Countdown to 2017: Top 10 storylines of 2016 Big Ten season
We’re one day closer to 2017, and today I’m counting down the 10 best storylines, in no particular order, of the 2016 Big Ten football season.
1. Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers. He emerged as the most dynamic player in college football, a jack-of-all trades who impacted the game on offense, defense and special teams. And if he could have sold soft pretzels at halftime, he surely would have. Peppers was a thrill-a-minute who played up to 10 positions on any given Saturday: linebacker, cornerback, nickel back, quarterback, safety, H-back, running back, receiver in addition to running back kickoffs and punts. Someone get Peppers a Vitamin Water ASAP.
2. Penn State surprise. The Nittany Lions had gone 14-12 overall and 6-10 in the Big Ten the first two years under James Franklin. Most felt this program was still very much a work in progress as it fought back from NCAA sanctions. Well, Franklin smashed that notion, guiding the Nittany Lions to an improbable Big Ten title with an 11-2 overall mark and a 8-1 Big Ten record. Things looked dicey after a 2-2 start, but Penn State ripped off nine wins in a row to claim the Big Ten title and advance to the Rose Bowl Game. Making this feel-good story even groovier: The Nittany Lions have done all of this with a new offensive coordinator, new defensive coordinator and new quarterback while playing in the toughest division in college football. Amazing.
3. Big Ten muscle. No conference has had as much heft as the Big Ten. Just look at the final College Football Playoff poll. The Big Ten occupied four of the top eight slots: No. 3 Ohio State; No. 5 Penn State; No. 6 Michigan; No. 8 Wisconsin. The league came oh-so-close to becoming the first to have two playoff teams. Go ahead, feel that Big Ten muscle. Pretty impressive, eh?
4. Sam Foltz tributes. The death of the 2015 Big Ten Punter of the Year, in addition to former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler, in a one-car accident in late July hit the college football world hard, to the point that every Nebraska opponent did something to honor the late punter. It all started in Week 1 vs. Fresno State, when the Bulldogs declined a delay of game penalty on Nebraska’s first punt of the season, which appropriately featured no punter on the field. Every Saturday thereafter, there was no shortage of tributes, from bouquets of flowers to personalized Big Ten rival jerseys to injured Wisconsin kicker Rafael Gaglianone, a friend of Foltz, joining the Nebraska specialists as they took the field with their late teammate’s jersey in hand. A story within the story was the strength and grace of Foltz’s family, in particular parents Jill and Gerald, which “The Journey” featured.
5. Michigan State collapse. The Spartans endured a swift fall from grace in 2016, plummeting from their perch as Big Ten champ and playoff participant in 2015 to a 3-9 mark that included a stupefying seven-game losing streak. In fact, Michigan State lost nine of its last 10 games. The Spartans missed the postseason for the first time since 2006 (4-8 record), ending a nine-year run. And it was MSU’s first losing season since going 6-7 in 2009. This from Mark Dantonio, who had won 11 or more games in five of the six previous seasons with three Big Ten crowns. Was this a one-year aberration?
6. Minnesota boycott. As they were prepping for the Holiday Bowl, Minnesota players announced a boycott of all football activities that may have extended to their bowl game with Washington State. The players’ beef? They didn’t like the process which led to the suspension of 10 teammates. After some tense days, the players relented on their boycott and resumed activities. But the 10 players remain suspended. Regardless, Minnesota shocked Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.
7. No conference championship, no problem. The Buckeyes are in the playoff for the second time in three years, this time without even winning the Big Ten East. It’s the first time in the three-year history a team has made the College Football Playoff without winning its league crown. Still, Ohio State has built a formidable resume in 2016, winning at No. Oklahoma (45-24), at No. 8 Wisconsin (30-23 in OT), vs. No. 10 Nebraska (62-3) and vs. No. 3 Michigan (30-27 in 2 OTs). That was good enough to get the Buckeyes into the playoff as a No. 3 seed and compete for the national title, which they won in the 2014 season.
8. Indiana shocker. The Hoosier had just beaten Purdue for a fourth season in a row and were headed to a bowl for a second season in succession, which hadn’t happened since 1990-91. The program was continuing to improve. But days after the regular season had ended, Kevin Wilson abruptly resigned after six seasons over “philosophical differences” with the school. Indiana A.D. Fred Glass moved quickly to promote defensive coordinator Tom Allen to head coach. Allen put teeth into the IU defense in his first season in Bloomington in 2016. But, he’s never been a head coach and IU lost the Foster Farms Bowl to Utah in Allen’s debut.
9. Brohm to the rescue. Purdue mercifully fired Darrell Hazell six games into 2016 in what was one of the most fantastically disastrous coaching tenures in recent college football history (9-33 overall; 3-24 Big Ten). New A.D. Mike Bobinski scored big points for luring Jeff Brohm and his uber-exciting offense from Western Kentucky to get the Boilermakers on track. Hopes are high in West Lafayette for a program that had a losing record for a fifth season in a row and the eighth time in the last nine years.
10. Dominating defenses. That side of the ball set the tone in 2016, as seven Big Ten teams rank among the top 24 total defenses in the nation: No. 2 Michigan; No. 5 Ohio State; No. 7 Wisconsin; No. 21 Nebraska; No. 22 Penn State; No. 23 Minnesota; No. 24 Iowa. Among the stars are Michigan LB Jabrill Peppers, Wisconsin LB T.J. Watt; Ohio State E Tyquan Lewis, Michigan CB Jourdan Lewis, Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillan, Iowa CB Desmond King, Michigan E Taco Charlton and Ohio State FS Malik Hooker.