A year ago, the biggest blotches in the Big Ten's bloody bowl ledger came courtesy of Michigan and Michigan State.
The Wolverines and Spartans lost their bowl games by a combined score of 101-21 on Jan. 1, 2011. They allowed 51 combined first downs and 1,031 yards. Making matters worse, both losses came at the hands of SEC foes (Mississippi State and Alabama, respectively), reinforcing the perception that Big Ten teams don't belong on the same field with those from the nation's top conference. Of the Big Ten's five losses on a disastrous New Year's Day, Michigan's and Michigan State's stood out from the rest.
But the same two teams that dragged down the Big Ten's rep boosted the conference in this year's bowl go-round. Although the Big Ten's 4-6 overall record isn't anything to flaunt, things would have been much worse if not for Michigan State and Michigan.
Things looked rather bleak around 4:30 p.m. ET on Jan. 2 as the Big Ten appeared headed for an 0-4 start to the New Year's bowls with the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO still to come. But Michigan State erased a 16-0 halftime deficit against Georgia and rallied to force overtime, winning the Outback Bowl 33-30 in the third extra session. The triumph not only resonated for a Spartans team that hadn't won a bowl game under coach Mark Dantonio, but for a league that avoided another o-fer on New Year's and against the SEC.
Michigan's win two nights later in the Allstate Sugar Bowl wasn't quite as critical, but it still helped the Big Ten. A 4-6 mark, given the Big Ten's inherent obstacles with its bowl lineup, looks better than 3-7. Michigan's victory also gave the Big Ten a 1-1 split in BCS bowls -- a questionable gauge of conference strength but one that is often used. The Big Ten is now 4-2 in its last six BCS bowls (Ohio State later vacated its Sugar Bowl win) with the only two losses coming by a combined nine points in the Rose Bowl.
Speaking of the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin fell short for the second consecutive season in heartbreaking fashion, completing a what-might-have-been season for Bret Bielema's crew. The Badgers made a few too many mistakes against speed-stocked Oregon and ran out of time at the end. Big Ten teams now have lost eight of their past nine Rose Bowl appearances.
Nebraska's first bowl appearance as a Big Ten member was a rough one, as the Huskers fell apart in the second half against South Carolina. Penn State and Ohio State both entered bowl season immersed in coaching transitions and didn't look sharp, as the Lions couldn't contain Houston's Case Keenum and the Buckeyes surrendered two special teams touchdowns to Florida.
Speaking of unsurprising results, the Big Ten's two bowl matchups against the Big 12 went more or less as expected. Both Iowa and Northwestern were sizable underdogs to Oklahoma and Texas A&M, respectively, and neither Big Ten squad got much from their offenses in the first three quarters of their games. Unlike last year, Iowa couldn't cap a disappointing season with an Insight Bowl win, while Northwestern's bowl monkey will be wearing a No. 64 jersey in 2012 as the team dropped its ninth consecutive postseason game, tying Notre Dame for the longest in FBS history.
Aside from the Michigan schools, the Big Ten's bowl highlights came from Purdue and Illinois, which took care of mediocre opponents (Western Michigan and UCLA, respectively). The Boilers rode a powerful rushing attack and special-teams brilliance to victory in Detroit. Illinois' superb defense came through in San Francisco and a team in turmoil prevailed with bowl wins in consecutive seasons for the first time in its history.
The Big Ten didn't enhance its national perception with this year's bowl performance.
But thanks to the Michigan schools, the league's reputation wasn't damaged too much, either.