The Big 10 is back! Ohio State won a national title, Michigan landed Harbaugh, and the bowl games featured Wisconsin beating Auburn and Michigan State taking down Baylor in dramatic fashion.
With this collection of victories the Big 10 ended SEC hegemony with a win over that league's figurehead, Alabama, and also vanquished multiple "new money" spread teams that had seized the national spotlight.
One of the prevailing narratives about Ohio State's victory in the first college football playoff is that it represents the Big 10 successfully copying SEC strategies and beating them at their own game. This is based out of a short-term view of college football history that notes SEC supremacy over the end of the BCS era and looks to account for it's failure to translate to the playoff era.
It seems that the new playoff format is a win for the power conferences at large, at the expense of mid-major powers that are now likely to be left out and at the expense of the SEC who are unlikely to get more than one representative in a given year.
At any rate, it's not true. The Big 10 didn't steal SEC strategies or SEC coaching to achieve these victories. Urban Meyer grew up in Toledo and got his coaching start within the state of Ohio, not the South. There's been attention paid to how Meyer has recruited from Florida, Texas, and the south to build his roster but it ignores the basis of the Buckeye victories as well as the fact that recruiting a few athletes from the south or Texas has always been a part of Big 10 strategy for building elite teams.
The real story is slightly less flattering of southern football. It is this, the Big 10 is simply adapting enough to the modern era to allow their natural advantages to once again come into play.
Ohio State won their championship because they dominated in the trenches while fielding enough athletes to prevent their crucial advantage from being negated by speed. If you look at a few positions you'll notice something significant.
The Buckeyes' starting OL, TE, DL, and middle linebacker, who all combined to control the middle of the field on behalf of the skill athletes, consisted of two Floridians, one Virginian, and eight Ohioans. Incidentally, their goliath-sized QB who used his raw power to run over Alabama and Oregon is also an Ohio native. There are still plenty of really good football players coming out of northern climates.
The Big 10 was not as hopeless in the modern era of football as many had come to believe and is now once more flexing its muscle in time to be a major player in the playoff era. Their adaptations include:
Controlling spread teams
The problems facing Michigan State in their match-up against Baylor were very obvious. The Spartan defense is designed to pressure an opposing passing game and outnumber the run with aggressive linebacker and safety play while the Baylor offense is designed to rip teams apart for doing exactly that with repeated deep bombs to burning fast targets.
With that fact undoubtedly in mind, Narduzzi and Dantonio decided to proceed with their plan and try to focus on their own strengths as a team, the play of their front and the ability of their secondary to close and tackle.
When Bryce Petty and the Bears passing game started to take them apart, they doubled down with more blitzes and aggressive fronts that eliminated Baylor's ability to run the ball. The MSU hope was to kill a drive here or there with negative plays or Bear mistakes.
It worked...just barely. Baylor threw for 603 yards but ran for -20, demonstrating the Spartan superiority in the trenches and struggle in open grass. If you remove sack yardage you see that Baylor made 17 rushing attempts and had 19 yards to show for it. Michigan State dominated the veer part of Baylor's "Veer and shoot" offense and forced Briles' Texans to outgun their own fantastic offense.
Briles probably would have done so if not for two enormous special teams plays by the Spartans (blocked a field goal, recovered an onside kick) but the Bears couldn't control the tempo of the game well enough to put Michigan State away.
Ohio State had a similar story to tell after beating Oregon, they took some hits in the passing game to the tune of 300+ passing yards by Mariota but they stopped the Duck zone-option run game and were able to control the passing game and prevent it from landing any death blows.
There is a three part process to building a Big 10 defense that can accomplish this goal of controlling a strong spread offense well enough for that Midwestern teams' own offense to outscore it.
The first step involves having good enough athletes in the secondary to run with these spread teams and avoid getting completely torn apart. Despite having likely NFL draft choice Trae Waynes in their secondary, the Spartans almost failed here.
Kurtis Drummond proved to be a coverage safety who had been largely untested by speed and tactics of the sort Baylor or Oregon will throw at a team. RJ Williamson was predictably burned when trying to run with Baylor's speedy WR corps and even Trae Waynes gave up a fade route to freshman phenom KD Cannon. The Spartan defense is designed to invite opponents to attempt fade routes yet Cannon had more than adequate space to haul in the catch.
Michigan State was saved by the ability of their secondary to make open field tackles that prevented some of Baylor's offensive plays from finishing them off before they had a chance to steal the game late.
Ohio State had a solid secondary, comprised of players from across the midwest and northeast, but also Georgian Vonn Bell who brought major speed and range to the equation. With Bell in the game the Buckeyes could afford to either spread their safeties deep and wide to keep the ball in front of them or else drop him over a receiver in man coverage while bringing a linebacker on the blitz.
All the good Big 10 teams don't lack for effective defensive fronts. Because they are used to playing physical offenses in cold weather games from high school on up, the region produces some big, tough players some of whom are also very fast and very smart.
Oregon had not faced a strongside linebacker who could stay on the field against their spread sets at 6'2" 228 pounds like Darron Lee did and their spread run game struggled when they found themselves dealing with such a large and physical player on the edge who was quick enough to keep them in front.
In the Cotton Bowl, the Spartan defensive front wreaked havoc on Baylor's system with their denial of Baylor's run game but also in their ability to bring pressure with a four-man rush when Baylor went to their empty set:
This Baylor set had devastated the Oklahoma Sooners who tried to emulate West Virginia's tactic of throwing man blitzes at Petty to pressure him past his easy early reads. However, when the Bears went empty against the Spartans, Narduzzi usually passed on the option to throw one of his own big blitzes at it and instead had his fantastic DL pin their ears back and get after 'em while his defense played a conservative brand of cover 4 behind them.
While they may raid the south for skill athletes, the Midwest teams do not lack for big, physical players that can dominate in the trenches and this was on display throughout the 2015 bowl schedule in the play of Big 10 defensive linemen.
Additionally, the Midwest has another type of player who's importance in college football has been largely forgotten, the linebacker.
Spread teams and modern option tactics try to attack linebackers by putting them in mental conflicts and preventing them from being able to provide support on the line of scrimmage. Ohio State and Michigan State used their linebackers differently but neither squads allowed them to become an irrelevant factor.
The Buckeyes used their DL to clog the middle so the linebackers could roam more freely on the perimeter without fear of getting gashed inside by zone runs. The Spartans deferred responsibilities for controlling the perimeter to their secondary so that their linebackers could play aggressively against the run as they've been trained.
The latter strategy forced Baylor to choose the passing game while the former strategy allowed the Buckeyes' fantastic LB corps to be involved in the game in multiple plays.
Modernizing smash mouth football
As unprepared as the better Big 10 teams' opponents were for handling their strong defensive fronts, they were even less prepared to stop their rushing attacks. The Spartans, Buckeyes, and Badgers all rolled over their post-season opponents with big days on the ground that gave them plenty of points on the scoreboard as well as a chance to control the tempo of the game.
The better teams in the Big 10 have always been able to line up and hit you in the mouth, and that leaves opponents that spend half or more of their practice time preparing to stop intricate passing games or spread-option attacks at a disadvantage when trying to deal with them.
For one, non-Big 10 teams aren't necessarily recruiting and developing players that thrive at filling gaps and playing physical ball between the tackles, especially against teams that are recruited and developed to do it well. For another, the Big 10 running games are bringing levels of sophistication to their downhill schemes that are beyond what some opponents are used to.
At Ohio State, for instance, the Buckeyes combine a physical approach with zone and power schemes with a variety of sweeps, options, and supplementary running schemes that force a cohesive and well-drilled response. If you don't have a team on your schedule that runs a smash mouth spread attack comparable to that of the Buckeyes it may take a few extra days of walkthroughs in practice for your players to understand all of their assignments against their different schemes.
At Michigan State, they run a pro-style offense that has adapted and is designed to attack modern defenses. They use sweeps to prevent hard-flowing safety run support, they'll motion their tight ends and receivers around to create match-up problems before the snap, and they have a passing game that's up to date with modern practices.
Baylor found it challenging to have their simple defensive structure attacked with deliberate motion, precision, and bigger receiving targets like Spartan tight end Josiah Price:
On this play, the Bears are in a cover 4 check that has their strong safety ($) responsible for forcing the edge on a running play and helping the middle linebacker cover the third receiver on the opposite side of the formation on a pass. A strange call to make on the goal-line since it asks a lot of that strong safety to get over in time but that's what the Bears did here:
That left cornerback Xavien Howard in "solo" coverage on the 6'4" Josiah Price. The Bears lost that match-up due solely to Price's size advantage. While Howard is a big, physical corner he was not ready for that challenge.
Again, there are plenty of big-bodied athletes in the Midwest that can allow teams to run pro-style personnel and still have good targets on the field for the passing game. Teams that aren't used to this may struggle to catch up when they find that they have to cover a 6'4", 250 pound receiver for the first time that season.
It's likely that more non-league teams will face that challenge in the future with Jim Harbaugh bringing his pro-style offense to Ann Arbor. If the Spartans are creative about using motion, sweeps, and bigger bodies to create leverage then Harbaugh is a savant.
With Meyer's spread-option and these updated pro-style attacks the Big 10 is finding ways to play their classic brand of physical football in a way that will can keep pace when they get in high-scoring contests with their foes.
It was only a matter of time before the Big 10 re-emerged in the college football scene. The nation's demographic shifts and innovations haven't weakened the league to the extent that is popularly believed based on their recent post-season results. The New Jersey, Pennsylvania, southeast Michigan, Chicago area, and Ohio recruiting grounds are still loaded with good prospects and Big 10 teams can still offer academics and big time football to draw some recruits from Texas, California, Florida, or the South.
The real issue for the conference has been that its three biggest powers have undergone difficult transitions at the head coach spot.
Penn State was mired down by Paterno's delayed retirement and then the scandal that devastated the program. Ohio State was watching the decline of Tressell-ball when scandal came that brought sanctions that had to be overcome before they were even post-season eligible. Finally, Michigan really lost their way in the post-Lloyd Carr era and only now seem poised to finally be a national power again.
The Big 10 has loads of money and resources, it was only a matter of time before they used it to find coaches who could leverage the league's other resources and develop strategies that would bring back classic Big 10 football. That has now happened, don't expect the Big 10 to relinquish their spot again anytime soon.