It’s usually nonsensical to try and say that a sporting event of any kind was decided by one play. I’ve never believed in this line of thinking. That’s what makes it that much more meaningful that the Big Ten conference’s plunge into football purgatory actually can be traced back to one day: Jan. 1, 2011.
For years the Big Ten had been slowly been losing their stature as one of the most fearsome conferences in college football through routinely losing their biggest non-conference games and many of the major and BCS bowl games they were in. The perception more and more became that whenever the Big Ten was represented in a big bowl game, they were automatically the lesser of the two teams involved. Sadly, that was an accurate perception more often than not.
The culmination of this was the first day of 2011, when the Big Ten went 0-5 in bowl games, each loss being more and more agonizing.
One of my viewing traditions with college football is to be on my couch with either a Michigan Wolverines or Wisconsin Badgers shirt on before the first bowl game startS on New Year’s Day. I then get up as little as possible over the course of all the games and of course I would cheer for the Big Ten even though I raised on SEC football as well. In 2011, this ended up being an exercise in self-torture.
The day itself started out okay with the Northwestern Wildcats losing a shootout to the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the TicketCity Bowl. That was a loss that Big Ten fans could stomach because it was a pretty close game and was a game that represented both teams well. But then things would get steadily worse with each game.
The Outback Bowl ended with Urban Meyer going out a winner in his final game as coach of the Florida Gators thanks to late interception return touchdown in what had been a close game with the Penn St. Nittany Lions the entire way. Those kinds of losses can be the worst to go through as a fan. What made it worse for the Nittany Lions and the conference was that it ended up being the final bowl game that Joe Paterno coached.
The Alabama Crimson Tide made up for not being able to repeat as national champions by beating the Michigan St. Spartans in the Capital One Bowl. Not only did they beat them, but they did it in a way that bordered on assault. I’m not even talking about the 49-7 final score.
It was just that the Crimson Tide seemed more aggressive and hit harder than they normally did. It all was a bit much to the senses to watch an 11-1 Spartans team end their best season in years like that, not to mention that Kirk Cousins was knocked out of the game early in the fourth quarter and the Crimson Tide’s starters were out of the game earlier than you’d expect in such a big bowl game.
The Rich Rodriguez era as coach of the Wolverines ended on this day and in the most horrific way possible: a 38-point blowout in his only bowl appearance with the team. In the Gator Bowl, the Mississippi St. Bulldogs turned what was a close game at first into one of the hardest games I’ve ever had to watch as a fan. It was downright depressing and that depression would be multiplied later that afternoon.
The previously mentioned tradition I’ve always had for Jan. 1 has always been more special when the Badgers or Wolverines are in the Rose Bowl. In this case, it was the Badgers playing in Pasadena.
The Badgers lost their first of three straight Rose Bowl games on this day as the TCU Horned Frogs completed a perfect season with the win. It was only a two-point loss for the Badgers, but it was the most agonizing of the day’s losses for the Big Ten.
It wasn’t just that the Big Ten’s representative in the game lost to a non-AQ (automatic qualifier) school, but that it was a close loss that shouldn’t have happened. Without getting into too much detail, the Badgers tried too hard to insert their passing game into the game and it bit them because their always good running attack would have been the far better option late in such a close game.
That was the lesson that the Big Ten had to learn the hard way: they were no longer the conference that had teams that would always come through in clutch moments. They had fallen to being the conference with teams expected to choke in clutch moments and expected to lose to better teams from conferences that were now better than them on the football field.