You call it the Big Ten.
I call it the Seven and Seven Conference.
You’re intoxicated by the Eastern Seven, where wacky winner Jim Harbaugh is poised to challenge buttoned-down Urban Meyer and restore Michigan-Ohio State as arguably the greatest rivalry in college football.
You’re pondering the future of little brother Michigan State, who rose to a lofty summit last season but now faces a bigger challenge–to keep going toe-to-toe with the traditional heavyweights.
Past glory forces you to keep you an eye on Penn State, and wonder what it’s going to take to restore a former powerhouse. Or wonder if it’s just over.
I’ve got no issue with those thoughts. I’m curious, too.
But I’m also interested in the soft Seven of the mathematically challenged Big Ten.
The East may be intoxicating. The unloved West, though, is bubbly with opportunity.
We saw it last year, where a really nice 10-2 Iowa team sneaked its way into a marvelous 12-0 regular season.
All credit to the Hawkeyes. They beat every opponent on their schedule. Would they have fared as well with Michigan and/or Ohio State and/or Michigan State on their slate?
We’ll never know. They were too busy beating Maryland and Indiana.
The point is, that kind of opportunity is there again for Iowa and its Western compatriots in the Seven and Seven Conference. Except for Wisconsin—which plays Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State, in a row. That’s courtesy of the new nine-conference-game Big Ten.
We may lament the expansion that has forever changed the landscape of the Big Ten—one that gives Rutgers and Maryland chances to shock Michigan and Ohio State, and takes them away from Northwestern and Illinois, who will see less and less of some storied rivals even with the league’s new nine-conference game schedule.
What it does, though, is open another door—the door to new Western glory.
While the East braces for a big-time power struggle, the West is positioned for. . . who knows what?
Wisconsin and Iowa certainly have had their moments in recent years. But nothing is guaranteed moving forward.
Paul Chryst, the second-year Badger coach, is promising but unproven as he tries to build on the foundation laid by Barry Alvarez and wayward son Bret Bielema.
Kirk Ferentz has had a marvelous run at Iowa. But as the dean of Big Ten coaches heads into his 18th year, the Hawkeyes program also faces uncertainty. Ferentz, 61, can’t go on forever. All signs point toward a great season. If not, even Hawkeye fans tend to have short memories.
Nebraska? The Cornhuskers may be touted as one of the nation’s all-time winningest programs. Since leaving the Big 12 for the Big Ten in 2011, though, they have looked more like Iowa State than Ohio State.
And those are the teams most likely to succeed in the Big Ten’s cloudy Western Seven.
The division figures to be deservedly under the radar this fall. But that overlooks the chance for glory that this muscle vacuum provides.
Maybe there won’t be another improbable 12-0 run like the one Iowa enjoyed last year. But maybe there will be—gasp, a team that puts itself within one conference championship game shocker of playing for all the college football marbles.
That’s why the watered-down Big Ten has created the chance for an unlikely set of heroes.
You’re focused on Michigan-Ohio State. I’m leaving room for What’s Up in the West.
Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska may be most likely to succeed.
But Northwestern, despite its usual private school/small fan-base issues, could emerge in the Seven West vacuum if it can find a passing game. Some of NU’s many sportswriter alums chafe at times, but what Pat Fitzgerald does is nothing short of amazing, as far as I am concerned.
Even Illinois–which made a splashy hire, bringing former Bears coach Lovie Smith—is entitled to dream big. Although that has to be down the road. Doesn’t it?
Yup, I want to see what’s next on the Harbaugh reality show. I’m eager to see how annoyed Meyer and Dantonio get.
But the West, while as not as glamorous, will catch my eye too.