Looking back at the B1G's best bowl season of the 21st century
There are sky-high expectations for the B1G this postseason.
Never mind the fact that the B1G is only favored to win four of its 10 bowl games. Don’t pay attention to the fact that Alabama is the overwhelming favorite to win a national title.
Expectations are at their highest because of a historic regular season. You know, the one that saw the B1G finish with four teams ranked in the top eight while the rest of the Power Five conferences had one representative apiece.
So what can make this season the one for the B1G? A historic bowl season, of course. In the 21st century, that’s been easier said than done. The B1G is 49-72 in bowl games since the 2000-01 season. The conference finished above .500 in the postseason in just three of those 16 seasons.
But there was one year when it all came together. The dominoes fell in the B1G’s favor and it yielded arguably the conference’s most successful bowl season ever.
No, it wasn’t the 2014-15 season, though that year ended with a much-needed national title for the conference.
The B1G’s best bowl season of the 21st century was 2002-03, and frankly, it’s not close. If the 2016-17 bowl season is going to top that, it’ll take a few more fortunate bounces.
What kind of fortunate bounces? Well, one like this wouldn’t hurt:
Ohio State’s ending against Miami in the 2003 BCS National Championship has been debated tirelessly over the years, but the result is still the same.
The Buckeyes came into that game as two-touchdown underdogs against a Miami team that won 34 straight games. In the next two years, 10 of those Miami players were drafted in the first round. Some say it was the most talented team to never win a national title.
And while Ohio State pulled off arguably its most memorable upset in program history, it also capped an upset-filled bowl season for the B1G. Seven of 11 B1G teams made bowl games. Including Ohio State, four of the five B1G winners earned upset victories.
The conference finished that bowl season with a 5-2 record, which was a winning percentage of 0.714. The next-best bowl winning percentage for the B1G in the 21st century was 0.571 in 2009-10. That 4-3 mark was solid (Ohio State won the Rose Bowl, Iowa won the Orange Bowl), but the B1G didn’t have a single team in one of the top three bowls.
Now let’s get back to 2002-03, because besides winning a national championship, the B1G picked up some memorable bowl victories that year:
- Alamo Bowl — Wisconsin 31, No. 12 Colorado 28 (OT)
- Music City Bowl — Minnesota 29, No. 22 Arkansas 14
- Sun Bowl — Purdue 34, Washington 24
- Outback Bowl — No. 13 Michigan 38, No. 23 Florida 30
The Badgers were at the end of a mediocre two-year stretch and entered the Alamo Bowl as 12-point underdogs to preseason national title hopeful Colorado. Barry Alvarez led Wisconsin to an upset victory in a bowl game. Imagine that.
But really, the credit belonged to Brooks Bollinger, who was masterful with the game on the line:
Speaking of upsets, that 2002 Minnesota team lost four straight games entering the Music City Bowl. Arkansas, on the other hand, made it to the SEC Championship. The Gophers were 13-point underdogs, yet the game was never in question.
What about Michigan? Sure, it was a virtual coin flip and a bunch of B1G teams later beat up on Ron Zook, but any B1G victory against the SEC was big. Zook got major heat for calling a wildly unsuccessful trick play down eight on the Michigan 27-yard line in the final minutes.
Remember this (go to the 5:05 mark)?
And then there was Purdue, which rallied from 17 down and outscored Washington 34-7 in the final three quarters to win the Sun Bowl. The legend Kyle Orton led the comeback attempt and the Purdue defense had two touchdowns of its own to avenge the Rose Bowl loss to Washington.
Five impressive bowl victories against five impressive Power Five programs was and is a rare accomplishment for the B1G. In fact, the B1G didn’t accomplish that feat again until it expanded to 14 teams in 2014.
It actually could’ve easily been a 6-1 mark in 2002-03.
Auburn scored a go-ahead touchdown in the final two minutes to knock off Penn State in the Capital One Bowl. After the game, Penn State running back and Heisman Trophy finalist Larry Johnson did the Ezekiel Elliott before Ezekiel Elliott did. That is, he blamed the loss on him not getting enough touches.
But that was a rare blemish on an otherwise dominant showing from the B1G that year.
Capping off any year with a national title is obviously the ultimate sign of conference strength. That’s why the SEC flexes its muscles whenever Alabama wins it all. The same was true when Ohio State won the first College Football Playoff in 2014-15 and the same would be true if the Buckeyes did it again this year.
So what would it take for the B1G to match or exceed its 2002-03 postseason? Certainly Ohio State knocking off Clemson and Alabama in a national championship would be a start, but it’d need to be more than that.
Maybe something like this:
- Three New Year’s Six victories (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin all have NY6 matchups)
- Four upset wins (six of 10 B1G bowl teams are underdogs)
- Seven wins overall
Those would all be B1G records in the age of the bloated bowl system. It would disprove the lazy narrative that the B1G was only Michigan and Ohio State.
Perhaps most importantly, it would show the college football world that the B1G is undoubtedly the best conference in college football. That’s rarely been said about the B1G the last two decades.
Perhaps it’s finally time for that narrative to begin.