A little over two weeks ago, I asked a friend with close, longtime ties to the Big Ten if there was any chance of a 6-6 team from the league — say, oh, Illinois — missing out on a bowl game. The reply was emphatic.
“If [commissioner Jim] Delany wants a team in a bowl, he’ll get it done.”
A couple of days after that, I ran the question up the Big Ten office flagpole just to be sure. The reply I received from a conference spokesman put my mind at ease. In hindsight, it shouldn’t have; it wasn’t a definitive answer. I just wasn’t paying close enough attention.
“The Big Ten will work to send conference teams to each of its bowl partners,” a league spokesman told me, an official answer from above. “If bowl-eligible teams remain at that point, the conference will work with non-partner bowls if they have openings.”
If they have openings. Turns out, they do not.
Click that link if you want all the details, but suffice it to say the Big Ten has 10 bowl-eligible teams and could end up with only nine available bowl slots. Illini fans should root for Wisconsin to beat Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, because that could put the league’s top three teams — Badgers, Buckeyes and Michigan State — all in New Year’s Six bowl games, which would leave seven openings in lesser games.
In a nutshell: If OSU beats Wisconsin, the Badgers will tumble into a non-New Year’s Six bowl and one of the league’s bowl-eligible teams likely will have nowhere to play a 13th game. Illinois seems bound to be the victim. Rutgers and Maryland have 7-5 records. Penn State is 6-6 — and lost to the Illini, and has a worse record in conference games — but Nittany Lions fans travel famously well.
Presumably, most Illinois fans have heard by now about this and have begun to experience one reaction or another, or a combination of reactions.
I’ve been asked several times on Twitter alone if being left out in the cold this bowl season might compel athletic director Mike Thomas to change his mind on keeping Tim Beckman as coach. The question itself is misguided. Like it or not, Thomas recommitted to Beckman based on the 2014 regular season, not on a low-level bowl game that hadn’t been played yet regardless. Why would Thomas change directions now? It isn’t on Beckman if the Illini aren’t selected. If that decision has to do with the school’s apathetic fan base, that’s more on Thomas’ shoulders than it is on Beckman’s.
My own reaction is a blend of three things.
One, I’ll feel sorry for the players — especially the seniors — if they don’t get this bowl experience. They’ve gone through the wringer time and again. They’ve played before lifeless or nonexistent crowds. They’ve seen and heard countless references to how bad they are. They’ve kept their heads down and stayed at it despite nonstop rumors about their coaches’ demise. I think of senior defensive tackle Austin Teitsma, as positive a young dude as you’ll ever meet. I asked him at Ohio State — after a 55-14 defeat — if he could still see the bowl goal off in the distance. His eyes sparkled and he smiled from ear to ear and started laughing. What the heck had gotten into him?
“It would be so awesome!” he said. “I’m not giving up!”
If you’ve ever spoken to him, you know the exclamation marks are necessary.
Two, missing a bowl would just plain hurt the program. Ask any coach how valuable bowl practices are to the development of a program. That time on the practice field — having it vs. not having it — is priceless. Illinois hasn’t had any of it since Beckman came on board, and the cumulative effect has been damaging.
Three, though, and I have to be honest here, I wouldn’t care as much if any other 6-6 team missed out on a bowl. Why? Because there are too many bowl games. The number of teams that will play in bowls this season — 76 — is utterly absurd. That’s 76 out of 128 FBS teams, or nearly 60 percent. There are a lot of underachieving teams in that mix. Illinois isn’t one of them. Bowls season would be better if there were fewer games, though I realize not everyone agrees with that. But rewarding the six-win underachievers — North Carolina, South Carolina and, yes, Penn State come to mind — while leaving out an Illinois seems a little unfair.