The Big Ten is starting the new year with a new sense of pride.
The first week of January typically is when the conference absorbs insults and jeers following a run of disappointing bowl performances.
Not this year.
Not after Ohio State took down top-seeded Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Not after Wisconsin beat another SEC West team, Auburn, in the Outback Bowl. And not after Michigan State came from behind to defeat Big 12 champion Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.
Those three wins gave the Big Ten a total of five this bowl season, its most since 2002.
“I was very proud of the Big Ten yesterday and how well we played,” Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez told The Associated Press on Friday. “I’ve said all along we always get criticism about being a weak league, and that the criticism is going to continue unless we win some of these games.
“I was happy for our league and happy for Ohio State and Michigan State and ourselves. Those were big wins against good teams, and that speaks well for the Big Ten.”
A Big Ten record-tying 10 teams played in bowls, and their 5-5 record was the conference’s best since 2009, when the league went 4-3 but had Penn State’s win vacated because of NCAA sanctions.
Thursday’s two wins over SEC teams brought the widest smiles to fans in the upper Midwest. The SEC has long been the Big Ten’s nemesis when it comes to power and prestige, having won nine national titles to the Big Ten’s one during the 1998-2013 Bowl Championship Series era.
In addition to a run of dismal performances in the biggest bowls, the Big Ten has a losing record in combined regular-season and postseason matchups against each of the other power conferences except the ACC since 2003.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer referenced the knocks against the Big Ten after his team beat Alabama 42-35. He credited Wisconsin’s performance against Auburn, and also Michigan State’s against the Big 12’s Baylor, for helping give his Buckeyes the mental wherewithal to rally from a 21-6 deficit.
“I’ll tell you when I think the tide turned a little bit; when Wisconsin beat Auburn,” Meyer said. “Everybody on our team knew that. I made sure they knew that. (And) when Michigan State came back and beat an excellent Baylor team. And maybe the Big Ten’s not that bad. Maybe the Big Ten is pretty damned good. And it’s certainly getting better.”
Ohio State will play Oregon on Jan. 12 for the conference’s first national championship since the Buckeyes won it all in 2002.
There are other signs that could portend a Big Ten football resurgence.
Michigan’s hiring of Jim Harbaugh last week was the nation’s biggest splash hire since Ohio State brought in Meyer three years ago. Michigan State’s only losses this season were to the teams that will play for the national title. Penn State is trending upward under James Franklin.
All that is happening in just the East Division.
In the West, Nebraska, which hasn’t won a conference title since 1999, showed it’s not content to stand pat when it fired a coach (Bo Pelini) who never won fewer than nine games a year over seven seasons. Wisconsin doesn’t expect to take a step back after losing Gary Andersen and hiring Paul Chryst, and Minnesota continues to improve under Big Ten coach of the year Jerry Kill.
Alvarez is as deeply invested in the Big Ten as anyone, having entered the league as an assistant at Iowa in 1979, becoming one of the winningest coaches in conference history at Wisconsin from 1990-2005 and serving as the school’s athletic director since 2004. With the Badgers between coaches, Alvarez was interim coach for the Outback Bowl.
From a perception standpoint, he said, it’s important for programs like Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State to become factors on the national scene again. Michigan is the only Football Bowl Subdivision school with more than 900 all-time wins, Nebraska ranks fourth and Penn State is 12th.
“Those are brands that have to be good,” he said. “When we’ve dipped, some of them have taken a dip. When they’re good, our future is good.”
The immediate future has Ohio State carrying the Big Ten banner in a national championship game for the first time since 2007. It also is the first time the SEC will have no participant in the title game since 2005.
“The SEC has had a terrific run,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. “Narratives are based on facts. But sometimes narratives overcome the facts. … Winning games on big stages, it certainly reset that. Until you actually win the game, you can’t expect anybody to change the momentum of the narrative. We had a great day (Thursday). We’ve always tipped our hats to the guys who won. I tip my hat to us.”