The Big Ten's Pyrrhic 2013 bowl victory

Big Ten LogoNew Year’s Day has come and gone. With it, the Big Ten bowl season drew to a close last night, as the triumphant return of Barry Alvarez couldn’t muster enough magic to win the Rose Bowl in the Badgers’ third* straight attempt. But in what normally would be construed as a devastating 2-5 showing in bowl games, the Big Ten has gained a bit of a Pyrrhic victory.

Not many expected the Big Ten to win one–or even any–bowl game this year. Though it wasn’t so much a slight toward the conference’s ability, as it was simply a matter of chance. Two of the conference’s best and hottest teams, Penn State (8-4) and Ohio State (12-0) were watching from home. It pushed the bowl bids up for most of the Big Ten’s eligible teams, forcing them to face much stronger opponents than they would have had OSU and PSU taken their expected bids in the BCS Championship Game and Gator or Outback Bowls, respectively.

Northwestern emerged with a fun, convincing win (NW’s first since 1949) over the upper-middle-class Mississippi State team–yes, of the S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!–while Michigan State did what it does best, squirming by TCU for another not-unimpressive bowl win. Late yesterday afternoon, it looked as if the Big Ten as a whole would end the day in shocking fashion, as Michigan led South Carolina, and Nebraska was neck-n-neck with Georgia. In the end, Michigan’s defense went all GERG on us, while Nebraska was one half-decent defense away from pulling away from the Dawgs.

Wisconsin, a team in complete disarray after Bert bolted for the SEC, nearly toppled Stanford. And even lowly Minnesota could smell the sweet scent of a bowl victory before a game-winning kick by Texas Tech.

In the end, the Big Ten lost 71 percent of its battles this bowl season. Yet somehow, it managed to win the war of perception. And if I may be a bit hyperbolic for a second, one doesn’t need to look any further than Tim Brando’s now infamous “I don’t measure Conf. strength on the outcome of meaningless Bowls” tweet, which just happen to come when it looked as if the Wolverines would beat the Gamecocks.

It was very frustrating to watch the Big Ten come so close to an unlikely show of power this bowl season, only to then see it drift away on the errant passes by Big Ten quarterbacks, Big Ten defenses going soft at the worst possible moment, or the leg of an opposing kicker. Still, while the Big Ten’s individual bowl battles were lost more often than won this week, the conference ended a turbulent and underachieving 2012 season with a very tangible bump in perception. That counts in college football, make no mistake.

Much will depend if the conference can end 2013 maintaining the positive gains it made at the start of this year. Is Ohio State prepared to make a live run at a title, after what turned out to be a “dry run” in 2012? Will Penn State continue to keep its head above water with another strong season? Can the rest of the conference build on its strong bowl performance and be just as competitive in its spotlight non-conference games this fall?

Remember, this is the Big Ten. Until we see what happens on the field nine months from now, let’s just keep things at a reasonable “cautiously optimistic.”

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