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The many national titles altered by old Big Ten bowl rules

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The Big Ten’s skepticism about bowl games shifted a ton of history.

Photo by Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

The Big Ten gets deservedly clowned for acting like it cares more about academic excellence than other conferences do. Take it from us, two Big Ten grads who are dumber than many of our non-B1G friends: We are neither Leaders nor Legends.

But for a long time, the Big Ten really did place extra emphasis on school. For decades, this manifested in strict limits on postseason football games. The conference’s honchos felt bowl games were a sign of a sport that had become too commercialized.

If not for the Big Ten being so stingy, college football history would look way different.

From 1922 to 1945, Big Ten rules might’ve changed six-ish national championships.

After Ohio State’s appearance in the 1920 season’s Rose Bowl (a 28-0 loss to Cal), conference presidents voted to prohibit bowl appearances league-wide.

Then, in 1922, Iowa finished 7-0. They beat Yale, Ohio State, and Minnesota, and the Rose Bowl was interested in the Hawkeyes. But the Rose ended up with 6-3-1 Penn State as the Eastern representative. USC beat Penn State, 14-3. Iowa probably would have done better (though their claim for a piece of the title is already reasonable).

In 1931, Northwestern received a Rose invite, according to author Winton U. Solberg. The league required the Wildcats to decline. They finished 7-1-1 with wins over Big 8 champion Nebraska, plus UCLA and Ohio State. The Eastern invite went to Tulane, a burgeoning power. The Green Wave lost to USC, 21-12. Had Northwestern accepted and beaten USC, perhaps Tulane claims a share of the title.

In 1932, Michigan went 8-0, won the league, and gave up just 13 points on the season. The AP Poll hadn’t started yet, but Michigan was awarded the Knute K. Rockne Trophy for finishing #1 in the Dickinson system. Had they been eligible for the Rose, they would have faced an undefeated USC. In real life, USC easily dispatched Pitt to claim the championship. What if they’d played Michigan?

In 1934 and 1935, Minnesota was the undefeated national champ, but played in neither Rose. Risking bowl losses could’ve flipped titles – to Alabama in 1934, Stanford in 1935. Minnesota was again the undefeated champ and Rose-less in 1940.

In 1944, Ohio State wanted to play in the Rose after a 9-0 season, but the conference voted down their request. A win over USC would’ve dented Army’s case, though the AP had already crowed the Cadets, and was the AP really going to reconsider a troop championship during World War II? But Ohio State’s claim would be stronger, and Tennessee fans would’ve been spared a 25-0 destruction by USC.

In 1946, the conference let teams back into the Rose Bowl. But the new, weird rules messed with six more titles.

The Big Ten made a deal to send a team (not necessarily the champ!) to the Rose to face a Pacific Coast team. Officials, particularly at Michigan, justified this about-face by essentially saying, if these bowls aren’t going away, better they be controlled by serious institutions of higher learning, like Michigan and Stanford, so we can limit commercialism and threats to academi — sorry, it’s hard to type that with a straight face.

One caveat: a Big Ten team couldn’t going to the Rose in back-to-back years.

Take 1948. Michigan was undefeated and ranked #1, but because they’d gone to the Rose after 1947, they stayed home. The AP gave Michigan the title anyway. What if Michigan had to face a tough Cal in the Rose Bowl? Perhaps the historian’s title goes to fellow undefeated Clemson, who beat Missouri in the Gator Bowl.

In 1966, Michigan State finished 9-0-1, with their only blemish the famous 10-10 tie with Notre Dame. The Spartans finished #2 in the AP (still awarded after the regular season), but Purdue got the Rose. AP #1 Notre Dame also skipped the postseason. The year before, the AP had waited until after bowl season to crown Alabama. Who knows what might’ve happened if MSU played in the Rose Bowl? (The Spartans claim a title anyway for 1966, and the National Football Foundation agrees.)

In 1971, when there were all of 12 bowls, the Big Ten repealed the back-to-back rule, but still only allowed one Big Ten team to play in a bowl. That team was picked by conference vote, which led to the dumbest use of this policy.

In 1973, Ohio State and Michigan entered The Game undefeated. Ohio State was #1 by the AP and the Wolverines #4. The two punted to a 10-10 tie.

Ohio State had gone to the Rose the year before, so the league’s athletic directors picking an undefeated Michigan wouldn’t have been a shock. Instead, they sent Ohio State again. The Big Ten had lost four Rose Bowls in a row, so maybe the conference was concerned the injured Wolverines wouldn’t hold up. Maybe Michigan State, bitter after Michigan tried to keep them out of the Big Ten, saw this as revenge.

Whatever the reason, an elite, unbeaten Michigan missed bowl season. In fact, Michigan went 30-2-1 from 1972-1974 and didn’t get to play in a single bowl. Even if they couldn’t get a spot in the Rose, couldn’t they have clobbered somebody in the Cotton or Orange and picked up a split title at some point?

Another time, a Big Ten school did this to itself.

In 1961, Ohio State went 8-0-1, including a blowout of Michigan. They were the obvious choice for Pasadena. Their opponent would be #16 UCLA, whom the Buckeyes had already beaten that year. But Ohio State passed. The school’s faculty council voted 28-25 to hold the team back. The AP listed the “chief objections” at the vote:

  • “A trip would disrupt the normal academic life of the school.”
  • “The university has become known as a ‘football school’ and this has hurt the university’s academic standing.”
  • “Absence from the campus of faculty members hampers the operation of the administration.”
  • “The Rose Bowl is a commercial enterprise.”
  • The faculty council had decided years earlier that the team wouldn’t play in bowl games.
  • And all of this only would’ve been for a rematch of a game OSU already won.

Ten thousand students engaged in a “long, wild” campus protest, the UPI reported. Woody Hayes was pissed, saying it was “difficult to explain why after 15 years the Rose Bowl is jerked out from under our boys.”

What if Ohio State had played? They’d probably have beaten UCLA again. Maybe OSU would’ve won by enough to prompt an AP Poll revote, like Michigan did against USC in 1947, since #1 Alabama only beat Arkansas by 10-3 in the Sugar Bowl. Either way, historians and computers would’ve had their say later on.

The Big Ten didn’t let teams bowl widely until 1975.

The Big Ten has more legacy programs than any league except the SEC, but if you look at the list of teams that have bowled most often, you’ll see it’s light on the Big Ten. A bunch of Big Ten teams that have been around forever and had long spells of success have played in relatively few bowls, like Northwestern (a 5-10 bowl record), Minnesota (9-12), and Illinois (8-11).

For example, since the Big Ten got so frugal about bowl games in 1922, the Illini have had 15 seasons with two losses or fewer. They’ve only gone bowling in six, including a handful of misses after bowl expansion in the ‘40s.

None of this is to say Big Ten schools were wrong to sit out old bowls.

Not wanting college football to become a corporate boondoggle was a reasonable old idea. It’s easy to see why faculty members wanted to rein in the sport’s influence on their campuses.

At the same time, a number of old bowl games probably wouldn’t have even let Big Ten teams play. The Sugar Bowl, for instance, didn’t welcome a black player until 1956. Big Ten teams had long had integrated rosters and might not have been welcome.

The Big Ten’s absence altered a lot of things, though. Wondering what could’ve been is interesting.

So is wondering what wouldn’t have been. If Michigan had been allowed a second straight Rose in 1948, Northwestern wouldn’t have gotten to go, denying the Cats their only Rose win. If Ohio State hadn’t passed in 1961, Minnesota wouldn’t have its lone Rose win, either.

Maybe these rules were good. Do you really wish the Big Ten’s most powerful teams got to have more titles than they already do?

(Matt, an Ohio State man, says: Yes.)

No. You don’t want that.