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A Bowl Record, Like A Bad Joke, Needs Context

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Canada, huh?  Almost made it.  Stuart Mandel, with just two weeks until kick-off, broke down and put together a Great Conference Debate story over at SI.  The actual story is everything you hoped you'd never have to hear again, but because I too am wearing thin, I've read almost the entire thing.

Getting a little bored after the second of the mythical 'pages' that SI is so fond of, I decided to skip ahead to the 'hard facts' section and gain a better understanding of how the Big Ten managed to come in 4th over SI's arbitrary time period: 2003-2008 (conveniently beginning the year after an OSU MNC, also following a draft in which 15 Big Ten players were selected in the first two rounds, Penn State sent four in the first round alone).

What stood out:

Record BCS Rank
BCS Bowls 3-6 5th
Other Bowls 11-16 6th

So what's really dragging down Mandel's opinion of the Big Ten is not their performance, per se, but rather a ranking of their bowl record that doesn't factor in SOS.  I'm calling bullocks.

The Big Ten is often targeted as the #1 play-off road block.  They are too old, too stubborn, ect.  While #1 is an exaggeration, it's probably not that hard to believe they are tentative to give up what they have; by that I mean a killer set of bowl tie-ins.

Capital One Bowl: Orlando, Florida (Big Ten #2 pick against SEC #2 pick)
Outback Bowl: Tampa, Florida (Big Ten #3 pick against SEC #3/4 pick)
Alamo Bowl: San Antonio, Texas (Big Ten #4/5 pick against Big 12 #4 pick)
Champs Sports Bowl: Orlando, Florida (Big Ten #4/5 pick against ACC #4 pick)
(The Alamo Bowl has the 4th pick in 2007 and 2008, while the Champs Sports Bowl has the 4th pick in 2009. [for our purposes I just assumed the Alamo gets BT#4 and Champs BT#5 -ed])
Insight Bowl: Tempe, Arizona (Big Ten #6 pick against Big 12 #5 pick)
Motor City Bowl: Detroit, Michigan (Big Ten #7 pick against MAC)

 Keep in mind those placements are actually misleading.  They assume only one Big Ten team is offered a BCS Bowl invitation, however only once in their five year term has that happened

Year Teams
2003-2004 Michigan, Ohio State
2004-2005 Michigan
2005-2006 Penn State, Ohio State
2006-2007 Ohio State, Michigan
2007-2008 Ohio State, Illinois

 So, before I slant this thing by simply bumping down the above tie-in list for all the Big Ten teams, let's see if we can do the same for the other side of the matchup.  There are years, of course, where two teams from another conference are given BCS bids.  Keep in mind that the BCS switched from four to five games in 2007, meaning four bids were made available instead of two.

Year Teams
2004 Big 10, Big 12
2005 Big 12 (Utah)
2006 Big 10 (ND)
2007 Big 10, SEC (Boise St., ND)
2008 Big 10, SEC, Big 12 (Hawaii)

So that is nine BCS bids for the Big 10, eight for the Big 12, and seven for the SEC. The rest never received an At-Large.

Now that I've spent this much time already, below is a table representing the games played.  The notation is a little strange here: any games in which the Big Ten opponent finished higher in their respective standing is marked with a negative number (ie. Purdue finished 3rd in the Big Ten, while Georgia finished 2nd in the SEC).  Even matches are marked with a '0', and games where the Big Ten team was higher in the standings are marked with a positive number.

Bowl Game 2003-04 2004-05 2005-06 2006-07 2007-08
Capital One -1 (L) +1 (W) -1 (W) 0 (W) 0 (W)
Outback* 0 (W) 0 (L) 0 (L)  0(W) -1 (L)
Alamo 0 (W) +1 (L) -1 (L) -1 (L) 0 (W)
Champs Sports DNP DNP DNP -2 (L) -2 (L)
Insight DNP DNP DNP -2 (L) -1 (L)
Motor City BGSU** (L) DNP DNP DNP ?*** (W)

DNP - Either the bowl tie in didn't exist (Champs and Insight was not a BT bowl until 2006) or the Big Ten didn't have enough eligible teams to fill the spot.

*I'm not really sure what to do here, the numbers represent how they finished based on in-conference record, but this isn't really representative because SEC teams miss so many of their league foes during the season.  I can't seem to find a straight answer, but it appears that the second best team in the East plays in the game each year.  This means said team could be as high as 2nd, but as low as 5th in the overall standings, for whatever that's worth.  This appears to be either the third or fourth pick, so with that in mind I will assume the team was never higher than third and never worse than fourth in the league.

**Bowling Green finished ranked #23 in the polls that year, their opponent was 6-7 Northwestern.  The Cats also lost to Air Force and Miami of Ohio that year.  BGSU gets top billing here.

***Purdue v Central Michigan...whatever.  Well call the 9th place Boilermakers a favorite, but for the record they were garbage.

Note: Remember that a negative number does not necessarily mean the team was a Vegas underdog, that is irrelevant here. It doesn't matter how the teams matched up as far as talent, only how they match up relative to their in-conference performance.

Non BCS Bowls W L
When "Favored" 2 1
When "Even" 6 2
When "Underdog" 1 9

So while the Big Ten does a terrible job of winning when given the short end of the stick, they have a very impressive 6-2 record when matched up correctly (ie 2v2, 3v3, ect). However, instead of giving the Big Ten credit for the fact that they perform relatively strong when matched with their peers, they are discounted because they signed on to "play up", so to speak.  Also note that they were almost never matched with a BCS counterpart who finished lower in their league: just twice in five years.

To give you the quick fix on the BCS games: 1-2 when "outmatched", 2-3 when "even", and 0-1 when entering a "favorite". This isn't as pretty of a picture, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind here. For starters, USC has been the most consistent team of the last five years, and the Big Ten has played them, essentially on the road, three times. In addition, two of those "even" games are #1 v #2 nationally, so while Ohio State couldn't beat the SEC, that doesn't mean they wouldn't have beaten any of the other four conference champions.

So now that I've thrown all that at you, I suppose I owe some kind of explanation.  Without doing this for all six conference (which I'm not doing, by the way), it's hard to tell exactly how good of a performance this is.  However, because every action (being labeled an "underdog", or, like winning) has an equal or opposite reaction ("favorite", losing), a couple of generalities can be made.

  • The Big Ten bowl tie-ins are both lucrative and challenging.  Of the 21 non-BCS games, they were matched with a higher finishing challenger almost half the time.  They get paid handsomely for this, however. 
  • Even in the BCS games they are drawing tough lots.  Twice the Big Ten #1 has played the next best team in the nation.  When not in the MNC, the next best thing (worst thing?) is often the case: a game in LA against USC.
  • The record doesn't tell the story.  When evenly matched, the Big Ten is a very impressive 64%, that's 73% if you discount the MNC games.

In case this is coming off as defensive or interpreted as an excuse, I want to make my position clear:  I'm with these guys.  I don't need Illinois to win the Rose Bowl to feel better about an 8-4 season.  I'd rather just beat Illinois.