Written By: TJ Inman (@TJHoosierHuddle)
Does a conference’s performance during the bowl season really matter? Ultimately, the answer is probably: “not really”. However, if a conference repeatedly excels or flops or has a couple of showcase victories or defeats, a narrative can be formed and carry over into recruiting or into the next season.
There were multiple years during the 10 years in which New Year’s Day was a bloodbath for the B1G. It seemed like nearly every marquee bowl featuring a B1G team was ending in embarrassment for the conference and those losses helped form the national conversation that the B1G was no longer an elite conference. A national title for Ohio State and a shootout victory for Michigan State changed some people’s perception of the conference but I don’t think much momentum truly into the 2015 season. Regardless, recapping the conference’s bowl season is fun and the overall performance does have at least some bearing on how teams will be viewed as offseason opinions are formed about the 2016 season.
Overall, the conference went 5-5 in bowl games. To put that into context, the SEC had the best bowl season, notching an impressive 8-2 record (the conference has one game left as Alabama tries to win another National Championship). There were a couple of blowout wins and a couple of embarrassing defeats as well as close decisions, both good and bad.
· Ohio State 44 – Notre Dame 28
The Buckeyes controlled the Battle Frog Fiesta Bowl (the commercials in this bowl were great…the hairy arms of that frog!) and won by a comfortable 16-point victory. Unfortunately, Joey Bosa and Jaylon Smith were out for most of this game (Bosa for “targeting” and Smith with a “significant knee injury”) so fans were denied seeing two of the top defensive prospects in college football. However, Ezekiel Elliott stole the show with a strong performance in his final collegiate game. He ran for 149 yards and four touchdowns and the Buckeyes jumped out to a 14-0 lead and were never truly threatened by the Fighting Irish.
· Michigan 41 – Florida 7
The Michigan Wolverines scored the final 34 points and cruised to a 41-7 Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl victory over the SEC East champion Florida Gators. Florida’s offense was completely inept (as expected) and the Maize and Blue outgained the Gators 503-273. This was a good performance by Michigan but I’m not convinced it means anything as it appears many of Florida’s veterans already had one foot out the door as multiple players had already declared for the NFL Draft. I would expect the hype train to continue to chug along in Ann Arbor heading into Jim Harbaugh’s second season in charge.
· Nebraska 37 – UCLA 29
Despite a record of 5-7, the Nebraska Cornhuskers gained bowl eligibility through a dearth of six win teams and their APR score. The Huskers made the most of things and knocked off the UCLA Bruins in the Foster Farms Bowl, 37-29. The Huskers ran for 326 yards and it appeared UCLA wanted no part of the big and physical offensive line of Nebraska. While UCLA’s Josh Rosen threw for more than 300 yards, the Cornhuskers had more than 38 minutes of possession and held on for a victory that ends Mike Riley’s first season on a positive note.
· Wisconsin 23 – USC 21
It rarely looked pretty but somehow, someway, the Wisconsin Badgers have won 10 games once again. They controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and were more physical than the USC Trojans in a 23-21 victory in the Holiday Bowl. The victory gave the B1G West a pair of wins over the PAC-12 South and I was incredibly impressed yet again by Dave Aranda’s defense. Aranda is a rising star in the coaching world and I expect him to be a head coach sometime in the near future.
Good For You
· Minnesota 21 – Central Michigan 14
I did not watch a single snap of this game so I won’t lie to you and write that I was impressed with anything or that anything stood out to me. Minnesota beat a 7-5 MAC team in the Quick Lane Bowl behind an efficient performance from Mitch Leidner. The victory improved the Gophers to 6-7.
· Indiana 41 – Duke 44
We’ve covered this game extensively but let it be known, the Pinstripe Bowl was one of the most entertaining (if not the most entertaining) bowl games of the 2015 bowl season. That was partly due to some atrocious defense from our Hoosiers but at least the neutrals that watched this one were thoroughly entertained.
· Penn State 17 – Georgia 24
The Georgia Bulldogs were playing without their former coach (Mark Richt) and without their current coach (Kirby Smart). Much of the staff and many of the players had very little tangible motivation but that didn’t stop the Bulldogs from pulling out to a 24-3 lead and holding on for the 24-17 Taxslayer Bowl victory. Trace McSorley took over for an injured Christian Hackenberg and led the comeback that fell just short. After the game, defensive tackle Austin Johnson and Hackenberg both declared for the NFL Draft. McSorley and former IU commit Tommy Stevens will now begin battling for the starting quarterback position in 2016 and new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead will officially get to work and try to breathe some life into a stale and moribund offense.
Great Season but Ouch!
· Northwestern 6 – Tennessee 45
The Northwestern Wildcats had a tremendous and surprising season. They had a 10-2 regular season and this Outback Bowl defeat shouldn’t dampen their accomplishment. That being said, the Wildcats were outclassed by the Tennessee Volunteers. UT will probably be in the top 15 of every 2016 preseason poll thanks to a very talented returning roster and good recruiting that is paying dividends on the field. As for this game, the Volunteers outgained the Wildcats 420-261 and forced four Northwestern turnovers in a thorough and convincing tromping.
· Iowa 16 – Stanford – 45
The Iowa Hawkeyes came within one minute of starting the season 13-0 and earning a spot in the College Football Playoff. However, a late touchdown by Michigan State relegated them to the Rose Bowl. Their fans were legion in Pasadena and it was clear the game meant a lot to the Hawkeye faithful but the Stanford Cardinal very quickly proved to be too much. Christian McCaffrey was an overwhelming force from the outset and the Cardinal mercilessly pounded Iowa to the tune of 35-0 in the first half. The second half was more competitive but it was far too little to even make things compelling as Stanford took the Rose Bowl, 45-16.
· Michigan State 0 – Alabama 38
The Spartans have nothing to be ashamed of. They were able to reach the College Football Playoff and they won a B1G Championship. That being said, New Year’s Eve probably wasn’t a particularly fun evening for Michigan State fans as they were forced to watch their Spartans get dismantled at the Cotton Bowl by the Alabama Crimson Tide. The Tide outgained the Spartans 440-239 and forced a pair of turnovers, including an interception late in the first half that, in my opinion, sealed the fate of this game and turned it from “competitive” to “laugher”. Michigan State did a solid job against Derrick Henry and the Bama rushing attack but they were only able to gain 29 rushing yards of their own and Jake Coker threw for 286 yards while completing 25 of his 31 attempts. The defeat ends the collegiate career of Connor Cook and sets up the national title game between Alabama and Clemson.
Overall, this was an “okay” bowl season for the B1G. If you were handing out letter grades, you would probably give the conference a “C-“ for the .500 record but a pair of lopsided defeats in the two marquee games for the league.