- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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There's a theory out there, one you've probably heard on the airwaves, about how the Big Ten will look in the near future.
The gist: it'll look a lot like the distant past.
Although nine different Big Ten teams have won or shared the league title since the 2000 season, the perception held by many college football analysts and observers is that the league soon will revert back to the Big Two -- Ohio State and Michigan -- and everyone else. Both programs have stabilized under good coaches (Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke) who are recruiting at nationally elite levels, and many believe it's only a matter of time before they separate from the rest of the league.
Could the theory prove true? Absolutely. But as I've written before, I don't think it's a guarantee. Programs like Michigan State and Wisconsin likely aren't going to go away. Moreover, I've written that the Big Ten isn't better off with only two dominant programs to challenge the best of the best. The Big Ten will start competing better with the SEC when it has the same type of top-end depth as the SEC. Depth means more than two programs.
Yet after the events of this weekend -- and the past year or so -- it's worth questioning whether the Big Ten ever will have enough truly great teams.
Wisconsin, which has won 32 games the past three seasons and represented the Big Ten in the past two Rose Bowls, lost to Oregon State in stunning fashion. A program that has set offensive records the past two seasons needed more than 58 minutes to score and finished with 35 net rush yards. In Wisconsin, it goes beer, cheese, snow and a punishing run game. The Badgers' inefficiency despite boasting multiple standout backs, including 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball, and a group of massive linemen is baffling, so much so that head coach Bret Bielema, in an unprecedented move, dumped offensive line coach Mike Markuson on Sunday.
Other than Ohio State and Michigan, Wisconsin has been the Big Ten's most consistently solid program in the past two decades. And despite the loss of six assistant coaches and several key players, the Badgers had been projected to keep the wins coming and cruise to a Leaders Division title. Two games into the season, Wisconsin looks shaky at best. And after coming up short in the past two Rose Bowls, it's fair to wonder when Wisconsin will be back -- and if it can take that next step from really good to elite.
Nebraska was supposed to give the Big Ten another dog in the national championship fight, but Bo Pelini's program isn't close to that level right now. The Huskers talk a big game -- about winning a national title, about having a superior defensive scheme -- but they've been wildly inconsistent on the field, particularly away from Lincoln. Big Red appeared close to a big breakthrough in 2009, but since Ndamukong Suh left, the progress has stalled.
Iowa was near the top of the college football world after the 2009 season, as it nearly won the Big Ten and claimed the Orange Bowl championship. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi delivered his famous "love it or leave it" line after the Orange Bowl triumph, but the Hawkeyes have promptly left the ranks of the elite. Iowa won just eight games in 2010 despite a roster filled with NFL players. Kirk Ferentz's program since has slipped further into mediocrity, bottoming out Saturday with its second consecutive loss to Iowa State in a game where it failed to score a touchdown on its home field.
The staying power doesn't appear to be there for Nebraska and Iowa, and while Wisconsin has been good for a long time, it's debatable whether Bielema's Badgers ever will be great.
Michigan State is the other factor here. The Spartans are enjoying their best run in decades, having won 11 games in each of the past two seasons. Mark Dantonio's squad is the Big Ten's best team and the league's only legitimate BCS title contender right now. With stability at the top, upgraded facilities and good recruiting, the arrow definitely points up in East Lansing. Still, there are questions about Michigan State's staying power, given its rocky history since the mid-1960s. Only time will tell if Michigan State can keep this up and take its program to the next level.
The Big Ten has four traditional power programs in Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska. Penn State faces an extremely murky future because of NCAA sanctions, and Nebraska simply isn't the program it was in the mid-to-late 1990s. Although both Ohio State and Michigan have endured recent struggles, both have the ingredients in place -- tradition, facilities, national recruiting clout, strong coaching staffs, $$$ -- to get back to the top.
Everyone's trying to figure out what's wrong with the Big Ten and what it will take for the league to challenge for national titles again. The depth argument still resonates, but there are questions about whether Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa can reach the upper crust and, more importantly, stay there. And while the Big Ten has seen more diversity at the top since 2000, the league has backslid nationally.
Some folks say the Big Ten was a much better conference when the Big Two ruled the landscape.
We could soon find out if they're right.
4dBrian Bennett and Josh Moyer