Big Ten gaining steam as top football conference

Geoff Robinson
The Detroit News

Change never comes easy, especially as it pertains to the national perception that the Southeastern Conference is superior to all football conferences, including the Big Ten.

But the tide is slowly turning, and a Michigan State win over Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal on New Year’s Eve would help shine a light on the fact that the once-vaunted SEC may no longer be the dominant league.

From 2006-12, the SEC reeled off seven consecutive national championships, including three from Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide. But over the last two years, it’s been the Atlantic Coast Conference (Florida State) and Big Ten (Ohio State) taking home the title. With that also came Ohio State’s 42-35 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama in last year’s semifinal.

“We feel like we don’t get the positive publicity the SEC does each year,” Michigan State junior linebacker Riley Bullough said. “They’ve deserved it, but we’re kind of trying to turn the table a little bit. Whenever it’s SEC-Big Ten, I’m rooting for the Big Ten.”

When you look at the polls, it would seem that Michigan State has had a tougher road to the CFP than Alabama, posting wins over Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa and Oregon. Alabama’s best wins came against teams who are ranked 19th (Florida) and 22nd (LSU) in the final AP Top 25 poll.

With the Big Ten being home to five teams ranked inside the AP’s top 17 — No. 3 Michigan State, No. 6 Iowa, No. 7 Ohio State, No. 12 Northwestern and No. 17 Michigan — compared to just two for the SEC (No. 2 Alabama and No. 16 Mississippi), it’s easy to make the argument that times are changing.

“I think the Big Ten is the best conference in all of college football,” Michigan State senior defensive back Arjen Colquhoun said. “The whole competition level has really stepped up, and you can just see the elevation.”

While the national media may be giving the Spartans little chance to win the Cotton Bowl — the Crimson Tide are favored by 91/2 — Colquhoun doesn’t see the cloak of invincibility around Alabama that everybody else seems to see.

“These guys are beatable,” he said. “I think they do some things that we can exploit and take advantage of.”

One person not interested in talking about which conference reigns supreme right now is Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, as he made it clear that at this moment, it’s all about the individual matchups.

“I look at it as Michigan State versus Alabama,” he said. “We’re carrying the torch a little bit (for the Big Ten). But the conference is not winning it; one particular team is going to win it.”

While it’s true that this one game won’t definitively crown the best conference in college football, the players know that a win against Alabama would send a message to those who live by the narrative that SEC football is king.

“I think the Big Ten can play with anyone in the country,” Michigan State senior fullback Trevon Pendleton said. “Obviously they’re two elite conferences, and it’s always fun to go back and forth with them and see how you stack up.”

The showdown between Michigan State and Alabama — while undoubtedly the most important — will be the first of four bowl games to feature Big Ten-SEC matchups. Northwestern takes on Tennessee in the Outback Bowl and Michigan faces Florida in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day. On Jan. 2, Penn State squares off with Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

Geoff Robinson is a freelance writer.