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Monday, January 11, 2010
Big Ten takes big step in postseason

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

The Big Ten really needed this.

As far back as media days, players and coaches realized a heightened sense of urgency to improve in postseason play. No conference in college football had taken more abuse nationally for its bowl record, and, quite frankly, no league deserved it more.

The Big Ten entered December with a six-game losing streak in BCS bowls, a six-game losing streak in the Rose Bowl, a 9-20 record in the postseason since 2004 and six consecutive years without a winning record in bowls. The league endured a disastrous 1-6 record in last season's bowls.

The poor postseason performance raised larger questions about the Big Ten's 11-team setup, its long layoff before the bowls, its talent level and its style of play.

In one week, the league answered. Loudly.

A 4-3 record in bowls looks good, not great, but a closer look at the Big Ten's performance reveals some major progress. The league recorded four victories against top-15 opponents, went 2-0 in BCS games and beat two conference champions (Oregon and Georgia Tech). Perhaps more importantly, the Big Ten beat the type of teams -- packed with speed and athleticism -- that had done the most damage to its national reputation. Even the three Big Ten bowl losers, namely Northwestern, played competitive games against favored opponents.

Ohio State had taken the brunt of the blame for the Big Ten's recent bowl struggles, and it seemed fitting that the Scarlet and Gray provided the biggest boost by winning the league's signature game at the Rose Bowl. The underdog Buckeyes slowed down Oregon's high-powered spread offense and received a coming-of-age performance from sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor.

Three days earlier, Wisconsin had set the tone for the Big Ten's bowl turnaround by mauling Miami with terrific defensive play. Penn State's veteran defense shut down LSU for three quarters, and Iowa made Georgia Tech's triple-option offense look antiquated.

The Big Ten won its bowls by playing Big Ten football: fundamentally sound defense and ball-control offense.

In the four bowl victories, Big Ten defenses allowed an average of 15.5 points and 211.5 yards. Quarterback play had been a weakness throughout the season, but Pryor, Iowa's Ricky Stanzi, Penn State's Daryll Clark and Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien all stepped up.

So what does this all mean?

It means the Big Ten hasn't fallen way behind the competition, as many said before the bowls. The league's long layoff doesn't automatically equal poor bowl results. The Big Ten's style of play can still prevail in big games. If anything, these bowls showed that the Big Ten's recent postseason competition, elite SEC teams and USC at the Rose Bowl, had more to do with the poor record than anything else.

And that speaks to the larger point. The Big Ten regained some national respect during this bowl season. The next step is to win at the highest level, to win a national title.

After this year's bowls, the Big Ten once again looks up to the challenge.