LOS ANGELES -- On Wednesday, Michigan State will make the 68th appearance by a Big Ten school in the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl. Next year, college football's postseason will move another step away from its traditional bowl arrangements, but the Big Ten's leaders -- along with most of the league's fans -- still hold a deep-seated reverence for their longstanding New Year's Day matchup with a Pac-12 opponent, played near-annually in Pasadena since 1947.
"It may be more symbolic than real, but ever since I was a young kid growing up in Lexington, Mich., the Rose Bowl defined college sports," said Spartans athletic director Mark Hollis. "If for no other reason, that's why I hold this event in such high value, and I hope to cling to that as long as I remain involved in college athletics."
But while fans from the Midwest continue to flock west in huge numbers -- Hollis said on Monday that he's expecting more than 50,000 Michigan State fans in attendance -- very few recently have enjoyed a triumphant flight home. Since the 2000 season, Big Ten teams have gone 1-9 in the Rose Bowl, with Ohio State's 26-17 victory over Oregon on Jan. 1, 2010, serving as the lone victory.
Historically, the game's balance of power has been cyclical. The Big Ten went 7-3 in the 1990s. But the conference's recent downturn has dropped its all-time Rose Bowl record to 30-37. The oft-maligned league could really use a victory when the No. 4 Spartans (12-1) take on No. 5 Stanford (11-2), one of the nation's most respected programs of late.
"It's a little bit like we're in the desert, and we'd like to get a glass of water," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said in an interview on Sunday. "We'd like to get a win."
In the old days, revered Michigan coach Bo Schembechler's 2-8 record in the Rose Bowl had little or no impact on his team's, or his conference's, prestige. In the BCS era, however, bowl performances are major influences on a league's reputation. It's no secret that the Big Ten is lagging, and the conference's recent struggles in New Year's Day bowls underscore that fact.
"It's a significant, accurate reflection -- I don't think the Big Ten can continue to say it's not," Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said of the conference's recent Rose Bowl struggles. "[The Rose Bowl is] one of the bright light spots the Big Ten is almost guaranteed every year and it's very good measuring stick. You look at the Pac-12, some think it's the second-best conference this year.
"The Big Ten has to start playing better in bowl games, and if they don't, they have to start looking at themselves and ask, Why?"
Individual bowl results aren't necessarily an accurate reflection of a conference's larger standing since bowl matchups are a byproduct of many arbitrary postseason pairings. Nebraska will face Georgia in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1, but it just as easily could be set to play Vanderbilt or Ole Miss.
Still, there's no such excuse in the Rose Bowl. Barring a few exceptions -- such as when undefeated TCU beat Wisconsin following the 2010 campaign -- the game annually pits the Big Ten's best against the Pac-12's best. The results have often been humbling.
From 2003-08, USC won four Rose Bowls, beating Michigan (twice), Penn State and Illinois, all by at least two touchdowns. The Badgers lost each of the past three seasons, albeit by closer margins, against the Ducks, the Horned Frogs and the Cardinal. All of those games were considered fairly even going in, but none of the losses came as a surprise.
"When I try to look at [the record] and try to understand it, each game stands on its own," said Delany. "But over a long period of time, you see in the win-loss trend, in most cases the better team won."
There is no shortage of reasons for the conference to feel good about this year's matchup. While Stanford has built up more national credibility behind its four straight appearances in BCS bowl games, Michigan State has quietly posted three 11-plus win seasons over the past four years. The Spartans boast the nation's top-ranked defense in virtually every major statistical category, though that unit suffered a crushing blow last week with the suspension of senior linebacker and co-captain Max Bullough.
The teams employ similar smashmouth styles, and while the Cardinal played in a deeper conference this season, the Spartans proved their mettle in a 34-24 Big Ten title game upset of previously undefeated Ohio State.
"I'll tell you right now, watching that Big Ten championship game, Michigan State and Ohio State can play with anybody in the country," said Stanford coach David Shaw. "There's no question about it ... Everything goes in cycles. There was a time when the Big Ten was on top and the Pac‑10 was down. There were times when the SEC has been on top. There were times when the SEC was down. Everybody wants to forget about those times, but I think they go in cycles."
That may be true, but the Big Ten's downturn in bowl games has been happening for some time now. Despite a 9-5 record in BCS games played outside of Pasadena, the conference's overall BCS era (1998-2013) bowl record is 47-61 (.435) -- worse than any league except for the MAC and the Sun Belt. Of course, there are mitigating circumstances to consider. Big Ten programs' national brands allow the league to sign better bowl deals and thus play tougher opponents than, say, the Pac-12. Heck, the Pac-12's No. 3 team this year (10-3 Arizona State) will play the Big 12's No. 5 team (7-5 Texas Tech) in the Holiday Bowl on Monday night. And all of the Big Ten's bowl teams this year will play a significant distance from home.
"I took [Stanford AD] Bernard [Muir] out for breakfast the other day, and I said we'd sure to love to host you in the snow in Chicago one day," joked Hollis. "It's a challenge, Big Ten teams always playing their bowl games as a road game. This will be a little different, we'll have a strong contingent, but you're still [flying] three hours to a foreign state."
But while the Big Ten does play most of its bowls at a geographic disadvantage, the effect may be overstated. For one thing, playing LSU in Tampa, for example, is far different than taking on the Tigers in New Orleans. In Pasadena, in particular, the crowd rarely favors one side too heavily. And it's tough to blame a poor performance on jet lag when the teams arrive a week before kickoff.
"When you watch the bowl losses by the Big Ten, nine times out of 10 the other team has more talent," said DiNardo. "Is the weather a factor? Yeah, maybe -- but not as much as the talent. The talent is the issue."
Recruiting rankings and early NFL draft buzz suggest Michigan State, like its recent Rose Bowl predecessors, may be slightly less talented than its foe. Cardinal linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, offensive linemen David Yankey and Andrus Peat (not yet draft eligible), defensive end Josh Mauro and running back Tyler Gaffney are all considered surefire NFL prospects. The Spartans have one inarguably elite player in Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Darqueze Dennard, and they have a budding star in redshirt sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun. But most of their other prominent players are athletic overachievers.
By contrast, Barry Alvarez's 1998 and '99 Wisconsin teams -- the Big Ten's last Rose Bowl champions outside of perennially talent-laden Ohio State -- featured six eventual first-round picks.
Stanford became a six-point favorite following the news of Bullough's suspension, but most fans still consider the game to be fairly even. Michigan State will focus primarily on attaining a landmark victory for its university, but a win would also do its conference a great service.
"Anything we can do for the Big Ten, we want to do it," said Spartans linebacker Denicos Allen. "I feel like we're one of the toughest conferences in the nation. To come out here on this stage and get to prove it is a great opportunity."
Delany and the conference have fiercely protected their place on that stage for decades. They could use some victories to justify their swagger.