The Big Ten's quest to catch the SEC has always been about depth. While the SEC has had four different teams win national titles in the past six years, the Big Ten has had only one team, Ohio State, win a national title during the BCS era. Worse yet, the Buckeyes are the lone Big Ten team to even play for the crystal football (Nebraska played for the title in 2001 as a member of the Big 12).
Until the Big Ten places multiple teams among the nation's elite, the SEC debate is pointless from Lincoln to State College. The good news: The Big Ten finally appears to be beefing up at the top.
While some assume Michigan and Ohio State soon will turn back the clock a few decades and dominate the Big Ten again, other programs should factor into the picture. Wisconsin has been the Big Ten's representative in each of the past two Rose Bowls. Bret Bielema's team owns 32 victories in the past three seasons and shows little sign of slowing down.
Mark Dantonio is providing the stability Michigan State lacked for the better part of two decades. Like the Badgers, the Spartans have won 11 games in each of the past two seasons. Their talent level is on the uptick, and Dantonio and his staff have established an identity rooted in physical play on both sides of the ball.
The Big Ten can thank Michigan State for saving it from another complete New Year's disaster in the bowls. The Spartans rallied to beat Georgia in overtime at the Outback Bowl, preventing the Big Ten's second consecutive 0-3 performance against the SEC in Florida bowls. Although Georgia wasn't the class of the SEC in 2011, Michigan State's first bowl win under Dantonio provided a benchmark for the team to build on.
Penn State's situation undoubtedly stings, but if the Big Ten gets another team or two to rise up -- Nebraska and Iowa being the next logical candidates -- it will be closer to having the top-shelf depth to challenge the SEC.
Or Michigan simply can beat Alabama on Sept. 1 in Arlington, Texas.
It will take more than one regular-season game for the Big Ten to close the gap with the SEC, but the Wolverines can make a huge splash for themselves and their beleaguered league against Bama. Michigan emerged from a historically poor stretch last season to record 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl title under new coach Brady Hoke.
Although Hoke and others often state Michigan never went away, the Wolverines have a perfect opportunity to reclaim a spot among the elite when they open against the defending national champions.
The Wolverines are underdogs and have question marks along both lines, but they boast one of the nation's most dynamic players in senior quarterback Denard Robinson and a team that should be even more comfortable in Year 2 of the Hoke era. A win at JerryWorld would put Michigan -- and the Big Ten -- back in the national spotlight.
Ohio State can't challenge the SEC this season, but there's little doubt the Buckeyes soon will be positioned for a title push under new coach Urban Meyer, who knows what it takes to beat the best from the best league.
The key is not letting Ohio State take on the SEC by itself. When the Big Ten builds better depth at the top, it can start thinking about slaying the giant.