It's an ugly truth that won't go away, a story line that will be beaten to death until the Big Ten stops getting beat to death by teams from outside the conference: When will the Big Ten become an elite conference on the field again?
Here are the cold, hard, ugly facts for a league that looks up at the SEC and Big 12 from a performance standpoint: The Big Ten has lost six consecutive BCS games and is 9-20 in all bowls over the past four seasons.
Last season may have been the nadir, when the league went 1-6 in bowls. The beatdowns the Big Ten has taken in the past two Rose Bowls say it all. The 2008 Rose Bowl saw USC race to a 21-3 lead over Illinois on the way to a 49-17 triumph that saw the Trojans gain 633 yards. Last season, USC toyed with Penn State en route to taking a commanding 31-7 late in the second quarter of an eventual 38-24 win. And that was on top of Ohio State getting annihilated 35-3 at USC earlier in the season.
How has all this affected teams in the Big Ten?
"I don't know that anyone in this conference has an inferiority complex," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel says. "If you watch ballgames, our guys will play toe to toe with anyone. If you watch the NFL draft, they'll get selected at the regularity of almost every conference.
"But it is something that … we take very, very serious, that every time we line up outside our conference, obviously we're representing ourselves and our institution, but we're also representing this league. That's important to us. When those bowl games are going on, we're rooting like crazy. That's something that's very, very important."
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Penn State QB Daryll Clark. He adapted to the Nittany Lions' "Spread HD" offense quickly last season, showing a knack for making good decisions in the passing game. Couple that with Clark's ample athletic ability and speed, and it's easy to see why he's one of the nation's best dual-threat quarterbacks.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Penn State LB Navorro Bowman. He's a tremendous athlete, and his speed and athletic ability make him one of the Big Ten's most-feared defenders. He has had some off-field issues, but if he can stay out of the coaches' doghouse, he and Sean Lee give Penn State a great duo at linebacker.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Ohio State RB Dan Herron. Ohio State needs someone to carry a big load in the backfield with Beanie Wells off early to the NFL, and that someone is Herron, a sophomore. Like Wells, Herron is a physical runner, showing signs of promise last season when he rumbled for 439 yards and six scores when Wells was hurt.
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS ON THE SPOT: Iowa Ts Karl Klug and Mike Daniels. This tandem is replacing the standout duo of Mitch King and Matt Kroul that generally wreaked havoc for the No. 9 rush defense in America. It's vital that Klug and Daniels be reasonable facsimiles if the Hawkeyes want to challenge for the league crown.
PLAYER WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL: Ohio State MLB Austin Spitler. Spitler, a senior, is stepping into the massive void left by the departure of James Laurinaitis. Laurinaitis won the Butkus Award in 2007 and the Lott Award last season, and he departed Columbus as an all-time Buckeyes great. Spitler has made 44 career tackles.
BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Northwestern QB Mike Kafka. Kafka, a senior, gave foes a preview of what's to come by directing the Wildcats to a wild win at Minnesota last season in which he ran for 217 yards - the most ever by a Big Ten quarterback. If Kafka's passing rounds into form, Northwestern will have another prolific quarterback - and a bowl bid.
BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Illinois T Corey Liuget. He arrived in Champaign amid much hype and is developing into the player staffers expected. Liuget, a sophomore, is a rare blend of agility and strength, making him a dangerous and disruptive weapon on the interior of the defense.
BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Michigan QB Tate Forcier. Forcier, a true freshman, arrived on campus in time for spring drills and impressed. Forcier has the athletic skills to give the Wolverines' offense a much-needed lift. But is Michigan asking too much of a true freshman?
BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Penn State FS Gerald Hodges. Hodges, a true freshman, enrolled early and turned heads with his playmaking ability in the spring. And he was a quick learner, too. Hodges will end up being a key member of a rebuilt Nittany Lions secondary.
MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: Illinois QB Juice Williams. Many felt he would become one of the best quarterbacks in Illini history. It hasn't happened. Williams has had his moments in his first three seasons in Champaign. But he has tossed 37 interceptions to 44 touchdown passes and completed just 52 percent of his passes during a roller-coaster career.
MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER: Iowa CB Amari Spievey. Spievey, a junior, has great size (6 feet/190 pounds) and should get more national notice this season. Longtime defensive coordinator Norm Parker has said Spievey might be the best cornerback he has ever coached. Spievey had four picks and six pass breakups last season and was a big reason Iowa was fifth nationally in pass efficiency defense.
COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Indiana's Bill Lynch. Taking over for the deceased Terry Hoeppner in 2007, Lynch impressed in leading the Hoosiers to their first bowl since 1993. But the program lost a lot of momentum last season during a horrid 3-9 campaign (including 1-7 in the Big Ten) that included home losses to Ball State and Central Michigan.
BEST COACHING STAFF: Penn State. It begins with Joe Paterno, who once and for all may have put to rest those "Joe must go!" cries with his second Big Ten title in four seasons. Tom Bradley is one of the top defensive coordinators in the nation. Galen Hall is a veteran offensive coordinator, and credit quarterback coach Jay Paterno for amping up the offense with the "Spread HD" scheme.
BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Wisconsin's Paul Chryst. He has juiced up the Badgers' offense by introducing various shifts, motions and misdirection. Chryst also has tuned up the passing game while remaining true to the Wisconsin mantra: pound the rock. He just needs to find a consistent quarterback.
BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Penn State's Tom Bradley. Bradley has been at JoePa's side since 1979 and remains an innovative assistant. Bradley is still a master at matching personnel to scheme. His defenses rarely are out of position and always hustle.
1. USC at Ohio State, Sept. 12
2. Notre Dame at Michigan, Sept. 12
3. Michigan State at Notre Dame, Sept. 19
4. Iowa at Penn State, Sept. 26
5. Illinois at Ohio State, Sept. 26
6. Iowa at Michigan State, Oct. 24
7. Ohio State at Penn State, Nov. 7
8. Iowa at Ohio State, Nov. 14
9. Penn State at Michigan State, Nov. 21
10. Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 21
GAME OF THE YEAR: Ohio State at Penn State, Nov. 7. Like last season, this sets up as a de facto Big Ten championship game. Revenge is on the mind of the Buckeyes, who saw the Nittany Lions escape Columbus with a 13-6 victory en route to forging a share of the Big Ten title last season.
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Illinois. If the Fighting Illini contend for the league crown, they will have earned it. The non-conference schedule is the Big Ten's toughest, with a neutral-site game vs. Missouri (two-time Big 12 North champs), a trip to Cincinnati (Big East champs) and a visit from giant-killer Fresno State. If that isn't enough, Illinois opens league play against three of the top four teams in the league: at Ohio State, vs. Penn State and vs. Michigan State.
EASIEST SCHEDULE: Penn State. Go ahead and start dreaming big. The Nittany Lions open with three hapless non-league foes in Happy Valley. Six of the first seven games are at home. And Big Ten toughies Iowa and Ohio State visit, too. Easy living.
MOST EMBARRASSING GAME: Eastern Illinois at Penn State, Oct. 10. Honestly, you could pick most any non-conference game for the Nittany Lions. They all are a j-o-k-e. But this one vs. a Football Championship Subdivision speed bump takes the cake. An intra-squad scrimmage might be more entertaining.