Wojo: Big Ten has wrested the spotlight from SEC

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Nick Saban, pictured at SEC media days on Wednesday, said, "I think it's important that we all have a level playing field."

Well, this is odd. It's mid-summer and Urban Meyer is polishing his national championship rings, Mark Dantonio is polishing up his best recruiting class and Jim Harbaugh is continuing his publicity dominance, snapping photos in front of European landmarks, unsure if satellite camps in France are a good idea or not.

And way down yonder, Nick Saban is sounding suspiciously whiny. It was the Southeastern Conference's annual media extravaganza, usually designed for preening and ring-kissing. This time, reporters asked Saban and others about Ohio State. And the proliferation of dynamic offenses. And satellite camps. And Harbaugh.

I'm not here to say the SEC is suddenly paranoid, going two seasons without a national championship after a seven-year run. I am saying the Big Ten finally, officially has everyone's attention. We've heaped scorn on our bloated ol' conference for years, but now it's done something that didn't seem possible — wrested the college football narrative from the powerful South.

You can reasonably argue the Big Ten has three of the top seven or eight college coaches in America — Meyer, Dantonio, Harbaugh. And yes, I'm aware the biggest game Harbaugh has coached at Michigan was a camp scrimmage in Alabama, where he took his shirt off and took Twitter hostage. Harbaugh's embrace of the hype machine is impressive, even if it doesn't count in the standings.

Michigan's brand apparently isn't tattered after all, as it just signed a $169 million contract with Nike, the largest apparel deal in the country. No surprise there, when you marry a storied program with a well-known coach and a smart leader, interim athletic director Jim Hackett.

If Harbaugh's relentlessness provides an immediate impact — such as reacquainting the Wolverines with the merits of blocking — look out. But the reality is, he'd merely be getting in line behind others. I guarantee you, Meyer and Dantonio aren't ducking anything, as the conference's competitive aggressiveness ratchets.

While Ohio State and Michigan State have expertly handled matters on the field, coaches like Harbaugh and Penn State's James Franklin are stirring it up in other ways. For instance, those satellite camps around the country apparently have ruined vacation for SEC coaches, who aren't allowed to conduct their own.

Griping unseemly

The first question asked of Saban on Wednesday was about Harbaugh and the camps, and his response was sufficiently defensive: "I don't agree with it. … If other people are going to be allowed to do things, then I think it's important that we all have a level playing field."

(Cough.) (Snort.) (Coffee spurting out nose.)

Jim Harbaugh speaks at a Prattville, Alabama, camp in June.

Sure, if your program sits in the middle of the richest talent base in the country and you sign and over-sign recruits, you don't want those darn Yankees coming to town. It'd be like Michigan complaining about Ohio State crossing the border to poach a scholar or two.

I understand the SEC getting irritated, especially after Ohio State spanked Alabama, 42-35, in the playoff with third-string quarterback Cardale Jones, and the conference went 2-5 in bowls. Saban griped that some of his players lost focus, thinking about NFL futures. Hmm. It couldn't be that he was beaten by a superior team, right?

College football's landscape is constantly shifting, putting even more of a premium on top coaches. Wide-open offenses at places such as Ohio State, Oregon, Auburn, TCU and Baylor have upended the balance.

Still, it was unseemly to hear Saban lament that Alabama's staunch defense couldn't keep up, and he has to reestablish his program's identity. A bit of an overreaction? Maybe. But it's worth noting eight of the 14 SEC programs changed defensive coordinators this offseason.

It's also worth noting Michigan State and Michigan lean the old-school way, with pocket passers and bruising backs, so there might be more evolving ahead. Michigan State felt the pain in losses to Ohio State and Oregon, and Dantonio probably agrees with Saban, that up-tempo offenses are a nagging neutralizer.

Recruiting on the rise

It's somewhat cyclical, and Saban knows it. To pretend the SEC is at some disadvantage because Michigan and others set up camps in places such as Prattville, Ala., is ludicrous. Harbaugh had his own motives, to reconnect with high school athletes and reestablish Michigan's presence after seven years of mediocrity. And it's not like he grabbed Alabama's best players, landing a three-star running back and a two-star linebacker.

That caused Auburn's Gus Malzahn to harrumph, "The chances of a team up North coming into our state and getting a player that us or Alabama wants are slim to none."

True enough, it's not a Big Ten invasion sweeping the South. But Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State have top-10 recruiting classes for 2016, while the SEC has three — LSU, Alabama, Mississippi.

Some of the Big Ten boasting simply is tied to Ohio State's dominance, so I doubt the SEC is shivering in its gator-skin boots. But the Big Ten is regaining credibility, mostly earned by Meyer's 38-3 record in three seasons and Dantonio's 53-14 mark the past five seasons. Both will be ranked in the top 10 this year, with Ohio State likely No. 1. Michigan will have to settle for No. 1 in clothing contracts and Twitter clicks, for now.

The Big Ten East, with Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State, could become as top-heavy as any division in football, maybe even rivaling the SEC West. Silly, premature talk? Premature, perhaps. But not any sillier than other rhetoric we hear these days.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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