BEN CLASSON/Herald photo

CHICAGO — “Big Ten sucks! Big Ten sucks!”

Kirk Herbstreit said he hears it wherever he goes as an analyst with ESPN’s College Gameday, a testament to the rest of the country’s view on the Big Ten conference.

“I walk on the set, and they just destroy me no matter where I go,” said Herbstreit, a former quarterback at Ohio State University. “I’ve been on the show for 13 years. It’s never been like that. The last two years, that’s all it is.”

In fact, a lot has been made lately of the struggles Big Ten teams have seen in bowl games. When you add that to the weak non-conference schedules most teams in the conference play — Wisconsin included — there’s plenty of fuel for the fire burning around the Big Ten.

“It’s important that we go win. There’s not a lot we can say until we go and win,” said Ron Zook, head coach at the University of Illinois. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the Big Ten conference is a great conference. … But it is important that we take care of business that way.”

At the Big Ten football media day July 24 and 25 in Chicago, nearly every coach argued he felt the conference was stronger than ever.

“I think the Big Ten in 2008 is going to be better than it was in ’06 and ’07,” said OSU head coach Jim Tressel, whose Buckeye team lost the past two National Championship games. “Obviously we think that this is the finest group of coaches in America. It’s just what we believe of one another. So when you do line up the Big Ten, I’m sure like every other conference feels about themselves, every team could be the champion.”

“The Big Ten conference is very healthy; it’s very competitive,” said Purdue’s Joe Tiller, who will be entering his final season as the head coach of the Boilermakers. “A lot has been placed on one game, and that’s unfortunate.”

That one game Tiller alluded to is the bowl game most teams finish their season with. Of late, the Big Ten has not fared well in postseason bowl games. In 2008, five of the eight Big Ten teams in bowl games lost. Highlighting the conference’s struggles last year were Ohio State’s 38-24 loss to LSU in the BCS National Championship and Illinois’ 49-17 drubbing at the hands of USC in the Rose Bowl.

But in Herbstreit’s eyes, too much emphasis has been placed on the bowl games when looking at the strength of the conference, particularly in 2007 when the Buckeyes and Michigan Wolverines both lost their respective BCS games.

“Florida goes and embarrasses Ohio State, and then Michigan loses to USC — I think if Michigan would have beat USC, it would have been severe, but it wouldn’t have been as severe. Then it became not just Ohio State as a joke, but the Big Ten as a joke.

“The encore was Michigan loses to Appalachian State. That becomes a punch line,” Herbstreit added. “Then they look like they have ankle weights on against Oregon. That becomes a punch line. Then other games, like Iowa lost to Western Michigan; Wisconsin was losing to The Citadel at halftime. Whatever could go wrong went wrong.”

Herbstreit and many of the coaches addressed the strength of schedule issue as well. Like OSU, who will play a road game at USC this season, Herbstreit thinks Wisconsin can go out and schedule games against tougher non-conference foes.

“Ohio State’s done it; Michigan’s done it. … I think Wisconsin needs to step up and play some heavyweights,” Herbstreit said. “They’ve reached a point as a program where they can go to USC. … That’s how you’re going to destroy this image.”

In Bielema’s first two seasons at the helm, the Badgers have lacked a big non-conference game on their schedule. Last year, Wisconsin faced Washington State, UNLV and The Citadel. In 2006, it was Bowling Green, Western Illinois, San Diego State and Buffalo.

Not exactly the USC Trojans. Still, Bielema defended his team’s scheduling.

Fresno State, who Wisconsin plays Sept. 13, is ranked in the top 25 in some of the preseason polls. UW also hosts Akron the first week of the season — which Bielema said “has shown over the last two years especially to be strong within their conference” — and Marshall in week two, a team that upset Kansas State when Bielema was an assistant there.

“Those three games in itself I think speak for themselves,” Bielema said.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Wisconsin’s non-conference schedule in 2008 will be strong enough to gain respect from other conferences of the country, or if the Badgers and other Big Ten programs will continue to be the butt of the joke around the NCAA.

“The Big Ten’s always been hated by the SEC and the Pac 10, but it’s never been a punch line. And right now — not by me, but by what I hear — they mock the Big Ten; they laugh at the Big Ten,” Herbstreit said. “They think the Big Ten is the most overrated, overhyped conference in the country every year. And it’s a shame.”