The Big Ten Conference has been much maligned over the past several years, with analysts, pundits and fans of other leagues chiding, snickering or outright laughing at the football played up north.
The bowl season has been particularly rough on the conference, where teams from around the Great Lakes have posted a pretty lousy 8-14 record in bowls over the past three seasons.
Even though the Big Ten has received more BCS bids than any other conference (25), the conference wins fewer than half of those bowls. Going back to the 2006-07 season, the Big Ten is just 2-6 in the BCS.
With such a horrible record against other top conferences in the postseason, how could anyone take the historical behemoth of the north seriously?
Just as it seemed the Big Ten would be forced to head back to the drawing board to figure out a new way of reinvigorating their winning ways in late December and early January, the conference got a shot in the arm thanks to the exploits of Michigan State, as the Big Ten's runner-up Spartans pulled off a thrilling triple-overtime victory against the SEC's runner-up, Georgia, in the Outback Bowl.
But when Wisconsin and Nebraska slipped in their big bowl games, those nagging voices began to speak up once again, with renewed confidence.
They didn't count on the resurgent Wolverines.
Naysayers will point out that Michigan was outgained by Virginia Tech, 377-184. They'll say Denard Robinson was held to just 13 yards on 13 carries and 9-of-21 passing for 117 yards. They'll note Virginia Tech held the ball for over 13 minutes longer than Michigan.
And when all of those arguments fail, they'll point out that Virginia Tech didn't belong in the BCS anyway.
But those are desperate arguments from those desperate to do and say anything to discredit the Big Ten and the Wolverines, disingenuously seeking to make the conference to which they owe allegiance look that much better.
The truth of the matter is the Big Ten got a huge shot in the arm thanks to Brady Hoke's team tonight. The Big Ten will finish the bowl season with more postseason wins than two of their BCS-AQ counterparts—the ACC (2-5, possibly 2-6 or 3-5) and the Pac-12 (2-5).
But beyond progress for the conference at large, the Wolverines' 11-2 record also points to one thing the rest of the nation was dreading—Michigan is back.
The winningest program in history added 11 more to their total, putting the Wolverines just six wins shy of a whopping 900. The next closest program—Texas—has just 858 wins, followed closely by Notre Dame's 853.
While past performance doesn't have much bearing on the present—or the future—detractors should remember that same fact. We can all point to bad seasons for Texas or Notre Dame or Alabama or USC. Pointing out Michigan's past flaws only makes them seem that much better today.
Brady Hoke has proven that the right coaching staff can make all of the difference. While the win for the Wolverines in New Orleans was a team effort, one simply has to look at the defense to see how far this team has come in such a short time.
In 2010, Michigan displayed one of the worst defenses in the nation, ranking 110th in the FBS in total defense (tied for 107th in scoring defense). Coming into tonight's Sugar Bowl, Michigan ranked 16th (sixth in scoring defense), with much the same personnel on the field.
The 2012 Sugar Bowl also taught us a few important lessons. First, Michigan learned that it's not a one-man team. Denard Robinson wasn't spectacular tonight by any stretch of the imagination. Still, the Wolverines found a way to win, relying on some unsung heroes to come up with big plays in big situations.
For Virginia Tech, the Hokies learned that execution is everything, and Beamerball isn't a given. The Hokies were held to one touchdown on five red-zone trips, including two visits to the 4-yard line in the first half, neither or which resulted in more than three points. With some disastrous mistakes on special teams, the combination of failure was too much for the Hokies to overcome.
This win certainly doesn't mean Michigan is going to be considered a national championship favorite next season, but don't be surprised if they're in the conversation from the get-go in September.
Nor does the win mean the Big Ten can once again call itself the elite conference of the nation, but it does mean the conference has taken another step up the ladder and can legitimately say it's among the best.