Five lessons from a historic 10-pack of Big Ten bowl games this year.
1. Michigan State has taken the next step: The Spartans had the exact same wins total (11) as they did in 2010 as well as one more loss, but this was undoubtedly a better team than its predecessor. Michigan State got over its bowl game bugaboo with a dramatic rally against Georgia in regulation and several big plays during the third overtime of the Outback Bowl. The team has reached several historic milestones the past two seasons and could enter 2012 as the Big Ten favorite, mainly because of a talent-stocked defense that flexed its muscles in Tampa. Although Spartans fans remain miffed that their team didn't reach BCS bowl games in either of the past two seasons, they have to be thrilled with the program's direction under coach Mark Dantonio.
2. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good: The Big Ten's two BCS bowl appearances underscored this statement. Wisconsin once again experienced heartbreak at the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO as time ran out on Russell Wilson and the offense as it tried to rally from a 7-point deficit. The Badgers saw five leads evaporate, including one in the second half, and committed just enough mistakes, both on the field and on the sideline, to lose for the third time this season. This was far too talented a team to drop three contests. Michigan, meanwhile, outlasted Virginia Tech in overtime at the Allstate Sugar Bowl despite significant deficits in total yards (377-184), first downs (22-12) and possession time (36:50-23:10). Michigan struggled mightily on offense and didn't have its sharpest defensive performance, but it made enough big plays in all three phases to win and cap an excellent first season under coach Brady Hoke.
3. Special teams play is magnified in bowls: Big Ten bowl season featured both highlights and lowlights in the kicking game, although more of the latter. Ohio State lost the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl primarily because of special-teams breakdowns, as Florida scored two of its three touchdowns on a kickoff return and a blocked punt return. Nebraska's normally reliable kicking game struggled mightily in the Capital One Bowl, and Michigan State allowed a punt return touchdown. On the flip side, Purdue won the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl primarily because of special teams, as the Boilers recovered two onsides kicks and returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Western Michigan. The kicking game was a mess for Michigan in 2010, but thanks to brunette girls, Brendan Gibbons went 3-for-3 on field goals in the Sugar Bowl, including the game-winner in overtime. Michigan State also sealed its bowl win by blocking a field-goal attempt.
4. Erratic Huskers still not elite: The Capital One Bowl is often seen as the best postseason platform outside the BCS games. Nebraska had a chance to put an exclamation point on its first season as a Big Ten member as it faced South Carolina from the dreaded SEC. Instead, the Huskers' final performance left a bunch of question marks. An excellent first-half performance ended in disaster as Nebraska allowed a Hail Mary touchdown pass to South Carolina star Alshon Jeffery with no time left. The second half was filled with mistakes, both physical and mental, as Nebraska unraveled in a 30-13 defeat. The Huskers' third lopsided loss of the season left fans wondering about coach Bo Pelini and the team's fragile nature at times. Although Pelini recorded nine or more wins for the third consecutive season, it's clear Nebraska has to take a step or two to be elite again.
5. The Big Ten's bowl lineup isn't working: The league finished with a losing bowl record (4-6) for the second consecutive season and for the sixth time in the past seven seasons. While this underscores some bigger-picture issues with Big Ten teams, it also points to a lineup that is by far the nation's most challenging when location and opponents are factored in. For the most part, the Big Ten continues to play higher-ranked teams in virtual road games. The results really aren't that surprising. Leagues really don't get credit for degree of difficulty with their bowl lineups, but they do get slammed for losing bowl records nearly every year. It's clear that the Big Ten could play a more manageable lineup, win more games and avoid much backlash, if any. You'll see changes in 2014. Oh, and it would also help to win the Rose Bowl more often, as Big Ten teams have dropped eight of their last nine games in Pasadena.