The Big Ten champion Ohio State Buckeyes surprised the college football world by capturing last season’s national title, but the conference still has some battles its members must conquer before fans can call it the best in the country.
In fact, even if the Buckeyes repeat, the conference likely needs a few more years of consistently elite performances to even be included in that discussion. For now, the Big Ten must continue its campaign by proving it is a collection of superior programs, not one title contender and a few pretty good teams.
While the SEC’s string of seven straight national championships from 2006-2012 is the hallmark of success in college football, the conference’s most convincing claim is its consistent depth. This is how the SEC has remained the top conference in the sport in spite of its members’ inability to win a championship in the past two years. Heading into 2015, the SEC has three teams in the AP Poll‘s Preseason Top 10, six in the top 18 and eight in the top 25. The next two teams out, Mississippi State and Texas A&M, are also SEC programs—meaning the AP believes a staggering 10 out of the nation’s top 27 teams play in the conference.
While the Big Ten has two teams ranked in the top five in Ohio State and Michigan State, only one other conference member, Wisconsin (20th), made the cut. This is mostly due to two factors: a weak West division group and the recent shortcomings of two of the conference’s historically elite programs, Michigan and Penn State. There is reason to believe, however, that both the Wolverines and Nittany Lions are on the rise, with former Michigan great Jim Harbaugh handling head coaching duties in Ann Arbor, Mich. and Penn State finally emerging from NCAA sanctions that limited its scholarships.
While the Wolverines still don’t have the skill players they need to compete for Big Ten titles and more, the Nittany Lions have the All-American-caliber quarterback, junior Christian Hackenberg, and favorable schedule to break the double-digit win mark in 2015.
The West division, while weak overall, has the potential to feature three ranked teams in Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota, as well.
However, as we all know, preseason hype does not always equate to on-field results. To continue to sway national perception in the right direction, Big Ten programs must kick off the 2015 season by taking care of business in their respective non-conference games.
Ohio State suspended several key players for its opener on the road at Virginia Tech, but a slip-up against the Hokies would not be forgiven. The same can be said for Michigan State in Week 2, as the Spartans must continue to win back respect by beating Oregon, a team that defeated them last season. While both Minnesota and Wisconsin will be underdogs against no. 2 TCU and no. 3 Alabama in their respective openers, the Golden Gophers and Badgers need to at least put up good fights.
Other important games include Michigan at Utah, Nebraska vs. BYU, Iowa at Pitt, Maryland at West Virginia and Northwestern vs. Stanford.
From there, the conference’s dream scenario would be a clash between undefeated OSU and MSU squads for the right to duke it out with a West division team realistically ranked somewhere between 10th to 15th in the nation. Should the East division winner win the Big Ten title game, there’s a possibility both the Buckeyes and Spartans could crack the four-team field, too.
Even if just one Big Ten team makes the College Football Playoff, the conference needs a better overall showing during the 2015-16 bowl season.
Last year, OSU took down both Alabama and Oregon, Michigan State defeated Baylor and Wisconsin beat Auburn, but there were some missed opportunities in Iowa-Tennessee, Minnesota-Missouri, Maryland-Stanford and Nebraska-USC. The fact that the Big Ten won all four of its top match-ups was a step in the right direction, but the conference’s bowl performance still exposed its lack of overall depth.
Even if the conference takes care of all of these tasks, a Big Ten version of the “S-E-C” chant still might not be all that convincing. Overthrowing an old regime doesn’t happen overnight. However, you can bet B1G fans will begin warming up their vocal chords if 2015 goes to plan.