Now, right below that mark the Big Ten is very well represented: Michigan State is No. 11 in both polls, Wisconsin comes in at No. 13 in both, and Nebraska finds itself at No. 14 in the Coaches Poll and No. 16 in the AP. Ohio State is No. 14 in the AP as well. Michigan is licking its wounds at No. 19 in both polls; that position should likely rise closer to where we see the other teams.
How long will it be before the next Big Ten team plays for a national championship?
So between that and the dearth of other teams in the Big Ten getting votes (Northwestern got one whole vote in the Coaches Poll, and that makes it one vote better than every other Big Ten school not previously mentioned), we see a pretty clear picture of where the Big Ten stands compared to the rest of the nation.
And in a sport where not only teams but conferences are judged by titles and major bowls won, not having a Top 10 team is unacceptable. Sure, we're one Michigan State victory over Notre Dame away from getting there, but this is the Big Ten we're talking about. Remember when playing in the Big Ten meant something?
The fact of the matter is that if the Big East or ACC couldn't put anyone in the Top 10 of the polls, we'd roll our eyes at them and point out that they're just not on everyone else's level. And sure enough, we're one Florida State loss from being at that point right now. So it's also worth pointing it out when the Big Ten also has a lower ceiling than anyone else.
Moreover, it's pretty obvious why this is the case: the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry just isn't what it used to be, and the Big Ten needs those teams to be back at a championship level because it can't count on anyone else to get there.
Even a few short years ago, Michigan-Ohio State was the game. Ohio State famously beat Michigan in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game in 2006, and the Buckeyes were winning BCS-level bowls as late as 2010 (Ha, ha! Just kidding, that game never happened. Sincerely, the NCAA).
But then the Rich Rodriguez era happened at Michigan (which is to say the Greg Robinson era happened, which is to say that a group of fifth-graders could hang 38 on the Wolverines defense by 2010), and even this resurgent Michigan team just got utterly skunked by Alabama.
Ohio State, meanwhile, featured the most brazen flouting of NCAA rules in conference history when Jim Tressel decided not to tell anyone his quarterback was laughably, enormously ineligible for months on end. The Buckeyes might be back in the Rose Bowl picture next year, at least.
Past that, there really aren't many teams that have the know-how and the elbow grease to lead the Big Ten to the old land of college football dominance. Penn State has that history and infrastructure, but...well, things took a turn there.
Meanwhile, Nebraska has that tradition, but the Huskers haven't won a BCS-level bowl game since 1999 and for as decent a coach as Bo Pelini is, you still might as well write his name with four L's in it, since that's what's going on the schedule every year anyway.
Wisconsin's the closest thing to a third powerhouse in the conference these days, with five Rose Bowl appearances in the last 20 years. That's good! But the Badgers blew as golden an opportunity to run the table as any they'll ever have with two horrific Hail Mary losses in the middle of the season last year, and the Badgers haven't had a perfect regular season since 1912, back when football was weird.
The rest of the conference landscape looks bleak. Michigan State is on a high level right now, but the Spartans aren't a "don't rebuild, reload" program by any stretch of the imagination. Iowa looks like an NFL playoff team, which is to say it's well-coached and good for 2-6 losses every year. Illinois, Purdue, everyone else...no.
So the Big Ten needs Ohio State and Michigan. Those two programs can be great. They have the history, the infrastructure, the recruiting power and the expectations to put together magical seasons. Frankly, nobody else does, not on a consistent basis. And the sooner those two programs start putting it all together again, the less we'll have to deal with this "no Top 10 teams" nonsense.