Big Ten

How the mighty have fallen: Will both of last year's Big Ten title game participants miss bowls in 2016?


How the mighty have fallen: Will both of last year's Big Ten title game participants miss bowls in 2016?

Last season, Michigan State and Iowa played in the Big Ten Championship Game.

This season, there might not be a postseason game for either.

It’s been a disastrous 2016 for each of 2015’s division champs, with the Hawkeyes’ 12-0 regular season and the Spartans’ trip to the College Football Playoff seeming like ancient history.

Ups and downs are always a part of the big picture of college football. Only an elite few can maintain championship-level success from year to year. But the complete 180s these two programs have pulled in such a short amount of time continues to have fans and observers scratching their heads in complete and utter confusion.

The more glaring lack of success has come in East Lansing, where after a promising 2-0 start that featured what seemed like a big road win at Notre Dame, Michigan State has lost each of its last seven games, a stunning free fall for a team pegged to once more compete for division, conference and national championships. Mark Dantonio seemed to have his program in a position to reload rather than rebuild, but a large number of losses from last year’s Big Ten championship team has been obviously impossible to overcome.

Dantonio hasn’t been able to find a capable replacement for Connor Cook at quarterback, juggling between Tyler O’Connor and Brian Lewerke before the latter’s season-ending injury. The offensive line, which lost three starters from last year’s team, has been unable to protect the quarterbacks or establish any success running the ball. Meanwhile, the defense has had plenty of its own problems, most notably injuries in the linebacking corps, but the three departed starters along the defensive line have been sorely missed, too.

All in all, Michigan State has averaged 23.6 points a game while allowing an average of 29.9 points a game, in the bottom four in the Big Ten in both categories. It’s one thing to suffer losses to the likes of Wisconsin and Michigan, two teams which have been among the nation’s best this season. But the Spartans’ seven-game losing streak also contains defeats at the hands of Indiana, Northwestern, Maryland and most recently Illinois, unacceptable losses for a program that entered the year as one of the most consistently successful in America.

The best indication of how abnormal this campaign has been is the fact that Michigan State already has seven losses and won’t technically reach bowl eligibility. A 5-7 record would be the best possible finish, though that seems unlikely to happen, with games remaining against Ohio State and Penn State, two top-12 teams in the latest College Football Playoff rankings. So even if a 5-7 record gets teams into bowl games, as it did last year, the Spartans are probably not reaching that mark, meaning this will be the first season under Dantonio to end without a bowl appearance.

If Michigan State finishes an expected 3-9 (the other remaining regular-season game comes against basement-dwelling Rutgers), it will be the program's worst season since the 3-8 finish of 1991. If the Spartans manage to lose all three remaining games and finish 2-10, it will be the worst season since the 2-9 campaign in 1982.

Michigan State posted double-digit wins in five of the last seven seasons under Dantonio. It has never posted a double-digit loss season in program history.

“We are very disappointed,” Dantonio said after Saturday’s loss to Illinois, “lot of disappointed people, but it’s like I told the football team, when we are on that long road, everybody’s walking down that long road. We might not all be on the road at the same time, but it appears there’s a long line of us on that road.

“We have to keep pushing, and we have to come out the other end, that’s the only way I know how to do it. If you take the foot off the accelerator, stop grinding, bad things happen. Thus far, we have not done that. We have to reanalyze, reevaluate, and I’m obviously very disappointed for the fans as well.”

And while all that sounds very, very bad — and it is — there’s equally troubling play going on in Iowa City, where the Hawkeyes are staring at a 5-4 record with three games remaining, a far cry from the undefeated regular season that led into last year’s conference title game.

The thing is, Iowa wasn’t facing the same kind of preseason challenges as Michigan State was. The Hawkeyes returned their two best players from last season, quarterback C.J. Beathard and defensive back Desmond King. King has again played exceptional in the follow up to his Thorpe Award season, but Beathard and the Iowa offense have been completely ineffective.

An injury to top receiver Matt VandeBerg has been noticeably detrimental to Beathard’s play, but the Hawkeyes’ rushing attack has come nowhere close to replicating last season’s success. The two-headed monster of Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels was supposed to be one of the most fearsome running back combos in the conference. Instead, Iowa is averaging 152.6 yards on the ground per game, third worst in the Big Ten.

Meanwhile, the defense has been real Jekyll-and-Hyde. It stood tall against Minnesota and Wisconsin, two teams leading the Big Ten West Division standings, holding those opponents to a combined 24 points. But it’s been gashed by the likes of Northwestern, Purdue and most recently Penn State. On Saturday night, the Nittany Lions racked up 41 points on 599 total yards.

“There's not really much you can say after a game like this,” Kirk Ferentz said after Saturday’s loss to Penn State. “I think everybody would be stating the obvious. There’s nobody in our locker room who's not hurting right now and sees this as acceptable. This is not what we're looking for, it's never been the standard, it will never be the standard.

“So, you know, we're going to have to find a way to move forward, and it's all about our response tomorrow or until the end of the season. It's what it's all about, that's how you measure anything.”

So will Iowa too miss a bowl game? The Hawkeyes would have to lose out to do so, though they could come close: Games against Michigan and Nebraska — two top-10 teams — remain. Thankfully for Iowa, there’s a game left against Illinois, a team that has only defeated winless teams in conference play. Going 1-2 over the season’s final three weeks would give the Hawkeyes a 6-6 record and send them to the postseason. Barely.

But the bigger headline would be the turnaround from 12-0 during the regular season last year to 6-6 or even 5-7 this year. That’s an awful drop, and unfortunately it’s one that perhaps could’ve been predicted given Ferentz’s track record. This is Ferentz’s 18th season at Iowa, and his highest peaks have almost always been followed by depressing mediocrity. After winning a combined 31 games during the 2002, 2003 and 2004 seasons, the Hawkeyes won just 19 over the next three seasons. Ferentz led Iowa to 11 wins in 2009, only to turn in campaigns of eight, seven, four, eight and seven wins in the following five seasons.

And now after the winningest season in Iowa history, it looks like the Hawkeyes are heading for .500.

Obviously, it was going to be hard for Michigan State and Iowa to repeat their 2015 efforts with the terrific competition on both sides of the Big Ten. Michigan and Ohio State entered as East favorites. West leaders Wisconsin and Nebraska have proved to be two of the best teams in the country. But this?

The Spartans and Hawkeyes combined to win 24 games last season, played for a Big Ten title and made trips to the Cotton Bowl and Rose Bowl. This season, they’ll be lucky to combine for one trip to the Motor City Bowl.

How the mighty have fallen, indeed.

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


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


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.