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What would be a successful Big Ten bowl season?

Is it a Michigan championship? A strong showing by Iowa or wisconsin? Moving beyond “I hope all your teams lose” or “8-M”, let’s speculate.

NCAA FOOTBALL: DEC 31 College Football Playoff Semifinal - Cotton Bowl- Michigan State v Alabama Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Let’s start with the obvious: “successful” in my book is Northwestern winning their bowl game and every last one of your teams losing. Preferably by 50. And your head coach peeing his pants while sobbing on the sidelines.

Failing that, since this is not a perfect world or a flimsy Melissa McCarthy vehicle, let’s look at the Big Ten bowl schedule and ask what would actually constitute—for the purposes of national narratives, given that ESPN and the SEC whined Alabama’s way into the College Football Playoff—a successful season for the conference.

Big Ten Bowl Game Schedule

Northwestern Wildcats vs. Utah Utes

Las Vegas Bowl (Allegiant Stadium)
December 23, 6:30pm | ABC | Utah -6.5 | O/U 41.5

Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. Bowling Green Falcons

Quick Lane Bowl (Ford Field, Detroit)
December 26, 1pm | ESPN | Minn -3.5 | O/U 38.5

Rutgers Scarlet Knights vs. Miami Hurricanes

Pinstripe Bowl (Yankee Stadium)
December 28, 1:15pm | ESPN | Miami -1 | O/U 40.5

#7 Ohio State Buckeyes vs. #9 Missouri Tigers

Cotton Bowl Classic (AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX)
December 29, 7pm | ESPN | Mizzou -2.5 | O/U 48.5

#10 Penn State Nittany Lions vs. #11 Ole Miss Rebels

Peach Bowl (Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta)
December 30, 11am | ESPN | PSU -3.5 | O/U 48.5

Maryland Terrapins vs. Auburn Tigers

Glen Mason Memorial Music City Bowl
December 30, 1pm | ABC | Auburn -2.5 | O/U 49.5

Wisconsin Badgers vs. #13 LSU Tigers

ReliaQuest Bowl (Raymond James Stadium, Tampa)
January 1, 11am | ESPN2 | LSU -8.5 | O/U 55.5

#17 Iowa Hawkeyes vs. #21 Tennessee Volunteers

Citrus Bowl (Camping World Stadium, Orlando)
January 1, 12pm | ABC | Tenn -8.5 | O/U 36.5

#1 Michigan Wolverines vs. #4 Alabama Crimson Tide

Technically the Rose Bowl (Pasadena, CA)
January 1, 4pm | ESPN | Mich -1 | O/U 45.5

Almost Big Ten Bowl Schedule

UCLA Bruins 35, Boise State Broncos 22

LA Bowl (SoFi Stadium, Los Angeles)
December 16, 6:30pm | ABC | UCLA -6.5 | O/U 44.5

USC Trojans vs. #15 Louisville Cardinals

Holiday Bowl (Petco Park, San Diego)
December 27, 7pm | FOX | Lhvl -7.5 | O/U 57.5

#8 Oregon Ducks

Fiesta Bowl (State Farm Stadium, Glendale, AZ)
January 1, 12pm | ESPN | Oregon -17.5 | O/U 65.5

#2 Washington Huskies vs. #3 Texas Longhorns

Technically the Sugar Bowl (Superdome, New Orleans)
January 1, 7:45pm | ESPN | Texas -4.5 | O/U 63.5

Got all that?

The Simple Answer

If all you care about is the College Football Playoff and/or who’s in first at the end, it’s likely just Michigan beating Alabama, and nothing else matters. Those Big Ten-over-SEC matchups in the CFP have not been kind to the Yankees—since the OSU-over-Bama upset in 2014-15, the conference is 0-4 thanks to each of Michigan State, Michigan, and OSU.

The “Bigger Ten” Answer

Do we claim Washington as our own? Can we yet? If yes, I’d take one of Michigan or Washington to win the CFP. That might be a touch ambitious, but when you have the top two seeds overall and 50% of the field, seems like you should be able to do it.

The “Rest of the Conference” Answer

Even in the world of the expanding B1G, no one cares how UCLA or USC did or do in their bowl games. Hell, I’d bet most USC players won’t give a shit how it goes.

But it’s a rough road for the conference, broadly—and the perceived weakness of the Big Ten West does the B1G no favors. Big Ten teams are underdogs in six of the nine games, with an average spread of -4.92 for the underdogs and just 2.67 for the favorites. Matchups like Iowa-Tennessee and wisconsin-LSU (both SEC -8.5) will be high-profile enough and profile the kind of trash-talk fodder that Paul Finebaum will gloat over on Monday morning unless the Big Ten wins, in which case the SEC wasn’t interested in playing, anyway.

Perhaps it’s just a “no win” situation for the Big Ten as long as ESPN runs the bowl season ecosystem and commands the College Football Playoff narrative. There’s very little credit to be gained even for Ohio State, playing a non-traditional club in Missouri.

Here’s my marker for “success” if we consider the nine B1G bowls in their totality:

  • No mollywhoppings
  • Go .500 against the SEC, with at least one of those wins in the NY6

Does that completely omit Northwestern, Minnesota, and Rutgers from relevance to this discussion? Some would say they never truly entered it. To my mind, Rutgers-Miami is actually quite a barometer for the Knights and the mediocre of the conference, though I’m just not going to put much credence in Miami playing a cold-weather bowl game—we remember when the disinterested Hurricanes got flattened by the badgers in 2018.

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts in the comments. I just kind of opened an article and started typing, and, of course, the OTE standard is always true—I would prefer Northwestern win and all your teams lose. But in an era, last of its kind, when only four teams get into the College Football Playoff and the SEC whined its way in, clearly conference name means something.