As the age-old saying goes, it’s not over until the fat lady sings and that phrase accurately sums up the Big Ten this year. Like many other pundits, I said the season was over in Week 2 and that the playoffs were an impossible reality as Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan all suffered high profile losses along with three losses to Mid-American Conference foes. But the sun didn’t set all the way on the Big Ten’s season. A lot can happen throughout the course of a season and the league has slowly changed the narrative in its favor.
While Nebraska fans are understandably distraught over their team’s recent face-plant, Saturday, overall, was really good for the Big Ten.
First let’s talk about star power
The Big Ten hasn’t had a Heisman Trophy winner since 2006, when OSU quarterback Troy Smith received the award and the league has had just one Hesiman finalist since then (Wisconsin’s Montee Ball in 2011).
However, this year, the league features two legitimate candidates in Melvin Gordon and J.T. Barrett.
Gordon is definitely going to Gotham after smashing multiple records Saturday, finishing with 408 yards to break LaDainian Tomlinson’s single-game FBS mark and four touchdowns on 25 carries (16.3-yard average). He has 15 runs of 40 yards or longer, more than any other FBS team.
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett continues his incredible ascension to greatness, setting the new Ohio State single-game quarterback rushing record at 189 yards Saturday at Minnesota. Barrett has now thrown 38 touchdowns in his first ten games. To put this in perspective, Barrett’s 38 touchdowns in his first 10 career games are the most by any player in the past 10 seasons. That total includes Johnny Manziel (33) and Jameis Winston (31), who of course both won the Heisman as redshirt freshmen quarterbacks. And those 38 touchdowns are tied for the most in the country this year with Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, another Heisman front-runner.
In addition to the stars, there also remain several intriguing teams in the league. Ohio State is still very much alive in the playoff hunt while Michigan State is fighting for a New Years Six bowl. Wisconsin has overcome early season losses and put itself in position for a third Big Ten championship appearance in four years and Minnesota continues to improve. The West Division is far from being over, and if Iowa can somehow someway upend Wisconsin at Kinnick Stadium, things will really get interesting.
Last, for as much criticism as the Big Ten has received this season for being a weak conference, the league should have no problems filling it bowl slots this season as 11 out of the conferences 14 teams have a chance to reach six wins before the season comes to a conclusion. Rutgers and Penn State became the eighth and ninth bowl-eligible teams in the conference this weekend with wins against Indiana and Temple. These two programs making the postseason is significant given the sanctions levied against PSU the last several years and the murderous schedule along with key injuries for Rutgers.
Northwestern still needs work to reach bowl eligibility, though it’s crazy three of the Wildcats wins have come against Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Penn State, the latter two on the road. The Illini could also sneak in a few weeks of extra practice if they beat Penn State and then Northwestern in the regular-season finale.
Now this is not to say everything is sunny in Big Ten country as Michigan could soon follow Florida in dumping its coach, and Indiana, which beat SEC East-leading Missouri in September, remains winless in conference play.
However, in spite of all the critics including me saying the season was over in Week 2, the Big Ten is doing all it can to keep the fans on the edge of their seats and is still very much alive and well. The second act is nearing its conclusion, and the fat lady has yet to begin singing.
1 Ohio State Buckeyes
Record: 9-1 overall, 6-0 conference
Previous ranking: 1
It may have been the coldest game ever at TCF Bank Stadium (a mere 15 degrees) but the 6th ranked Ohio State Buckeyes were red hot with redshirt freshman QB J.T. Barrett showing his underrated speed, streaking by the entire Minnesota defense for an 86-yard touchdown, the longest run ever by a Buckeyes quarterback. Barrett threw for 200 yards and three touchdowns.
As far as playoff implications, the Buckeyes beat their second consecutive ranked opponent and have to hope the final score doesn’t affect their overall standing with the selection committee (No.4 TCU beat Minnesota 30-7 earlier this season). Ohio State will be the favorites in its final two games against Indiana and Michigan but still needs help to crack the top four.
T-2 Michigan State Spartans
Record: 8-2 overall, 5-1 conference
Previous ranking: 2
MSU was still feeling the effects of their emotional loss to OSU as they started out sluggish with three first-half field goals before Jeremy Langford scored just before halftime at Maryland. The defense finished strong as it forced three turnovers. Winning the East maybe over but the Spartans are still playing for a shot at a New Years Six Bowl and can feel satisfied with wins over Rutgers and Penn State to close out the season.
T-2 Wisconsin Badgers
Record: 8-2 overall, 5-1 conference
Previous ranking: 4
Wisconsin sits atop the West Division all alone after being tied with Nebraska and Minnesota for first place entering last Saturday.
After falling behind by 14 points, Wisconsin overcame a sloppy start and used a 21-point second quarter to seize control as Melvin Gordon ripped off runs of 62, 44 and 39 yards in the quarter. Gordon may have uncharacteristically lost two fumbles but no one will remember that as Gordon went all out beastmode. Gordon continued the tradition of Badger running backs doing extraordinary things as Wisconsin backs have the FBS single season rushing record (Dayne), single-season touchdowns record (Ball) and now the single game rushing record. They also proved their recent offensive streak wasn’t a fluke or a product of a cupcake schedule. Wisconsin is averaging 44 points per game in its current five-game win streak, after hanging 59 on Nebraska. Gordon left the game, that crew kept plowing through the snow to lead the Badgers to a total of 581 rushing yards. Wisconsin ranks third nationally in rushing yards per game and is tied for fourth in sacks allowed.
4 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Record: 7-3 overall, 4-2 conference
Previous ranking: 5
The Gophers put up a valiant effort against OSU in the snow and cold, scoring ten points in the final seven minutes to make it a one-score game but failed on the onside kick attempt. David Cobb scored three touchdowns and ran for 145 yards all in a losing effort but Minnesota still controls its own fate as it needs wins against Nebraska and Wisconsin on deck.
5 Nebraska Cornhuskers
Record: 8-2 overall, 4-2 conference
Previous ranking: 3
First of all, I am not a fan of Nebraska nor will I ever be one as I bleed Wisconsin red and white as it is my alma mater and home state but even I was shocked at how the Badges steamrolled over the Huskers, accumulating 627 yards of offense while limiting Nebraska to just 180 yards. You would think a team that has a wide access to a plethora of resources and talent would be at least competitive and while they did build a 17-3 lead, it was short lived as their defense wilted away and resembled a junior varsity high school unit that was unable to prevent the inevitable rush from happening. It was clear Wisconsin was going to run the ball and the Huskers didn’t just let Melvin Gordon run all over them but allowed the Heisman trophy candidate to break the FBS-single game rushing record in just three quarters. To put this in better perspective, Western Illinois was able to hold Gordon to just 38 yards rushing while the Husker defense, which has been formidable to say the least, was thoroughly humiliated and embarrassed.
While it may not be as dire as Michigan right now, someone needs to be held accountable for the team’s performance given the rich history and tradition of this program.
Some of the Bo-lievers are still defending him saying that it’s likely that Nebraska will finish the season 10-2 and that winning at least 9 games in 7 seasons as head coach is a record many college programs would die for (Only 2 coaches have been fired after winning 8 games since 2009. One was Dave Wannstedt in 2010 at Pitt; The other was Joe Paterno in 2011).
The man makes $3 million but is 3-9 against ranked opponents and since Pelini arrived in 2008, Nebraska has lost 10 games by 20 points or more. It has allowed 45 points or more six times since the 2011 move to the Big Ten.
It’s been 19 years since the last time Nebraska was a National Champion and 13 years since it played for one.
My personal opinion is that something has to change among the coaching ranks and upper management in an effort to improve this team because unless this team wants to be great, it will be stuck being the 5th or 6th best team in conference year after
6 Iowa Hawkeyes
Record: 7-3 overall, 4-2 conference
Previous ranking: 7
The Hawkeyes dominated the Illini defense on the ground as Mark Weisman rushed for 134 yards and in the air as tight end Ray Hamilton hauled in his first two touchdowns. Even with two losses, the Hawkeyes are still in the running for the West division crown if they can sweep the Badgers and Huskers combined with a Minnesota loss. In their four Big Ten wins, Iowa is averaging 226.8 yards on the ground, while holding those opponents to 148.3
7 Maryland Terrapins
Record: 6-4 overall, 3-3 conference
Previous ranking: 6
C.J. Brown threw three interceptions and the rushing attack didn’t even show up on the field as it totaled a measly six yards against the stout MSU defense. Maryland has definitely learned that an inconsistent offense will not top the league’s best defenses. However, Maryland has a chance to head into the postseason with some momentum with games against Michigan and Rutgers.
8 Penn State Nittany Lions
Record: 6-4 overall, 3-4 conference
Previous ranking: 8
Coach James Franklin’s Nittany Lions won convincingly over Temple with a 30-13 victory in Happy Valley and is now officially bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011. Christian Hackenberg was a shaky 12-for-26 with two interceptions and missed a few wide open, despite getting good protection. Hackenberg has now thrown 12 interceptions and only seven touchdowns this season.
Defensively, PSU held Temple to 248 yards.
9 Michigan Wolverines
Record: 5-5 overall, 3-3 conference
Previous ranking: 10
Following their first two-game winning streak in over a year, Michigan got a nice week off to enjoy the victories and prepare for an up-and-down Maryland team. The Wolverines have a perfect opportunity to become bowl-eligible against the Terrapins before ending the season with The Game at OSU.
10 Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Record: 6-4 overall, 2-4 conference
Previous ranking: 9 .
In spite of criticism for joining the Big Ten and a murderous schedule, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights prevailed over Indiana to snap a three-game losing streak and become to the ninth bowl-eligible team for the Big Ten. While it was shaky on defense, the offense came through as Gary Nova went for yards and Leonte Carroo contributed with two scores.
11 Northwestern Wildcats
Record: 4-6 overall, 2-4 conference
Previous ranking: 13
Down 11 points in the fourth quarter, Northwestern 17.5-point underdogs Saturday stormed back to stun No. 18 Notre Dame 43-40 in OT. Jack Mitchell nailed a 41-yard kick to seal the victory after Kyle Brindza missed from 42. QB Trevor Siemian put up average numbers (30/48 passing, 284 yds, 1TD, 1 rushing TD), but came through big in the clutch and now Northwestern has a great shot at bowl eligibility if they win their final two games against struggling Purdue and Illinois.
12 Purdue Boilermakers
Record: 3-7 overall, 1-5 conference
Previous ranking: 11
The Boilermakers were off at a good time last Saturday as they were able to catch their collective breath following four consecutive losses. If they can win even one of their next two games against Northwestern or at Indiana, this season would be considered a nice improvement from last year.
13 Illinois Fighting Illini
Record: 4-6 overall, 1-5 conference
Previous ranking: 12
Iowa ruined the return of Wes Lunt from injury as it held him to just 102 yards and kept the other two quarterbacks from being any more effective. The Hawkeye offense decimated the Illini defense on the ground and through the air for nearly 600 yards. As painful as a loss it was, a bowl game still remains within reach for Illinois.
14 Indiana Hoosiers
Record: 3-7 overall, 0-6 conference
Previous ranking: 14
As it is the story of Tevin Coleman’s career, he was once again overshadowed by Melvin Gordon despite rushing for a career-high 307 yards, which was only the third most impressive performance in the league Saturday. Yet, Indiana is still winless as Rutgers stymied the Hoosiers in the second half and only gets worse, as they head into the Horseshoe to take on OSU.