CHICAGO — Ohio State defensive tackle Darrion Scott casually played with his phone while answering questions last Thursday at the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon. No one was calling him, but the picture on the video screen was enough to occupy his sight as he gave verbal responses to many of the same questions for two hours.
The photo was of the Buckeyes’ national championship ring.
While it’s a nice ring to look at, it also serves as a reminder that the Big Ten had its first debate-free national champion since Ohio State won it all in 1968. Michigan, of course, split a title with Nebraska in 1997.
But last year’s title was more important for the conference as, coupled with the Big Ten’s 5-2 postseason mark and Iowa’s BCS bid, it put many critics of the conference to rest.
“As far as football is concerned, we had a great year last year,” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said. “We are able to compete both at the national level and also have quite a bit of shared competitiveness within the conference.”
Yet, even with last year’s success, just one preseason publication (Phil Steele’s College Football Preview) has put Ohio State on top heading into this season. Though the Buckeyes return 10 of their 11 offensive starters (fifth-year senior offensive lineman Ivan Douglas is now medically unable to play this season) and Scott, defensive end Will Smith and corner back/receiver/returner Chris Gamble, the other magazines have put Oklahoma, Miami, Auburn and Texas ahead of the Buckeyes.
“It’s only paper, but it hurts,” Scott said of not being picked to repeat. “When we’re down, people really like to jump on us. I don’t know if it’s the Big Ten or Ohio State, or what it is. I don’t know why people don’t give us the respect we deserve.”
This wouldn’t be the first time that the conference has faced criticism after doing well. The Wolverines, in the final year of pre-BCS football, failed to win an outright national title after winning the Rose Bowl. The coaches’ poll, which had Michigan No. 1 going into the bowl season, voted Nebraska as champion in the final poll. Also in 1994, Penn State went undefeated with a Rose Bowl win, yet when voters had to determine a national champion, it was just the Cornhuskers who would wear the crown.
That’s what made last year’s win for Ohio State so big for the conference. By becoming the first Big Ten team to win the BCS title game, the Buckeyes put to rest any doubts that the conference wasn’t among the nation’s elite.
“This is the upper echelon of college football, and there wasn’t a better example of that than of Ohio State winning the national championship, Iowa going to a BCS game and our impeccable bowl record,” Northwestern running back Jason Wright said. “That’s why we all came here — to be a part of it.”
As for this season, with many teams returning so much talent, it will be tough to select a Big Ten champion. But for now, Ohio State has been selected to repeat for good reason. Michigan and Wisconsin were Nos. 2 and 3 in the preseason conference poll. No other positions were announced.
“I think everybody will at least have one loss,” Michigan State running back Tyrell Dortch said. “Everybody’s got everybody coming back this year and we’ve got the defending national champions coming in the conference as well. It’s going to be a great time to compete in the conference.”