The Big Ten was 7-0 in 2017’s bowl season heading into Michigan’s New Year’s Day Outback Bowl game against South Carolina. The Wolverines were favored by at least a touchdown pretty much anywhere you can find odds online. They lost, 26-19, so the Big Ten’s bowl record finishes at 7-1. For Michigan, it’s now two bowl losses in a row under Jim Harbaugh.
This game was predictable 2017 Michigan football for three quarters. Harbaugh’s team was up 16-3 when South Carolina QB Jake Bentley hit Bryan Edwards for a 21-yard touchdown at the end of the third quarter. The Gamecocks followed that up with another score after a Michigan punt to take their first lead of the day in the fourth quarter, and Michigan blew its next chance, with Brandon Peters throwing a back-breaking interception in the end zone. The Wolverines couldn’t capitalize after a South Carolina fumble later in the fourth quarter, and failed on their last-minute comeback drive attempt.
This is fun to point out, even if bowl records should not be the measuring stick by which you evaluate a conference:
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.
It’s only one game during what was a bit of a reloading season, but this performance will linger during Michigan’s offseason. For the Wolverines, Sept. 1 against Notre Dame can’t get here fast enough.