Michigan quarterbacks Davin Gardner, left, and Denard Robinson carry the weight of the Big Ten's reputation when U-M meets South Carolina in the Outback Bowl Jan. 1. (David Guralnick/Detroit News)
Some topics just shouldn't be discussed at holiday cocktail parties. Politics. Religion. Recent gastric surgeries. And Big Ten football.
There's no sense arguing, no matter how many appletinis you consume. Big Ten football is as down as it's ever been, dogged by scandal, coaching strife and the occasional 70-31 championship game abomination.
It has to get better, that's a fact. There are too many resources and traditional powers for the historic humbling to continue. The bowl season might be inconsequential to many, but for the Big Ten and its weary fans, it has to mean more. A disastrous season closed with 8-5 Wisconsin winning the title mainly because Ohio State and Penn State were serving penance. Then the Badgers were staggered to see coach Bret Bielema bolt for a middlin' SEC job.
The only way it could get worse for the Big Ten is if Notre Dame spurned it again and somehow ended up in the BCS championship game, and the conference was forced to invite, oh, someone like Maryland or Rutgers. Yeah, right.
As the 35-bowl slate begins this weekend with the always-thrilling New Mexico Bowl, it's a chance for some redemption, or more regurgitation. All seven Big Ten teams are underdogs, ranging from Northwestern (a two-point underdog against Mississippi State) to Purdue, (getting 16.5 points against Oklahoma State).
U-M, MSU have good draw
Michigan and Michigan State drew decent matchups, and it's again their job to help the Big Ten look remotely respectable. Both won bowl games last year — Michigan over Virginia Tech, Michigan State over Georgia — and could do it again, theoretically.
But for the Big Ten, this might get uglier before it gets better. And it will get better when Ohio State hops off probation next season and Urban Meyer tries to craft a 12-0 record that actually counts. It will get better for Michigan and Michigan State, because Brady Hoke and Mark Dantonio are the right coaches for those programs.
It probably will get better for Nebraska because of its history, and it should get better for Iowa because it can't get worse. It probably won't improve in the short term for Penn State, but the Nittany Lions are headed in the right direction with coach Bill O'Brien.
Perceptions don't change in one postseason, but please, no excuse-making. Even with apparent mismatches, the Big Ten needs to go at least 3-4 and win one of its three meetings with the SEC just to slow the bashing.
That's why Michigan (8-4) against South Carolina (10-2) in the Outback Bowl matters. So does Nebraska against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl and Wisconsin against Stanford in the Rose Bowl. So does Michigan State against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, where the 6-6 Spartans are underdogs by a mere two-and-a-half spicy garlic wings.
It was an embarrassing Big Ten season even before Wisconsin pummeled Nebraska, 70-31, and became the first five-loss team in the Rose Bowl. That came after commissioner Jim Delany snuck Maryland and Rutgers in the back door, which might raise the TV-market profile but not the football competitiveness.
The shock of Bielema's departure for Arkansas furthered the perception the Big Ten is a stodgy throwback in the gray Midwest, where top recruits decline to go. That's way too simplistic. Ohio State and Michigan recruit at an elite level, and Penn State has in the past.
The Big Ten is not nearly as strong on the field as its lucrative TV deals and gigantic stadiums suggest. It also won't stay so disheveled that its highest-ranked team (BCS), laughably, is No. 16 Nebraska, although Ohio State's 12-0 doesn't count.
Not as bad as advertised
Before the rest of the nation slaps another kick-me sign on the Big Ten's big bottom, let's look at some numbers. Since 2000, the Big Ten is 34-52 in bowls. That's awful, even when you consider virtually every Big Ten team plays in its opposition's home area.
But the Big Ten does OK in head-to-head bowl matchups with the SEC, 26-31 since 1990. Michigan is 5-2 against the SEC in bowls since 1999, although the 52-14 loss to Mississippi State in Rich Rodriguez's final game left a mark. The most-recent battering — Alabama's 41-14 romp in the opener — left another mark.
So how and why can it turn around? The same way it turned around for Big Ten basketball, now the best in the country. It's a commitment to paying top-notch coaches and letting them pay top-notch assistants. That's what Ohio State did with Meyer and Michigan did with Hoke, who hired coordinators Greg Mattison and Al Borges.
It's stability, which is how Dantonio became a force, and he has a respected defensive coordinator in Pat Narduzzi. That's why Bielema's departure badly stings the Badgers, who are dusting off Barry Alvarez for the Rose Bowl.
Big Ten coaching should be pretty good now, with Meyer, Hoke, Dantonio, O'Brien, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Nebraska's Bo Pelini and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, who's due for a bounce-back.
The conference doesn't lack money, muscle, fans or facilities. It deserved a humbling for its ridiculous gaffes, and that won't turn immediately. But to stop the bleeding and the bleating, a non-disastrous bowl season would be a good place to start.