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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.