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Parity won't help Big Ten's perception

10/17/2011

Parity is a word coaches and analysts love to throw around, but it applies to different leagues in different ways.

For example, if Michigan State beats Wisconsin on Saturday night, would it be viewed as a sign of Big Ten parity? Moreover, would it be viewed as a sign of Big Ten depth, proving that this is more than a one-team league? Would we hear the old adage about how at this time of year, good teams beat up on one another in a good conference?

Probably not.

This is the price the Big Ten pays when it hasn't won a national title since 2002 and has won just one Rose Bowl since 2000. The Big Ten can't be credited for cannibalizing itself when it has been the prey more than the predator in the major matchups with other conferences.

The SEC, meanwhile, enjoys this luxury. So does the Big 12, to a lesser extent.

Let's say No. 1 LSU beats No. 2 Alabama on Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa, only to fall to No. 9 Arkansas on Nov. 25. Or let's say Alabama beats LSU but loses to archrival and defending national champ Auburn on Nov. 25. Or let's say the LSU-Alabama winner loses to South Carolina in the SEC championship game.

How would the SEC be viewed? Nation's deepest conference. Great teams beating up on each other. Tremendous parity.

That's what happens when a conference wins five consecutive national championships with four different programs (Auburn, Alabama, Florida, LSU). The SEC won't be penalized for cannibalism.

The same rules don't apply to the Big Ten. If Michigan State upsets Wisconsin, you'll hear more about the Badgers' weak schedule and a conference that once again lacks a nationally elite team.

It won't be fair to Michigan State, a team I think might be really, really good. This year's Spartans team very well could be better than the 2010 squad, which won a team-record 11 games and won a share of the Big Ten title for the first time in 20 years. Pat Narduzzi's defense has been superb, and the offense should continue to make strides as the season progresses.

But if the Spartans win, prepare to hear about Wisconsin falling to a team that lost 31-13 to Notre Dame in Week 3. And if Michigan State beats Wisconsin but loses the next week to a Nebraska team Wisconsin thumped 48-17, Big Ten perception will take another hit. The league will be viewed as down, which it could be, and lacking any great teams, which also could be a fact.

I recently wrote that the Big Ten needs its middle class to rise. The league needs to build depth to avoid a repeat of last year's bowl performance.

My stance hasn't changed, and a Michigan State win against Wisconsin, followed by a Nebraska win against Michigan State, could indicate Big Ten depth is on the upswing. You, the Big Ten fan, and those of us who cover the league year-round might see it that way.

But the national view undoubtedly will be different.

From a perception standpoint, the Big Ten needs Wisconsin to keep winning. The league also needs teams like Michigan State, Nebraska, Illinois, Michigan and Penn State to remain in the BCS standings, but Wisconsin's continued success is paramount.

Although the Badgers face some hurdles in the BCS standings, they could reach the national title game by winning out. And if Wisconsin hoists the crystal football, the entire Big Ten gets a boost.

A national championship will move the Big Ten a bit closer to the SEC, where cannibalism isn't merely tolerated, but celebrated as a sign of great parity.

The Big Ten would love to reach a point where teams can beat up on one another and get credit for it.

But for now, the league benefits from the Badgers bullying their way to New Orleans.