B1G Debate: The most impressive/underwhelming performances in bowl games
Editor’s note: Ryan O’Gara and Connor O’Gara grew up following sports in suburban Chicago. The brothers, separated by 20 months, debated about their favorite teams and players so often that their father would often have to remind them, “This isn’t PTI.” Each Friday, they’re bringing that debate to you, centered around the Big Ten and college football as a whole.
This week’s debate: Which Big Ten team was the most impressive during bowl games? And which was the most underwhelming?
RYAN: Big Ten bowl season is over sooner than it had hoped, thanks to Michigan’s no-show against Georgia. The B1G went 6-4 in bowl games, which really should count as 6-3 with Rutgers getting added at the last minute to face a team way better than it. That’s a solid showing from the B1G. It won 2 New Year’s Six games, though it lost 2 games on New Year’s Day to SEC teams.
So, who was the most impressive from the B1G? This is an easy call: Purdue, which beat Tennessee 48-45 in the Music City Bowl.
The Boilermakers were without their 2 star players and early-round NFL Draft picks, David Bell and George Karlaftis. In my confidence pool, I picked Tennessee for my third highest point total, behind only Alabama over Cincinnati and Wake Forest over Rutgers. I was sure Purdue would lose, and I thought it could get ugly. Tennessee had a good second half of the season and wasn’t missing anyone too important.
Boy, was I wrong on this game. This was an inspired performance from Purdue, and it wound up being one of, if not the, best bowl games this year. (I’d rank it second behind only the Rose Bowl.) And don’t let the dumb chatter about how Tennessee should be awarded a victory because of the way the game ended distract you from what was a program-building victory for Jeff Brohm.
Purdue has had a few high-end guys over the last 4 years, namely Rondale Moore, Bell and Karlaftis, and I wondered what this team would look like once those guys are gone. And No. 2 wideout Milton Wright wasn’t playing either. Honestly, I was a bit worried they would fall off given how impactful those guys have been. Nope. Broc Thompson, who is having surgery on both knees in the offseason, earned MVP honors after catching 7 passes for 217 yards and 2 TDs.
My underwhelming choice is Iowa, which lost to Kentucky 20-17 in the Citrus Bowl. I know Michigan looked awful, but given just how good Georgia is, and how good Georgia played, I’m shrugging my shoulders a bit at that one.
Iowa is a huge disappointment because this was the cherry on top of a disastrous second half of the season. After starting 6-0, Iowa went 4-4 over the last 8 games with a point differential of minus-52. The Hawkeyes had a very winnable game here with Kentucky missing a ton of guys (including its best defensive player, Josh Paschal). Yet they gave up 3 big plays on the final drive to the 1 guy they had to stop, former B1G star Wan’Dale Robinson. And of course, Spencer Petras closed it out with his third interception of the game.
What happened to this team? Iowa’s defense played great after the opening drive (up until the final drive). For basically 3-plus quarters, Iowa allowed 6 points to a Kentucky offense that had 34 points or more in 4 straight games. If I were an Iowa fan, I would just be frustrated because it’s the same problem every week with this offense, and the Hawkeyes are powerless to change it.
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Who are your picks?
CONNOR: Purdue as the most impressive is certainly fair, but if you’re like my guy Paul Finebaum, you didn’t count that as a win for the Boilermakers.
(I still counted it as a Purdue win. I thought it was a bad call, but like, also maybe cover the dude who’s about to have surgery on both knees at the end of the season? Just a thought.)
I’ll go in a different direction. Ohio State doesn’t really get credit for its wins anymore unless it comes against someone like Clemson or Alabama, but I’m gonna give the Buckeyes some love. Against a red-hot Utah team that didn’t have any opt-outs, a shorthanded Ohio State team gave us a glimpse of the post-Chris Olave/Garrett Wilson era. It was darn impressive that against a team as physical as Utah, I didn’t necessarily think the Buckeyes got bullied. Granted, they still allowed a boatload of offensive production, but I didn’t necessarily think it was a guarantee that Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Marvin Harrison Jr. played THAT well.
I also give the benefit of the doubt to Ohio State because that was the best victory in terms of quality of opponent. Michigan can’t really be considered my “most disappointing team” because I had the Wolverines losing by double digits. I’ll instead go with Penn State.
I’m old enough to remember when James Franklin was leading the No. 4 team in the country. Unless you’re under 3 months old, you, reader of this column, should also be old enough to remember that. Penn State’s 6th loss of the year might’ve been a bit expected with all the opt-outs, many of which came the week of the game, but I thought that second half defensive showing was weak.
Arkansas had no passing game without Treylon Burks, and there was zero doubt that Kendal Briles was calling nothing but run plays. It still didn’t matter. Penn State couldn’t get off the field. It instead reminded us why Brent Pry was so valuable. In a game that was sitting there for the taking, especially after an impressive second quarter, Penn State was anything but that after the break.
Guys who sign 10-year contracts aren’t supposed to lose 6 of their final 8 games of the season. I know Franklin just recruited an elite class, but that just left a bad taste in my mouth. With our most disappointing B1G teams of bowl season, who would you bet on to win more games in the next 5 years — Penn State or Iowa?
RYAN: Fair points across the board. Ohio State was definitely up there for me. I loved how Maryland came out and stomped on a depleted Virginia Tech squad right away. Minnesota did what it always does. Same with Wisconsin. Michigan State took a great first step without Kenneth Walker III but Pitt playing its third-string QB limits my excitement on that one.
The one thing I don’t understand about Finebaum’s declaration on Purdue and Tennessee is he gave the Vols a 52-45 win. If Tennessee had the ball last, then maybe. But Purdue still had a chance! It surely would’ve been aggressive in going for a TD to tie the game rather than settling for a game-winning field goal. Anyways, I’ve already wasted too much time thinking about this.
In terms of the next 5 years, give me Iowa. The Hawkeyes are so good in 2 of the 3 phases that they know where they need to improve. Despite having the worst offense in the Big Ten, Iowa won double-digit games. If it just has an average offense, Iowa could regularly win the West.
I’ll admit, Iowa being in the West is a big reason I am more optimistic about the Hawkeyes rather than Penn State. Unless the divisions shuffle, Penn State has to contend with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, all 3 of which could finish the season in the top 10. Maryland and Rutgers are also improving and optimistic about the directions of their programs. Iowa plays in a very winnable division in which even Northwestern has won 2 of the last 4 years.
Do you agree? And what’s the best fix for Penn State?
CONNOR: I would agree with that, albeit for a slightly different reason. While I was hoping that another brutal offensive showing would prompt Kirk Ferentz to make a change to his offensive staff, I’d still bank on the Hawkeyes having the better 5 years. I’d say that even in the event that Ferentz doesn’t have another 5 years left at Iowa.
I continue to say that James Franklin has the best spin team I’ve ever seen. The guy is 9-11 in his last 20 games against Power 5 competition, yet he’s owed $70 million guaranteed. That’s unbelievable. Even if Manny Diaz has an excellent Year 1, I doubt he’s begging to be a coordinator for the long haul after he was tossed aside at Miami like milk a day past its expiration day. Franklin benefitted from having Brent Pry as his right-hand man for his entire time at Penn State. I bet Franklin feels that absence over the next 5 years.
Penn State has to find its offensive identity. That’s been lacking in most of the post-Saquon Barkley era. Guys like Jahan Dotson and KJ Hamler were excellent players who could’ve benefited from better quarterback play. It’s too bad we really couldn’t see their primes coincide (Dotson was a freshman in Hamler’s pre-draft year). We saw in the Outback Bowl without Dotson that Penn State, with the exception of that ridiculous catch from Parker Washington, lacked the consistent guys who could get separation on the outside. And up front, that offensive line was nothing to write home about in 2021. That area has been extremely hit or miss in the Franklin era.
Iowa, at the very least, you know what it’ll be in the next 5 years. It’ll be maddening, but it will at least have a reliable identity. Penn State is searching for what that identity is moving forward, and that’s not limited to the offensive side of the ball. It’s not really a lack of talent, either. I don’t think Sean Clifford starts 4 years at a place like Ohio State, Alabama or Clemson. That’s part of it. There’s not a high enough standard, and there’s little to no faith that Franklin’s staff can develop talent at the position.
Iowa and Penn State both come off as programs who are too married to their respective starting quarterbacks. Both would’ve been better off taking to the transfer portal rather than taking the path of least resistance.
Consider me disappointed that neither appear to be heading in that direction in 2022. At least not yet.