Is the Big 10 really that bad?

Submitted by bronxblue on January 8th, 2009 at 12:03 AM

This was originally going to be a response to a post on the Big 10 vs. other conferences in bowl games, but it got long
enough that I figure it should be its own diary submission. If you are tired about hearing justifications for why the
Big 10 is not as bad as it appears, by all means skip to something else.

Because I'm bored, here are the bowl match-ups for each conference. I also decided to rank the relative match-ups in
terms of conference ranking. For example, if the #4 team for Conference A plays the #3 team from Conference B, then
Conference A played "up" (+) in that bowl and Conference B played "down" (-). Equal rankings meant they were "even"
(=). In situations where non-BCS bowl teams were included, I tried to use my judgment as to how the Conference tie-in
fared. One other caveat - any bowl in the BCS was an automatic "=", no matter how that may play out over a given year.

Big 12 - +3

Fiesta Bowl Big 12 No. 1 vs. BCS At-Large =
Cotton Bowl Big 12 No. 2 vs. SEC No. 3/4/5 -
Holiday Bowl Big 12 No. 3 vs Pac-10 No. 2 +
Gator Bowl* Big 12 No. 4 vs. ACC No. 3 +
Alamo Bowl Big 12 No. 4/5 vs Big Ten No. 4/5 =
Sun Bowl** Big 12 No. 5 vs. Pac-10 No. 3 +
Insight Bowl Big 12 No. 6 vs Big Ten No. 6 =
Independence Bowl Big 12 No. 7 vs SEC No. 6/7/8 =
Texas Bowl Big 12 No. 8 vs. Big East No.3 (2008)/vs.C-USA No. 3/4 (2009) +

Big East - -5
Gator Bowl Big East #2 vs ACC #3 -
Sun Bowl Big East #2 vs Pac-10 #3 -
Meineke Car Care Bowl Big East #3 vs ACC #5/6 -
International Bowl Big East #4 vs MAC #3 - Bowl Big East #5 vs SEC #9 -
St. Petersburg Bowl Big East #6 vs C-USA =

Pac-10 - -3
Rose Bowl USC-err Pac-10 No. 1 vs. Big Ten No. 1 =
Holiday Bowl Pac-10 No. 2 vs. Big 12 No. 3 -
Sun Bowl Pac-10 No. 3 vs. Big 12 No. 4 -
Las Vegas Bowl Pac-10 No. 4/5 vs. Mountain West No. 1 =
Emerald Bowl Pac-10 No. 4/5 vs. ACC No. 7 -
Poinsettia Bowl Pac-10 No. 6 vs Mountain West No. 2 =
Armed Forces Bowl Pac-10 No. 7 vs Mountain West No. 3/4 =

ACC - +1
FedEx Orange Bowl ACC No. 1 vs. BCS =
Chick-fil-A Bowl ACC No. 2 vs. SEC 3/4/5 -
Gator Bowl ACC No. 3 vs. Big 12 3/Big East 2/Notre Dame =
Champs Sports Bowl ACC No. 4 vs. Big Ten 4/5 =
Music City Bowl ACC No. 5 vs. SEC 6/7/8/Navy -
Meineke Car Care Bowl ACC No. 6 vs. Big East 3 +
Emerald Bowl ACC No. 7 vs. Pac-10 4/5 +
Humanitarian Bowl ACC No. 8 vs. WAC 1 +
EagleBank Bowl ACC no. 9 vs. Navy =

SEC - +4
Sugar Bowl SEC No. 1 vs. BCS =
Capital one Bowl SEC No. 2 vs. Big 10 No. 2 =
Cotton Bowl SEC No. 3/4/5 vs. Big 12 No. 2 +
Outback Bowl SEC No. 3/4 pick vs. Big Ten No. 3 =
Chick-fil-A Bowl SEC No. 3/4/5 vs. ACC No. 2 +
Liberty Bowl SEC No. 6/7/8 vs. C-USA No. 2/3 =
Music City Bowl SEC No. 6/7/8 vs. ACC no. 5 +
Independence Bowl SEC No. 6/7/8 vs. Big 12 No. 7 + Bowl SEC No. 9 vs. Big East No. 5 +

Big 10 - +1
Rose Bowl Big 10 No. 1 vs. USC-err Pac-10 No. 1 =
Capital One Bowl Big 10 No. 2 vs. SEC No. 2 =
Outback Bowl Big 10 No. 3 vs. SEC No. 3/4 =
Alamo Bowl Big 10 No. 4/5 vs. Big 12 No. 4/5 pick* =
Champs Sports Bowl Big 10 No. 4/5 vs. ACC No. 4* +
*The Alamo Bowl has the 4th pick in 2007 and 2008, while the Champs Sports Bowl has the 4th pick in 2009. Since at
least 1/2 the time the Big 10 is likely playing up, I give the +
Insight Bowl Big 10 No. 6 vs. Big 12 No. 6 =
Motor City Bowl Big Ten No. 7 vs. MAC No. 1 =

So what do we have
So by my (reasonably) objective rankings, we have a bowl SOS as follows:

1. SEC = +4
2. Big 12 = +3
3. Big 10 = +1
3. Acc = +1
5. Pac 10 = -3
6. Big East = -5

Empirically, this kind of makes sense. The SEC and Big 12 have generally been considered the strongest conferences the
past few years, and what makes this dominance even more impressive come bowl time is that the conference plays a
"tough" schedule against mostly equal or higher-ranked teams from other conferences.

The next tier is occupied by the Big 10 and the ACC, which again makes sense considering the recent bowl performances of both conferences. What surprised me the most, though, was how "equal" the Big 10 matched up in its bowl games - wherever you wound up in the Big 10 hierarchy, a similarly-position team was who you met in December/January. The ACC had a bit more stratification, but the Big 10 is clearly the outlier in terms of bowl tie-ins.

Next comes the Pac-10. This is the point I've seen made on these boards before (I've made it too) - the Pac-10 does so
well during bowl season, at least in part, because they tend to play weaker opponents on a consistent basis. Even
giving the MWC a whole lot of credit - which I do - the Pac-10 tended to play teams that they should beat. Yes, USC is a bear and can beat anyone, but after that it looks like the deck is stacked in the Pac-10's favor come December and

Finally, the Big East. Ugh, but an ugh people have known for years. I'll leave it at that.

One final note - there is no metric that I can think of to account for the fact that most bowl games are played in the South and/or West Coast, which clearly benefits those teams located in those regions. How much it benefits, of course, is open for debate, but it certainly helps teams in the ACC, SEC, and Pac-10 that many of these bowl games happen in or near their own backyards.

But what about OOC (Out of Conference) record?

Before jumping to my conclusions, though, I would be remiss not to discuss the other key factor in determining relative
conference strength - OOC against BCS teams. Thought there are relatively few meetings every year, I figured I might
as well look at the conferences' marks against each other in the fall. Unfortunately, there really isn't an
easily-accessible database for determining how conferences match up against each other OOC. I was able to find a page
on ESPN that tracked all the BCS teams from 1998-2007, with OOC-against-BCS teams records (sans bowl games), which worked well enough. For the record, this is a great way to make a subway ride fly by.

** Caveat - there is obviously a huge difference between pre- and post-2005 Big East (when Miami, VT, and BC left, and USF, Louisville, Connecticut, and Cincinnati joined). I split out Miami's, VT's, and BC's records with the switch, and only counted the four new member's records since 2005.

Conference Wins Losses Winning %
ACC 89 81 52.35
SEC 53 61 46.49
Big 12 56 58 49.12
Pac 10 69 63 52.27
Big 10 81 73 52.6
Big East 65 76 46.1

Now, take these results with a grain of salt. In some of these conferences, there are teams with absolutely atrocious OOC records (e.g. Syracuse [5-18] and Duke [2-15]) and truly stunning ones (e.g. USC [18-6] and Nebraska [13-3]) that skew the numbers a bit. Plus, remember that these records have been accumulated over about a decade, during which time dynasties such as Nebraska, FSU, and Miami have come and gone, while new ones have emerged. Finally, I couldn't find the relative SOS of these records, meaning someone had to crush Syracuse, Indiana, and Duke, and certain conferences obviously benefited more from scheduling them than others. Similarly, elite teams such as Florida, Oklahoma, and Michigan didn't necessarily schedule a large number of tough OOC games, meaning that these numbers skewed mostly to middle-of-the-pack teams in each conference. This certainly helps to qualify the relative depth of each conference, but it doesn't really show the strength at the top.

All of that said, the data are telling that over the past decade, the Big 10 has been one of the top 2 BCS conferences in inter-conference winning percentage. This doesn't mean the Big 10 is living up to that record right now, but I hope it brings certain people back off the cliff a bit about the demise of the Big 10. Where some people may see a pattern of demise, I see a strong conference that has hit a recent rough patch, but one that it should overcome based on historical data.

Conclusions? Conclusions:

If you've made it this far, then rest assured I am almost done. What I hoped to show with this data is that while the Big 10 has struggled recently during bowl season, that is not necessarily a harbinger of doom for the conference overall. There are a myriad of factors at play come bowl season, from the long layoffs, the traveling, the match-ups, etc., and to simply go by wins and losses doesn't provide you with a complete barometer of the conference as a whole. Same goes with OOC records - the Big 10 looks pretty strong against other conferences, but there were far more Northwestern vs. Duke match-ups than Florida vs. Michigan.

Overall, I thought going in that the SEC and the Big 12 have been the two strongest conferences over the past decade, with the Big 10 and the ACC next, followed closely by the Pac-10 and the Big East gasping to the finish. Looking at the numbers, that seems to bear out. The SEC and Big 12 play the toughest bowl slates, while the Big 10, ACC, and Pac-10 have played better in the inter-conference match-ups. About the only consistency across the board is just how bad the Big East was, is, and probably will be in the future. Looking to the future with the Big 10, I see it going more the way of the ACC than, say, the Big 12 or Pac-10, where the stratification between the top and bottom teams is quite pronounced. Like the ACC, I see OSU, Penn St., and (hopefully) UM staying at the top, with the second tier a constant shift of Iowa, MSU, Illinois, Northwestern, and Wisconsin, with Minny and Indiana trying to become consistently relevant. That may mean a whole lot for more losses to USC in the Rose Bowl, but it will likely also mean a more competitive conference that will occasionally birth a real MNC contender.


Enjoy Life

January 8th, 2009 at 12:22 AM ^

Actually bowl results are dumb and meaningless. But, if we must here are the ESPN Bowl Challenge Cup results.

* 2002–03 Big Ten (5–2) .714[3]
* 2003–04 ACC (5–1) .833[4]
* 2004–05 Mountain West (2–1) .667[4]
* 2005–06 (tie) Big 12 and ACC (5–3) .625[4]
* 2006–07 Big East (5–0) 1.000[4]
* 2007–08 Mountain West (4–1) .800[1]
* 2008–09 Pac-10 (5–0) 1.000[5]

So, in the last 7 years: Mountain West is the Best (2 outright), followed by ACC (1 outright, 1 tie), with the Big10, Big East, and Pac10 all tied at 1 each, and Big12 with 1 tie.

NONE for the SEC!!!!

If that does not convince everyone that the bowl records are just ASININE, nothing will.


January 8th, 2009 at 12:57 AM ^

The trouble with that analysis is the effect of BCS at-large teams. Any conference that gets one (and there are usually three, plus a mid-major) has everyone playing up a slot again.

I Blue Myself

January 8th, 2009 at 1:27 AM ^

That's true, and it's worth pointing out because the conferences that get at large bids will usually be the SEC, Big 12, and Big 10. Teams from the Pac 10, Big East and ACC just don't travel well enough for a bowl outside their region to pick one as an at large.

There may be exceptional years where a second place team in one of the other conferences sneaks in -- for example, if USC plays for the national title, the Rose Bowl would usually pick a Pac 10 team as an at large. But this year will be much more common. No one thought OSU belonged in a BCS game, but the other options were so bad that the Fiesta Bowl picked them anyway.

So in comparing bowl tie ins, you can really bump up every bowl team from the SEC, Big 12, and Big 10 by one number.

S FL Wolverine

January 8th, 2009 at 2:15 PM ^

I did an analysis on another blog posting and found that in 8/11 of the last years, the Big Ten had two BCS teams. However, in the years when it had one BCS team, it actually did WORSE in bowl games.

Now it could be that during years the Big Ten had only one BCS team it was particularly bad (see 2000 when the only BCS team was Illinois, which no offense to Illinois is usually a bad year for the Big Ten). And it could be in years where the Big Ten has two teams in the BCS it would have done better if only one had been selected and the matchups hadn't slid upward. Who knows.

But this much is obvious. In the last 5-7 years, the Big Ten elites have been unable to compete with the SEC and Pac-10 elites. This doesn't show any sign of changing unless Michigan under RR takes that elite step, IMO. OSU is a good to great program that will only win another MNC if it avoids playing a Pac-10 or SEC team in the MNC. They can play with the Big-12 elites, as well as those from other conferences. But the games against the Pac-10 and SEC have become jokes. There is a HUGE difference at this point between "elite" teams like USC, Florida, and LSU versus OSU almost every year. And an average Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, perhaps even Oregon team will beat an average OSU team. I spent considerable time in another post breaking down WHY I think there is such a difference, and it's not simple, but the factors (in general) that make a good team are coaching, talent, unpredictability of schemes/playcalling inlcuding gametime adjustments, and speed / quickness. Big Ten elites have recruited good talent (according to the recuiting rankings), been only so-so in the coaching department (best coach before RR was probably Tressel), generally predictable with minimal in-game adjustments (see Lloyd Carr photo here), and generally not as quick (but overall speed is still pretty good).


January 8th, 2009 at 5:38 PM ^

"In the last 5-7 years, the Big Ten elites have been unable to compete with the SEC and Pac-10 elites."

This just ain't so, unless your definition of "Big Ten elites" is limited to "OSU playing in a national champtionship game."

Since 2000, the Big Ten has played the SEC in 22 games that could, arguably, be called a matching of elites: 9 times in the Capital One Bowl, 9 times in the Outback Bowl, once each in the Orange and Sugar Bowls, and twice in the national championship game. The Big Ten's record in those games is 10-12. The Big Ten was:

5-4 in the Capital One Bowl;
4-5 in the Outback Bowl;
1-0 in the Orange Bowl (the UM overtime win over Alabama);
0-1 in the Sugar Bowl (Illinois lost to LSU); and
0-2 in the National Championship game (feel that Tressel magic)

In other words, outside of OSU's recent struggles on the big stage, the Big Ten-SEC "elite" matchups have been perfectly even. The idea that the SEC has opened up some kind of dominance over the Big Ten -- based on bowl results -- is so crazy it's almost fascinating as some kind of real-time demonstration of how conventional wisdom is formed. (I bet that if you asked national sport journalists who work the college football beat to quickly tell you who won the 2008 Cap One Bowl, UM or Florida, at least 1/3 of them would tell you that Florida crushed UM because UM just couldn't handle the Gators' speed).

As for the Pac-10, like I said above: the Big Ten doesn't have a Pac-10 problem, it has a USC problem. Since the rest of the Pac-10 also seems to have a pretty serious USC problem, I guess I'm not convinced that USC's Rose Bowl victories really say all that much about the Pac-10 vs. the Big Ten.

Let me say for the record, by the way, that I agree that the SEC and the Pac-10 really were much better than the Big Ten THIS YEAR (I think the Pac-10 has showed itself to be better than the SEC and the Big 12, as well). I just don't think there's any trend; the data certainly doesn't show one.


January 8th, 2009 at 10:12 AM ^

I think this is overrated as well. With the addition of the BCS championship game, the Big 12, SEC and Big Ten have had two teams in each of these years. If the teams of the ACC can ever pull their heads out of their asses and become a good conference again, you'll probably see them getting two teams in as well. If you want to argue that a lower conference champion has an advantage because it played an even lower Big 10 team or something, I guess, but then again, the Big Ten couldn't fill it's allotment this season anyway.

old fan

January 8th, 2009 at 1:38 AM ^

The Big Ten has the most BCS selections (19 to Pac Ten's 13 as an example) and therefore we have always played one game ahead of our assigned slot in the bowls. This is why you get ridiculous games like Illinois versus USC and Indiana-Okie State last year. This year we got FSU-Wisconsin, Kansas-Minnesota and Michigan State - Georgia. Not good odds going in. Move everyone down a nothc and see how it goes.

SEC is very overrated and I am hoping that Florida is exposed. This is nominally the same team that we put 500 yards on last year.


January 8th, 2009 at 12:48 PM ^

I totally agree that the Big 10 deserves to take a beating for the lack of MNCs, but the Rose Bowl record is pretty misleading. The Big 10 always has to travel, usually plays a team from California (about 2/3 of the games have been against either USC, UCLA, Cal, or Stanford), and really has done well except when matched against USC (15-5 in Rose Bowls against the Big 10 since 1960). So all that Rose Bowl record really shows is that USC is a really, really good team, especially against Big 10 teams. I won't argue with you about that, but that doesn't mean the Big 10 is atrocious or anything.

One thing I've noticed about MNCs - they are dominated by a few teams. Look at Miami, FSU, Nebraska, Oklahoma, USC, Notre Dame, etc. - they have won an abnormally-large percentage of recent MNCs, but that didn't necessarily mean they played in great conferences. Miami and FSU are great examples - the ACC and Big East were always mediocre the years they dominated, and some of the old Big 8 conferences that Nebraska and Oklahoma ran through were nothing to write home about. I agree that the Big 10 has been overrated at times during its existence, but I also think that looking at stats such as MNCs and records in a single bowl game doesn't paint a good picture of the conference either.


January 8th, 2009 at 1:52 PM ^

See above. Also, note that the Big 10 has 5 teams in the top 25 in recruiting for 2009 (OSU #2 and UM # 8), 4 in 2008, 4 in 2007, and 3 in 2006, with the Big 10 teams moving higher up those lists more recently. So maybe the current struggles is due to a few lean years in recruiting, and will remedy itself as better players start flowing in.

And to your argument that I am making excuses, point out these excuses. The Big 10 struggles against USC in the Rose Bowl - that's not an excuse; that's a fact. The SEC did great this year in bowl games, and has consistently played up to its competition in these bowl games. I never once took that away from them. But when the Pac-10 sends its 4th best team against the ACC's #7, that's a mismatch and I simply pointed that out. Furthermore, if you don't think it benefits teams in the SEC, ACC, and the Pac-10 that most bowls are played in their respective backyards, and that they are never played at Solider Field or the Big House in the winter, you greatly underestimate home-field advantage.

One final point: People need to separate USC from the Pac-10, since it is clear that they are on a completely different planet when it comes to recruiting, bowl success, talent, etc. If OSU had beaten both Florida and LSU the past two seasons, would that mean the Big 10 is any better? Not really; it would just mean the team at the top is truly elite.


January 8th, 2009 at 1:02 PM ^

The conference schedules like crap (11 teams scheduled 13 BCS opponents this year and that seems to be normal), they don't seem to beat anybody really good that they do schedule (the best bowl game that a team the conference has beaten in the non-conference schedule over the last 3 years is Oregon State this year in the Sun), and then get torched in bowl season (6-16 last 22).

What evidence is there that the Big Ten is good right now? Complaining about travel and 2 BCS teams and god knows what else is simply an excuse. USC traveled to the Orange in 2003 and 2004 and torched Iowa and Oklahoma respectively. The SEC had two BCS teams this year and were underdogs in 5 of their 8 bowl games. They won 4 of those 5 games. Good teams win football games.


January 8th, 2009 at 1:40 PM ^

I never denied that the Big 10 has been bad the last 2 years; my only complaint was that people are completely freaking out and announcing the death of the conference as a national power. OSU beat Texas and Cincy in 2006, MSU/UM has wins over decent ND teams, MSU beat Pitt in 2006 and 2007, etc. So there are at least a few more examples of decent OOC teams that the Big 10 has beaten recently.

As I mentioned in the post, consider these results with a grain of salt. Yes, there are a lot of mediocre conference wins, but that is true for most conferences. Few teams in the SEC leave the south in the OOC, and the Big 10 played about 40 more OOC games against BCS teams than that conference. But that isn't the point. I said that I think the SEC and the Big 12 have been the best two conferences over the past few years, with the ACC, Big 10, and the Pac-10 occupying that next tier. the evidence bore that out, so what's your point in arguing?

My whole point, and I am starting to wonder if people actually read the damn conclusions, is that I think the MSM and the casual fans tend to overreact, and the newest rant is that the Big 10 is a horrible conference that isn't better than the MAC, WAC, MWC, etc. This exercise was intended to provide some evidence to refute this premise, with the understanding that I tried to keep my subjectivity to a minimum. You provided some evidence that supports my admission that the Big 10 hasn't been that good the past 3 bowl seasons, and I'm not going to argue that it doesn't show a recent slide. I just want people to take a step back and consider that maybe the Big 10's recent struggles are more a bump in the road than some horrible decline.


January 8th, 2009 at 2:35 PM ^

I think it's meaningless to compare total bowl records against each other, because the lower-tiered bowls present matchups that are essentially random in terms of the quality of the opponents. Once you get down to something like the Champs Sports Bowl or lower (ie, the 5th or 6th best team in a conference), you're not really testing conference strength any more -- you're testing conference depth, if anything (often, you're just testing the strength of teams that happen to have fan bases that travel well or live close to the bowl site). And when the media goes on its annual Big Ten bashing binge, it isn't mocking the Big Ten for having crappy mid-tier teams; it's claiming that the Big Ten's best can't compete with the other BCS conferences.

If you're interested in THAT claim, the bowl numbers you should look at are the records from the Rose, Capital One, Outback and Alamo bowls, plus the other BCS bowls played since the Big Ten joined the system in the 1998-99 season. Why those? Because their conference tie-ins usually guarantee a relatively equal matchup between teams that (1) are genuinely good that year and (2) are about the same "level" of good from conference to conference.

Here are those records:

Rose Bowl

During the last ten years that the Rose Bowl had an unbreakable Big Ten/Pac-10 tie (ie, 1989-1998), the Big 10 had a 6-4 record. Since 1998, the Big 10 has played the Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl 7 times, and in those games the Big Ten record is 2-5. Four of those five losses have been to the Pete Carroll USC teams.

Capital One Bowl

There have been 17 Capital One Bowls played since the Big Ten and SEC agreed to give it their second choice teams. The Big Ten's record in those games is 8-9 (MSU's loss this year stopped a four-year Big Ten winning streak).

Outback Bowl

There have been 14 Outback Bowls played since the Big Ten and SEC agreed to give it their third choice teams. The Big Ten's record is 6-8.

Alamo Bowl

There have been 14 Alamo Bowls played since the Big Ten and Big 12 agreed to give it their fourth choice teams. The Big Ten's record is 8-6.

Other BCS Bowls

Sugar: Big Ten 1-1
Fiesta: Big Ten 3-1
Orange: Big Ten 2-1
"National Championship" Game (not played in another Bowl): Big Ten 0-2

Year in and year out, the Big Ten's elite teams do just fine in bowl games, with two exceptions. First, they've gotten creamed in recent years by extremely good USC teams playing a home game in the Rose Bowl. Second, OSU lost the first two "national championship" games. That's hardly evidence that the entire conference is lagging behind the other BCS conferences -- whatever the lazy sports media would have you believe.

The Big Ten's good teams are just as good as every other conference's good teams, and they have been for a long time.


January 8th, 2009 at 2:52 PM ^

Great points. I was considering doing a similar analysis, but kind of chickened out around 12 or so last night. I agree that after the 3rd or 4th-tier bowls, you have random match-ups that really don't say much for a conference (Iowa beating SC, for example, doesn't mean nearly as much as OSU barely losing to Texas).

I totally agree with everyone saying that the Big 10 has struggled, top-to-bottom, in the past two or three years, at least in high-profile games. But to be writing a eulogy for the conference, especially when there are other ones with similar struggles, never made any sense to me. If the Big 10 continues to throw out 1-6 and 2-5 records for the next 4 or 5 years, of course, there might be something to it. But 2 or 3 years do not make a trend.