Big Ten Football's Most Surprising Teams of the Year: The Underachievers

Zach TravisContributor INovember 30, 2011

It is easy to get carried away with preseason expectations.  So much time passes between seasons, so much of the roster is in upheaval and ultimately, the kids who play the game are still young enough that performance from year to year can vary wildly.

What teams disappointed this year, and what teams surpassed everyone's expectations?  Today we will take a look at those teams that disappointed us.


Northwestern (6-6, 3-5)

Before the year began Northwestern was a dark-horse pick to win the Big Ten Legends division.

The Wildcats were set to get quarterback Dan Persa back from the Achilles injury that knocked him out the last few games of the 2010 season, and Persa was even getting some Heisman buzz. (It is debatable whether this buzz was because of the seriousness of Persa's candidacy or the hokey "Persa Strong" Heisman campaign begun by Northwestern on his behalf.)

Obviously that didn't happen, but while it is hard to call a team "underachieving" because it failed to win the conference title while being nothing more than a sleeper pick, the way in which Northwestern played itself out of the conference title race is enough to label Fitz's boys a disappointment.

The season started off well enough with two wins, but an unexpected bump in the road came in the form of a loss to Army.  While getting upset by a highly-specialized team isn't completely surprising, it ended up being the first in a string of games where Northwestern's defense performed horribly.

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Michigan and Illinois?  Passed all over the Wildcats.  Iowa?  Scored 41 points on less than 400 yards, and only scored more points against Indiana, Louisiana-Monroe and in three overtimes against Iowa State.  Penn State?  Guess how many times the Nittany Lions scored over 30 points.  Now guess who the team was that let that happen.

Northwestern's defense failed and the Wildcat offense was unable to keep up.  Northwestern went on to win four more games, but three of those were against the likes of Indiana, Rice and Minnesota.

A win against Nebraska was the highlight of the season, but just thinking about the importance of that win—it was the upset that swung Northwestern enough wins for bowl eligibility—shows how disappointing this season was.

The Wildcats had the talent to win eight or nine games.  Instead it took an improbable upset to get to six.  Call it what you want, but I call it a disappointment.  I think Pat Fitzgerald would agree.

Illinois (6-6, 2-6)

The magnitude of this disappointment is amplified by its innate Zook-ness.

Had Illinois struggled to a 6-6 record with a couple upset losses to teams like Minnesota, sprinkled in with a throttling or two at the hands of one of the conference's best, we would still be here lamenting how Ron Zook squandered an opportunity to build on a solid 2010 season, despite bringing back a young quarterback with starting experience and a team in their second year under coordinators that engineered an impressive turnaround on both sides of the ball last year.

That would have been a disappointment.

What is this?  An insult to Illinois fans.

Illinois started the season with a bang.  By the time non-conference season was done Illinois was 4-0 with what looked like one of the better non-conference wins in the Big Ten (Arizona State).  

After the first two games against poor Big Ten competition it looked like Nathan Scheelhaase had made a jump in his comfort level as a passer and that AJ Jenkins was one of the conference's best. (One of these is true, shouldn't be tough to pick it out.)  After that?  Pain.

Illinois went on to lose the next six games in ways that are almost too painful to recount.  

First, Ohio State—coming off two heartbreaking losses—upset Illinois by all but shutting down the Illini offense (watch for the trend).  

Next, Purdue turned two drives and a turnover into an insurmountable 21-0 lead and an eventual victory.  

Penn State then choked any remaining life out of the Illinois offense (and in the process, the two teams committed horrible crimes against the concept of offensive football) and then Michigan did the same.

Left for dead, Illinois then jumped out to a quick lead against Wisconsin at home before choking away a victory with a scoreless second half.

Finally, Jerry Kill and the Minnesota Gophers delivered the coup de grace: a 27-7 win over Illinois to extend the Illini slide to six games and punch Ron Zook's ticket straight to the unemployment line.

This Illinois season isn't a disappointment, it is an abomination.  

Iowa (7-5, 4-4)

LINCOLN, NE - NOVEMBER 25: Running back Rex Burkhead #22 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers stiff-arms defensive back Tanner Miller #5 of the Iowa Hawkeyes during their game at Memorial Stadium November 25, 2011 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty
Eric Francis/Getty Images

Iowa has been trying to break through for years.  Things always seem to set up for a run "next year."  Even Iowa's best season in recent memory—a run to the Orange Bowl in 2009—wasn't just a reward in and of itself.  The next team was supposed to be even better.

That next team wasn't any better.  

The defense returned a boatload of starters, and the offense was set to return all its weapons as well, before Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God got involved.  It didn't matter, however, as the Hawkeyes continually wilted at the end of games and ended up going 7-5 during the season.

From the ashes of that team was to arise another typical Iowa squad.  A core group of returning offensive players were supposed to keep the offense humming behind a veteran offensive line, while the defense, that old trusty Iowa Cover 2 defense, was simply supposed to reload with the next wave of unheralded but fundamentally sound Iowa defenders.

This was supposed to be a team that fought its way deep into the Big Ten title race, but it ended up being another team that fell apart in big games.  Iowa's five losses came in two categories.

First, there were the humiliating upsets to rivals.  

Iowa spent the second Saturday of the season making Steele Jantz look like a Heisman candidate en route to a 44-41 OT loss.  Things were even worse the last week of October when Iowa took a trip to Minnesota only to end up holding the ball for only four plays in the fourth quarter while Minnesota came back from 11 down to steal the upset.

The second category of loss is the uncompetitive loss to the Big Ten's best.  

Iowa first lost an offensive crap-fest against Penn State to open the Big Ten season.  The Hawkeyes scored only three points in the game and James Vandenberg threw away multiple chances to come back.

Near the end of the season, with control of its own destiny in the Big Ten Legends division, Iowa allowed Michigan State to jump out to a huge lead in Iowa City before closing out the Hawkeyes.

Finally, Iowa finished the season with a dud on a Friday afternoon against Nebraska.  Iowa's first 10 possessions ended in either punts or turnovers.

The Hawkeyes didn't wildly underachieve this year.  They probably only finished two games worse than what could be reasonably expected of them coming into the season.  

However, the way which Iowa went about losing is most disappointing.  Dropping two close games to rivals while getting beaten badly by three of the best opponents is no way to build the kind of progress Iowa fans expect.