Big Ten enters media days on high note

The Big Ten is the last Power 5 conference to hold its media days. And in some ways, when the league gets its gabfest going in Chicago on Monday, it will have the last laugh.

The highlight of the two-day event is expected to come when commissioner Jim Delany formally announces the Big Ten's massive new television rights deal. As Sports Business Journal has reported, the deal will pay the league $2.64 billion over six years, nearly tripling the current contract. That works out to $31 million per school annually and should again make the Big Ten the richest conference in the land.

While Delany and friends could light some cigars with $100 bills at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place if they so choose, the league has long been wallowing in cash. That's not the only reason for it to feel good right now.

Delany and the 14 head coaches can focus mostly next week on just talking football. A blissfully quiet offseason means the Big Ten doesn't have to worry about scandals like those plaguing Baylor and Ole Miss. There's no chaotic scrambling for expansion teams like the Big 12. The biggest offseason controversy involving the Big Ten was over satellite camps, and the conference came out on top in that one, allowing Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh to roam the earth playing catch with teenagers to his heart's content.

One of Delany's pet projects -- reducing time demands for student-athletes -- came to fruition when the Power 5 conferences agreed to new concepts earlier this month about when players can be asked to work on their sports.

Of course, none of these achievements would matter much if the Big Ten was struggling on the football field. But things are looking up there, too.

Critics were all but leaving the conference for dead as recently as September 2014, when Ohio State's home loss to Virginia Tech capped a miserable nonconference showing. Since then, the Buckeyes won the inaugural College Football Playoff, while Michigan State got into the playoff field last year. Only the SEC and ACC can join the Big Ten in saying they've had teams make the playoff in each of the first two seasons. The playoff selection committee clearly has given plenty of credibility to the Big Ten champion, as both Ohio State and Michigan State made it in with one loss on their résumés.

The potential rise of Michigan could add depth to the Big Ten's bench. The Wolverines, coming off a 10-win campaign in Harbaugh's first season, are suddenly the betting favorites to win the national title and a probable top-five preseason club. That's likely showing too much faith in a program that hasn't even won an outright Big Ten title in 13 years, but there's little doubt that Harbaugh has Michigan on a rocket ship toward contender status.

Ohio State and Michigan both had top-six recruiting classes in 2016, according to ESPN, with the Wolverines claiming the No. 1 overall recruit in Rashan Gary. In the (very) early 2017 cycle, the Buckeyes currently boast the No. 1 class, with Michigan in sixth. Who says elite players don't want to come North?

It's not all roses and chocolates in the Big Ten these days, however. The league remains seriously top-heavy, even if Michigan does join Michigan State and Ohio State in the elite ranks. Can Iowa turn in another magical run like last year's 12-0 regular season? If not, can another West team such as Nebraska break through? Wisconsin has been extremely steady, hovering around 10 wins per year, but the Badgers have a brutal schedule in 2016. Hardly anybody seems to believe in Northwestern after last year's 10-win season, as the Wildcats are nowhere to be found in most preseason top 25 lists. When will Penn State become Penn State again?

Also-ran programs such as Illinois, Maryland and Rutgers are hoping coaching changes bring better results, while Minnesota and Indiana are still trying to gain relevance nationally. Purdue has been as bad as any Power 5 team the past few seasons.

There's simply still not enough depth or parity in the Big Ten, which could help the cream of the crop pile up win totals but could hurt the bottom rung in the advent of a new, nine-game league schedule this year. Will the huge influx of TV money help raise the floor of the conference? Or does it take more than enormous cash reserves for a program to climb out of mediocrity?

Those are long-term questions the Big Ten still must address. But for now, things are looking pretty good for the league. Expect to see a lot of smiling faces in Chicago.