Michigan had a chance to secure an undefeated bowl record for the Big Ten in 2017 with a win in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina on Monday. This did not happen.
The Big Ten didn’t get a team in the College Football Playoff this season, in case you missed it, but it’s been taking care of business in the opportunities its been given. First, it was Iowa beating Boston College, 27-20. Then it was Purdue completing its wonderful turnaround season with a 38-35 win over Arizona. After that, Michigan State thoroughly dominated Washington State in a 42-17 game. Northwestern beat Kentucky to become 10-win Northwestern, and Ohio State slumbered past USC in the Cotton Bowl. Penn State and Wisconsin pushed the Big Ten to 7-0 with wins over Washington and Miami, leaving Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines as the lone Big Ten team left. Michigan-South Carolina kicks off at noon ET on ESPN2.
That left the Big Ten with a big lead in conference bowl standings. (These were after Saturday. The picture looks a bit different now.)
Power 5 Bowl Records:
Big 12: 5-2
— SEC Country (@SECcountry) December 31, 2017
Still, you really shouldn’t judge a college football team — or conference — on its bowl record
Bowls are still one extra week of the season, often with many other variables mixed in. You wouldn’t evaluate a conference based on one week’s performance, so why would you do that here? You also have to consider coaching changes and draft announcements, among other things.
It’s also hard to compare conference bowl resumes because of the variety in opponents. Northwestern and Iowa, maybe the Big Ten’s bottom two bowl-eligible teams, had favorable matchups against Kentucky and Boston College. Meanwhile, one of the Big 12’s worst bowl-eligible teams, Texas Tech, drew Group of 5 powerhouse South Florida. The Big Ten can somewhat thank the bowl draws for coming out in a favorable manner.
Still, the Big Ten did have to win several toss-up games. Michigan State dominated a Washington State team that appeared to be its equal (but was missing star quarterback Luke Falk), and Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin all beat teams that finished in the top 11. None of those final three wins came over teams that were significantly shorthanded or enduring a coaching change.
Bowl season also doesn’t measure the whole conference, and the Big Ten had its weak spots in 2017. Maryland and Rutgers were again way at the bottom of the East, Illinois was a train wreck and Nebraska took a nosedive in Mike Riley’s final season.
It’s probably fine to take some small meaning from the extremes of bowl season. While none of those conference bowl records tell the whole story, there’s some kernels of truth in there. The Pac-12 went 1-8. Not coincidentally, it was likely the worst Power 5 conference in 2017. The Big Ten won all its games so far, which is worth something, but the disappointment of not getting a team in the playoff remains.
The Big Ten is usually good, and could boast more quality teams in 2018
The conference should have its usual contenders in Michigan (should improve after a trying young season), Ohio State (loses some NFL talent, but always seems to have quality replacements), Penn State (loses Saquon Barkley and some seniors, but is still talented), Michigan State (loses almost no one) and Wisconsin (still Wisconsin) should all challenge for the league title.
A quality coaching hire should mean Nebraska gets better, and Purdue should improve even more in its second season under Jeff Brohm. Maryland could rebound from awful injury luck. Rutgers … is slowly building under Chris Ash. What’s been a top-heavy conference recently could end up being a little less so.