NCF Nation: state of conference

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

There are many terms to describe Notre Dame's last season, but the most accurate, and probably least crude, would be "rebuilding year." The Irish returned just nine starters last season and were breaking in many skill position players, including true freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen.

The rebuilding is over.

The Irish return 16 starters from last year's 3-9 team, including almost the entire offense. The depth was the positive that came out of last season because coach Charlie Weis threw a lot of guys into the fire who will be critical this season. That includes Clausen, who took a beating because of his inexperienced offensive line that gave up an NCAA-leading 58 sacks.

And Notre Dame's schedule is a little easier than it has been in past seasons. The ranked foes that usually littered the schedule have been replaced with the likes of Washington, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. The Irish's biggest tests will come against an unknown Michigan team that opens the season ranked No. 24 in the coaches poll and USC, No. 2, at the end of the season.

It is conceivable that Notre Dame wins at least nine games and puts itself back into a bowl, but whether it's good enough to regain its BCS status is yet to be determined. If the Irish can't bounce back from one of the worst seasons in school history, Weis could be on the hot seat.

If Notre Dame is going to make any waves this year it will have to get past Navy, which beat the Irish in South Bend last season for the first time in 44 years. A fluke? No. Navy was a legitimately better team than Notre Dame last season, but the Midshipmen will have a tough time repeating that feat this year.

First-year coach Ken Niumatalolo intends to run the same triple option offense that his predecessor Paul Johnson ran, but with just five returning offensive starters, notching another eight-win season might be asking a lot. The Midshipmen's strength is defense where they return eight starters. Navy does appear poised to take it's sixth consecutive Commander-in-Chief Trophy as Army looks to rebound from its 3-9 season.

It's hard to believe that Army used to be one of the NCAA's powerhouse teams when its best season in the last six was a 4-7 campaign in 2005. Army supporters can rejoice in the fact that it tied Notre Dame for the second-best record among Independents, which might bring up some early 1900s nostalgia. But the fact of the matter is that Army does not look like it is going to be any better this season with just eight returning starters.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

Conference USA is the sleeper conference of the non-BCS.

Tulsa has the schedule and the talent to be the non-BCS' best candidate for a BCS bowl if the team can find a suitable replacement for quarterback Paul Smith and just a little bit of defense. The Golden Hurricane had the best offense in the country last season and put on display with a 63-7 shellacking of Bowling Green in the GMAC Bowl. The win gave Tulsa 10 wins for the first time since 1991 and opened the possibility that the newest non-BCS power could come from the middle of the country rather than the West.

"We're picked to win Conference USA and I think we have a chance to have the best team we've ever had," Tulsa coach Todd Graham said. "Preseason polls and all that stuff don't mean anything. You still have to play the year and play the game. It's a new season and all that. But you know, it's a compliment to what we've done in the past that people think a lot of us. If you look five or six years ago, they were tearing down the goal posts for winning one game, so we've come a long way."

But Conference USA needs to prove to the nation that it's ready to play with the big boys. The league was 2-23 against BCS teams last season, the weakest record of all the non-BCS schools.

And no Conference USA team has really taken stranglehold on the league. The past six seasons have produced six different conference winners, which speaks to parity, but not the dominating qualities that it takes to break into a BCS bowl game.

Of the top four finishers from last season -- Central Florida, Tulsa, East Carolina, and Houston -- Tulsa ad Houston have the easiest roads to a BCS berth. Neither team plays an opponent that is currently ranked in the preseason Top 25, but they still have quality foes. If all it takes is going undefeated to reach a BCS game, Conference USA might have the top contender.

SEC state of the conference

August, 4, 2008
8/04/08
10:15
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

In the football vernacular, nothing defines the survival of the fittest quite like the Southeastern Conference.

You think presidential politics are tough? Try a spin through an SEC season.

"I can't imagine that there's a more competitive league out there," LSU coach Les Miles said. "I think that great teams in other conferences can be and will certainly contend for national spots. But I think year after year, if you go through our schedule and if you go through those people that play in this conference, they will be representative of every national honor."

That's Les-speak for: The SEC is sitting atop the college football world, and everybody else is looking up.

The numbers in the last decade don't lie. The SEC has produced four BCS national champions since 1998, including the last two and three of the last five. The SEC is 11-4 in all BCS bowls during that span. The next closest is the Pac-10 with an 8-4 record.

A year ago, the SEC produced the Heisman Trophy winner in record-setting Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, who became the first sophomore in history to win the coveted award.

You want head coaching muscle? The SEC is the only league in America with five coaches who've won national championships, and two of those -- South Carolina's Steve Spurrier and Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer -- rank among the top six coaches all-time in total SEC wins.

The SEC had the most players on NFL opening-day rosters a year ago, and its seven bowl wins in 2007 was an NCAA record.

Heading into this season, Georgia is No. 1 in the coaches' poll. Four of the next 17 teams in the preseason poll are also from the SEC -- No. 5 Florida, No. 6 LSU, No. 11 Auburn and No. 18 Tennessee.

What separates the SEC, even more so now than a decade ago, is that there are no easy outs.

The 2007 season was pure chaos. In a league that epitomizes balance, it bordered more on cannibalism a year ago.

LSU lost twice in triple overtime to Kentucky and Arkansas. The loss to the Hogs was at home and came on the final week of the regular season, but the Tigers recovered to win the SEC championship game over Tennessee and vaulted into the BCS title game after West Virginia was upset by Pittsburgh and Missouri lost in the Big 12 championship game.

Once on college football's center stage, the Tigers did what the SEC has made a habit of doing in bowl games. They torched Ohio State to win their second national title in five years.

Can this season match the craziness and unpredictability of a year ago? Stay tuned.

But this much we know: The SEC is thriving and has earned the kind of "street cred" with voters in the two BCS polls that should serve the league well.

Even with one loss, the SEC champion is now a virtual lock for one of the two spots in the BCS national championship game. Another two-loss team making it the way LSU did last season may be a stretch. But if any conference has earned that kind of respect, it's the SEC.

"That's why our goal has always been to win the SEC," said Spurrier, who won six SEC titles at Florida. "People like to talk about winning national championships. The SEC is our focus. It was the same way at Florida because if you win the SEC, everything else usually has a way of working itself out."

Just don't tell that to Auburn fans.

Off the field, it's been an equally profitable time to be a part of the SEC, especially with commissioner Mike Slive putting the finishing touches on what figures to be another blockbuster television package for the conference.

But, then, money in this conference is no object. Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU and Tennessee are all paying its head coaches $2.6 million or more a year.

Slive has worked diligently to clean up the cheating in the SEC. There are no SEC football programs currently on NCAA probation, which was one of Slive's stated goals when he took office in 2002. Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi State have all been on NCAA probation at some point this decade because of major violations. Alabama was also hit with NCAA sanctions in the 1990s along with Auburn and Ole Miss.

Of course, there's still the area of jurisprudence.

The number of SEC football players arrested or issued citations just in 2008 alone is fast approaching the 50 figure. Most of those have been of the disorderly conduct/alcohol-related variety, but it nonetheless perpetuates the outlaw image the SEC has worked hard to polish.

Nobody ever said it's a league full of choir boys. But it's also a league everybody else would like to emulate ... in more ways than one.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

For years, the MAC had been considered the power conference of the non-BCS because of dominant teams such as Toledo, Marshall, Northern Illinois, Miami-Ohio and Bowling Green State.

Although those years are gone, the conference is still trying to maintain its competitive advantage with up-and-comer Central Michigan, which has won the last two MAC titles, and Bowling Green, which is starting to regain its past form.

The only thing that's missing from the "modern" MAC is consistent signature wins. Last season, the MAC went 0-15 against teams ranked in the coaches poll, and its top two teams, Central Michigan and Bowling Green, were 1-7 against BCS teams last season.

"I think people around the country are aware of us because of the success that we've had," Central Michigan quarterback Dan LeFevour said. "We've won two conference championships. We have yet to win a game against a BCS opponent so we're looking to do that this year."

Despite the lack of success against BCS opponents, the MAC has not shied away from playing some of the nation's toughest competition. Central Michigan will face Georgia, the No. 1 team in the coaches preseason poll, in its second game of the season. MAC teams will face ranked opponents such as Ohio State, Missouri, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Tennessee, Penn State and Fresno State. Nine of the conference's 13 teams will play a team that's currently ranked in the preseason Top 25.

The MAC will have to improve its record against BCS teams and ranked teams if it wants to climb back up the non-BCS ladder.

Ideally, the MAC would like to revert back to its 2003 form when its teams defeated five ranked teams, including three the weekend of Sept. 20. That season, three teams finished with double-digit wins. The MAC had no teams finish with more than eight wins this season and also was 0-3 in bowl games, losing by an average of 27 points. Only Central Michigan made a strong showing with a 51-48 loss to Purdue.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

The Sun Belt is one of the nation's youngest conference's in Division I-A football. Florida Atlantic starting playing Division IA in 2001, Florida International in 2002, and Western Kentucky will join the league this season -- but it's already considered a conference on the rise.

In 2007 alone, the Sun Belt managed three major upsets: Florida Atlantic defeated Minnesota; Troy defeated Oklahoma State; Louisiana-Monroe toppled Alabamal and Florida Atlantic went on to win its first conference championship.

Florida Atlantic won the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl and helped the Sun Belt to $1,823,543 in bowl revenue, according to a report published by the NCAA -- third-most among the non-BCS conferences.

The increased success gave the Sun Belt an opportunity to partner with three new bowls this season, which will give the conference a better opportunity for television exposure and better recruiting. Previously, the Sun Belt was linked to just one bowl.

"This is an excellent opportunity for our football league for many reasons," said Sun Belt Commissioner Wright Waters regarding the bowl partnership. "It will give our teams a chance to play in regional bowl games, show that we can compete with quality opponents and prove that this league can attract crowds to games and influence TV ratings."

Now, the challenge for the Sun Belt is to balance the league. Louisiana-Lafayette, North Texas and Florida International all finished with three or fewer wins. Florida International has not finished with a record above .500 since it joined the league in 2005 and North Texas, which won four consecutive conference championships from 2001-04, has won a total of five conference games since the league restructured in 2005.

Still, there's a sense that teams such as North Texas and Middle Tennessee State can regain its past form and make the league a little less top heavy and a little more competitive across the board.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Folks, these are tough times. The economy is in the toilet. Gas prices are astronomical.

Reading world news can be depressing.

And perhaps worst of all, nine tenths of the Pac-10 feels no hope.

This group, from Tucson to Seattle to Eugene to Berkeley to Westwood, looks up and sees USC's Men of Troy standing above, smirking in their Cardinal & Gold Armani armor, which sports six gaudy, sequential badges of Pac-10 supremacy.

The feeling is that the Pac-10 is not about free trade and a free market of ideas -- or Rose Bowl berths. It's a totalitarian dictatorship of the West Coast, which languishes under the yoke of Pete "Caesar" Carroll and his cult-like following, who bow down to the infuriating mantra of "Win Forever."

Yes, these are tough times. Many see no hope, including the voters of the USA Today coaches' poll who seeded USC second in their preseason rankings almost as reflex, while dumping other conference contenders into the bottom half of the poll as mere afterthoughts.

Yet while many might see no peer in a handful of busts, I see something else.

Recall with me in your mind's eye, a grim but meaningful moment from the 2007 season that should give hope to all: Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon crumpling to the ground against Arizona, his knee shredded and useless.

That was a dark November day for Oregon, most certainly, but it's freighted with unexplored meaning.

If Dixon at that moment had jumped up, dusted himself off and headed back to the huddle, the world would be a much different place today.

Oregon, fresh off victories over those vaunted Trojans as well as Arizona State, would have gone on to play for the national title.

And the nattily attired Ducks would have hung 50 points on Ohio State and won the program's first national title. (Said Buckeyes linebacker James Laurinaitis after the blitzkrieg: "I haven't witnessed a butt-kicking like that since Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen took out my dad.").

It was one safely positioned knee ligament from happening.

Upon witnessing that breakthrough, the other eight Pac-10 teams would have -- after trying to figure out whether Oregon's ending USC's stranglehold was a good thing or would ultimately produce an unbearably painful side effect of making Ducks fans even more obnoxious -- would have shared a collective thought:

"Hey, we could do that, too!"

Pac-10: Your conference is not required to be USC and the Nine Dwarfs. There's no rule that says all aspirants to the Trojans throne must wilt by season's end.

That's you, Oregon, with your fancy-pants offense. You've already poked the Trojans. You've seen that they bleed just like any other collection of college athletes.

Sure, you've got to replace Dixon and tailback Jonathan Stewart and a couple of defensive tackles and receivers. But your offensive line is stout and your secondary flashy.

Word is this youngster, Nate Costa, is capable of duplicating Dixon's ball legerdemain with only minimal growing pains.

And what about you, Arizona State?

Most believe you've got the best chance to go nose-to-nose with USC this fall.

You Sun Devils have a veteran quarterback in Rudy Carpenter and are loaded at the skill positions. Your defense may not dominate, but it's got enough playmakers to keep opponents on their heels.

Oh, but you've got to block someone this year. Want change we can believe in? Don't give up 55 sacks again.

California and Oregon State? You guys have to some holes to fill, certainly. But both of you have once before forced USC to tap out during its recent run. Shouldn't your new uniforms ring in a new age?

Bears, you must prove last year's slide from second-ranked to utterly rank was simply a fluke. And, please, figure out who your quarterback is.

Beavers? The front-seven that dominated in 2007 is being rebuilt, but let those who doubt you fuel your motivation to make the next step as a program.

UCLA and Stanford? Both of you have once turned back the Trojans during their reign. Oh, and how you hate them.

Little is expected of either of you this season. But, then again, what was expected out of a 41-point underdog whose first-year coach trash-talked Pete Carroll during the preseason last year?

Washington State? You are rebuilding with a new coach, former Cougar Paul Wulff, but recall that as recently as 2002, you eclipsed the Trojans and earned the last Rose Bowl berth a member of the Nether Nine has tasted. (Smile for a moment and recall Drew Dunning sliding on his knees in jubilation at Martin Stadium).

Arizona and Washington? You both are two coaches away from beating USC, but the Trojans bested you a year ago by all of a combined 10 points.

Two words and a question mark: Why not?

Wildcats, you have a veteran, high-flying spread offense that might be able to outscore the Trojans.

And, Huskies, you have Jake Locker, who just about everybody expects magic from this fall.
An upset win over the Trojans is the sort of thing that saves an embattled coach's job, Mike Stoops and Tyrone Willingham.

The message comes down to this, you Maligned Nine of the Pac-10.

These are absolutely tough times. But don't despair. You can and should believe in change.

Not that we're picking anyone other than USC to win the conference or anything. That wouldn't be very smart, now would it?

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Florida State isn't gonna look like the program it used to, dadgummit, and unless Bernie Kosar suddenly found an extra year of eligibility, either will Miami.

Doesn't matter -- at least not this year.

The spotlight is on Clemson, and deservedly so. The entire league can stake its reputation on the Tigers this year, but they must deliver with a win in the Orange Bowl if the ACC is going to start chipping away at its embarrassing 1-9 record in BCS games. If Clemson can win on the national stage, then Tommy Bowden should receive thank-you notes from 11 other coaches -- the first one coming priority mail from his "daddy" for diverting some of the attention off another mediocre 7-5 season in Tallahassee.

The realistic coaches in the league -- like NC State's Tom O'Brien -- know that until they start knocking off some storied non-conference programs, the ACC can't be considered among the best in the BCS.

"We haven't proven we can go on the national scene and win games, and until we do that, I don't think you have any leg to stand on to dispute that claim," said O'Brien, whose young team won't have it easy against South Carolina, East Carolina and South Florida before October. "You have to go out and you have to win those nonconference games if you're going to be considered as the top conference in the country."

That means Virginia Tech has to beat Nebraska, Clemson should beat Alabama, Miami needs to beat Florida, and Georgia Tech and Boston College better handle a new-and-improved Notre Dame. Wake Forest also has two SEC opponents on its schedule in Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. Only Miami, though, can help the league's 2-17 record against non-conference opponents ranked in the top 10 over the past four years. Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, they have to beat the team picked to win the SEC to do it. With a freshman quarterback.

Not going to happen.

Here are a few preseason predictions, though, that might:

* Somebody at Miami will win Rookie of the Year.

But ... somebody else will be ineligible or in trouble.

* Paul Johnson will call more passing plays than he did at Navy.

But ... Georgia Tech will fumble the ball better than anyone and practices quickly close to the

public.

* North Carolina will live up to the hype of a legitimate contender for the ACC title.

But ...

* Maryland will be the conference darkhorse and the Atlantic Division will be a tighter race between Clemson, Wake Forest and the Terps than most people think.
But ...

* Clemson will lose to Wake Forest, win the Atlantic Division, and beat Virginia Tech for its first conference crown since 1991. And then proceed to blow it in the Orange Bowl.

But ...

* The rest of the ACC teams should win enough of their bowl games to improve upon last year's 2-6 record in the postseason. Especially since Ralph Friedgen hired an assistant right off of the Oregon State staff he lost to in the Emerald Bowl.

* There will be a better turnout for the ACC championship in Tampa than there was in Jacksonville because it's a smaller stadium with a broader alumni base.

Speaking of NFL venues, here are a few things that probably won't happen this season in the ACC:

* Miami fans won't like the move to Dolphin Stadium, save for the beer.

- Nobody's going to get fired, but the algrohmustgo web site makes a faster comeback than Florida State and Miami.

* Nine ACC teams won't be bowl eligible, which means the Congressional Bowl reps will have to settle for Navy (if the Midshipmen even qualify) and a MAC team.

* Cullen Harper won't win the Heisman.

* Chris Crane won't make you forget Matt Ryan, and Jeff Jagodzinski won't make Eagles fans forget Tom O'Brien.

* Tyrod Taylor won't redshirt, and Virginia Tech isn't going to miss Branden Ore -- or his lack of discipline -- now that Jahre Cheeseman and Kenny Lewis Jr. are healthy.

* Duke doesn't win more than three games. Hey, that's still triple last year's win total. Let's not push it.

Overall, just about every team in the conference should show improvement this year. The teams in the Triangle are taking the necessary steps to build their programs, and Wake Forest has the staff stability and player potential to build upon its most successful period in school history. What the conference is starving for, though, is a national contender, and right now, that burden falls on the Tigers.

And as Bobby Bowden so eloquently pointed out, his son Tommy, "ain't won nothin' yet."

This year, he's got no excuse not to win.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Texas coach Mack Brown has been around college football long enough to know about how a conference's national perception can be shaped even before a season begins.

Brown has taken the bully pulpit all summer that the Big 12 is at its strongest level that he's ever seen heading into his 11th season coaching the Longhorns.

"This will be the best balanced league since I've been here," said Brown, the league's current dean of coaches.

Coaches voting in the USA Today poll released last week appear to agree with Brown. Five Big 12 teams are ranked among the top 14 teams in the country. That concentration at the top is more than any other conference in the country. It's also the most Big 12 teams ranked that highly in the history of the conference.

A boatload of returning quarterbacks has made most observers think the Big 12 again will be an offensive league. That will come after conference teams averaged a record 31.2 points and 428.7 total yards per game in conference play last season.

Because of that, a serious case could be made that any of five returning starters -- Missouri's Chase Daniel, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, Texas' Colt McCoy, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Kansas' Todd Reesing -- could have a legitimate chance for a trip to the Heisman Trophy presentation in New York City in December. That is, if they can combine a big statistical season with luck and team success.

But Brown says the Big 12 will be better for other reasons.

"Everybody is better," Brown said. "And it's not only because of the quarterbacks, but also because all of the coaches have done such a great job. Everybody in this league has got a good football team now. And because of that, you can no longer just plan on winning a game in this league. You're going to have to earn the right to win it."

The offensive swing should continue as 10 teams return starting quarterbacks from last season. Only Iowa State and Nebraska are looking for a new starter. And although Nebraska lost Sam Keller, all backup Joe Ganz did was pass for 1,399 yards and 15 touchdowns in his final three starts last season.

That offensive firepower and the lack of defensive depth across the conference should result in a lot of shootouts again this season.

The Sooners made history last season by claiming the league's first back-to-back championship. It marked Coach Bob Stoops' fifth Big 12 championship in the last eight seasons. But another stumble in a BCS bowl -- the Sooners' fourth-straight BCS bowl-game loss -- has diminished some of Stoops' luster and made the Sooners hungry for redemption on a larger scale.

Missouri is picked to be the Sooners' biggest challenger for the title, despite losing twice to them last season. Daniel and most of his offense is back. The Tigers also won't have to potentially face the Sooners this season until the championship game - which will be played at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

Texas Tech, Kansas and Missouri all have the highest expectations in more than 30 years as each looks for its first Big 12 championship. All will be looking for their first Big 12 title as they try to break up the Oklahoma-Texas logjam that has resulted in six of the conference's eight last championships.

Another trend to watch will be seen as three of the conference's top five contenders will be breaking in new defensive coordinators. Fiery Will Muschamp arrives at Texas from Auburn. Wily veteran Bill Young left Kansas for Miami, paving the ascension for his protégé Clint Bowen as his replacement. And Ruffin McNeill was hired as Texas Tech's permanent defensive coordinator after serving as the Red Raiders' interim defensive coordinator most of last season.

With all of the league's elite seemingly so strong on offense, defense will likely determine the conference winner. Oklahoma and Missouri appear to have the best defensive units from those five power teams heading into the season.

Whether that strength will enable the Big 12 to make a forceful assertion as the nation's strongest conference will be determined as the season plays out. LSU was able to make its claim for a shot at the national championship with two regular-season losses and a couple of narrow escapes in 2007.

A Big 12 team has never been able to lose that many games and still be in the national title hunt. It will be interesting if Brown's early spinning and similar comments from other league coaches sell that notion to enough balloters that it could become a reality in December.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

The WAC's conference competitiveness is a cause for concern for commissioner Karl Benson, which could be construed as odd considering the conference has produced the last two BCS busters. But from middle to bottom, the WAC is one of the weakest non-BCS conferences.

In each of the last three seasons -- the start of the reconstructed WAC -- the top three teams have each won seven or more games, but the bottom three teams have never combined for more wins than one of the top three teams have produced. For example, in 2005 Louisiana Tech finished third with seven total wins. The bottom three teams finished with five combined wins.

"We definitely need to get better in the bottom half of the league," Benson said. "From a football standpoint, we are ranked by all nine members. We have had teams ranked in the
100's and they have to get better. It has an effect on those teams in the top half in terms of BCS selection and BCS ranking. Our coaches know that and are striving to get better."

The result is criticism over whether a non-BCS team with such a soft schedule should be allowed in a BCS game. Boise State proved it belonged with an overtime win over Oklahoma in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, which capped a 13-0 season. But Georgia walloped Hawaii 41-10 in last year's Sugar Bowl making some question whether Hawaii, despite its 12-0 record going into the game, had played a strong enough schedule to warrant a BCS spot.

Hawaii ranked 111th in strength of schedule at the end of the year, according to the NCAA, and five WAC teams had strength of schedules in the 100s. All of the WAC's nine members finished with a strength of schedule 90 or lower with Fresno State, who played two ranked BCS teams in the nonconference, leading the group.

The WAC knows the lower third of the conference is bringing the entire conference down and is starting to reach out to those struggling teams. It has increased resources to schools and recruiting is better. More WAC teams are starting to schedule difficult BCS non-conference opponents to make up for the strength of schedule lost during the conference season. And several coaches know their time is running short. Teams such as New Mexico State and Utah State have been in the bottom of the conference standings every year since 2005.

"We're seeing improvement," Benson said. "Our schools are investing more in their athletics programs. Since teams join the WAC, they get better, because of the recruiting standpoint. They get because of the television exposure. Programs are going to grow as they mature in the WAC."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Spin control took a break during Big Ten media days.

As players, coaches and league officials fielded questions about the conference's sagging national image, they didn't deny the obvious. Ohio State players understood why most of the country has no interest in seeing them Jan. 7 in Miami. Illinois coach Ron Zook, whose team finished last season with a 49-17 loss to USC in the Rose Bowl, put it in clear terms: "There's not a whole lot we can say until we go win."

Even Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany acknowledged the damage done in the last two postseasons. He pointed out the league's favorable BCS/Bowl Alliance record before the current four-game losing streak, but then added: "We want to play the big games on the big stage and sometimes you just get whipped, and we did. And so I think you have to kind of nuzzle up to that and sort of accept it."

The Big Ten enters the 2008 season in a somewhat tenuous state after taking plenty of hits nationally. Most place the league behind both the SEC and the Big 12, and possibly the Pac-10, on college football's hierarchy. The criticisms are familiar -- inferior athletes, lack of speed, recruiting shortcomings -- and fueled by two primary arguments.

1. The Big Ten's best team, Ohio State, has performed poorly in the last two national championship games.

2. A large gap separates Ohio State from the rest of the league, as evidenced by the Buckeyes' 22-2 conference record in the last three seasons. If Ohio State is the best the Big Ten has to offer, how far behind are the other 10 teams?

Dispelling the second statement could be the greater priority this season. Ohio State can silence its coast-to-coast critics by beating USC, running the table and winning the national title on its third try (preferably against an SEC opponent), but it will take improvement from others to raise the league's profile.

The three teams trying to catch Ohio State -- Wisconsin, Penn State and Illinois -- all must fill holes in the offensive backfield, and Penn State also must block out the constant banter about coach Joe Paterno's future. Michigan is the league's biggest mystery, as coach Rich Rodriguez tries to fast-track a team featuring mostly unproven personnel.

But the Big Ten's push for respect largely depends on its middle class, headlined by Michigan State, a team many tab to be this season's Illinois.

Iowa has endured disappointing results on the field and embarrassing ones off of it, but the Hawkeyes have a history of turning things around. Purdue tries to send pioneering coach Joe Tiller out on a good note, while both Northwestern and Indiana set their sights on a decent bowl game. Minnesota needs a major upgrade on defense, but coach Tim Brewster should see improvement in his second season.

It won't take long to get a good read on the Big Ten. Arguably no conference has more on the line during the season's first month. The league has taken heat for some soft scheduling but boasts plenty of image-shaping matchups in August/September, and not just the big one Sept. 13 at the L.A. Coliseum.

  • Illinois opens the season against Missouri, a national title contender and a team many wished had made a BCS bowl instead of the Illini.
  • Wisconsin takes a trip most BCS teams avoid at all costs, to non-BCS power Fresno State.
  • Michigan State can boost the Big Ten's stock against the Pac-10 by beating Cal on the road in the opener.
  • Michigan, expected to start slow following a major coaching and personnel transition, opens against a respected Utah team before visiting Notre Dame two weeks later.
  • Purdue, which hasn't won enough marquee games in recent seasons, hosts Oregon in Week 2 before facing back-to-back MAC champ Central Michigan and then Notre Dame.
  • Penn State's schedule doesn't grade too high on degree of difficulty, but a home win against Oregon State would help the league's profile.
  • After a rough offseason, Iowa can put the spotlight back on the field by winning on the road at Pitt, a borderline Top 25 team.

The opportunity is there to change minds around the country.

After spending too much time defending its reputation in recent months, the Big Ten is eager to shut up and play.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach

Left for dead after Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech bolted for the ACC in 2004, the Big East is flourishing like never before.

West Virginia has beaten two champions of other BCS leagues in the last three years -- SEC champ Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl and Big 12 champ Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl last season. Louisville beat ACC champion Wake Forest in the 2007 Orange Bowl.

Last season, the Big East posted a winning record in bowl games for the second straight season and six of the league's eight teams were ranked in the top 25 at some point during the 2007 season.

Heading into the 2008 season, the Mountaineers are again considered a potential national championship contender -- even without coach Rich Rodriguez, who left for Michigan.

"I just hope it's the right job for Rich," Big East commissioner Michael Tranghese said. "I told Rich this: 'A long time down the road, I'll never forget how important that West Virginia victory [in the 2006 Sugar Bowl] was to the league.' It took a Michigan to get him away. It wasn't Alabama. If you get a chance to go to a Michigan or USC, those are marquee jobs."

As Tranghese enters his final football season leading the Big East, he hopes longtime members such as Pittsburgh and Syracuse can improve.

"It's an identity thing," Tranghese said. "They've been very good members."

The Orange are 7-28 in coach Greg Robinson's three seasons. He enters this season under the microscope after going 2-10 in 2007.

"They want to win more," Tranghese said. "Greg wants to win more, and I'd like to see them win more. Are they better than when Greg got there? I think so."

Much of the league is better since the Big East realigned before the 2005-06 season. South Florida, which climbed as high as No. 2 in the national rankings last season, might be poised for another breakout season. Rutgers has gone to three straight bowl games after playing in just one during its first 131 seasons of football. Last year, Connecticut finished 9-4 and shared the Big East title with West Virginia, the Huskies' best season since moving to Division I-A.

Tranghese said one of his goals during his last year as Big East commissioner is to improve the league's postseason opportunities. The Big East has partnerships with seven bowl games, including an automatic spot in the BCS for the league champion.

"It's a big thing and some of it will get done before I leave," Tranghese said.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

The WAC has been the conference everyone has been talking about in terms of BCS busters the last couple years, but the Mountain West has a chance to change that this season with BYU garnering attention as a potential spoiler.

Mountain West

BYU finished last season as the highest-ranked non-BCS team in both major polls and was pronounced the non-BCS favorite by the coaches last week.

But it's not BYU that has the Mountain West considered the non-BCS conference on the largest upswing. It's the team's few are talking about. Utah and TCU have opportunities to creep into the BCS buster picture with major games against Michigan and Oklahoma, respectively. Utah was beaten down by injuries last year, but has all of those players back. TCU had several off-field distraction last year, but both coach and players say those distractions are gone.

"I think some people might count us out, which is great," TCU center Blake Schlueter said. "I hope everybody thinks that we're not any good because then we'll get the opportunity to go show them. We've typically done well I the underdog role because we go out there hungrier, I guess."

Teams such as New Mexico, which is the only Mountain West team to gain bowl eligibility each of the last seven seasons, Wyoming and Air Force all have the potential to push for the league title.

Top to bottom, the Mountain West is the most balanced non-BCS conference. It is the only non-BCS conference to have five teams finish last season with eight or more wins. And it and the Mid-American conference were the only non-BCS conferences without a one-win team.

"Our conference is full of great teams and somebody like UNLV, who got picked (in the preseason rankings) can always come and knock the top team off," Schlueter said.

The Mountain West is also progressing off the field. The conference's television station will be part of DirecTV's standard package and the conference has the same proposal out to Dish Network.

Commissioner Craig Thompson said the conference is also in negotiations with the Humanitarian Bowl to be the league's fifth bowl partner.

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