Today five Big Ten teams play in bowl games. The big game will be Wisconsin versus TCU in the Rose Bowl, but other Big Ten teams also will have a chance to strut their stuff on the national stage. Northwestern matches up against Texas Tech, Michigan State plays Alabama, Michigan will break its bowl drought against Mississippi State, and Penn State and Florida will square off. I’ll be rooting for all of those Big Ten teams — even Michigan.
In recent years Big Ten fans have paid careful attention to the conference’s bowl record. They feel like the Big Ten is disrespected on the national level, particularly in comparison to the SEC. (I regret to say that Ohio State is responsible for a lot of this perception. The Buckeyes are one of the Big Ten’s flagship programs, and they have never beaten an SEC team in a bowl game. That record unfortunately includes two national championship game losses.) Bowl games are supposed to be fun, but for the Big Ten they are serious business, and not just because they produce significant revenue for the member schools. Big Ten fans want everyone to recognize what they believe to be true — that the Big Ten is the best conference in the country, with the biggest stadiums, the richest traditions, the greatest rivalries, and the most dedicated fans. If you want to exercise such bragging rights, however, you have to earn them on the field.
This year the Big Ten has gotten off to a good start in bowl season. It is 2-0, with Illinois and Iowa both posting bowl wins. Today will tell the tale, however, particularly since three of the bowl games match up the Big Ten and the SEC. Each of the games, moreover, poses intriguing questions and matchups. How will Northwestern perform without their fine quarterback, Dan Persa, and will it be able to win its first bowl game since the Truman Administration? Can Michigan State put a signature win over the defending national champions as a capstone on a break-through season that has seen the Spartans win 11 games? How will Michigan’s Denard Robinson fare against the Bulldogs, and can the beleaguered Michigan defense keep the Wolverines in the game? And which Penn State and Florida teams will show up for the Outback Bowl?
To me, the most interesting game will be Wisconsin versus TCU in the Grandaddy of them all. I haven’t had a chance to see much of the Horned Frogs and their top-ranked defense, and there are lingering questions about the toughness of TCU’s schedule and the Mountain West Conference. TCU will have a chance to answer those questions when its faces Wisconsin’s power running game. If Wisconsin wins convincingly, on the other hand, it will quiet complaints about the BCS system by members of non-BCS conferences.