The Big Ten had a rough bowl season. As a whole, the conference went 3-7. Since perception begins at the top, Clemson shut out Ohio State in the playoff. Michigan and Penn State blew leads in the final minute against Florida State and USC respectively. Wisconsin won, but was never going to get credit for being a MAC team. One rung down, Nebraska lost by multiple scores to Tennessee. Florida blew out Iowa 30-3.
One parallel one could draw is to the SEC West in 2014. That division looked dominant all season. It produced five of the Top 12 SRS teams and all seven in the Top 30. The SEC West entered bowl play and went 2-5. Ohio State eliminated Alabama from the playoff.
Another parallel could be the B1G in 2006. Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin were Top 10 all season. Penn State was also competitive. Florida firebombed Ohio State in the national title game. Michigan lost to USC. Both looked overmatched and slow.
One could also trace a broader pattern. The B1G has lost 11 of its last 13 Rose Bowl appearances dating back to 2001. Ohio State, the conference’s preeminent team the past decade and a half, only appeared in one of those games. But, why complicate a great sounding statistic?
What can one read into the B1G’s 2016 bowl malaise? Whatever one wants, especially in the “facts-optional” era. What should one read into it? Not that much. Bowl game results tend to be fluky. Drawing broad conclusions can be foolhardy.
The B1G getting four teams into prime bowl slots meant (a) a lot of tough opponents and (b) teams down the line being bumped up to games where they are overmatched. B1G teams played five Top 20 SRS teams in bowl games and eight of the Top 30. Oddsmakers placed them as underdogs in seven of their 10 games, although Michigan and Ohio State lost as favorites.
There’s some (not a lot, but some) merit to the traditional B1G bowl complaint about travel. Bowl games exist for B1G officials to get free, warm-weather vacations. That means B1G teams are traveling longer and playing outside more comfortable environments.
Four of the B1G bowl losses came against teams (USC-Rose, FSU-Orange, Tennessee-Music City, and Florida-Outback) playing in home states and relatively familiar venues. Though, yes, Tallahassee is a seven-hour drive away from Miami. Ohio State and Clemson were also on equal footing.
B1G teams looked slower, which conformed to the traditional narrative. Though, recruiting has changed in that regard. Both Ohio State and Michigan brought in Top 5/6 classes and will continue to do so. They aren’t piling up with homegrown kids who then get a bump in the national rankings because Michigan and Ohio State recruited them. Regional recruiting deficiencies have been recognized and addressed.
Ohio State brought in four four/five-star players from Florida, including Nick Bosa. Jim Harbaugh brought in six recruits from Florida last cycle and three top 150 players from California.
If there was a unifying factor to B1G losses this bowl season, at least at the top, it was offensive line play. That was a quiet weakness for both Michigan and Ohio State all season. Injuries exposed depth issues. Offensive line trouble is a problem that can be acute in bowl games, where teams with quick defensive fronts have ample film and a lot of time to look at it.
Michigan had to shuffle things around after starting tackle Grant Newsome went down in October. Florida State lined up DeMarcus Walker up the middle and gave the Wolverines problems. Ohio State’s Michael Jordan getting hurt scuttled a lot of what Ohio State wanted to do against Clemson.
The current media climate likes simple, sweeping narratives. Even better if they are based on limited, recent samples and confirm pre-conceived and self-affirming notions. The B1G being “in crisis” will polarize opinion and get folks debating. It’s what many people want to happen. So, “in crisis” the B1G will be.
“Conference in crisis” is a better discussion point than “individual team and matchup issues yield no overarching narrative.”