Bowl records often serve as fodder in the “best conference” debates that take place every year because they offer convenient inter-conference data points, but they’re only one of several ways to gauge conference strength. Two others that don’t flatter the Big Ten: National titles this half-decade (none) and a respected power rating like S&P+ (third entering bowl season).
Though the Big Ten’s 7–1 run this December and January might be reflective of the league’s improvement, those wins are only a small part of the argument over league supremacy. This isn’t close to the end of the story. A glittering postseason record helps the Big Ten’s case, but odds are it’ll have a more difficult time in bowls a year from now.
The Big Ten had already done a lot to repair its reputation. A league long pilloried for its conservative offenses and lack of top-end speed is now home to a perennial national title contender (Ohio State) and arguably the most challenging division in the Power 5 (the East), and this year it tied the SEC for the most top-10 teams in the final playoff rankings (three.)
The Big Ten should take a bow. It deserves the plaudits coming its way. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking its 2017-18 bowl performance settles the question of which conference currently rules the Power 5.
As for the rest of the Big Ten, context is required to better understand those favorable results. Bowl matchups rarely pit evenly matched teams in locations that offer no advantage to either one, and the Big Ten had a pretty favorable slate to work with in December and January. According to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, the conference’s teams were favored in six of their eight contests.
The Big Ten never had a chance to win the national championship this year. When the College Football Playoff selection committee selected Alabama as the No. 4 seed instead of Ohio State (which was ranked fifth) in December, it ensured all of the conference’s teams would be sitting at home on the night of Jan. 8 when two teams squared off in Atlanta for the title.
The conference’s lone bowl loss won’t go unnoticed. Michigan’s inability to corral a mediocre SEC opponent will embolden the growing chorus of critics of Jim Harbaugh, who has yet to lead the Wolverines to a finish better than third in the Big Ten East and has posted a 3–6 record against division contenders Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State (including 0–3 in 2017). To a certain subset of college football observers, Harbaugh hasn’t backed up his off-field antics with enough on-field accomplishments, and this defeat ensures he’ll enter next fall feeling a lot of heat both within the Michigan community and beyond it.