Big Ten strikes back in bowls

You've been bullied for the last three years.

You know how it usually goes.

They call you fat and slow. They say you take off too much time before you show up and fight.

They make fun of your name. It doesn't add up, they say. They tell you to get some help.

They say you don't belong in Pasadena and get ticked when you get invited to all the best bowl games. They mock your tradition, your weather and your region of the country.

They make fun of your coaches, calling them too old or too conservative. They scoff at your schemes. Behind the times, they say.

Just in case you didn't hear it the first time, they call you slow. And fat.

You say nothing. You can't. You know what the recent record looks like.

But today, they say nothing.

Because you, the Big Ten, hit back.

After being the national piñata since the 2007 BCS national title game, the Big Ten struck back during the bowl season. The league went 4-3, but all four wins came against top 15 opponents. Two victories came in BCS bowls (Rose and Orange). The Big Ten won its premier matchup, the Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi, for the first time since 2000. And all four victories came against supposedly faster and more athletic teams. Given the nation's toughest bowl lineup, this is about as good as it gets.

The conference everybody loves to hate will finish with three 11-win teams (Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State) and a 10-win squad (Wisconsin). The league could end up with three teams in the top 10 and, at worst, four top 20 squads.

So much for speed.

The Big Ten might not truly regain national respect until it wins at the highest level, in the BCS title game. It's the game by which all leagues are judged, and the game where the Big Ten flopped in 2007 and 2008.

But the Big Ten bashing should subside for a while. A winning bowl record has that effect, and it could have been even better for the Big Ten. Northwestern and Minnesota combined to lose by four points and Michigan State held a fourth-quarter lead against Texas Tech.

The Big Ten also can revel in how it won bowls. It didn't conform to gimmicks or new uniforms. Terrific defensive performances fueled all four wins. Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa made standout quarterbacks Jacory Harris, Jeremiah Masoli and Josh Nesbitt look awful. Penn State held LSU to two first downs in the first half and only one stretch of consistent production in the muck.

Big Ten teams won with clock control, balanced offensive schemes and defensive fundamentals (tackling, what a concept!). Quarterbacks Scott Tolzien, Daryll Clark, Terrelle Pryor and Ricky Stanzi all stepped up, but so did the defensive standouts on their team. This was a postseason for veteran defensive coordinators like Norm Parker and Jim Heacock to show why they're great at what they do.

"I go back to 2002, coming into this meeting, and the sky was clearly falling," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said at Big Ten media days in July. "That's was the tenor of the meeting. At the end of the season, we had four teams in the top 13 with Ohio State winning the national championship."

There will be no national title this year, but several Big Ten squads will be gunning for one in 2010. Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin all could be better teams next fall, while Penn State shouldn't fall off too far.

After taking a beating the last three years, the Big Ten could soon be the one doing the bullying.