Big Ten

The good and the bad: Takeaways from Big Ten bowl season

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The good and the bad: Takeaways from Big Ten bowl season

No, bowl season was not an unmitigated disaster for the Big Ten.

It’s easy to jump to conclusions after a couple of high-profile beatdowns with the college football world watching. Michigan State and Iowa losing to Alabama and Stanford by a combined 83-16 score was certainly not good for the league's perception, however accurate that perception might be.

But with 10 teams playing in bowls this winter, there was far more to glean than just what we saw in two games.

Ohio State looked like it should be playing for a national championship with a dominant performance against Notre Dame. Michigan was stellar in dismantling Florida. Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota all came away with postseason wins. Yes, Northwestern was demolished by Tennessee, but even in defeat Indiana and Penn State impressed in their own ways.

So bowl season was a tad more complex than the generalization that the Big Ten is once again dead because of a couple big-time losses. Let’s take a look at some of the takeaways.

An undeserving end to Connor Cook’s career

The all-time winningest quarterback in Michigan State program history went out in about the worst way possible.

Alabama throttled Michigan State, dominating in every possible way. And while Tide quarterback Jake Coker lighting up the Spartans defense was perhaps the game’s story, Cook was unable to do much of anything to dig his team out of an ever-growing hole.

Even getting a small bit of momentum with a solid drive right before halftime, Cook threw a back-breaking interception that made an at-the-time 10-0 deficit seem three times as big — and it would get that big.

Cook finished with 210 yards and no touchdowns, completing fewer passes than he missed and tossing a couple interceptions.

But while the debate raged after the game whether Michigan State deserved to be in the Playoff at all and how this game “exposed” the Spartans’ true quality, what can be generally agreed on is that this was not the ending Cook’s career deserved.

Cook won 34 of his 39 career starts and in this game became Michigan State’s all-time leading passer with 9,194 yards. He’s thrown more touchdown passes than any other Spartan and leads the program in all-time total offense. He started more games than any other Spartans quarterback.

While Mark Dantonio is the one who’s built Michigan State into one of college football’s power programs, Cook is the secondary face of the Spartans’ emergence. In three seasons with Cook as the starting quarterback, Michigan State won a pair of Big Ten championships and played in the Rose Bowl and twice in the Cotton Bowl, winning two of those three games in terrific fashion. Over the past three seasons, Michigan State won 36 games, Cook getting the start in all but two of them.

Yes, the Spartans were crushed on New Year’s Eve, and lost in the chatter over whether or not they lucked their way to that point was that perhaps the best quarterback to ever put on green and white had to walk off the field a loser, a rarity in such an illustrious career.

[MORE BIG TEN: Tyvis Powell, Darron Lee latest Buckeyes to jump to NFL]

Were the Buckeyes the Big Ten’s best?

Timing is everything.

Even after spending much of the season earning criticism for not beating teams by 60 every week, Ohio State was still in line for a spot in the College Football Playoff in the regular season’s second-to-last week. But the Buckeyes played their worst game of the season against Michigan State, held to 132 total yards and losing on a walk-off field goal.

That defeat kept Ohio State out of the sport’s final four, and rightfully so. The way the cookie crumbled the rest of the way, Michigan State ended up Big Ten champion. The Buckeyes had to watch the conference title game from home, and that prevented their inclusion in the playoff.

But boy did Ohio State look terrific in the Fiesta Bowl, scoring 44 points against Notre Dame, almost two touchdowns better than the next-highest point total the Irish allowed this season.

This was the Buckeyes team we all expected to see when they were voted the unanimous preseason No. 1. Ezekiel Elliott thrashed the Notre Dame defense for four touchdowns, J.T. Barrett was electric as a dual threat. And the absolutely loaded defense turned in one big play after another, even if the best player, defensive end Joey Bosa, was ejected in the first quarter for targeting.

Every time the Irish chipped into the lead, the Buckeyes had an answer. They racked up nearly 500 total yards of offense and came five points away from their season high.

Couple the Fiesta Bowl showing with the crushing of Michigan in the regular-season finale, and certainly Ohio State looked like one of the nation’s top teams over its final two contests. Would the Buckeyes have beaten Alabama, Clemson or even Oklahoma this postseason? There’s no way of knowing that. Were the Buckeyes the best team in the Big Ten this season? Well …

You’ve got to respect the process that made Michigan State the league champ. The Spartans beat the Buckeyes, beat the Iowa Hawkeyes — ending a pair of undefeated seasons and displaying a tremendous growth, particularly on defense, in doing so. Plus, two additional wins against Michigan and Oregon made for a resume that stacked up with the nation’s best.

Iowa went undefeated through the regular season and earned its spot in the Rose Bowl, selected over Ohio State for that prestigious appearance. The Hawkeyes’ schedule was criticized from beginning to end, but they looked good throughout the season on both sides of the ball, something that didn’t come out in their two postseasons defeats.

There’s no doubt the Buckeyes were the most talented team of the three. They'll have the NFL Draft selections to prove it. But between Urban Meyer’s quarterback shuffle that went on far too long and that miserable performance against Michigan State, Ohio State sealed its own destiny.

That being said, if you had to pick one team to win one game, the Buckeyes would be that team. And that’s what they showed in beating up on the Irish the way they did.

[MORE BIG TEN: Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg declares for NFL Draft]

The rise and fall of the Iowa Hawkeyes

For a team that was flying high each and every week during the regular season, the campaign ended with a thud for Iowa.

A near miss in the Big Ten Championship Game was followed up by that dismantling in the Rose Bowl against Stanford, which effectively ended the game on its first play, Christian McCaffery picking up the first 75 of his record 368 all-purpose yards.

This isn’t going to be a retrial of the Hawkeyes’ schedule. They won every game that was in front of them during the regular season, and unless you’re playing all FCS teams, that’s still a mighty impressive feat. So impressive that the only other team to do it this season will play for a national championship in a week.

Instead, it’s wondering if this is the type of season Iowa can replicate.

Just a year ago, Kirk Ferentz was fighting off constant calls for his job after a 7-6 finish. Mediocrity was the norm, and it didn’t seem like a significant improvement on that was possible. It ended up being very possible, as a quarterback change and Ferentz doing some things differently — “New Kirk” — turned a seven-win team into a 12-win team.

It was a tremendous turnaround, but was 2015 a fluke?

The losses to Michigan State and Stanford are reason for concern, though they were just two games of a 14-game campaign. Remember also that Iowa torched the best team on its regular-season schedule, Northwestern, by 30 points. Again, though, that was just one game of a much larger picture.

With C.J. Beathard and others back in black and gold next season, a slight change in the schedule figures to be the biggest difference and perhaps the biggest determination in whether Iowa will continue to be conference-title contender or slip back into the middle of the pack. The move to a nine-game Big Ten schedule also brings a shakeup in cross-division opponents, and Iowa counts Michigan and Penn State among its 2016 foes.

[MORE BIG TEN: Badgers lose defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to LSU]

Bright futures in Ann Arbor, Lincoln?

While Kirk Ferentz was undoubtedly deserving of his conference coach of the year honors — and Pat Fitzgerald and Mark Dantonio did outstanding jobs as well — how about the job Jim Harbaugh did in Year 1 at Michigan?

Harbaugh took a team that went 5-7 and missed a bowl a season ago and turned it into a 10-game winner that absolutely manhandled SEC runner-up Florida in the Citrus Bowl. Throughout the season, Michigan — particularly on defense — had moments of looking like one of the nation’s finest teams, going five straight games against Oregon State, BYU, UNLV, Maryland and Northwestern allowing a combined 14 points and scoring at least 28 points in every one of those games. The Wolverines played well enough to beat the eventual Big Ten champion Spartans even though they lost, and only against the Buckeyes did they really look bad.

The Citrus Bowl was a return to that style of play Michigan showed early in the season and perhaps the team's best game of the year. The 41-7 beatdown wasn’t just a defensive clinic — holding the Gators to 273 total yards — but an offensive one, as well. Jake Rudock did his best Tom Brady impression, throwing for 278 yards and three touchdowns as the Wolverines went over 500 yards of offense.

Now, Michigan loses Rudock this offseason and has already lost defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, who’s the new head coach at Maryland. But there’s little reason to think Harbaugh can’t keep things moving in this direction next season. There’s a new transfer quarterback ready to take the reins in John O’Korn. And Durkin’s replacement is former Boston College defensive coordinator Don Brown, who coached one of the country’s top defenses this season.

The season ended on a positive note for Nebraska, too, which really needed that to happen following a generally disappointing season. Nine-win seasons were counted as disappointments under Bo Pelini, but even a win in the Foster Farms Bowl got the Huskers to just six victories in Mike Riley’s first year.

But the win was a strong showing. Nebraska racked up more than 500 yards of offense, going for 326 yards running the ball, a departure from the pass-happy game plans throughout the regular season. Tommy Armstrong’s inaccuracy hurt the Huskers during the regular season, but he only threw the ball 19 times against UCLA, and that proved to be a good thing, with a variety of ball-carriers getting the job done on the ground.

Big Ten defenses are certainly stingier than what Nebraska saw in the bowl game. But if Riley brings a more run-oriented attack into next season, things might improve dramatically in Lincoln.

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Buckeyes gear right here]

The next wave

The Big Ten’s top running back had his swan song during the bowl season, as Ezekiel Elliott is off to the NFL after earning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors this season as a junior.

Elliott finished as the country’s fifth-leading rusher with 1,821 yards. Even before the bowl game he ranked second on Ohio State’s all-time rushing list, and his four-touchdown performance in the Buckeyes’ Fiesta Bowl win over Notre Dame was one final great game to cap a career filled with them.

But bowl season also showed us what’s coming next from the running back position within the conference, as the next wave of talented backs was on full display.

The battle for next season’s title of the league’s best rusher looks like it’ll come down to Wisconsin’s Corey Clement and Northwestern’s Justin Jackson. Jackson picked up just 74 yards on 17 carries as the Wildcats were playing from way behind throughout the Outback Bowl. Clement, who played in just his fourth game of an injury-riddled season in the Holiday Bowl, gained 66 yards on 19 carries, also scoring a touchdown. They weren’t the most incredible performances to cap two dramatically different seasons, but it was enough to signal that these two will be two of the finest a season from now.

The real breakout star at running back during the Big Ten bowls was Indiana’s Devine Redding, who had a mammoth day against Duke in the Pinstripe Bowl, rushing for 227 yards and a touchdown. With running back Jordan Howard off to the NFL and senior quarterback Nate Sudfeld done with his college career, Redding figures to be the focal point of the Hoosiers’ always-electric offense next season, and he could follow in the footsteps of Howard and Tevin Coleman as Indiana backs with big seasons.

And though he gained just 69 yards on 17 carries in the TaxSlayer Bowl, it would be wrong to talk about the next wave of Big Ten backs without mentioning Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, who was terrific as a true freshman this season. Quarterback Trace McSorley provided some positive feelings about the future of the Lions’ offense with his play in the bowl loss to Georgia, and with Barkley by his side next season — and a new offensive coordinator in town — perhaps things can go differently than in the first two seasons under James Franklin.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.