College football's all-time leader in career rushing touchdowns (77) and career touchdowns (83), Wisconsin's Montee Ball never really got the attention he may have deserved. Photo: USA Today Sports.
Crystal Ball Run will be previewing each conference for the 2013 season with week-by-week coverage. Today we continue our 2013 conference previews with a look at the Big Ten.
The Big Ten continues to bring in the money like no other conference can. Unfortunately for the conference, that money has not exactly translated to on-field success as the conference continues to prove itself worthy of being a major power in the college football landscape. Though the conference had an undefeated team last season, the Big Ten was pummeled in the postseason by the SEC and Big 12 and edged by the Pac 12 as well, for good measure. Can the conference continue to relay on the big two, Ohio State and Michigan, to carry the conference's banner or is it ready for other programs to finally step up and take charge on a national level?
What does the 2013 season have prepared for Big Ten fans before more changes come to the conference and college football in 2014? That is what we will be taking a look at this week on Crystal Ball Run, but before we do allow us to take a glance back at the 2012 season in the Big Ten.
2012 In Review
It was quite a bizarre year in the Big Ten. Ohio State, with Urban Meyer taking over the program in hopes of restoring the Buckeyes to national elite after an equally bizarre 2011 season in Columbus, may have been unfortunately ahead of schedule with an unblemished 12-0 record and unable to compete for a Big Ten championship, let alone a potential BCS championship. The sting of serving a year of postseason ineligibility for actions occurring during the reign of Jim Tressel left the Buckeyes as the only undefeated team in the FBS last season, with nothing to show for it other than a Big Ten Leaders Division trophy.
The Buckeyes may have had a perfect season when it comes to wins and losses, but they had to battle through some struggles to get there. Central Florida and Cal each gave Ohio State some trouble before Meyer's crew found ways to pull away. Even UAB came in to Columbus feeling as though they belonged before Ohio State scored two touchdowns in the final two minutes of the first half to take control. Ohio State was nearly clipped by Michigan State and Indiana racked up 49 points when the Buckeyes hit the road, but Ohio State still managed to find different ways to win games form start to finish. The key ingredient was sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller, who dazzled with his legs and proved to be one of the potential Heisman hopefuls heading in to 2013.
Meanwhile, roughly 320 miles west a new era under tragic and disturbing circumstances was underway in State College, Pennsylvania. Bill O'Brien ushered in the new era of Penn State football looking to restore the roar in what seemed to be not-so Happy Valley. Hit with significant NCAA sanctions over the summer, the program was left for dead by many around the nation. Key players transferred and recruiting was thought to be nearly impossible for the first-year head coach. But O'Brien thrived over time, proving many wrong about a lot of things along the way. Penn State's season starting on a down note with losses to Ohio and Virginia in the first two weeks of the season, but the Nittany Lions turned things around in a hurry using a new offensive style with no fear of going for it on fourth down. Hey, what did Penn State have to lose? Penn State would lose key games to Nebraska and Ohio State, but the season ended on a high note with a home overtime victory against Wisconsin.
Yeah, it was a strange year for Wisconsin as well. The two-time Big Ten champs figured to be in the best position in the Leaders Division with Ohio State and Penn State each serving a postseason ban, and that turned out to be the case. Wisconsin picked up just seven wins in the regular season and Montee Ball continued to make history on the ground while the passing game played a minor game of quarterback roulette. Out of nowhere the Badgers exploded in the Big Ten championship game against Nebraska to earn a return trip to Pasadena. But head coach Bret Bielema cashed in his ticket for a one-way trip to Arkansas. Nobody saw that one coming.
On the other side of the division, Michigan started the season as one of the hot names in the conference and the national picture. Denard Robinson had already become a household name and was entering the year considered a Heisman hopeful. Getting off on the right foot would be key as Michigan opened the season in Dallas against the defending BCS champions from Alabama. It did not go so well in week one (more on that later), and the season overall did not exactly live up to the hype Brady Hoke's efforts had been receiving. Michigan started the year in the preseason top ten and ended the season with just a record of 8-5.
With Michigan failing to live up to the hype and Michigan State taking a step back from 2011, all eyes in the Legends Division turned to Nebraska. The Cornhuskers ha some bumps in the road in 2012 as well, including a road loss at UCLA and a blowout loss at Ohio State. Though Taylor Martinez showed some improvement in his overall game in 2012, he also made some mistakes. But a feeble defense was even more of a problem for the Huskers, as demonstrated in the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin. Nebraska put together another 10-win season but questions about whether or not this has become the new ceiling for the Huskers remain.
The Big Ten in Bowl Games
There may be no better image to sum up the Big Ten's performance in the postseason last season.
South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney delivered the blow of the year, if not the decade, in the Gamecocks' 33-28 victory over Michigan in the Outback Bowl. For Michigan it was the second loss to an SEC program of the season, and although this one came by a closer decision it was was clear South Carolina dealt a knockout blow in the final round. Not only did Clowney deliver a tremendous hit, he forced and recovered the fumble at a key point in the game. The rest of the Big Ten did not fare so well either.
Wisconsin made their third straight trip to the Rose Bowl but once again returned with nothing to show for it. With Barry Alvarez steering the ship following the loss of Bret Bielema on the sidelines, Wisconsin was defeated by Pac 12 champion Stanford, 20-14. Nebraska, who had been demolished by Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, went back and forth with SEC Championship Game runner-up Georgia before the Bulldogs pulled away for a 45-31 victory in the Capital One Bowl.
Minnesota made it interesting against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas but came up short in a 34-31 game. Purdue was completely out-matched in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, being blown away by Oklahoma State by a score of 58-14. The Gophers and Boilermakers were more victims of the Big Ten needing to fill bowl spots due to the postseason ineligibility of 12-0 Ohio State and 8-4 Penn State. Fortunately there were a couple bright spots for the Big Ten.
Northwestern won their first bowl game since winning the Rose Bowl in 1949. The Wildcats held on for a victory over the SEC's Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, 34-20, and did not need any last-second tricks or stunts to pull it off. It was the second victory for Northwestern against the SEC during the season, with a victory over Vanderbilt earlier in the season.
Michigan State also won their bowl game to account for the only other Big Ten bowl victory. The Spartans edged TCU in a defensive Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, 17-16.
Biggest Win in 2012?
No. 24 Northwestern 34, Mississippi State 20 (Gator Bowl, January 1, 2013) - It had been a long time coming for Northwestern, which made their bowl victory over the SEC's Mississippi State all that more enjoyable. Northwestern actually picked up two victories against SEC competition in 2012, first with a home victory over Vanderbilt in September. While Mississippi State may not have been one of the elite programs in the SEC, it was one of the best wins for a Big Ten team last season.
Biggest Loss in 2012?
No. 2 Alabama 41, No. 8 Michigan 14 (September 1, 2012) - Most people expected Michigan to lose to the defending BCS champions and they would not have thought too much about it afterward. If Michigan would have managed to keep it at least respectable, perhaps the conference would have been better off. Instead, Alabama trounced Michigan from start to finish, blowing away the preseason No. 8 Wolverines by 27 points and dismantling any Heisman hype for Denard Robinson on the biggest stage in college football, Cowboys Stadium. Alabama went on to win the national championship, again, using Michigan as an appetizer for things to come. The game was a crushing blow for Michigan and the Big Ten right out of the gates in 2012.
Who's In, Who's Out?
The Big Ten added Nebraska to the conference in 2011, creating a two-division conference made up of 12 members. The Big Ten will refrain from any realignment changes this upcoming season but will be expanding to 14 teams in 2014. Maryland will leave the ACC and Rutgers will leave The American to join the Big Ten in 2014, and as such the conference will reshuffle the divisions, complete with a new name for each. This means this will be the final year for the Legends and Leaders divisions. Next season will move to a more traditional East-West format.
The Big Ten will also no longer continue with guaranteed crossover match-ups for each school. The only guaranteed crossover will be Indiana vs. Purdue, as many of the changes to the conference line-up will keep some of the protected rivalries in tact.
Here is how the divisions will look this year...
|Legends Division||Leaders Division|
|Michigan State||Ohio State|
And here is how the divisions will look beginning in 2014...
|West Division||East Division|
Head Coaching Changes
There were just two coaching changes in the Big Ten for the 2013 season. This seemed likely after a round of changes the prior season, including new coaches at Ohio State and Penn State.
Purdue: Taking over a Purdue program that may have hit their peak under Joe Tiller made for a tough task for Danny Hope. At times it looked as though Purdue could put a respectable scare in to any team on their conference schedule, but the Boilermakers could never get over a hump to truly contend for a Big Ten conference or division championship. Hope was let go from his position as head coach prior to Purdue's trip to the Heart of Dallas Bowl after going 22-27 over four seasons.
Kent State's Darrell Hazell was later hired to turn things around in West Lafayette. Hazell has just two years of head coaching experience but turned Kent State around in the MAC, going from five wins in 2011 to 11 wins in 2012. Hazell had Kent State averaging just 17.1 points per game in 2011 to 33.1 ppg in 2012.
Wisconsin: Many were shocked when Bret Bielema decided to accept a head coaching offer at Arkansas. After leading Wisconsin to three consecutive Big Ten titles and trips to the Rose Bowl, accepting an offer by a third-place at best SEC West program seemed to send a message about where the Big Ten ranks. More importantly, it spoke volumes about the financial flexibility Bielema had at Wisconsin and what he will have at Arkansas to secure a coaching staff. Bret Bielema to Arkansas.
Utah State's Gary Andersen was hired to take over the Badgers, while former head coach Barry Alvarez coached Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Andersen spent four years at Utah State, turning the program from a four-win team to an 11-win program last season. Defense will be the key to the game for Andersen as he takes over Wisconsin. Utah State was ranked seventh in the nation in scoring defense last season. Wisconsin was not far behind (ranked 16th), so the two appear to be a pretty solid match.
All images via USA Today Sports, unless noted otherwise.