Big Ten no longer just the big two

CHICAGO -- The iconography is so strong and so enduring that it perpetuates to this day. Anyone who remembers college football in the '70s can conjure up the image:

Bo in his blue jacket on one side of the frozen Astroturf, jaw muscles pulsing as he hammers his gum. Woody glaring through his glasses on the other side, raging at officials and cameramen and the chain gang. Handoffs and furious physical confrontations in front of them, massive crowds roaring behind them. The Big Ten divided between the dueling Midwestern giants once again, an annual rite of November.

Ohio State-Michigan. Without end.

Their perpetual relevance helps make that rivalry great, but it also conspires to distort the modern reality of the Big Ten. This is an all-comers league, now more than ever. The Buckeyes and Wolverines haven't gone anywhere, but the rest of the conference has joined the chase, which is why this season looks like the best of both worlds for the best league in the land in 2005.

No other league has three teams in most preseason top 10s, as the Big Ten does with Iowa joining the Old Reliables. No other league has three coaches wearing national championship rings, like Joe Paterno, Lloyd Carr and Jim Tressel. No other league has the capacity to put more fans in seats (average Big Ten stadium seating: 82,588; average SEC stadium seating: 77,044).

The tradition of the Ohio State-Michigan axis continues, but worthy challengers will contest it this fall. Big Ten '05 is a league of big talent, qualified coaching, electrifying skill-position players, experienced quarterbacks, modern (read: spread) offenses, dominant linebackers and, hey, the potential for a little parity.

"When I grew up in Ohio, this was a two-team league," new Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "Now everyone is able to compete."

During 1968-'80, Michigan and Ohio State were 1-2 in the Big Ten standings 10 times. During 1981-2004, they were 1-2 only five times.

Since the first spasm of expansion mania hit college football in 1992, eight Big Ten schools have won or shared the conference title. Penn State, which figured to be the third superpower when it arrived in '93, has done it only once -- 11 years ago. Northwestern, for decades the league's equivalent of Duke or Vanderbilt, has done it three times under two different coaches.

A Wisconsin running back won the Heisman Trophy in 1999 -- the first non-Buckeye/non-Wolverine winner from the Big Ten since 1954. A Minnesota running back could make a run at it this year. Iowa's linebacking corps might be the finest in America.

The coach at Iowa is considered by some to be the best in the game. The coach at Wisconsin is the outgoing elder statesman (JoePa has been in the league only 12 years; Barry Alvarez has been in Madison for 15). And it's been 13 years since an Ohio State or Michigan man won conference Coach of the Year.

"In the '60s and '70s, people thought there weren't many championships to go around," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "In the '90s and the 21st century, you've seen ... other programs get a bite of the apple."

There are at least two other Big Ten teams with their choppers bared over the apple this fall.

Iowa, with a stunning record of 31-7 the last three seasons, has become the conference's viable third powerhouse. The concern around the league is that Kirk Ferentz might really do something now that's he's hauling in A-list recruits. Last year, he coaxed a 10-2 season out of a team that absolutely could not run the football, and was starting its fourth different quarterback in the last fourth years.

"We went against all coaching axioms, the way we played last year," Ferentz said. "... Last year might've been one for the books."

The other team with legitimate designs on a Big Ten title is Purdue, which has 11 defensive starters back and enjoys the spectacular good fortune of having both axis powers off the schedule.

"We do have Ohio State and Michigan right where we want 'em," coach Joe Tiller said dryly.

Tiller, whose "basketball on grass" spread offense helped modernize a stodgy league, has heard enough ribbing about this scheduling gift. He has a quick comeback.

"Three of 11 teams in the league play seven at home and four on the road," he said. "I'll let you look it up, but I bet you can guess which three they are."

The three with the biggest stadiums and deepest tradition, of course: Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.

While there has been much squawking over Purdue's schedule, at least one coach in the league sees it as a good thing.

"It does give people a chance," Michigan State's John L. Smith said of the rotating schedule. "You look at the schedule and say, 'Gosh, we have the opportunity to be in the Rose Bowl.' It gives everyone an opportunity."

The Big Ten also succeeds in keeping its best team out of a double-jeopardy situation. There is no money-making contrivance known as a championship game in this league, which means that the winner of the regular season doesn't have to risk its ranking and BCS standing by playing a 12th game. (Conference championship games are good for two things only: making money for the league and giving headaches to the league's best team.)

Given the quality of the teams at the top of the league this year, the winner figures to be as good as any team in America. In days gone by, the Big Ten's title contenders wore only scarlet and gray or maize and blue, but that's not the case anymore. It might not be a wide-open league, but it's more even than ever.

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.