At the dawn of the College Football Playoff era, the once-dominant but currently meh Big Ten is hoping for a swift turnaround and return to its former football glory.
In order to get there, it will need to prove it can compete against the best. And though the national title resides with Florida State in the ACC, and the Pac-12 could make a compelling case for the distinction, it is still widely accepted—and, in my opinion, correct—to say the SEC is the strongest conference in the country.
In order to beat the best of the SEC, a team must be able to match its physicality—especially in the trenches but also in the second level (where linebackers meet fullbacks and guards) and on the outside (where cornerbacks meet receivers). This size and strength necessity eliminates from the discussion a minority of teams in the Big Ten, leaving a smaller but predictable group of contenders at the top.
|Realistic Big Ten Contenders in 2014|
|Team||2013 Record||2013 F/+||2013 F/+ Rank|
|Source: Football Outsiders|
Michigan State sticks out from that list as the most "SEC-style" team, in large part thanks to the culture established by head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi.
The Spartans even beat Georgia, 33-30, in the Outback Bowl three seasons ago, although they also lost by 42 points to Alabama in the same game the previous year.
This current MSU team is more of a legitimate defensive force but not by much. Those old MSU teams were also quite good defensively and even better than the current team on offense. Which brings us to the second vital quality for a team that can beat an SEC contender—and the reason Michigan State, the defending conference champion, is not the horse I will choose to back in this race.
Even with its steady improvement at the end of last season, Michigan State finished No. 43 in Football Outsiders' offensive F/+ ratings.
When it appeared to have turned a corner for the first time during the middle of conference play, MSU regressed and put up 14 points and averaged 4.39 yards per play in a fair-weather game against Purdue.
You can't beat an SEC team without an offense that is capable of consistently moving the chains. A three-and-out is death-dealing against an SEC offense, because it puts the defense back on the field with minimal rest. And as every Big Ten team would be at least slightly overmatched in the trenches against Auburn, Alabama or LSU's offensive lines, a tired defense would likely be a doomed one.
As good as Sparty looked on offense against Stanford, that sample was just one game. Over the course of the past few seasons—the more adequate sample—two Big Ten offenses from the table above have stood out with capable-enough defenses behind them to boot.
Wisconsin and Ohio State are both traditionally good programs with NFL talent along the lines and offensive systems that could give an SEC team trouble. The recent history of pitting them against SEC foes is unfavorable—Wisconsin having lost most recently against South Carolina in the 2014 Outback Bowl—but the Badgers will get a shot for revenge against LSU in Arlington during the first week of next season.
If forced to choose between the two, I would ignore Ohio State's recent program history against the SEC—see: the 2007 and 2008 BCS National Championship Games—and focus instead on the new era of Buckeyes football before us. Specifically, I would focus on the presence of head coach Urban Meyer.
From 2005-2010, Meyer led the Florida Gators, one of the SEC's own, to a 65-15 record, three 13-win seasons and two national titles. He once hung 51 points on a Les Miles-John Chavis LSU defense and beat Alabama in the conference championship in the same year. He knows the conference from the inside and is well-versed at how to beat it.
Meyer admitted the SEC's dominance in a recent interview with Jeremy Fowler of CBSSports.com, but he lauded the league for its parity more than its top-heaviness.
"The SEC is so unique because there are just so many," said Meyer, who does think some other conferences are (slowly) gaining ground. "I don't know if you'll ever catch them top to bottom. The talent down there—there are so many players."
Meyer's claims are undoubtedly true—Ole Miss finished sixth in the SEC West, for example, and might have contended for a league title in the Big 12 and ACC—but he knows that the gap has closed between the Alabamas of the world and the Ohio States. Having slain each SEC blue blood at least once and recruited just as well in Columbus as he did in Gainesville, why shouldn't he beat the best?
To go with Meyer's scheme, the Buckeyes have a senior QB in Braxton Miller who is capable of keeping the chains moving with his arm and his feet.
On the other side of the ball, a defensive line with Joey Bosa and Noah Spence could give any offensive line, even that of Auburn, headaches for 60 full minutes.
The Buckeyes secondary is a weakness, but this might be the year that they can mask that against the powers of the SEC. Almost every contender is breaking in a new quarterback, and the primary one that isn't (Auburn) trots out a converted defensive back at QB and had 11 or less completions in eight different games last season.
I'm not sure I would pick any Big Ten team to compete against the best SEC teams next season. I'm not sure I would pick only one. That's the beauty of talking college football in April: Anything can still reasonably happen. Especially at the start of an important new era, we can tear up the record books and look straightaway toward the future.
Will the Big Ten become a national contender in the first few years of the College Football Playoff? Your guess is as good as mine.
If it does, though, Ohio State should be the team at the vanguard.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT