Big 10 has seen better days

Saturday, September 22, 2007 | 11:25 p.m. CDT; updated 2:39 p.m. CST, Thursday, January 15, 2009

MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin 17, Iowa 13.

Pity the Big 10. The graybeard of powerhouse conferences has seen better days.

It seems like yesterday the old man blossomed in his prime, not a hint of wear to be found amid the glow of ear-bending success from Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State – even perennial patsy Northwestern had its time – that pumped joy into his venerable veins.

He once raged through the national scene, a figure to be admired, his three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust Tao blinding the efforts of schoolyard setups from places like Gainesville, Fla., Miami and along the Pacific Coast. He was a Pennsylvania coal miner to others’ sous chef. He was an unforgiving as an upper-Midwest snow.

But along the way, he lost a step. Finesse became the future and tomorrow became now. The recess offenses turned to Florida, Texas and California speed to carry out chaos.

The 2006 bowl season exposed the wrinkles: USC beat Michigan (28-14) in the Rose Bowl and Florida embarrassed Ohio State (41-14) for the BCS title in a shocking display that revealed the canyon-wide gap between the Big 10 and its more sophisticated counterparts. The message delivered couldn’t be more clear: It’s a Ferrari age, and the college football world had passed the the Big 10 by.

The new season hasn’t been any more forgiving.

Congratulations, Appalachian State, a bicep of the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA). In Week 1, Appalachian State beat then-No. 5 Michigan to become one the smallest sacrificial lamb to venture into a ranked lion’s den and escape with skin. Now anything is possible.

Cheers to you, Duke. Thanks to Northwestern playing like its usual hapless self, you no longer sweat the nation’s longest losing streak, which reached a dubious 22 games before beating the Wildcats in Week 3. Chalk up another to Big 10 futility.

So who will limp forward and attempt to repair the conference’s anemic mojo? AP No. 9/USA Today No. 7 Wisconsin has as good a chance as any. The Badgers boast 49 returning lettermen from a program-best 12-1 in 2006 that resulted in a Capital One Bowl victory. That’s not to mention a second-year coach in Bret Bielema, who improved to 16-1 for his career with a 17-13 victory against rival Iowa here in the conference-opener Saturday night.

The schedule doesn’t do the Badgers any favors, though. They travel to Penn State and Ohio State before hosting Big Ten preseason chic pick Michigan on Nov. 10. Folks around State Street haven’t seen a Rose Bowl berth or better since Heisman winner Ron Dayne roamed Camp Randall Stadium’s turf in 2000. Could this be their year?

When Iowa quarterback Jake Christensen’s fourth-down pass fluttered over receiver Paul Chaney, Jr.’s outstretched fingertips with 1:18 left, the capacity crowd began to believe. Soon after, they locked shoulders and sang lines of the alma-mater:

“On Wisconsin, on Wisconsin, fight on for her fame.”

With a few more victories like the one Saturday night, the Badgers could be on their way to restoring the Big Ten’s swagger.


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