Big Ten Football: 10 Things We Learned from 2013-14 Bowl Season

Andrew CoppensContributor IJanuary 5, 2014

Big Ten Football: 10 Things We Learned from 2013-14 Bowl Season

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    Bowl season and the Big Ten: It's a match made in...well, how to put this delicately...how about a match made in purgatory? 

    Yes, that's it—after all, fans of schools in the Big Ten annually get their hopes up, only to see their teams lose close game to good competition. 

    The 2013-14 bowl season was no different, with the Big Ten going 2-5 in the postseason and leaving many fans wondering "what if" once again.

    If there was a silver lining, at least both of the Big Ten's wins came on New Year's Day in games where Nebraska and Michigan State were underdogs. 

    Meanwhile, we also are reminded about the debacles that were Michigan and Minnesota. 

    This year was more of the same for Big Ten fans. That familiar empty feeling of coming close and yet being so far away is getting old. 

    Bowl season provided plenty of lessons over the course of seven games, so let's explore what we learned about the B1G from its bowl games. 

Connor Cook Is a Star and the Big Ten's Best Quarterback

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    Doing it once? OK, cool, there's some talent there. 

    Doing it twice against Top Five foes? We've got a star on our hands. 

    Of course, the guy we're talking about is Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook. What he did was lead his team to comeback wins over No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 Stanford in back-to-back games. 

    Cook backed up his first 300-yard passing performance from the Big Ten championship game with his second-ever 300-yard passing performance in his first Rose Bowl appearance. 

    He went for a career-high 332 yards passing and threw two touchdowns in the Spartans' win over Stanford.

    Those are the numbers of a star, not just of a capable quarterback who's growing into the position.

    Heading into the 2014 season, there isn't a quarterback with more mojo than Cook. Even with Braxton Miller coming back at Ohio State, Cook could be the Big Ten's best quarterback. 

    The only question will be if he's ready to become the focal point at Michigan State, where his defense is going to look a lot different next season. 

Wisconsin Has to Find a Passing Game

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    Wisconsin can run the ball on anyone it wants, that is when the Badgers are on their game. That much became obvious against South Carolina, where Wisconsin averaged 6.8 yards per carry.

    However, the Capital One Bowl loss made one thing painfully obvious—Wisconsin needs a passing game to be able to beat the top competition it faces. 

    The bad news is the man that made the passing game go, wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, was a senior and is off to the NFL. 

    Abbrederis had 78 receptions for 1,081 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013. For his career, he totaled 202 receptions for 3,134 yards and 23 touchdowns. 

    Those weren't bad numbers for a walk-on who was an afterthought at quarterback when he arrived on campus. 

    The problem is, his absence leaves a Wisconsin receiving corp that is led by Jordan Fredrick, who had only 10 receptions this season. You have to look to fifth on the receptions list to find Fredrick and you'd have to search your memory bank real hard to find a time that you remember him making a big play. 

    Wisconsin needs the likes of Rob Wheelwright, Reggie Love and incoming freshman Krenwick Sanders to step up quickly. Otherwise it is going to be a long season for Badgers fans in 2014. 

Iowa Isn't as Good as We Thought

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    Iowa had a remarkable turnaround in 2013, going from 4-8 to 8-4, and the Hawkeyes should be commended for that.

    The Outback Bowl, however, served as a reminder that it's still a far ways off from Iowa's two Orange Bowl teams of the past. 

    The Hawkeyes struggled against another top-flight defense, scoring just 14 points and racking up just 233 total yards of offense in their 21-14 loss to LSU. 

    There is talent on the offensive side of the ball, but there needs to be more in the way of speed out of the skill positions. 

    Jake Rudock is clearly a lynchpin for this offense. When he's out, things look dramatically different. The fact that Iowa's quarterback has been knocked out of multiple games in his first year as a starter is a bit worrisome too. 

    If you're an Iowa fan, you'd love to see Rudock go a season without missing action due to an injury. 

    The Hawkeyes took a big step up this season, but is still a player or two away on offense from become a contender against the likes of Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State—and that's just inside the B1G. 

Michigan's Shane Morris Isn't Ready Just Yet

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    Let's get this out of the way: Shane Morris is going to be a good player for Michigan in the future. 

    That's the key word—future—because he proved he wasn't quite ready just yet in the bowl game against Kansas State. 

    Morris went 24-of-38 for just 196 yards and an interception in the Wolverines' Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss. His team managed to put up just 14 points against a good, but not great, Kansas State defense. 

    Of course, an offensive line worth its salt would've helped Michigan, and a run game to go with it would've been nice too, but that wasn't the reality of Michigan in 2013. 

    Morris showed flashes, but with an offensive line in flux, he doesn't possess the vision, feel or speed to get out of bad situations as easily as Devin Gardner. 

    That's not to say Gardner was amazing at it either. However, he's clearly the better athlete and the more experienced quarterback. 

    Give Morris another year of work in the system and he'll be more than ready. His time just isn't now. 

Tommy Armstrong Jr. Made a Case to Be Starting Quarterback for Nebraska in 2014

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    Tommy Armstrong Jr. wasn't the answer that Nebraska fans were looking for all season at quarterback, but when it counted in the Gator Bowl, he came through for the Huskers. 

    Armstrong finished the game just 6-of-14 passing, but had 163 yards passing and threw two critical touchdowns. He also added 26 yards rushing. 

    His performance served as a reminder that being thrust into the middle of a season with little to no preparation doesn't bode well for most players, let alone the guy with the ball in his hand every play. 

    A month off and time to work the offense around Armstrong showed that he could be a viable option at quarterback for the Huskers next season. 

    No doubt, there's room for improvement for the redshirt freshman, but coming into his sophomore season, he does have game experience and plenty of practice snaps in his favor. 

    It'll be about putting all of that knowledge into more consistent performances in the passing and rushing games.

    Armstrong will have to fight off a challenge from freshman Johnny Stanton, a 247sports.com 4-star recruit, this spring and into the fall if he wants to earn the job full-time. 

    In terrible conditions On New Year's Day, Armstrong showed that he could lead a Nebraska team to victory in a game where it had been a heavy underdog. That says a lot about how far Armstrong has come this season. 

    Regardless of who takes over next season, it will be strange not seeing Taylor Martinez on the field or sidelines in Lincoln next season.

Philip Nelson Is Not the the Answer at Quarterback for Minnesota

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    Experts constantly say that the biggest jump for a quarterback happens between his freshman and sophomore seasons.

    The light bulb goes off and the numbers go up from Year 1 to Year 2—except that didn't really happen for Minnesota Golden Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson. 

    In fact, Nelson may have actually regressed as a quarterback in 2013—completing just 50.5 percent of his passes for 1,306 yards and nine touchdowns with six interceptions. 

    He played in 11 games this season, compared to seven in 2012, and yet had just one more touchdown pass and barely had a jump in his completion rate, going from 49.3 a year ago to 50.5 this season. 

    You can blame a lack of receiving targets if you want, but the Minnesota passing offense over the past two years has virtually been in the same situation. Nelson failed to deliver any noticeable improvement under those conditions. 

    At least there was Mitch Leidner, a true freshman, who provided sparks at times and completed over 55 percent of his passes this season. 

    In the Texas Bowl, it was Leidner who sparked the Golden Gophers' offensive unit and gave Minnesota a chance to win late, as he went 11-of-22 for 205 yards and two touchdowns. 

    Unless Nelson has an epiphany this offseason, he is going to get passed over for the starting job in the fall. 

    Minnesota has gotten back to respectability, but if it wants to take the next step, it needs to find a passing game that is better than 50 percent. 

Ohio State's Defense Wasn't Good, but Joey Bosa Is

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    The last three games of the 2013 season weren't how the Buckeyes drew it up on defense in the meeting rooms and on the practice field, to say the least. 

    Ohio State allowed a combined 1,617 yards and opponents averaged more than 30 points in the Buckeyes' last three games. In fact, Ohio State's opponents averaged 38.3 points per game to end the season. 

    However, there was one bright, shinning star among all the yards allowed and the back-to-back losses. His name was Joey Bosa. 

    The freshman defensive end played like he belonged in the starting lineup most of the season, and in the Orange Bowl, he looked like a man among boys along the Ohio State defensive line.

    He recorded five tackles, a sack and a tackle for loss—becoming one of only two players on the OSU defense to record a sack or tackle for loss against Clemson.

    Beyond the stats, Bosa was in the face of Clemson quarterback Tahj Boyd all night and was consistently the Buckeyes' best defensive lineman. 

    Bosa was already a known quantity to those who paid attention to detail this season, but after his performance against the Tigers, Bosa became a household name. 

    He's a player you can build a defense around and, luckily for Ohio State, it appears there is plenty of help on the way in this next recruiting class. 

    There's no denying something has to change for the Ohio State defense, and revolving it around Bosa would be a great step moving forward.

Melvin Gordon Made Heisman Statement for 2014

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    It was no secret that Melvin Gordon stumbled down the stretch in 2013, falling off the Heisman Trophy race after a tricky ankle injury slowed him down. 

    That lack of a finish to the season may have been part of Gordon's decision to come back for his senior season at Wisconsin, but knowing Gordon as much as I do, he wants the individual awards, and the Heisman Trophy is on his mind for 2014. 

    You don't have to believe me, just find a replay of the Capital One Bowl to see what Gordon did when he was fully healthy again. 

    He rushed for 143 yards on 25 carries in the Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina. It was just Gordon's second rushing performance of more than 100 yards in his last six games of the season. 

    The other came against a porous Indiana defense, where Gordon had 146 yards on just 13 carries. 

    It was a good way for Gordon to get back on the 100-yard train after two straight games below that mark to end the regular season. 

    More importantly, Gordon did it against an SEC defense where everyone was tuned in to see Jadeveon Clowney and Co. for South Carolina.

    However, it was Gordon who won that battle, and his senior teammate James White added 100-plus rushing yards as well.

    With White graduating, this will be Gordon's backfield to dominate. With the spotlight firmly on him in the Capital One Bowl, Gordon put himself in a position for people to remember him come the start of 2014. 

Michigan State's Defensive Prowess May Not Be Duplicated for a Long Time to Come

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    Hopefully, you got a chance to sit back and enjoy the Michigan State defense in 2013—specifically what it did to Stanford in the Rose Bowl. 

    It was a thing of beauty from start to finish for the Spartans and no play typified that more than when Kyler Elsworth, a senior reserve linebacker, made a huge stuff late in the win. 

    Everyone knew their role and their place on this team and was ready to execute when called upon. 

    It all started with Shilique Calhoun answering questions about whether he was ready to step up by recording two defensive touchdowns early in the season that keyed wins for the Spartans. 

    We may not see a defense as complete as that of Michigan State for some time in either the Big Ten or nationally. 

    Per game, the Spartans ranked third in scoring defense (13.2 points), second in total defense (252.2 yards), second in rushing defense (86.6 yards) and third in passing defense (165.6 yards). 

    Those are crazy numbers all the way around, making it hard to argue that Michigan State wasn't the best defense in the nation this year. 

    So, take a moment to enjoy it, because most of the parts that made it work this season were seniors. MSU is going to go through some growing pains with new starters next season. 

The New Bowl Lineup Can't Come Soon Enough

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    As fun as it has been for the Big Ten to play the SEC and the Pac-12 exclusively on New Year's Day, it has become painfully obvious that the Big Ten has set itself up for failure. 

    It's also obvious that the saying "in order to be the best, you have to beat the best" only works if you aren't playing the best conference in the country three times on the same day. 

    In 2014, the Big Ten will switch things up by putting less of an emphasis on the Florida bowl games and going national in the footprint of its bowl games. 

    Most importantly, the Big Ten will see more of the ACC and Pac-12—two conferences the Big Ten can compete against from top to bottom. 

    Starting next season, the bowl lineup will look like this:

    Rose Bowl
    Orange Bowl (a Big Ten team will appear at least three times between 2014-26)
    Capital One Bowl 
    Outback Bowl
    Holiday Bowl
    Gator/Music City Bowl
    Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl
    Pinstripe Bowl
    Heart of Dallas/Armed Forces Bowl
    New Detroit Bowl (whatever name it will be given)

    For those of you scoring at home, that means the Big Ten will play a bowl game on the East Coast, in Florida, in Big Ten country, in Texas and increase its presence in California as well. 

    It also means matchups that are a bit more favorable to raising the Big Ten's overall record while also challenging itself against the best conferences out there in the Pac-12 and SEC. 

    There's nothing wrong with challenging yourself in bowl games, but when you hang your hat on having to win all of your New Year's Day games, that's a lot to ask to be successful. 

     

    Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @andycoppens.