Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany knows it's a bottom-line world and the bottom line is his league finished 2-5 in bowls this season.
But Delany also is a realist. He knew all seven Big Ten squads entered their games as underdogs. The league's best team, Ohio State, and arguably its second best, Penn State, watched at home because of NCAA sanctions. After a season where the Big Ten took a beating on and off the field, the prospect of a winless postseason seemed to fit the league's narrative this season.
Instead, Northwestern and Michigan State won their games, while both Minnesota and Michigan were in position to win in the fourth quarter before squandering leads. Wisconsin paced Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, while Nebraska, written off by most against a Georgia team that nearly made the national title game, entered the fourth quarter tied with the Bulldogs.
"I wish we had won more, obviously," Delany told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "You go into all the games hoping you do. We were decided underdogs in a lot of them. I want to first recognize and congratulate the guys who beat us. And then we had a couple teams that did win. It was great for Michigan State -- they fought awful hard -- and Northwestern did as well. They carried the banner. With the exception of Purdue, which did not play well at all, we were right there. If Georgia's a top 5 team, Stanford's a top 10 team, our teams certainly went toe-to-toe with those guys.
"Notwithstanding the results, I'm cautiously optimistic going forward."
New Year's Day -- or in last year's case, Jan. 2 -- hasn't been a celebratory one for the Big Ten in recent years. There was the infamous 0-5 performance two years ago (featuring three blowouts). The league has gone 1-4 in each of the past two seasons.
But aside from Purdue's 44-point loss to Oklahoma State in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, the Big Ten teams held their own.
"I thought Michigan and Wisconsin and Nebraska and Minnesota fought their hearts out," Delany said. "I love how hard they played. I thought the teams were prepared. Obviously, we've taken a fair share of criticism, and I don't think it's undeserved because when you're the Big Ten or a major conference, you're expected to perform, perhaps win more games than we have in the last five years. But I've seen the story before in basketball, in football. I've been through five-year down cycles before. I've been through 10-year up cycles.
"But I'm cautiously optimistic."
One reason is the potential for greater coaching stability in the Big Ten. The league is in a historic period of changes with its football programs. Indiana's Kevin Wilson, who just finished his second season, is the longest-tenured coach in the Leaders Division. After Iowa's Kirk Ferentz (14 years), Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald (seven years) is the Big Ten's longest serving coach.
But newer coaches are having success. Urban Meyer went 12-0 in his first go-round at Ohio State. Minnesota's wins total doubled in Jerry Kill's second season. And Penn State's Bill O'Brien won Big Ten Coach of the Year honors in his first year as a head coach, despite dealing with unique challenges in State College. Delany called O'Brien's achievements "under almost impossible circumstances ... one of the best stories of the year."
"I would say it's clear that we're not conference 1 or 2, and we need to move forward, but I think our coaching situations will stabilize a bit," Delany said. "Getting Ohio State back will be a good thing. I see improvement at a lot of places. I see improvement at Indiana, I see improvement at Northwestern, I see improvement at Michigan, I see improvement at Michigan State. Ohio State had consequences for its actions, but they'll be fully available [for the postseason] next year, and they ran the table this year."
The Big Ten's biggest issue continues to be an absence from the national championship race. A conference can't be great, Delany said, unless it competes for the crystal football. The Rose Bowl also has been a problem for the Big Ten, which has won only once (Ohio State in the 2010 game) since Wisconsin's consecutive wins in the 1999 and 2000 games.
"It's the biggest game we play every year, other than the national championship game," Delany said. "It's huge. It's always disappointing not to win. ... It's elevated above everything else."
The Big Ten is still looking to elevate its profile, but after entering bowl season with a very low bar and avoiding a total mess, the league at least can avoid months and months of national flogging ... maybe.
"I love the effort that our guys gave," Delany said. "I would have loved to win a little bit more, but we showed that whatever the margin is between winning and losing, it's been tightened up a bit."