Pundits questioning Big Ten depth

Two conclusions can be drawn about the Big Ten's national perception after reviewing the preview publications and the two major preseason Top 25 polls (AP and coaches').

1. The Big Ten will be very good at the top with Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Penn State;

2. After those four teams, there's a significant drop-off.

Like it or not, this is how outsiders view the Big Ten entering the 2010 season: a better league, but not a particularly deep one.

Now we all know it's critical for the Big Ten's best teams to continue to win bowl games, especially against the elite from the SEC and Big 12. The Big Ten might not fully gain national respect until it wins its first BCS championship since 2002.

But it's also critical for the other seven teams -- Michigan State, Northwestern, Purdue, Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana and Illinois -- to show that the league isn't totally top-heavy. While the Big Ten had four teams ranked in the top 20 of the initial AP poll, no other squad received a single Top 25 vote. Michigan State earned 10 votes in the coaches' poll, while Northwestern snagged two.

I think the Big Ten will be deeper than many expect, but I also understand the perception. This isn't the same reflex Big Ten bashing we witnessed before the 2009-10 bowl season. It has some merit.

Michigan State looks like a potential 10-win team to me, but the Spartans also are known for underachieving. Northwestern has won 17 games the last two seasons but loses its star quarterback (Mike Kafka) and three veteran defensive backs. There's a hesitancy to buy into Purdue and Indiana because of shaky defenses, and both Minnesota and Illinois are perceived as bottom-feeders.

Michigan is the one team that can really boost the Big Ten's reputation because national media always pays attention to the Maize and Blue. But aside from my colleague Bruce Feldman (ESPN Insider), few major national voices see Michigan taking a big step forward this season.

Respected college football scribe Tony Barnhart has a blog post today headlined: "SEC, ACC are deepest. But who has best conference?" He breaks down the leagues according to teams that are ranked or received votes in the AP Poll. The Big Ten comes in fifth, behind the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac 10.

(Side note: I always get a good laugh about the annual preseason hype surrounding the ACC. The next time that league meets expectations will be the first.)

Again, a national title does more for the Big Ten than anything else. But the league also needs to fill out its bowl allotment and post another winning record in the postseason.

What do you think about the Big Ten's depth? Send me your comments for Tuesday's mailblog.

SEC, ACC are deepest. But who has best conference?