State of the conference: Big Ten

During ESPN.com's college football preview coverage this week, we took a look at the state of the game and the state of some of the sport's best-known brands. Now we're examining the state of the conferences. Here's the health report on the Big Ten:

Stability: In many of the ways that matter, the league has never been stronger. While the Big Ten initiated the conference realignment craze, it smartly added just one team -- Nebraska -- that has so far been a perfect fit in every area. There is no further need to expand at this time. The Big Ten Network, which debuted to scoffs and snarls, is a smashing success that's available in about 90 million homes with nearly 50 million subscribers. Ratings were reportedly up 11 percent last year. That network, along with other TV money and postseason revenue, helped the Big Ten distribute a record $284 million to its 12 teams this past year. That works out to more than $24 million per team when you factor in Nebraska's reduced share. Construction is booming on campuses throughout the conferences, and stadiums are full on Saturday. You could hardly ask for more stability than that

Prestige: Wealth and honor are not the same thing. The Big Ten has always believed in its own moral superiority, going so far as to call its divisions Leaders and Legends. But scandals at benchmark programs -- first at Ohio State and then, far more disturbingly, at Penn State -- ripped the sheen off the league's supposedly pristine image. Three of the league's signature brands are on some sort of probation -- Michigan is the other -- and, embarrassingly, only four teams in the Leaders Division are eligible to win it. Jim Delany points out that the Big Ten has had teams on probation throughout its history. But few scandals have caused more collateral damage than Penn State's, and the league is rightly looking into ways it can curb the unchecked power of star coaches on campus.

Competitive balance: There's clearly more to the Big Ten than just the Big Two. Michigan State and Wisconsin have announced themselves as powers, while Nebraska should contend annually and Iowa has had sustained success under Kirk Ferentz. Only two of the 12 teams -- Minnesota and Indiana -- failed to reach a bowl game in 2011 and the league continues to grab two BCS bids just about every season. There was a three-way tie for the conference title in 2010, while four teams were still alive for division titles on the final weekend last year and the Wisconsin-Michigan State championship match could have gone either way. The conference is so balanced that it's hard to imagine any team running through its schedule unbeaten.

National championships: You know the story. The Big Ten is still seeking its first national championship since the 2002 season. The league hasn't had a participant in the national title game since the 2007 season. That's bad. But while it probably won't happen again this year, the conference is poised to make a run at the big prize in the near future. That's because Ohio State and Michigan are recruiting like gangbusters. Wisconsin and Michigan State aren't going anyway. Nebraska has all the resources. Even with Penn State out of the mix for the foreseeable future, the league now has multiple teams ready to reach for the brass ring every year. And a smart strategy by Delany during playoff negotiations ensured that conference champions would be given strong preference in the future four-team structure. That means the Big Ten champion, more often than not, will be in that field. It's up to the league teams to play up to that level, but now they have better access and a deeper bench of annual contenders.