CHICAGO -- As the tectonic plates of college football shifted, the Big Ten maintained stability. Its model continues to flourish—even as the game keeps changing.
Commissioner Jim Delany has built sustained success for the Big Ten. His conference continues to rake considerable cash through television networks and a revamped bowl lineup. Its brand has expanded to the east and west with new additions. All that’s been missing is a championship.
The past decade of college football has been dominated by the Southeastern Conference. Seven straight titles and four Heisman Trophy winners in that time period has set the standard.
The Big Ten hasn’t been a doormat by any means. It has produced some great teams and players during the SEC’s recent run. But the conference—as a whole—hasn’t come close to its rival’s high bar. That could be changing.
“It works in cycles,” Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “There are going to be spans where the SEC does well. If you look in history, there are spans were the Big 12 was the dominant one. There will be different cycles that will work themselves out, but I think this conference has a whole lot of power and potential.”
Now, the Big Ten is in position to be a power for years to come. Ohio State appears poised to carry the flag this year. Urban Meyer has his Buckeyes ranked second in the preseason polls, that following a 12-0 2012 campaign. Even so, many pundits aren’t giving them a chance this year.
“They say we’re the underdogs,” said Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, largely considered a Heisman Trophy contender. “I don’t know why.”
It’s more than just the Buckeyes, though. Under Brady Hoke’s leadership, Michigan—college football’s all-times wins leader—is back to being a national power. Michigan State, Nebraska and Wisconsin have enjoyed a recent run of success, and each has the potential to contend for a conference title, too.
Even Northwestern—once buried at the bottom of the Big Ten—has risen up to become one of the conference’s elite programs. The Wildcats won 10 games in 2012 and return most of their core. Meanwhile, coach Pat Fitzgerald has his program winning recruiting battles.
“The Big Ten has a lot of tradition and a lot of great teams,” Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter said. “From top to bottom, the Big Ten is strong.”
Look toward the bottom of the Big Ten and there’s plenty of potential. Indiana’s Kevin Wilson and Minnesota’s Jerry Kill have their teams looking for bowl bids this year—a respectable accomplishment for each school. Purdue brought in Darrell Hazell as its new leader, looking to bring the Boilermakers to the top.
For Hazell, one of the greatest draws to the Purdue job was becoming a part of the prestigious Big Ten.
“We’ve got a great conference,” Hazell said. “Obviously, the SEC has done a great job the last seven years. But I think that this conference, overall—in terms of academics, pageantry and football—is the best conference.”
The Big Ten is set to expand. Next year, it will welcome Maryland and Rutgers to the fold. The conference’s identity will now reach the east-coast market.
When Maryland and Rutgers joined the Midwest’s conference, it raised some eyebrows. There were questions as to how each would fit to the conference. But the move was made to bring the brand to millions of new consumers. In dollars and cents, it made sense.
“It’s huge from a business perspective,” Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez said, “just because the fans, you’re able to spread it out and get the Big Ten across the whole country, getting it up to where Maryland and Rutgers will be watching Nebraska and everybody else in the Big Ten.”
When Martinez gave the Cornhuskers his verbal pledge in August of 2008, he was committing to a Big 12 school. He started one season in the Big 12 before Nebraska became a member of the Big Ten.
With the move forced Martinez to adjust his approach. He would be facing new competition and different schemes. But the move has given the quarterback a new respect for the Big Ten.
“I know the Big Ten is probably the top conference in the country,” Martinez said. “A lot of people don’t think it is, but I guarantee if their team came here, they’d struggle in the Big Ten. A lot of people think the SEC is the top [conference] in the country, but I honestly think the Big Ten is.”
The Big Ten’s players and coaches hold nothing back in touting their conference. They believe it’s the best in the nation. Its model for success tops all others—even that of the SEC.
Now, the Big Ten is primed for greater success on the field.