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Big Ten 2010 regular season wrap

12/7/2010

Big Ten fans had to be pleased to hear colleague Rod Gilmore's proclamation during ESPN's BCS selection special Sunday night.

"Let's welcome back the Big Ten to college football royalty," Gilmore said.

Perhaps we should hold off on crowning this league for a few more weeks.

Although the Big Ten maintained its momentum from a strong 2009-10 bowl season, the league still needs a strong finish to brand 2010 a success. The Big Ten lacked many signature nonconference wins -- it had some bad luck as teams like Miami and Notre Dame didn't meet expectations -- and few squads finished the regular season on a good note.

What can't be disputed is the Big Ten's strength at the top. Three teams went 11-1 and shared the Big Ten title -- Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State -- and all three squads finished in the top 10 of the final BCS standings. No other conference had more than two squads in the top 10, and the Big Ten was the only league with a legitimate beef about the BCS's limit on two teams per conference.

Wisconsin finally took that critical step from good to great this fall, winning its final seven games, mostly in dominating fashion, while not compromising the program's core values. Michigan State was one of the best stories of the college football season, going from unranked to 11-1 with a share of the league crown. The Spartans repeatedly overcame adversity both on and off the field, showing that the program has truly taken a step under Mark Dantonio's leadership. Ohio State was, well, typical Ohio State, surging down the stretch behind a strong defense and an improved offense to record a record-tying sixth consecutive Big Ten championship.

The rest of the Big Ten? Meh.

After the big three, no other squad recorded more than seven victories. Iowa endured an extremely disappointing season, given the August hype, and lost its late-game mojo in shocking fashion. Northwestern and Michigan both started 5-0 before dropping five of their final seven contests. Penn State showed improvement as the season went on but lost convincingly to elite foes. Illinois made strides in all three phases and recorded some quality wins, but losses in three of its final four games combined with more maddening inconsistency left Illini fans feeling unsatisfied.

The league had a clearly defined bottom tier with Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue. The Boilers get a pass after enduring an unthinkable stretch of injuries to key players, although their inability to avoid major mistakes is a concern going forward. Minnesota endured a nine-game slide and became the first Big Ten school to fire its coach during the season since 2002. Indiana waited until the day after the season to fire coach Bill Lynch, as the Hoosiers once again couldn't get over the hump in Big Ten play.

Once again, the bowl games will serve as a proving ground for the Big Ten. If the league performs well, especially in the two BCS games, it could enter 2011 billed as the nation's top conference following the addition of Nebraska.

But if the league stumbles in the coming weeks, forget the crown. It will be back to court jester status.

Offensive MVP: Michigan QB Denard Robinson

It's a close call between Robinson and Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa, but there's no way Michigan gets to seven victories without "Shoelace." Robinson made his mark in the Michigan, Big Ten and NCAA record books, breaking the single-season FBS mark for quarterback rushing (1,643 yards) and becoming the first player in NCAA history to record 2,000 pass yards and 1,500 rush yards in a season. Although he slowed down against superior Big Ten competition, Robinson altered game plans and carried Michigan on his back for much of the season.

Defensive MVP: Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan

You can call him "Superman," and Kerrigan delivered a heroic performance for the Boilers. He led the nation in tackles for loss (26) and ranked third nationally in sacks (12.5). The consensus Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year tied for second nationally in forced fumbles with five and recovered two fumbles. Kerrigan recorded a tackle for loss in 11 of Purdue's 12 games and had multiple tackles for loss in seven contests. Just an absolute beast. Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt is a close second to Kerrigan. Watt made more game-changing plays than any Big Ten defender.

Coach of the Year: Michigan State's Mark Dantonio

Dantonio needed only four years to turn a chronic underachiever into a Big Ten champion. He fostered a new sense of mental toughness in his players after a rough season both on and off the field in 2009. Dantonio made two of the gutsiest calls of the college football season, "Little Giants" against Notre Dame and "Mousetrap" against Northwestern, and worked his way back to the sideline barely a month after suffering a heart attack Sept. 19. He certainly shares this honor with offensive coordinator Don Treadwell, who did a great job overseeing the team in Dantonio's absence. Wisconsin's Bret Bielema also merits a mention here.

Newcomer of the Year: Wisconsin RB James White

If you listed the Big Ten position groups least likely for a freshman to emerge entering the season, Wisconsin's running backs might be at the top. The Badgers returned 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year John Clay as well as capable backup Montee Ball and veteran reserve Zach Brown. But true freshman James White hit the ground running as soon as preseason camp began and never looked back. The consensus Big Ten Freshman of the Year led Wisconsin and ranked fifth in the league with 1,029 rush yards, and he reached the end zone 14 times. White looked like Wisconsin's best back for much of the fall. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase merits a mention here.

Biggest surprise: Michigan State

Those of us who study the league closely saw the potential with Michigan State entering the season. But after a rough 2009 and with a history of struggling to reach elite status, the Spartans were a tough sell. They ended up going from unranked in the preseason to 11-1, co-Big Ten champions and ninth in the final BCS standings (Michigan State rose to as high as No. 5). The biggest surprise for me wasn't necessarily that Michigan State won 11 games, but how it got there, by repeatedly overcoming adversity. These aren't your same ol' Spartans. Illinois merits a mention here after doubling its wins total from 2009.

Biggest disappointment: Iowa

The Hawkeyes claimed 11 wins and an Orange Bowl championship last season, and with a sizable senior class returning, expectations had been understandably elevated entering the fall. A preseason top 10 squad in both major polls, Iowa seemed to put its living-on-the-edge days behind it in the first two weeks. But the Hawkeyes couldn't complete a furious comeback at Arizona, setting the tone for a series of late-game problems. Iowa surrendered late touchdowns in all five of its losses and blew fourth-quarter leads in all four of its Big Ten defeats. A 7-5 record wasn't what anyone had in mind this year.

Game of the Year: Wisconsin 31, Iowa 30 (Oct. 23 at Kinnick Stadium)

Iowa fans likely won't agree with this choice, but the game not only provided the drama but largely shaped the Big Ten title race. Wisconsin had come off of a win against top-ranked Ohio State, but a loss in Iowa City likely would have eliminated the Badgers from the Big Ten championship chase. Iowa came in 2-0 in Big Ten play and would have been seen as the league title frontrunner had it won. The game featured eight lead changes and several huge performances by players on both teams. Iowa led 30-24 late in the fourth quarter when Wisconsin called a fake punt deep in its own territory -- Bielema called the play "chain" -- and moved the chains to keep the drive alive. The Badgers, playing without several key players because of injury, went on to score the game-winning touchdown as Iowa struggled to manage the clock in the final minute. Wisconsin won its final four games easily to secure its first league title and its first trip to the Rose Bowl in 11 years.