By Jim Weber
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is probably still trying to convince himself that the conference’s horrible September on the football field was a bad dream. Unfortunately, Delany’s nightmare is about to continue with Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game and the ensuing bowl season.
We already knew it wasn’t going to be a banner year for the conference with Ohio State facing a postseason ban for “Tattoogate” and Penn State getting hammered with a four-year bowl ban and $60 million fine for the Jerry Sandusky scandal and cover-up.
Then came September, when the non-conference schedule turned out worse than anyone had imagined. A conference that prides itself on being the country’s strongest national brand became a national punchline after going 6-9 against other Automatic Qualifier schools – the best of those six wins was Northwestern over Vanderbilt – in addition to three loses to the MAC.
Following Week 6 of the season, there were zero teams ranked in the USA Today Coaches Poll for the first time ever (Ohio State was ineligible to be ranked) while the SEC had five ranked in the Top 11. Michigan’s 41-14 blowout loss to Alabama Sept. 1 symbolized just how far away the Big Ten was from college football’s best conference.
The criticism directed at the Big Ten has died down over the last two months for two reasons: The conference’s mediocrity has been masked by conference play and Ohio State and Penn State both far surpassed expectations.
But with an anticlimactic Big Ten title game on Saturday and bowl season now on the horizon, December and January might make September’s ineptitude pale in comparison.
Let’s start with Saturday’s game between Nebraska and Wisconsin. With OSU and PSU both ineligible to represent the Leaders division, the Badgers are playing Nebraska for a Rose Bowl bid with a 7-5 overall record and 4-4 conference mark. That’s certainly not what Delany envisioned when he created the title game.
After getting grossly overshadowed by the SEC Championship Game last season (Nielsen Ratings: SEC 7.7, Big Ten 4.6), expect another SEC blowout of the Big Ten this Saturday in the form of TV ratings. No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia are playing in the equivalent of a national semifinal game while Nebraska already lost to Ohio State by 25 and Wisconsin doesn’t even belong in a New Year’s Day bowl.
A forgettable conference title game is a fitting harbinger for a bowl season starting on Dec. 15 that is shaping up as a potential blood bath for the Big Ten without two of the top three teams participating.
Take a look at Jerry Palm’s current projections for the seven Big Ten teams that are bowl eligible:
• Rose Bowl (Jan. 1): No. 12 Nebraska (10-2) vs. No. 8 Stanford (10-2)
• Capital One (Jan. 1): No. 19 Michigan (8-4) vs. No. 3 Georgia (11-1)
• Outback (Jan. 1): No. 22 Northwestern (9-3) vs. No. 10 South Carolina (10-2)
• Gator (Jan. 1): Wisconsin (7-5) vs. Mississippi State (8-4)
• Heart of Dallas (Jan. 1): Purdue (6-6) vs. Iowa State (6-6)
• Buffalo Wild Wings (Dec. 29): No. 23 Oklahoma State (7-4) vs. Michigan State (6-6)
• Meineke Car Care (Dec. 28): Minnesota (6-6) vs. Baylor (6-5)
If these projections are accurate, I doubt the Big Ten will be favored in a single bowl game. Even in the two bowl games where Big Ten teams would have as many wins as their opponents, keep in mind that Baylor recently beat No. 1 Kansas State and Purdue just fired Danny Hope and will be coached in its final game by receivers coach Patrick Higgins.
If Ohio State and Penn State had been eligible, the Buckeyes would have had a great chance at bringing home the conference’s first national title since 2002 and everyone below Michigan would have moved down to a lesser bowl to make way for Penn State.
Bowl season still could have gotten ugly for the Big Ten but at least the conference would have two teams in BCS bowls, a chance at a national title and better matchups almost across the board. Instead, a year after going a dismal 4-6 in bowl games, there is an apocalyptic scenario in which the conference could realistically go a winless 0-7 this bowl season. Following the brutal September the conference already endured, that could result in the worst Big Ten season ever.
Maybe the Mayan Doomsday Prophecy was talking about Big Ten football.
Photos: Tim Heitman, Reid Compton/US Presswire