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IN THIS, THE FINAL YEAR OF THE BIG TEN AS WE KNOW IT—THAT IS, AS AN 11-team league—fans from the Twin Cities to Happy Valley, from Champaign to the shores of Lake Mendota, should take a few moments to remember the way things were. Come 2011, the Nebraska Cornhuskers will come rolling into the conference of Bo and Woody, likely bringing with them a radical change to the flow of autumn in the Midwest. Divisions will be created. A few rivalries may be severed. And, most likely, a new date will be added to the calendar, that first Saturday in December, when 12 weeks of anticipation will culminate in one colossal event, a championship game that will presumably be played in a modern if somewhat artificial environment, such as Ford Field or Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Big Ten, in other words, is finally moving into the 21st century.
Just as it was when Penn State joined the league back in 1993 or the Big Ten Network first became a fixture in 2007, change will be unsettling at first. But truly, this is all for the better. For years the conference has been subjected to near-annual criticism from columnists, bloggers and fans of teams from other conferences, much to the frustration of Big Ten loyalists. No matter how many testimonial statistics they bring forth—such as the fact that Big Ten and SEC teams have split their past 22 head-to-head bowl game meetings—the Big Ten's supporters can't shake the national perceptions. You know them well by now: The Big Ten is "slow," "outdated" or, worst of all, "irrelevant." Never mind that the league was one of the first to embrace the New Age spread offense or that NFL teams keep snapping up Big Ten players.
But commissioner Jim Delany clearly still carries a big stick. For the first six months of 2010 college football followers waited with a mix of anticipation and dread as league officials talked openly about the coming expansion. Depending on which report you believed, the conference at one point or another was prepared to add some mix of Texas, Notre Dame, Missouri, Maryland, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse and/or Connecticut. Amid a frantic few weeks in which the Pac-10 waged its own power play against the vulnerable Big 12, the Big Ten swooped in and landed Nebraska, one of the sport's five alltime winningest programs, proud claimant to five national championships and three Heisman Trophy winners.
Suddenly Delany's conference is home to four of the most prestigious programs ever to play the game (Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State) to go with frequent Top 25 teams Iowa and Wisconsin. Add in a forthcoming championship game, and the league figures to field one of the most competitive and most watched outfits for years to come.
Ultimately, however, reputations aren't built on historical stats and television ratings. In college football, in 2010, success is spelled with three letters: B, C and S. By that measure the oft-criticized league took a step toward redemption last January. Ending a six-game losing streak in BCS games, Big Ten teams triumphed in Pasadena (Ohio State's 26-17 Rose Bowl win over Oregon) and Miami (Iowa's 24-14 Orange Bowl victory against Georgia Tech). Throw in Penn State's mud-slogged Capital One Bowl victory against LSU and Wisconsin's Champs Sports Bowl upset of Miami, and the Big Ten boasted four bowl wins over Top 15 foes—a massive improvement from the previous year's 1-6 bowl record. Still the Big Ten's makeover won't be complete until one of its coaches gets to hold the crystal football on the last night of the season. Could this be the year?
Jim Tressel's Buckeyes look loaded yet again. Fresh off the transcendent Rose Bowl performance that evoked comparisons to a former national championship quarterback from Texas, Terrelle Pryor leads what many consider to be Ohio State's most complete team since its 2006 squad which lost to Florida in that year's title game. If the Buckeyes can make a return trip to Glendale, Ariz.—which would probably require a big early-season win against visiting Miami—there's reason to believe a more formidable offensive line and star-studded defense could lead to a happier result.
Meanwhile Kirk Ferentz-led Iowa brings back nearly all the key pieces from a team that won 11 games and earned its highest season-ending ranking (No. 7 in both polls) since 1960. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn, the Hawkeyes' Orange Bowl MVP and pass-rushing menace, is one of four returning starters on a suffocating defensive line, and likely conference contenders Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State all must visit Kinnick Stadium.
Ohio State and Iowa represent the league's best hope to produce its first national champion since the Buckeyes won in 2002, but their paths will hardly be easy. Wisconsin, boasting the league's reigning offensive player of the year (running back John Clay) and a stacked offensive line, have the pieces to bulldoze their way to Pasadena for the first time in a decade. Penn State is coming off its third 11-win season in the past five years, and JoePa won't concede even with a question mark at quarterback. Michigan, reeling from a miserable first two seasons under Rich Rodriguez, is unlikely to stay down for long.
At the same time, another projected Top 10 team is vying for a championship this season: Nebraska. As Bo Pelini's Huskers play their final season in the Big 12, their fans will be keeping a watchful eye on developments in the Big Ten, just as Big Ten fans may be sneaking peeks at their soon-to-be competitor. After an admittedly rough few years to close the decade, the league is suddenly getting bigger, better and tougher. Feel free both to enjoy it and to fear it.