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Big Ten Struggling With Mediocrity


Since taking over at Iowa in 1979, Hayden Fry has employed a simple non-conference formula to prepare his Hawkeyes for the rigors of the Big Ten Conference season.

Call it the "Should've-Could've-Might've" theory of scheduling. Fry's Hawkeyes play one game they should win, one game they could win and one game they might win. A weak opponent hungry for a big payday, a good team with a shot at an upset and a Top 25 school that should provide a true test. If all goes as planned, the Hawkeyes enter conference play 2-1. If things go better than expected, they're 3-0. Worse, they're 1-2.

In 1992, somebody messed with Professor Fry's formula. Big time. Instead of the usual, early-season blend, the Hawkeyes faced 1992 New Year's Day bowl teams North Carolina State, Miami and Colorado in their first four games. The result? Three losses. Only a victory over Iowa State--definitely in the "Should've" category--salvaged Iowa's non-conference season.

"When I first came here, Iowa had had 20 consecutive losing seasons. (Nine, actually. Although Iowa's previous plus-.500 season was in 1960, 18 seasons before he became coach in 1979.) I couldn't figure it out," Fry says. "Then I saw that we had long-term contracts with Oklahoma, Penn State and USC. I changed that.

"This year, however, has been the longest year of my life."

Get in line, Hayden. While the Hawkeyes struggled with a young team and a hellacious schedule, the rest of the Big Ten labored as well. The 97-year-old conference posted a 13-17-1 non-conference mark--easily worst among the nation's majors--and showed its age with a year of mediocrity.

Even the anticipated arrival of Penn State next season has lost some of its luster, thanks to the Nittany Lions' 2-4 finish after a 5-0 start.

"The facts speak for themselves," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany says. "We lost more games than we won in September, and you can't argue with that. In bowl competition, you can't argue that we have been on top, either, be it in the Rose Bowl or any other bowl.

"When you go 13-17 in non-conference play, the majority of your teams don't have winning records. That makes it difficult, especially when you have parity in your conference play."

Only three Big Ten teams--Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois--finished with winning records. And only the Wolverines (No. 7) and Buckeyes (No. 15) were ranked in the Top 25. Lest anyone harbors delusions of a return to the two schools' battles in the 1970s, consider that the Wolverines, league champions since 1988, have defeated the Buckeyes four consecutive times. In fact, Michigan is the Big Ten's only true "national" team. It lures recruits from all over the country and appears on television just about every week.

But even the Wolverines have been humbled along the way. Remember last year's 34-14 loss to Washington in Pasadena? Or the 51-31 home beating administered to the Wolverines by Florida State? "This is the Big Ten? Oh, my goodness, you've got to be kidding me," Florida State nose tackle James Chaney said after that one.

No one's laughing in the Midwest. Included in the Big Ten's 17 non-conference losses this season were defeats to Central Michigan, Toledo and San Jose State. Wisconsin needed a questionable call on a last- second two-point conversion to sneak past Northern Illinois, and Ohio State could beat Bowling Green by only 17-6--at home.

Just imagine how the folks at the Citrus and Holiday bowls felt this season. They are contractually bound to take Big Ten teams for their bowls. Only two teams--Michigan and Ohio State--finished the season with more than six victories, and only a strong finish saved Ohio State and the Citrus Bowl. The Holiday Bowl had the right to Just Say No to what the league offered as bowl-caliber, but decided to take Illinois (6-4-1). It was close, however, for the Illini, who by virtue of their 14-10 victory last Saturday against Michigan State (5-6) reached the NCAA-mandated six Division I-A victories required to receive a bowl bid and edged out the Spartans for the Holiday berth. Minnesota, meanwhile, robbed Iowa of a Copper Bowl bid the school had already accepted. Last Saturday, the Golden Gophers (2-9) defeated the Hawkeyes, 28-13, leaving Iowa at 5-7 on the season, one victory short of the six needed to go to a bowl.

"There are some games teams should have played better in," Michigan Coach Gary Moeller says. "Maybe it's a down year, but I still think we have some good football teams in this league."

That's debatable. Over the past five years, the league's 74-72-6 non-conference record ranks last among the nation's seven major conferences (excluding the fledgling Big East). In bowl games--traditional Big Ten sore points--the league ranks fourth, with a bleak 10-12-1 record. Then there is the Rose Bowl. The Big Ten is an embarrassing 5-20 since 1968.

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