- Even if the Big Ten had run the table over the course of its bowl schedule, any sweeping conclusions about the strength of the conference would be overly simplistic.
The Big Ten never had a chance to win the national championship this year. When the College Football Playoff selection committee selected Alabama as the No. 4 seed instead of Ohio State (which was ranked fifth) in December, it ensured all of the conference’s teams would be sitting at home on the night of Jan. 8 when two teams squared off in Atlanta for the title.
But the Big Ten failing to receive an invitation to the playoff for the first time didn’t preclude a successful postseason for the league. It shined even without a CFP participant. Michigan’s 26–19 loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day—in which the Wolverines blew a 19–3 lead late in the third quarter—dropped the Big Ten’s bowl record this postseason to 7–1, the top mark in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The seven winners: Iowa over Boston College (Pinstripe Bowl), Purdue over Arizona (Foster Farms Bowl) Michigan State over Washington State (Holiday Bowl), Northwestern over Kentucky (Music City Bowl), Ohio State over USC (Cotton Bowl), Penn State over Washington (Fiesta Bowl) and Wisconsin over Miami (Orange Bowl).
The conference’s lone bowl loss won’t go unnoticed. Michigan’s inability to corral a mediocre SEC opponent will embolden the growing chorus of critics of Jim Harbaugh, who has yet to lead the Wolverines to a finish better than third in the Big Ten East and has posted a 3–6 record against division contenders Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State (including 0–3 in 2017). To a certain subset of college football observers, Harbaugh hasn’t backed up his off-field antics with enough on-field accomplishments, and this defeat ensures he’ll enter next fall feeling a lot of heat both within the Michigan community and beyond it.
As for the rest of the Big Ten, context is required to better understand those favorable results. Bowl matchups rarely pit evenly matched teams in locations that offer no advantage to either one, and the Big Ten had a pretty favorable slate to work with in December and January. According to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, the conference’s teams were favored in six of their eight contests.
Despite those odds, none of the Big Ten’s bowls looked like locks on paper, and coming within one seven-point loss of posting a perfect record in eight tilts against a solid slate of opponents should help soften the blow of Ohio State’s controversial playoff miss. That said, we should resist putting too much weight on such a limited sample of competition. The Big Ten’s almost-across-the-board bowl triumph does not mean that it was the best conference in the country this season, or that the playoff selection committee made a mistake in undervaluing the Buckeyes’ championship in such a rigorous league.
Bowl records often serve as fodder in the “best conference” debates that take place every year because they offer convenient inter-conference data points, but they’re only one of several ways to gauge conference strength. Two more ways that don’t flatter the Big Ten: Points scored by its teams in the three years of playoff semifinals since Ohio State won it all (zero) and a respected power rating like S&P+ (the conference sat third entering bowl season).
The Big Ten had already done a lot to repair its reputation. A league long pilloried for its conservative offenses and lack of top-end speed is now home to a perennial national title contender (Ohio State) and arguably the most challenging division in the Power 5 (the East), and this year it tied the SEC for the most top-10 teams in the final playoff rankings (three.)
Though the Big Ten’s 7–1 run this December and January might be reflective of the league’s improvement, those wins are only a small part of the argument over league supremacy. This isn’t close to the end of the story. A glittering postseason record helps the Big Ten’s case, but odds are it’ll have a more difficult time in bowls a year from now.
The Big Ten should take a bow. It deserves the plaudits coming its way. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking its 2017-18 bowl performance settles the question of which conference currently rules the Power 5.