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Sports Authority

McDaniel: ‘Welcome back, Big Ten’

| Thursday, September 17, 2015

Think back to last year at this time in college football. The state of the Big Ten Conference was arguably at its lowest point ever. Two weeks into the 2014 season, No. 8 Ohio State fell by two touchdowns to unranked Virginia Tech in Columbus, No. 7 Michigan State couldn’t keep up with Marcus Mariota and fell apart in the second half at Oregon, and Michigan fell even further into disgrace with a 31-0 drubbing in South Bend for its first shutout loss since 1984. And also don’t forget Purdue, Indiana and Northwestern all lost to traditionally inferior MAC opponents Central Michigan, Northern Illinois and Bowling Green, respectively.

What happened did not shock or surprise anyone, except maybe the league’s commissioner, Jim Delany. The Big Ten was a shell of its former self and had been for the better part of the previous decade. The 2002 Buckeyes gave the conference its only national championship in the entire BCS era, and from 2004 to 2013, the league went 1-8 in the Rose Bowl game, the Big Ten’s annual opportunity to showcase its conference champion in January. One win and eight losses. That’s not good. And this doesn’t even include the embarrassing scandals that rocked both Ohio State and Penn State.

Fans in the Midwest were not shy about sharing their discontent at the additions of Maryland and Rutgers in 2014 either, the former coming off a 7-6 (3-5 ACC) season and the latter a 6-7 (3-5 AAC) season in 2013.

This recap should not come as a surprise. The Big Ten was the laughing stock of the rest of the Power-5 college football world, the butt of every joke. What should be surprising, however, is the dramatic reversal that has occurred in just one year.

Ohio State, coming off an inexplicable run through Alabama and Oregon in the inaugural College Football Playoff, looks almost unbeatable through two games this year. The Buckeyes possess not one but three fantastic quarterbacks, four possible Heisman candidates and at least three legitimate NFL talents in running back Ezekiel Elliot, defensive end Joey Bosa and left tackle Taylor Decker.

Michigan State, often an afterthought throughout college football and even in the state of Michigan, has finished in the top five of the AP poll in two consecutive years and is fresh off a huge win over Oregon that could propel it into the playoff come season’s end.

And as much as it pains me to say it, the Wolverines are well on their way back to the top with the return of head coach Jim Harbaugh and a boatload of recruits already committed for next fall.

In addition, so far this season Northwestern knocked off No. 21 Stanford, and Minnesota nearly shocked No. 2 TCU in week one. While Nebraska was the first victim of BYU’s Hail Mary sensation Tanner Magnum, and Wisconsin failed to keep pace with Alabama, neither program is far from competing for championships either.

Even Penn State currently has a top-five recruiting class in the works and potential first-round draft pick in junior quarterback Christian Hackenburg guiding the Nittany Lions this year.

There are some programs with a lot of work to do, but every conference has perennial bottom-dwellers. It would be wrong to argue such programs define the Big Ten as a whole. The Big Ten has a lot of work to do in order to sniff the success the SEC held over the rest of college football for the last 10 years. And the powerhouse programs in the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 will have something to say about the Big Ten’s recent success in the coming months.

But the Big Ten is light years ahead of where anyone expected it to be in 2015. Obviously it would be a mistake to crown either Michigan State or Ohio State college football’s best just yet. A long season remains, and anything can happen.

As of this writing, however, some chatter is brewing that two spots in the playoff could possibly belong to two Big Ten teams. Some even argue when the Spartans travel to Columbus in November, that game could simply determine which team gets the No. 1 seed and which gets the No. 4 seed in the playoff.

I’m not predicting that’s what’s going to happen, but remembering the state of the conference just one year ago today makes me think that anything is possible, and it’s simply good for the sport to have one of its top leagues competing again.

Welcome back, Big Ten.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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