On January 1st, 2011, the Big Ten had 5 teams playing in bowl games. After playing impressively last bowl season, posting a 4-3 record as a conference, including wins from each of the top 4 teams in the conference, the Big Ten took a major step backward on New Year’s Day 2011.
In the early afternoon games, the Big Ten was thoroughly embarrassed by the SEC. In the Outback Bowl, Penn State lost by 13 points to Florida in a game that featured 5 interceptions by the Florida defense. Penn State Sophomore Quarterback Matt McGloin had a very tough day at quarterback, which puts his future as Penn State starter in jeopardy. In the Capital One Bowl, Alabama took out all its frustration from its 3 loss season on Michigan State, who simply could not stop the high-powered Alabama offense. Alabama crushed the Spartans, 49-7. In the Gator Bowl, Michigan continued the trend of no defense by the Michigan schools, as it allowed 52 points to Mississippi State, an extremely impressive team from the SEC. The game was a complete mismatch, even though it may not have been an obvious one. Although Mississippi State lost 4 games in the regular season, and only went 4-4 in the SEC, the losses were to Auburn, LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas. Michigan was not prepared to handle a team with the firepower of Mississippi State, and once again the defense let the Wolverines down.
In the TicketCity Bowl, Northwestern lost a close 45-38 game to Texas Tech. The Wildcats fought their way back after facing a 24-6 deficit at halftime, but backup Quarteback Evan Watkins threw a last-minute interception to thwart the game-tying drive. Texas Tech Quarterback Taylor Potts threw for 4 touchdowns and ran for one en route to the bowl victory for the Red Raiders.
In the final game of the night for a Big Ten team, the Rose Bowl, the Wisconsin Badgers faced the heavy underdog TCU Horned Frogs. Wisconsin controlled the line of scrimmage for the first half, even though the Badgers lacked the services of starting running back John Clay for most of the game. In the second half, the TCU defense played better, Wisconsin began throwing the ball more, and the Badgers could not consistently move the ball. Wisconsin was down 21-13 for the majority of the second half, until the team scored a touchdown in the final minutes to cut the lead to 2. At that point, TCU linebacker Tank Carder batted down a Scott Tolzien pass on the 2-point conversion to seal the victory. TCU became the first non-AQ school to win the Rose Bowl by defeating Wisconsin 21-19, and sealed the Big Ten’s 0-5 record on New Year’s Day.
How did this happen? And what does this say about the quality of the Big Ten? To all the naysayers, this does not mean that the Big Ten is a terrible conference. Think about the matchups for a minute. Mississippi State vs. Michigan, there is no way that is a fair matchup. As mentioned, Mississippi State’s 4 losses were all to teams in the top 15 in the final poll. For Michigan, its 5 regular season losses were against Penn State, Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State, all of which were by 10 or more points. The resumes do not exactly match up. Alabama vs. Michigan State, while the Spartans had only 1 loss entering the game, they hadn’t played great competition, especially because Ohio State wasn’t on the schedule. Alabama, on the other hand, was a championship favorite before the season, and lost heartbreaking games to Auburn, LSU, and South Carolina, while still beating many quality teams from the SEC. These two mismatches were the only blowouts of Big Ten teams.
The other games, Penn State vs. Florida, Northwestern vs. Texas Tech, and Wisconsin vs. TCU, were all close. Northwestern lost by 7, Wisconsin lost by 2, and Penn State lost by 13 on a late pick-6 in the final minute. With a kneel instead of a touchdown return, Penn State would have lost by 6. Therefore, while there is no excuse to lose 5 games as a conference on New Year’s, 3 of the games were very close, and the other 2 were complete mismatches.
However, a statement does need to be made about the Big Ten. There needs to be a reason why the conference was 5-2 in bowl games during the 2010 calendar year, and is already 0-5 just a day into the 2011 calendar year. Quite simply, the conference isn’t quite as top-heavy this season. Last season, the top 4 teams (Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State, and Wisconsin) won their bowl games. The rest of the conference was not successful in its bowl games (0-3), but the top of the conference was strong. This season, the middle of the conference was good, as Illinois and Iowa won their bowl games, but the top of the conference could not compete with the top teams. Michigan, a very comparable team to Illinois, was beaten badly by a strong Mississippi State team. However, when Illinois plays a team like Baylor in a bowl game, the chances of victory are significantly better. The same can be said for Penn State. Illinois, Penn State, and Michigan all have similar talent levels, but Illinois played Baylor, Penn State played Florida, and Michigan played Mississippi State. No wonder Michigan was crushed, the talent level of Mississippi State is significantly greater than Florida or Baylor. If Michigan had played Baylor, maybe the Wolverines would have won the game. If Penn State had played Baylor or Texas Tech, maybe the Lions would win. The issue is a matter of matchups, a matter of the conference being deep but not top-heavy, and is not a testament to an overall ineptitude within the Big Ten.
The Big Ten has one more team playing in a bowl game. On January 4th, Ohio State will play Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, and will hope to salvage a win in 2011 for the Big Ten.