For the last three seasons, the Big Ten has paid the price in the preseason conference rankings because of poor bowl performances the previous years.
Has it been a little unfair? Perhaps. Bowl performances don't mean everything, and it's important to examine the personnel lost and the personnel returning for each team.
But if bowl performance is nation's No. 1 factor for evaluating conference, why not use it in the Big Ten's favor? That's exactly what I'm doing by ranking the Big Ten as the nation's second best conference behind the SEC.
The Big Ten went 4-3 in last year's bowls, beating four teams ranked in the top 15 and winning two BCS games (Rose and Orange). Of the four bowl champions, you can make a strong case that three of them -- Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin -- will have even stronger teams in 2010. Ohio State is a bona fide national championship contender, Iowa brings tremendous skill and mental toughness and Wisconsin returns the most starters in the league, including Heisman Trophy candidate John Clay.
All three squads will appear in many preseason top 10 rankings.
Penn State loses six All-Big Ten performers, including quarterback Daryll Clark and Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year Jared Odrick, but the Nittany Lions have been consistently strong since 2005. They'll enter the season in the Top 25 and should have little trouble getting back to a bowl game, where they do their best work (27-13-2 all-time record).
The middle of the Big Ten could be stronger as well. Michigan State gets star linebacker Greg Jones back in the fold, and the Spartans are stocked with skill players and have a very favorable schedule. Purdue held its own during Big Ten play last year and should be very explosive on offense. Northwestern has shown for the first time in its history that it can reload, winning 17 games the last two seasons and six or more games in six of the last seven seasons.
If Michigan can get back on track during a pivotal season for head coach Rich Rodriguez, the Big Ten's profile will be further enhanced.
How can the Big Ten become the top conference? Simple. Beat the SEC in the BCS title game. The SEC has won the last four of them, and nothing shapes national perception of conferences more than performance in the BCS championship.
The Big Ten also must hold off challengers for the No. 2 spot, namely the Big 12 and Pac-10. The Big Ten has dropped its last five bowl matchups against the Big 12, a trend that really needs to change this year. The Pac-10 should be very solid top to bottom, but Oregon's messy offseason and some lingering questions around USC keep the league a little behind.
My conference pecking order
2. Big Ten
3. Big 12
6. Mountain West
7. Big East
9. The rest ...