The Big Ten is moving backward.
I'm not talking about the BCS standings — it's hard to imagine those getting any worse. I'm referring to time.
For three decades, two football programs suffocated their Big Ten peers like a Rust Belt winter. From 1968 to '97, Michigan played in 13 Rose Bowls. Ohio State played in nine. The rest of the league combined played in eight. Every year, they dueled the third Saturday of November.
“They used to call it the Big Two and the Little Eight,” retired Purdue coach Joe Tiller, an Ohio native, told me. “To the people in the Midwest, that game was more important than anything that happened in the postseason.”
In the BCS era, only three seasons have ended without Michigan or Ohio State earning at least a share of the Big Ten. But clearly, their collective stranglehold has weakened. The Buckeyes and Wolverines haven't been strong at the same time since 2006.
That's changing. Fast.
Urban Meyer is undefeated. Brady Hoke has won his past six conference games. They've rebuilt more quickly than expected. Worse for Big Ten rivals, they're the only teams in the league recruiting at an SEC level.
Say what you want about Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa. All have their moments. But Ohio State and Michigan have higher ceilings. More tradition, more prestige, more resources. They represent the Big Ten's past — and its future.
Which brings us to the big question on the western front: Can Nebraska join them?
Will the Huskers march alongside Ohio State and Michigan, leading the Big Ten out of the wilderness? Or will NU spend the next decade in the conference's second tier, waiting for Urban and Brady to drop table scraps, grabbing a Rose Bowl bid only when Ohio State and Michigan qualify for the four-team playoff?
Jim Delany designed his conference based on four traditional superpowers: Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Penn State. The Nittany Lions will fall back — their recent surge doesn't change their long-term limitations.
Nebraska's trajectory is most unpredictable.
Big Red standards and expectations are a hot topic right now. What's practical? What's too ambitious?
Is a one-point win over Northwestern, for instance, just an example of college football parity? Or a sign that Nebraska is further away than we thought from national relevance? Emotions are hot. Consensus is elusive.
One side of the argument says look at Ohio State and Michigan. Didn't the Buckeyes almost lose at home Saturday to Purdue? Didn't the Wolverines almost fall at home to Michigan State?
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Yes and yes.
But remember, Meyer is in Year One. Hoke is in Year Two. You think they'll be satisfied with those results a few seasons from now?
Bo Pelini is in Year Five, standing on the fence between progress and decline. If he wants to join Ohio State and Michigan, his teams must play cleaner. Eliminate turnovers. Limit penalties.
He must recruit at a higher level. And more effectively develop the players he does land.
He must take advantage of his opportunities. Inspire his guys to play their best at the big moments. He missed in 2009 and '10 by the slimmest of margins. Three weeks after giving up 63 points to his alma mater, here comes another big game.
The path to Pasadena will never be easier. But this fight is bigger than 2012. It's about Nebraska's place in the new Big Ten, which is beginning to resemble the conference of Pelini's youth.
Big Two. Little Ten.
“Who do the Huskers have this week?” Tiller asks me.
“They can get 'em,” he says. “I recommend getting them when you have the chance.”
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