With Nebraska struggling to make its way to the Top 20 of the BCS and the rest of the conference either postseason-ineligible or bad at football, it looks like the Big Ten is going to register its worst set of bowl teams from the top down in a long, long time.
Considering the scorn that had been heaped on the Big East and (to a lesser extent) the ACC for taking advantage of automatic BCS bids in years past, it's natural to look at the Big Ten's offering to the BCS landscape this season and think "this isn't an automatic bid conference." It would be with Ohio State eligible, of course, but that's not the world we're living in this year.
So if the ACC and Big East's lousy BCS teams were illegitimate, why wouldn't the Big Ten's lousy BCS team be illegitimate?
The answer is simple: To the BCS, it doesn't matter how bad the automatic qualifier conference's BCS representative is. They want those conferences in, and they'll get them in.
"Deserve" has nothing to do with why you'll see a Big Ten team in Pasadena this year. Oh, most of the time, the Big Ten team does in fact deserve it. But that's incidental. It's not why the Big Ten's there.
No, the Big Ten gets to send a team to the Rose Bowl because the Big Ten's been doing that for over a century dating back to 1901 when Michigan kicked the living daylights out of Stanford 49-0 there, finishing an undefeated, untied, unscored-upon season that would rank among the best of all-time if football weren't a completely different sport back then.
In the 111 intervening years (although not regularly until 1946), the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl have cultivated this annual tradition of playing in the bowl, and it's become something the Big Ten and college football have come to expect on New Year's Day. The Rose Bowl didn't start to suffer until the BCS started to get cute with its bowl pairings, which led to such debacles as the 2003 Orange Bowl pitting Iowa and USC against each other while Pasadena hosted Oklahoma and Washington State.
Pitting the Big Ten and Pac-12 against each other is the Rose Bowl's formula. It works extremely well for it. Thus, it works extremely well for college football. The profitability, ticket sales and television ratings all bear this out and have done so for decades.
So to even entertain the notion that the Big Ten should not have a BCS team at all out of concern for which team "deserves" it more is to be completely ignorant about the way college football works. The Rose Bowl gets the Big Ten because the Rose Bowl wants the Big Ten, and vice versa.
Besides, the odds-on favorite to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl this season, both judging by BCS ranking and the path to the title game, is Nebraska. The Rose Bowl would love to have the Big Ten's newest member represent it there this early in its conference affiliation. Sure, Nebraska was there 11 years ago to get thrashed by Miami for the BCS Championship, but this would be special from a Big Ten standpoint—and thus, from a Rose Bowl standpoint.
You think the Rose Bowl would rather entertain the likes of LSU? Oklahoma? Clemson? They're big names, but dream on. There's a simple reason why the Big Ten and Pac-12 fought so hard to maintain their conference affiliations in the new playoff system come 2014: It's what the Rose Bowl wants.
"Deserve?" Nobody in charge cares about "deserve."