Nebraska coach Mike Riley remembers a time in the not-so-distant past when there wasn’t much emphasis on how each individual conference fared during bowl season.
The 62-year-old, in his first season leading the Cornhuskers, said that’s changed in a big way.
And the Big Ten arguably has the most to gain with its share of bowl wins.
“It’s become a real big deal about how leagues are doing in bowl games, and a big discussion everywhere,” said Riley, whose Cornhuskers face UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl on Dec. 26. “You feel that a little bit. I have felt it the last few years more than ever.
“We’re proud to carry the Big Ten torch into this game and, I think, to do something to prove who’s the better conference.”
The Southeastern Conference has widely been regarded as the nation’s dominant league for the better part of a decade, thanks to winning seven straight national titles from 2006 to 2012.
But that reputation is in danger: After an impressive regular season, the Big Ten can seize even more momentum with a good showing during bowl season.
The marquee matchup pits No. 3 Michigan State against No. 2 Alabama in one of the College Football Playoff semifinals on Dec. 31. Michigan State won the Big Ten title and Alabama is the SEC champion.
But other high-profile games against power opponents will be closely watched on a huge Jan. 1 for the Big Ten: No. 6 Iowa plays No. 5 Stanford in the Rose Bowl, No. 17 Michigan takes on No. 19 Florida in the Citrus Bowl, No. 7 Ohio State faces No. 8 Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl and No. 12 Northwestern squares off against Tennessee in the Outback Bowl.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz - who has led the Hawkeyes for 17 years - said the rest of the country is figuring out what he’s known for quite a while.
“When you start talking about conferences,” Ferentz said, “this conference has been strong for a long, long time.”
Here’s a look at some of the other key bowl matchups for each conference:
SEC: The proud league still has its crown jewel: The Alabama Crimson Tide. Alabama’s back in the College Football Playoff, but after the Tide, the league’s depth was noticeably absent. No. 16 Ole Miss faces No. 13 Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, and the Rebels are eager to play better in the postseason than they did last year, when they were embarrassed by TCU 42-3 in the Peach Bowl. Other games to watch: Florida vs. Michigan in the Citrus Bowl, Georgia vs. Penn State in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
PAC-12: The league was left out of the playoff after its members beat up one another during the regular season. Stanford faces Iowa in an intriguing Rose Bowl. The Cardinal have running back Christian McCaffrey, who finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting and set a single-season record for total yards. Other games to watch: No. 15 Oregon vs. No. 11 TCU in the Alamo Bowl, USC vs. No. 12 Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl. The Pac-12 is already off to a good start with early bowl season wins for both Utah and Arizona.
BIG 12: No. 4 Oklahoma represents the Big 12 in the playoff against No. 1 Clemson after the league was left out of the inaugural field last season. The Sooners have a head-scratching loss to Texas, but an impressive resume otherwise. Other games to watch: Oklahoma State vs. Ole Miss in the Sugar, TCU vs. Oregon in the Alamo and No 18 Baylor vs. No. 10 North Carolina in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
ACC: The league has the nation’s No. 1 team in Clemson, which has rolled to a 13-0 record after beating North Carolina in the ACC title game. That’s obviously the big one, but there are other games to watch: North Carolina’s matchup against Baylor, No. 9 Florida State squares off against No. 14 Houston in the Peach Bowl.
AAC: Maybe no league did more to improve its reputation this season than the American Athletic Conference. Houston, No. 21 Navy, No. 24 Temple and Memphis all spent time in the national rankings and could gain even more respect with postseason wins.
AP Sports Writers Eric Olson and Luke Meredith contributed to this story.
AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org.
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