Ranking the Big Ten's performances during bowl week
The bowl season has come and gone and all that’s left of the college football season is Monday night’s national championship game between Alabama and Clemson. Since there’s no Big Ten presence, we can really just move on, right?
The Big Ten turned in an average performance, going 5-4. That was better than expected, considering the nine conference teams were favored in only three of the games. Two of the favorites — Penn State and Michigan — actually lost. But several underdogs — Iowa, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota — all came away as winners.
None of the Power 5 conferences dominating like the Big Ten did a year ago, when they finished 7-1 with only Michigan losing. This year, all five were within one game of breaking even, with the Big 12 (4-3), Big Ten (5-4) and SEC (6-5) just a tick over. The ACC (5-5) and Pac-12 (3-4) were just behind.
“I think this bowl season showed a lot in regards to how much parity there really is in college football,” Fox Sports analyst and former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn said. “All five conferences, they all pretty much finished the same way. The idea that one conference dominates really isn’t true, and it’s too bad because too often that shows up in preseason rankings and even seeps into the College Football Playoff selection committee.
Here’s how the nine Big Ten teams did, and how we ranked their performances:
1. Northwestern Wildcats
- Game: Beat Utah (Pac-12) 31-20 in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 31.
- Line: Utah was a 7-point favorite.
- The skinny: This was the comeback of the bowl season. Northwestern, the Big Ten West champions, were trailing Utah 20-3 at halftime but rallied with 28 unanswered points in the third quarter to roll to an 11-point win over the Pac-12 South champions. It was a fitting end to a great season for the Wildcats, who made it to the conference title game for the first time. Clayton Thorson concluded his brilliant career by throwing for 241 yards and a touchdown. This was a solid Utah team that never loses bowl games, so to get a win was huge.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
- Game: Beat Washington (Pac-12) 28-23 in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 1.
- Line: Ohio State was a 4.5-point favorite.
- The skinny: If the Buckeyes wouldn’t have nearly blown their 25-point lead in the fourth quarter, they would have finished first in our rankings. They were completely dominant for three-plus quarters in Urban Meyer’s final game before the Huskies made a rally. This was probably Dwayne Haskins’ final game at Ohio State, and he went out in style with 3 touchdown passes. Urban Meyer had never coached in the Rose Bowl before, so it was a nice exclamation point to his brilliant career.
3. Minnesota Gophers
- Game: Beat Georgia Tech (ACC) 34-10 in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit on Dec. 26.
- Line: Georgia Tech was a 6-point favorite.
- The skinny: This game was a perfect example in a bowl game of a team that wanted to be there, and one that didn’t. Tech had lost its coach, Paul Johnson, who was retiring. Minnesota had been on a roll, with impressive late-season blowouts of Purdue and Wisconsin, and wanted to continue that trend into the offseason. The Gophers jumped out early and never looked back in the rout. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim had a huge day, rushing for 224 yards and 2 touchdowns.
4. Wisconsin Badgers
- Game: Beat Miami (ACC) 35-3 in the Pinstripe Bowl in New York on Dec. 27.
- Line: Miami was a 3-point favorite.
- The skinny: This was another game where a team was in disarray and had no interest in giving their best effort in a bowl game. Miami was awful. It’s offense was a disgrace and the entire offensive coaching was fired at season’s end. But their highly regarded defense got thrashed too, with Wisconsin rushing for 333 yards. Jonathan Taylor rushed for 205 yards and a score, and it was a nice way for the Badgers to end a season that was filled with disappointment and underachievement.
5. Iowa Hawkeyes
- Game: Beat Mississippi State (SEC) 27-22 in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 1.
- Line: Mississippi State was a 7-point favorite.
- The skinny: It would be easy to rank the Hawkeyes much higher because it was impressive to see them score 27 points against the nation’s No. 1 defense. Kudos to quarterback Nate Stanley, who made some big throws and had 3 touchdown passes. But the Hawkeyes were also just 1-for-11 on third down conversions, had negative rushing yards for the day and got a break when a Mississippi State receiver dropped a ball in the end zone for a sure game-winning touchdown. The ball flew up in the air and Jake Gervase intercepted it to preserve Iowa’s lead. Not demising the win in any way, but it was hard to move them ahead of the group ahead.
6. Michigan State Spartans
- Game: Lost to Oregon (Pac-12) 7-6 in the RedBox Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif., on Dec. 31.
- Line: Oregon was a 1-point favorite.
- The skinny: Michigan State’s defense was brilliant all game, only allowing one drive into scoring position all day. Unfortunately that was enough to get them beat because the Michigan State offense couldn’t get anything done. It would be easy to rank this one lower, but the Spartans’ defense was simply that good. They deserved the kudos.
7. Penn State Nittany Lions
- Game: Lost to Kentucky (SEC) 27-24 in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla., on Jan. 1.
- Line: Penn State was a 6.5-point favorite.
- The skinny: When it comes to trying to get some bragging rights in the Big Ten vs. SEC rivalry, this was the kind of game where the Big Ten needed to win. Penn State was a better team, but they played like garbage for three quarters and were on the verge of getting blown out. They did rally to make a game of it in the fourth quarter, but this was a hugely disappointing effort by James Franklin and his Nittany Lions.
8. Michigan Wolverines
- Game: Lost to Florida (SEC) 41-15 in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta on Dec. 29.
- Line: Michigan was a 6-point favorite.
- The skinny: It was a big game against a top-10 team, and with Michigan’s history, this shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. But still, this one was ugly. Michigan, a potential playoff team back in late November, got pounded by a Florida team that had never beaten the Wolverines. Sure, the Wolverines were missing several key players, but that’s no excuse to lose to a team like Florida. When will Michigan ever win a game that matters under Jim Harbaugh?
9. Purdue Boilermakers
- Game: Lost to Auburn (SEC) 63-14 in the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., on Dec. 28.
- Line: Auburn was a 4.5-point favorite.
- The skinny: Not only was Purdue’s performance the worst in the Big Ten, but it might have been the worst of any of the 40 bowl losers. The Boilermakers allowed Auburn to score touchdowns on all eight of its first-half possessions, and its 56 points by halftime were a bowl game record. The Boilermakers had their moments this year — most notably the 29-point rout of Ohio State — but this was a real downer to end the season, because it was obvious they didn’t have the athletes to compete with a very average SEC team. There’s still plenty of work to be done just to get bowl eligible again next year.