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The Big Ten going 7-1 in bowls was awesome, but bowls are just one piece of the season’s puzzle

Appreciate bowl wins for what they are: bowl wins.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten finished 7-1 in 2017’s bowl season. The conference finishes with the best bowl winning percentage of any FBS conference.

The conference’s hopes for a perfect bowl record rested on Michigan’s result against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day, but the Gamecocks came back from 16 down to win, meaning an entire offseason of Big Ten fans making fun of Jim Harbaugh’s team, though what else is new?

The league is the toast of college football right now, to the extent possible for a conference that missed the Playoff to be the toast of anything.

The Big Ten’s bowl success is more meaningful than partisans from other conferences will tell you, but less meaningful than Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany will tell you.

The Big Ten didn’t just win. It won impressively.

  • Every bowl was against a Power 5 team: Ohio State over USC, Wisconsin over Miami, Penn State over Washington, Michigan State over Washington State, Northwestern over Kentucky, Purdue over Arizona, and Iowa over Boston College.
  • The Big Ten won half of the New Year’s Six bowls (the Cotton, Fiesta, and Orange).
  • Big Ten teams covered the spread in six of their eight bowls, suggesting they exceeded expectations regardless of opponent strength. The only B1G team not to cover was Northwestern. The previously 9-3 Wildcats beat 7-5 Kentucky, 24-23, with a backup quarterback.

The Big Ten was stronger than every other conference in bowls, and that counts for something. But ...

Be careful about ascribing deep meaning to any conference’s bowl showing.

Bowls are 40 pieces of new evidence, but they aren’t the whole story. They’re just added to the hundreds of games that’ve already been played. The Big Ten entered bowl season as the consensus third best conference according to impartial ratings systems, and it’s doubtful seven or eight games at the end of the season will change that. The Big Ten’s champ still got blown out at home by a team from another conference, after all.

And if Ohio State had made the Playoff, there’s a great chance OSU would’ve lost. The Buckeyes’ matchup as the Playoff No. 4 seed would’ve been Clemson, which shut them out in a 31-0 Fiesta Bowl a year ago. Because Ohio State finished as the first team out of the field, it got to play a somewhat underwhelming USC that had already been blown out at the hands of Notre Dame.

The Big Ten got nice matchups all around. Big Ten teams were favored in all of these bowls except Purdue-Arizona. Michigan was favored by 7.5 against South Carolina. While winning is good and covering the spread is never a gimme, there’s something to be said for not reading much into a bunch of favorites winning arbitrarily picked matchups.

It’s still cool that the Big Ten’s winning!

Winning is winning.

None of this is to pick on the Big Ten. It’s an annual disclaimer that should always apply when using bowl records as a way to evaluate much of anything (this site said the same when the SEC had a great record one year). It’s just true that Iowa beating Boston College by a touchdown in the Pinstripe Bowl doesn’t tell us a lot about the long-term strength of either team or its conference.

Conference trash-talking is a college football feature, not a bug. Making fun of another league’s teams for how they AIN’T PLAYED NOBODY is a classic pastime. (We even have a podcast named after it.) Winning bowl games makes arguing about your conference’s supremacy easier. That’s fun and good.

At the end of the day, though, you didn’t need the Big Ten to win a bunch of bowl games to know that the conference was pretty good this year, despite not having a team in the Playoff. You probably knew Ohio State was better than USC before the Buckeyes whomped the Trojans, and that three Big Ten teams (OSU, Penn State, and Wisconsin) could play with just about anyone.

A perfect bowl record can be a bragging point and still not mean much.


College football's first bowl game was almost its last