, the Michigan alumnus who returned to Ann Arbor for the 2015 season — created a rising tide that lifted all boats and changed the way the Big Ten did business.
“The influx of new, very strong coaches coming into the league, some emphasizing recruiting and in some cases national recruiting, made everyone in the league pick up their game,” said Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin’s athletic director and former football coach.
Meyer initially ruffled feathers in the Big Ten with recruiting tactics that, while not illicit, were aggressive by conference standards. In Baker’s case, Meyer’s staff was polite and respectful but firm in insisting that Baker, even after he had committed to Florida, would always have a home in Columbus.
“He came from an environment where recruiting was 365 days a year and hostile and competitive,” the ESPN analyst Todd Blackledge, an Ohio native and a former Penn State quarterback, said of Meyer. “And he came into the Big Ten and he maintained” that type of recruiting, Blackledge added, “and some of the coaches in that league weren’t used to that.”
Meyer responded to the criticism not by relenting but by urging rival coaches to match his efforts, telling a radio host that the conference needed “to keep pushing that envelope to be better.”
Said Blackledge: “He forced other teams in that league to raise their level to keep up with him.”
High school prospects noticed that the Big Ten was cool again, according to Josh Helmholdt, a Midwest-based reporter for Rivals.com, which covers college recruiting. “When you have those teams recruiting better and the Big Ten being a brighter star,” he said, “then the rest of the conference also improves in terms of their national appeal and brand.”
One way for the Big Ten to sustain its current level of competitiveness might be not to buy into the hype that it has become this competitive. Restrained expectations, whether deriving from fallow seasons or from a stereotypically gentle Midwestern outlook, can actually be an asset in a landscape where programs in other conferences are all too quick to cut bait on underperforming coaches (for instance, Florida, which is still paying Will Muschamp, the coach who initially persuaded Baker to go to Gainesville, even as he coaches South Carolina, a division rival of the Gators).
“I see a lot of movement in the Southeastern Conference,” Alvarez said. He recalled speaking to a local fan club of one SEC team a couple of years ago and thinking: “This is tough. One loss, and they’re about ready to run someone out of town.”
By contrast, programs like Iowa and Michigan State have stood by their highly regarded coaches, Kirk Ferentz and Mark Dantonio, through subpar seasons that might have doomed them elsewhere.
Bob Lattinville, an agent with the Spencer Fane firm, suggested that the Big Ten’s previous lows were directly related to its current highs.
“In 2014, maybe the shine had come off,” he said. “That can be helpful, in the sense that if your fan base’s expectations aren’t out of whack, or your biggest booster isn’t threatening to withhold a check, that’s helpful.”
For now, the Big Ten will bask in its success.
And Baker will get his longed-for test.
“He’s getting all this praise,” Baker said of Barkley. “To me, that’s a real challenge and real accomplishment — it’s like, I’m going against the best.”