Back in the 70s, the Big Ten conference became known as the "Big Two and Little Eight" due to the dominance of Ohio State and Michigan. In the 80s, teams like Iowa, Illinois and Michigan State rose up to crash the Rose Bowl party once apiece, but it was still mostly an OSU-UM show.
That all changed in the 90s when Penn State joined the conference. Their first year of Big Ten football was mostly uneventful, but their second was the stuff of legend. Rolling through the conference like a runaway train, the Nittany Lions crushed Ohio State 63-14 on their way to a perfect 12-0 season and probably deserved a share of the national title.
Fast-forward to 2012 and both Penn State and Ohio State are on probation, and Michigan is suffering a down season (8-5 overall, 6-2 in the conference). After several mediocre bowl seasons, the conference as a whole is suffering under the perception of weakness relative to some other conferences (specifically the SEC and Pac-12).
The 2013 season might have represented a resurgence of sorts for some of the teams that had been struggling. Michigan State, Iowa, and Minnesota all had breakthrough seasons of a sort, with the Spartans achieving a Rose Bowl victory that had eluded the conference since Ohio State beat Oregon four years ago.
It is very possible that 2014 will see the Big Ten becoming more like it's Southern rival conference than observers would like to admit. Ohio State and Michigan will once again contend for the conference title (as well as bigger prizes), but they will be joined by the Spartans and several others near the top. If OSU and MSU continue their excellence and at least three other teams have top-25 finishes, the league makes a strong move to close the gap with the SEC.
Jeff covered Michigan State in detail on Monday, and of course Ohio State will be under the collective 11W microscope for the entire off-season. What follows then is a quick look at some of the other conference contenders and a rather speculative look at their chances (expressed in terms of a percentage) of ending the season as ranked teams.
The Badgers were 9-2 last season going into a home tilt against Penn State and were considered the second-best team in the conference after Ohio State. Then the wheels fell off as they choked against the Lions and then went down to Orlando and wilted in the fourth quarter in a 34-24 loss to South Carolina.
Gone are explosive running back James White and durable receiver Jared Abbrederis but the even more explosive Melvin Gordon returns to anchor the always-imposing Wisconsin running game. Quarterback Joel Stave returns, but without Abbrederis he'll have to find another go-to player in the passing game.
Chance to end the season ranked: 90%. Despite the crash-and-burn finish, Wisconsin still ended up ranked, as they have been for several seasons running. Streaks always end, but don't bet on this one running out just yet. While the LSU game in Houston will be a challenge, the rest of their non-conference slate is Western Illinois, Bowling Green, and South Florida all at home. No Ohio State, Michigan State, or Michigan on the schedule means a 10-2 or 11-1 regular season is a distinct possibility.
The Hawkeyes finished 8-5 last season and 5-3 in the Big Ten. However, they started slow in their bowl game against LSU and a second-half comeback fell short on their way to a 21-14 loss. Quarterback Jake Rudock was only a sophomore, and he will have running back Mark Weisman and top receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley back to help the team try to achieve higher goals in 2014.
Chance to end the season ranked: 80%. No Ohio State, no Michigan State, no Penn State, and no Michigan on the schedule. Toughest games are homers against Wisconsin and Nebraska to close the regular season. If they aren't ranked at the end, they'll have no one to blame but themselves.
It seems strange to see the Wolverines listed this far down in the conference, but these are strange times for UM fans. After a disappointing season (which I predicted, BTW), the Michigan faithful were greeted with some off-season embarrassments, a significant injury to a key player, and a recruiting class that, while good overall, was rather pedestrian by UM standards.
Still, there's a lot of potential in this squad if they can find the team chemistry and the toughness that the 2013 Wolverines lacked. The running game that was non-existent last season might come alive if highly-touted freshman Derrick Green can stay in shape and live up to his accolades. If not, Ohio native De'Veon Smith showed promise in limited action and might provide the balance that Devin Gardner needs to take some of the pressure off.
Chance they end the season ranked: Let's go with 70%. If they can get past a September night game at Notre Dame, the schedule sets up nicely for a 10-2 run (losses at MSU and OSU). Even if they lose to the Irish, 9-3 and a decent bowl performance will have them somewhere in the 18-23 range.
The Cornhuskers' brand was damaged early in the season when they squandered a 21-3 lead at home against UCLA in a 41-21 drubbing. They finished a middling 5-3 in the Big Ten and 8-4 overall, but their defense limited Georgia's explosive offense to mostly field goals in a 24-19 Gator Bowl victory to salvage the season. There is some reason for optimism as their two quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg gained valuable experience subbing for the oft-injured Taylor Martinez.
Chance they end the season ranked: 50%. Nebraska has a brutal schedule that calls for them to host Miami (FL) before going on the road to play Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Iowa. If they can split those four games then they have a good chance of being ranked at the end of the season, but 1-3 is probably more realistic. If they go 9-3 overall, they'll need to have run up the score a bit in their victories in order to stay in the top 25.
Long-shot time here. The Gophers were last season's B1G feel-good story, but this season they will be hard-pressed to repeat it. After traveling to TCU and Michigan in their first six games (and after a three-game holiday sandwiched between two open dates) they face a murderous last four games against Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.
The Nebraska game is the most winnable of that last group, but it's on the road and the 'Huskers will undoubtedly bring their best effort in order to atone for last year's loss at Minneapolis. The Wisconsin game is also on the road.
Chance they end the season ranked: 20%. Prove me wrong Gophers.
No ranking will be available for the Nittany Lions this season, as they are still on probation. However, the NCAA backed off some of the scholarship restrictions, and that allowed new head coach James Franklin to bring in 25 new recruits (eh, I thought it was only supposed to be 20?) on national signing day.
Franklin brought five of those players over from his Vanderbilt recruiting efforts, and it's a good sign for the program that these young men are already so attached to their future coach. If Franklin can also elevate Penn State the way he elevated a previously-lowly Vanderbilt team (24-15 in three seasons, 9-4 the last two), then the Buckeyes and Spartans will have a major power to contend with on their schedule going forward.
Chance they end the season ranked: 0% due to probation, though they can earn AP love. A strong season (especially if they beat Central Florida in Ireland on national television) will help the conference anyway.