In the year 2008 in college football, the Big Ten is presumed dead. Pundits around the country a year ago consistently ranked the league below the Southeastern Conference and the Pacific-10 (and some had it even lower than that), and those paid to spout opinions have panned the league as a plodding group that can't keep pace with the elite in the sport.
However, that type of talk was largely missing from the coaches' messages delivered at the lectern at the Hyatt Regency Chicago today as the league's 11 skippers addressed topics that included the strength of the league. More than one said the Midwestern unit was the best it has been in quite some time.
In other words, the Big Ten isn't dead yet. Just ask it.
"Last year, we had 10 bowl-eligible teams," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "That shows me that this conference is as strong as it's ever been."
However, certain numbers would seem to indicate that the national naysayers have an argument. Some point at Ohio State's losses by a combined 41 points in the last two national championship games to SEC teams in Florida and LSU. Then there were eggs laid by Michigan and Illinois in the last two Rose Bowls against Pac-10 power USC. In addition, it took until slot No. 20 to find another Big Ten team (Illinois) in the final Associated Press poll last year after Ohio State.
According to Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema, choosing to look at those numbers is being too selective. For example, though Ohio State has fallen on the big stage each of the last two years, the Big Ten has defeated SEC teams in the last three Capital One Bowls, with Wisconsin knocking off Auburn in 2005 and doing the same to Arkansas in '06 and Michigan beating Florida last season. Other high-profile wins include Ohio State beating No. 2 Texas in 2006 and Penn State defeating Tennessee in the Outback Bowl that same year.
"In the two years prior to (last year) we had beaten Arkansas and Auburn … who as you know are SEC opponents, and we were able to win both of those games," Bielema said. "So during my time at Wisconsin we're 2-2.
"You saw Michigan, who had all the reasons in the world maybe not to play their sharpest game ever, go out and defeat Florida. So if you want to group and gather, make sure you have all of the things gathered together because I really believe the Big Ten Conference is as strong as ever."
Commissioner Jim Delany had a more animated response, pointing to the fact that Ohio State's repeat appearances in the title game reflected well on the league even if the eventual outcomes were not positive.
"I don't think we have to prove ourselves because I don't think if you don't win a national championship that you have to apologize," Delany said. "I would have liked to have had the games be more competitive. I would have liked to have won them. No one likes to win more than this commissioner. I love to win. I love to be proud. But when you don't win, you don't jump off a cliff."
The league will have plenty of chances to show its strength early in the college football season. Those start in week one Aug. 30 when Illinois matches up with probable top-five team Missouri in St. Louis and Michigan State visits California, a squad that spent part of last season in the national title hunt.
Two weeks later on Sept. 13, the league has two more chances against West Coast squads when Ohio State faces USC in Los Angeles in what most believe is the nonconference game of the year. On the same date, Purdue will host Oregon, another team in the national title hunt last year and a squad that destroyed Michigan in Ann Arbor in September.
"It's important that we go win," Zook said. "There's not a whole lot we can say until we go win."
Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said that could very well happen considering the league, in his opinion, will be better this upcoming season than it has been in the past two.
"I think there are more returning players," Tressel said. "Obviously we think this is the finest group of coaches in America, so when you line up in the Big Ten, I'm sure like every other conference feels about themselves, every team can be the champion."