The Man Who Defines Big Ten in the BCS Era
The Bowl Championship Series will enter its 16th and final season in 2013, defining an important era from the wild west days before 1998 and the playoff era of 2014 and beyond. While the BCS was lambasted for many good reasons, the system did provide a ton of great moments and endless debate on the most deserving teams every season.
The Big Ten enjoyed many of these great moments in the past 15 years. Although the conference has not kept up with the dominant SEC in the last half of this era (nobody has), there have been plenty of high points to keep fans coming back to the Midwest and the heart of college football.
The incoming college football playoffs will not entirely remove the debates over deserving teams, but the great moments may be harder to find when the regular season and bowls are diminished compared to the four teams in the playoffs. It will certainly be a brave new world of super-conferences and selection committees, if nothing else.
Before we finish carving out the gravestone for the BCS, let's take a look at the highlights and some of the lowlights of the past 15 years for the Big Ten.
The lights didn't go out this night in New Orleans.
After Lloyd Carr left the Wolverines program following the 2007 season, Michigan took a swing for the fences and missed on bringing Les Miles back to Ann Arbor. That led to the hiring of Rich Rodriguez and the slow painful decline of the football program, while Rodriguez recruited his style of offensive talent.
Rodriguez finally got the Wolverines back to bowl eligibility in his third season and seemed to be turning the corner, but another loss to Ohio State and a stomping by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl spelled the end.
Thus, Brady Hoke came in with little fanfare and low expectations, especially considering he inherited a roster full of Rodriguez talent when he preferred to run a pro-style offense.
Thanks to a favorable schedule and some wise coaching, Hoke led the Wolverines to a surprising 11-2 bounce-back season and back to the BCS for the first time since narrowly missing the BCS Championship in 2006.
Michigan drew a favorable matchup in an ACC at-large team Virginia Tech, and the Wolverines took advantage with a dramatic 23-20 overtime victory.
Although the Wolverines took a step back to 8-5 in 2013, this Sugar Bowl victory proved Michigan was back. The painful losing era following Lloyd Carr's departure was finally over.
Some things never change...with brawny Wisconsin backs.
In the past 15 seasons, the Big Ten has competed for a number of Heisman Trophies. Two young men have brought the highest individual award in college athletics back to the Big Ten: Ron Dayne for Wisconsin in 1999 and Troy Smith for Ohio State in 2006.
"The Dayne Train" rolled over Big Ten defenses with regularity in each of his four seasons in Madison, as the running back never failed to average less than 100 yards per game in a season. Dayne still holds the career rushing yards record, despite not counting his bowl games at 6,397 rushing yards.
Dayne also won back-to-back Rose Bowl MVP awards as he led Wisconsin to the school's biggest glory on the Pasadena stage. Dayne likely goes down as the most dominant player of the BCS era, even though half of his career falls outside the 1998-2014 window.
A few years later in 2006, Smith benefited from being the quarterback on the best team in the country during the regular season. Smith did not put up gaudy numbers, but being the reliable leader of a top team was enough when no other athletes had breakout seasons.
Smith did garner over 90 percent of the first-place votes, becoming only the second player to ever do so in Heisman voting (and the first since 1942). A high honor for a player who missed two games for improper benefits and was fighting for his job with a future BTN analyst, Justin Zwick, the season prior to his Heisman run.
When the Big Ten added a 12th team in Nebraska beginning with the 2011 season, the conference finally had the standing to split into divisions and have a conference championship game. Rather than being out of the spotlight at the end of the season, the Big Ten now stands right alongside the Big 12 and the SEC on conference championship weekend.
The first Big Ten championship was a game for the ages, a fitting follow-up to a shocking first game between Michigan State and Wisconsin. Kirk Cousins had a Hail Mary answered to win the first game in East Lansing, but his prayers would not be answered this time in Indianapolis.
Wisconsin raced out to a 21-7 first quarter lead, but then surrendered 22 consecutive points to fall behind by eight at halftime. The teams exchanged scores late until Montee Ball scored the game-winning touchdown to give the Badgers the victory.
While neither team would perform well in the bowl games, this was a shining bright moment to welcome a new era in the Big Ten conference.
Still an inspiration in Bloomington
Terry Hoeppner came into Indiana with some fanfare after leading Miami of Ohio to great heights using great recruits like Ben Roethlisberger. The Hoosiers immediately had a new attitude and started to turn things around, quite similarly to how Kevin Wilson has in the past two seasons.
Hoeppner even had the Hoosiers on a faster track upward, as he followed a 3-9 opening season with a near-miss for a bowl game with a 5-7 second season. His diagnosis of brain cancer did not deter his spirit and his motto that Indiana needed to "Play 13," meaning make a bowl game.
Then the coach was tragically gone after just two seasons as a result of the cancer, and Bill Lynch had to step in under the most difficult of circumstances. Lynch rallied the team behind Hoeppner and his motto and pulled every ounce of effort from this team, culminating in an emotional come-from-behind win against Purdue to secure the sixth win and bowl eligibility.
Rest in peace, Terry. Your words still inspire Hoosiers and the rest of Big Ten country to this day.
These two legends were the story...to begin with.
The 2005 season was full of memorable moments, including Penn State escaping with a hard-fought defensive win against Ohio State and then dropping a controversial heartbreaker to Michigan.
The Nittany Lions would finish with only that one loss, while Ohio State only had one other close loss to Texas, which was led by Vince Young heading to the BCS Championship that season.
That set up the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions as battle-tested and strong heading into compelling BCS bowl games against Notre Dame and Florida State, respectively. The Fiesta Bowl was thrilled to have the Buckeye Nation back for a third time in four seasons, while a clash of legends was set up in Miami in the Orange Bowl.
The Buckeyes were not star-struck by the Charlie Weis-led Irish, as Ohio State rolled up 617 yards of offense against Notre Dame. That allowed the Buckeyes to smoothly ride to a 21-7 lead at halftime and coast to an easy two-touchdown victory. Ohio State simply owned Arizona and this bowl game—at least until the following season.
Meanwhile, Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno duked it out one last time with bragging rights and the coaching wins record somewhat in the balance. Although neither team managed to get much going in the way of offense, the game was tightly contested and interesting throughout. After three overtimes, Penn State walked away victorious.
The Big Ten was right near the top of the world, thanks to these two wins on the biggest stage, but it was about to go very, very wrong...
Without Ted Ginn Jr., Troy Smith looked mortal.
In addition to all these high moments, there have certainly been a number of low marks for the conference. Here's a brief recap painful moments from the past 15 years:
2007-08 BCS Bowl Smashing
What everyone remembers is the massive Ohio State flops, on the biggest stage, at the BCS Championship two seasons in a row. While the Buckeyes were likely not deserving in 2008 to play LSU, the unexpected hammering from Urban Meyer and the Gators in 2007 was the big disappointment.
Michigan got dumped by USC after being left out in favor of the Gators in the BCS Championship in 2007, and an undeserving Illinois team got annihilated, 49-17, by USC in 2008.
Thus, the Big Ten was too slow compared to the SEC and too weak compared to USC in the Rose Bowl. These flops have done more damage to the conference reputation than anything else in the past 15 years.
Jerry Sandusky Scandal
Penn State was rocked with scandal coming out of nowhere in 2011 when Joe Paterno was forced to step down as the gory details came out about Jerry Sandusky, a former coordinator for the team.
Sandusky's actions and the failure to disclose them caused Penn State to experience historic NCAA sanctions and the loss of jobs for the university president, athletic director and football coach.
Coach Paterno died in the interim investigation, and his legacy is marred without the ability to do anything about it, which is a shame.
Coaching Legends Dismissed in Disgrace
On the last slide, we discussed a crowning moment for the Big Ten as legendary coaches Paterno and Jim Tressel led their teams to big BCS victories.
It would figure that two men who seemed completely infallible would both be fired within the same calendar year just a few years later. These idols were disgraced, reminding us that nobody is above the law, and nobody is perfect.
Biggest Upset Ever in the Big House
Michigan entered 2007 with some swagger, despite having a disappointing end to the 2006 season with losses to Ohio State and USC following an 11-0 start. Then Michigan went out and laid an absolute egg against the FCS Mountaineers.
Michigan would struggle much more in Lloyd Carr's final season, but this loss dropped Michigan from the Top Five of the AP rankings to unranked—a complete shocker that may not be matched again.
Ohio State Blows 15-Point Lead and National Title Bid at Home in 1998
Although John Cooper had barely survived with his poor record against Michigan and his poor bowl record, his victory in the Rose Bowl helped bring in a couple recruiting classes that would make Ohio State the team to beat in 1998.
The Buckeyes rocked every opponent heading into November and had a couple breather games before the showdown with Michigan.
The first half at home against outmatched Michigan State went right to plan, as the Buckeyes had a 24-9 lead. But then Nick Saban proved his coaching prowess, outfoxing John Cooper and ruining the Buckeye season with a 28-24 upset in Columbus.
The Buckeyes would win against Michigan and in the Sugar Bowl, but the special season would have to wait a few more years.
Nebraska Backs Into BCS Championship and Gets Rocked Like a Hurricane
In 2001, Nebraska was right back on the cusp of winning a national championship only four years after Tom Osborne won his final title. But then Nebraska was waxed in the final regular-season game against Colorado, 62-36, and lost the right to play in the Big 12 championship.
Despite this, Nebraska got all the breaks and backed into the BCS Championship against Miami. The Hurricanes proved that this was a mistake, as Nebraska was throttled much worse than even the 37-14 score would indicate. Yes, the Huskers were not yet a Big Ten team, but this was embarrassing for all of college football.
The "0-fer" on 2011 New Year's Day
While it is true that the Big Ten plays tough competition in bowl games in usually unfavorable locales, the 2011 slate of New Year's Games was an unmitigated disaster that cannot be outdone.
The conference went a shocking 0-5, including losses by Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, and most notably, Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl to TCU.
It cannot get worse than this. Bottom line.
The Aggies couldn't quite come back.
As mentioned on the last slide, Ohio State suffered a shocking defeat at the hands of Michigan State that held them out of the first BCS Championship. However, the conference may have ended up better off as the trend began of grabbing the maximum two BCS berths in the first season of the system.
Wisconsin outran an athletic UCLA team, 38-31, in the Rose Bowl behind the power and legs of Ron Dayne. Ohio State matched that effort with a rare appearance and victory in the Sugar Bowl against Texas A&M, 24-14. Ohio State dominated on defense, only giving up three first downs, following the opening touchdown drive to start the game for A&M.
But the hits did not stop there. Despite being forced into a higher bowl slot, the other three Big Ten bowl teams also fared well. Michigan rode two interception returns for touchdowns to blow away Arkansas, Penn State sacked Tim Couch six times to defeat Kentucky and Purdue shocked the No. 4 Kansas State Wildcats behind the power of Drew Brees.
This is a bowl performance that may never be matched by the conference again. The BCS era started incredibly well.
Big Ten referees, forever subjected to angry Bo
There had been plenty of murmuring about conference realignment throughout the 2000s, but no big shifts has really occurred outside the constant ACC poaching of the Big East. Even the move of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College ended up to not be that big of a deal for the ACC following the shift in 2005.
But then conference realignment exploded again when Jim Delany went out and grabbed Nebraska from a seemingly unstable Big 12 at the time. Nebraska may not have provided a big television market or the dollars that the Big Ten and its network seem to crave, but Nebraska did bring a ton of Midwestern tradition and history to the table.
Nebraska was also happy to be leaving the Texas-dominated politics of the Big 12 for the more equitable approach in the Big Ten under Delany. This was a powerful match made in heaven for both parties, and no other conference realignment move in the many since then has moved the needle in a similar manner.
Plus, this moved the Big Ten to be more like the SEC. That is always a good goal.
The distaste and dismissal of the Big Ten had reached a fever pitch, thanks to the flops following the 2006 and 2007 seasons, so when Ohio State and Iowa both made BCS bowl games following the 2009 season, it was easy to pick against the "slow and clunky" Big Ten teams.
After all, how could Ohio State hope to contain the high-octane Oregon Ducks, and how could Iowa begin to prepare for the option attack of Georgia Tech?
As it turns out, both teams passed those tests with flying colors, thanks in large part to stingy defenses that helped them many times in Big Ten play.
The Buckeyes held Oregon to 17 points in a 26-17 victory, as Jim Tressel let all of the air out of the ball and slowly sucked the life out of Chip Kelly's team. This blueprint would be followed by others such as Stanford in future seasons on how to beat the Ducks.
Meanwhile in Miami, Iowa stifled any hope that Georgia Tech had by jumping out to a lead and then containing the option attack after a month of preparation for it. Iowa only gained 403 total yards and 24 points, but that was more than enough compared to Tech's 155 yards.
The "Eyes" had it working well in 2010. Of course, just like in 2005, a big BCS season was an indicator of another huge fall about to happen in the debacle "0-fer" 2011 New Year's Day, but this moment was one to savor.
"We've always had the Best Damn Band in the Land, but now we've got the Best Damn Team in the Land."
With those words, Jim Tressel struck down the tyranny of a 37-game winning streak from the Miami Hurricanes and gave the Big Ten a national championship for the first time since Michigan split in 1997.
Behind a game-manager quarterback, Craig Krenzel, and some amazing NFL talent on defense, Ohio State narrowly escaped defeat once again for a record 14th victory in this season.
Miami had stomped through the entire schedule, and this looked like a coronation for the Hurricanes. But unlike Nebraska, who flopped in 2001, Ohio State traded punches and did not let Ken Dorsey run away with the game.
Sure, Willis McGahee was injured in the game, and sure, there was a questionable pass interference call in the first overtime. But if there's anything this 2002 Buckeye team proved, it's that you cannot count a tough team out until the final whistle blows.
Plus, Ohio State got paid back in spades in similar fashion by another team from Florida four years later in the same location, but that's beside the point. Ohio State was the dominant team of this era and Jim Tressel, faults and all, brought home the only BCS Championship Trophy for this league.
Sometimes not having a conference championship game works out, such as when Ohio State and Michigan each rolled through their 2006 schedules on a collision course with identical 11-0 records.
Although Jim Tressel had found the upper hand against Michigan in his first five seasons, Lloyd Carr brought arguably his best team since 1997 into Columbus with a chance to win a conference title and arguably a national title.
For two teams that knew how to play good defense, this game was an offensive show. Michigan drew first blood with a Mike Hart touchdown run, but then the home fans erupted in cheers as Ohio State scored three straight touchdowns to take a 14-point lead. This lead held at halftime following another touchdown for each squad.
Michigan ripped off 10 straight points to open the second half and cut the deficit to four, but the Wolverines could never pull any closer until the end. Despite the Buckeyes leading the whole way, Michigan was right in the game and the tension was palpable in Columbus for this so-called "Game of the Century."
The game propelled Troy Smith to win the Heisman and nearly was good enough to warrant an immediate rematch in Glendale, Ariz.
However, the voters rebelled against this (possibly as a reaction to letting Nebraska back into the championship game just five seasons earlier to a disastrous result) and pushed Ohio State against Florida while Michigan had to settle for Pasadena and a date with USC.
When both teams lost those bowl games, it turned the Big Ten from the big show in town to the outhouse that the conference is working out of today.
National championships are great, but nothing beats a 42-39 showdown in the greatest rivalry of all college sports, with both teams undefeated and playing for a Big Ten and national championship. Hands down, this was the pinnacle of the BCS era in the Big Ten conference.
Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter @DA_Fitzgerald and let me know what other events you would add to this list in the comments below.
Also, prayers and thoughts to those in Boston. We stand with you as Americans on this sad day.