Part of the Doc's Big Ten Week.
There's certainly a valid argument over whether it has ever been necessary to "redeem" the Big Ten for anything that's happened on the field over the last half-decade. But before last year, even the most diehard Jim Delany groupies had to concede some image problems, at least, in the wake of a string of dismal efforts in bowl games, in general, and in the most high-profile games, in particular.
The Big Ten was 6-16 in the postseason from 2006-08, 0-6 in BCS games (five of them more or less hopeless blowouts) and officially dead to rights in the Rose Bowl, where USC's trouncing of Penn State in 2008 extended the Big Ten's drought in Pasadena to nine years since Wisconsin beat Stanford on Jan. 1, 2000. A loaded, veteran Ohio State outfit got its teeth kicked in at USC in by far the most hyped non-conference game of 2008. And the less said about the Buckeyes' efforts in the previous two BCS Championship games, the better.
That litany of hand times ought to be familiar by now: From the moment OSU's undefeated season began to unravel against Florida in the '07 title game, the league seems to be draggin around a yoke that kept getting heavier and heavier over the next two years. But the league didn't get nearly as much credit for its New Year's triumphs in January, beginning with Penn State's win over LSU in the muddy no-man's-land of the Capital One Bowl. Ohio State snapped the Rose Bowl skid a few later against Oregon. A few nights later, Iowa wrapped up Georgia Tech's prolific triple option attack in a burlap sack in the Orange Bowl and beat it with a stick to push the Big Ten's record in 2010 to 3-1.
The Buckeyes, Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions all finished the year in the top 10 of both major polls, with Wisconsin, fresh of handling Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl, checking in among the top 16. The winning bowl record was the conference's first since 2002-03.
And as long as we're on the subject of P.R. battles, the Big Ten couldn't have waged a more effective campaign off the field this spring and summer, when the national media suddenly stood in awe of the league's own customized ATM, the Big Ten Network, and its ability to attract interest from established national players while threatening to leave entire conferences slain in its wake. Nebraska was a killer, cutthroat addition, a national brand that gives the expanded conference six perennial top-20 programs – half its new membership. The new-look league begins next year with the Big Ten still standing as the oldest, richest and (along with the SEC) most stable conference in the country. In other words, exactly what it's always been.
Despite all that, though, it hasn't been a conference that produces national championships in 40 years. Almost three decades passed between Woody Hayes' last consensus national title at Ohio State, in 1968, and Michigan's championship run in 1997; subsequently, the BCS era has produced only Ohio State's upset over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl to complete a 14-0 campaign in 2002. The Buckeyes' coast-to-coast run at No. 1 in 2006 in calamity, along with their surprising return to the top in '07, the two losses that still loom over the conference like a giant monolith that periodically drawls "S-E-C! S-E-C!" and has no input to receiver data such as "the Big Ten and SEC have split their two annual bowl tie-in games 10 to 10 over the last decade."
Which brings us to the broad theme of this season, and possibly the next two: Namely, that no Big Ten team has been in as good a position to make a championship run since Troy Smith went butterball during the 51-day layoff in '06 as Ohio State appears to be with a veteran Terrelle Pryor and his mates in the touted class of 2008 coming of age in a season with no dominant national overlord on the horizon.
For all its popularity, wealth and power off the field, and all the fascinating narratives waiting to play out on it – Rich Rodriguez's survival at Michigan, Ron Zook's last stand at Illinois, another possible JoePa farewell tour, the transition to a two-division/championship game format after this season), no single storyline will define the conference more from the outside than the Buckeyes' latest bid to exorcise the big-game demons the current crop inherited from its predecessors. Reclaiming the Rose Bowl was a start, but the crystal ball (back this year in Glendale, Ariz.) remains the holy grail for completing the road back to respectability.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.