Big Ten football takes a lot of grief. Some of it is deserved. The conference hasn’t had a winning record in its bowl games since 2002. The Big Ten is 14-22 since 2003 and could find itself 15-28 in just a few weeks. The average loss over that time has been by 10 points. Some high profile games have gone far worse. There is no question that the Big Ten was down this year. The conference was so poor that Northwestern and Minnesota finished fourth and fifth, respectively. That’s on the Big Ten.
What isn’t on the Big Ten is the slanted bowl schedule it faces every year. No conference has produced more BCS teams since its bastard infancy than the Big Ten. In eight of the eleven years since the BCS was formed, the Big Ten has had multiple teams. When the Big Ten sends two teams to the BCS, the rest of the teams in the conference have to move up a slot creating a format slanted heavily against the Big Ten. Since 2003, the Big Ten has had a losing record in every year but one (3-3 in ’04). Not coincidentally, that year was the only year since 2003 that the Big Ten did not have two BCS teams.
Clearly, Michigan having a down-year hurts big-time, too. The combined effect of Michigan being down and a BCS at-large selection has the equivalent effect of pushing all of the Big Ten teams up two slots. That’s why we’ve got Northwestern vs. Missouri, Michigan St. vs. Georgia, and Minnesota vs. Kansas. If Ohio St. didn’t get selected as a BCS at-large team, and Michigan was its normal, formidable self as it should be sooner rather than later, then those matchups would be Ohio St. vs. Georgia, Michigan vs. Missouri, and Michigan St. vs. Kansas.
The relative strength of the Big Ten is cyclical. The conference is heading in the right direction, however slowly that might be. Evidence supporting that claim might come from the fact that every team outside of Indiana and Purdue thinks its ascending to the top of the conference. If Michigan achieves the elite status that so many—including myself—think they’re going to reach under Rich Rodriguez, then the conference could very well be the strongest it has ever been in just a few short years. Or, it could quickly regress to the Big Two, Little Eight plus Penn State.
Until then, we’re forced to watch a heaping pile of manure hit the fan over the next four weeks. The Big Ten is very likely headed for its worst bowl showing ever. The conference hasn’t won fewer than two games in any bowl season since 1992. Its worst showing—a 1-5 record in 1984—is in jeopardy of falling. At least those five losses in ‘84 came by an average of only four points (The Big Ten actually outscored its bowl opponents that year by 16 points thanks to the whoopin’ that Iowa laid on Texas). This year, 1-6 looks like a real possibility and the average loss could be three or four times what it was in ’84. Of the 34 bowl games this year, only five feature double-digit spreads. The Big Ten is on the wrong end of four of them. Here’s a look at the carnage that the Big Ten is facing:
Champs Sports Bowl
Wisconsin vs. Florida St.
FSU is a 5-point favorite. Making matters considerably worse is the fact that this game will be played in Florida. Sadly, this “road game” actually represents one of the two winnable games for the Big Ten. Wisconsin has fared very well lately in bowls as the underdog. I’m not sure if that’s going to be enough to offset FSU’s home-field advantage. If Wisconsin loses this game, then all hopes for a successful bowl season are vanished like a fart in the wind.
Northwestern vs. Missouri
This game represents the biggest spread of the bowl season (-13.5) and it should. Missouri got its bell rung against Texas and Oklahoma. However, Missouri laid the hammer down on a number of Northwestern-caliber teams like Illinois, Nevada, Nebraska, and Colorado. Plus, history suggests that when it looks like Northwestern is going to get blown out, it gets blown out. It has lost its last five bowl games by an average of 19 points per game. This is going to get ugly.
Minnesota vs. Kansas
In spite of its record, Minnesota was a really, really bad team this year. Need evidence? The Gophers lost to Michigan at home. Still not convinced(?)—although I’m sure that convinced everyone—Minnesota closed out the season at home by losing 55-0 to Iowa. Iowa might be as good as Kansas. This is going to get ugly very quickly. Kansas is a 10-point favorite but I would be surprised if the Jayhawks weren’t up by at least 20 at the half.
Iowa vs. S. Carolina
This game represents the second of two games in which the Big Ten stands a realistic shot of winning. Iowa is actually favored by 3.5 if you can believe it. I would call this game a PK leaning slightly towards South Carolina. If the Big Ten loses this game, then the Big Ten’s chances of success will have vanished like a fart in a hurricane.
Capital One Bowl
Michigan St. vs. Georgia
One of the odds-makers in Vegas must be sleeping with a Michigan State grad. That’s the only way I can figure the spread being within ten points on this one. MSU comes in as a surprising 7.5 point underdog. If I was inclined to gamble, I would put a heck of a lot of money on Missouri, Kansas, and Georgia covering. Georgia is exactly the sort of team that will give Michigan State problems on both sides of the ball. This one will get ugly Marla Hooch-style.
Penn St. vs. USC
Penn St. is about to find out what Michigan knows all too well: nobody from the Big Ten should ever be excited about playing USC in the Rose Bowl. Penn St. has enough offensive firepower to keep this game relatively close. Arizona and Cal both held USC to 17 points. Penn St. boasts a better defense than both of those teams. However, staying relatively close and winning are two totally different things as far as this game is concerned. USC has lost one non-conference game over the past six years with victories over Auburn, Michigan (2), Ohio St., Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, Nebraska (3), Notre Dame (6), Arkansas (2) and Illinois just to name a few. Penn St. should put in an early request for its font-preference so its name can look pretty on that list of victims.
Ohio St. vs. Texas
Ohio St. has a better chance in this game than most people think. That is to say that Ohio St. actually has a chance. Texas will probably win but Ohio St.—with an experienced Terrelle Pryor and a healthy Chris Wells—is much better than what we saw at the beginning of the season against USC. I expect Texas to win but I also expect Texas to score fewer points against Ohio St. than it did in any game this season. Side note: Envisioning sophomore-through-senior Pryor scares the hell out of me but Ohio State loses quite a bit this year. Next season might not be as successful as Buckeye-fans have become accustomed to. Or, at least that’s what I keep telling myself so I can get to sleep at night.