Learning From The Big Ten's Bowl Season

Bowl season and disappointment seems like a constant on par with death and taxes for the Big Ten these days. Dating back to 2000, the conference has only managed a bowl record above .500 twice to go along with a 12-13 record in BCS bowls since the inception of the system in 1999.

Basically, every season this means we get to hear about how overrated the Big Ten is and how every member school and alumnus, student, and fan of said schools should be embarrassed to even exist. Also, how they need to be faster.

The 2012 bowl season was hardly a banner year for the Big Ten, as the conference went 4-6 in it’s whopping 10 (the national high) bowl games. Only an overtime victory from Michigan State over Georgia in the Outback Bowl saved the conference from total embarrassment in the “New Year’s Day” bowls, as Wisconsin’s loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl capped a 1-3 day. Michigan managed to save some face for the conference with their own overtime victory in the Sugar Bowl, giving the Big Ten the non-Ohio State BCS win it had been lacking since Penn State won the 2006 Orange Bowl.

All-in-all, it wasn’t good, and it wasn’t horrible. What exactly does this bowl season say about where the Big Ten fits on a national scale?

The Big Ten is still well behind the Big 12 and SEC.

Of course, we knew this regardless of the bowl results, but they certainly serve as a confirmation. The Big 12 was a very impressive 6-2 in bowl games including a victory from Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. With eight of its 10 member schools making bowls and six bringing home wins, the Big 12 has a very good argument as the deepest top-to-bottom conference in 2011.

The SEC was similarly successful, and although they lack the completeness and depth of the Big Twelve, the teams at the top are of an undeniable quality. Heading in to the all-SEC National Championship game (an accomplishment in itself regardless of your thoughts on the BCS), and Arkansas won a BCS game in quality if not in name against Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl. Overall, the conference will finish as 6-3 in bowl games after Monday night’s championship, and although the bottom feeders of the SEC are as bad as anybody’s, their elite is the nation’s elite on a yearly basis.

The ACC is the worst BCS conference

After taking two losses in BCS games, including a drubbing at the hands of 23rd-ranked West Virginia for conference champion Clemson in the Orange Bowl, the ACC finishes with a well-deserved BCS-worst 2-6 bowl record. The bowl performances were endemic of the entire season for the ACC. The conference was dragged down in non-conference play by squads like Duke, Maryland, and Boston College (combined 4-8) and the conference as a whole finished a mere 12 games above .500 despite effectively tying for the worst strength of schedule from a BCS conference with the Big East.

The Big East isn’t far ahead

Although the Big East lacks the truly horrible schools the ACC owns — Syracuse and South Florida, the conference’s bottom feeders, own wins against Notre Dame and West Virginia respectively — it also lacks the elite squads. West Virginia was excellent in its BCS game against Clemson to go with solid wins for Cincinnati and Rutgers in their bowl games. However, Louisville lost to a Russell Wilson-less North Carolina State squad. Even worse, Pittsburgh, who continues to be embarrassed by their coaching situation, was utterly crushed by Southern Methodist in the BBVA Compass Bowl, something that might have been acceptable in 1982 but certainly not in 2012.

The Big Ten and the Pac-12

This leaves the Big Ten and the Pac-12 to fight it out for third place behind the Big 12 and the SEC. This is an interesting argument, as the construction of the Rose Bowl kind of serves as the championship game of a 24-team superconference. The Pac-12 would seem to own the elite teams of this conference, with Oregon, Stanford, and USC, although Wisconsin made it clear they could at least compete with this crop of teams. Still, it seems like the top of the Pac-12 edges out the top of the Big-Ten as composed of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Michigan State (at least, until Urban Meyer turns Ohio State back into the lumbering gargantuan which controlled the conference for so long).

Beyond the top three in the Pac-12, however, there is very little quality. The non-BCS qualifiers of the conference went just 1-4 in bowl games. For as bad as Minnesota and Indiana are, the Pac-12 offers a similar lack of quality from Colorado, Washington State, Oregon State and Arizona. Because of the greater volume of truly bad teams in the Pac-12, the Big Ten is ranked as the third-best conference in both the Simple Rating System at Sports-Reference and the Sagarin rating system.

My thoughts? It’s basically a toss up. Weight the top a bit more and the Pac-12 wins by a hair, weight depth a bit more and the Big Ten wins by a hair.

Overall, the Big Ten’s performance in bowl games, although a bit disappointing, has not gone to prove it is “the most overrated conference” as seems to be the prevailing talking point on a yearly basis. The Big Ten has some very good teams, gained a couple of solid bowl wins, and sits as the third or fourth best conference in the nation despite the crippling blows dealt to two stalwart teams in Penn State and Ohio State. If either squad can recover to the historical norm (which I expect Ohio State to do quickly; Penn State not so much), the conference could return to national prominence within the next decade.

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