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January 3, 2011

Another rough bowl season for the Big Ten

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany famously wrote a letter "to fans of Big Ten and college football" about a month after Florida hammered Ohio State in the 2006 season's national title game.

The gist: The Big Ten had nothing to be ashamed of, and Delany basically called into question SEC recruiting with a line about his league's schools keeping "appropriate balances when mixing academics and athletics."

At that point in February 2007, the Big Ten was 8-6 against the SEC in bowl games over the previous five seasons. Well, after New Year's Day, you wonder if Delany is getting ready to pen another letter: The Big Ten is 10-19 in bowls in the past four seasons. That includes a 3-7 mark against the SEC, with the Arkansas-Ohio State Sugar Bowl looming on Tuesday.

The Big Ten is 2-5 in bowls this season. The first two league teams to play their bowl games won, with a depleted Iowa team upsetting Missouri in the Insight and Illinois blowing out Baylor in the Texas Bowl.

But then came New Year's Day. Northwestern fell to Texas Tech in the Ticket City Bowl, not a surprise considering the Wildcats were without starting quarterback Dan Persa. But Michigan and Michigan State were mauled by SEC West teams Mississippi State and Alabama, respectively. Penn State was dumped by SEC East also-ran Florida. And to cap it all off, Wisconsin was shut down by Mountain West champ TCU in the Rose Bowl.

Wisconsin came in on a seven-game winning streak in which it had scored at least 31 points in each game; the Badgers had averaged 48.3 points in their winning streak. TCU had held eight foes to 10 or fewer points, and only one opponent had scored more than 24. But those stats were dismissed by some because TCU had done it in the relatively low-rent Mountain West.

Instead, evidently it was Wisconsin's stats that should have been questioned.

Wisconsin -- which beat Ohio State and was the highest-ranked Big Ten team in the final BCS standings -- had problems with TCU's overall defensive speed and with the speed of TCU's wide receivers. TCU ran the ball 65 percent of the time in the regular season. The only game where the Horned Frogs were remotely close to throwing it as often as they ran it was a 31-3 rout of BYU when they ran it 38 times and attempted 36 passes. Saturday, TCU ran it 26 times and threw it 23 times, content to let quarterback Andy Dalton go to work against Wisconsin's secondary.

The Badgers' lone regular-season loss came to fellow league tri-champ Michigan State, which was blown out by Alabama 49-7. The Tide -- who finished fourth in the SEC West -- outgained the Spartans 546-171; Michigan State finished with minus-48 rushing yards. "I don't know what the reason was for [them] losing three games," Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins told reporters after the beatdown.

Michigan State looked slow on both sides of the ball compared to the Tide, especially the Spartans' offensive line going against the Tide's defensive front seven. Michigan State finished with its third-sting quarterback because Cousins and backup Andrew Maxwell were knocked out of the game.

Wisconsin beat Michigan by 20 during the season. Mississippi State, which finished fifth in the SEC West, beat the Wolverines by 32 on Saturday. Michigan had 442 yards of offense against Wisconsin; that number dropped by exactly 100 against Mississippi State. The Wolverines ran for 168 on Wisconsin but just 88 against Mississippi State.

Michigan's defense was rancid all season, but the Wolverines looked extremely slow against the Bulldogs, making Mississippi State quarterback Chris Relf -- who had thrown for more than 200 yards just three times all season but threw for 281 yards and three scores Saturday -- look like a potential All-American. In addition, Mississippi State's defensive back seven swarmed the ball and shut down Michigan's running lanes.

Penn State's defense actually played well in its loss to Florida, with the Gators scoring once on an interception return and once on a blocked punt. But the Nittany Lions' offense struggled, especially in the air; quarterback Matt McGloin was an unsightly 17-of-41 for 211 yards, one TD and five picks. Florida's speed in the defensive back seven definitely seemed to bother the Nittany Lions.

All of this has to make Ohio State folks a bit more nervous. The Buckeyes never have beaten an SEC team in a bowl game, and while Arkansas' defense isn't the same caliber as Alabama's, LSU's or Florida's -- all in the top 10 nationally -- it is better than Mississippi State's. In addition, the Hogs have the No. 3 passing attack in the nation, averaging 338.4 yards per game.

Ohio State is allowing just 156.3 passing yards per game, but outside of Indiana, no team in the Big Ten is in the top 35 nationally in pass offense. Miami, which is 42nd nationally in passing at 238.9 yards per game, threw for 232 on Ohio State.

Arkansas' reputation as a team that can only pass has changed, as well. Running back Knile Davis has five 100-yard performances in his past six outings, and he had at least 152 yards in four of those contests. Davis has scored 12 TDs in the past six games, proving to be quite an effective complement to big-armed quarterback Ryan Mallett. Davis has rushed for 1,183 yards despite playing against five of the top 38 rush defenses in the nation.

Every season, the SEC's supposed speed advantage over teams in the Big Ten is talked about ad nauseum. If the New Year's Day results are to be believed, though, Big Ten teams are at a speed disadvantage, and if Ohio State falls to the Hogs in New Orleans, expect that point to be hammered home again until next bowl season.

Grid bits
TCU's Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin means non-Big Six schools now are 5-2 in BCS games. TCU's loss to Boise State in last season's Fiesta Bowl and Hawaii's loss to Georgia in the 2007 season's Sugar Bowl are the setbacks. Utah and Boise State have two wins each and now TCU has won.

One aspect of TCU's victory that seemingly has been overlooked by most who relish the "David vs. Goliath" story line is that the Horned Frogs were three-point favorites. The non-Big Six aspect indeed made TCU a "David" story. But the guys in Vegas don't care about cute and cuddly, which is why they made the Horned Frogs the favorite. So enough with the "Little Engine That Could" stories. TCU, by the way, ran just 49 plays. Wisconsin had 46 rushes alone and ran 67 total plays.

Sticking with Wisconsin, the Badgers were 4 yards away from having three 1,000-yard rushers. True freshman James White had 1,052, junior John Clay had 1,012 and sophomore Montee Ball had 996. Ball led the Badgers with 132 yards in the Rose Bowl. That trio combined for 46 rushing TDs. The only school to ever have three 1,000-yard rushers was last season's Nevada team, with QB Colin Kaepernick and RBs Vai Taua and Luke Lippincott.

Not that anybody asked, but if you're Wisconsin, why not run the ball on the two-point conversion attempt against TCU? The Badgers had just moved 83 yards on 10 plays, with all but one a run. The nine runs covered 73 yards -- or 8.1 yards per carry. A punishing ground attack got the Badgers in the Rose Bowl, and that ground attack then put them in a position to tie it. Not only did the Badgers choose to pass for the conversion, they lined up in the shotgun instead of their preferred I-formation, which basically eliminated the play-action fake.

Two running backs who would've been in the running for All-America honors next season have decided to turn pro, Connecticut's Jordan Todman and California's Shane Vereen. Todman's decision means Oregon's LaMichael James -- who has said he will be back -- likely will be the only returning Big Six running back who finished in the top 10 in rushing this season.

Tommy Tuberville guided Texas Tech to a 45-38 victory over Northwestern in Saturday's TicketCity Bowl, just the latest example of a Red Raiders "defense" that has to have Tuberville pulling his hair out. Anyway, Tuberville became the 10th coach to win a bowl at three schools (Ole Miss, Auburn and Texas Tech); he joins Earle Bruce (Tampa, Ohio State and Colorado State), Bill Dooley (North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest), Dennis Erickson (Washington State, Miami and Oregon State), Ken Hatfield (Air Force, Arkansas and Clemson), Bill Mallory (Miami of Ohio, Northern Illinois and Indiana), Rick Neuheisel (Colorado, Washington and UCLA), Howard Schnellenberger (Miami, Louisville and Florida Atlantic), Jackie Sherrill (Pittsburgh, Texas A&M and Mississippi State) and Larry Smith (Arizona, USC and Missouri). Lou Holtz is the only coach who has won bowls at four schools (N.C. State, Arkansas, Notre Dame and South Carolina).

The NCAA's strength-of-schedule numbers showed that Notre Dame played the toughest regular-season schedule, playing teams with a winning percentage of .650. The Irish won their bowl matchup, spanking Miami in the Sun Bowl. The team with the easiest regular-season schedule was Middle Tennessee (.305 winning percentage), and the Blue Raiders meet Miami of Ohio in Thursday's GoDaddy.Com Bowl.

Six teams from the state of Florida and from the state of Texas went bowling this season. It's the first time six teams from Florida have been in the postseason in the same season; it's the second season in a row and the third time in five seasons that six teams from Texas have made it to a bowl. Six from one state is believed to be the NCAA record.

The FCS national title game is Friday in Frisco, Texas (a Dallas suburb). Third-seeded Delaware is playing fifth-seeded Eastern Washington for the crown, and each has a FBS transfer at quarterback; Delaware has former Penn State backup Pat Devlin and Eastern Washington has former SMU starter Bo Levi Mitchell. Delaware (Colonial) and Eastern Washington (Big Sky) were co-champs in their leagues in the regular season. If we were to use the final BCS standings as a guide and compare them with the FCS seedings, it would be like No. 3 TCU meeting No. 5 Wisconsin for the national title.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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