After bowl bonanza, Big Ten aims higher

The Big Ten emerged from the bowl season having earned the right to celebrate and the right to dream bigger.

First, the celebration. For a league that had become the national punch line -- not to mention the national punching bag -- for nearly three years, a strong postseason performance regained some degree of respect. The SEC further solidified its position as the nation's top conference with another national title, but the Big Ten proved it isn't too far behind.

The league's many critics had little ammunition after the bowl season. It's hard to knock a 2-0 mark in BCS games, four wins against top 15 opponents, the Big Ten's first winning bowl record (4-3) since 2002 and the league's first Rose Bowl championship since 2000.

"We all realize the only way you change perception is to change reality," said Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema, whose Badgers got things rolling by upsetting Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl.

"We knew we were playing for the Big Ten, and a lot of teams knew that," Ohio State star defensive lineman Cameron Heyward said. "We hear so much about how we're one of the weakest conferences, but we had one of the best records coming out of [the bowls]. It was really nice seeing that each team stepped up and produced."

The next step is clear: compete at a championship level. The Big Ten has gone seven years without winning a national title, the true barometer for every conference. To completely restore respect, the league must win it all.

(Here's where the dream bigger part comes in.)

Three of the four Big Ten bowl champions -- Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin -- return plenty from the 2009 teams. Both Ohio State and Iowa bring back 14 starters, while Wisconsin has 16 starters from a 10-3 squad. Reigning Capital One Bowl champ Penn State loses five All-Big Ten performers, including co-Defensive Player of the Year Jared Odrick, but the Nittany Lions get running back Evan Royster for another year and welcome the league's top recruiting class.

The Big Ten's midsection also could be better. Purdue comes off a strong finish, while Michigan State has reached three consecutive bowl games and boasts a talented young nucleus. Northwestern has won 17 games the last two seasons and is showing a consistency unmatched for decades. Michigan enters a pivotal 2010 campaign, but the league might not need major strides from the Maize and Blue to make a splash.

The Big Ten will set the bar higher in 2010, and the league could have the personnel to hit its mark.

"A lot of perception gets blown out of proportion," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Personally, I never felt like it was a crisis situation [for the league]. Certainly last year was a healthy year for bowl competition, and hopefully next year will be the same. But there's a lot of work to do between now and then."

The work begins in spring football, which kicks off in the Big Ten on March 13 in Madison, Wis.

The Big Ten's top three teams appear to have more answers than questions entering spring ball, but there are always areas to improve.

Ohio State isn't trying to hide its mission for 2010. The team took several important steps last fall, none more important than ending its BCS bowl losing streak at three, but 2010 was always going to be The Year in Columbus.

"You want that national championship," Heyward said. "Every day, we’re preaching it to our guys. You only get it once, and it's not guaranteed to you. It's definitely going to be an uphill battle, but we'll be ready for it."

Ohio State played suffocating defense in 2009, and the Buckeyes want maintain their effectiveness without key contributors like Kurt Coleman, Thaddeus Gibson, Doug Worthington and Austin Spitler. They'll look to solidify their front and add depth in the secondary this spring.

"We’re letting our guys know who haven't played that it’s time to step up," Heyward said. "We're not trying to regress."

Neither is Iowa, which returns arguably the nation's best defensive line, most of its offensive skill players and a game-changing safety in Tyler Sash. The squad remains stocked with leaders, and an inherently modest team won't rest on its 2009 success.

Besides, there are holes to fill, namely along the offensive line and at linebacker. Iowa loses two standout underclassmen, left tackle Bryan Bulaga and cornerback Amari Spievey, as well as Pat Angerer, who turned in two outstanding seasons at middle linebacker.

"We don’t reload here," Ferentz said. "We’re not one of those schools. We’ve got some very good players coming back, and that’s exciting, but we also have a lot of areas we’re going to need to get better in if we’re going to have a chance to be competing well next fall."

Wisconsin might have the fewest question marks of the Big Ten title contenders, but many Badgers players remember the last time they entered a season with loads of hype, in 2008. After cracking the top 10, Wisconsin melted in Big Ten play and stumbled to a 7-6 finish.

Bielema welcomes expectations but not entitlement, and his message sunk in for his players when he met with them individually during the winter.

"The upperclassmen identified that it’s not the goal-setting," he said. "There’s a certain amount of that, but it’s not so much where you’re trying to get but how you’re trying to get there."

The first phase of the journey begins this spring.