Crossroads: Big Ten poised to take next step

The Big Ten hate has stopped, for now.

After opening fire for the past three summers, the league's critics don't have much ammo these days. By any measure, the Big Ten performed extremely well in the 2009 postseason, as both Ohio State and Iowa recorded wins in BCS bowls and the league went 4-0 against top 15 opponents. A 4-3 ledger in the bowls marked the Big Ten's first winning record in the postseason since after the 2002 season.

Perhaps most important, the conference put some distance between itself and Ohio State's back-to-back losses in the national title game, the two games that, more than any other factors, fueled the Big Ten bashing.

Take the strong finish to 2009 and add the potential for better things in 2010, and the Big Ten is on the brink of big things. But commissioner Jim Delany doesn't take it for granted.

"When you win games, you get positioned the following year to have pretty high expectations," Delany told me in January. "But I still view us as underdogs. Until we perform for a few years at this level, I don't feel like the expectations are [through] the roof. Just because you have a name or a reputation, that doesn't make you a favorite. Performance is the thing that does it over time. So we need to win some for a while before I feel that the expectation of winning is there."

Another strong bowl showing would help, as the Big Ten aims for back-to-back winning postseasons for the first time since 1998-99. But the Big Ten also needs to prove it can win on the highest level, in the game that shapes conference perception more than any other.

Here's a hint: it takes place Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz.

"The SEC, based on what they've accomplished in the last four years, has clearly separated themselves from the rest," Delany said. "We've got a pretty good head-to-head with them going over 15 years, 10 years and five years, but that's not at the championship level."

The good news for the Big Ten is it boasts at least three championship-level teams entering the season.

Ohio State is a consensus top-3 squad that comes off of a Rose Bowl championship and returns 15 starters, nine on offense. If quarterback Terrelle Pryor continues to develop and the Buckeyes plug a few holes on defense, they'll be positioned to claim a school-record-tying sixth consecutive Big Ten title and possibly much more.

Jim Tressel's team already is in the national title discussion, but don't dismiss Iowa or Wisconsin, either.

Iowa returns the core from its Orange Bowl championship squad. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn anchors arguably the nation's best defensive line, and quarterback Ricky "all-he-does-is-win" Stanzi leads the offense again. After enduring a brutal road schedule in 2009, Iowa hosts Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State this fall.

Bret Bielema's Badgers are loaded with individual stars, including running back John Clay, the 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Wisconsin needs to make the jump from very good to great and start beating the Big Ten's best again, but the bar has been raised in Mad-town.

There's separation at the top, but Penn State could join the lead pack if it can fill some major voids on both sides of the ball. Purdue and Michigan State likely will be stronger, and Northwestern should reach a school-record third straight bowl.

The Big Ten is positioned to take another step in 2010. But if the league stumbles, the haters will be waiting.