Five lessons from the Big Ten's strong performance in the bowls.
1. The Big Ten is filled with elite defensive coordinators: We already knew that the Big Ten was a defense-oriented league, but we saw just how good these coaches can be in the bowls. Defensive coordinators like Dave Doeren (Wisconsin), Tom Bradley (Penn State), Norm Parker (Iowa) and Jim Heacock and Luke Fickell (Ohio State) crafted tremendous game plans to slow down offenses featuring supposedly better athletes and more speed. The Big Ten's four bowl winners allowed an average of only 15.5 points and 211.5 yards, and totally shut down opposing quarterbacks like Miami's Jacory Harris and Oregon's Jeremiah Masoli. Offense sells in today's college football, but you can't beat the defensive coaching in the Big Ten.
2. A shorter layoff and expansion aren't totally necessary for bowl success: The Big Ten's strong performance in the bowls might have put a damper on the expansion movement, at least for a little while. Many people both inside and outside the league have cited the long layoff before bowls and the lack of a championship game as detriments to postseason success. But this year, the layoffs seemed to benefit teams like Iowa and Ohio State as they prepared to face tricky offensive schemes. All four bowl winners started quickly in their games, showing no signs of sluggishness, and while Northwestern, Minnesota and Michigan State all fell behind in the first half, all three teams played competitive games. Expansion might benefit the league in the long run, but it doesn't automatically equal bowl wins or bowl losses.
3. Terrelle Pryor can be a complete quarterback: He's not quite there yet, but the Ohio State sophomore showed the nation what he could eventually become with a terrific effort against Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Pryor surprised everyone by coming out of the gate slinging the ball, and he made several clutch throws while maintaining his presence as an effective rusher and scrambler. Pryor recorded career highs in completions (23), attempts (37) and passing yards (266) as he outgained Oregon's entire team in yards (338-260). If Pryor continues to evolve as a passer, he'll contend for national honors in 2010.
4. Big Ten quarterbacks can be difference-makers: Quarterback play was a huge question mark in the Big Ten entering the season, and quite frankly, it didn't get much better after the games started. But several teams received big boosts from their signal-callers in the bowls. In addition to Pryor, Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien had an extremely efficient performance as he made tough throws and featured tight ends Lance Kendricks and Garrett Graham in a Champs Sports Bowl victory. Iowa's Ricky Stanzi more than made up for one major mistake with clutch passes and runs against Georgia Tech. Penn State's Daryll Clark notched the signature win he had waited for and led the game-winning drive against LSU. Northwestern's Mike Kafka had the ultimate Jekyll-and-Hyde performance against Auburn, but he totally carried the offense and nearly completed a miracle comeback.
5. There's a clear upper tier in the Big Ten entering the 2010 season: The four bowl winners set themselves apart from the rest of the league, and will remain that way entering this fall. Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin all return most of their core players, while Penn State needs to rebuild a bit but get a big boost as running back Evan Royster comes back for his senior season. The Big Ten could enter the fall with three top-10 teams and most likely four top-20 squads. The league could be top heavy in 2010, so it will be up to teams like Northwestern, Michigan State, Purdue and Michigan to challenge the upper tier.