Big Ten

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

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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.

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

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?