Bowl setbacks stain great regular season by Big Ten

The Big Ten was the nation's best conference in the 2016 regular season. There's really not much to dispute about this.

The league had the best nonconference record among the Power 5 conferences, including high-profile wins like Ohio State over Oklahoma, Wisconsin over LSU and Michigan over Colorado. The Big Ten seriously threatened to put multiple teams in the College Football Playoff and finished with four teams in the selection committee's top 8. Late-season matchups like Michigan-Ohio State and Penn State-Wisconsin demanded attention from coast to coast.

The Big Ten had a chance to put an exclamation point on a banner year this postseason. Instead, like in many recent years past, the league ended with more of a whimper than a bang.

A 3-7 record in the bowls is not good. The view from the top is even worse.

The league had a record four teams playing in New Year's Six bowls, including the playoff. It won only one of those games, and it was the one it had to win to avoid major embarrassment.

Wisconsin beat Western Michigan 24-16 in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, a nice finish to an outstanding season for the Badgers. Yet the truth is that they beat a MAC team. A very good, undefeated MAC team, yes -- just ask Northwestern and Illinois. But if that same result happened on Oct. 2 instead of Jan. 2, would anyone have noticed?

At least Wisconsin helped the Big Ten save some face in the New Year's Eve/Jan. 2 round of high-profile games. The league lost its other four matchups on those days, including Ohio State's stunningly inept 31-0 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Playstation Fiesta Bowl. The Buckeyes' longstanding issues in the passing game finally caught up to them, and for the second straight year the Big Ten was blown out and shut out in a playoff semifinal.

Michigan and Penn State both lost their New Year's Six games, though in much different fashion. The Wolverines, playing without Heisman Trophy finalist Jabrill Peppers and losing Mackey Award winner Jake Butt to injury early, rallied against Florida State only to fall short 33-32 in a classic Capital One Orange Bowl. It might have been the best game of bowl season ... until Penn State and USC staged a thrilling track meet in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual. In one of the greatest Grandaddys ever, the Trojans erased a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit to squeak out a 52-49 win.

Is it fair to judge Michigan and Penn State harshly for losing heartbreakers? No. But both truly believed they belonged in the playoff field and needed to go out and prove it. The Wolverines ended their season by losing three of their final four games and finishing with exact same record (10-3) as in 2015. The Nittany Lions were breathtaking on offense in the second and third quarters in Pasadena until the wheels came off in the fourth. At least they get quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley back next season after a magical Big Ten championship run.

Iowa was steamrolled 30-3 in the Outback Bowl by a previously toothless Florida offense. Tennessee smoked Nebraska by two touchdowns. The Volunteers are not only the champions of life, they are the destroyers of the Big Ten West. In the past three years, Tennessee has beaten Iowa, Northwestern and Nebraska by a combined score of 128-58.

As for the Big Ten East, which many people claimed was the best division in football this year? It went 0-5 in bowls.

Indiana played valiantly against Utah after a coaching change but, like in so many recent big games, the Hoosiers couldn't get over the hump in the end. Northwestern, which beat Pitt in an exciting New Era Pinstripe Bowl, and Minnnesota, which shocked Washington State in the National Funding Holiday Bowl despite a suspension-and-boycott drama, gave the Big Ten some pre-New Year's positives. But Maryland fell to Boston College, as the Big Ten went just 1-3 against the ACC (and 0-2 vs. the SEC).

Bowl season is always challenging for the Big Ten because of it plays tough matchups in geographically disadvantageous places. This season's slate included games against USC in Los Angeles, Florida State in South Florida, Florida in Tampa, Tennessee in Nashville and two Pac-12 teams in California. That's the price the league is willing to pay to give its fans an escape from the Midwestern winters.

The Big Ten was only favored in three of its 10 bowl matchups, so in that sense, it played right to expectations. Still, when you have teams ranked No.s 3, 5, 6 and 8, much more is promised. Wisconsin was the only team that was favored that actually won its game.

If there was a theme to the postseason failures, it was a lack of explosiveness and offensive line strength, the latter of which was supposed to be a Big Ten hallmark. Ohio State was bullied up front by Clemson. Michigan had difficulty handling a young and talented Florida State defensive line. Tennessee spent all afternoon in the Nebraska backfield. Iowa had only 226 total yards against Florida and was stuffed on its only trip to the goal line.

Penn State was a notable exception to this trend on the big stage, and in retrospect perhaps the Nittany Lions would have posed a better threat in the playoff than Ohio State because of their ability to stretch the field.

Taunts that the Big Ten was overrated have already arrived from rival fans. Bowls can be random and are often heavily dependent on matchups and health. So that 3-7 mark can't fully undo an inarguably tremendous regular season. But they do keep scores in the postseason for a reason. Thus, the Big Ten's shortcomings in its biggest bowls will always be a part of its 2016 story.