Sunday, December 4, 2011
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 14
By Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett
Three lessons from Big Ten championship week.
1. The championship game is a welcome addition: The Big Ten might lack an elite team this season, but the league produced more exciting games than any other conference. It culminated Saturday night in the inaugural Big Ten championship game, which will be very hard to top. For the second time this season, Michigan State and Wisconsin provided incredible drama, momentum swings and outstanding performances. Although the matchup didn't attract national attention before kickoff, the game itself drew the nation's eyes to the Big Ten. For four hours, the league became relevant in early December, and the buzz should help heading into the bowls and possibly into next season. The championship will be a bigger deal when there are national title implications, but Saturday night was a heck of a start.
2. Michigan State still has a hurdle to clear: Mark Dantonio has done a terrific job of building Michigan State into what looks like an annual contender in the Big Ten. But the Spartans still haven't quite crossed the finish line. It was unlucky for them that division play started this year, since they were the only Big Ten team to have fewer than two conference losses this season, and they were forced to try to beat a powerful Wisconsin team for a second time in six weeks in the league title game. Michigan State outplayed the Badgers for most of the night in the rematch and should have had a chance to go in for another game-winning drive. But Isaiah Lewis' running-into-the-punter penalty denied Kirk Cousins and the offense a chance to get the ball back. It was another disappointment for a program that has come close but fallen short often in its history. Dantonio should continue to have the Spartans in position to break a 24-year Rose Bowl dry spell, but at some point they need to break through and get it done. Getting the first bowl victory under Dantonio now becomes the focus.
3. Michigan is in good shape for an at-large berth: After falling in last week's BCS standings, Michigan should move up in the final lineup released tonight. The Wolverines benefited from Houston's blowout loss in the Conference USA title game, Georgia's blowout loss in the SEC title game and Oklahoma's blowout loss in the Bedlam game. Michigan could move past all three squads and into the top 14, which would virtually assure Brady Hoke's crew of an at-large berth. Although Baylor could jump Michigan and TCU appears likely to take a BCS bowl spot following Houston's loss, the Wolverines should be able to get the BCS standings bump they need, which is all that matters.