Take one cursory look at the Big Ten standings just two weeks out from the end of the regular season, and you might be thinking things are actually doing alright here in the Midwest. Ohio State's rocking a 10-0 record, and Nebraska's on the fast track to the Rose Bowl at 8-2. Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin are all at 7-3 and could well be playing for a 10-win season in their bowl games.
Heck, wouldn't that be something? Five Big Ten teams with 10 or more wins! Guess who's back, baby!
Don't do this. Don't kid yourself and don't think the Big Ten's "back." It's essentially the same Big Ten it was in September—it's just that now that all the teams are playing each other, there's no chance for other conferences to knock teams down a peg. The cream rises to the top, the wins come in bunches, bada bing, bada boom.
So, sure, the wins are coming to the top teams. But after that, when bowl season rolls around? Expect pain.
How many wins will the Big Ten get in the bowl season?
Nebraska's not going to be favored against Notre Dame. The prospect of Michigan and Wisconsin facing Top 10 SEC teams in SEC country is terrifying. Michigan State is well behind Mississippi State in the Sagarin ratings, so that'd be an upset. Northwestern is in line to face a Big 12 team in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl—the Wildcats would also be the eighth-best team in the Big 12, barely edging out Iowa State in the Sagarin ratings.
Also, we wouldn't trust Minnesota to win a bowl game against 11 carefully placed traffic cones. The same goes for Purdue if that team actually gets into a bowl game.
Folks, a conference can't be "back" if it can't be expected to win a single bowl game—especially if that conference is as storied and monied as the Big Ten. And these are not unfair bowl pairings, either; it's not as if the fifth-best team in the conference is being put up against the SEC's second-best or anything.
The good news is that next year looks a lot better for the Big Ten. Ohio State should be every bit as loaded and will be eligible to make a championship run. Michigan's also got the talent (and the schedule) to take a shot at 11 or 12 wins in the regular season.
Past the big two, Michigan State gets a full offseason to let its passing game mature and, depending on who does and doesn't leave early for the NFL, might be the most complete team in the Big Ten next season. Wisconsin is and always will be Wisconsin, which is to say a perennial contender in the Leaders Division until further notice. Even Northwestern looks to be as strong if not stronger next season.
And hey—look out for Indiana and Minnesota. The Hoosiers and Gophers are both squads on the rise, thanks to superior coaching. They're not good teams this year, but they're also not that far away.
The Big Ten is on the rise, there's no doubt about it. Just don't expect results anytime before, say, August 31, 2013.