Here, in sum, is the good news for the Big Ten from 2014: The SEC didn't win the national championship.
Here's the bad news for the Big Ten from 2014: The Big Ten didn't win the national championship, either.
For a while there, it seemed as though the college football world was turning on the axis of the Big Ten-SEC rivalry. There were those infamous Ohio State title game meltdowns, of course, and there were all of those Big Ten-SEC matchups on New Year's Day. And, of course, the SEC usually came out on top.
The wins made SEC fans giddy and Big Ten fans miserable. But, even though the Big Ten-SEC rivalry appears to be a thing of the past (yeah, the SEC won), the Big Ten's misery has only continued.
Jim Delany's once powerful conference has become a shell of its former self, and outside of Ohio State (and possibly Michigan State?), this league is now bereft of any truly elite programs. The 2014 season will see the league add new members in Rutgers and Maryland, and to hear some pro-Big Ten advocates tell it, those additions figure to make the Big Ten richer than it already is. Unfortunately, neither the Scarlet Knights nor the Terps figure to help the Big Ten improve its tattered football image.
Can the Big Ten make a leap forward in 2014? Can anyone challenge Ohio State for league supremacy? We answer those questions and more, in Part I of our two-part Big Ten preview for the 2014 season.
Just how good will the Big Ten be in 2014?
Well, I think we can say with certainty that it won't be great. But it won't exactly be terrible, either. It will be ... average. Such is the state of the modern Big Ten, and such is the way life will likely continue in this league for years to come. Look, the reality is this: The only program operating at elite level right now, and the only program that figures to keep operating at elite level going forward is Ohio State. Michigan State--scrappy, lovable Michigan State--has certainly become a force to be reckoned with, and I wouldn't doubt that coach Mark Dantonio will be able to keep his Spartans up around the Top 15 for several more years to come, but that program simply isn't built to post Top 5 seasons on a regular basis. Michigan and Nebraska are both underachieving, and may continue to underachieve, as demographics continue to work against them. Penn State has a huge upside with James Franklin, but is still saddled with onerous NCAA sanctions. Wisconsin is a reliable winner but hardly elite. Then there's the rest of the league -- Illinois and Purdue and Northwestern and all the rest, a bunch of programs that will swing from awful to decent depending on any number of factors. Oh, and then there's Rutgers and Maryland. I mean, let's face it, Big Ten fans: it's a fairly mediocre group.
So you don't expect Maryland and Rutgers to make much of an impact, then?
No. Not in the least. One can learn a great deal by studying college football history. For instance, one can learn that, at the end of the day, the programs that have always been good will continue to be good, and the programs that have always been poor will continue to be poor. Barring a massive influx of money from a wealthy benefactor or the hiring of a coaching genius, the simple truth is that it's awfully difficult to turn a losing program into a winning one. Rutgers and Maryland are, historically speaking, losing programs. Both have had decent years in the recent past, but both have also retreated to general mediocrity. I see nothing in either that would indicate they have any chance of ever competing for the Big Ten title. I mean, these programs may literally never win the league. There's a happy thought, Terps and Knights fans.
Can anyone challenge Ohio State in 2014?
Well, probably not. But as we learned last year, surprises can happen--and while I do think Ohio State will be the best team in the league yet again next season, I also think that the gap between the Buckeyes and their top competition will be narrower in 2014 than it was in 2013. The Buckeyes fell short of expectations last season and were quite frankly awful in the Big Ten title game loss to Michigan State; given the personnel losses the Buckeyes have since sustained, I can certainly foresee another failing in 2014. That being said, Michigan State losses as much (if not more) talent than the Bucks, and until Michigan shows me that they're ready to compete like Michigan again, I just have a hard time giving them the edge over Urban Meyer and gang.