The Big Ten bowl season starts in a few hours when Wisconsin meets Florida State. The Champs Sports Bowl kicks off a run of seven games involving conference teams that will end on January 5 when Ohio State plays Texas in the Fiesta Bowl. So of all the Big Ten teams, who's got the most at stake this bowl season? Not who's in the biggest game. The answer to that is self-evident. But whose season will be made or broken by the results of their bowl game?
Most Big Ten teams are playing with the house's money this bowl season. That is, using reasonable preseason expectations as a benchmark, they have already matched or exceeded them. Losing the bowl game can't diminish that and a win only enhances the legacy. I count five teams in this category right now, led up by Michigan State & Northwestern, closely followed by Iowa and Penn State, with Minnesota also fitting in. Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota are all back in bowl games after missing out last year. While the Gophers rough finish to the season might add a little pressure to their Insight Bowl date with Kansas on New Year's Eve, there's no still no denying that anyone who goes from 1-10 to 7-5 in one fell swoop has a right to be happy no matter what. The Hawkeyes finished strong and are playing on New Year's Day again. Northwestern won nine games. Michigan State rose all the way to the Capital One Bowl when they looked to be at least a year away from such a lofty prize. And while Penn State was expected to be good, to only come one play from a perfect season was better then anything I saw predicted for them. They also benefit from drawing USC in the Rose Bowl. No one can knock the Lions down for not beating the Trojans in their own backyard, but a win would add another incredible jewel to the treasure chest that is Joe Paterno's bowl history.
Five out of seven playing with nothing to lose is a pretty sunny picture, and it happened because the four teams that missed bowls (Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Purdue) were all teams that were still playing December/January ball last year. Hence, since they missed a bowl altogether, there aren't many disapponting teams left trying to salvage a season or play out a string. Except one. Wisconsin was thought to be a contender for the conference title or at least an at-large BCS ticket. The Badgers lost four of their first five Big Ten games and ended the year having to go to overtime to beat Cal-Poly. At 7-5, they are the team on the negative side of the ledger. Beating Florida State today would be a nice finish, but it can't erase the missed opportunity that was 2008.
Which leaves us with Ohio State. The Buckeyes' only losses were the September massacre at USC and a nail-biter at home to Penn State. At 10-2, they've enjoyed another good year, gotten a share of a fourth straight conference title and earned another ticket to the BCS. Beating Texas would be the exclamation point they need. But what if they lose? Then the season takes on a different spin. OSU would have lost all three games they faced comparable opponents, and a Fiesta Bowl defeat would only add to their downhill spiral on the national stage. Here, I think we have our answer. Ohio State is the team with the most at stake this bowl season. Win, it's a great year. Lose, it's a long offseason.