The Big Ten Conference was not considered among college football's elite for most of last season. Its downward trend had started years before, when leagues such as the Southeastern Conference, Big 12 Conference and even the Pacific-12 Conference had raced by what was thought to be a bunch of plodders with the help of quick-scoring spread offenses and defenses more reliant on speed than power.
With Michigan struggling under soon-to-be-fired coach Brady Hoke, with Penn State still feeling the effects of the penalties assessed in the aftermath of the school's sexual-abuse scandal, even teams at the top of last year's regular-season standings, such as Ohio State and Wisconsin, were considered more wannabes than legitimate national contenders.
That changed when the Buckeyes took down Alabama and Oregon in the first year of the College Football Playoff. Their 42-20 victory over the Ducks and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota in the CFP national championship at Cowboys Stadium did more than merely solidify Urban Meyer's legacy as one of the sport's all-time best coaches.
It also raised the level of respect for the entire conference going into the 2015 season.
"You look at the discussions and the things that are being talked about nationally, the excitement, it's a 180-degree turn from the conversations that were going on a year ago," Penn State coach and former Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin said Thursday during the Big Ten's spring football teleconference. "That's exciting, because the perception has really changed."
Said Meyer: "There's only one way to eliminate [negative] perception, and that is to get better. I think Michigan State has done a lot to help the Big Ten Conference. They won the Rose Bowl the year before and won a big bowl game [the Cotton Bowl] this year. Wisconsin beat Auburn [in the Outback Bowl]. Obviously, it's a one-year cycle. We've got to do this for a while."
Michigan's hire of former San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, expected to revive the Wolverines program he once quarterbacked, also has bolstered the league's stature nationally.
"I think it's a combination of a lot of factors," said Franklin, who is entering his second year at Penn State. "It's the success Big Ten teams had in bowl games. I think it's the personalities that are in the conference in coaching positions, the success that individual schools had on a national level. It's not one thing. If it's one thing, it would be about that one school, but it's about the conference as a whole."
Though Franklin was hesitant to compare what he faces in Happy Valley to what he did at Vanderbilt, taking the Commodores from perennial doormats to their first back-to-back bowl games in school history, Meyer compared the Big Ten, and particularly the East Division, to the SEC, which he won twice while at Florida from 2005 to 2010.
"Our side of the conference is kind of ridiculous right now as far as the quality of teams, in terms of how they did in bowl games," he said, referencing the division's combined 5-1 postseason record.
The improvement at the top of the Big Ten will make it even more difficult for middle-of-the-pack teams such as Maryland as well as bottom-feeders such as Indiana to make an impact.
Asked whether he believes the Terps can build on a respectable 4-4 record from their first Big Ten season, fifth-year coach Randy Edsall said: "We definitely want to build on it. Only the teams we played would know if we snuck up on them, or whatever. The thing I like is that our young men know what the Big Ten is all about and what we have to do and how much we have to work in order to give ourselves the opportunity to win each and every Saturday."
Edsall said his team has shown marked improvement in its physical strength along the offensive and defensive lines, an ingredient for success in the Big Ten.
"I know we're stronger than where we were a year ago, and we'll continue to get stronger there," Edsall said. "We do have some inexperience there, but that's college football. Guys have to learn. As long as they give effort and they use good fundamentals and good technique, they got a chance to be successful. We know what we have to do to be successful in terms of recruiting with the offensive and defensive lines. From a defensive standpoint, being in the 4-3 [scheme] helps our guys, fits more of who we are."
Edsall is also realistic, knowing the Terps might need to get better just to equal what they accomplished last season. Two of their league wins came on the road at Penn State and Michigan, but Edsall knows the Nittany Lions will be back to a full complement of scholarship players and that the Wolverines should be much improved under Harbaugh.
"We finished third in the division, and what we've got to do is just keep getting better, keep recruiting, keep working," Edsall said. "To me, it's going to be the toughest division in all of college football. If you want to get to the top of that, you've got to do things necessary to get that done from a facility standpoint, to continue recruiting to continuing to get better, and coach the guys up to make them better."
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