Big Ten bowl season is in the books, and the league finished at 4-6 with a 1-1 mark in BCS games. The prevailing sentiment is that things certainly could have been worse, but they also could have been better had a few plays gone differently.
Despite the expected backlash I received from this column, most of you know my position on the Big Ten and the bowls. I've stated several points over and over.
The Big Ten plays by far the nation's toughest bowl lineup, when you factor the opposing leagues and where the games are played (SEC in Florida, Big 12 in Texas, Pac-12 in California)
A .500 mark in the bowls is solid for the Big Ten and would equate to a winning mark in most leagues, given their bowl lineups
The Big Ten's pattern of sending two teams to BCS bowls every season -- seven years and counting -- creates tougher matchups for just about every team.
These reasons help explain why the Big Ten has had only one winning record in the postseason since 2002. But they're not the only reasons, and, after a while, they sound like excuses.
Many Big Ten fans have told me to repeatedly point out that the league had only three favored teams in the opening bowl lines -- Purdue, Illinois and Michigan -- and all three won their games. By this measure, the Big Ten actually exceeded expectations.
But you can only play the underdog card so many times. Big Ten teams haven't been favored in many bowl games in recent years. Doesn't that say something about the league in addition to the lineup? Why are there so many underdogs?
(Before the ESPN-hates-the-Big-Ten-whining starts up again, anyone who has read this blog knows I've praised the Big Ten repeatedly when appropriate. But Brian and I don't "represent" the Big Ten at ESPN. We cover the league year-round. If you can't handle realistic coverage of the conference, you're in the wrong place.)
Rather than lament this or that, let's see how the Big Ten can improve its bowl performance -- and its bowl perception.
Here are four steps:
1.Change the bowl lineup: Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has done a lot of good things for the Big Ten in growing its brand, but his bowl lineup doesn't lend itself to boosting the league's national perception. The Big Ten doesn't get points for degree of difficulty, and other leagues don't get points removed for more manageable lineups. Delany has told me he views bowl games like he did throughout his own athletic career -- he wants to play the best on the biggest stages. That's a great attitude for an athlete, but is it the best approach for a league commissioner? Big Ten fans are tired of hearing about the league's bowl struggles, and the current lineup doesn't exactly inspire optimism for the future.
I see very little downside to sprinkling in more matchups against the Pac-12 -- especially with the leagues' new partnership -- as well as the ACC or Big East. Don't be surprised if the Big Ten's next bowl lineup, set to begin in the 2014 season, includes more matchups against the Pac-12, both in Pac-12 country and perhaps in the Midwest, too. The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco is one potential Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup in the future.
2. Upgrade the quarterback and defensive back spots: Quarterback play has improved in the Big Ten during the past few seasons, but the overall play of Big Ten signal callers in the bowls left much to be desired. Teams like Iowa, Northwestern and Nebraska needed more from their quarterbacks in the bowls, while Michigan was fortunate to win despite some struggles from Denard Robinson.
The other position group that stands out is defensive back. I saw a lot of good receivers from other leagues have their way with Big Ten defensive backs during the bowl season, even some of the league's top DBs. While everyone says the SEC's athleticism at defensive line sets it apart, defensive line continues to be a major strength for the Big Ten, which consistently produces first-round picks. The Big Ten needs more star power and depth in the defensive backfield to improve its bowl performances.
3. Win the Rose Bowl: Delany often talks about the Rose Bowl being the Big Ten's most important external relationship and one that will never change. The problem is that the league's recent relationship with the game has been losing it. The Big Ten is 1-8 in its last nine Rose Bowl appearances since Wisconsin captured back-to-back wins following the 1998 and 1999 seasons. Although four of those losses came against Pete Carroll's powerhouse USC squads, the Big Ten has missed opportunities, particularly against Texas in the 2005 game (Michigan), and against both TCU and Oregon in the past two seasons (Wisconsin). Win your signature game, and what you do in the other bowls doesn't hurt your perception nearly as much. Lose your signature game over and over, and accomplishments elsewhere don't carry as much currency.
Although USC re-enters the bowl mix in 2012 and Oregon's stock continues to soar, the Big Ten has held its own in Pasadena the past three seasons. Now it needs to start winning more often.
4. Keep building depth and restore brand-name programs: The emergence of programs like Iowa, Wisconsin and, most recently, Michigan State has created better depth for the Big Ten. The league needs these programs to continue making strides and potentially enter the national title talk, as Wisconsin did this season and Iowa did for a time in 2009. But it's also important for the Big Ten to have its brand-name programs competing at a high level on the big stages.
Ohio State is out of the bowl mix in 2012, but the Buckeyes did their part in reaching BCS bowls under former coach Jim Tressel and should be competing at a national level under Urban Meyer very soon. Few are concerned that Ohio State won't represent the Big Ten well in the coming years. It's more important to have Michigan continue to build on its 11-win season and Sugar Bowl victory. The Big Ten's national perception is helped when Michigan is winning again.
The same goes for Penn State and Nebraska. Both programs have challenges to recapture past glory, but they also have tradition and the components it takes to compete nationally. If the Big Ten can get three to five teams competing at a national level every year rather than 1-2, it likely will see better bowl results and improve its perception.