Coming to a Bowl Near You...
The final week of regular-season play in Big Ten football settled many of the storylines that had developed throughout the course of the season. At the top of the ledger, Ohio State finished off a 12-0 season with a win against rival Michigan. However, the Buckeyes will not be playing in next weekend's Big Ten championship game thanks to NCAA sanctions.
In their place will be Wisconsin, which finished third in the Leaders Division following another overtime loss, this time to the second-place team, Penn State (which is also postseason ineligible). Purdue reached bowl eligibility with a third straight win over Indiana, while Michigan State also grabbed a sixth win against Minnesota.
In the Legends Division, Nebraska held onto the top spot by defeating Iowa in a hard-fought battle on Black Friday. Michigan's loss also would have locked up the appearance in the title game in Indianapolis for Nebraska. Northwestern held onto third place in that division with a closing win against Illinois, which puts the finishing touches on a thud of an 0-8 Big Ten season for the Illini.
Let's take a look at the lessons from this final full week of Big Ten play.
Rushing the field is so...2002, 2006, etc.
Although not always pretty, Ohio State put the finishing touches on the honeymoon season with Urban Meyer with another win over Michigan. For those keeping track at home, that would be 10 wins in the last 12 seasons for Ohio State in this series, although one would expect it to even out a bit more with Brady Hoke on the other sideline.
Ohio State continued to struggle by giving up big plays, this time a huge touchdown run by Denard Robinson in the first half. Nonetheless, the defense locked down Robinson and the Wolverines in the second half, not allowing Michigan to cross midfield with the ball at all in the last 30 minutes of play. If it had not been for the continued struggle of making good tackles to stop big gains, Ohio State would have won a lot more games by convincing margins.
The progress of this team, especially on defense, was evident as the season wore on, and that is a credit to the new coaching staff. That allowed the offense to have some struggles in the final two weeks without adding a loss to the season ledger. Braxton Miller may be invited to New York for a Heisman ceremony, and the Buckeyes will finish in the top 5 of the national rankings once again.
It was a short respite, and there will not be any official league title to celebrate, but Ohio State defeated all teams with a winning record in the conference except for Northwestern, which finished in third place in the Legends Division. Ohio State is back on top, and will be poised for a big 2013.
For once, the special uniforms didn't look that bad.
It has become clear over the past three weeks that some voters in the Associated Press poll would not be convinced that Ohio State deserved to be a national champion even with an undefeated season (most notably, five writers who had the Buckeyes ranked 10th or lower before the Michigan game, including Josh Kendall, who had OSU at 14th). Whether it was close games, the NCAA sanctions, or a bad Big Ten this season, some voters were simply not impressed.
In addition, BCS guru Brad Edwards plugged in the AP Poll numbers from this week and determined that Ohio State would only be ranked fifth in the BCS Standings, if the Buckeyes were eligible. Of course, those poll numbers have been affected on some level by the sanctions, so perhaps Ohio State would have a chance to be No. 2 with a win over Nebraska in the Big Ten championship. However, that chance is simply not there.
The other games that had to go Ohio State's way to have a shot at No. 1 did not fall in the Buckeyes' favor on Saturday. Notre Dame, Georgia, and Alabama all handled their own rivalry games, and two of those three teams will play for the national championship. The winner of that game will not fall below Ohio State, so the dream of an AP National Championship is gone.
If Notre Dame falls, at least Ohio State can claim the only undefeated season in 2012. But the hardware will be limited to the division title.
Survive and advance.
Despite finding the blustery conditions in Iowa City tough on Friday, Nebraska persevered thanks to the efforts of Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah, both playing together for the first time in nearly two months. Nebraska had the worst output of the season at 263 yards of offense, but the Blackshirts defense did not let James Vandenberg and the Hawkeyes do any better than that.
Thus, Nebraska finishes 7-1 in conference play, by far the best mark in Bo Pelini's tenure at Nebraska. Although the Cornhuskers had multiple opportunities to win conference championships in the Big 12 championship game, it has not happened for them since 1999. This is one drought that must end now, or else Pelini will face more heat than one would expect for a coach of a 10-win team.
Thankfully, Nebraska does not have to avenge the sole conference loss, which came to Ohio State. Instead, the Cornhuskers pull Wisconsin, a team that they did defeat to open conference play (albeit not very convincingly after falling behind by 17 at home to the Badgers). This should favor the Cornhuskers, and a trip to Pasadena will be icing on the cake for this team.
Barring an upset, Nebraska will complete the primary mission of winning a conference title. With Stanford or UCLA waiting in the Rose Bowl, Nebraska has a chance to finish with 12 victories and a Top-10 ranking.
Curt Phillips shows good throwing form.
Wisconsin will be headed back to Indianapolis for the conference championship game as expected, but the road was not nearly as easy as it looked heading into 2012. It turns out that replacing NFL-caliber linemen on offense and defense is not as easy as it seemed for Wisconsin in previous years. Add that to the struggles at quarterback with freshman Joel Stave (before his season-ending injury) and Danny O'Brien, and Wisconsin could not blow away teams this year.
Wisconsin did have a pretty good defense, only giving up 18 points per game. But all the struggles on offense, especially in the passing game, made it hard for Wisconsin to hold onto leads or get ahead against better teams.
This proved itself in the records of the teams Wisconsin defeated, as all seven of those teams except for Utah State (10-2) finished at 6-6 or worse. The Aggies missed a chip shot field goal to win the game in Madison as well, so Wisconsin is nearly a 6-6 team. Likewise, each of the teams the Badgers lost to finished with a winning record, except for Michigan State at 6-6.
There's no mistaking it. Wisconsin beats the teams that it is supposed to beat, but not teams with winning records. That bodes poorly for this weekend's championship game against 10-2 Nebraska.
The latest on the coaching carousel—Purdue.
Purdue managed to make a bowl game for the second-straight season with a third win in a row, this time in the rivalry game against Indiana, 56-35. Although the three straight wins came against the clear bottom run of the conference (Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa), this closing stretch cannot be overlooked from a team that looked completely incapable of winning a conference game outside of the near-shocker in Columbus before this stretch.
In addition to that close loss to the Buckeyes, which would have improved Danny Hope's record to 3-1 against Ohio State, Purdue also pushed Notre Dame to the limit in South Bend early this season. If either of those games had gone the other way, then perhaps that would have been enough progress to keep Hope for another season. But no big wins and more mediocrity is not accepted in West Lafayette, so Hope will be let go after going 22-27 in his four seasons.
Purdue has been known for not paying much for their coaching, which is not a way to compete when the big boys of the conference are paying big-name coaches millions of dollars every season. If Purdue is going to be more than a thorn in Ohio State's side, the university must pay someone bigger money to come in and revamp this program.
Purdue has proven that it can compete, such as when Drew Brees was quarterback. The next coach must make it his goal to find that next-level talent and bring it back to Purdue.
Matte helmets didn't help the Illini.
Northwestern dominated in every phase of the game against Illinois, leading to a 50-14 victory for the Wildcats. Northwestern won the turnover battle 4-2, racked up nearly twice as many yards of offense as the Illini, and held the ball for over 37 minutes in this rivalry game.
That puts Northwestern at 9-3 on the season, which trails only Nebraska and Michigan when considering bowl-eligible Big Ten teams. Having two more wins than Wisconsin, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Purdue will force a Jan. 1 bowl to pick the Wildcats, even with a smaller fan base and following than some of these other schools.
Thus, assuming Nebraska heads to the Rose Bowl, that will force Northwestern into the Outback Bowl (The Capital One will pick Michigan), which is a great achievement for this team. If Wisconsin pulls the upset, then Northwestern will still play on New Year's Day, in all likelihood in the Gator Bowl. However, Northwestern deserves the big-time bowl game because this team came close to winning 10 or 11 games.
The best news for Northwestern is that only seven seniors have played significant minutes in 2012. That means the core of this team comes back for 2013, a year in which Northwestern should be a big threat to win the Legends Division. Hard to believe, but purple power is here to stay.
About to be tackled by AIRBHG, trust us
Iowa and Illinois finished the season with a thud, as the Hawkeyes lost six in a row and Illinois lost nine in a row. It may be a mixed blessing that neither of these teams has to prepare for a bowl game this year, as it is clear that those games would only end in disappointment for these teams.
Illinois came close in only one conference game, that being last week's 20-17 home loss to Purdue. In all major statistical categories (passing yards, rushing yards, points for, and points against), Illinois finished in the bottom 25 teams nationally. Nathan Scheelhaase and most of the offense will return next season, but the defense needs a complete retooling and may not have the right coach to recruit good defensive talent.
Meanwhile, Kirk Ferentz may find the seat growing a bit warmer in Iowa City following his first losing season since 2006 (6-7, loss in a bowl game). Iowa continued to struggle against the Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God, although the bigger disappointment came at quarterback, where Vandenberg could not get the passing game going all season. Despite coming in with great praise following Ricky Stanzi, Vandenberg will go down as one of the worst quarterbacks of the past few decades.
Iowa will lose some key contributors on defense, which was the one unit that played well for the Hawkeyes in 2012. With teams improving all over the conference except at West Lafayette, the going will be no easier for these two teams stuck in the basement of the conference standings. It will be a long road to climb back up the conference standings for the Illini and the Hawkeyes.
These two men made the pain go away.
Heading into the 2012 season, things looked bleak for Penn State, thanks to the departures of some important players like Silas Redd and Anthony Fera, and the need to overcome sanctions following the NCAA probe into the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Following an 0-2 start, things seemed to be snowballing toward the bad record that many prognosticators (including me) expected.
Then something great happened, as Matt McGloin led a suddenly-dynamic passing attack to eight wins in the final 10 games. Penn State only lost to Ohio State and Nebraska, the two teams that lead the division standings on either side of the Big Ten. By closing the season with an emotional overtime win against Wisconsin, Penn State has been redeemed with an 8-4 season.
This group of seniors, especially McGloin, will be talked about for many years to come in Happy Valley, especially if the program goes south over the next decade due to the heavy sanctions. If nothing else, this team proved that you can compete, even when it seems like the whole world is against you.
Hopefully Penn State can retain Bill O'Brien for the long haul, as it seems he knows what it takes to compete in the Big Ten. A good Penn State is good for the Big Ten, especially as the conference expands eastward to places like Maryland and Rutgers.
This team might not have won any titles, but it did win the hearts of Penn State fans. That's all that matters when it's all said and done.
First trip to Columbus ends in disappointment.
Despite having a new coaching staff and a completely different scheme to learn on offense and defense, Michigan roared back from the mediocrity of the Rich Rodriguez years with an 11-2 season in 2011. With the schedule becoming more difficult on the road in 2012, many predicted this team would be better with a worse record.
That is precisely what happened, as Michigan finished up 8-4 and out of the conference championship game once again. The four losses were all to elite-level teams, as Alabama and Notre Dame may be playing for the BCS Championship, while Ohio State and Nebraska won their respective divisions in the Big Ten. However, those are the types of games you have to win or at least split to be considered "back" atop college football.
Michigan played a lot of seniors this season, but the coaching staff has found a quarterback for next year in Devin Gardner to go with all the young talent coming in to run Al Borges' pro-style offense. That should keep Michigan right in the mix for a conference title next year, when Alabama comes off the schedule and the other three losses become home games in Ann Arbor again.
The Wolverines are back to being a Big Ten contender, but there's still some room to grow into a national championship contender. Even with the loss to Ohio State, things look good in Ann Arbor heading into a Jan. 1 bowl game and 2013.
The Spartans' hopes ride on this guy again next year.
Le'Veon Bell finished up a great junior season with 266 rushing yards against Minnesota, a defense that had been stout for most of the season. As a result, Bell finished the 2012 regular season with 1,648 yards and 11 touchdowns on 350 attempts, leading his team to many of the six victories the Spartans achieved this season.
Andrew Maxwell found his groove more and more as the season went on, but the Spartans generally did not put up big offensive numbers without a good effort by Bell. Each time Bell went over 200 yards, Michigan State won (3-0 record in such games). Meanwhile, Michigan State only went 2-3 (one win in overtime) in games in which Bell was held to under 80 rushing yards.
Bell may have the skills to go pro after his junior season, but Mark Dantonio must hope he stays for 2013. The outlook will be far better if Michigan State brings back most of the important pieces on offense after developing together for most of 2012. The defense is likely going to take a small step back, and the offense must make up for any lapse on defense next season.
Thus, the key to whether Michigan State will be considered a threat for the Big Ten title next season rides on Bell. Although Montee Ball gets more headlines, Bell is likely the MVP to any team in the conference. Let's hope we get to see more of him next season.
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