- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Billionaire investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett stresses one top priority to his employees and managers: preserving a sterling image.
In a memo last year, Buffett wrote that "We can afford to lose money -- even a lot of money. But we can't afford to lose reputation -- even a shred of reputation."
Buffett also has been quoted many times as saying that "It takes 20 years to build a good reputation, and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently."
As far as we know, Buffett wasn't talking about Big Ten football. But the words from the Nebraska alumnus and Cornhuskers fan could well apply if he was. The Big Ten spent more than 100 years building up its reputation as the most powerful brand in college football, and a few fallow years in the 21st century were all it took to make the conference a laughingstock.
Luckily, it didn't take another 20 years for the conference to rebuild its public perception. The conference needed only about two weeks.
Until New Year's Eve of last year, the conference's reputation remained tarnished. The Big Ten teams were too slow and dull, the chatter went. The couldn't win bowl games or big nonconference showdowns. The league belonged at the bottom rung of the Power 5.
Then Wisconsin beat Auburn and Michigan State nipped Baylor during afternoon bowl games on New Year's Day. That night, Ohio State took down mighty Alabama in a College Football Playoff semifinal, and the Buckeyes would storm through Oregon to capture the Big Ten's first national championship since the 2002 season.
Suddenly, it's cool to be a Big Ten fan again. The conference enjoyed an offseason devoid of jabs and jokes. The league sits on its highest perch since the end of the 2006 season, when Michigan and Ohio State nearly forced a rematch for the national title.
But the Big Ten should understand the warning in Buffett's pronouncements. Its newly gleaming reputation can crumble again in a matter of moments, and the Week 1 schedule presents a precipice.
The conference has arguably the toughest opening slate of any Power 5 conference. Big Ten teams will take on the No. 2 (TCU at Minnesota, Thursday night) and No. 3 (Alabama vs. Wisconsin, Saturday night) teams in the preseason Associated Press poll. No. 21 Stanford will visit Northwestern. Michigan initiates the Jim Harbaugh era with a challenging road game at Utah, which probably should be ranked.
Nebraska doesn't ease into the Mike Riley regime, either, kicking off with BYU. And Ohio State must start its title defense in Blacksburg against Virginia Tech on Labor Day.
More than anything else, these games -- along with Michigan State's Week 2 faceoff with Oregon -- will shape the early reputation of the Big Ten in 2015. The league can't fall flat on its face, as it has too many times in the recent past. That's what happened last year, when the conference dropped all of its high-profile games to begin the season, including a disastrous Week 2 that had pundits already piling dirt on the Big Ten's playoff chances.
There also are some dangerous spots for lower- to mid-tier league teams this weekend. Purdue, still struggling to take flight under Darrell Hazell, has a risky opener at Marshall. Iowa, itself occasionally prone to embarrassment, hosts 2014 FCS runner-up Illinois State. Illinois should beat Kent State at home, but who knows what to expect after the school shockingly fired Tim Beckman a week before the season. Penn State won't have much of a road disadvantage at Temple but still should be on upset alert. Lose some of these, and watch the social media snark come flying.
The Big Ten should get decent mileage out of Ohio State's national title and from Michigan State's success. But it will not receive the free pass that the SEC apparently earned from winning seven straight national titles from 2006-2012. Despite its bowl-season belly flop, that league still somehow placed eight teams in the AP Top 25, guaranteeing a self-fulfilling image of strength no matter the result.
The best thing the Big Ten can do this week is continue its offseason momentum. No one is really expecting Wisconsin or Minnesota to win, but if one or both do pull off the upset, that would inject an extra shot of adrenaline. Ohio State won't be knocked out of the playoffs with a loss to the Hokies, especially with a built-in suspensions excuse, but a commanding performance would cement its favorite status. The Harbaugh hype train would reach hyper speed with a Michigan win at Utah.
The league proved last year that it can rebuild a ruined reputation in a matter of days. But the Big Ten would be wise to follow Buffett's advice and do things differently this year, unless it wants to spend another fall scrambling for respect from the outset.