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Big Ten Bowl Season: Life outside the playoff

There may not be a national championship in the cards for a Big Ten team, but bowl season provides the B1G with plenty of competition.

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2017 B1G Football has come down to eight bowl games, none of which are in the College Football Playoff, meaning no trip to Pasadena either. It’s a strange feeling indeed.

It’s also a bowl season in which the Big Ten needs to get its rep back on track.

Last year’s postseason was a disappointment for the B1G, going just 3-7, only 2-7 versus Power 5 opponents. It was the second straight year the conference rep was blown out, with a shutout in the CFP Semi’s, and the top-heavier East Division going 0-5.

When that was followed this fall by both Ohio St and Michigan St losing marquee non-conference home games by two scores-plus to Oklahoma and Notre Dame respectively, and wins over traditional powers Florida and Texas depreciated weekly, it should’ve been a surprise to no one that 1-loss Alabama was selected over conference champ Ohio State for the College Football Playoff.

It wasn’t like the Buckeyes battered their way past the Badgers in the Big Ten championship game. Ohio St had three turnovers and a blocked field goal in their six-point win over Wisconsin — not stuff likely to excite the College Football Playoff committee.

But, here we are just a week away from the start of the 2017-18 bowl game season for the Big Ten.

So how will each team fare, and will there be any conference-wide trend?

Only Purdue and MSU are underdogs in Vegas, so the market favors a winning season, but public perception is hardly bankable. The schedule is condensed to 6-day stretch, starting with Iowa vs Boston College on the 27th, and ending with only Michigan playing in January, on the 1st vs South Carolina.

The core, consisting of four games on Friday and Saturday afternoon and evening, all on ESPN, featuring Northwestern, Ohio St, Penn St and Wisconsin, is a chance for the top 2 ranked teams from each division to finish strong and impress a large audience.

Who would a win mean most to, and will they get it? Ranked in order of how important a win would be for the program going forward:

1. Purdue v. Arizona, Foster Farms Bowl Wed. 12/27 8:30pm EST (FOX)

Purdue’s riding the momentum of a hot coach in Jeff Brohm and a turnaround season few on the national scene predicted. This is the first of four B1G matchups versus the Pac-12, a mini “Left Out of the College Football Playoff Challenge”. Part of what makes this such a potentially huge win for Purdue is that they open the 2018 season on a Thursday night at home versus Northwestern (potentially a 10-win team in their own right). Finishing 2017 with a win versus a phenom like Khalil Tate, ending with a winning record in the process, would validate Brohm’s first season and amp up expectations that start with a key conference game in August.

I don’t think they’ll get it. Rich Rod has been good in bowl games (3-1 at U of A), and Arizona’s 7-5 is a little deceiving. A weak November ended in 2 losses where Tate was a shadow of his usual self. He might not be 100%, but they’re still a big step up in offensive competition for Purdue that finished with wins versus Iowa and Indiana.

2. Ohio State v. USC, Cotton Bowl Fri. 12/29 8:30pm EST (ESPN)

The CFP Committee’s decision to trust their own eyes, and not defer to Urban Meyer’s reputation has to be a wakeup call. He’s gotten OSU to 2 of 4 CFP’s to-date, but arguably his best of the four didn’t make it. The 2015 team led by Zeke Elliott’s 23 TD’s was more talented than anyone that year, and only blemished by a 3-point home loss at the gun to undefeated Sparty (they started a little slow under Cardale too, before J.T. was reinserted). But highly ironically, Oklahoma got the nod based on their conference championship, quality wins, and a desire to avoid 2 teams from the same conference. “So what if Ohio St was ranked No. 1 most of the season!”

If this is anything like 2015, USC will take the Buckeyes’ best shot. The less than dominant fashion of USC’s stretch run to the Pac-12 title is evident in the Committee’s rank of 8th, behind 3-loss Auburn and Wisconsin. Colorado, UCLA and Stanford averaged over 440 total yards during that stretch. If this game were in Pasadena, it would be a different equation. Ohio State will come out salty and focused. “You want eye-test? Here you go.”

3. Michigan State v. Washington State, Holiday Bowl Thur. 12/28 9:00pm EST (FS1)

Speaking of salty – a bowl destination’s preference for 5-4 Big Blue over 7-2 MSU that included a(nother) win in The Big House, will do that to you. With the step down a rung on the bowl ladder comes a step up in competition. Constantly overlooked MSU has something to prove, as usual, and a 10th win on the West Coast vs the Pac-12 would be impressive. This is a tall task though. Wazzou wants to send off Luke Falk with a win, and it seems impossible for Leach to let history repeat itself as they lost to underdog Minnesota in the Holiday last year. The Cougars beat both USC and Stanford, the most pro-style, power-run MSU-esque opponents they faced. Lewerke had some big games this year, but 2 of his 3 biggest were losses. I doubt either team runs it easily, and Falk has the clear edge.

4. Penn State v. Washington, Fiesta Bowl Sat. 12/30 4:00pm EST (ESPN)

This is arguably the most intriguing matchup. It’s similar to Penn State’s Rose Bowl last year vs USC, but Washington isn’t as hot or talented as USC was. The only reason Penn St isn’t higher on this list is that Franklin has stabilized the program so well. It’s a credit to that culture, and Saquon Barkley’s unselfish character (on the field he’s Fournette and Jabrill Pepper mixed into one), that he’s already came out and said he’s healthy and playing, despite a first round signing bonus awaiting him.

They are going up against Chris Peterson’s 2-0 Fiesta record, and despite giving up points to Utah and Stanford, a very strong defense. For the second time in three bowl appearances, PSU has an interim OC, with Joe Moorhead moving on to the head job at Mississippi St. The Nittany Lions have the talent edge, but it will be a matter of avoiding mistakes. Something tells me Washington will be much more up for this game. Hopefully it is on the excitement level of last year’s Rose Bowl, but I fear another close PSU loss is coming.

5. Northwestern v. Kentucky, Music City Bowl Fri. 12/29 4:30pm EST (ESPN)

A 10-win season for NU ranks in the bottom half of positive impacts? Yes. It’s true. In all fairness though, the impact is diminished by the lack of reputation behind Kentucky. If this were LSU, NU might be at the top of this list. Thorson will be coming back, as will most pieces other than B1G Legend Justin The Ball Carrier Jackson who continues to climb the rare air of NCAA career rushing ranks, and potential top 2-3 round NFL Draft pick defensive leader safety Godwin Igwebuike.

After an annoying 60 years without a bowl win, NU is looking to go 3 for their last 4. However, overconfidence is the Cats’ worst enemy. The last time NU faced an SEC team with two more losses than them, while on a 5-plus game winning streak, it resulted in a bloodbath loss to Tennessee two years ago. Lucky for NU fans, that is where the similarities end for their SEC foes. UK had favorable SEC West crossovers in Miss St and Ole Miss, and still managed to lose both. That said, NU’s margin is never very wide, and UK has athleticism. This will be a true test of Fitzgerald to handle the role of favorite well. They might not cover (-7.5), it might require at least one OT, but UK simply lacks the pedigree to call for an upset.

6. Wisconsin v. Miami, Orange Bowl Sat. 12/30 8:00pm EST (ESPN)

The “Who is less disappointed by the end of their season bowl?”, presented by Capital One. Will a home game for a bowl game bring the magic back for the Canes, or did reality simply catch up with them? It will probably be a little of both, but whether Wisconsin is weighed down by what could have been is the ultimate question. Despite giving up big plays to OSU, the Badgers forced turnovers, and the defense held up its end of the bargain. Another effort like that (vs a much weaker offense), and they’ve got a good shot. Turnover chain and Alex Hornibrook is a dangerous mix though. With wide receiver Quintez Cephus and running back Bradrick Shaw injured, Diaz will undoubtedly load up against Taylor, and dare Hornibrook to beat him. No disrespect to Paul Chryst, who’s a helluva coach, but Mark Richt didn’t come back to The U to make headlines only to wither in big games. Miami might have more to gain than any non-CFP team this bowl season. Which is terrible news for Wisconsin.

7. Michigan v. South Carolina, Outback Bowl Mon. 1/1 12:00pm EST (ESPN2)

Basking in the glory of 5-star transfers, will Harbaugh have the troops ready to go? Even if they aren’t at their best, UM’s defense is too solid to let South Carolina move up and down the field on them. This is another instance where taking an SEC East foe lightly could lead to embarrassing results. The Gamecocks haven’t lost to a team outside the top 3 of the final CFP rankings since September, and Clemson and Georgia will embarrass the vast majority of teams. As an 8.5 point favorite, the market reflects a good amount of confidence in Brandon Peters in his return to the lineup. It might be metaphorical revenge for “the hit”, but I trust Harbaugh to only add to the base’s confidence going into the Shea Patterson & Friends era which starts in South Bend on September 1st.

8. Iowa v. Boston College, Pinstripe Bowl Wed. 12/27 5:15pm EST (ESPN)

As Kirk Ferentz wraps up season 19, it has become clear that Iowa is Iowa and there’s a pattern to follow here. A win would certainly be nice, putting an end to five straight bowl losses for the Hawkeyes. Boston College is nothing to scoff at, having held their last five opponents (NC St and FSU among them) to 17 points or less. BC and Addazio should also be looking to erase the memory of this game three years ago when Penn State nipped them by one point. Too bad their style plays right into Josey Jewell & Co. Will Iowa get out-Iowa’d? I say no. The momentum of Stanley and Fant from the finale vs Nebraska is too fresh to ignore.

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Some may say 4-4 would be a disappointment, but victories for the blue bloods Ohio State and Michigan are likely to carry more national weight than ones by less reliable powers. If Penn State can prove my hunch wrong, and play through the coaching turnover, the B1G can claim supremacy over the Pac-12, and criticisms of the CFP snub will be more rooted in reality.

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