Entering the 2011 college football season, the Big Ten was in dire need of damage control.
The conference has earned a reputation for being unable to measure up to the speed and athleticism of teams in the SEC and the Big 12.
Despite having more bowl appearances than any other conference in the BCS era (21), the Big Ten has won only 46 percent of its bowl games since the BCS was introduced and only 36 percent of its bowl games since 2005.
Watching Big Ten football teams try to keep up with their bowl opponents was like watching a man on a unicycle drag race with an Indy car.
The conference’s lack of postseason success led college football fans and analysts to dismiss the Big Ten as an also-ran in the college football landscape.
The Big Ten is changing its national perception in 2011. Defense, always the hallmark of Big Ten football teams, is still at a premium; however, this season the offenses are catching up, attracting the eyes of voters and recruits alike.
If you study the final scores of recent Big Ten games, you would think you were looking at scores from another conference. Through the first ten weeks of the college football season, Big Ten offenses have scored more than 30 points 49 times, just one fewer than SEC teams and just nine behind Big 12 teams.
The classic Big Ten slug-fest is certainly not a thing of the past (see: Michigan State’s 10-7 win over Ohio State), but the low-scoring game is now more infrequent in the conference.
The Big Ten has also changed its offensive identity with good quarterback play. Striking are the different, successful quarterback styles in the conference.
Braxton Miller, though unpolished in freshman year, is developing from a running quarterback to a quarterback who can run.
Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins stands in the pocket like a pro and uses his head to pick apart defenses. Cousins is the winningest quarterback in Spartan history.
Taylor Martinez of Nebraska does not have stats that jump off the box score, but his gutsy play inspires his teammates.
After a horrendous first half against Ohio State, Martinez led the Cornhuskers to a comeback victory, the week after an embarrassing 48-17 loss to Wisconsin. Martinez completed 72.7 percent of his passes against the Buckeyes, threw two touchdown passes and scored a rushing touchdown.
Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson provides an explosive dual threat as fast and athletic as any quarterback in the NCAA. Robinson ranks in the top 30 in the FBS in rushing yards and the top 40 in yards per attempt.
Far and away the best quarterback in the Big Ten is Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson, who ranks first in the FBS in passer rating and sixth in completion percentage. Wilson is solid runner with a strong, accurate arm.
Most impressive is Wilson’s ability to master and enhance the Badger offense in his first year in the program. Wisconsin owns the fourth best scoring offense in the FBS with 47 points per game.
The Big Ten is still a defense-first conference with six teams in the top 15 in the FBS in scoring defense. However, now the offenses are catching up; five Big Ten squads score over 30 points per game. This balance will lead to more bowl victories and an evolution of the national perception of Big Ten teams.
Also, the emphasis on points will attract recruits that in earlier years would have opted for flashier offenses in other conferences.
The old “three yards and a cloud of dust” image of Big Ten offense is fading away.
The conference will be stronger for it.