The Friday List: Tom Dienhart's 4 biggest Big Ten football surprise teams
The Friday List is back. This week, I look at my biggest surprise teams in Big Ten football.
1. Michigan State. The Spartans were riding high in 2015, winning the Big Ten title and earning a playoff spot during a 12-2 season (7-1 Big Ten). But the wheels came off in 2016, as Michigan State went 3-9 overall and 1-8 in the Big Ten. It was Mark Dantonio’s first losing season in East Lansing as the program missed a bowl for the first time since 2006. To top it all off, there were off-field issues, too. A cloud hung over the program as 2017 dawned. But Dantonio answered critics who thought Michigan State was back-sliding. The Spartans are 7-3 overall and 5-2 in the Big Ten.
2. Purdue. It takes a strong stomach to digest the details of the disastrous Darrell Hazell regime (2013-16). Nine wins in four years; and just five of those came vs. FBS foes. Think about that for a moment. The fact Jeff Brohm has squeezed out four wins and is flirting with a bowl bid with this roster is nothing short of a miracle. The sobering news: It’s going to take a few more years for Brohm to dig out of this pit of despair in West Lafayette. Still, let’s enjoy the moment: Take a bow, Jeff Brohm. You deserve it.
3. Rutgers. Chris Ash endured a challenging debut at Rutgers. The problems were many on both sides of the ball. How bad was it in 2016? After a 2-1 start, the Scarlet Knights finished the season with nine losses in a row. RU got shut out four times. In the last eight games, Rutgers yielded 24 or more points each time out, getting ripped for 78, 58 and 49 points on three occasions. But look at the Scarlet Knights now. They are 4-6 overall and 3-4 in the Big Ten, sniffing around for a bowl bid as the season winds down after starting 0-2. The future is bright in Piscataway.
4. Northwestern. Let’s call this a “mild” surprise. Some felt the Wildcats had a chance to be a dark horse in the Big Ten West. They have delivered … and then some. Yes, Wisconsin has already wrapped up the division, but the 7-3 Wildcats are honing in on a nine-win season. Win a bowl game, and Northwestern would have its third 10-win season under Pat Fitzgerald. With the facility improvements going on in Evanston coupled with the on-field mojo, NU finally may break through and win the West very soon.