The Big Ten has become college football's punching bag in recent seasons.
Formerly a heavyweight in the national landscape, now the conference is a welterweight as the SEC has risen to prominence with seven straight national championships and an eighth in the crosshairs.
It's the SEC that has kept the Big Ten down, typically serving up their annual beatdown in the postseason with inter-conference matchups on New Year's Day in the Capital One, Outback and Gator Bowls.
The Pac-12 has taken it's share of shots at the Big Ten too, with three straight losses by Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl (one against TCU).
Plus the West Coast got the better of the Midwest in 2013 with UCLA pasting Nebraska, Washington taking care of Illinois and Arizona State getting by Wisconsin, albeit in controversial fashion. Only Ohio State and Northwestern posted wins against the Pac-12, both against bottom-dweller Cal.
The Big Ten, however, might slowly be on the rise with three blue chip teams this season in Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Look no further than Ohio State's 23-game winning streak, Michigan State's top-ranked defense in the nation and Wisconsin being one of the nation's hottest teams.
These three teams can go toe-to-toe with nearly any team in the nation (outside of Alabama and Florida State) and may help the Big Ten get some swagger back during the bowl season.
The problem is that the second tier of the Big Ten is as weak as ever, not helped by sanctions placed on Penn State following the regrettable Jerry Sandusky scandal.
But Penn State is hardly alone. Former bluebloods Michigan and Nebraska are wallowing in mediocrity.
The Wolverines don't stand a chance against Ohio State this weekend, not with an offense that has come up with less than 200 yards in three out of their last four games. And the Cornhuskers don't figure to improve until Bo Pelini is removed from the sidelines.
Iowa has been average, while Minnesota has been the one of the few teams that has risen above expectations, becoming an eight-win team despite the health issues to head coach Jerry Kill.
Then there's four teams that won't go bowling at all this season: Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue.
Gaining back respectability isn't going to come overnight, but the first step will be for the top three teams in the Big Ten to take care of business in the postseason. All three will play good teams in the bowl games, either in the Rose Bowl, against top-tier teams in the SEC or a potential BCS bowl game.
The next step will be for the midsection of the conference to get back to playing good football, and there's no reason programs like Michigan, Nebraska and Iowa can't get there. Only excuses stand in the way.
Where College GameDay Is At
There might be more on the line than ever before in Saturday's Iron Bowl, almost hard to believe for a game with such a deep and rich history as Auburn-Alabama.
The SEC West title and a berth in the conference championship game are at stake with the loser effectively eliminated from national-title contention, and ESPN will be there to take it all the pageantry through its weekly pregame show.
Despite the game being in Auburn, there's a reason Alabama is 10.5-point favorites. The Crimson Tide methodically eliminate opponents from week to week with consistent formula, displaying an efficient offense and a smothering defense.
The Alabama defense will have its work cut out this week, trying to stop an Auburn running game that ranks first in the SEC, averaging 320.2 yards per game, largely due to the work of running back Tre Mason and quarterback Nick Marshall.
Thus far this season, Mason has 1,153 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, and Marshall has proved himself as one of the nation's better running quarterbacks.
But where Auburn will run into trouble is that Marshall is no Johnny Manziel. He won't be able to make plays through the air against a secondary featuring safety HaHa Clinton-Dix, and when he runs the option, linebacker C.J. Mosley and company will be better able to contain him than any defense to date.
When Alabama has the ball, quarterback A.J. McCarron shouldn't have trouble passing the ball against an Auburn pass defense ranked second to last in the SEC, allowing 253.7 yards per game.
Prediction: Auburn might find some early momentum behind a raucous crowd, but it will slowly dissipate as Alabama dispatches yet another foe. 35-14, Roll Tide. Kickoff is at 2:30 p.m. CT on CBS.
The Wisconsin Connection
With no chance of reaching the Big Ten title game for Wisconsin and no bowl game in store for Penn State, there's little to generate interest from a national audience for Saturday's game between Leaders division rivals, so both teams will have to be internally motivated.
For the Badgers, they'll be looking to win as convincingly as possible, their last opportunity to sway voters and become ranked in the top 14 of the BCS standings, a prerequisite to earn an at-large BCS berth, along with nine victories.
As for Penn State, the game against Wisconsin becomes a de facto bowl of sorts seeing as they're ineligible for the postseason with little other than pride on the line.
Among the featured attractions on Saturday is good opportunity to see a pair of wide receivers in perhaps the final regular games of their careers in Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and Penn State's Allen Robinson.
Abbrederis is a senior and will be gone at season's end, off to the NFL with a solid season helping to boost his draft stock. A good performance against the Nittany Lions could propel him to a 1,000-yard season as he currently sits at 916 receiving yards to go along with seven touchdowns.
He's not first-round material, but Abbrederis could be as high as a second-day pick in next spring's NFL draft, depending on how he looks in the all-star game circuit and how he tests at the combine.
Robinson is a junior, but there's reason to believe he could declare and be as a high as a first round draft choice in just a few months. Excellent height and his ability to leap over defenders are his calling cards, making Robinson the best receiver in the conference with 89 receptions for 1,310 yards and six touchdowns in 2013.
Despite the best efforts of Robinson, Penn State is a middling team in pretty much all facets of the game, both on offense and defense.
Prediction: As usual, Wisconsin rumbles behind the efforts of Melvin Gordon and James White, each gaining over 100 yards, while the Badgers defense holds up its end of the bargain. Final score, 31-10, On Wisconsin. Kickoff at 2:30 p.m. CT on ESPN.
What Happened Before Saturday
Several random thoughts from the Thanksgiving weekday games...
- Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch set the single-game FBS record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 321 in a victory over Western Michigan on Tuesday. No player is more important to their team than Lynch, who has led NIU to consecutive undefeated regular seasons. He has my non-existant vote for the Heisman Trophy, unless Jameis Winston is found innocent before the vote.
- It was a nice first season for Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss, but the Rebels showed he still has a ways to go after losing to Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl. Credit Dan Mullen for getting a win over his rival, but the Bulldogs can't seem to get over the hump and challenge the SEC's best.
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email [email protected].
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