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Big Ten East turning into college football beast

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Kevin Wilson served as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma in 2008 when the Big 12 South Division was the toast of college football.

That season, the Sooners finished in a three-way tie for first place with Texas and Texas Tech, and all three were ranked in the top seven of the final BCS standings. A fourth team, Oklahoma State, was ranked No. 14.

Now the head coach at Indiana, Wilson can see a similar group of super powers forming in the Big Ten's East Division.

"It's comparable," Wilson said of the current Big Ten East vs. the old Big 12 South. "It's a tough bracket, a tough division. You've got to learn to bring it."

The current Big Ten division format is only entering its second year. But the East already has staked its claim as a beast.

The division is home to the defending national champions, Ohio State. It's also where you find Michigan State, which won the Cotton Bowl and finished No. 5 last season. No other conference had two top five teams last year, much less two in the same division (the Big 12, which no longer has divisions, did place TCU and Baylor in the top seven).

The mere presence of the Buckeyes and Spartans, both of whom should be top 10 clubs and serious playoff contenders in 2015, would make the East a powerful branch. What could take it to the next level is the expected rise of Michigan under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh and Penn State as it shakes off the shackles of NCAA probation under second-year coach James Franklin.

If both the Wolverines and Nittany Lions can regain their past glory, the East will go from intense to nuclear.

"To me," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said, "it's going to be the toughest division in all of college football."

Here's where fans from other leagues will say to pump the brakes. Until it flopped during bowl season, the SEC West owned the crown of toughest division in football. That division still claims five national titles since 2007, thanks to Alabama, LSU and Auburn. Mississippi and Mississippi State each reached new levels last year, while Texas A&M and Arkansas boast all the resources needed to be elite. There's no question the SEC West is a cutthroat business, where even the last-place coach this year will earn $4 million

The Pac-12 South also figures to be excellent this year, with Arizona and Arizona State on the rise and USC and UCLA battling for control of Los Angeles and league supremacy. Utah can't be taken lightly, either, though Colorado does bring down the rent a bit. The ACC ... uh, can you remind us of who is in the Coastal and who is in the Atlantic?

The Big Ten East still needs Michigan and Penn State to actually make the jump forward to assume the toughest-division mantle. But consider that the East already houses three teams with 100,000-seat stadiums in Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State and a Michigan State program that cemented its status at the top by winning the Rose Bowl two seasons ago. Urban Meyer, Harbaugh and Mark Dantonio would top any short list of top coaches in the nation. Even newcomers Rutgers and Maryland, who were viewed as subpar additions to the league, won a combined 15 games last year.

"I think our side of the conference is kind of ridiculous right now, as far as the quality of teams in it," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "You can see how they did in bowl games and the future, too. I see a lot of good recruiting going on our side of the conference as well."

The power of the teams at the top could make it tougher for the rest of the division to compete for championships. The Big Ten West Division offers a far more wide-open path to the league title game. But a strong division has its advantages, too.

"I think it makes everything better," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "This is what players dream of when they come out of high school. If you want to be champions, you have to play against really good football teams, and we relish that."

Indiana faces the tallest order, trying to re-establish itself as a bowl team in a loaded division. Wilson said much of spring practice in Bloomington was centered around learning how to "play Big Ten East football."

"This is where recruits want to be, and you want to coach in these games," he said. "You either embrace the challenge and play up to it, or you use it as an excuse and cry about it, pout about it."

There will be no time for pouting in the Big Ten East this season or in the near future. It's a division for grown men only.