MICHAEL MAROT,AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — It has been nearly a year since the Big Ten sparked a debate by labeling its divisions Legends and Leaders.
That controversy seems long buried given the twists and turns in the 11 months since. For a conference that managed to stay out of the latest round of conference realignment, the Big Ten has still been front and center — mostly for the wrong reasons. None of the league’s 12 teams is in the national championship picture, the winningest coach in Division I football has been fired and two of its signature football programs are trying to mend their reputations.
Even ticket sales for Saturday’s inaugural Big Ten championship game between No. 11 Michigan State and No. 15 Wisconsin were called into question this week.
What a year.
“I think it was a difficult season in part because of the Penn State situation. It was an unprecedented situation. It took everyone’s attention and was very hard on everybody,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told The Associated Press, referring to the child sex-abuse allegations against former Nittany Lions coach Jerry Sandusky. “On the field, it’s been a good year, not a great year.”
Perhaps that makes the title game matchup more appropriate.
Had any of the dream title game matchups materialized — Ohio State-Michigan, Ohio State-Nebraska, maybe Penn State-Nebraska — this week’s questions would be peppered with references to scandals and missing coaches.
Delany, of course, wants the focus to be on the game, an entertaining rematch of October’s incredible finish. The Spartans won 37-31 after Michigan State receiver Keith Nichol pulled in a last-second pass and lunged across the goal line. League officials are hoping Round 2 is every bit as exciting.
It took local organizers only two hours to sell 20,000 tickets in late July, and an additional 2,000 tickets went on sale Tuesday at a cost of $80 to $175. The rest of the seats in 66,268-seat Lucas Oil Stadium have all been sold, Indiana Sports Corp. spokesman John Dedman said.
The game will showcase rough-and-tumble smash-mouth football in a budding rivalry made for national television. The game features the league’s top two quarterbacks (Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins), the league’s top rusher (Montee Ball) and its two best scoring defenses.
“It’s really a classic Big Ten matchup,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “It’s going to be one of those really physical games.”
On the field this season, things went reasonably well. Ten of the 12 schools are bowl eligible, putting Delany in the pleasant predicament of trying to find a spot for all of those teams. The Big Ten has only eight bowl tie-ins.
That’s the good part.
The problems actually began just before Christmas 2010 when the league announced that the new 12-team conference would be split into two six-team divisions, Leaders and Legends. A month later, Delany responded to a backlash from fans by saying those names would be used for at least one year, and it doesn’t appear there will be changes next year, either.
“I think there’s a lot more understanding now of what we wanted to do,” Delany said. “Anybody can select East and West and that didn’t fit us. These are enduring characteristics that did.”
That so-called controversy paled in comparison to what followed.
— Two days before Christmas, five Ohio State players were suspended for the first five games of the season after the NCAA determined they had sold championship rings, jerseys and awards and received improper benefits from a tattoo parlor and its owner. The investigation continues, coach Jim Tressel was forced out and quarterback Terrelle Pryor then left early for the NFL.
— In early January, Michigan fired coach Rich Rodriguez after three sub-par seasons and his own NCAA rules violations, which got the program three years of probation.
— Three weeks ago, Penn State was rocked by an unthinkable scandal when Sandusky was accused of sexually abusing eight boys. He was charged with 40 criminal counts. Joe Paterno, the winningest coach in Division I history, and university President Graham Spanier were fired.
The NCAA has initiated an “inquiry” into the case to determine if any of the governing body’s rules were broken. School officials are expected to respond by Dec. 16. Big Ten officials have already taken Paterno’s name off the trophy that will go to Saturday’s winner.
“I think it was difficult at Ohio State, too, a different kind of difficulty with NCAA regulations in not only self-disclosing, but self-reporting,” Delany said. “I think they are very different cases. But there’s no doubt that both of those were clouds.”
When a new round of conference realignment began during the football season, Big Ten officials were mostly quiet. Delany again reiterated this week that the league has no expansion plans after a year in which many teams fell short of expectations.
Usually strong Ohio State slumped to 6-6, perhaps not surprisingly given all the distractions.
Michigan re-emerged as a contender after going 10-2.
Newcomer Nebraska lost three times, all in conference play.
Penn State, the last unbeaten team against league foes, lost two of its last three after Paterno was fired, including last weekend’s loss at Wisconsin which knocked the Nittany Lions out of the title game.
Illinois wasted a 6-0 start by losing its last six, then fired coach Ron Zook.
Another losing season at Minnesota was overshadowed by the health concerns of coach Jerry Kill.
And Indiana was the only BCS school that failed to beat a Football Bowl Subdivision foe.
The combination opened the door for Michigan State and Wisconsin to meet for the second time this season after surviving some hurdles of their own. The Spartans’ national championship hopes evaporated with a 31-13 loss at Notre Dame on Sept. 17 and a 24-3 loss at Nebraska, the week after their upset of Wisconsin.
Back-to-back losses in the final minute at Michigan State and Ohio State knocked the Badgers out of the national championship chase, too, but Wisconsin didn’t lose again, earning a ticket to Indianapolis for a surprising title game that league officials hope marks the end of a troublesome chapter in Big Ten football.
“You can’t erase the history that those four schools (Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State) have had,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said of the league’s most storied programs. “But, you know, history is in the history books. We try to focus on the now, what’s in the newspapers today.”
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