Bowl season not a total loss for Big Ten, but blowouts slow momentum

As always, the Big Ten played a very challenging bowl slate, matching up against marquee programs in far-flung (and often, virtual road-game) locales. As commissioner Jim Delany has said in the past, the league wants to measure itself against the best in the postseason.

In light of all that, and especially considering that Big Ten teams were underdogs in most of their 10 bowl games, a 5-5 postseason record doesn't look too bad. The league's bowl achievements included a victory in a New Year's Six game and wins over "name-brand" schools Notre Dame, USC, Florida and UCLA. Triumphs by Wisconsin (in the National Funding Holiday Bowl) and Michigan (in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, emphatically) gave the conference a total of six 10-win teams this season, setting a league record.

That's the good news. And Big Ten fans should keep reciting that this offseason while critics harp on the bad news.

It came as no real surprise that Michigan State lost to Alabama in the College Football Playoff or that Iowa fell to Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual. The Crimson Tide and the Cardinal are both Power 5 champions who are clearly among the best teams in the country, and they each had the top two finishers in the Heisman Trophy race (Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey, respectively). Nor was it shocking that Northwestern, which struggled to score many points all year, lost to a young and talented Tennessee squad in the Outback Bowl.

But, of course, the devil's in the details. In these cases, how those teams lost could color the perception of the Big Ten this offseason.

Michigan State got blasted 38-0. Iowa was run out of the Rose Bowl, trailing 35-0 at halftime before losing 45-16. Northwestern no-showed in Tampa, falling 45-6.

The disheartening thing for the Spartans and Hawkeyes -- well, OK, one of many disheartening things -- is that they played opponents who run very similar styles to their own. So they can't blame matchup problems as much as just a major deficiency in execution, and quite possibly talent.

Much has already been made of the fact that the two Big Ten championship game participants lost by a combined score of 83-16. There's no hiding from that fact. But critics should also note that the third-place team in the Big Ten East Division, Michigan, hammered SEC championship game runner-up Florida 41-7. And that the third-place team from the supposedly inferior Big Ten West, Wisconsin, beat Pac-12 title game participant USC in San Diego. These things work both ways, and other leagues suffered embarrassments. (The ACC, for instance, was no great shakes outside of Clemson.)

Yet this was supposed to be the year the Big Ten validated its resurgence after winning back respect during 2014 bowl season. The league finished with three teams in the top seven of the playoff rankings and five in the top 14. Chestier Big Ten fans even started talking some smack back to the almighty SEC.

That's hard to do now, after the SEC went 3-1 against the Big Ten in bowls. Michigan looked great against Florida, but the Gators had been fading for several weeks. Penn State couldn't beat a mediocre Georgia team whose coaching staff was in total disarray. Northwestern can only hope it can follow Iowa's path of getting clubbed by Tennessee in a January bowl and then going 12-0. But the Wildcats' offensive futility against the Vols made you wonder how the heck they won 10 games this year.

Even the Big Ten's signature bowl victory -- Ohio State's 44-28 win over Notre Dame in the Battlefrog Fiesta Bowl -- had a bittersweet ring to it. Buckeyes fans will always lament what might have been this season if their team had played up to full capacity in more than just its final two games. Ohio State looked far more equipped to deal with Alabama's defense than Michigan State was. Alas, Urban Meyer's team blew its chance by losing to the Spartans at home Nov. 21.

The Big Ten still needs someone other than Ohio State to pose a legitimate national title threat. Michigan State looked ready to join the Buckeyes, but stumbled badly.

Ironically, the Big Ten was saved from a losing bowl record by two teams who had no real right to still be playing. Nebraska and Minnesota, who each finished the regular season at 5-7, defied skeptics by winning the Foster Farms and Quick Lane bowls, respectively. Indiana might have helped more if not for a controversial call on the game-ending field goal attempt in overtime against Duke in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Bowl season had some highlights, and despite the blowouts, the Big Ten has come a long way since the New Year's Day massacre of 2011. A few poor showings shouldn't invalidate the strong season turned in by the league, and the future remains bright for several programs.

Still, all those blustery "the Big Ten is back" pronouncements took a hit in the past week of postseason games. Much work remains.