By Seth Gruen–
(CBS) The Big Ten chest beating is at an all-time high, as well it should be after the conference finished with four teams in the top eight of the College Football Playoff rankings.
A litany of columns have pointed out that the Big Ten has arrived, a notable accomplishment but nonetheless as obvious as calling Lake Michigan wet. So, though early this season I wrote that the Big Ten was coming, I’d hate to waste your time telling you that it’s here.
But what has gotten lost in the Jim Delany butt-kissing contest is what it means to play in college football’s best conference.
The irony of it all is that this all means less to the schools that actually won that it does those struggling to maintain their relevancy.
To Ohio State (the Big Ten’s representative in the College Football Playoff), Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin, their individual success this season will have much more of a windfall on the immediate futures of those programs.
Ohio State and Michigan, as long as Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh are coaching at the schools, will be perennial favorites to win whatever trophy has meaning to each school — including that of the national championship. Wisconsin and Penn State, likewise, could easily climb back into the national championship picture with success on the recruiting trail.
But as standalones, each of these schools’ football programs would have success. The conference affiliation means much less to them.
Instead it’s the likes of Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana, Rutgers, Purdue, et al that will be the beneficiary of the money and notoriety the aforementioned four schools brought to the conference this season.
Let’s be honest: Besides those four, only Michigan State, Nebraska and Iowa sometimes contribute anything of meaning to the conference. The rest of the schools, by comparison, are like winter to Chicago’s summer.
The Big Ten has revenue sharing, which means, for example, the conference’s lower class is able to afford the same caliber in facilities as teams like the Buckeyes and Wolverines. Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin all play in premier bowls that represent a financial windfall to the conference split up among its member schools. Likewise for the revenue Ohio State will bring in from its second appearance in the College Football Playoff.
There’s a benefit in recruiting too. Because of the conference’s success this season, it will enjoy a bigger complement of primetime games, which means that lesser Big Ten schools will get exposure they otherwise didn’t earn. That helps draw better talent.
If Ohio State, Michigan or Wisconsin went to another conference — or even became independents — they would still enjoy the same success. Heck, maybe their bottom line would be even better if they didn’t have to share as much of their revenue.
But under those same circumstances, Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue and Rutgers would be severely hurt. The Buckeyes, Wolverines and Badgers sell their school to recruits. The Illini, Wildcats and Boilermakers rely on selling the conference much more.
And so, on the heels of the 2016, they’ll be able to capitalize on the perception that the Big Ten is the nation’s best college football conference.
So go ahead and champion the conference’s supremacy. Just remember, though, to only pat a few schools on the back.
Seth Gruen is columnist for CBSChicago.com, focusing on college sports. You can follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.