Is The Big Ten Elite?

What exactly is elite? Thanks to the Twitter dot com community, the term elite has changed from being a definitive statement regarding the best of the best (like Eric Roberts) in a certain area to a funny way of asking a type of question which needs no reply. Nevertheless, pondering if things or people are elite still happens to be a way to measure greatness — or the lack thereof.

Sunday, the AP released its weekly top-25 poll. Some things changed, others remained the same, and the Big Ten had two of its teams ranked as the top two in all the land. That is certainly a far cry from all the Big Ten-related jokes we used to hurl at the ‘three yards and a cloud of dust conference’ only a few years ago. Then again, a lot of things have changed in the land of powerhouse football.

Urban Meyer has made Ohio State into a perennial national championship contender. Without going through all of Meyer’s history — since we all know the deal — the Buckeyes’ coach has, like many others in the conference, abandoned traditional Big Ten football in favor of his spread style of offense. It has already resulted in one national title for Ohio State, and there is little room to doubt that the Buckeyes will be in the mix for another spot in the College Football Playoff at the end of this season…

… except for the fact that there is competition coming out of the league.

Ohio State won’t simply be able to run roughshod through a cake-ish Big Ten, as though this regular season is a waste of everyone’s time before the postseason. The reason? The Michigan State Spartans.

Michigan State still resembles, at least in perception, the idea of the old Big Ten. Tough, gritty, coached by Mark Dantonio, who cares more about putting out a tremendous defense than he does about having some sort of flashy offense.

Unlike previous years when the Spartans always felt like they were in the mix, but were never able to truly get over some fictional hump — one which affects the yearly national title-odds lists made by list-makers — this specific Michigan State team seems different. Whether that is because we have all witnessed two consecutive beastly years from the Spartans, or because we have all finally caught up to the idea of Michigan State no longer being “the other team in the state of Michigan,” it doesn’t really matter. As of today, the Spartans are ranked as the second best team in the entire country by the AP.

That’s two Big Ten teams in the top two in one national poll. So, naturally, the question needs to be asked — is the Big Ten elite?

Only two (only two?) other teams from the conference earned a spot in the AP poll. Not your granddaddy’s Northwestern was voted in at 17 while still mostly your granddaddy’s Wisconsin came in at 22. That is some of the good news while dissecting the greatness of the Big Ten.

But wait… there’s more.

Indiana and Iowa are both currently undefeated. Now, to be fair, two of Indiana’s three wins came against glorified Sisters of the Poor-type of programs, and Iowa beat Pitt (LOL), Iowa State (chuckle), and Illinois State (EL-OH-EL). That isn’t to entirely take away from either teams’ victories — they can only beat who is in front of them — yet it is a way to temper how some might want to view a pair of 3-0 records. Still, no matter, those are early-season bright spots for the Big Ten.

However, then it starts to get a bit murky throughout the rest of the conference.

Penn State — which magically has the number one overall selection in the NFL Draft despite its constant passing-game struggles — isn’t good. Couple the Nittany Lions’ traditional greatness and current ho-hum play with other historical programs in the Big Ten struggling — such as Nebraska — it doesn’t help make the Big Ten elite.

Other historically decent-to-above-average programs are not faring too well either. Purdue’s usual cycle of having an NFL-quality quarterback every four years has seemed to hit its drought stage. Michigan (a great program, historically) is currently adjusting to some dude in khakis. While it should pay off in the long run, the program isn’t currently in any condition to help bolster the Big Ten’s resume.

Couple all of the big-name programs in the Big Ten with the ‘still don’t know what we have yet’ programs (Maryland, Rutgers, etc.), and the conference is really tying its ship to the top few teams in its league — not that there’s anything wrong with that. Most — if not all but two other — conferences don’t do that already. However, years of national perception have told us the Big Ten is hogwash — making it harder to justify calling the league elite because Ohio State got an SEC coach to win them a national title.

As of today, right this very second, the Big Ten isn’t elite. Not the way the SEC or Pac-12 happen to be. However, the idea of the league catching up to those two very good conferences isn’t that far away.

Assuming Urban Meyer doesn’t need any more random vacation time, and Mark Dantonio continues to make Michigan State a yearly beast, and Jim Harbaugh turns Michigan back to Michigan, and Penn State returns to the glory every Penn State fan swears it’s close to regaining, and Northwestern has its every-few-years “bubble-up and be good” seasons, and Purdue Purdues, and so on and so forth, the conference is much closer to being elite than it was in years past.

Sure, that is a lot of “ifs.” Yet, that’s actually what college sports are. Ifs, ands, buts and coconuts. Splitting the hairs of national perceptions with whatever tunnel-vision you use to put forth your particular brand of truth. It’s all relatively murky, and other conferences are just as subject to conditional statements and hypotheticals.

Nevertheless, the Big Ten — while unfairly criticized in previous years — is in a position as a league to be judged favorably today. Whether that is because it has dominant teams at the top, with bottom-feeders still muddling around nowhere-land, doesn’t really matter. It is the reality of the situation in the Midwest, and the shared reality for most conferences in the nation.

Power rank the conferences if you want to determine if the Big Ten is elite or not. They’re not coming in first or second today, not if you’re judging a league from top to bottom. However, the future looks bright for the league as a whole, and with a few timely improvements, by next season the Big Ten will take Joe Flacco’s job behind center in Baltimore.

About Joseph Nardone

Joseph has covered college basketball both (barely) professionally and otherwise for over five years. A Column of Enchantment for Rush The Court on Thursdays and other basketball stuff for The Student Section on other days.