Wednesday, December 5, 2012
2012 Big Ten regular-season wrap
By Brian Bennett
The Big Ten's 2012 regular season can be summed up by the following facts:
The league's best team, Ohio State, went 12-0 but won't play in a bowl because of probation.
The league's best nonconference win came in Week 1 when Iowa beat BCS-bound Northern Illinois. The Hawkeyes proceeded to go 3-8 the rest of the season.
The league shockingly announced in mid-November that it was adding Rutgers and Maryland. The Scarlet Knights and Terrapins each embraced Big Ten football by promptly losing their last two games, with Rutgers fumbling away a golden opportunity to make a BCS bowl.
The league's Rose Bowl representative, Wisconsin, went 7-5 in the regular season. After winning the Big Ten championship game despite finishing third in the Leaders Division, the Badgers celebrated for a couple of days -- and then saw head coach Bret Bielema leave for Arkansas.
Yes, it's safe to say that 2012 played out kind of like the disaster movie of the same name for the Big Ten. Not even the Mayans could have predicted such cruel endings as Illinois' nine-game losing streak or Nebraska's bug-meet-windshield showing in the conference title game.
But we shouldn't overlook the good stories that occurred in the league this year, either. Ohio State's refuse-to-lose season under Urban Meyer was fun to watch all year long, and the Buckeyes look poised to enter 2013 as a legitimate national title contender. Penn State emerged from the ashes of a horrific scandal and decimating NCAA sanctions to go 8-4, inspiring a community with its resiliency. Northwestern won nine games and had a chance in all 12 with a young team. Minnesota doubled its victory total from 2011 and made it to a bowl game for the first time since 2009. Indiana went from one to four wins and made a rare, if brief, appearance in the national spotlight with a chance to make it to the Big Ten title game. Wisconsin made a school-record third straight Rose Bowl.
Unfortunately, those stories aren't what most people will remember about this season in the Big Ten. The conference sealed its narrative in Week 2 when it went 1-6 against BCS opponents and Notre Dame, with Northwestern's win over Vanderbilt the lone bright spot. Even though some of those opponents turned out to be much better than expected -- like Oregon State, UCLA and the Irish -- the Big Ten never could reverse the negativity. Michigan, which began the season in the top 10, got blasted by Alabama in the opener and ended up losing to teams ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the Associated Press poll. Nebraska won a division title but couldn't shed its label as a big-game flopper. Michigan State had Rose Bowl dreams but failed to win a single conference home game while going 6-6. Purdue had to win its last three just to get to 6-6, and then it fired head coach Danny Hope. Iowa and Illinois were train wrecks.
Braxton Miller was at his finest this season late in games as he led Ohio State to a 12-0 mark.
The league became a national punching bag yet again, something it can only change through better performances on the national stage. It will get that chance during bowl season, but now its Rose Bowl team likely will be led by an interim coach, while all seven postseason teams figure to be underdogs. The Big Ten will need some luck to make sure its difficult year doesn't extend into early 2013.
On to some awards:
Offensive MVP: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. Stats can't really measure what Miller did, even though he has some great numbers (2,039 passing yards, 1,271 rushing yards, 28 total touchdowns). He made huge, game-winning plays to bail out the Buckeyes time and again. Ultimately, 12-0 is his best stat.
Defensive MVP: Penn State LB Michael Mauti. While Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive lineman John Simon and others had standout years, no one meant more to his team on and off the field than Mauti. He was an emotional leader who helped keep the program together. He also was a tackling machine.
Newcomer of the year: Penn State DE Deion Barnes. He ran away with this award by registering six sacks (which ranked fifth in the Big Ten), 10 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles (tied for fourth in the league). The redshirt freshman has superstar potential.
Biggest surprise: Northwestern. A year after struggling to stop anyone on defense, the Wildcats showed much better toughness on that side of the ball, especially against the run. Venric Mark shocked everybody by not only becoming a reliable running back, but a 1,000-yard back who was one of the best in the country. The Wildcats were a few plays away from going 12-0.
Biggest disappointment: Michigan State. We picked the Spartans to win the league in the preseason but underestimated just how much the offense would struggle with a new starting quarterback (Andrew Maxwell), a young receiving corps and a disappointing offensive line. After a season-opening win against Boise State, Michigan State went 0-5 at home, and its last five losses were by a total of 13 points.
Best game: Michigan 38, Northwestern 31, OT, on Nov. 10 in Ann Arbor. This game featured the play of the year in the Big Ten. Michigan trailed by a field goal with 18 seconds left when it took over on its own 38-yard line with no timeouts. On the Wolverines' first play, quarterback Devin Gardner heaved a throw down the field, and receiver Roy Roundtree made a spectacular catch after tipping the ball to himself in midair. That 53-yard reception set up Brendan Gibbons' 26-yard field goal to tie things up with two seconds left in regulation. Michigan won in overtime, and the Wildcats were left to wonder what had just happened.