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College Teams Thu Jan 05 2012
On paper, it sure doesn't look pretty. The 2011-12 bowl season saw the Big Ten's qualifying teams finish a combined 4-6*, with losses to teams from four different conferences.
In a league run by human voters, one's national stock depends more on reputation than empirical data; and this slate of games looks much brighter (even if not altogether Rosier) once one compares the whats and the hows of the six losses.
Because if the SEC has taught us anything, it's that being the most dominant conference in college football requires no more than three perennial powerhouses backed up by a mere handful of worthy adversaries. A conference doesn't get measured based on the success of its seventh-best team, but rather how many crystal footballs get roped in by the highest tier.
And like I say, the lower portion of the Big Ten certainly didn't have its best month and a half.
Purdue barely bested a Western Michigan team, 37-32, that matched its win total (7) this season while playing in the MAC (scoffs). No. 22 Penn State lost 30-14 to No. 19 Houston while allowing Case Keenum 532 passing yards. And No. 20 Nebraska continued their refusal to elevate their level of play in difficult games in a 30-13 loss to a very good No. 9 South Carolina team.
(No, I didn't forget about Nebraska's 24-3 win at home against a Michigan State team that showed up with zero energy after consecutive wins against Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin. That doesn't count.)
Iowa, Northwestern, and Ohio State were also muscled around by No. 14 Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Florida, respectively; and Illinois barely scraped by in a 20-14 snoozer against UCLA, which might be the only team more pitiful in the FCS.
But the view is at least slightly sunnier at the top. Perhaps the most accurate litmus test for the Big Ten was the Outback Bowl matchup between No. 17 Michigan State and No. 16 Georgia. The Spartans were just three points shy of making the Rose Bowl when they were sent to Tampa, Fla., instead; and the Bulldogs actually held the lead against (inevitable national champion) No. 1 LSU in the SEC Championship Game before being overpowered in the second half and sent to an identical fate.
The Big Ten's forgotten (Legends Division) champion went toe-to-toe with the SEC's forgotten (East Division) champion and came out with a well-earned 33-30 victory in overtime. Take that, elitist southerners!
If there was one major hiccup in the Big Ten's elite echelon, it was that of conference champion Wisconsin. The No. 10 Badgers lost to No. 5 Oregon in the Rose Bowl, 45-38. There are two major caveats to take from that outcome, though.
First is that Oregon did not win their way to the Rose Bowl--they lost their way there. This team was barely overmatched by Auburn in the National Championship last season, and played No. 1 LSU as close as anyone in their first game of the season.
Second, this was not quite the glorified track meet everyone expected. Both teams were actually held below their average scoring totals. But in a contest between two teams who could neither stop another offense nor be stopped by another defense all season, Wisconsin's was the offense that stopped itself--first with an uncharacteristic Jared Abbrederis fumble with more than four minutes remaining; and second with the senior-led team allowing the clock to expire while knocking on the door for another score.
Sure, quarterback Russell Wilson should have known that 2 seconds were not enough time to try to clock the ball; but did you see how commanding he was in the two plays prior? There were only two things that could have stopped Wisconsin from winning the game: a costly turnover and the clock. In this case, both did; and the Badgers are forced to cope with losing a close game to another fantastic football team.
But at the end of the day, No. 13 Michigan was the conference's savior, besting a strong No. 11 Virginia Tech team in the Sugar Bowl, 23-20 in overtime. This was the third loss of the season for Virginia Tech, and all three losses came against teams who played in BCS bowls. It's true that Michigan probably would not have been able to secure overtime without a botched fake-punt attempt by the Hokies late in the fourth quarter; but as with the Badgers, Virginia Tech lost by their own devices and I'm here to deem 2012 the year of No Excuses.
This New Year promises more in the future, too. Ohio State has signed Urban Meyer to coach what was already a talented squad, and Michigan was supposedly only in a rebuilding year to begin with. Feel free to call me an apologist for the Big Ten's otherwise lackluster performance on the national stage. I can deal with that. But then you'll have to think of another word for the guys who put Notre Dame in the preseason top 25.
*After initially calculating the Big Ten's bowl record as 5-5, we have had to strike some of our talk of "going .500" and such.