There was an iconic Hail Mary pass, a brand new championship game, a new school in the club, Legends and Leaders, a smashing debut by a coach, a touchdown machine named “Ball,” and a sordid off-field scandal the likes we never have seen in the history of college sports. Welcome to Big Ten football 2011.
Yes, we still have bowl games ahead of us, but the following is my look at my top 10 stories of the Big Ten season. What do you think of my list? What were your top moments? What do you see coming during the bowl games? Tell me in the comments box at the bottom of this post. I read them all and respond to the best ones.
1. Two division, 12-team football. The historic Big Ten turned the page on a new era in 2011 with a 12-team, two-division alignment that culminated with the winner of the Legends Division (Michigan State) playing the winner of the Leaders Division (Wisconsin) in a league title game in Indianapolis that lived up to its hype—and then some—in a pulsating 42-39 Badger win over the Spartans. The new format was necessitated by the addition of Nebraska from the Big 12. It was the first time the conference grew since Penn State joined the league for the 1993 season. The result: exciting division races involving multiple teams that weren’t decided until the final weeks of the season. Perfect.
2. Penn State scandal. In early November, the story about a child sex-abuse scandal centered around former Nittany Lion defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky broke on the Penn State campus. It was a story unlike any ever seen in college sports, shocking not just the sports world but the nation. The investigation continues, but it already has cost legendary 46-season coach Joe Paterno and school president Graham Spanier their jobs. And the scandal overshadowed news that Paterno became the all-time winningest FBS coach, passing Eddie Robinson in his last game as coach in a 10-7 triumph over Illinois on October 29 for victory No. 409.
3. Having a Ball. Wisconsin running back Montee Ball is part of Big Ten lore, setting the league single-season touchdown record with 38. With one touchdown in the Rose Bowl vs. Oregon, he will tie Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders’ 1988 NCAA single-season mark. And just for good measure, the Heisman finalist paced the Big Ten in rushing with 1,759 yards (135.3 ypg) for the league champs.
4. Buckeye blues. The Ohio State season got sideways before it even started due to an NCAA investigation (sanctions are expected to be handed down in December.) that led to Jim Tressel and star quarterback Terrelle Pryor leaving. And the suspension of some key players like running back Dan Herron, receiver DeVier Posey and offensive tackle Mike Adams hampered an offense that was being operated by true freshman quarterback Braxton Miller. Co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell served as head coach, but he had a difficult job. The result: A 6-6 record, the school’s worst since 1999. Ohio State had won at least a share of each of the past six Big Ten titles, a league record. But it stripped itself of the 2010 crown as part of self-imposed NCAA penalties. A bright spot: In November, Ohio State hired former Florida coach Urban Meyer to take over, igniting euphoria in Buckeye Nation.
5. Call him Mr. Wilson. Perhaps no newcomer in the nation had a bigger impact than Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson. He transferred from N.C. State over the summer and quickly was named a captain. He then proceeded to finish second in the nation in passing efficiency, throwing for 2,879 yards with 31 touchdowns and only three interceptions en route to leading the Badgers to a second consecutive Big Ten title.
6. A man named Brady. That’s Brady Hoke, the first-year Michigan coach. Coming off three mostly moribund seasons under Rich Rodriguez that produced a 15-22 record, one bowl and lots of bad defense, expectations were modest in Ann Arbor for Hoke. But the former Wolverine assistant (1995-2001) blew the lid off campus with a 10-2 record that netted the Wolverines their first BCS bid (Sugar) since the 2006 season. The reason? Defense. The unit ranked 110th in the nation in 2010; it was 18th his season—with basically the same players. Credit new coordinator Greg Mattison. But perhaps Hoke’s biggest feat was ending the Wolverines’ seven-game losing streak vs. the school he likes to call “Ohio.”
7. Mighty Sparty. If you are scoring at home, and we know you are in East Lansing, that’s back-to-back double-digit win seasons for Michigan State. And that’s never been done before. Congrats, Mark Dantonio, who went 11-2 in 2010 and has a 10-3 mark this season while going 7-1 in Big Ten play each of the last two seasons. But a trip to the Rose Bowl remains elusive, as the Spartans haven’t been to Pasadena since the 1987 season. Michigan State lost to Wisconsin, 42-39, in the Big Ten title game.
8. Prayer answered. Where were you the October night when Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins heaved a 44-yard touchdown pass called “Rocket” to Keith Nichol as time expired to lead the Spartans to a heart-stopping 37-31 win over No. 4 Wisconsin? It may have been the national game of the year, a contest that featured back and forth exchanges where each school looked primed to take control. An instant classic. Watch it below.
9. Illinois grabbed the nation’s attention by racing to a 6-0 start. It was the school’s best beginning since 1951,when the Fighting Illini won the national title. But the wheels came off after that, as Illinois lost its last six games to become the first team to start a season 6-0 and finish it 0-6. Ron Zook was fired after seven seasons and Illinois tabbed Toledo’s Tim Beckman to take over.
10. Bowl bonanza. The Big Ten set a record by sending 10 teams to the postseason for the first time. The league has two schools in BCS bowls (Wisconsin in the Rose; Michigan in the Sugar) for the 10th time in 14 years. Want more? The Big Ten has sent 25 schools to the BCS since its inception in 1998, the most of any conference.
Tom Dienhart is a senior writer for BTN.com. Find all of his work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow Dienhart on Twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, send a question to his weekly mailbag here, and click here to subscribe to his RSS feed.