(The MnB B1G Preview isn't over. Instead, we will be switching to a look at the top players at each position for the 2012 season, as well as a list of final predictions. But for now, let's look at where things stand in the big picture.)
Over the last three or so months we here at Maize n Brew have looked at each of the Big Ten schools in an effort to get an idea where the conference is right now, and where it is going in the future.
The Big Ten has been largely irrelevant on the national scene for the past few years as Ohio State was the only program capable of fighting its way into the national championship discussion. The traditional powers like Michigan and Penn State were either floundering in mediocrity, or inconsistent at a high level. Meanwhile, the middle tier of the conference was an unstable mix of teams on the rise and others that were coached by Ron Zook.
In the last couple years the Big Ten has added a twelfth team (Nebraska), saw a significant coaching turnover at its top three programs (Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State), as well as two NCAA sanctions that will have a large effect on the conference championship race over the coming years.
Where do we stand today?
Wisconsin is unquestionably at the top of the heap for the time being. The Badgers have won the conference the last two years, as well as getting the last two Rose Bowl invites. This step forward has been made possible by Bret Bielema and a stellar coaching staff that mostly no longer resides in Madison. Regardless, Wisconsin is as strong as it has been as a program in years, and shows no signs of backsliding, especially given the current realities present in the Legends division.
Penn State, your future is in ten years. The unprecedented penalties handed down by the NCAA on Monday have basically eviscerated any hope of competing for a conference title during the next decade. The Nittany Lions of the present have been condemned to irrelevancy by the cover ups of the past, and with it the Leaders division race has lost one of its most likely challengers.
All of this opens up nicely for the Evil Empire to the south, Ohio State. Despite NCAA sanctions of its own, the Buckeyes look primed and ready to compete for the Big Ten title and national title year in and year out from 2013 and beyond. The introduction of Urban Meyer quickly stemmed the tide of negativity and jump-started a recruiting effort that had stalled under Luke Fickell. The Buckeyes have one less challenger in the foreseeable future, and it happens to be the only challenger that can keep up with OSU in terms of spending and recruiting.
The rest of the Leaders division is a mix of solid teams and rebuilding projects. Purdue has the potential to be good, but the ceiling remains low and the rash of knee injuries over the past few years goes to show just how little margin for error there is in West Lafayette.
Illinois is looking to finally begin building toward being a solid Big Ten team -- a goal that was elusive under the maddeningly inconsistent Ron Zook -- but is most likely a few years away from any real sustained push for a conference title.
Meanwhile, Indiana is doing what Indiana has done for year after year after year: it's looking for hope and consistently coming up short.
All of this seems to signify that the power of the Big Ten conference lies in the west. While the two division format was built to create an even balance between the top teams in the conference, it inadvertently pushed most of the stable programs to the Legends division.
First and foremost is Michigan State, the program that has seen the most positive change over the past half-decade, and what went from being one of the conference's running jokes ("sparty no!") to being one of its bullies. Mark Dantonio has built a rock solid defense and is looking at a team that is deep, well-coached, and set up to compete for the next three conference titles -- if not more.
Michigan State was built in the image of another of the Big Ten's programs: Iowa. The Hawkeyes, after a few cycles of up and down years in the Kirk Ferentz tenure, are looking to trend upwards again to fight for a conference title and BCS bowl birth once again. While the odds are long this year, there is no reason why the young-ish Iowa team won't be able to rebuild for another run soon.
One reason why that might not happen is the introduction of another program out west. Nebraska's entrance into the conference came with both highs (wins over Ohio State and Michigan State) and lows (losses to Michigan and Wisconsin), but given the brutal Big Ten schedule and Nebraska's history of playing tough defense, the Huskers are a natural competitor for the Legends division title.
That is if Nebraska doesn't succumb to the same curse as Iowa when it comes to playing justNorthwestern. The Northwestern Wildcats have been a pain in the side of a number of Big Ten teams, and while the Wildcats seem to be locked in around 8 or 9 wins, there is no reason that the scrappy spread offense can't ruin someones day when driven by the right quarterback -- perhaps the next one is gestatiing in an underground lab somewhere on campus as we speak.
And don't sleep on the job that Jerry Kill is doing at Minnesota. While the Gophers bottomed out under Tim Brewster, the approach Kill has taken is very much in line with what Iowa and Michigan State have used to find success over the past decade, and there is no reason that Minnesota can't approach that in the coming years.
What this all means for Michigan, we don't yet know.
The Wolverines are trending upward thanks to the introduction of Brady Hoke as head coach, but just what Michigan will be able to accomplish under Hoke is still unclear. The recruiting successes have been impressive and the defensive turnaround unprecedented, but the key to winning in the Big Ten is consistency, and Michigan still has to deliver that. Given the 2012 schedule, that could be a tall order.
In the coming years the conference race will most likely come down to the winner of Ohio State and Wisconsin in the east, and the survivor of the Michigan-Michigan State-Nebraksa-Iowa dogfight out west.
This may not make things easy on a Michigan fanbase eager for a Return To Glory*, but it does mean that the Big Ten should be much better suited to assert itself as one of the premiere college football conferences in the country, as well as one of the deepest and most competitive.
Now we just need to find someone to end the SEC national championship hegemony.
*(Copyright: Notre Dame)