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Big Ten no longer on the defensive

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CHICAGO -- Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany didn't take the stage to "Celebration," "We Are The Champions" or even, "Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta." But "Taps" wasn't playing, either, and Delany could leave his body armor at home.

For the first time in years, Delany and his Big Ten brethren weren't forced into a defensive posture at their annual media days, a promotional event that had become target practice against the tradition-rich league. Recent media days peppered Big Ten officials about why the league can't recruit top players, why it can't win major bowl games and, ultimately, why it can't win a national championship. Off-field scandals, uninspired coaching hires and an East Coast expansion greeted mostly with grumbling short-circuited the Big Ten hype machine.

There's finally reason to celebrate the Big Ten football brand again. Ohio State's national championship -- the Big Ten's first since the Buckeyes won in 2002 -- and preseason No. 1 ranking is the biggest driver, but there are other positive signs across the league. Michigan State comes off of consecutive major bowl victories (Rose, Cotton), Penn State is emerging from the shadows of scandal and Michigan made the biggest coaching move of the offseason in bringing native son Jim Harbaugh back to Ann Arbor. "A head-turning hire," Delany called it. New members Rutgers and Maryland both posted winning records in their first seasons in the conference. Despite the nation's toughest bowl lineup, the Big Ten recorded a record six bowl victories.

"It closed a lot of mouths," Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said. "We're finally getting that respect we deserve."

It's not the Big Ten's style to flaunt its success. There are no "Big Ten!" chants (it doesn't roll off the tongue like S-E-C) or superlative-filled statements from coaches or officials. The league's media day, unlike the SEC's brilliantly marketed four-day event during Major League Baseball's All-Star break, isn't even the biggest event in Chicago's South Loop, as Lollapalooza kicks off today. Big Ten bombast equates to interim Michigan athletic director Jim Hackett telling reporters: "The Big Ten is back, and I don’t think in a casual way. ... Watch out."

Still, there's a subtle confidence around the Big Ten, reinforced by a breakthrough season and the promise of a bright future, which includes a new television contract in 2017. A league that went from 2009-14 without producing a top-10 NFL draft pick could have two top-five players next year in Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa and Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

"We walk around with pride being Big Ten guys," Ohio State linebacker Joshua Perry said, "and everybody should recognize, especially with the tradition and everything, that this is a real conference."

Despite 26 years as commissioner, Delany admitted he always approaches his media days address with sweaty palms, unsure of what he'll be asked. But this time there were no questions about title droughts or league inferiority because of last year's success.

"We have great energy, we had a great year last year and it was a long and interesting run," he said. "We didn’t start strong, but we ended strong. But that was last year’s story. This year’s story is going to unfold over 13 weeks.

"But there is good energy."

Added Wisconsin running back Corey Clement: "The mood is on a positive uprise."

It comes at a great time with college football's popularity surging and the Big Ten last in line to land a television deal projected to be the biggest in college sports. Delany correctly noted that the facts and figures will drive the new deal but added: "There's no doubt about it that in any negotiation, emotion plays a part. It’s how people feel about themselves; it’s about what they feel about their future."

The Big Ten feels good about itself and its future. The venom has been directed elsewhere, to the Pac-12 (no national titles since 2004) or the Big 12 (no titles since 2005) or even the SEC (none since 2012!!!). The Big Ten isn't a national darling and might never be, but at least for the time being, it's not the national piƱata.

"People are saying that the Big Ten has a conference, actually," Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. "In a sense, we do have to defend ourselves, but after last year, people are giving us a lot more credit."

Calhoun thinks the Big Ten will be discussed in a different way this season, perhaps even by the members of the College Football Playoff selection committee.

"I know when teams in the SEC play each other, it's, 'They have such a strong conference; they're going to lose to each other,'" Calhoun said. "But when we played each other, it was more so last year, 'They're terrible.' Now it will be a lot better. When we play each other, it will be more, 'They have a strong conference; that’s why they’re losing to each other.'"

Whether Calhoun's claim holds up depends heavily on the Big Ten's nonconference showing, which has been a flop in recent years. Games such as Ohio State-Virginia Tech, Wisconsin-Alabama, Michigan State-Oregon, Michigan-Utah and Nebraska-Miami will help determine the early Big Ten view, which, as we learned last year, meant nothing in final assessment.

Last season could be a stopgap for the Big Ten hate or a turning point. Another national title, especially by a program other than Ohio State, would be the strongest indicator of B1G things to come. Traditional powers such as Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State must elevate, and Wisconsin must continue its decades-long run of very good, occasionally great, play.

"The celebration's over," Clement said. "The shift is toward the 2015 season. We want to be the ones at the top, hoisting the trophy."

Another national title would put Big Ten hate to bed for a while. A season without a playoff team would bring it back.

But the league can finally enter a season singing a happier tune.