The bowl season exposed the Big Ten as a league that lacked depth. Spring ball suggested things could change in 2011.
The Big Ten should have quite a few good teams this season. Nebraska enters the conference after recording back-to-back 10-win campaigns. Teams such as Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa have established consistent success. The arrow could be pointing up in places such as State College, Evanston, Ann Arbor and Champaign. And until the results change on the field, Ohio State is Ohio State.
So here's the problem: There might not be a great team among the cluster of potentially good ones.
Absent from the past three BCS national championship games, the Big Ten lacks a bona fide title contender coming out of the spring. League commissioner Jim Delany and others acknowledge that leagues are judged by national titles, and right now the Big Ten doesn't look as if it will be competing for one.
Every good team in the Big Ten wears some warts coming out of spring.
A cloud of uncertainty hovers above Ohio State, and it has little to do with who will replace quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four other players during the first five games of the season. The day before its spring game, Ohio State received a notice of allegations from the NCAA detailing potential major violations committed by coach Jim Tressel. Ohio State self-reported Tressel's transgressions in March, and Tressel increased his suspension to five games to go along with a $250,000 fine. But the prospect of additional penalties from the NCAA is very real. Tressel and top school officials likely will appear before the NCAA's Committee on Infractions on Aug. 12, just weeks before the season.
A Buckeyes team that has dominated the Big Ten under Tressel faces its most difficult challenge during the coach's sparkling tenure. It must block out the distractions and keep the focus on winning. Ohio State also must find early-season substitutes for Pryor, top receiver DeVier Posey and the other suspended players, in addition to replacing quite a bit of production on defense.
Despite all of these hurdles, Ohio State likely will be selected as the Big Ten preseason favorite.
Nebraska enters new waters and is poised to make an immediate splash. The Huskers reportedly think they have a championship-level defense, and players such as defensive tackle Jared Crick and linebacker Lavonte David make it easy to believe. But the Huskers must make significant upgrades on offense and began the process this spring with mixed results. Although quarterback Taylor Martinez and others drew good reviews in spring ball, Nebraska's offense remains a question mark as an absolutely brutal schedule beckons.
Wisconsin and Michigan State shared the league title with Ohio State in 2010, but the Badgers and Spartans will be challenged to reload, not rebuild. This spring, the Badgers began the process of replacing four All-Americans and All-Big Ten quarterback Scott Tolzien. While Wisconsin should be solid along the offensive line and on defense, the quarterback spot is a concern, after projected starter Jon Budmayr and two freshmen struggled in the spring game. Like Wisconsin, Iowa must replace a group of stars, and while the Hawkeyes seem most comfortable flying under the radar, they need bodies at spots such as defensive line and receiver.
Penn State had a more spirited spring after Joe Paterno challenged the team's toughness. The coaches liked what they saw from top quarterbacks Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin, but the Nittany Lions must upgrade their play on both lines to regain their 2008 form.
Northwestern, Michigan and Illinois return dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks and veteran offensive lines. But all three teams face questions on defense, and in Michigan's case, players are adjusting to a new staff and new systems on both sides.
Purdue coach Danny Hope raved about quarterback Rob Henry and the team's overall speed this spring. The Boilermakers could be a surprise team, but they must replace All-American Ryan Kerrigan and limit the major mistakes that have been their downfall. Jerry Kill and Kevin Wilson set the tone in their first springs at Minnesota and Indiana, respectively, but both coaches face significant rebuilding jobs.
The spring provided clues the Big Ten will be good league in 2011. And while the league should avoid another early January disaster, it has a lot of work to do in the coming months to send a team to the Big Easy on Jan. 9.