Ohio State left no room for debate about its championship bona fides when it beat Alabama and Oregon in the College Football Playoff.
Here we had Alabama and Oregon, the champions of the SEC and Pac-12, widely considered the No. 1 and No. 2 conferences, with no answer for the champion of a conference long treated as the game’s punching bag.
National titles aren’t necessarily indicative of conference strength, but tell that to the zealots who ring chants of “S-E-C” when the Southeastern Conference wins nonconference games of consequence.
Nevertheless, Ohio State’s Playoff win isn’t the end-all, be-all for the Big Ten, but it’s certainly a nice centerpiece to other significant wins, like Wisconsin’s defeat of Auburn in January’s Outback Bowl or Michigan State’s come-from-behind defeat of Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.
Ohio State is a no-brainer choice for preseason No. 1, and Michigan State won’t be far behind. The Big Ten also welcomes a host of new coaches — Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Nebraska’s Mike Riley and Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst — who should see varying degrees of immediate success.
The Big Ten is indeed back, and no program more so than Ohio State.
Ohio State’s dominant Playoff performance exorcised the demons that haunted the Buckeyes after lopsided losses to Florida and LSU in the first two of the SEC’s seven consecutive national championships. And while the fellas down South remain the standard-bearers for the sport, the 2014 season ushered in an era of parity among the game’s Power Five conferences.
Much has been made all offseason of the mighty SEC West’s 2-5 record in bowl games, with the two wins ironically coming from the division’s bottom two teams, Arkansas and Texas A&M. However, the cracks in the SEC’s armor were evident before bowl season.
The conference went 0-4 in traditional rivalry games against ACC opponents on the final week of the regular season. Now, South Carolina, Kentucky and Florida were all underdogs to Clemson, Louisville and Florida State, thus their losses were unsurprising.
But Georgia Tech knocking off Georgia for the first time since 2008 was the coup de grace for the ACC’s big day. And if the message wasn’t heard when the Yellow Jackets beat the Bulldogs, head coach Paul Johnson ensured that it came through after manhandling Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.
“For at least a week or two we don’t have to hear about the SEC,” Johnson told ESPN sideline reporter Maria Taylor in his postgame interview. Worth noting that Taylor is a prominent personality on the ESPN-owned SEC Network.
If the Big Ten has been the primary target for ridicule in the era of SEC dominance, the ACC was a very close second. The ACC still has some catching up to do, but entering 2015 with three teams that are worthy of preseason Top 10 designation in Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech isn’t a bad starting point.
The SEC rebounded from its lackluster postseason the best way SEC programs know how: the conference welcomed a slew of highly regarded new recruits on national signing day. No need to cry any tears for the Southeastern Conference, which will again be deep and competitive in 2015.
But it does have more company now than at any other time in the last decade. The Pac-12 finished with half of its members ranked to end 2014, the second time the conference accomplished that feat in as many seasons. With five of its six members in the South division ranked, the Pac-12 has a counterpart to the SEC West.
The Big 12 should feature a pair of Top 5 teams when the preseason Associated Press Top 25 Poll is released, as Playoff near-misses TCU and Baylor reload. Improved teams at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas should boost the conference’s overall profile.
And, with the ACC and Big Ten on the rise, college football is headed for unprecedented parity.