B1G statement: Big Ten staking claim as best conference

Who wins the Big Ten championship? (1:16)

The College Football Live crew breaks down who they believe will win the Big Ten championship: Michigan State or Iowa. (1:16)

Jim Delany is not a smoker, but no one would blame the Big Ten commissioner if he lighted a cigar at 8:17 p.m. ET Saturday in Indianapolis.

At that exact minute, the Big Ten championship game will kick off between No. 4 Iowa and No. 5 Michigan State. One team will emerge victorious at Lucas Oil Stadium, but the truth is Delany and the league already have won.

The Big Ten has a playoff spot locked up as its title game functions as a national championship quarterfinal. It is the main event this championship weekend, the only matchup of top-5 teams. The SEC's undercard bout of Alabama and Florida, meanwhile, might be best stopped in the first round.

"It's the dreams of the players and the coaches to be in games like this," Delany told ESPN.com. "It's a high-energy, high-profile, high-impact game."

Big Ten teams occupy the Nos. 4, 5 and 6 spots in the CFP selection committee rankings. The Big Ten has five teams in the CFP's top 15; no other league has more than three. If certain things go batty in championship games elsewhere, the Big Ten could become the first league with multiple participants in the playoff. Ohio State, at No. 6, the defending national champion that finally looked the part against No. 15 Michigan, hopes for a chance to repeat.

"It's a statement for college football in this conference," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.

Surprised by all of this? The Big Ten's quiet renaissance has been no B1G deal, mainly because the league isn't loud about its success. Maybe being college football's dumping ground for the better part of a decade has that effect. But the Big Ten, still glowing from Ohio State's title last season, has a chance to retain the spotlight.

"Each year is its own story, and this is a big story," Delany said. "A lot of interest in the game and a lot on the line. It's unique to be able to know with some degree that you're in the middle of a serious conversation among the committee about participating."

The Big Ten's rise shows how quickly things can change in college football.

A year ago, the Big Ten approached its championship game likely to be the Power 5 conference left out of the playoff. Ohio State had lost quarterback J.T. Barrett to injury, Cardale Jones was known only for his "we ain't come to play school" tweet, and Wisconsin, the Buckeyes' favored opponent in Indianapolis, wasn't a playoff contender. Many pegged the first field of four to include Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and either Baylor or TCU.

For the Big Ten, it figured to be another sesaon without a trophy, another year of the negative narrative.

"Ohio State had to perform at a very high level to get the attention of the committee," Delany said, "which they did."

The league doesn't need another 59-0 shocker Saturday to squeak into the playoff. Whichever team wins is getting there. And it's significant that neither contender wears scarlet and gray. Ohio State has been the only Big Ten team to win or play for a national championship in the BCS/CFP era. While the SEC built its historic run of titles on incredible depth, the Big Ten put it all on Ohio State until Michigan State's recent emergence.

In the 2013 Big Ten title game, Michigan State beat Ohio State to knock the Buckeyes out of the last BCS title game. Had there been a playoff then, the Spartans would have participated and possibly won. After back-to-back major bowl wins, they can further validate their place as a new elite by reaching the playoff and fulfilling its mantra to "reach higher."

"It would mean everything," Michigan State senior quarterback Connor Cook said. "Everyone dreams about winning a national championship. You look back over the years and it's been SEC, SEC. It was almost like the SEC was winning a national championship for the last decade. For Ohio State to pull it off last year and represent the Big Ten, and then for another opportunity this year for another Big Ten [team] to possibly go the distance, it means a whole lot to the whole conference."

The Big Ten hasn't won consecutive national championships since Michigan State in 1965-66 (the Spartans were co-champs each year). The postseason offers an opportunity to build momentum, but Delany tries to focus on the moment. "Even though you want to build on it," he said, "they're separate experiences."

Those within the league won't overreact to the recent success, just as they have tried not to overreact to the struggles.

"There's really a fine line between winning and losing, and I would say the same thing about teams and conferences," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Sometimes we all get a little carried away, our enthusiasm for certain things, without really looking hard at it. I've been in this league quite a while now, 17 years most recently and 26 total, and I can't remember ever feeling like we were in a crisis situation where we were totally outclassed."

Many would debate Ferentz's claim about the Big Ten avoiding a crisis stage. Challenges remain for the league: new members Rutgers and Maryland are replacing coaches; Illinois and Minnesota are dealing with administrative flux; Penn State isn't back to power status; and Nebraska hasn't been anywhere near the on-field addition the Big Ten had hoped it would be when it added the Cornhuskers.

But it's clear the Big Ten has come through the fog.

So while some commissioners might spend Saturday anxious and muttering to themselves -- the SEC's Greg Sankey ("Roll Damn Tide"), the ACC's John Swofford ("I brought my guts, Dabo. Did you?"), and the Pac-12's Larry Scott ("It really is great to be a Florida Gator") -- Delany can put up his feet. If bored, he could exchange congratulatory texts with Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby (is there a College Football Playoff emoji?).

"It's a good year," Delany said, "and it's not over yet."