Ohio State’s thrashing of Oregon in the title game was more than just an ego boost for the Big Ten.
It may have also signaled an impending renaissance for a league that looked finished four months ago.
The Big Ten was the only league in the country to beat three ranked teams in bowl games — and that was before Ohio State’s victory over the Ducks. The conference was also the only one with two teams in the top five of the final poll released Tuesday.
The Buckeyes were a unanimous No. 1, and Michigan State was tied for fifth after stunning Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.
And the recent influx of high-profile coaches like Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh could have the Big Ten poised for big things in the years to come.
“I do think there’s a little bit of a reset. With the strength of the coaches, that’s a factor,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said.
The argument over whether the conference has finally caught up to the SEC, the Big 12 and the Pac-12 will continue all offseason.
In September, it wasn’t much of an argument. On one weekend, Virginia Tech stunned the Buckeyes, Oregon throttled the Spartans and Notre Dame embarrassed Michigan. Many experts declared that the conference was out of the running for a playoff spot.
What a difference a few months make.
Michigan just committed roughly $35 million to Jim Harbaugh.
Michigan State has won the Big Ten title game, the Rose Bowl and the Cotton in the past 13 months. New coaches at Wisconsin (Paul Chryst) and Nebraska (Mike Riley) could push those perennial league contenders over the hump, and Jerry Kill has things looking up at Minnesota.
Don’t forget Penn State. The sanctions are ending and the Nittany Lions look ready to rebound under James Franklin.
In the near future, all those programs will probably be chasing the Buckeyes.
Ohio State is set to bring back the majority of its starters and could have three proven starting quarterbacks; Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller.
Harbaugh’s track record suggests that Michigan could be back in the national spotlight sooner than later.
Stanford was in way worse shape than the Wolverines are when Harbaugh took over in 2007. But he led the Cardinal to a 12-1 record and the Orange Bowl title in his fourth season before a successful stint with the San Francisco 49ers.
Still, Michigan has to worry about reclaiming its own state first.
Michigan State has won at least 11 games in four of the past five seasons. Its 21-point comeback against Baylor further silenced whispers that its success was largely a product of a weak league.
In the West division, Kill has led once-mediocre Minnesota to back-to-back eight win seasons.
Wisconsin beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl, hired a seemingly perfect fit to replace Gary Andersen in former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and finished 13th in the final poll.
Nebraska’s decision to fire Bo Pelini was also something of a good sign for the league. It was proof that the Huskers don’t plan on settling for anything less than national title contention in the years to come.
“I was cheering like mad for Wisconsin because I just thought it legitimizes everything that these guys did. You’ve been told you’ve been bad for so long, at times the psychologist part of it takes over. You start believing you’re not very good, and that’s not true at all,” Meyer said.
The next sign post for the league will be on national signing day, which is only three weeks away.
Ohio State and Penn State are poised to bring in Top 10 classes. Wisconsin and Michigan State are in position for the kind of quality classes that have made them consistent winners in recent years.
Michigan is playing catch up because of the uncertainty that marked the end of Brady Hoke’s tenure though, and the rest of the league trails many of the the southern and West Coast schools.
But after years of ridicule, the Big Ten can boast of a national champion and bunch of other teams heading in the right direction.
“I still think top to bottom, we have some work to do in our conference. But it’s moving,” Meyer said.
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