Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is preparing his speech to the media assembled in Chicago on Monday. It will be long. It will assertive. It will be full of all of the great numbers that show us just how successful the Big Ten conference is, and he will be absolutely right. The Big Ten remains the most profitable conference thanks to some rich media rights agreements and the surplus created through the Big Ten Network. Delany will wax poetic over the quality additions of Maryland and Rutgers, and he will do so with a straight face because of the perceived potential of the media markets that come with the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights.
There is one statistic you will not likely hear during Delany’s lecture on the state of the Big Ten, but it is one he is surely aware of. Over the last three years the Big Ten is 8-16 in bowl games. The 2014 college football season will be an important one for the sport, but it could be a critical one for the Big Ten.
This year’s Big Ten is not short on storylines. Maryland and Rutgers join the conference, giving the Big Ten a 14-team membership. The regional rivalry between Maryland, Rutgers and Penn State could be fun to watch over time, although another new face is already mixing it up a little bit. Penn State head coach James Franklin has been putting on a confident look as he comes home to what he claims to be his dream job. He’s bringing some SEC-style swagger to the program and is already having an impact in recruiting. Penn State enters the fall with two years remaining on a postseason ban though, so the Nittany Lions can only do so much to help improve the Big Ten’s national reputation on the field right now.
That puts the pressure on programs like Michigan and Nebraska to rise up. In Ann Arbor, Brady Hoke should be on a bit of a hot seat after seeing the Wolverines regress every season since his arrival at Michigan. Hoke has shown he and his staff can recruit talent, but the Wolverines have failed to capitalize on that haul. As for Nebraska, a return to the Big Ten championship game in 2014 is certainly within reach, but what happens when the team gets to Indianapolis? Nebraska has lost the last three conference championship games it has played. 1997 was a long time ago.
What about Wisconsin? The Badgers have the look and feel of another team that nobody in the Big Ten will want to play, but nobody outside the Big Ten may fear. Michigan State? the Spartans have been one of the few Big Ten teams to handle themselves well against non-conference opponents in recent seasons, but are they capable of maintaining a hold on the top of the Big Ten?
Perhaps that is the essence of the Big Ten’s image. The Big Ten has good teams and programs, but when stacked up against the best of the best from the SEC or Pac-12, where does it stand? What the Big Ten needs is for at least one dominant program to prove worthy of playing on the same field as Florida State, Oregon, Alabama or Oklahoma. But before it can do that, the Big Ten needs to get a team into the College Football Playoff.
That appears to be a job assigned to Ohio State. The Buckeyes were tabbed the preseason media favorite in a poll of media members across the Big Ten landscape organized by The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. The Buckeyes certainly have the profile of a national title contender too: an experienced coach in Urban Meyer in the championship setting; a potential Heisman finalist at quarterback with Braxton Miller; and the Buckeyes have a terrific following, which you would be kidding yourself if you didn’t think that counts for something when it comes time to deciding who gets invited to the party. The good news for Ohio State (and bad news for everybody else) is this is a program chomping at the bit to make amends for how last season ended. Ohio State went from 24-0 and facing Florida State for a BCS title shot, to dropping out of the Rose Bowl and coming up short against Clemson in the Orange Bowl, leaving Meyer to eat pizza on a golf cart and contemplate where it all went wrong.
Does the Big Ten need Ohio State to carry the conference banner? In the grand scheme of things, no, but the Buckeyes will this season.