Big Ten's top priority is crystal clear

The crystal football once again is at stake tonight in South Florida, and for the fifth straight season, the Big Ten will watch from the outside.

After Ohio State won a national title following the 2002 season and reached the title game in back-to-back years (2006, 2007), the Buckeyes and the rest of the Big Ten haven't been able to reach the sport's biggest stage. The Big Ten typically has been eliminated from the national title chase before Nov. 1. This past season, the league excused itself following a miserable Week 2 performance. Its best contender, Ohio State, wasn't eligible for postseason play. Of the five major conferences -- Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC -- only the Big Ten and ACC have been shut out of the title game the past five years.

The drought raises questions about whether the Big Ten boasts enough elite teams or overall depth to challenge the nation's top leagues. What stands out about the SEC's run since the 2003 season -- seven overall championships, including each of the past six -- is that four teams have won titles and three (Alabama, Florida and LSU) have won multiple titles.

Ohio State has been the only Big Ten team in the BCS era to consistently compete for national titles (Nebraska, which reached the national title game 12 years ago, only joined the Big Ten in 2010). Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin and Iowa have been in the mix for time to time, but not nearly as much as Ohio State or some of the SEC's powers.

Is depth the Big Ten's chief concern right now, or does the league just need one team to break through?

"I think depth is important, but I don't think you can be a great conference unless you have teams competing for the national championship," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com last week. "Step 1 is getting our elite teams playing at the elite level. And then the second most important thing is quality depth."

Ohio State could be gunning for a national title in 2013 after going 12-0 in coach Urban Meyer's first season in Columbus. But no other Big Ten teams project to be in the mix for the crystal football.

Michigan is recruiting well but has some significant questions. Wisconsin is going through a coaching change and recently lost its third straight Rose Bowl. Penn State is facing NCAA sanctions for three more seasons. Iowa is trying to bounce back from a 4-8 season. Nebraska players and coaches openly talk about the national title, but no one outside the Osborne Athletic Complex puts the Huskers in that category.

"First, we've got to get one involved," Delany said. "Then, you get two involved or three involved. We just haven't been there in the last five years. I don't want to get the cart in front of the horse. I'm seeing increased signs of competitiveness on the recruiting side, on the coaching stability side. And we've got a pretty good chance to measure ourselves because we're pretty much playing elite teams all the time in the postseason. We're not kidding ourselves. If you don't compete, you can tell by the score. When you do compete and you don't win, you can see how close you are or are not.

"But I like the trajectory. I think there's improvement. I think there's some stabilization that's occurring, and then it's about performing."

Depth is important, and the Big Ten seems to be making small improvement there. But in a sport where national titles mean everything, the league's chief priority is crystal clear.