Look around. This place ain’t what it used to be.

Decades gone are the days when college football bluebloods had all the resources, all the cutting-edge facilities and all the weight training. Northwestern and Minnesota’s football infrastructure rivals that of the ones found in Lincoln and Happy Valley. The barriers to entry have been widened. TV money allowed schools to invest heavily, which changed the landscape dramatically.

Nice digs and Nike swag are table stakes.

And yet the perceived lack of parity that has the sport’s most powerful people concerned hasn’t spared the Big Ten. Much like the College Football Playoff — and, by no coincidence, national recruiting rankings — continues to feature the same cast of characters, the B1G is a top-heavy conference.

You have to go back to 2004 to find a league crown that wasn’t won or shared by Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State or some combination thereof. Michigan and Iowa are the only other teams with a championship banner since Illinois won it in 2001, a year after a 3-way tie between Northwestern, Purdue and the Wolverines.

The Buckeyes have won 4 in a row and seized or shared 11 total since the turn of the century. Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State all have 3 apiece during that time.

It begs the question — what are the other 10 teams in this league playing for?

Every program has a ceiling, a highest possible outcome based on the significant amount of variables that determine success or failure in the complicated matrix of collegiate athletics.

Ceilings can be raised, of course. But as of February 2021, here’s how high we believe the entire B1G stands.

NOTE: All “best national rankings” are from the indicated season’s final Associated Press poll.


Ohio State

Best national rank in 21st Century: 1 (2002, 2014)

Best finish: 2002 (14-0, BCS National Championship) and 2014 (14-1, College Football Playoff Championship)

10-win seasons in 21st Century: 16

Ceiling: Perennial national championship contender. Even during a global pandemic, Ohio State has it all. With annual top-1o recruiting classes and the conference seemingly wrapped around its finger, the silver-and-red train isn’t slowing down any time soon.

Penn State

Best national rank 21st Century: 3 (2005)

Best finish: 2005 (11-1)

10-win seasons in 21st Century: 6

Ceiling: Annual division contender, occasional College Football Playoff influencer. Penn State’s mission every year is simple: beat Ohio State and Michigan and take care of the rest of the Big Ten East. Based on current infrastructure and James Franklin’s consistency, the Nittany Lions represent the greatest threat to Ohio State’s supremacy. The gap, however, is sizable.


Best national rank 21st Century: 6 (2003)

Best finish: 2006 (11-2)

10-win seasons in 21st Century: 7

Ceiling: Annual playoff contender. Don’t let recency bias creep in here. If anything, it’s baffling that a school with the resources and recruiting ability the magnitude of Michigan’s has been so lackluster of late.

But for every Alabama and Ohio State taking it to another level, there’s a has-been that’s fallen victim to schools once thought of as “less than” catching up and, in some cases, eclipsing it.

The Wolverines, though, have too many deep-pocketed stakeholders and too vast an infrastructure to fail forever. Further along in this exercise, you’ll see the same case made for a B1G West operation in a similar situation.

Michigan State

Best national rank 21st Century: 3 (2013)

Best finish: 2013 (13-1, Rose Bowl victory)

10-win seasons in 21st Century: 6

Ceiling: Annual division contender, Playoff entertainer once every decade or so. Mark Dantonio’s best teams seem like they played a long time ago, which is why he was replaced after the 2019 season. But when it’s clicking, Sparty can give anyone in the conference a run for its money.

It’s when Michigan State ventures outside the confines of the Big Ten that it runs into trouble. But a lot of the same ingredients that made Dantonio successful before his tenure went south are still there: mainly, an identity. We’ll see if Mel Tucker is able to capitalize.


Best national rank 21st Century: 12 (2020)

Best finish: 2020 (6-2)

10-win seasons in 21st Century: 0

Ceiling: Division influencer every 5-10 years. A basketball school, you say? Indiana was one of pandemic college football’s darlings, but folks inside the program insist they saw this coming.

The $500,000 question in Bloomington: Was the Hoosiers’ stalwart season a product of the times, or is this sustainable? Hard to bet against Tom Allen and the job he’s done. But the resources at the top of the East will likely keep Indiana in that middle, jump-up-and-bite-you-now-and-then tier.

Given where Indiana football has been for most of its modern existence, that’s a huge improvement.


Best national rank 21st Century: 12 (2006)

Best finish: 2006 (11-2, Texas Bowl win)

10-win seasons in 21st Century: 1

Ceiling: Division influencer every 5-10 years. If Allen can do it at Indiana, Greg Schiano can do it in Piscataway.

He already has.

Rutgers’ best football since the 1970s came during Schiano’s first stint as head coach — albeit when the Scarlet Knights were in the Big East. It’s been a strange fit with the B1G, but there are enough pieces in place for Rutgers to play the scrappy underdog on an annual basis.


Best national rank 21st Century: 11 (2001)

Best finish: 2001 (10-2, Orange Bowl loss)

10-win seasons in 21st Century: 3

Ceiling: Spoiler. Maryland’s best season this century was also the first. Things have gone downhill since then, regardless of whether the Terrapins are competing in the ACC or the Big Ten.

Mike Locksley is a good coach. But college football is an afterthought in much of the northeast. It’s hard to see Maryland reaching far beyond an 8- or 9-win season in which it upsets one of the league’s top dogs en route to a good/not great bowl game.

Scott Van Pelt, if you’re reading this, feel free to make a case to the contrary.



Best national rank 21st Century: 7 (2006, 2010, 2017)

Best finish: 2006 (12-1, Capital One Bowl win)

10-win seasons in 21st Century: 10

Ceiling: Playoff participant. If you’re a Cheesehead, Wisconsin’s consistency is like a fine Brie. If you’re not, it’s aggravating.

Wisconsin, year-in-and-year-out, has been the best team in the West for the past 20 years. Sorry, Iowa. The Badgers feel like a team waiting to break through, and the way they develop linemen and recruit defenders, it’s conceivable they could do it by matching Ohio State and/or Michigan blow-for-blow in a B1G title game. In any case, the Badgers are the class of the West until further notice …


Best national rank 21st Century: 7 (2009)

Best finish: 2006 (12-2, Rose Bowl loss)

10-win seasons in 21st Century: 6

Ceiling: Rose Bowl/New Year’s Day Bowl mainstay. (continued from above) … followed closely by the Hawkeyes. With somehow less flash but even more smugness, Kirk Ferentz and his crew are a bastion of consistent line play in their own right. They send a lot of dudes to the NFL, too.

The difference? Expectations. Iowa’s leaders and customers are just fine with 8-9-win seasons and the occasional Rose Bowl trip. Make that a more regular occurrence, and they’ll put a statue of Ferentz outside the stadium.

They might already, anyway.


Best national rank 21st Century: 8 (2001)

Best finish: 2001 (11-2, Rose Bowl loss)

10-win seasons in 21st Century: 5

Ceiling: Annual division contender, Playoff mix once every decade or so. Laugh if you want. Picturing Nebraska in a College Football Playoff game right now is kind of like the image of pipes freezing all over Texas.

Oh, wait.

Truth is, as bad as it’s been in Lincoln, there are few programs with as many people who care as passionately about their squad as those in Big Red country. Fan bases only take a team so far, but much like Michigan, there are too many Cornhusker State natives with too much money for this squad to stay down for the long haul. Whether it’s Scott Frost or someone else, there’s enough tradition and infrastructure to get back to respectability.

The days of competing for national titles year in and year out are over. But Nebraska can be a consistent player in the B1G West. Someday.


Best national rank 21st Century: 10 (2020)

Best finish: 2020 (7-2, Citrus Bowl win)

10-win seasons in 21st Century: 3

Ceiling: Top 10 team. You’re seeing it.

Northwestern under Pat Fitzgerald is that guy at pickup basketball that annoys you because he’s so dogged. He rarely misses. You jog, he sprints. And he plays defense!

The Wildcats are a great example of a historically mediocre program that’s invested in ascent and is starting to see it pay off. To CFP-like proportions? Not quite yet. It’s still Northwestern.

But as long as Fitz is in his hometown (and he just extended through 2030), the Wildcats will be there. They can’t recruit at the same clip as many counterparts, so expect “down” years where they’re around .500 — but still beat someone they’re not supposed to — to be mixed in with the conference title aspirations.


Best national rank 21st Century: 10 (2019)

Best finish: 2019 (11-2, Outback Bowl win)

10-win seasons in 21st Century: 2

Ceiling: Division winner, every once in a great while. In its best season in over a century in 2019, Minnesota was oh, so close. Find a way to get past border nemesis Wisconsin if such a situation presents itself again, and the Gophers getting to Indianapolis looks like a very real possibility.

This assumes a couple of things, though: Nebraska stays in its current state of tumult. Iowa keeps settling for somewhere between average and elite. And P.J. Fleck doesn’t skip town for a bigger job.

That’s the biggest fear in the Twin Cities, where college football isn’t nearly as important as it is in Lincoln or Iowa City. Chances are Minnesota comes back to the pack while other West foes hit their ceiling, which is higher.

If Fleck sticks around like Fitzgerald has at Northwestern, the ceiling will be raised.


Best national rank 21st Century: 18 (2003)

Best finish: 2003 (9-4, Capital One Bowl loss)

10-win seasons in 21st Century: 0

Ceiling: Spoiler who goes to a lot of Christmas-week bowl games. There was a time not so long ago when it looked like Jeff Brohm and Rondale Moore were going to carry Purdue to the next echelon.

But Moore is gone, and while Brohm’s not exactly on the hot seat, progress has been hard to come by in West Lafayette.

Not that that’s anything new.


Best national rank 21st Century: 12 (2001)

Best finish: 2001 (10-2, Sugar Bowl loss)

10-win seasons in 21st Century: 1

Ceiling: Agitator.

For real. It’s Bret Bielema’s show.

A spoiler has an impact on the standings. An agitator does just that — it pokes the bears of the rest of the division. Illinois will have its moments. But there just isn’t enough of an emphasis on football or success to merit stacks of top-tier recruiting classes.

It’ll take more than just Bielema’s return to the B1G to change that.