Big Ten bowl lineup thin this year

Caption
(AP photo)
Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter (right) fumbles the ball as Michigan defensive tackle Jibreel Black pressures him in the second quarter Saturday in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The turnaround at Minnesota has passed a significant milestone. The Gophers are going to a bowl game.

This won’t have any bearing on the national championship, but it’s still an important achievement. The Gophers will never be able to crack the conference elite if they don’t become a middle-of-the-pack team first.

“It’s a good thing for our kids. They’ve gone through a lot of transition,” coach Jerry Kill said Tuesday. “I’m very excited for them.”

The Gophers (6-4, 2-4) play at Nebraska on Saturday and host Michigan State to finish their schedule, and an upset in one of those games would give them a chance for eight victories, a feat unaccomplished since a 10-3 record in 2003.

“It was a long route, but we’re finally there. In your senior year, it feels great to do that,” said cornerback Michael Carter, one of a handful of players who wept in the locker room after beating Illinois 17-3 last weekend.

Here’s the most remarkable part about the Gophers, though: They became only the fifth Big Ten team to qualify for the 2012 postseason, and it’s mid-November. Good for them, landing an opportunity to play in Arizona or Texas, but it’s another bad sign of the conference’s national standing.

Nebraska (8-2, 5-1), Michigan (7-3, 5-1), Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) and Wisconsin (7-3, 4-2) are the others who’ve secured an extra game; the Badgers have even clinched a spot in the Big Ten championship game. That’s because Ohio State (10-0, 6-0) and Penn State (6-4, 4-2) aren’t allowed to participate as punishment for the scandals revealed at their schools over the past two years. Illinois? Already eliminated.

Granted, the Big Ten would have seven qualifiers were it not for the Ohio State and Penn State sanctions, but the last time the league had only five bowl teams was 1998, when there were far fewer postseason contests than the 35 there are now. Big Ten teams filled 10 slots in 2011-12.

Those September struggles the Big Ten endured didn’t just sully that proud reputation. Bowl-game bids were weakened, too.

The league went 2-8 against teams from the Southeastern, Big 12 and Pac-12 conferences, plus Notre Dame. Excluding eight victories over FCS foes, two of which were narrow wins by Iowa and Wisconsin over Northern Iowa (4-6), the Big Ten had an unimpressive 26-14 nonconference record.

That included three losses to Mid-American Conference teams. That’s two or three too many for the Big Ten, which finished 9-3 against the MAC.

Because of that defeat at home by Central Michigan, Iowa (4-6, 2-4) must beat two of the conference’s best teams to make a bowl. And because of a loss at Ball State, Indiana (4-6, 2-4) has to win out with two straight road games.

Michigan State (5-5, 2-4) has arguably the Big Ten’s strongest nonconference victory, over Boise State, but the Spartans have lost all four league games in their home state (including at Michigan) by a total of 10 points. They have two more chances to notch that elusive sixth win, but neither of them will be easy.

Purdue (1-5, 4-6) has the safest path to eligibility among the nonqualified, but the Boilermakers just got their first Big Ten victory last week, 27-24 at Iowa. Illinois has nothing to lose, plus the law of averages on its side. Indiana is the in-state rival, with a trophy at stake.

So it was no surprise, then, when coach Danny Hope said he’s satisfied with the six-victory requirement for bowl eligibility as opposed to the seven that’s been proposed from some corners of college football. As every one of his peers have noted, too, the additional practices allowed by the NCAA for bowl qualifiers are a valuable way to develop players for the following season.

“It’s an opportunity to reward the young people for their efforts,” Hope said.

Northwestern was the first team to qualify, and the Wildcats would be unbeaten had they not blown double-digit second-half leads to Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan. Coach Pat Fitzgerald insisted he’s focusing solely on teaching his team, but he acknowledged that part of him roots for all of his competitors.

“Before I’m a Big Ten coach, I’m a Big Ten fan. I’m a Big Ten alum. I hope all of our guys get bowl eligible,” Fitzgerald said, then pivoting to lobby for the Wildcats to any bowl representatives who might’ve been listening.

“They’ll get a young exciting football team ... but we’ll worry about that later,” Fitzgerald said.

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