The Big Ten is back—or that is what people would have you believe based upon the conference's 4-3 record in this year's bowl season.
Not so fast, I think.
It is a sign of the Big Ten's continued inferiority complex that its supporters argue that a barely above average bowl record qualifies for proof of a return to national significance.
Worse yet, a close examination of the Big Ten's bowl performance this year leaves some serious question marks about how good the conference actually is.
As the SEC and Big 12 square off for another national title tonight, and the SEC makes a run at an unprecedented four-peat in national championships, the Big Ten still lags seriously behind in conference strength, 4-3 bowl record or not.
First off, there is some good news for the Big Ten. The conference went 4-3 in the bowl season, with all four wins coming against ranked opponents and two victories coming in BCS bowls. Also, the Big Ten managed to win its first Rose Bowl since 2000.
Yes, it had been that long.
Any way you cut it, this is an improvement over last year's horrendously awful, one-win bowl season.
That said, who were the Big Ten's opponents in their bowl victories this season? Oregon, Georgia Tech, LSU, and Miami.
With the exception of LSU, each of these victories came against teams who play in conferences that had a less than stellar year in 2009. None of them were national title contenders for any great length this season.
Most telling of all, only one of the Big Ten victories came against a member of college football's most powerful conference—the SEC. That SEC victory in the game against LSU may deserve an asterisk of sorts, too.
Ohio State's victory over Oregon in the Rose Bowl loses some of its luster when you consider:
(a) Ohio State lost to a mediocre Pac-10 USC team earlier in the year, and
(b) Oregon was not strongest champion we have seen to emerge from the Pac-10 in recent years.
The Pac-10 Champion Oregon Ducks reigned over the weakest Pac-10 conference in close to a decade. Oregon was convincingly beaten by Stanford and Boise State this year and barely managed to squeak out the conference title against Arizona, Stanford and Oregon State.
Miami played in the ACC and lost to North Carolina, Clemson, and Virginia Tech before caving to Wisconsin 20-14 in their bowl game.
Georgia Tech, the ACC Champion, was blown out by Miami and lost to a very mediocre SEC team, Georgia, late in the season before dropping to Iowa 24-14 in the Orange Bowl.
Of this group, the Big Ten's most impressive bowl victory, hands down, has got to be Penn State's win over the SEC's third best team, LSU.
LSU lost to Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi before dropping a close 19-17 loss to Penn State. Once again, though, this victory for the Big Ten is tempered by the fact that LSU was a team with serious issues coming into this year's bowl matchup.
Much like the Big Ten's only victory from last year, which came against a strife-ridden South Carolina squad, PSU had the good luck to play an LSU team whose coach was under intense fire for poor clock management and his failure to make LSU a title contender at the top of the SEC the last few years.
There was more drama surrounding the Bayou Bengals and their coach coming into the PSU game than on your average episode of MTV's The Real World.
Ironically, PSU's victory over LSU saw Les Miles make more poor game management decisions at the end of the game. In all likelihood, if Miles survives this year, which it looks like he will, his coaching seat will certainly be even hotter in 2010.
A win is a win for PSU, but beating LSU after the Mississippi debacle doesn't look terribly impressive. It may or may not be fair to try and pin this on the controvery surrounding Miles at the end of the year, but LSU fans will likely agree that their team is one that finished weakly this season.
The point of all this is that the Big Ten will not regain national respect until it consistently wins at the highest level against top SEC foes or, probably more importantly, in the BCS title game. The Big Ten has developed its bad reputation getting run over by SEC champions and other top conference opponents.
To restore its pride, it's likely going to have to defeat the Alabamas, Texases, and Floridas of the college football world—not the Georgia Techs.
The saving grace for the Big Ten, if there is one, is that in 2009 it made a solid case for the argument that it could be the third or fourth best conference in college football. This was not the case in 2007 or 2008 when it was being openly wondered by many in the national media whether or not the Big Ten was actually better than the MAC.
In 2010, the Big Ten will also have some teams enter the season with enough momentum that may be able to be considered national title contenders. Ohio State and Iowa especially come to mind. It will be these teams that will have the best opportunity to finally get Big Ten bashers, in the national media and elsewhere, to shut up. 2009 was a slightly better than mediocore season for the Big 10, like its bowl record attests to, but it has some more ground to cover before it can be considered the equal of the SEC and maybe even the Big 12.