The Big Ten conference was the laughingstock of college football in 2012 after finishing up bowl season with a 2-5 record. That included a 1-4 record in the New Year's Day matchups.
Entering the season, it seemed like the only place for the conference to go was up. While it may be early, it's still worth asking if the Big Ten has earned back its street cred this season.
Through four weeks, the answer is a resounding no.
Fair or not, conferences are judged by their top teams. Every league has teams near the bottom that stink, so comparing Colorado from the Pac-12 to Kentucky of the SEC and Purdue of the Big Ten is meaningless. The proof is in the national championship contenders and the teams who are viable options to actually win the conference title.
So far, the Big Ten appears to have four teams that fall into that category: Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Northwestern.
You could maybe make a case for Michigan State, but the Spartans' 17-13 loss to Notre Dame eliminates them, at least for the moment. Nebraska might argue that they deserve recognition, but no team that allows 38 straight points to an opponent at home should be considered one of the top-tier programs in a conference.
In looking at the top four here, not a single team is without flaw. In fact, compared with the top three or four teams in the other major conferences, this group does not match up well at all.
The Buckeyes are still a solid bet to win the Big Ten and make it to the national championship, but there are questions on both sides of the ball. The defense has given up quite a few points, especially in a 52-34 victory at Cal. The offense has been great, but you have to wonder if quarterback Braxton Miller can stay healthy enough to lead the team to an undefeated mark.
Backup Kenny Guiton has been outstanding, but most Buckeye fans would probably agree that a fully-healthy Miller gives the Buckeyes their most complete product. Even when that was the case, however, Urban Meyer's team scored a less-than-impressive 40-20 victory over Buffalo in Week 1. The Bulls were still within 10 points late in the third quarter.
And those same Bulls were beat the following week 70-13 by Baylor. But don't worry, they got their first win of the season against Stony Brook, in a game that went into five overtimes.
You never want to put too much stock into the transitive property, but it's clear that a national championship contender should not be letting a team like Buffalo hang around in the second half.
How about Michigan?
Well, after the Wolverines scored a major victory over Notre Dame, it's been a complete disaster. Or almost a complete disaster.
Brady Hoke's team has barely scraped by Akron and UConn the past two weeks, leaving many wondering if Devin Gardner and company are really any good at all.
Then there's Wisconsin, which will have a chance to prove itself against Ohio State in Columbus this weekend. The Badgers may have the best one-two punch in the country with running backs James White and Melvin Gordon.
However, they also lost to Arizona State. Yes, the ending was extremely controversial, and Gary Anderson's team should have had a chance to win it. But consider that even if they had kicked a field goal for the win, it would remain a tight victory over a second-tier Pac-12 team.
The Sun Devils were behind 39-7 at Stanford on Saturday before rallying to cut the final deficit to 14 points.
Finally, there's Northwestern, which may have its best team in quite some time. But it's hard to argue that the Wildcats proved a whole lot in the nonconference schedule. Wins over Cal and Syracuse were nice, but most people probably would like to see how this team fares against Ohio State on Oct. 5th before considering them to be contenders for the conference crown.
Look, you can go through every conference and try to pick apart the top few teams. But with the Big Ten, that exercise is way too easy. Even the second-tier teams, such as Michigan State and Nebraska, haven't impressed.
With the majority of the nonconference slate out of the way, it's going to be difficult for the conference to restore its reputation before bowl season.
A counterargument might include the fact that four teams are ranked in the Top 25, which is the same number as the Pac-12 and Big 12, and one more than the ACC.
But four weeks into the season, the polls still reflect a relatively small sample size of games. Northwestern might lose four games, and then the fact that it was ranked would be laughable. The number of ranked teams a conference has at the end of the year may be a good indication of its strength, but not how many there are in September.
More importantly, you have to look at the way these games are playing out and compare similar opponents as well as head-to-head matchups with out-of-conference teams.
Using that criteria, it cannot be argued that the Big Ten has gained any ground. Come bowl season, the conference will have a chance to do just that, especially if Ohio State goes unbeaten and earns a trip to Pasadena.
But compared with the other four power conferences (and excluding the AAC), the Big Ten conference still has a reputation in need of major repair.
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