- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Big Ten's recent bowl performance shouldn't spark strong emotions one way or the other.
A bit of friendly advice: don't rush off to your local tattoo parlor and get "B1G" across your chest. The league, after all, went 2-5 in the postseason, the worst record among the major conferences. That's nothing to celebrate.
Then again, don't spent every waking moment of winter lamenting the seemingly sorry state of the Big Ten. After all, the league technically exceeded expectations in the bowls. All seven Big Ten squads entered their games as underdogs. Two of them, Northwestern and Michigan State, left the field as champions.
Aside from Purdue, every Big Ten bowl team looked like it belonged on the field with its favored opponent. Minnesota had Texas Tech on the ropes but couldn't finish. Same with Michigan against South Carolina. Wisconsin needed one more touchdown drive to beat Stanford in Pasadena. Nebraska held a second-half lead against a Georgia team that nearly beat national champion Alabama in the SEC title game.
So it's not all doom and gloom for the Big Ten. The league set the bowl bar incredibly low after a very poor regular season. And the league reached it with two wins and four competitive performances. Another win or two, especially by Wisconsin or Michigan against Top 10 opponents, would have led many to brand the Big Ten's bowl performance as a clear-cut success.
The league had two of its best teams, Ohio State and Penn State, sidelined by NCAA sanctions. Its bowl lineup remains by far the nation's toughest. We've seen far too many mismatches like Purdue-Oklahoma State in recent seasons, and commissioner Jim Delany, despite craving challenges in the postseason, seems to understand the need to diversify the pairings.
Delany came away from bowl season feeling "cautiously optimistic" about the league’s future. The sentiment is understandable, as several programs took steps in 2012 and Ohio State is set to emerge from the NCAA's dog house following a 12-0 season. It's also fine to feel somewhat pessimistic as bowl season reconfirmed that the Big Ten no longer is an elite conference, while its chief revenue rival, the SEC, celebrates its seventh consecutive national title.
But you should feel better than you did on Sept. 8, when the Big Ten became the national laughingstock following a dreadful Week 2 showing (6-6). Bereft of signature wins during non-league play, the Big Ten exposed itself to abuse, and received plenty of body blows from coast to coast. Did the Big Ten change its narrative in bowl season? Not really. Yet those who cite the record and swing away simply didn’t pay attention to the matchups and how the games actually played out.
It's OK to want more and to expect more from a league like the Big Ten. The league has the platform (revenue, TV exposure, fan support, facilities) to compete at a higher level. Although the Big Ten faces some obstacles in relation to the SEC -- namely geography, but also having to fund more sports and, ahem, not oversigning – the league should be a bigger factor in the national title race than it has been since Ohio State's consecutive losses after the 2006 and 2007 seasons.
"When you're the Big Ten or a major conference," Delany recently told me, "you're expected to perform, perhaps win more games than we have in the last five years."
So raise those expectations for 2013. The Big Ten should be held to a higher standard. But when it comes to the recent bowls, there's no reason to celebrate or sulk.
Just shrug your shoulders and move on.
10hTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney