There’s no question which Big Ten team has the most on the line, so there’s no debate that Michigan State obviously needs a postseason win more than anybody else in the league.
But remove the Spartans and the College Football Playoff from the equation and the answers get a bit trickier. So our Big Ten reporters did just that as they surveyed the Big Ten’s bowl landscape, making their picks for the programs that could most use a victory to cap the season.
Mitch Sherman: Iowa
The Hawkeyes, in the past five decades, have one bowl win in seven tries against the Pac-12. You remember, right, the oh, so memorable 1995 Sun Bowl romp of Washington? Iowa fans still talk about that trip to El Paso. Actually, they don't. What they talk about are trips to Pasadena after the 1981, 1985 and 1990 seasons, all losses to Pac-12 foes. This Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual offers a chance for a new generation of Hawkeyes to stand above the rest in the history of Iowa football. Iowa has never won 13 games. Iowa has never played Stanford. Iowa needs this win to validate a magical season. To finish with two straight defeats, even to elite teams, would go against all for which the Hawkeyes stood in their mission to finish well in 2015. A win at the end would separate this season from all others at Iowa -- and push the Hawkeyes forward in an undeniably positive way.
Josh Moyer: Penn State
After a three-game losing streak – and the biggest loss of the year, 55-16, to Michigan State – fans in Happy Valley are understandably restless. James Franklin fired his offensive coordinator, an ESPN 300 recruit decommitted about a week ago, and the Nittany Lions still have yet to beat a winning Power 5 team this season. (They’re 0-5 against ranked teams.) Even alumni, like former quarterback Todd Blackledge, have publicly voiced their displeasure. The only thing that can stem this tide of criticism? A win against Georgia (9-3), which Franklin beat while at Vanderbilt. Franklin has preached patience as he turns around Penn State, and a win here would give fans hope and certainly buy him some more of that. Another loss, on the other hand, and the offseason will be filled with more questions and more criticism than Franklin’s maybe ever dealt with. A lot is on the line.
Jesse Temple: Wisconsin
Let's face it: This Wisconsin season has been spectacularly unspectacular. The Badgers were supposed to win the Big Ten West and finished third. They aren't playing in a New Year's Day bowl game for the first time since the 2009 season. They haven't even beaten a single program with a winning record this season -- the team's nine victories have come against schools with a combined 33-75 record. Having said all that, beating USC in the Holiday Bowl will go a long way toward validating what has been a season that has fallen short of expectations. Wisconsin ranks No. 1 nationally in scoring defense and No. 3 in total defense, but those numbers seem to come with caveats due to the sheer volume of teams with losing records on the schedule. To shut down USC's high-powered offense would really be a great way to prove how good Wisconsin's defense has been all season. It also would give the Badgers 10 wins, which is nothing to scoff at in any year.
Brian Bennett: Nebraska
The Cornhuskers are very lucky to be in a bowl at all after going 5-7, and the fact they get a trip to San Francisco out of a losing season is pretty amazing. On the surface, then, there’s no real pressure on Nebraska in the Foster Farms Bowl against UCLA. But winning this game could give some much needed momentum to the program in an otherwise rough first year under head coach Mike Riley. Though extra practices sure will help, Riley does not want to finish with eight losses in his debut season in Lincoln -- or twice the number of losses Bo Pelini averaged during his tenure. The Bruins hammered Nebraska the last time these two teams played, in 2013, and that started a serious downward trajectory for Pelini. Repeating that history would serve no one well.
Austin Ward: Minnesota
There isn’t any reason to panic yet, but the stability the Gophers prized heading into the season has certainly taken a hit and left some valid questions about the future of the program as Tracy Claeys transitions into the lead role left vacant by Jerry Kill’s retirement. Changes are coming, notably on offense, and while attention to detail off the field helped Minnesota earn a bowl bid at 5-7, the on-field product clearly didn’t live up to preseason expectations -- and beating just Purdue and Illinois over the final two months of the season is bound to bring some uncertainty. If the Gophers can close out the campaign with a bowl victory, even at the expense of a team from the Mid-American Conference, that could generate momentum and lighten the mood heading into the offseason. Losing to Central Michigan wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it certainly wouldn’t come with any positives.