The long national nightmare is over. The 2012 Big Ten football season is finally over, and now all that remains is a date with bowl season for seven fearless competitors asking for a bit more punishment.
Wisconsin hoisted the trophy this weekend in Indianapolis, putting the same name on the conference championship for a third straight year and giving the five-loss Badgers yet another chance to win a Rose Bowl after losses to TCU and Oregon the past two seasons.
Of course, the disappointment of sending a five-loss team to Pasadena just about sums up this season for the Big Ten. There were missed opportunities and big disappointments for everyone outside Columbus, but even the Buckeyes feel unfulfilled following the early termination of the 12-0 season.
Before looking ahead to bowl season in detail and to the 2013 season and beyond, it is time for one last wistful look back on the regular season. How does your favorite Big Ten team stack up in the final power rankings for 2012? Let's take a look, as The Black Keys bring the themes this week to send us out on at least a good musical note, if nothing else.
It's the least depressing photo I could find
Final Record: 2-10, 0-8 Big Ten—Sixth place in Leaders Division
Theme Song: Hard Row
Illinois opened the season with an impressive 24-7 victory against Western Michigan, and it seemed like the Tim Beckman era was off to a great start in Champaign. Eleven games later, Beckman is still looking for his second win against an FBS opponent.
The season came to a blissful end in a 50-14 shellacking in the Land of Lincoln trophy game loss against Northwestern. Illinois finished the season ranked 95th or worse in every major team statistical category. Even with Nathan Scheelhaase poised to return for a senior season, there will likely be no more bowl games for quite some time while Illinois digs out of the hole left by Ron Zook.
It's a hard road to the top or middle of the conference, but there is just enough youth to think that Beckman may build something respectable in 2014. The hopes for 2013 are not looking good, and this will be the inevitable hangover of the 2012 season.
Throwback...the uniforms and the lack of competitiveness
Final Record: 4-8, 2-6 Big Ten—t-Fifth place in Legends Division
Theme Song: Dead and Gone
Remember when Iowa escaped the seeming upset against Northern Illinois 18-17 back in the Week 1 game in Chicago? Turns out, that was actually an upset, and it will keep the 12-1 Huskies out of the BCS (go figure). Following a 4-2 start and 2-0 in the Big Ten, the season tanked in Iowa City as the Hawkeyes lost six in a row to end the year.
Given the continuous string of bad luck on and off the field with running backs, the lack of development from James Vandenberg, and the rocky offseason (Rhabdo outbreak, etc.) leading up to the 2012 season, perhaps the tough finish should have been expected. Still, Kirk Ferentz does not seem to have this program heading back to the top like he normally does every four or five years.
The Hawkeye defense was not bad, finishing 34th in the nation by giving up just under 23 points per game. But the offense could not get out of the way, and this was never more apparent than when Iowa failed to upset Nebraska in a 13-7 loss to close the season.
Look for continued emphasis on defense in 2013 as Iowa tries to rebuild the offense from scratch. Given that the offense was dead and gone for the last six weeks, this is probably a net positive.
Disappointing End, but Brighter Days Ahead
Final Record: 4-8, 2-6 Big Ten—Fifth place in Leaders Division
Theme Song: Strange Times
Only three weeks ago Indiana stood half a game behind Wisconsin in the standings with a chance to pull even against the Badgers with a tiebreaker in hand to head to the Big Ten Championship. Indiana has one thing in common with Nebraska: They got thumped by Wisconsin when a title was on the line, as when Wisconsin beat the Hoosiers 62-14.
Two more losses followed, and Indiana finishes well outside the bowl season once again. However, progress was made as Indiana did defeat the two teams behind them in these power rankings, and had good chances to knock off at least four more teams: Michigan State, Navy, Ohio State, and Ball State.
Kevin Wilson and his staff will look back on those four losses in the middle of the season, which were part of a five-game losing streak, and wonder what might have been if Tre Roberson were still healthy. It's hard to imagine that Indiana would have won five games in conference, but the division race would have been a lot tighter. Those would have been strange times, indeed.
The experience of Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld will come in handy next season, as Indiana looks to stay dynamic on offense while improving the defense little-by-little. Perhaps next season we will be talking about a bowl game for the Hoosiers, but it was not meant to be in 2012.
Jingle Jangle...Bowl Eligbility and No Coach
Final Record: 6-6, 3-5 Big Ten—Fourth place in Leaders Division
Theme Song: Gold on the Ceiling
If nothing else, Danny Hope can sleep well at night knowing his team did not quit on him, nor him on them when the writing was on the wall after a 3-6 start. Purdue ripped off three straight wins, admittedly against the bottom three teams in this power rankings, but still three wins nonetheless.
That will make Purdue the hottest Big Ten team heading into bowl season, and the Boilermakers proved they can hang with the likes of Ohio State and Notre Dame earlier this season. Hopefully another month of practice will lead up to a winnable bowl matchup, like when Purdue went to Detroit and won a season ago.
It will be interesting to see how well Purdue will pay the next coaching staff, as the going seems to be getting a lot tougher in this division with Wisconsin playing so well and Ohio State becoming a dominant force again. For now, the interim coaches must keep these young men focused on getting better and taking advantage of another month of practice.
For today, it's time to party in West Lafayette. There's gold in the air and hope for better times ahead (pun intended).
Now playing in Minneapolis...The Matrix
Final Record: 6-6, 2-6 Big Ten—t-Fifth place in Legends Division
Theme Song: Tighten Up
In just year two of the Jerry Kill era, Minnesota is headed back to bowl season. It was not an easy or expected path back to 6-6, as freshman QB Philip Nelson had to take over the team at mid-season, but that makes the result all the more fulfilling for this team.
The Golden Gophers team will be remembered for a tough defense, as the unit held opponents under 24 points per game and kept themselves in games against clearly better competition. That defense will be the foundation for 2013 and the future of this football program, as Kill will want to achieve the same levels of success he has had at previous stops on his coaching journey.
For now the formula is the same one followed by all mediocre teams in good conferences: sweep the non-conference schedule, then steal a couple of wins in conference play. Despite a surprising loss at Iowa early in the season, the Gophers were better than Purdue and Illinois, and those two wins were all it took to play a 13th game.
It will be interesting to see if the extra month of practice enables Minnesota to score more than 14 points in the bowl game. If so, then Minnesota may help carry the conference's banner to brighter days ahead.
Playing on for another month, mission accomplished
Final Record: 6-6, 3-5 Big Ten—Fourth place in Legends Division
Theme Song: I Got Mine
It may be hard to believe, but the competitors in the Big Ten Championship from a season ago combined to finish 7-9 in Big Ten play and 13-11 overall. For Michigan State, this season was far more disappointing though because there was no free pass into the Big Ten Championship out of the Legends Division.
Still, this team avoided the disaster that would have been a losing season following two double-digit win campaigns with a win over Minnesota in the closing weekend. What was different about that game was the margin of victory, as the 16-point win was the first time Michigan State had been more than four points different than the opponent in Big Ten play.
Thus, just like the Badgers, Michigan State is not as bad as it looks on paper, as each of the five conference losses came by margins of four or fewer points. The Spartans were definitely one of the best defenses in the country, but that defense could not score all the points and so this team lost when the offense consistently could not get the job done.
Le'Veon Bell was everything the offense could want and then some with 1648 yards and 11 touchdowns, but Andrew Maxwell will need a good offseason to help the passing game keep defenses honest in 2013. The defense will lose some big playmakers, so now is the time for the offense to step up and lead this team back to the top of the division.
Look for bowl season to be a possible redeemer for this team.
Even we can score 70 against this defense!
Final Record: 8-5, 5-4 Big Ten—Third place in Leaders Division (Big Ten Champion)
Theme Song: Same Old Thing
Here's your Big Ten Champion once again doing the same old, same old by hoisting the conference championship silver football in Indianapolis. But just like Michigan State on the last slide, Wisconsin took a far more convoluted path to this result than was expected at the beginning of the season.
Also similar to the Spartans, the problems were caused by a surprising lack of offense after this team dynamically rolled over the conference in the past two years with Montee Ball and Russell Wilson (in 2011). It was clear something was wrong with the offensive line during struggles in the first three games of the season, and that led to the early-season firing of an offensive line coach.
Apparently that motivated the team a little bit, as Wisconsin played better on the lines and began to assert its will following a loss at Nebraska to end September. After that loss, Wisconsin would not be outscored in regulation again, although three painful overtime losses to Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State would still happen. The record may have been better if Joel Stave did not break his clavicle in November, forcing third-stringer Curt Phillips into the starting role.
Thanks to a little good fortune, Wisconsin will see a similar type of team on the opposing sideline this year in Pasadena, due to Stanford knocking off Oregon and UCLA for the Pac-12 title. Stanford will be heavily favored, but don't count out this Badgers team, which is loaded with experience of playing in Pasadena and who desperately wants to bring home a trophy this time.
It's honestly hard to rank a conference champion who looked so good in destroying Nebraska this low, but the struggles throughout the season cannot be overlooked. Wisconsin can restore some conference pride with a big upset in Pasadena, and that's all that matters in this crazy Big Ten season.
For one more year, THE Under Armour School of the Big Ten
Final Record: 9-3, 5-3 Big Ten—Third place in Legends Division
Theme Song: Lonely Boy
Well at least one team from the state of Illinois wants to look good for the Big Ten (perhaps the Illini should be replaced with the Huskies of NIU for the time being, but I digress). Northwestern proved to clearly not be among the top-four teams in the conference, thanks to losses to each of those teams except for Ohio State. But the Wildcats were just as close as Wisconsin and Michigan State to many more victories.
That keeps Northwestern above the conference champions in these power rankings by a narrow margin. Even with Wisconsin leaping over Northwestern in the bowl pecking order, the Wildcats will still have one of the coveted spots in Florida on New Year's Day in the games that lead up to the showdown in Pasadena.
Although Syracuse, Vanderbilt, and Boston College are not a murderer's row, Northwestern has proven they can compete when going outside the conference. Now Pat Fitzgerald must finally get a bowl victory, the one item that has eluded him so far in Evanston. With Venric Mark and Kain Colter gashing through defenses, Northwestern has the offensive firepower to stay with most opponents.
Looking forward to 2013, the main question will be whether now is the time Northwestern takes the next step for the first time under Fitzgerald. The Wildcats defeated or narrowly lost to each of the other teams in the division this year, so the opportunity is there to move up and play in Indianapolis next season.
If you thought 2012 was crazy, wait until the purple crush invades Lucas Oil Stadium.
Still Not Happy...Yet
Final Record: 8-4, 6-2 Big Ten—Second place in Legends Division
Theme Song: Ohio
Brady Hoke can call them Ohio or whatever he wants, but Michigan missed an opportunity to silence the critics with a big win against a top team for the first time in 2012 with the loss in Columbus a week ago. Just like in losses to Alabama and Notre Dame (which turned out to be pretty good teams), Michigan went completely stagnant on offense in the second half against the Buckeyes and failed to even cross midfield in a tight game.
That output is just unacceptable for an offense that had been coming together nicely with the dynamic duo of Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner in the backfield. Although Brady Hoke stood behind Al Borges following the loss, the internal meetings have to seriously consider how to get this pro-style offense going now that the coaching staff will be working with mostly their own recruits.
When looking back on this season, the losses to arguably the top-three teams in the country may not be the defining memory; the loss at Nebraska caused by the inability to overcome Denard Robinson's first serious injury will be what defines the season. That loss kept Michigan from playing Wisconsin in Indianapolis for the conference championship, and now Hoke must wait another year to play for the title he claims to covet above all other goals.
Michigan is the same solid team that went 11-2 a season ago, but there are still many adjustments to make the Wolverines a national contender again. The upcoming bowl game against the SEC will bring a good opportunity to finally grab a quality win.
One Team...Indeed (Well Done)
Final Record: 8-4, 6-2 Big Ten—Second place in Leaders Division
Theme Song: Howlin' For You
The redeem team of 2012 made the pain of losing Joe Paterno and school pride in the offseason scandal go away, at least for a little while. Following the departures of 10 players, including Silas Redd and Anthony Fera, and a painful 0-2 start caused by the lack of a reliable field goal kicker in Virginia, this team could have packed it in for the season. Instead, this team thrived and won eight of the last 10 games.
Although it seemed unlikely at the beginning of the season, Penn State did end up with a 1000-yard rusher in Zach Zwinak. That complemented the suddenly high-flying passing attack led by senior QB Matt McGloin, who threw for over 3200 yards in the new system installed by Bill O'Brien. Is there any doubt Penn State will be able to lure big-time quarterback prospects to Happy Valley to prepare for the NFL under the man who helped keep Tom Brady atop his league?
The only thing that could derail this program completely would be the loss of O'Brien. That is still a very real possibility, as some pro teams will come knocking with more money. But O'Brien at least is saying the right things, and the recent commitment of the Big Ten to expand east is a good sign for the future of the Nittany Lions.
Perhaps the cold NCAA winter of sanctions will not be as bad as we all thought. The fans are still howling for the Nittany Lions, and this generation of players will be revered if things stay good in 2013 and beyond.
Party Like It's 1999...Oh Wait
Final Record: 10-3, 7-1 Big Ten—First place in Legends Division
Theme Song: Just Got To Be
What in the world just happened? That's what Nebraska fans and the rest of Big Ten country is asking following the thumping in Indianapolis. While Nebraska had not been blowing any opponent away, other than Minnesota, down the stretch, the reality was that the Cornhuskers had solved the problems on defense and had not lost following the embarrassing defeat to Ohio State.
Apparently those problems are still there. Just like when the Blackshirts got gashed by UCLA and the Buckeyes, Wisconsin could not be stopped despite running the ball 90 percent of the time in the championship game. Instead of celebrating a first conference title since 1999, now questions will rain down on whether Bo Pelini is the right man for the job going forward.
With Tom Osborne moving on from the athletic department, it is plausible that a new athletic director will go in a new direction for coach.
Still, the decision will be tough because Pelini has brought this team back to respectability following several bad years in the Callahan era. Nebraska may have squandered the best opportunity to win a conference title away, as Michigan and Ohio State look poised to get better and better. As a result, Nebraska may also make a change to keep the arms race going at the top of the Big Ten.
Nebraska stays at No. 2 in these power rankings based on outperforming the teams behind them for the entire season. It seems like a 40-point loss should move a team down, but one bad night cannot take away the accomplishments from the rest of the season.
The bottom line is this: Nebraska had a nice season overall, but ending the season in Florida is not where this team wants to be. That's bad news, as Nebraska will be on huge upset alert even if the opponent is ranked lower in the bowl game.
Final Record: 12-0, 8-0 Big Ten—First place in Leaders Division
Theme Song: You're The One
Yes indeed, Ohio State, you are the one that Big Ten fans wanted to see in Indianapolis and should have seen in Pasadena or Miami, but the season is done at 12-0. While the Buckeyes will not finish atop the AP poll for a national championship, this team won back the hearts of Buckeye fans and will long be remembered for turning around from a 6-7 season to reclaim the spot held at the top of the conference for most of the past decade.
Ohio State finished 105th nationally in passing offense, but that was fine considering the run-heavy spread attack with Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller worked like a charm whenever it was needed to win a game. After struggling to contain the likes of California, Nebraska, and Indiana, this defense grew up in the final five games and found playmakers at linebacker from some unexpected places (Zach Boren moved over from fullback and had great success).
So a team built on offense ended up looking a lot like the Jim Tressel teams of old by beating Wisconsin and Michigan with defense to close the season. There will be a lot of holes to fill with only three or four defensive starters returning next year, but the dynamic offense returns mostly intact.That spells huge trouble for the Big Ten, which may be struggling to keep up already in year two of the Urban Meyer era in Columbus.
We will have plenty of time to discuss the various ways Ohio State may dominate the league again next season. For now, we can celebrate a season of perfection by rewarding Ohio State with the top spot in the power rankings.
Well done, Buckeyes.
Thanks for joining me in the multiple iterations of these rankings this season. If you have some musicians that you would like to see featured in 2013, please drop a comment below or on Twitter, and I will try to incorporate those suggestions next season. Thanks again for reading!