Bowl season officially begins on Saturday. Huzzah! We'll devour two full weeks of postseason play, from the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl to the College Football Playoff.
For Big Ten fans, the wait to see league teams in action will have to continue a little longer. Indiana and Nebraska will be the first conference teams to kick off, on the day after Christmas, in the New Era Pinstripe and Foster Farms bowls, respectively.
It's easier to be patient for Santa Claus' arrival than it is for your teams to get back in action. But this year, the wait should be worth it. In fact, this could be the biggest Big Ten bowl season ever.
That's not as outrageous as it sounds. After all, from 1901 to 1974, only one Big Team went bowling each year. You were either in the Rose Bowl, or you stayed home. The 1973 Michigan team famously went undefeated, tied Ohio State in the season finale and played no postseason game after league athletic directors voted to send the Buckeyes to Pasadena.
So in a little over 40 years, we've gone from undefeated Big Ten teams getting shut out of bowls to 5-7 Big Ten teams getting postseason invites (hi, Nebraska and Minnesota). Years like this one, when 10 conference squads are bowling, is still a relatively new phenomenon.
It's not the number of teams playing a bowl game that makes this postseason so special for the league, however. It's what is potentially at stake.
Of course, everything starts with Michigan State, which will square off against Alabama in a College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. The Spartans have a chance to win a national title like Ohio State did in the first year of the playoff. The last time the Big Ten produced back-to-back national champions? Michigan State accomplished that all by itself, winning it all (as much as any team could back in those mythical title days) in 1965 and 1966. (And, no, we can't count Nebraska's 1994 and 1995 titles as part of Big Ten lore, even if they are sometimes celebrated as such on the Big Ten Network).
The Spartans haven't really been serious players in the national championship hunt since those mid-1960s glory days, but this is the final step in an unbelievable ascension for this program. Heck, a playoff title banner might even finally prod everyone to learn how to spell Mark Dantonio correctly.
The playoff overshadows everything now, but the Big Ten also has a heavy presence in the New Year's Six bowls. Iowa faces Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual and Ohio State takes on Notre Dame in the Battlefrog Fiesta Bowl. Just a few years ago, before the arrival of the playoff and before it looked like the Big Ten would ever win a national title again, these would have been considered enormous games for the league image. They still are, in some regard.
Remember that the Big Ten hasn't always fared well on these types of stages. The league's record in BCS bowls -- basically the equivalent now to the New Year's Six -- was 13-15. Six of those wins belonged to Ohio State. Consider that only four times in 15 years did the Big Ten win two BCS bowls in the same postseason. The last time it happened was after the 2009 season, when Iowa (Orange) and Ohio State (Rose) each took home BCS bowl crowns. Hmm.
Perhaps people only remember what happens in the major bowls. But the Big Ten could earn some lasting street cred throughout its postseason lineup just based on the name brands of its opponents. In addition to Alabama, Notre Dame and Stanford, conference teams will play tradition-rich schools like USC (Wisconsin in the Holiday), Florida (Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus), Tennessee (Northwestern in the Outback), Georgia (Penn State in the TaxSlayer) and UCLA (Nebraska in the Foster Farms).
No matter what the year is, if you beat those kinds of trademark teams, you usually leave an impression. The Big Ten isn't favored in many of those games, but it has a chance to bolster a rapidly-improving public perception by winning several of them. The effect of bowl success on the following year's on-field performance is sketchy at best, but it can build a reputation. A handful of performances could mean the Big Ten stuffs its teams in the 2016 preseason top 25, if voters have room after picking their usual seven or eight SEC squads.
Whatever happens, it will be a bowl season to remember in the Big Ten. It could be the most memorable one yet. The waiting, as always, is the hardest part.