DES MOINES, Iowa – The Big Ten spent much of the year as a national punch line.
It might get worse during bowl season.
The Big Ten could only fill seven of its eight predetermined bowl slots – and each of those bowl-bound teams is currently an underdog.
From the five-loss Wisconsin team that still wound up in the Rose Bowl to the 6-6 Purdue squad that fired its coach, the beleaguered Big Ten isn’t expected to do much of anything in the postseason.
The league went just 1-6 in bowl games in 2008. According to odds makers, things could go even worse in 2012.
“I’m not apologizing for us to go to the Rose Bowl with five losses,” Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said during his news conference to announce he would coach the Badgers in that game. “I didn’t have anything to do with two teams being ineligible in our division. That allowed us to play in that championship game, and we soundly defeated the champion from the other side.”
That they did, thumping Nebraska, 70-31. Still, the current symbol for the league’s plight has to be Badgers (8-5, 4-4 Big Ten).
They finished four games behind Ohio State and one behind Penn State in the Leaders Division. But the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions weren’t eligible for the Big Ten title game, and the Badgers made the most of their lucky break.
Wisconsin is in upheaval after Bret Bielema stunned nearly everyone by bolting for Arkansas a few weeks ago. Alvarez will lead the Badgers in their third straight Rose Bowl, where they’re about a touchdown underdog to 11-2 Stanford. Afterward, he’ll resume his search for a new coach.
The way Wisconsin manhandled the Huskers also took some buzz out of the Capital One Bowl.
Nebraska (10-3, 7-1) fell to the game in Orlando after their loss to the Badgers. The Huskers face Georgia (11-2) in a matchup that would have looked like good on paper – in mid-November.
While the Bulldogs were within about 5 yards of beating Alabama and earning a shot at Notre Dame in the BCS national championship, the Huskers were embarrassed by the five-loss Badgers a few hours later.
Georgia is a 10-point favorite over the seemingly reeling Huskers.
Perhaps no bowl matchup epitomizes the current gap between the Big Ten and the powerhouse Big 12 and SEC more than Purdue-Oklahoma State in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Even though the Boilermakers fired coach Danny Hope, they still are on a three-game winning streak. Yet the Cowboys, who at 7-5 are only a game better than Purdue, are an 18-point favorite.
That’s the biggest line of the postseason – bigger than even Florida State over Mid-American Conference champion Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl.
Minnesota (6-6, 2-6) is also a heavy underdog in its matchup with Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, even though the Red Raiders (7-5) lost coach Tommy Tuberville to Cincinnati.
Even with all those apparent mismatches, going 0-7 is probably a long shot for the Big Ten.
Michigan (8-4, 6-2) and South Carolina should make for an entertaining Outback Bowl. Few would be surprised if the Wolverines won their second straight bowl game under coach Brady Hoke.
Northwestern (9-3, 5-3) can reach the 10-win plateau for only the third time with a win over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.
The Wildcats, who were perhaps the only Big Ten team that can claim they were underrated in 2012, are just a two-point underdog.
“Our guys are hungry. This is an opportunity for 10 wins for this ball club and to potentially be ranked in the top 15 in the country. That’s an unbelievable foundation of success that this senior class will have laid. Ten wins makes a good season great,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
Michigan State and TCU are also a virtual toss-up in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
The Spartans were one of the nation’s most disappointing teams, but five of their six losses were by four points or less.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is hoping his team finally can catch a few breaks.
His Big Ten colleagues might be thinking along those same lines.
“One play here, one play there, we’re a different football team. But you have to play what you’ve got. We want to point our compass north. I believe the glass is half full, not half empty,” Dantonio said.