Big Ten Football: Small Gains During Bowl Season, Long Way to Go

Adam KramerNational College Football Lead WriterJanuary 1, 2013

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01:  Melvin Gordon #25 of the Wisconsin Badgers runs the ball as he is hit by Terrence Brown #6 of the Stanford Cardinal in the third quarter in the 99th Rose Bowl Game Presented by Vizio on January 1, 2013 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

If one bowl season could be unproductive, heartbreaking and yet somehow strangely positive all in one, then this is how I would evaluate the Big Ten’s 2012-13 performance. 

The expectations were low, and Las Vegas sportsbooks pegged the Big Ten as an underdog in all seven games they were placed in. And despite only winning two of the seven games, the B1G held its own.

It could’ve been worse; it could’ve certainly been better. But the Big Ten battled.

Well, except for you, Purdue.

The Boilermakers were clobbered by Oklahoma State 58-14 in the Heart of Dallas Bowl Tuesday, which was the low point for the conference. Other than their New Year’s egg lay, however, there really weren’t any other blowouts. 

Georgia beat Nebraska 45-31 in the Capitol One Bowl, though the Cornhuskers led this game at the half and hung around with one of the nation’s most talented teams. The deck was stacked against them to begin with, and Nebraska hung tough. Georgia, quite frankly, is a superior team. There’s no shame in admitting that.

Michigan lost a heartbreaker to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, and a late touchdown pass (along with this Jadeveon Clowney hit, which is hypnotic) gave the Gamecocks a 33-28 win. The Wolverines were more than up for this game, and this felt like one that just slipped out of their fingertips.

So close.

In the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin started off sluggish but then pushed a very gifted Stanford team to the brink. The Badgers’ fell 20-14, playing without their coach and getting in with five losses thanks to bowl bans for both Ohio State and Penn State.

The other New Year’s Day team to play, Northwestern, topped Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl thanks to a bundle of forced turnovers. It was refreshing to see Pat Fitzgerald finally break through that wall and get that team a bowl win, and they had a tremendous season.

Minnesota nearly upended Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas as a double-digit underdog, but a late field goal gave the Red Raiders a 34-31 victory. The other win came courtesy of Michigan State, which mounted an impressive second half comeback for a second consecutive year to best TCU 17-16 in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

Another year, another questionable Big Ten showing in bowl games from a results-driven standpoint. Speaking of results, New Year’s Day has not been very good to Jim Delany’s conference of late.

Jim Delany should just avoid Jan. 1. Big Ten is 2-13 on New Year's Day games in past 3 years.

— Jon Solomon (@jonsol) January 2, 2013

And yet, somehow I don’t think the masses view this underwhelming showing as a disappointment. This is what was supposed to happen, and the Big Ten was competitive in just about every game.

The disappointment for this season came long ago, and some bright spots from the bowls are actually a pleasant surprise given the circumstances. It’s come to this for the Big Ten, at least right now.

Granted, two of the conference’s best teams—Ohio State and Penn State—were ineligible, which could have drastically changed the perception of the conference. Not just in bowl games, but as for the entire season. This is what we’re left, however, and the results are what they are.

While you appreciate teams like Minnesota and Michigan taking favorites to the brink, the losses once again mounted up. The Big Ten out-performed my expectations a great deal, but perhaps that’s where the problem lies. 

Our perception of the conference and their performance in the postseason has plummeted, and we can happily pat the B1G on the head and mutter “good job” as we head into another offseason with not much to show for it.

There is, however, reasons to be optimistic, or at least some. Ohio State will be loaded and bowl eligible next season, and Michigan will also be very good, especially if the Wolverines continue to recruit as well as they are. Northwestern has turned into an entertaining team with spunk, and they certainly won’t go away. And perhaps the likes of Michigan State and Wisconsin will continue to compete. Michigan State, after all, has beaten Georgia and TCU in bowls the past two seasons, so they’re certainly doing their part. 

In the end, the results come down to talent and performances in a one-game setting. There’s a laundry list of reasons why the Big Ten has struggled of late, but you could put most of this on recruiting and coaching.

There’s no secret formula to getting to better bowl games and beating teams outside the conference in these games. Better coaches and better players will give a distinct advantage. It doesn’t guarantee wins, but it’s a start. Recruiting has been a struggle for teams not named Ohio State and Michigan, and that’s not expected to automatically change overnight. This impacts more than just bowl struggles, of course, and a part of a much bigger problem.

This means the conference could struggle outside of a few teams, and the bowl woes could and likely will continue. 

There’s a ton of good things to take out of this year’s bowl season if you’re the Big Ten, but ultimately we’re left with wonderful efforts and close games. But not enough victories.