The Big Ten wasn’t embarrassed in non-conference play the way they have been in recent early season test games or in bowl season. But nor did the league stand up and make a statement. Here’s nine general thoughts on the conference from last Saturday and looking ahead to this week, followed by our current Big Ten bowl projections…
*The reaction to Ohio State’s 34-17 win over Navy was heavily negative. Most of the focus was on how the Buckeyes struggled until the fourth quarter. I disagree. I see this as a solid win for Urban Meyer’s team. My premise is that this will be the best Navy team that Ken Niumataolo has had in Annapolis, and that covers some pretty good teams. Ohio State broke in a new quarterback, got a tough test and still survived. And they were 16 ½ point favorites—I’m not sure how much people really expected them to beat the Mids by.
*Whether you agree or disagree with my premise above, this heightens the scrutiny on Ohio State this week going into a prime-time game with Virginia Tech. While I took the Buckeyes out of my projected four-team playoff after the Braxton Miller injury, if they play another strong second half and win, it at least moves them back into that conversation and sends the rest of the Big Ten a clear “don’t count us out” message. As you’ll see below, I’m still projecting the Buckeyes to win this conference.
*As a Wisconsin fan, had I been told at the start of the game that the Badgers would lose to LSU 28-24, in spite of key injuries on the defensive line and a rumored hamstring tweak to running back Melvin Gordon, I’d have been ecstatic. All I wanted was a chance to win in the fourth quarter and UW provided that. But after the way it unfolded, being ahead 24-7 and then completely crumbling, I still haven’t fully recovered psychologically. I hope the kids are more resilient than this fortysomething fan is.
*Where the Badgers bigger long-term problems lie is in what they are going to do with their passing offense. Tanner McEvoy was ineffective throwing the ball, in large part because his inexperienced receivers couldn’t shake LSU’s defensive backs. But McEvoy also threw two interceptions clearly induced by panic. And I was mystified why his number wasn’t called to run more—his a dual threat guy. His running was supposed to kinda be the point to playing him.
*I’ve bucked the trend on my bowl projections. I don’t have Michigan State in the one of the big games, be it the playoff or the four other major bowl games. I’ve been skeptical that Sparty can simply reload on defense. This week is where they can change my mind, and can also dramatically alter the playoff picture in their favor (I’m guessing that matters more to them than how my opinion is affected). The Spartans visit Oregon, with the ESPN Gameday crew present.
*Michigan was able to exorcise the demons of Appalachian State, winning easily on Saturday in a “revenge” game for the stunning upset that opened the 2007 season. Is it pushing it to wonder if the Wolverines are so drained from the revenge that they won’t get up for Notre Dame. Yes, that would be pushing it. The prime-time battle in South Bend is one of a handful of games that will make or break Brady Hoke’s employment situation in Ann Arbor. What he’ll see on film from ND quarterback Everett Golson won’t be comforting—Golson was spectacular against Rice.
*I’ve currently got Indiana as my last team to make the bowl party out of the Big Ten, but the 28-10 win over Indiana State didn’t inspire confidence. The Hoosiers ran the ball very well with Tevin Coleman, but given the recent history of this program, I’m not willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they can play defense well enough to win without throwing. And the passing game was not impressive. IU’s road trip to defending MAC champion Bowling Green in two weeks is a big one.
*Speaking of serious doubts, I dropped Northwestern all the way down to the second-last spot on the bowl ladder after they lost at Cal 31-24, a game that only got close after a late Wildcat rally. The Wildcats lost running back Venric Mark and have come off an offseason of turmoil, with being at the center of the whole unionization of college athletes debate. But a key thing to watch—maybe Cal is better than we think. This is the second year for a good head coach in Sonny Dykes. If that’s the case, then this is a false alarm.
*Rutgers went west and beat Washington State 41-38, perhaps the most eye-opening result of the entire week. Keep in mind that Wazzu had gone to a bowl game last year and was supposed to even stronger in 2014 under the leadership of Mike Leach. The Scarlet Knights certainly look bowl worthy, and we have to watch them a little closer in the coming weeks before conference play begins.
BIG TEN BOWL PROJECTIONS
Here’s the current projections. The Rose Bowl hosts a national semi-final, so the Big Ten is not automatically a part of that. The Sugar host the other semi. The four other “contract bowls” are the Fiesta, Orange, Cotton and Peach.
It’s important to note that there no guarantees for the Big Ten at the highest level of bowl play. None. The old rules about the league champ being guaranteed a spot in a major bowl even if the Rose was hosting a championship game (i.e., 2005 when Texas–USC played in Pasadena and league champ Penn State went to the Orange Bowl) are gone.
The Orange has a commitment to the ACC, the system as a whole has a commitment to the best team from the “Little Five” midmajors, and the other six contract spots are completely up for grabs. The Big Ten could get three or four, or they could get none. Right now, I’m projecting Ohio State with confidence and Wisconsin with caution to go into these spots.
Contract Bowl: Ohio State (Fiesta, vs. Oregon)
Contract Bowl: Wisconsin (Peach, vs. Auburn)
For the rest of the bowls, the important word to know in 2014 is “tiers.” There is no longer an automatic pecking order. Instead, a group of three teams will be selected and then placed in the spot determined best for the usual bowl reasons (marquee matchup, changing up venues, etc).
The other noteworthy items here are that the Big Ten will decide jointly with the Gator & Music City, which bowl they will be at. The ACC is also involved, but in either case, it is an SEC opponent. And the new Quick Lane Bowl will be at Ford Field in Detroit, and was actually created by the Detroit Lions. It’s not surprising the Lions would lead the way in creating an event for teams not good enough to make the playoffs. Sorry, that was cheap. Although my apology is more toward the teams that will play in this bowl game rather than the Lions.
Capital One: Michigan (Ole Miss)
Outback: Minnesota (South Carolina)
Holiday: Michigan State (Arizona State)
Gator/Music City: Rutgers (Missouri)
Kraft Fight Hunger: Iowa (USC)
Pinstripe: Nebraska (Virginia Tech)
Quick Lane: Northwestern (Duke)
Heart Of Dallas: Indiana (UT-San Antonio)
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD