Is the Big Ten Finally Back to National Relevancy?

Big Ten Media Day occurred this past weekend in Chicago, and with it marks one step closer to the commencement of this college football season. Now when Ohio State won the National Championship a year ago, it shocked the college football world. After all, a lot of critics didn’t even think the Buckeyes should’ve been in the Playoff to begin with, let alone expected to win it. To be blunt, the Big Ten had been more or less irrelevant for the previous five or six seasons. Moreover, the last Big Ten team to win a National title was Ohio State… in 2002, over a decade ago.

It wasn’t that the 2014-2015 Buckeyes weren’t national contenders, after all they bulldozed through the conference. Had they not lost to a questionable Virginia Tech team early in the season they would have finished undefeated and assuredly would have been in the Playoff. But they didn’t. And when you couple that with the fact that the Big Ten wasn’t as strong as it’s been—according to most people, that is—one of the two Big 12 teams just on the cusp looked like more of a viable contender. But that was the issue. While the perception included a weak, middling Big Ten, it was far from accurate.

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To start, this perception stems from the fact that the conference’s normally elite teams—Michigan, Purdue, Penn State, and so on—have had more than a few down years. Because recent powerhouses like Ohio State and Wisconsin were alone atop the standings, the conference got a reputation of being top heavy and weak at the bottom.

The Big Ten was much more balanced than perception made it seem. Despite Ohio State’s undefeated streak through the conference a year ago, they squeaked out a victory at Penn State in overtime, won by just a touchdown at Minnesota, and they almost trailed the Wolverines in Columbus at halftime (despite coming out hot and dominating the second half). They were the best team in the conference, but they weren’t as far ahead as it might have appeared.

Alongside Ohio State, there’s Michigan State: not one of the Big Ten’s traditional powerhouses, but certainly one now. The Spartans have become one of the best teams in the conference, and their newfound success has drastically shifted the Big Ten’s dynamic—or at least what used to be the dynamic. The Buckeyes, Spartans and Wisconsin have been atop the conference for the last three or four years, but as Penn State makes its post-Joe Pa revival, and Michigan settles in with new coach Jim Harbaugh, the conference is set for an overall boost.

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Whether it’s Urban Meyer at Ohio State, James Franklin and the Nittany Lions, or even Mark Dantonio and his ability to develop players, the Big Ten has some of the nation’s best coaches. And now that Harbaugh is in the mix—certainly making quite the splash in his first spring—the conference can’t help but get some national recognition. Any news is good news, right?

Looking past the coaches, though, the Big Ten’s ultimate success comes from and will continue to come from how the teams play against top non-conference foes. And therein has been the problem. The SEC — often considered the nation’s best conference — has dominated the Big Ten and the rest of the country. But the results from last year’s bowl games beg to differ: even to the point that said domination might be a thing of the past.

A year ago, the conference finished 2-2 in Bowl Games while facing SEC opponents. The two losses came from Iowa against Tennessee (45-28) and Minnesota losing 33-17 to a very good Missouri team. But the victories — Wisconsin over Auburn in the Outback Bowl and Ohio State defeating Alabama in the inaugural first round of the College Football Playoff — are far more impressive. Especially when the Crimson Tide were considered the favorite to win the Championship and how easily the Buckeyes knocked them off.

Furthermore, Michigan State defeated Baylor (no, not a an SEC team, but a team that many thought should have been given the final spot in the playoff over Ohio State) 42-41 in a high-scoring classic. As far as impressive victories go, the Big Ten certainly held its own a year ago.

But one year’s success — even if Ohio State achieved the ultimate success — doesn’t necessarily mean the Big Ten is returning to it’s former glory. After all, looking at the depth of the SEC versus the Big Ten, there are still more contenders in the former than the latter. Moving into this season, though, Ohio State certainly has what it takes to remain in National title consideration and Michigan State won’t be slowing down either. The SEC might still be the conference to beat, but that there even needs to be a discussion indicates that the Big Ten’s finally relevant again.