Big Ten coaches, players argue with critics who claim talent in conference has dipped

By Rusty Miller

The Big Ten’s coaches and players are fed up with being a punchline.

Open just about any sports magazine or newspaper, glance at a Web page or turn on the TV and odds are you’ll encounter some so-called college football expert making fun of the “Little Ten.”

The root of much of the derision is Ohio State’s lopsided 41-14 loss to Florida in last year’s BCS title game and Michigan’s 32-18 loss at the hands of Southern California in the Rose Bowl.

“Not only did that change people’s perspective of us, it changed people’s view of the Big Ten,” Buckeyes cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. “A lot of people don’t really respect the Big Ten anymore.”

Adding to that lack of respect were high-profile losses this fall to low-profile teams such as Appalachian State (Michigan), Duke (Northwestern) and Florida Atlantic and North Dakota State (Minnesota).

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Ohio State is No. 1 in the country, but critics quickly point out the Buckeyes have yet to beat a team that doesn’t have at least three losses.

“I don’t know if you really ever satisfy them because even if you go and win it all I’m sure they’ll say, ‘Well, blah blah blah, LSU played so-and-so and Ohio State played in a Big Ten Conference that everyone says is weak,”‘ Buckeyes tight end Rory Nichol said. “They’re crazy though. The Big Ten isn’t weak.”

Joe Tiller, Purdue’s coach, said the conference race is hardly a pillow-fight.

“It’s more competitive than at any time since we’ve been here,” he said. “We’ve never been in this position this late in the season with this many teams capable of being bowl eligible. I think there’s great balance in this league.”

Michigan, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin and Ohio State have already qualified for the postseason. Illinois, Indiana, Michigan State and Northwestern each need just one more win to become bowl eligible.

Ohio State’s players are hoping all the negative talk about the Big Ten won’t be enough to somehow allow a one-loss team to slip past them in the BCS rankings, even if they stay perfect.

“When it’s all said and done, we can only do what we have control over, which is winning our games,” Jenkins said.

Corner King

Justin King’s reputation as a shutdown CB may have taken a hit last week when he matched up most of the game with Indiana’s 6-foot-7 receiver James Hardy, who had 14 catches for 142 yards and two TDs.

“Everyone keeps talking about last week being a bad game,” the Penn State junior said. “He got 10 (receptions) under 8 yards (each). It’s kind of frustrating to hear it was a bad game for me when I don’t feel like that.”

King had nine tackles and three pass breakups against Indiana – and Penn State walked off with a 36-31 win.

“Justin King has played very, very well,” coach Joe Paterno said.

Want a swig?

Back in 1903, coach Fielding Yost wasn’t sure his Michigan Wolverines would be provided with fresh water on the road against Minnesota so he sent manager Tommy Roberts to buy a jug.

When the Gophers rallied to tie the score late in the game, their fans rushed the field and the officials called the game. Michigan didn’t pack the jug and Yost later sent a letter to the Gophers, asking for it back.

“He didn’t call.” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr joked. “They said, ‘If you want it, come and get it – come and play for it.”‘

The Wolverines are 64-22-2 with it on the line, but they lost it two years ago when Minnesota ended a 16-game winning streak at Michigan Stadium.

“When you lose it, it’s a miserable experience,” Carr said. “When you win it, you get to keep that jug where it belongs. I mean, we bought that jug.”

Carr and his players, however, don’t seem to be interested in drinking from it.

“No, I don’t think I would want to,” Carr said.

Bowl tension

Indiana hasn’t gone to a bowl game since 1993 and is so close it can almost book a flight.

The Hoosiers (5-3) need only one more win to become bowl eligible, the same situation they were in last year heading into November when they finished with three losses. Over the last two years, Indiana has had five chances to win No. 6 and lost all five times.

“It almost sounds like a curse,” QB Kellen Lewis said after Saturday’s 36-31 loss to Penn State. “I don’t feel like it’s making us any tighter or any worse.”

Hawkeyes boost

Injury-riddled Iowa’s offense ranks ahead of only Notre Dame and Florida International in points per game. The Hawkeyes might get a boost if star tight end Tony Moeaki returns after missing four games with a broken hand and a dislocated elbow.

Moeaki has been cleared to practice, but his status for Saturday’s home date with Michigan State is up in the air.

Coach Kirk Ferentz isn’t holding his breath.

“We’re at the point right now we can’t count on the cavalry,” he said. “They’re not coming.”

AP sports writers Larry Lage in Detroit, Genaro Armas in State College, Pa., Mike Marot in Indianapolis, and Luke Meredith in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report