After Ohio State's loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl on Friday night, the tweets started pouring in. The ones from observers across the country lamenting, poking fun at or simply positing that the Big Ten had yet another bowl season to forget.
With the conference's bowl season officially in the books, there seems no better time to answer the question: How did the Big Ten do in terms of conference prestige this postseason?
If you didn't watch the games — and perhaps even if you did — you'd fall into that aforementioned crowd. And why is that? Well two wins and five losses is not something to be proud of when you're fighting for the title of college football's most prestigious conference, and make no mistake, no matter where the Big Ten falls in that pecking order, that's exactly what they're trying to become.
But five losses won't aid that.
So in the most basic of terms, was the Big Ten's bowl season a failure? Yes. Conference teams lost five of seven scheduled games, and some of those were games that should have been wins. Minnesota went 8-4 yet was matched up with a much weaker Syracuse team in the Texas Bowl, but that didn't matter to Syracuse, who pulled off the upset. Michigan-Kansas State initially looked like a good opportunity for the Wolverines in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. But quarterback Devin Gardner didn't play, yielding to an inexperienced freshman in Shane Morris, and the Wolverines lost.
But after those two December games, that's when things go a bit beyond the win-loss record. The Big Ten played in four games on New Year's Day, splitting them with two wins and two losses. The wins: Nebraska's upset over a ranked Georgia team in the Gator Bowl and Michigan State's excellent performance in the Rose Bowl, a win that might have vaulted the Spartans into the upper ranks of the sport. The losses: An 8-4 Iowa team that saw starting quarterback Jake Rudock knocked out with an injury lost by a touchdown to the 16th-ranked LSU Tigers, and Wisconsin lost a back-and-forth battle with top-10 South Carolina with the tide truly turning only after quarterback Joel Stave was knocked out with an injury.
Well, when you put it that way.
Both the losses by Iowa and Wisconsin hinged on the team's starting quarterback getting knocked out of the game. And while Rudock and Stave aren't the biggest difference makers in the Big Ten, both yielded to completely inexperienced backups. Stave's backup, Curt Phillips, had thrown two passes all season before getting thrust into the Capital One Bowl with the game on the line. His two interceptions were a big reason the Badgers couldn't stick with the extremely talented Gamecocks. The loss of Rudock was significantly less impactful for the Hawkeyes, who couldn't get anything going on offense at all, even with the starter in. Though LSU — a perennial SEC powerhouse with a much better team and a much better season, even with their own starting quarterback missing — got a good fight from an Iowa team that came up with timely plays on defense and special teams.
It's not like either loss was some horrible failure. The disparity in both those Big Ten-SEC matchups was pretty great, and yet the margins of victory weren't.
Then there's that Orange Bowl. Prior to the season, the Buckeyes seemed far and away the conference's best hope for a national championship contender, and that was certainly the case through an undefeated regular season. But after Michigan State's upset win in the conference title game, Ohio State was relegated to the Orange Bowl. They didn't have a letdown, per say, playing an instant classic of a game against Clemson and its high-flying offense. Braxton Miller looked good. Carlos Hyde looked good. The problem? Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins looked better.
Was it a disappointment? Sure. But Ohio State's defense had hardly been dominant throughout the season. It just relied on an excellent offense to outscore opponents. Up against an offense of equal caliber — Clemson probably proved Friday that its offense was of a higher caliber — the season-long formula didn't work. Add in the suspension to defensive lineman Noah Spence and the injury to defensive back Bradley Roby, and a talented but susceptible defense became less talented and more susceptible. The Buckeyes' offense wasn't the problem: The Orange Bowl marked the first time Ohio State scored 35 points and lost ... ever.
This Big Ten bowl season was hardly what it could have been. Key injuries prevented wins, and in certain cases teams just didn't live up to expectations. But Ohio State, to pick out the most notable of the defeated, didn't fall flat on its face. Instead it lost a very close, very entertaining game to a very good team. Wisconsin, and perhaps even Iowa to an extent, can make similar claims.
But there was an overwhelming positive: Mark Dantonio's Michigan State season, one that ended in dream fashion and was extremely important in elevating the program. The Big Ten gets to add another team — one that's won at least 11 games three times in the past four seasons — to its list of perennial powers.
And while it's not enough to reverse a 2-5 record, it is good for conference strength.