Jim Delany finally acknowledged this week what most of America has known for a while: The SEC has been playing superior football to the Big Ten, the Pac-10, the Big 12 and everybody else. The SEC has not been dominant for as long as people think -- less than 10 years ago, the Big Ten had a very strong argument for being the better league.
But now there is no doubt. Even if Ohio State takes advantage of its Get Out of NCAA Jail Free card and beats Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, the SEC will reign supreme. The Big Ten isn't even trying to save face. It's trying to limit the damage from a faceplant. The conference turned New Year's Day into Halloween.
Alabama 49, Big Ten co-champ Michigan State 7
Mississippi State 52, Michigan 14
Florida 37, Penn State 24
TCU 21, Wisconsin 19 in the Rose Bowl
Yeah, it sure looks like the Big Ten should rename its new divisions: SEC Servants and SEC Waitstaff.
But the Big Ten can and will be back. The conference's problems are fixable, and one big fix is on the way.
The most impressive part of the SEC's reign is not even the four straight national championships with a chance at a fifth. It's this: Four schools have made the championship game in that span: Alabama, Florida, LSU and now Auburn.
Auburn is going for its second undefeated season in the last decade -- a decade in which the SEC has been as good as it ever has. And if you asked the average fan, anywhere in the country, to rank the top SEC programs, where would Auburn fit?
Probably behind Alabama, Florida, LSU, Georgia, Tennessee. I mean, it's a matter of opinion -- there is no right answer. But the point is that the SEC has at least six programs that would not surprise anybody if they made a national-title run in the next 10 years.
The Big Ten is different. To be the best conference in the country, the Big Ten needs its traditional power programs to be its best programs. It needs Ohio State and Michigan and Penn State to be great, because Iowa and Wisconsin and Michigan State have a ceiling. Kirk Ferentz has done a terrific job at Iowa, and the Hawkeyes creep into the top 10 once in a while. But I don't think we'll see an Iowa national title any time soon. Wisconsin came close this season, but since the Barry Alvarez revival, the Badgers have never really threatened to win it all.
And this is why I think the Big Ten will be back, sooner than people think. Starting next year, the Big Ten will have four power programs: Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska.
Nebraska football is sort of like Kentucky basketball. If you erased the history of the sport and started over now, nobody would expect Nebraska's football program or Kentucky's hoops team to rise to the top of the nation. But through history, tradition, and the sheer passion of the fan bases, both programs refuse to be down for long.
Nebraska doesn't have exceptional in-state talent. It doesn't even border a state with exceptional talent. But Nebraska managed to win three national titles in the 1990s anyway. The school is still an iconic name in college football.
The addition of Nebraska is huge for the Big Ten for two reasons. One is that, under Bo Pelini, the Cornhuskers are clearly on the rise. Yes, they delivered a lackluster performance in a 19-7 Holiday Bowl loss to Washington, but they have a real chance to be national-title contenders in the next five years.
And the other reason is that the Big Ten now has more ammo in its annual bowl battle. So much of bowl success is based on matchups. If the Cornhuskers had been in the Big Ten this year, they probably would have played in the Outback Bowl against Florida. That would have knocked Penn State, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and Northwestern down a notch to lesser bowls -- and given the schools that lost a better chance to win.
There has been a lot of talk about the SEC dominating because of a population shift to the South. But there isn't much talent in Idaho or Oregon, and Boise State and Oregon have managed to put together top 10 teams. Programs like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska have a national recruiting reach. They only need to sprinkle a few stars from around the country into their rosters and they can contend.
Three years from now, Pelini could have Nebraska rolling. Penn State coach Joe Paterno will probably have retired (no, seriously, I mean it), and the Nittany Lions can move their program forward if they hire the right coach. Michigan had 40 years of success until 2008. The Wolverines won't stay down forever.
In the meantime, Ohio State is left to save a little bit of the Big Ten's competitive reputation -- and, as Delany must know, only a little. The SEC is on top and loving it. But the North can rise again.