Pinpointing the balance of power in the Big Ten these days is no easy task.
Wisconsin has appeared in the past two Rose Bowls. Michigan State is enjoying its most consistent run of success since the 1960s. Ohio State is coming off its first seven-loss season since 1897. Michigan snapped a historically bad stretch with an 11-2 season last year. Penn State surged in 2008 and 2009 but has since backslid a bit. Iowa rose up in 2009, only to fade back to the pack. Other teams have turned in strong seasons -- Illinois in 2007, Northwestern in 2008 -- but failed to carve out a permanent spot in the upper crust. Nebraska enters its second year as a Big Ten member looking to take the next step as a program.
Bennett recently wrote about Michigan State as a potential national riser, and Wisconsin certainly fits the description as well. But there's a perception, given the way Brady Hoke and Urban Meyer are recruiting at Michigan and Ohio State, that the Big Ten soon could be back to the Big Two and everyone else.
With that in mind, an email I recently received from Luke of Marietta, Ga.:
As an MSU fan, I've been hearing a lot about our rivalry with Wisconsin recently. However, I seem to have a relatively controversial attitude towards UW (football, at least, Bo Ryan's style is a blight on basketball): that we're essentially allies in the Big Ten class warfare going on right now- the privileged old money (OSU and Michigan) vs. the disrespected new money (UW and MSU). I personally am rooting for UW to continue to be successful, since it signifies that our styles, 3 yards and a cloud of dust football built on unhyped recruiting classes, ARE sustainably successful. Am I wrong to think that UW and MSU have a relationship similar to that of OSU and UMich, in the sense that UM should want OSU to be relevant and vice versa?
Luke brings up an interesting point about the class divisions in the Big Ten. Wisconsin and Michigan State were the league's top two teams in 2011 and gave us two unforgettable games in East Lansing and then at the inaugural football championship game in Indianapolis. Both teams could enter the 2012 season as the favorites in their respective divisions. Few would be surprised to see a Badgers-Spartans rematch in Indy.
Still, there's a feeling that Michigan State's success, and, to a lesser extent, Wisconsin's, isn't sustainable long term, and that Michigan and Ohio State eventually will take control again. I'm not saying I believe this, but I get asked about it repeatedly on radio shows and receive emails questioning the legitimacy of the Spartans and Badgers.
Is a rivalry building between Michigan State and Wisconsin? Without a doubt. The two games last fall certainly fueled it, and the fact that both games ended with unusual plays (Hail Mary and roughing the punter penalty) only adds to the antipathy. Badgers fans don't have much regard for Spartan Stadium after Wisconsin's recent failings there, while Spartans fans resent the fact Wisconsin has been to Pasadena the past two years instead of their team.
But the idea of teaming up against the old guard -- Michigan and Ohio State, and, to a lesser extent, Penn State and Nebraska -- might appeal to both fan bases, like it does to Luke. Michigan State and Wisconsin are in opposite divisions, so rooting for one another to take down the traditional powers isn't exactly detrimental. Wisconsin has been successful for the better part of the past two decades despite having few nationally elite recruiting classes. Michigan State has recruited well as of late, but the Spartans' efforts are being overshadowed by Hoke and Meyer right now. The continued success of both programs, as Luke points out, reinforces that being a traditional power in the Big Ten doesn't guarantee spots at the top of the pecking order.
Any other Michigan State or Wisconsin fans feel like Luke does? Will we see a Christmas colors' alliance in the Big Ten?
Send me your thoughts.