Big Ten looks for springboard to 2012
New Year's Day can't get here soon enough for the Big Ten.
The 2011 college football season was supposed to be a celebration for the newly expanded conference. After adding Nebraska as its 12th school, the Big Ten split into two divisions -- Legends and Leaders -- and played a conference championship game for the first time.
But the Big Ten's highly anticipated season was derailed even before its teams kicked off on the opening weekend of September. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who guided the Buckeyes to a BCS national championship in 2002 and at least a share of six Big Ten titles, was forced to resign in May for withholding evidence of NCAA violations from OSU and NCAA officials.
Last week, the Buckeyes were placed on NCAA probation for three years, including a bowl ban in 2012.
But as bad as the Ohio State case seemed at the time, it paled in comparison to the sex-abuse scandal that rocked Penn State in early November. Former assistant Jerry Sandusky was arrested for allegedly sexually abusing young boys -- charges that led to the firing of PSU president Graham Spanier and iconic football coach Joe Paterno. Paterno guided the Nittany Lions to 409 victories in 46 seasons, more than any other coach in major college football history.
With those two scandals commanding the country's attention for much of the season, the Big Ten can't wait to put the 2011 campaign in its rearview mirror.
"I think it was a difficult season in part because of the Penn State situation," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told The Associated Press in late November. "It was an unprecedented situation. It took everyone's attention and was very hard on everybody. On the field, it's been a good year, not a great year."
"I think it was difficult at Ohio State, too, a different kind of difficulty with NCAA regulations in not only self-disclosing, but self-reporting," Delany said. "I think they are very different cases. But there's no doubt that both of those were clouds."
Through a Big Ten spokesman, Delany declined to be interviewed for this story.
If the dark clouds are, indeed, going to begin to part for the Big Ten, its teams need to reverse their recent performances in the postseason. Ten of the Big Ten's 12 teams are playing in bowl games, starting with Purdue, which plays Western Michigan in Tuesday's Little Caesars Bowl in Detroit.
Two Big Ten teams will play in BCS bowl games: Big Ten champion Wisconsin plays Pac-12 champ Oregon in Monday's Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO and Michigan plays Virginia Tech in the Jan. 3 Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
Las Vegas oddsmakers have pegged only three Big Ten teams -- Purdue, Illinois and Michigan -- as favorites in their respective bowl games. The Illini play UCLA in Saturday's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco.
The Illini are one of four Big Ten teams playing in the postseason with 6-6 records (Northwestern, Ohio State and Purdue are the others). Iowa is listed as a 14-point underdog against No. 19 Oklahoma in Friday's Insight Bowl, and Northwestern is a 10-point underdog against Texas A&M in Saturday's Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas in Dallas.
Putting together a winning postseason might figure to be difficult for Big Ten teams.
"We started off the season with a lot of parity," Delany told ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg in early December. "It played out that way. We had teams that were probably a little better than some people thought, teams that didn't do as well as some people thought. But for the most part, we had five or six teams in the Top 25. With Wisconsin losing a couple and everybody having at least two losses, that really knocks you out of the [national] championship conversation."
Winning bowl games hasn't been easy for Big Ten teams recently.
Big Ten teams went 2-5 in bowl games last season, including a woeful 0-5 in New Year's Day bowl games. Capped by Big Ten co-champion Wisconsin's 21-19 loss to TCU in the Rose Bowl last season, Big Ten teams failed to win a New Year's Day bowl game for the first time since 2002.
Since 2000, the Big Ten has gone 30-46 in bowl games (a 39.4 winning percentage) and has enjoyed a winning record in only two of 11 seasons. Its high mark was a 5-2 record in 2002, when the Buckeyes defeated Miami 31-24 in double overtime in the Fiesta Bowl to win their first national championship in 34 years.
Big Ten teams went 4-3 in bowl games in 2009, with Ohio State defeating Oregon 26-17 in the Rose Bowl and Iowa beating Georgia Tech 24-14 in the Discover Orange Bowl. Since 2000, Big Ten teams have gone 6-12 in BCS bowl games.
"I look at it more in terms of individual teams," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "It's all about matchups, usually. It's all about how the ball bounces. I worry about ourselves. Obviously, I want to see the Big Ten teams win, but there are so many different matchups and things you look at relative to which football games, how it all plays out. So it sort of becomes an individual team thing, but certainly we're all grouped together at the Big Ten Conference in the end, and we want to all play well."
The Spartans have dropped their past five bowl games, including an ugly 49-7 loss to Alabama in the Capital One Bowl last season. Michigan State hasn't won a bowl game since defeating Fresno State 44-35 in the 2001 Silicon Valley Bowl.
"We've played some very, very good teams in bowl games," Dantonio said. "We've never had an easy pick. I don't think there are any easy picks when you play on Jan. 2."
The No. 13 Spartans play No. 18 Georgia in Monday's Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla.
"It's just another thing we're trying to accomplish," Dantonio said. "We played great teams in these bowl games. We've played in three Jan. 1 bowl games, so we've come a long way in terms of reaching that height. But at the same time, we've got to win 'em, and we've got to prove we can play against anybody in the country. That's what you do in those bowl games. We've played three of these Jan. 1 bowl games against Southeastern Conference teams, and we've lost two at this point, so we need to play up and get ourselves ready to go."
Northwestern has endured an even longer bowl drought, losing eight postseason contests in a row. The Wildcats, who lost to Texas Tech 45-38 in the TicketCity Bowl last season, haven't won a bowl game since defeating California 20-14 in the 1948 Rose Bowl, the only postseason victory in school history.
"[The media] will make a big deal of it," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "At the bottom line, it's important that you improve. It's important that you make the steps as a program over this month. That's equally, if not more important, than the outcome. We can't control the other games. All we have to worry about is ourselves, and that's our focus. As someone who takes great pride in our conference, yeah, it would be phenomenal to go undefeated. But at the end of the day, for us, especially with this time we get to be playing so late, we've used this to work hard not only for this game but for the future."
While the SEC is assured of one of its teams winning a BCS national championship for the sixth consecutive season (No. 1 LSU plays No. 2 Alabama in the Jan. 9 Allstate BCS National Championship Game), the Big Ten is searching for a sort of silver lining in an otherwise forgettable campaign.
Perhaps more than ever before, the entire Big Ten could use a springboard into the 2012 season.
"It is what it is," Fitzgerald said. "There's not a whole [lot] you can do or say about that. It's different in each circumstance. We want to go win. We want to go represent our universities and our programs well, and have our fans be excited. I think collectively, as a conference, if we can all win, yeah, there'll be a great buzz in the offseason. [The media] will write a bunch of stuff, based on one game for each team. That's what I see happens in a bowl game. The whole talk in the offseason is based on a bowl game. Our team will dramatically change at 3 o'clock on Saturday afternoon. So you want a lot of positive talk about your program? You find a way to win this game."
Adam Rittenberg, who covers the Big Ten for ESPN.com, contributed to this story. Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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