It all starts today.
The 2009 Big Ten football season kicks off tonight when Indiana takes on Eastern Kentucky in the Hoosiers' newly renovated Memorial Stadium.
(Why the Hoosiers spend $55 million to improve facilities only to sell away home games is beyond me. But that is another story.)
The Thursday night kickoff, a first for the Big Ten, will feature a pretty good FCS team against the worst team in the Big Ten.
The Hoosiers are bad, but there is no way they can lose to an FCS team, right?
There was a time no one would think this game would be a challenge for any Big Ten team, but times have changed.
Appalachian State famously beat Michigan in the Big House in 2007, and the same year Minnesota lost at home to North Dakota State. In 2006, Northwestern was stunned at home by New Hampshire, and Southern Illinois knocked off Indiana in Bloomington.
Just last year, Wisconsin had to come back in dramatic fashion to force overtime against FCS Cal Poly. The Badgers won, but not because they deserved it. Instead they can thank Cal Poly kicker Andrew Gardner for the assist.
To say a precedent has been set in the last few seasons is putting it mildly.
The Big Ten has taken a dramatic dip on the national respect meter over the last few years. There are many reasons for it—some are warranted, some are not.
But the fact remains, the Big Ten has not done anything (that has yet worked) to try to reverse this perception.
That could be about to change.
The Big Ten Media Days told a story of a group of coaches and players who now are recognizing the perception of the Big Ten. They acknowledge what the college football world is saying about them and all seem determined to change that perception.
That, my Big Ten brethren, is what we call the first step.
Admitting you have a problem.
So where do we go from here?
In order to stop the losing, there are 11 more steps. Complete those steps, teams of the Big Ten, and you will complete your journey back to respectability and will no longer be the "conference that was."
It won't be easy, but it is necessary. You may want to quit, but you must press on. It may seem like the whole world is against you—they are, but you have to turn that into motivation.
It will be all the sweeter when you reach that final destination.
Follow the steps.
Step 1—Admit you have a problem.
Check. Let the healing begin...
Step 2—The Big Ten teams, coaches, and fans must get on the same page.
I thought that we were heading in the right direction.
The conference seems squarely behind Ohio State in their quest for revenge against USC, and the conference (even Jim Tressel and Mark Dantonio) is giving its full support to Rich Rodriguez and Michigan in light of "Practice-gate."
Maybe, just maybe, this could have been a check as well.
Then Purdue's first-year head coach screwed it up by saying that he'd be rooting for his former team (Eastern Kentucky) to beat Indiana.
Come on, Danny Hope! You coach at Purdue now. I understand that Indiana is a rival and that the Boilers can't stand the Hoosiers, but seriously...do you think if Michigan were playing Youngstown State that Tressel would tell the press he was rooting for the Penguins?
It's time we show a little conference solidarity. I'm not saying we go all "SEC" or anything, but there is nothing wrong with supporting our conference when we aren't playing each other.
Step 3—No one (I'm looking at you, Indiana) can lose to an FCS opponent.
Indiana, Michigan State, Northwestern, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Penn State, Minnesota, and Michigan will all play an FCS opponent.
The fact that 82 percent of the conference is playing FCS opponents is bad enough, but if the Big Ten can't win 100 percent of those games, it will become another weapon in the Big Ten haters' arsenal and another step backwards for the conference.
Win them guys! If you can't, you don't deserve to be called a Big Ten team.
Step 4—Show the MAC who the real kings of the Midwest are.
All right, listen. The Big Ten and the Mid-American Conference are a natural fit to play non-conference games. The fact that many schools in the MAC also share states with Big Ten teams is a way the big boys can share the wealth.
But recently the MAC has gotten a little cocky when it comes to playing the Big Ten.
They have good reason.
Just last season, Big Ten "Co-Champion" Ohio State had to work hard to beat Ohio, and Michigan fell at home to Toledo.
People will begin to talk when a 4-8 MAC team takes the Big Ten's most dominant team to the fourth quarter and a 3-9 MAC team beats college football's winningest program at home.
Time to assert your power, Big Ten. Remember, you are playing teams chock-full of players that weren't good enough to play for your team. The is no shame in knocking the snot out of "little brother." So do it!
Step 5—Ohio State must beat USC.
Whether it is fair or not, the hopes of the Big Ten's return to respectability are placed squarely on the Buckeyes.
This decade's most dominant Pac-10 team meeting the decade's most dominant Big Ten team seems like it should have been a dream come true. The fact that it was happening twice was heaven.
However, playing USC has been a nightmare for the Big Ten, and Ohio State's first meeting was no different.
The Buckeyes must shed the monkey of five straight losses to teams ranked in the top five, and Jim Tressel needs to get back to using his imagination.
Once upon a time, Tressel did use that fine football mind of his. He was even known for a time as a "big game coach." That perception is long gone.
Time to regain your swagger, Buckeyes. The Big Ten needs you.
Step 6—Show up for the other big non-conference games.
The conference takes a lot heat for its non-conference schedules. I agree with that criticism to a certain extent, but I have also noticed that there are some Big Ten teams making an effort to upgrade their schedules.
Kudos for that—but you can only benefit from scheduling tougher if you win those games.
This season Big Ten teams will play a handful of games against the Pac-10 and the Big XII. A lot of those games are in Big Ten country, and that makes it all the more important to actually show up for the game.
That has been a problem for Big Ten teams lately, but winning these games will get the Big Ten over the hump and firmly back on the road to respectability.
Oh, and beat Notre Dame. Come on!
Step 7—Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State, or ANYONE must challenge Ohio State and Penn State for the Big Ten title.
Another two-team race for the Big Ten championship is bad news for the conference. Someone needs to step up and take their game to the next level.
Illinois has the talent, but not the consistency. Iowa has the team, but not the schedule. Michigan State has the ability, but can't get over the hump.
Just get it done. Someone. Please.
Step 8—Offense must rule when Ohio State visits Happy Valley.
There is nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned slugfest like we witnessed in the 2008 battle between Penn State and Ohio State. But in today's college football world, a 13-6 score reads like a joke.
Remember the final Big Ten game of 2006; that night, No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan met, in front of the world, for arguably the Big Ten's biggest game ever.
The game lived up to the hype. It was three-and-a-half hours of exciting, panic-inducing mania. The offenses also put up 81 points.
The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions both have the potential to be very explosive offensively, but they also have coaches who have the potential to be so conservative it can bring you to tears.
To JoePa and Tress, let 'em loose and let 'em play!
Step 9—Michigan must go bowling in 2009.
Michigan, I implore you to find a way to get it done.
Just three years ago, no Big Ten fan could have imagined a 3-9 season was on the horizon for the Wolverines.
But 3-9 is what we got in 2008. It won't fly again.
This is Michigan we are talking about—college football's winningest program. Two losing seasons back-to-back cannot happen, and anything short of 7-5 will not be acceptable.
(Is it weird for anyone else to hope for a 7-5 season for Michigan and not mean it in a bad way?)
Step 10—The Big Ten has to go .500 or better this bowl season.
Time to make a statement—no more 3-5, and no more 1-6!
The Big Ten's bowl record has been pathetic at best over the last few seasons—and don't give me that "two teams in the BCS leads to uneven matchups" baloney. I don't care about fan excuses.
It's time to step up and just get it done.
Step 11—The Big Ten Champ must win its bowl game.
Whether the champ is playing in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day or playing in the Rose Bowl a week later for the National Championship, they must win!
The Big Ten has not won a Rose Bowl since the beginning of the decade and has been owned of late by the USC.
There were lopsided losses to USC by Penn State in 2008 and Illinois in 2007, as well as back-to-back losses by Michigan at the hands of USC and Texas in 2005 and 2006.
No more. Enough.
Win the Rose Bowl already!
Step 12—Start all over again.
That's right. Following steps 2-11 will get the Big Ten back to respectability. Because they will have earned it. The hard part is earning it year after year.
Ready for the challenge, Big Ten?
Time to prove it.
This article is also featured on FirstandBigTen.com, a Bleacher Report blog dedicated to Big Ten football.