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Monday, October 3, 2011
Big Ten needs its middle class to rise

By Adam Rittenberg

There are two ways for the Big Ten to boost its sagging national reputation.

The first is the most direct, effective and difficult: win a national championship. The BCS championship game is the only contest that truly shapes national perception. When a team hoists the crystal football in early January, the bowl performances of its conference brethren, good or bad, typically fade away. Until the Big Ten wins a title for the first time since 2002, it will have a hard time convincing anyone outside the heartland that it's an elite conference.

The second path involves more teams but can be more manageable: avoid days like the Big Ten endured on Jan. 1. As you remember, the league went 0-5 in bowls that day, a historic failure that made it easy for critics to open fire. The carnage included three double-digit losses to the rival SEC, which went on to win its fifth consecutive national title. The New Year's Day disaster said less about the Big Ten's strength at the top and more about its utter lack of depth as a conference.

Although Ohio State's losses in the BCS title game hurt the Big Ten's rep, the New Year's Day debacle along with poor overall bowl performances between 2006-08 (6-16 combined record) do just as much damage, if not more.

That brings us to this season.

Wisconsin on Saturday night announced itself as the Big Ten's best team -- perhaps by a wide margin -- and a national championship contender. Looking at the Badgers' remaining schedule, an Oct. 22 trip to Spartan Stadium -- Wisconsin's own personal house of horrors -- as well as trips to Ohio State (Oct. 29) and Illinois (Nov. 19) stand out. But the Badgers will be favored in all three games and have a very real chance to reach the Big Ten championship game Dec. 3 with an unblemished record.

If Wisconsin can win a national title -- preferably against an SEC opponent -- the Big Ten's overall bowl performance will be a footnote. Yet it won't be easy for Bret Bielema's crew.

What about Path No. 2? Can the Big Ten produce a good overall showing in the bowls?

Right now, Big Ten depth doesn't look very promising. Nebraska, which many considered the Big Ten's second best team, got steamrolled in Madison and has fallen well short of expectations on the defensive side. Two traditional powers, Ohio State and Penn State, are having major problems on offense. Michigan and Illinois both are 5-0, but neither squad has played a road game. Northwestern has significant concerns on defense, while quarterback Dan Persa's health situation remains in constant limbo. The Big Ten likely won't have to worry about Purdue, Indiana or Minnesota hurting its bowl record.

What the Big Ten needs is its middle class to rise in the final eight weeks of the regular season. It doesn't want a repeat of 2010, when only three squads entered the bowl season with more than seven victories.

Although every Big Ten team but Wisconsin has shown some flaws, the potential for improvement is there, particularly with certain teams.

Michigan and Illinois have won games despite playing their best football, particularly Illinois. If the Wolverines' defense continues to make strides and Denard Robinson trims his turnovers, Michigan will be a tough out. Illinois also has to cut down on mistakes after turnovers and penalties nearly cost it against Northwestern.

Three teams that should be better in November are Michigan State, Nebraska and Iowa. The Spartans' defense is for real, and can carry the team a long way. If the offensive line gets more consistent and Michigan State can produce an effective run game, look out for Mark Dantonio's team.

Iowa also is a squad to watch. Gifted QB James Vandenberg and a deeper-than-expected receiving corps make the offense extremely dangerous. The defense won't be as stifling as it has been in past seasons but still makes plays, particularly in the secondary.

There's something wrong with Nebraska's defense, but there's time to fix it, and Bo and Carl Pelini are pretty handy. Taylor Martinez is what he is and can't hurt the team like he did at Wisconsin, but an upgraded defense can take the Huskers a long way.

I have less hope for Penn State, Ohio State and Northwestern, as all three teams have significant weaknesses (offense for Penn State and Ohio State, defense for Northwestern). But each team also has reasons to believe it can make strides down the stretch (Penn State's defense, Ohio State's returning players from suspension, Persa's presence for Northwestern).

The Big Ten's problem hasn't been at the top the past two years. The league is 3-1 in BCS bowl games (yes, I know Ohio State's Sugar Bowl win will be vacated) with a close loss to a great TCU team in the Rose Bowl.

The bigger issue is building depth and solidifying the middle class before facing what is annually the nation's toughest bowl lineup.

Otherwise, Jan. 2 could be another very long day for Jim Delany.