Less than a decade ago, the case could have been made that the Big Ten was the best conference in college football. In the 2005 season Penn State and Ohio State were ranked third and fourth respectively, hovering just on the cusp of the national championship picture. A year later, the Buckeyes and Wolverines played a 42-39 thriller while ranked as the top two teams in the country, and there was talk about a rematch for the crystal football before the BCS spit out Florida instead as Ohio State’s opponent on that fateful Arizona night when the Big Ten started its descent into relative irrelevance.
Sure, the league grabbed an outsized share of BCS at-large berths on the strength of its pedigree. (In only four of the 16 years of the BCS did the Big Ten miss out on claiming an at-large berth; over the course of the era, the conference was awarded 12 of the 48 at-large berths that were not already allocated to conference champions, and that percentage rises when you take into account automatic qualifying rules for BCS Busters and Notre Dame.) And its TV contracts have made the Big Ten the richest conference in college football, with member schools splitting hundreds of millions of dollars between themselves annually.
But the competitive balance no longer rests in the Midwest. Claiming spots in the College Football Playoff will probably be harder, not easier, for Big Ten schools at the dawn of the new era. The conference’s reputation is at a nadir, with sanctions knocking first Ohio State and then Penn State from perches of significance. Michigan State restored some pride for the league at the Rose Bowl against Stanford, and Ohio State did the same a few years earlier against Oregon. But they haven’t been in the national championship picture since the Buckeyes lost their second straight title game in 2007, this time to “never lost in regulation” LSU.
Just three years from welcoming Nebraska into the fold and forming two divisions, the Big “Ten” becomes 14 in 2014 with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers. What effect will the two newcomers have on conference strength of schedule in the eyes of the selection committee? Can any team distinguish itself enough to force an inclusion into the four-team bracket?
And that’s without mentioning the shoulder injury that has sidelined Ohio State’s star quarterback for the season, throwing the East out of alignment. With few contenders and a lot of pretenders, how would a Big Ten champion with even a single blemish on its record be perceived by the committee? This season could tell us a lot about how the selectors perceive the relative strength of each Power Five conference, and whether the Big Ten still merits a privileged position within that fold.
Click ahead to see predictions for the order of ranking in the West and the East…