Big Ten football has been lambasted for poor performances in bowl games over the past few years, but is all the criticism warranted? Just this week, the statistic that the Big Ten has only had one winning bowl season since 2002 (4–3 in 2010), filtered through social media outlets once again.
However, just looking at the bare record fails to tell the real story behind the Big Ten bowl struggles.
There are a plurality of reasons for these annual struggles on the biggest stage, some of which are fact and some of which are fiction.
Let's judge each of these alleged explanations
No. 1: The Big Ten Plays The Toughest Bowl Matchups
The first thing any Big Ten fan will tell you when accosted with the poor record of the conference in bowl games is that the conference plays a much tougher slate of games than other conferences.
Do the numbers back up this explanation?
The Big Ten has eight bowl tie-ins, and seven are usually tough games. The conference champion plays in the Rose Bowl against the Pac-12, and the next best three teams (2-4) play Nos. 2, 3 and 6 in the SEC. Then the next three teams (5-7) play against Nos. 4, 6 and 8 in the Big 12.
Although the No. 8 team in the conference does play a non-BCS team in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, this team is usually a conference champion in the MAC.
The slate in total includes three teams from the best conference in football and another three teams from the Big 12—which is usually considered the equal of the Big Ten.
In some years (like this one), the Big 12 is even better than the Big Ten, making these games more lopsided in the Big 12's favor.
The ACC also has eight bowl games, but three of these are usually against Big East teams with another two against non-BCS conferences. The Big East and the Pac-12 do not play extensive slates and generally play lower-ranked teams from major conferences.
That leaves the Big 12 and the SEC.
The Big 12 plays evenly or higher ranked teams in every bowl game except the Cotton Bowl, where the second best Big 12 team plays the third or fourth best SEC team. However, most of these games are against the Pac-12 and Big East.
The SEC has nine bowl games and plays an equally ranked team from another power conference or a much higher ranked team from other major conferences. The list of SEC bowl opponents includes the BCS opponents: Nos. 2, 3 and 4 in the Big Ten, No. 2 in the Big 12, Nos. 2 and 6 in the ACC, the Conference USA champion and No. 5 in the Big East.
There is no question that the Big Ten plays a solid bowl schedule, but this slate is far from the best. That honor, like many others, belongs in SEC country.
No. 2: The Big Ten is Adversely Affected By Playing Two BCS Bowls Each Year
In thirteen previous seasons of the BCS, the Big Ten has received 23 BCS bowl invitations, which means 10 out of 13 years, the Top Two conference teams ended up in the BCS. Only the SEC comes close with 21 BCS bowl appearances, but the SEC has not gained on the Big Ten recently.
More particularly, the Big Ten has played two BCS bowl games each year for the last six years. This 2011 season will mark seven years in a row since Michigan grabbed an at-large berth this year.
With the exception of the ACC (2–11) and the SEC (15–6), BCS bowl games are about even money for each BCS conference. The Big Ten clocks in at 11-12 currently, which does not help the overall bowl record.
However, the truly insidious part of always playing two BCS bowl games is that it forces every other conference team up a slot into a tougher game. This means that most teams are actually playing up to a higher ranked team in the opposing conference, especially when the Big 12 and/or the SEC fail to place two teams in BCS bowls.
And that is what truly makes the Big Ten bowl line-up a daunting endeavor.
When the third, fourth and fifth best teams must play against the best conference in college football and the sixth, seventh and eighth best teams must play against Big 12 teams, that is not a recipe for success.
The bowl game matchups are more entertaining to watch, but less profitable from a winning perspective.
No. 3: Southern Teams Don't Travel North to Play Bowl Games
The Big Ten prides itself on bruising defensive play and tough running games, even though some spread offense teams have found moderate success at Purdue and Northwestern. This grinding style of football is well-suited to winning in bad conditions, which are usually present in the Midwest and the Ohio Valley in October and November.
However, bowl games are played in California, Texas and Florida—which is exactly where many of the better teams from the Pac-12, Big 12 and SEC are located.
As a result, some Big Ten teams usually end up in road game situations in highly hostile territory. In 2011 alone, four teams are playing in unfavorable environments: Northwestern against Texas A&M in Houston, Penn State against Houston in Dallas, Ohio State against Florida in Jacksonville and Michigan State against Georgia in Tampa.
Despite the tendency of Big Ten fans to travel well to these southern bowl games, the local teams generally have a stronger presence. Adding the comforts of playing on fast tracks in good conditions, the teams from the Big 12 and SEC have a big home field advantage in these bowl games.
While it will never happen because nobody wants to spend winter vacation in snow and freezing cold temperatures, watching a bowl season with games in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and Green Bay outdoors between Big Ten teams and southern teams would be an interesting experiment to see if the tables would turn.
I think they would, as the southern teams are more affected by poor weather.
While this is a bit of a "whining about something that will never change" excuse, there does appear to be a fair amount of logic in it.
No. 4: Mediocre Big Ten Teams Get Selected Over All Others Based on Strong Ticket Sales
Given the number of bowl games rising to 35 last season, it should come as no surprise that almost every major conference team with six wins always gets an invite. Over the past four seasons, a grand total of zero major conference teams have been left out of bowl season with six wins.
Back in 2007, four major conference teams were left out: Iowa, Northwestern, Louisville and South Carolina. In 2006, the leftover list included Pittsburgh, Kansas, Arizona and Washington State.
When the rule changed that bowls do not have to give preference to seven-win teams over six-win teams anymore, the days of 6-6 major conference teams being left out are long gone. Thus, even when the Big Ten qualifies a ridiculous ten teams for bowl eligibility, all of those teams are basically guaranteed bowl games.
But so are the mediocre major conference teams in every other conference.
After all that analysis, the results come in with two explanations verified as fact and two excuses exposed as fiction. The Big Ten has some legitimate complaints about bowl season, but that does not stop the conference from playing the tough games for the biggest payouts.
With the record ten bowl games this season, the conference will rake in over $47 million dollars of bowl game revenue: That will result in a significant chunk of change for all member universities, soothing the sore egos of athletic directors in these schools.
After all, that's what bowl season is all about: Money talks, and the Big Ten loves money. This could be considered karmic justice for all the paydays and beatings the conference doles out to the MAC and other minor schools in non-conference play.
On the whole, the Big Ten simply needs to get better.
Just because power offenses are preferable in Big Ten country does not mean that the speed and talent of these teams needs to suffer. Better recruiting outside the Midwest will lead to better bowl records.
On the bright side, if the Big Ten earns a winning record this year or any year with this type of bowl slate, that performance has to be respected nationally. That's a good place to be, even if the Big Ten should not be given extra credit for the reasons cited above.
Final Verdict: NO, the Big Ten does not deserve more respect for the bowl schedule.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for a whopping ten bowl game previews coming over the next two weeks.