Michigan can polish B10 image with upset of ‘Bama

Michigan and Michigan State are giving the Big Ten a couple of

early chances to burnish its national reputation.

The conference’s image has taken a beating in some quarters, and

not just because of the child-sex scandal at Penn State or the NCAA

penalties at Ohio State.

There is the perceived gap between the Big Ten and Southeastern

Conference, a gap many think is growing wider each season. That, of

course, is not a problem exclusive to the Big Ten. But the tension

is palpable in a conference that once upon a time boasted of being

the best in the land.

The SEC wears that label now, and its six straight national

titles leave little room for debate. The Big Ten’s recent

performances against SEC teams have been less than stellar, and the

record against other BCS leagues has been nothing to brag about,

either.

All this makes for a delicious opener when No. 8 Michigan plays

second-ranked and defending national champion Alabama on Saturday

night at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke on Tuesday tried to juke a question

about the importance of representing well in the early Big Ten-SEC

matchup.

He mentioned the great academic institutions and athletic

programs of the Big Ten before acknowledging any duty to fly the

flag for the conference.

”There is no question that’s part of it when you play a team

from another league,” he said on the Big Ten coaches’

teleconference.

No. 13 Michigan State, picked by many to win the Legends

Division and play Wisconsin again in the Big Ten championship game,

can do its part Friday when it opens against 24th-ranked Boise

State.

Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said he is concerned only about

Michigan State, not how the Big Ten stacks up nationally. That

argument can wait until later in the fall.

”Collectively, we as a group will stand together at the end of

the day,” he said. ”We’re not going out there representing the

Big Ten Conference as much as putting on the green and white and

representing Michigan State today.”

The Big Ten was 4-6 in bowl games last year after its teams went

a combined 7-7 in the regular season against BCS conference

opponents and Notre Dame.

Last year’s notable games: Penn State lost for a second straight

year to Alabama, Iowa was beaten by Iowa State and Michigan State

and Purdue both were beaten by Notre Dame. Since 1999, the Big Ten

is 1-8 in the Rose Bowl and its 4-3 bowl mark in 2009 is its only

postseason record above .500 in that time frame.

Ohio State won the Big Ten’s last national championship, in

2002. The Buckeyes played for the title again in 2006 and `07 but

were derailed by the SEC’s Florida and LSU.

Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said he’s come to realize the

importance of building up the image of the Big Ten in high-profile

non-conference games.

”If we all win, it makes us all better,” he said.

Hoke said he is comfortable having his team play Alabama in the

opener. The Wolverines play three of their first five games away

from Ann Arbor, including Notre Dame and improving Purdue in

back-to-back weeks. They also play at Nebraska and Ohio State.

”We like it, and I like it personally,” Hoke said. ”When you

want to be the best and you want to be champions and all those

things you need to play the best and play those programs that are

on a high level. We think as a team, that’s just going to make us

better when we get into the Big Ten.”

Dantonio’s Spartans will open against a Boise State team that

returns only six starters from a squad that had six players taken

in the NFL draft.

Boise State has beaten ranked opponents each of the last three

years in openers: 19-8 over No. 14 Oregon in 2009, 33-30 over No. 7

Virginia Tech in Landover, Md., in 2010 and 35-21 over No. 19

Georgia in Atlanta last year.

The Broncos have won six straight and eight of nine against

teams from BCS conferences.

Minnesota is the first Big Ten team to play, visiting UNLV on

Thursday.

Other Big Ten openers, all Saturday: Northwestern at Syracuse;

Southern Mississippi at Nebraska; Iowa vs. Northern Illinois, in

Chicago; Western Michigan at Illinois; Indiana State at Indiana;

Miami (Ohio) at Ohio State; Ohio at Penn State; Eastern Kentucky at

Purdue; and Northern Iowa at Wisconsin.