Grading the Big Ten's Bowl Performance in the BCS Era

[BH: Bumped for sheer analytic awesomeness.]

January 1st, 2011 - the "Worst day in Big Ten football history" - saw the league go 0-5 in its bowls on a New Year's Day to forget. The reactions were instant and the Big Ten's image took a hit even greater (perhaps) than "Legends and Leaders". There is nothing quite like bowl performance in shaping a conference's perception around the college football world. The concentration and quality of the the games during bowl season makes for an ideal conference measuring stick, and fan attention is at its peak.

The book on the Big-Ten-in-the-bowls wasn't written in one bad day - the Big Ten has been getting criticized over bowls for a while now. Is that criticism fair, or is too much being made of a bad day or two? After all, that 0-5 New Year's Day debacle was part of a not-terrible 3-5 overall bowl season that included a BCS victory and two wins over top 15 teams. Crazy days happen, but if the doubters are right and the Big Ten really has a bowl problem we should be able to see it given enough time. Here I've tried to do exactly that. I've looked into the Big Ten's bowl performances in the BCS era - from 1998-2010 - to see if the B1G's bad bowl rap is deserved and, if possible, identify some of the reasons for the league's results.

First let's take a look at how each conference has performed in the BCS era so we can see how the Big Ten stacks up against its peers:

  Bowl Record  
Conference BCS Era Since 2005 BCS Record
ACC* 56-52 22-28 5-13
Big East* 30-28 21-11 3-5
Big 12 48-50 24-23 8-10
Big Ten 41-48 16-28 11-12
Pac Ten° 35-36 19-14 10-6
SEC 61-44 33-19 15-6
* The ACC and Big East changed membership during the BCS time period (1998-2010). These numbers are calculated as if the 2010 conference configuration held over that whole time, so the ACC is credited with Miami/VA Tech/BC's full bowl records. ° All bowl results are included, regardless of later NCAA action (USC).

The Big Ten's overall bowl record is far from catastrophic, but its not great. The good: the Big Ten has more BCS victories than any conference outside the SEC, and more BCS appearances than any other conference. The bad: the Big Ten's overall bowl winning percentage of 46% lags behind every other BCS conference, and recent results are markedly worse with the league winning only 36% of its bowls since 2005.

The Big Ten need not apologize for its bowl performances, especially in the BCS, but lackluster recent returns are a cause for concern. What is responsible for the Big Ten's low bowl winning percentage? And better yet - How can the conference improve? The key to that goal might be found in a more straightforward question: What (or who) is dragging down the Big Ten's bowl record?

The Big Ten's bowl problems aren't at the top

If you're a fan of the Big Ten I'm sure you've heard a few invectives tossed Ohio State's way for its failures on the big stage. There is no denying that the 2007 NCG loss to Florida was seminal moment for the conference's reputation. That game had a large part in convincing a lot of people that the Big Ten's shortcomings lie at the top. Yes, the lack of recent National Championships is undeniable, but it has to be stressed that this is not a problem unique to the Big Ten - it's one shared by every conference not named the SEC. So, with 41-14 now comfortably in the past, can we answer the question of where the Big Ten's postseason problems truly reside?

School Bowl Record BCS Record
Ohio State Buckeyes 7-5 6-3
Ohio State has been the undisputed conference standard bearer in the BCS era. Not only does Ohio State have more BCS wins and appearances than any other program in the country, they have as many BCS wins as the rest of the Big Ten + Nebraska combined. The spot on their record: Ohio State is only 1-4 vs. the SEC in bowls, but 7-1 against everyone else.
Wisconsin Badgers 7-5 2-1
Even after last year's Rose Bowl disappointment Wisconsin is still second to Ohio State in BCS-era bowl record, and the only program outside of Ohio State with multiple BCS wins. Bret Bielema has big shoes to fill when it comes to the big bowls, Barry Alvarez was 3-0 in the Rose Bowl.
Iowa Hawkeyes 6-3 1-1
Iowa under Kirk Ferentz has performed admirably in bowls, although Herky has to be disappointed that his two BCS trips were to the Orange Bowl rather than the Rose Bowl. The ending of Iowa's win over LSU in 2004 was one of the great bowl finishes of all time.
Penn State Nittany Lions 6-3 1-1
Penn State has been a strong bowl performer for the Big Ten, but that's no surprise - Joe Pa's bowl exploits are legendary. Coach Paterno is 24–12–1 in bowls and has won every one of the major bowls (BCS + Cotton). Can Nebraska offer the same kind of boost to the B1G that Penn State has?
Michigan Wolverines 5-6 1-3
Michigan needs Hoke to change its bowl fortunes because this program is living on borrowed time. Dominant at the start of the BCS era - Michigan is 1-5 in its last 6 bowl games, 0-3 in the Rose Bowl since 2003, and last year's return from a two year bowl absence was an embarrassment.
Purdue Boilermakers 3-6 0-1
Purdue was a solid Big Ten program for most of the BCS era. They were the only team other than Michigan to go to a bowl every season from 1998-2006 - most of which lost. Purdue's last bowl win was a 51-48 squeaker against MAC power Central Michigan in 2007, and Boiler Pete hasn't been bowling since.
Illinois Fighting Illini 2-2 0-2
The ability of Illinois to get itself into (and lose) BCS bowls it shouldn't be anywhere near is well known. Perhaps overlooked is that in the few cases the Illini have found themselves in an appropriate bowl the team has performed quite well, posting convincing 63-21 and 38-14 wins.
Minnesota Golden Gophers 3-6 0-0
Minnesota has shown a unique ability to get itself bowl eligible, but barely. As a result Minnesota has frequented the Sun Bowl/Music City Bowl/Insight Bowl, while being absent from any bowl fans outside of Dinkytown would care about. Unfortunately, this parade of minor bowls hasn't turned into a winning record. As a demonstration of statistical oddities: Minnesota was 3-1 vs. Alabama, Arkansas and Oregon in bowls - and 0-5 vs. the murderer's row of NC State, Virginia, Texas Tech, Kansas and Iowa State.
Michigan State Spartans 2-5 0-0
Last year's 49-7 drubbing at the hands of Alabama after a Big Ten co-championship season was discouraging, but its the big picture of Sparty's bowl performance that is more worrisome. Mark Dantonio has yet to win a bowl game, and Michigan State is sitting on a 5 game bowl losing streak that stretches back a decade.
Northwestern Wildcats 0-6 0-0
Northwestern has not won a bowl game since 1949.
Indiana Hoosiers 0-1 0-0
Indiana has not been a good football team in a very long time.
Nebraska Cornhuskers 6-5 1-1
Nebraska is a fantastic addition to the Big Ten - and looks like it will be a solid contributor in the postseason as well. Will the Huskers' 3-0 bowl record vs. the Big Ten bode well for their performance in their new conference?

The Big Ten conveniently separates into four tiers based on BCS-era bowl performances. First, a Blue Ribbon for conference standard-bearer Ohio State. Not only has OSU lapped the conference in terms of BCS wins, they lead the entire country in both BCS appearances and victories. Red Ribbons for the next group of Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State. Each of these three programs posted a winning bowl record and won at least one BCS bowl during the BCS era. Together these four programs are the current on-the-field Big Four of the Big Ten, and they have both been filling the conference's places in the Big Bowls and performing once they get there. The Big Four was 26-16 in all bowls, and 10-6 in BCS games, while matching up against the strongest competition in the Big Ten's bowl lineup.

As for the rest of the conference... it's hard to sugarcoat - they are failing. Michigan gets a Yellow Ribbon in honor of its BCS victory, but recent results place Michigan with the rest of the conference rather than the Big Four. And as for that rest of the conference, the remaining six programs? Frowns and Brown Ribbons for all. The conference outside the Big 4 was 15-32 in bowl games in the BCS era (1-6 in BCS games). To make it worse, those lousy results were accumulated mainly in the bottom of the Big Ten's bowl order against presumably weaker opponents. It is here, in the middle of the conference, that the Big Ten's bowl problems lie.

The Big Ten faces the most difficult bowl slate

I've aimed the blame squarely at the Big Ten's middle class as being who is behind the Big Ten's bowl troubles, but now is time to take a step back and consider just what it is they are up against. First, it's a fact, the Big Ten "plays up" more than any other conference because of its ability to put two teams in the BCS every year. And its not the top programs that are most affected, its the middle class - whether in the form of undeserved promotions to the BCS (2007 Illinois) or a constant increase in the quality of their bowl opponents (Northwestern and Michigan State annually). Second, the Big Ten schedules the very best bowl opponents. After the BCS matchups are two (now 3) against the top selections from the SEC, and a remaining schedule filled out with faceoffs "up" against the Big 12. As a result, the Big Ten's bowl lineup has been, and will continue to be, more difficult than that faced by any other conference.

 Conference   % of Bowl Opponents 
in BCS Conference
 % of Bowl Opponents 
in AP Top 25
Big Ten 95% 67%
SEC 92% 61%
Big 12 88% 54%
Pac 12 76% 56%
ACC 83% 43%
Big East 62% 31%

Over the BCS era the Big Ten played more BCS conference opponents and more ranked opponents than any other conference, and outside the SEC its not even close. And that's not all - the Big Ten's plays those opponents "on the road" in virtually all of its bowl games. The Rose Bowl is in LA. The Capital One/Outback/Gator Bowl matchups with the SEC are in Florida. The Texas and TicketCity Bowls against the Big 12 are in Texas. Its easy to make too much of this - these game happen in front of healthy Big Ten traveling crowds - but while that lessens the advantage it doesn't negate it entirely. Imagine the reverse for a moment - how much would the Big Ten team benefit in a high-profile bowl hosted in Big Ten country?

The Big Ten's difficult slate happens for a very good reason - the fans want to travel where its warm and the bowls want those Big Ten fans. And really, this is a blessing - a good season in the Big Ten will be rewarded with a good bowl. But that blessing does come with a minor downside - when bowl performance is evaluated purely in wins and losses the Big Ten will be disadvantaged when compared to conferences like the ACC and Big East that schedule their way to winning bowl records.

Looking back and hope for the future

The bowl matchups are difficult and the middle class is underperforming, but those challenges don't seem to have changed over the past decade and a half. Why then did the Big Ten's bowl performances take a turn for the worse around 2005? Some of it is just cyclical ebb and flow, but my speculation is that two major events from around that time had significant negative knock-on consequences for the league's bowl winning percentage. In 2006 the BCS added a separate BCS championship game, bringing the number of BCS games up to five. Before this there were only 2 at-large BCS bids and the Big Ten wasn't an annual lock for a second bid. However, since the addition of that game the Big Ten has sent a second team to the BCS every season. So the "playing up" effect that results from BCS at-large selections really kicked in after 2005. Second, with the benefit of hindsight this is the time period over which Michigan was starting the decline that culminated in the full-scale fall from grace of recent years. The absence of Michigan from the top of the bowl pecking order moved everyone "up" again, and Michigan's newfound propensity for losing bowls contributed as well.

So, looking forward, can the Big Ten do better? That difficult bowl slate isn't going away, Michigan may or may not come back, and the BCS has no reason to stop taking two from the B1G. The good news is that the addition of Nebraska is sure to help, but the issues at top-performer Ohio State seem likely to cancel that out (or worse). Going forward, the Big Ten's hopes for stepping up its bowl performance rests squarely on the Big Ten middle class - can they turn it around and start winning bowl games, challenges be damned? I think they can. For starters, they have two great models to follow right in front of their noses - Wisconsin and Iowa are programs the non-elite in the Big Ten can relate to and they've been getting it done come bowl season for some time now. Further, I think the conditions are right, and the coaching is there, for the Iowa/Wiscy model of good coaching and a serious approach to bowl game preparation to be adopted at several of the underachieving programs. Northwestern, you've got Pat Fitzgerald locked in for the long haul - now its time to be taken seriously and win a bowl game. Michigan State, I hear Dantonio is great - come join Iowa and Wisconsin in the Big Ten 2nd tier by winning your bowl games. Michigan, you got your Michigan man - now show us you're back by winning a bowl game again.

Finally, I know there are those that think only the Big Bowls matter, and that winning the lesser bowls won't change a thing about the conference's reputation. I disagree. Sure, if the Big Ten wants to knock the SEC off its perch, its going to need National Titles. But in terms of the jockeying with every other conference, those other games matter. That "Worst day in Big Ten football history" was just one win in a lesser bowl away from being a footnote to a solid 4-4 bowl season rather than a week-long talking point. The chest-thumping about undefeated bowl seasons like the Pac Ten's in 2008 can't happen without winning the little ones as well. Every bowl is worth winning. The top of the B1G is all right - now it's time for the muddled middle to step up and start winning the games that lift all boats.