Welcome to TRE's own Victory Lap week, where we celebrate somehow finishing 11 weeks of Big Ten team coverage. If you missed any of it or you just want to read about vengeful potatoes, here are the links to each team's specific week.
I'll catalog that further on Friday. Let's move towards a broader Big Ten view though, as we discuss the bests and the worst of the richest conference in college football.*
What is the Big Ten's Greatest Strength?
The greatest strength of the Big Ten this year? It's depth. It's great to have one dominant team, but it's much better to have legitimate challengers to the throne. Ohio State, Iowa, and Wisconsin are all title threats. And not just conference title - national title. With the right breaks, each could find their way to 12-0.
Behind 2010's Big Three, come five teams that all could beat one of the Big Three on the right day. Penn State will likely drop back a step, but has enough returning to win eight or nine games. Purdue will be the team to watch. I expect that the Boilers make the jump to at least eight wins this year. Actually, I expect the same from Michigan as well.
Michigan State should be the fourth best team in the conference. However, they are Michigan State. You saddle them with expectations at your own peril. Northwestern has some large holes to fill, but it's reasonable to expect to see them bowling again. Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota will be varying degrees of bad, but I'll put the top 8 of the league against the top 8 of the league in any of the past ten years.
I think the Big 10's biggest positive in 2010 will be gaining more national respect. I wrote during the beginning of the season that the Big 10 had been unfairly maligned in the national media. My arguments then were that national perception regarded the SEC as the superior conference due to its most recent winning streaks and relationship with EPSN. The Big 12 and Pac 10 were also highly regarded on the strength of one or two good teams, while their large stable of mediocre or horrible teams were ignored.
Fortunately, I was proven right in the bowl season. Wins by Ohio State over the Pac-10 darling, Iowa over a vastly overrated GA Tech team, the "too slow" Wisconsin over the "speedy" Miami, and Penn State over the "SEC OMG" LSU Tigers were vindication. Even in our losses, the conference played well with Northwestern taking Auburn to three overtimes. (Let's just ignore that Minnesota game, shall we?) I predict these victories will be the final nails in the coffin of the "Big 10 is dead" meme, and it doesn't come a moment too soon.
I've got two greatest strengths because, well, it's been a nice last 5 months for the Big Eleven and I'm pretty optimistic, maybe a bit giddy, and definitely happy about the way things are moving.
The first strength is the bolstering of this conference's reputation. One of the dumbest things I've read this year is a quote from Lansing State Journal writer Tim Staudt, who commented in one of his weekly columns that the Big Ten should drop all the expansion talk and focus on other issues. His reasoning? Expansion talk had failed to pique anyone's interest this offseason. Whoops, looks like someone missed all the breathless press releases and speculation over which team would join the Big Ten. All this expansion talk has given the Big Ten a new national reputation as a wealthy, 800 lb. gorilla who's coming to steal your precious teams while brushing other conference's needs away. Not a bad offseason makeover; even it's some kind of weird smokescreen, the effect has been tremendously positive.
As far as football strengths, the passing game which keyed most of the Big Ten's bowl success last year will again be a strength. I'll go to the board really quickly:
Presumed Improved or Excellent Passing Attacks: Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan
Veteran QB's: OSU, Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana
Number of quarterbacks with a passer rating over 126 in 2009? There were 10, which is more than double the number from 2008. I expect improvement from Michigan (Forcier was too injured to throw effectively most of 2009 and he's added 20 lbs.), Mini, Iowa, and OSU.