NCF Nation: Michigan State Spartans

We've been counting down the top 25 players from the 2014 Big Ten season all week, and now we have reached the summit.

Like Chris Rock, we're ready to deliver a top 5. These are the best of the best from the year that was.

No. 1: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin

This one was pretty easy. Gordon won the Doak Walker Award, was the Big Ten's offensive player of the year and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. He amassed 2,587 rushing yards -- second most ever by an FBS player, behind only Barry Sanders -- and 32 total touchdowns while picking up 7.5 yards per carry. We'll never forget his epic 408-yard performance in just three quarters on Nov. 15 against Nebraska, even if that single-game record stood for only one week. It was the year of the running back in the Big Ten, and Gordon was the king of the class.

No. 2: Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State

The Big Ten's defensive player of the year, Bosa led the league with 13.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss while also forcing four fumbles. He could change or even win games with his pass-rushing prowess, as he showed in overtime at Penn State. He was a finalist for the Bednarik and Ted Hendricks awards and the Lombardi Trophy, and he's a good bet to win a major award as a junior in 2015. How does he combine so much speed, power and personality in one package?

No. 3: Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana

If the Hoosiers had been a better team, or if Coleman had more help from his passing game, then perhaps his 2014 season would be discussed in the same kinds of hushed tones we reserve for Gordon. Make no mistake, though: Coleman's season was also one for the ages, as he ran for a school-record 2,036 yards (in two fewer games than Gordon) and averaged 7.5 yards per carry (the same as Gordon). He had five games of at least 190 yards rushing, including a 228-yard, three-touchdown tour de force at Ohio State late in the year.

No. 4: J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State

How would Barrett's 2014 campaign have looked if he hadn't broken his ankle against Michigan in the season finale? Would the Buckeyes still have won the national title? It's a great debate. But what can't be argued is how remarkable Barrett's year was. Thrust into the starting job after Braxton Miller's shoulder injury in late August, the redshirt freshman broke just about every school record and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. He accounted for 45 total touchdowns, led the Big Ten in total offense and pass efficiency, and rode the most famous scooter in Ohio State postseason history.

No. 5: Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State

The Cotton Bowl win over Baylor summed up Cook in a nutshell. After a terrible interception and a couple of errant throws through the end zone, he calmly delivered the game-winning, 10-yard strike with 17 seconds left. Cook isn't always perfect, but there are few quarterbacks you'd take ahead of him with the game on the line. He threw for 3,214 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2014, and the Spartans couldn't be happier that he will return as a senior to lead this fall.
They didn't sneak up on us.

Anyone who tracked the Big Ten's summer buzz -- or reviewed the list of players attending preseason media days in Chicago -- noticed the league's surplus of standout running backs.

Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon had spurned the NFL, and a potential first-round draft selection, for a run at the Heisman Trophy and a national championship. Gordon's good friend Ameer Abdullah also was back for one final season at Nebraska, where he had been among the nation's most productive players. Indiana football might not have held your attention, but Tevin Coleman's 7.3 yards-per-carry average certainly did.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsIn many years, Doak Walker Award winner Melvin Gordon would have taken home the Heisman Trophy.
Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Minnesota's David Cobb had been workhorses in 2013 -- combining for 529 carries -- and were back for more. Almost every team had a player capable of logging 1,000 rush yards.

"In this league," Cobb told ESPN.com's Austin Ward in August, "there's a good running back on every team."

Turned out, Cobb was underselling himself and his fellow backs. Most Big Ten teams had great, if not elite, running backs.

The numbers back it up: 2014 was easily the best season for running backs in Big Ten history.

The league produced six 1,500-yard rushers -- no other conference had more than three (no other Power 5 league had more than two). According to research from the Big Ten office, until 2014 the league never had more than three 1,500-yard rushers in the same season. Although a 12-game regular season, a championship game and the College Football Playoff provide more opportunities, Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott was the only back who needed the extra contests to reach -- and ultimately far eclipse -- 1,500 yards.

According to ESPN Stats and Info, no FBS conference has had even five 1,500-yard rushers since at least 1996.

The Big Ten produced the nation's top three rushers in Gordon, Coleman and Elliott. It had all three finalists for the Doak Walker Award in Gordon (who won), Coleman and Abdullah. Gordon was a Heisman finalist and likely would have won the award in any other year, as Marcus Mariota's numbers were overwhelming. Coleman and Gordon were consensus All-Americans, and Elliott earned offensive MVP honors in both the Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl, and in the national championship game.

So much star power eclipsed the consistency of players such as Cobb and Langford, the emergence of Northwestern freshman Justin Jackson, the speed threat of Purdue's Akeem Hunt, or the versatility of Illinois' Josh Ferguson.

Go ahead. Try to find a more productive season at running back -- for any league -- in college football history.

But what stands out about the Year of the Big Ten Running Back was that it occurred in stanzas. Just when one star back broke from the pack, another would seize the spotlight.

Let's take a quick look back:

Act 1: Fear Ameer

Abdullah and Georgia's Todd Gurley were the nation's best backs in the first month of the season. The Nebraska senior opened with a 232-yard performance against Florida Atlantic, and finished September with consecutive 200-yard efforts against Miami and Illinois. Abdullah finished with just 54 rush yards against FCS McNeese State but delivered one of the season's most memorable plays -- a 58-yard run after catch through McNeese State defenders with 20 seconds left that secured a Cornhuskers win.

Although Coleman also had a strong start and other Big Ten backs had their moments, Abdullah put himself in the Heisman talk with 833 rush yards and eight touchdowns by the end of September.

Act 2: Melvin makes his move

It was a bizarre start for Gordon: a huge first half (plus one play) against LSU, followed by a mysterious absence, followed by a 17-carry, 38-yard clunker against Western Illinois. Goodbye, Heisman? Hardly.

Beginning with a 253-yard performance against Bowling Green, Gordon posted 10 consecutive games of 100 or more rush yards, five 200-yard performances and seven games with multiple rushing touchdowns. By the end of October, he had returned to the national awards races.

[+] EnlargeTevin Coleman
AP Photo/Darron CummingsTevin Coleman's monster performances were hard to miss, even if Indiana was otherwise struggling.
Act 3: Coleman gets his due

It's always hard to get noticed on a struggling team, but when a player consistently puts up numbers like Coleman, he commands attention. Coleman averaged at least 6.9 yards per carry in six of his first seven games, including 14.5 yards per rush in a 219-yard effort at Iowa. Although his 307-yard explosion at Rutgers was overshadowed by Gordon's record-setting day against Nebraska, he earned national respect by running for 228 yards and three touchdowns at Ohio State in a game that Indiana led in the third quarter.

Coleman averaged 197.3 rush yards in road games, barely trailing Gordon (198 ypg) for the national lead.

Act 4: What about the other guys?

Cobb and Langford lacked the flash of Gordon, Coleman or Abdullah, but their consistency, durability and production eventually became impossible to ignore. Cobb logged five performances of 145 rush yards or more and recorded 30 or more carries in four consecutive games. Langford started slowly but ended the season with 10 consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, a team record. He ended his career with 15 consecutive 100-yard performances in Big Ten games, the longest such streak for any FBS player in regular-season conference games since at least 1996.

Elliott also surfaced with 154 yards at Michigan State, the first of many big-stage performances he would deliver down the stretch.

Act 5: Gordon's Heisman move

Some felt Mariota had the Heisman locked up by early November. Gordon made them reconsider. After a ho-hum 205-yard effort at Purdue, Gordon gashed Nebraska for an NCAA-record 408 rush yards as snow fell at Camp Randall Stadium. His milestone, compiled in just three quarters, lasted just one week as Oklahoma's Samaje Perine broke the record, but Gordon made the Heisman a two-man race again. He followed up with 200 yards at Iowa and a workmanlike 151 against Minnesota as Wisconsin won the Big Ten West Division.

Gordon fell shy of the Heisman but won the Doak Walker Award and secured a place as one of the great -- and perhaps the greatest -- Wisconsin back.

Act 6: Riding the E Train to a championship

The Year of the Big Ten Back was supposed to end with Gordon, but Elliott provided a surprise addendum. It started with 220 rush yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries in Ohio State's 59-0 stomping of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Elliott then followed with 230 yards and two scores on 20 carries in the Playoff semifinal against Alabama at the Sugar Bowl, including a Crimson Tide-taming 85-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

He ended with an even better performance -- 246 rush yards and four touchdowns -- as "ZEEEEEKE!" cheers reverberated throughout AT&T Stadium in Ohio State's national title win against Oregon.

The final carry for a Big Ten back this season: Elliott's 1-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds to play, providing a fitting exclamation point.
To quote the band Europe, we're in the final countdown. Our list of the best Big Ten players from the 2014 season has reached the top 10. This next group reflects the league's strongest position (by far): running back.

Let's get to it.

No. 6: Ameer Abdullah, RB Nebraska

Abdullah won't soon be forgotten by Nebraska fans who have seen plenty of elite running backs over the decades. The heart and soul of Huskers football the past few years eclipsed 1,600 rushing yards for the second consecutive season, ranked fourth nationally in all-purpose yards (174.8 ypg) and had 22 total touchdowns, numbers that would have been even greater if not for a late-season knee sprain. Abdullah earned second-team AP All-America honors and was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award.

No. 7: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State

For most of the season, it was the Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman and Ameer Abdullah show, with some cameos from David Cobb. No one mentioned Elliott, mostly because Buckeyes freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett kept stealing the show with his performances. But Elliott took center stage in Ohio State's championship run, earning offensive MVP honors in both the College Football Playoff semifinal and championship game. Cheers of "Zeeke!" echoed in Indianapolis, New Orleans and Arlington, Texas, as Elliott racked up 696 rush yards and eight touchdowns in the Big Ten championship and playoff games. He finished third nationally in rushing yards with 1,878.

No. 8: Anthony Zettel, DT, Penn State

The only non-running back in this portion of the player rankings earned his spot largely by making life miserable for opposing running backs. Zettel moved from end to tackle in the spring and emerged as an interior force, finishing second in the Big Ten in tackles for loss (17) and tied for fourth in sacks (8). He also tied for the team lead in interceptions (3). An exceptional athlete who supplements his football work with mixed martial arts training, Zettel is continuing Penn State's tradition of elite defensive tackles.

No. 9: David Cobb, RB, Minnesota

The 220-pound Texan put Minnesota's offense on his back for much of the season. Cobb set single-season team records for both carries (314) and rush yards (1,626), and logged seven 100-yard rushing performances. The second-team All-Big Ten selection had big performances against both Ohio State (145 yards) and Michigan (183 yards) and reached the end zone in each of his final six Big Ten games. Minnesota's offense lacked balance at times, but Cobb kept the chains moving.

No. 10: Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State

Langford might be the nation's most under-appreciated running back in the past two seasons. Constantly overshadowed by flashier players in the Big Ten and elsewhere, he has been remarkably consistent and productive, recording 10 100-yard rushing performances to give him a team-record 18 for his career. He also tied Michigan State's single-season rushing touchdowns record with 22. Like in 2013, Langford did much of his damage in Big Ten play, averaging 127.5 rush yards per game. In almost any other league, he's a first-team all-conference selection.
The weeklong countdown of the best players in the Big Ten from 2014 continues with the next set of five, headlined by a trio of linemen.

No. 11: Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State

The anchor on the interior for an Ohio State defense that grew into a dominant unit as the season progressed, Bennett played his best as his senior season neared an end. He accumulated five of his seven sacks and 9.5 of 14 tackles behind the line of scrimmage in November and the Big Ten championship game. By the time the Buckeyes controlled seemingly unstoppable Alabama and Oregon, Bennett was a force as part of a ferocious front four that made life much easier for the play-making linebackers and defensive backs behind him.

No. 12: Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa

A rock of consistency amid an up-and-down Iowa offense, Scherff did his part to contribute to the Hawkeyes' success. The Outland Trophy winner couldn't score touchdowns, though he would have gladly tried if given the chance. Scherff displayed his legendary strength and quick feet in protecting the blind side of Jake Rudock. When the Iowa offense hummed against Indiana, Northwestern and Illinois, Scherff was at the center of it.

No. 13: Taylor Decker, OT, Ohio State

The lone returning starter on an Ohio State offensive line that developed from a potential liability into a fearsome five-some over 15 games, Decker served as a cornerstone of the Buckeyes' success. Over the final four games, against Michigan, Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon, Ohio State rushed for 15 touchdowns. Credit Ezekiel Elliott -- but also Decker, a 6-foot-7 junior, and the line for punishing opponents as games grew long. And with inexperienced quarterbacks taking snaps all season, it was Decker who provided a security blanket in pass protection.

No. 14: Mike Hull, LB, Penn State

Hull didn't just lead the Nittany Lions in tackles as a senior. He led the Big Ten by a margin of 28 stops. A tackling machine, he served as the “heart and soul,” according to defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, of a group that carried PSU through 2014. Led by Hull and his 140 tackles, the defense led the Big Ten in yards allowed per game and play and in scoring, among numerous other categories. The sure-handed Hull was always in place to clean up. He contributed 10.5 tackles for losses and excelled in a leadership role.

No. 15: Tony Lippett, WR, Michigan State

Voted the team MVP and Big Ten receiver of the year, Lippett leaves MSU after catching 65 passes for a league-best 1,198 yards and 11 touchdowns. Firmly established as Connor Cook's top target, Lippett drew the attention of every MSU foe but often came up big against the best competition; against Oregon, for instance, he caught a career-best 11 passes. And Lippett did more than just catch passes. He started at cornerback on Senior Day against Rutgers and saw extensive time on defense against Penn State.
A dispiriting drought ended for the Big Ten on Monday night in Arlington, Texas. Another could end in April 2016 at an yet-to-be-determined location.

Ohio State's victory against Oregon gave the the Big Ten its first national championship since the 2002 season. No single accomplishment can help a league's reputation more than winning a national championship.

But there's another distinction the Big Ten would like to ditch. The league hasn't had a quarterback drafted in the first round of the NFL draft since Penn State's Kerry Collins in 1995 (No. 5 overall to Carolina). Collins, now 42, played his final NFL season in 2011.

The first-round quarterback draftee drought isn't nearly as significant as the national championship drought in determining the Big Ten's value. The league has produced several standout pro quarterbacks drafted after the first round, most recently Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, a third-round pick who helped Seattle win the Super Bowl last season.

[+] EnlargeCardale Jones
Darren Carroll for ESPNCardale Jones, if he wins the Ohio State starting job, could also end the Big Ten's first-round quarterback drought in 2016.
Still, two decades without a single first-rounder at quarterback is pretty stunning. It won't end April 30 in Chicago. Although the Big Ten could have its best first-round showing in years, the group won't include a quarterback.

But there's a decent chance, perhaps a good one, that things will change in 2016. Cardale Jones' decision to return to Ohio State gives the league another quarterback with the potential to go high in the draft. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. projected Jones as a second- or third-round pick in this year's draft if he had elected to leave Ohio State. Kiper's assessment came despite Jones having just three career starts and 94 career pass attempts under his belt with the Buckeyes.

Jones, of course, must first retain the starting job at Ohio State, which will be no easy task when more experienced quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller return from serious injuries. But if "12 Gauge" remains Ohio State's triggerman, grows his game as a redshirt junior and perhaps leads the Buckeyes to a national title, his draft stock surely will climb higher. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Jones checks all the boxes for NFL measurables -- huge arm, powerful runner, good feet -- and he already has proven himself a winner at the highest level of college football.

There's certainly some risk in Jones returning to Ohio State. But to think his draft stock can't get any higher is to doubt his ability to grow. If the last six weeks have taught us anything, it's not to doubt Cardale Jones.

Even if Jones doesn't start or backslides in his play, another Big Ten quarterback could crack the first round in 2016. Michigan State's Connor Cook and Penn State's Christian Hackenberg both have the ingredients to earn high draft grades in 2016 (Hackenberg, who just completed his sophomore year, would be an early draft entrant).



Let's begin with Hackenberg, who flourished in Bill O'Brien's offense in 2013, winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. At this time last year, many viewed the Penn State quarterback as a first-round lock in 2016 and a candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick. But Hackenberg endured a rough sophomore season behind a flimsy line, throwing 15 interceptions against 12 touchdowns and was sacked 44 times. His frustration grew and he had several sideline blow-ups with offensive coordinator John Donovan.

But opposing coaches tell me Hackenberg wasn't the problem with Penn State's offense. If the line is fixed -- the Lions will have more bodies there in 2015 -- Hackenberg's performance should improve. He still projects extremely well to the next level, and his top three receivers are back.

Cook might have earned a first-round grade if he chose to skip his senior year. He could cement himself as a No. 1 pick with a strong senior season. Cook has flourished in Michigan State's pro-style offense, throwing 46 touchdown passes the past two seasons. Like Jones, Cook is a proven winner, having led Michigan State to consecutive top-five finishes, consecutive major bowl victories and a Big Ten championship in 2013. His playmaking ability is obvious, but his ability to rebound from bad plays like this will really stick out to NFL personnel evaluators.

Jones, Hackenberg and Cook all have the potential to end the Big Ten's first-round quarterback famine, and other candidates could emerge. Quarterback might be a strength in the league. (It will be at Ohio State.)

The Big Ten waited a long time to for a team to raise the national championship trophy.

Now it waits for another sign of progress: a quarterback walking across the stage on the first night of the NFL draft.

Big Ten all-bowl team

January, 16, 2015
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The Big Ten played in 10 bowl games -- 11 if you count the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. We've come up with our list of the league's best postseason performers. The strategy here was as follows: When in doubt, choose a Buckeye. There is lots of scarlet and gray on our Big Ten all-bowl team, as you'd expect. Here it is:

Offense

QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State: Bouncing back from an at times rough sophomore season, Hackenberg reminded everyone of his talent in his team's 31-30 New Era Pinstripe Bowl win over Boston College. He threw for 371 yards and a season-high four touchdowns with no interceptions.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesOhio State running back Ezekiel Elliott left defenders grasping at air this postseason.
RB: Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State: The offensive MVP of both the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the national championship game, Elliott blossomed into a superstar this postseason. He ran for 476 yards and six touchdowns in the two playoff wins, including a four-touchdown night against Oregon.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: The Badgers star capped his career in style, by running for 251 yards and three touchdowns in Wisconsin's Outback Bowl win over Auburn. Gordon finished the season with 2,587 rushing yards, the second most in FBS history.

WR: Devin Smith, Ohio State: The Buckeyes' big-play threat became even more dangerous with Cardale Jones slinging it to him in the postseason. He had two catches for 87 yards and a score against Alabama and one for 45 yards against Oregon, but defenses always had to account for Smith.

WR: Chris Godwin, Penn State: The Nittany Lions freshman had 198 total receiving yards on the season before he caught seven balls for 140 yards and a touchdown in the win over Boston College.

TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota: Williams had seven receptions for 98 yards and a score in his team's Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl loss to Missouri. His hurdle over a Tigers defensive back en route to a 54-yard score was one of the best plays of bowl season.

OL: Taylor Decker, Ohio State: The Buckeyes dominated the line of scrimmage against Alabama and Oregon, and their junior left tackle was a huge reason for that.

OL: Pat Elflein, Ohio State: Elflein was terrific from his guard position, as the Buckeyes were able to run the ball extremely well in both playoff games.

OL: Kodi Kieler, Michigan State: Thrust into the starting lineup at right tackle due to an injury, Kieler graded out as the Spartans' top offensive linemen in their 42-41 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic win over Baylor. His hustle on a Baylor interception drew a penalty that might have saved the game.

OL: Jack Allen, Michigan State: The center and leader of the Spartans' line helped pave room for 552 yards and 29 first downs against Baylor.

OL: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: The Badgers ran for 400 yards against Auburn, and Costigan helped lead the way.

Defense

DL: Joey Bosa, Ohio State
DL: Michael Bennett, Ohio State
DL: Adolphus Washington, Ohio State

Yep, we've got three Buckeyes here (and you could make a case for Steve Miller, who had a pick-six versus Alabama). The Ohio State defensive line was great in both playoff games at both holding up against the run and generating pressure on the quarterback, and the starters proved to be iron men in both games.

DL: Anthony Zettel, Penn State: Zettel had a pair of tackles for loss against Boston College to finish his spectacular season at defensive tackle for the Nittany Lions.

LB: Darron Lee, Ohio State: The defensive MVP of the Sugar Bowl became a household name this January. Only a redshirt freshman, Lee could terrorize Big Ten offenses for a long time.

LB: Curtis Grant, Ohio State: Yet another Buckeyes defender. Grant led the team in tackles in the Sugar Bowl and was strong from his middle linebacker position when it mattered most.

LB: Joe Schobert, Wisconsin: Schobert collected three tackles for loss in Wisconsin's win over Auburn.

CB: Doran Grant, Ohio State: He corralled Alabama stud receiver Amari Cooper in the Sugar Bowl and held Cooper to his second-lowest yardage total against an FBS team this season.

CB: Jordan Lucas, Penn State: Boston College passed for only 97 yards on 20 attempts versus the Nittany Lions. Lucas also added seven tackles and a sack in the victory.

S: Vonn Bell, Ohio State: Hey, look, another Buckeye. Bell added to Ohio State's outstanding defensive effort from his safety position by grabbing an interception against Alabama and collecting 14 tackles in the two playoff games.

S: Lorenzo Waters, Rutgers: He was a busy man in his team's 40-21 Quick Lane Bowl win over North Carolina, with 14 tackles, two fumble recoveries and a blocked field goal.

Specialists

K: Rafael Gaglianone, Wisconsin: The Brazilian freshman kicked a 29-yard field goal with seven seconds left to send the game against Auburn into overtime, and he won it with a 25-yarder in the first extra period.

P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State: He averaged 46.5 yards on six punts against Alabama and 42 yards on three attempts against Oregon.

KR: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: In his final game with the Huskers, Abdullah returned three kicks for 120 yards, including a 49-yarder, in Nebraska's 45-42 National University Holiday Bowl loss to USC.

Overreacting in the Big Ten

January, 15, 2015
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We live in an instant reaction society, in which every development is immediately dissected and analyzed for all it's worth. Often, in this hyperbolic chamber, our first reactions turn out to be overreactions.

That's especially true in football, where a small number of games combines with outsized interest to make everything seem a little more monumental than it probably is. Here are some of the top overreactions from the Big Ten in the 2014 season:

Aug. 19: Ohio State is doomed without Braxton Miller!

What happened: Two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year Miller was ruled out for the season due to a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.

Overreaction: People began heaping dirt on the Buckeyes' season. Overnight, Ohio State went from league favorite to giant question mark, especially as it turned to a virtually unknown redshirt freshman quarterback with no experience. The entire Big Ten would suffer as a result too.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Khris Hale/Icon SportswireAs with Braxton Miller before him, Ohio State's demise was predicted following an injury to J.T. Barrett.
Reality: J.T. Barrett finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting and won the league's Big Ten quarterback of the year award while breaking a pile of school records. The Buckeyes did not lose a Big Ten game and merely won the national title.

Sept. 6: The Big Ten's playoff hopes are dead!

What happened: Michigan State lost by 19 points at Oregon. Ohio State lost at home by two touchdowns to Virginia Tech. Michigan got embarrassed at Notre Dame.

Overreaction: The Week 2 primetime meltdown ended the playoff possibilities for the Big Ten. The league wouldn't have enough opportunities to change public perception, and even with 10 games left in the regular season, the chance of a Big Ten team in the four-team field was slim.

Reality: The negativity was understandable, given the blowout nature of the losses and the conference's recent history in big games. Heck, many of us here in this blog thought the Big Ten was toast, save for lone optimist Austin Ward. But the losses came early enough in the season for the league to bounce back, and things happened elsewhere to help out the Big Ten's cause. Except for Michigan. That was a lost cause.

Nov. 8: Michigan State's time is over!

What happened: Ohio State ran all over the Spartans 49-37 in a showdown in East Lansing and handed Michigan State its second double-digit loss of the year.

Overreaction: The Spartans' Rose Bowl championship and Big Ten title from the season before were a one-year wonder. The downturn was beginning for Mark Dantonio's program.

Reality: Those two losses don't look so bad in retrospect, as they came to the two teams that played for the national title. The Spartans didn't lose to anyone else and beat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl to cement a top-5 finish in back-to-back years for the first time since the mid-1960s. Only a handful of teams have had as much success the past five years as Michigan State, which is in great shape to maintain its newfound elite status.

Nov. 29: Ohio State is doomed without J.T. Barrett!

What happened: Barrett fractured his ankle in the season finale against Michigan, which left him unavailable for the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin or any postseason game.

Overreaction: If the Miller injury didn't kill Ohio State's chances, then surely this one did. There was no way the Buckeyes could turn to third-string quarterback Cardale Jones and get him ready in one week for Wisconsin's fearsome defense. The Buckeyes were made an underdog in the Big Ten championship game.

Reality: Jones threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns in a 59-0 stomping of the Badgers. He'd go on to defeat Alabama and Oregon in his next two starts.

By now, you'd think we'd know not to doubt Meyer's ability to develop quarterbacks. And given those silly jumps to conclusions, we'll all have learned our lessons about overreacting to news in 2015, right?

Highly doubtful. Here are a a few likely overreactions you'll see this season:

Ohio State's quarterback logjam will be a distraction! Sure, if everybody stays in place, the Buckeyes will have a stuffed stable of quarterbacks, with Miller, Barrett and Jones. But remember that two of them are currently injured, they all love the school, and nothing is guaranteed. Plus, Meyer and his staff are smart enough to figure it out.

Jim Harbaugh's arrival means the return of the Big 2 with Michigan and Ohio State! Yeah, remember when Brady Hoke's early success portended an era in which Michigan and Ohio State would leave the rest of the league behind? Harbaugh will be great, but he's going to need some time to get the Wolverines fixed. Although the Buckeyes are zooming onward and upward, Michigan State and Wisconsin are established, excellent programs, and others such as Nebraska, Penn State and Minnesota aren't far behind. Speaking of the Gophers ...

Minnesota was a fluke! Jerry Kill's team didn't get much credit at all for its eight-win season in 2013 and probably won't be valued highly after an even more impressive eight-win team in 2014. People who just look at stats and returning starters might not be impressed by the Gophers and their sometimes low-wattage offense. But this team is legit and only going to get better under Kill and his staff.
The perception of the Big Ten is changing, and the rankings are starting to reflect that.

The problem is, the latter appears to be improving at a slower rate than the former, which is probably still a product of the early hole the Big Ten dug for itself at the beginning of the season.

But if the national champions proved anything, it’s that final judgment can’t be made during the second week of September. And led by Ohio State, the frequently picked-on league improved dramatically as the season went on, building to a productive postseason that shocked oddsmakers but really shouldn’t have come as such a great surprise if the conference had been getting the credit it deserved for progressively gaining strength.

Maybe the Big Ten doesn’t yet have a strong case for the No. 1 spot in the final Conference Power Rankings as determined by ESPN Stats and Information, an honor that went to the Pac-12. And despite the SEC failing to impress during bowl season and having its champion get knocked out by the best in the Big Ten, perhaps the Big Ten still doesn’t deserve to be No. 2, either. But after already passing the ACC with its strong closing argument, there’s a compelling case to be made that it should have leaped over the Big 12 as well to finish in the third spot instead of closing the 2014 campaign at No. 4.

The Buckeyes are obviously the trump card for plenty of arguments moving forward, erasing the title drought for the league and proving definitively by beating the champions of the top two leagues that there is elite football coming from the Big Ten again.

But in reality, Ohio State’s accomplishments can’t really be shared, which is why the 6-5 postseason record and the number of teams the league had step up down the stretch is so valuable moving forward.

The rankings might have been largely unsalvageable after all the marquee matchups largely went against the Big Ten during the first couple weeks of the season. But Michigan State coming back to beat the previously highest-ranked non-playoff team with its rally over Baylor in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic was a statement victory.

Wisconsin bouncing back from a beatdown in the Big Ten championship to knock off Auburn helped silence the longstanding taunts that the league doesn’t have the athleticism to match up with the SEC.

Penn State and Rutgers offered some evidence that the middle of the pack is on the rise in the conference as well, though wins over Boston College and North Carolina, respectively, may have only mattered individually in dropping the ACC down to the lowest spot among Power 5 leagues.

But even still, the College Football Playoff selection committee had already recognized that the Big Ten was more than just a punchline when it put five teams in the rankings in November. And it certainly was impressed enough with the league champion to put Ohio State in the four-team playoff, where it was up to the Buckeyes to show they belonged once they stepped on the field.

The underdog in every postseason game, the challenge was the same for the Big Ten as a whole -- and it vastly exceeded expectations and did a lot of work to erase the stigma the league has been burdened with for the last handful of seasons.

And while that didn’t earn the conference a No. 1 ranking like Ohio State claimed for itself, the Big Ten proved collectively it should be closer to the top than the bottom.

Top 10 instant-impact recruits in 2015 

January, 14, 2015
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With signing day a few weeks away, early enrollees already on campus and the national championship game in the books, which teams are reloading with talent that can hit the field and make an immediate impact?

Here are 10 committed prospect who have the chance to contribute early and often in the 2015 season:

Final 2014 Big Ten Power Rankings

January, 13, 2015
Jan 13
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» More Final 2014 Power Rankings: Top 25 | ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

» More 2015 Too-Early Rankings: Top 25 | ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

The 2014 season just ended, but we're already looking ahead to next season. Here are our way-too-early 2015 Big Ten power rankings, which are subject (and guaranteed) to change a lot between now and August.

 

Michigan State's 2014 season will be remembered most for the way it ended: a furious fourth-quarter comeback against Baylor in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, giving the Spartans a signature win.

But the Baylor triumph, combined with the results of the College Football Playoff semifinals that took place later on Jan. 1, provided Michigan State another distinction. No team in college football has better losses than the Spartans, whose only two setbacks came against the teams that meet Monday for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T.

"It's crazy how things work out," Spartans safety Kurtis Drummond said, "that your two losses come to national title contenders."

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota, Kurtis Drummond
Chris Pietsch/Associated PressMarcus Mariota kept the Spartans off-balance with both his legs and his arm.
MSU fell Sept. 6 at Oregon and Nov. 8 against Ohio State at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans led both games for stretches before stumbling midway through. They piled up yards in both contests -- 466 against Oregon, 536 against Ohio State -- but couldn't slow down their opponents' potent offenses, which combined for 95 points and 1,059 yards against a typically formidable Spartans defense.

The Spartans aren't offering title game predictions, but they weighed in on several elements of the mega matchup.

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota

Michigan State faced only half of Monday's quarterback pairing, as Ohio State's J.T. Barrett was still healthy for the game in East Lansing, Michigan. Mariota had 318 pass yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and 42 rush yards in Oregon's Week 2 win against the Spartans.

"I remember his composure and his confidence," Drummond said. "He's not a guy who's going to make the first guy miss and just take off running. He can do that, but he's a guy who can still throw the ball downfield."

Mariota made the game's defining play with his feet, and then his arm. Michigan State led 27-18 in the third quarter and appeared to have sacked Mariota on third-and-long, but the Oregon star escaped several would-be tacklers before shoveling the ball to Royce Freeman for a first down.

Oregon converted another third down moments later and reached the end zone, sparking a 28-0 run to end the game.

"He's extremely gifted in terms of riding the fake-out," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "You can see a couple times in the film where our guys are sitting right there and eyes on the ball, eyes on him and we lose him. And then, in the pocket getting out of problems, he's a fast guy, he's extremely elusive."

The offenses

Both offenses fall under the spread canopy and have similarities in personnel and operation.

For years, Oregon's pace has staggered opposing defenses, especially when the Ducks get rolling. They lead the FBS this season in scoring percentage after the initial first down is gained, scoring on 66.2 percent of such possessions. Dantonio said Ohio State doesn't operate as quickly as it did with Braxton Miller at quarterback, but a tempo element remains.

"They both create run-pass conflicts," Dantonio said. "They both have coaches that are on the cutting edge of what we see now as offensive football."

The skill-position contingents are similar: fast and physical backs such as Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott and Oregon's Freeman, big-play receivers such as Oregon's Darren Carrington and Devon Allen and Ohio State's Devin Smith and Michael Thomas. Oregon has six players with at least 20 receptions who average more than 13 yards per reception; Ohio State has four.

"Oregon has guys who ran track, Ohio State has guys who ran track," Drummond said. "They both have explosive-type players out there on the edges, guys who can make plays on the ball."

One difference, Drummond noted, is that Ohio State lines up its tight ends closer to the line of scrimmage. The Buckeyes' Jeff Heuerman is a strong blocker with the ability to catch passes. Oregon lost standout tight end Pharaoh Brown to a season-ending leg injury in November.

The defenses

There are more differences in scheme -- Oregon runs a 3-4, Ohio State a 4-3 -- and personnel with these less distinguished units. Oregon's height at defensive end with Arik Armstead (6-foot-8) and DeForest Buckner (6-foot-7) stood out to both Dantonio and MSU offensive coordinator Dave Warner.

Ohio State isn't quite as tall up front but boasts power inside with tackles Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington.

"That’s going to be a test for both offenses, to try and establish the run game," Warner said. "They've both got some run-stoppers up front."

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesOhio State forced Connor Cook and Michigan State to pass more than they otherwise would have liked.
Offensive balance was among Michigan State's top goals entering both games, but the Spartans became pass-heavy in both contests, especially as they fell behind in the second half.

The Ducks' defensive backs also caught Warner's attention. Oregon safety Erick Dargan had the first of his team-leading seven interceptions against the Spartans.

"Those guys are playmakers, so you've got to be pretty smart as far as how you attack them in the pass game," Warner said. "We had a little bit of success but screwed up there toward the third and fourth quarter. Those guys don't let you get away with many mistakes."

Keys to the game

The offensive firepower on both sides has many anticipating a shootout. It's why Warner thinks conversion rates -- third downs and touchdowns -- will be so important.

Michigan State's inability to convert a red zone opportunity late in the first half against Ohio State -- a holding penalty nullified a touchdown run and the Spartans subsequently missed a short field goal attempt -- turned the momentum and MSU never recovered. Ohio State and Oregon rank third and fourth nationally in third-down conversions, so the team that better moves the chains will have a significant edge. Ohio State is better (20th nationally, 35 percent conversions) at preventing third-down conversions than Oregon (60th, 39.5 percent).

"Third downs become very critical, whether it’s third-and-short or third-and-long," Warner said. "When you get in the red zone, you want to get touchdowns, not field goals. Those things become even more important when you're going against a high-powered offense."

Dantonio expects turnovers and special teams to loom large. Oregon used three third-quarter takeaways against Florida State to pull away from the Seminoles. Ohio State committed two early turnovers against Alabama but rallied to win the turnover margin 3-2.

Oregon leads the nation in turnover margin (plus-20), while Ohio State is tied for 15th (plus-10).

"This isn't a game," Drummond said, "where it's going to be easy to win beating yourselves."
Three years ago, I sat in Mark Dantonio’s office and asked him about his least-favorite subject.

Brady Hoke had just won 11 games and the Sugar Bowl in his first year at Michigan, and the Wolverines were the toast of recruiting service rankings. Many people wondered if Hoke’s instant success would pierce Michigan State’s balloon (Hey, cut us all a break. Those were simpler times and we were na´ve.)

Dantonio listed off all his achievements with the Spartans, including their recent run of dominance over Michigan, and with that wry smirk of his, turned the question back on me. “So where’s the threat?” he asked.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsMark Dantonio has led Michigan State to at least 11 victories in four of the past five seasons.
He later tried to distance himself from that quote a bit. But his point had not only been made, it was an unimpeachable one. Michigan State, as it turned out, had no reason to worry about Hoke’s short reign with the Maize and Blue, and the Spartans even grew stronger during it.

So let’s all agree not to make the same mistake again, even as more dangerous existential threats appear to be rising against Michigan State. Dantonio has built a program that can withstand just about any menace, real or imagined.

“We're not fading away,” Dantonio said Tuesday. “We're getting better as we move forward. And the challenges are getting bigger.”

Pause and appreciate what the Spartans have accomplished in recent years. They just finished an 11-2 season that concluded with a 42-41 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic win over No. 5 Baylor. Their only two losses of the season came against the two teams that will play for the national championship next Monday, Oregon and Ohio State. They should finish no lower than No. 6 in the final polls.

Michigan State is 24-3 in the past two years, having won the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl last season. It’s the only program to have won a BCS game last season and a New Year’s Six bowl this year. No team has represented the Big Ten better in bowls of late, as the Spartans have beaten Georgia (2011 season), TCU (2012), Stanford (2013) and now Baylor. They have won at least 11 games in four of the past five years.

“I think we've developed continuity here, not just in what we're doing but in how we're doing it and in terms of productivity, in terms of wins,” Dantonio said. “So I think we can be in the national conversation. I think we're a football team that can and will play up.”

Yet there remains, in some quarters, a fear that outside forces may cause things to slow down in East Lansing.

Ohio State, whose win at Spartan Stadium on Nov. 8 kept Michigan State from repeating as Big Ten champs, is surging forward as a national power and is still scarily young. Jim Harbaugh’s hiring at Michigan portends the Wolverines’ return to contender status (for real this time). The East Division is only going to get tougher, especially if James Franklin keeps recruiting like a madman at Penn State.

Meanwhile, Dantonio loses the architect of his ferocious defenses and longtime collaborator Pat Narduzzi, who finally got his head coaching opportunity with Pittsburgh. Several of this year’s top contributors -- Big Ten receiver of the year Tony Lippett, record-breaking running back Jeremy Langford, Big Ten defensive back of the year Kurtis Drummond, cornerback and potential first-round NFL pick Trae Waynes, four-year starting defensive end Marcus Rush -- are leaving, and star defensive end Shilique Calhoun still might join them. The Spartans’ 2015 schedule won’t be easy, either, as they have to go to Ohio State and get a return date from Oregon in Week 2.

I admit to having some concerns about the immediate future of Michigan State when Baylor built a 20-point lead in the third quarter on New Year’s Day. But then the Spartans did what they always do nowadays: they refused to wither. Resilience has been the strength of this program under Dantonio.

Ohio State isn’t going to go away, but the truth is that Michigan and Penn State are chasing the Spartans, not the other way around. Dantonio is replacing Narduzzi with two other longtime assistants in Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel, and he’s betting that the staff continuity that has served him so well will continue paying off. He's probably right, because Barnett and Tressel are rising stars in the coaching world.

"It's time for a lot of people to grow," Dantonio said, "and this is the next step in growth process."

Harbaugh will surely increase the in-state competition, but Hoke was already recruiting at a high level, at least according to the rankings. Michigan State has shown an uncanny ability to evaluate and select the players that best fit its system and then develop them. Look at Waynes, who played on the same Wisconsin high school team as Melvin Gordon, and yet only the Spartans truly saw the player he could become. Or Jack Conklin, who had no other Division I offers but might be the best left tackle in the Big Ten.

Still, hardly a public appearance has gone by the past couple of weeks where Dantonio wasn’t asked about Harbaugh, including Tuesday’s season wrap up session.

“Coach Harbaugh is an excellent coach,” Dantonio said, no doubt and understandably irked by another Michigan question. “He's got a tremendous track record -- we all understand that. It will be the next challenge for us.”

The threats against Michigan State appear to be mounting. But don't forget that Dantonio and his Spartans have built a powerhouse that can take on all comers.
Underclassmen still have until Jan. 15 to decide whether to declare for the NFL draft. But, in the meantime, we decided to take a look at those who already made their decisions public.

Here are the 11 Big Ten players (listed alphabetically) leaving early, their draft rankings and who's in line to replace them:

Penn State DE Deion Barnes, 6-foot-4, 255 pounds

2014 stats: 44 tackles, 12.5 tackles-for-loss, 6 sacks, 3 QB hurries

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A. There are not yet any ESPN grades on him, but he’s not believed to be a top-10 defensive end. One NFL.com contributor said he could go “as early as the second day of the draft” – if he impresses at pro day or the combine.

Who’s taking over: With DE C.J. Olaniyan also entering the draft, Penn State will likely fill one spot with Garrett Sickels. The other? Former walk-on Carl Nassib and freshman Torrence Brown are the most likely candidates at this point.




Indiana RB Tevin Coleman, 6-foot, 210 pounds

2014 stats: 270 carries, 2,036 rushing yards, 7.5 ypc, 15 TDs; 25 catches, 141 yards

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 36. “Runs hard and doesn’t shy away from contact along sidelines. … Rarely tackled for loss thanks in large part to burst.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 3.

Who’s taking over: Former UAB running back Jordan Howard recently decided to transfer to Indiana, in part because of Coleman’s decision to declare early. He’ll likely be the starter. He rushed for 1,587 yards as a sophomore in 2014.




Maryland WR Stefon Diggs, 6-foot, 195 pounds

2014 stats: 62 catches, 792 yards, 5 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 78. “Zone buster that locates pockets underneath and uses speed to attack seams downfield. … Good focus and catches ball in stride.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 15.

Who’s taking over: With the graduation of Deon Long, Marcus Leak and Jacquille Veii are in line to be the top-two wideouts. The pair also could be challenged by younger players such as Levern Jacobs, Taivon Jacobs and Juwann Winfree.




Michigan WR Devin Funchess, 6-5, 235 pounds

2014 stats: 62 catches, 733 yards, 4 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 20. “Quick enough to separate from most linebackers and some safeties. ... Can extend and catch away from frame.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 4.

Who’s taking over: Amara Darboh is the obvious candidate here, since his number was most often called in Funchess’ absence. He was second in both catches (36) and yards (473).




Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon, 6-1, 207 pounds

2014 stats: 343 carries, 2,587 yards, 29 TDs, 7.5 ypc; 19 catches, 153 yards, 3 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 16. “Fearless runner that doesn’t gear down or brace for contact. … Anticipation isn’t outstanding and misses occasional seam, but that is an exception … Violent jump cuts.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 1.

Who’s taking over: Corey Clement saw considerable time the past two seasons, so he’ll be taking over as the main ball-carrier. He finished 2014 with 949 yards and 9 TDs.




Nebraska DE Randy Gregory, 6-6, 245 pounds

2014 stats: 54 tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss, 7 sacks, 16 QB hurries, 2 blocked kicks

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 5. “Above average first-step quickness, adequate bend and above average closing speed. … Best fit is 3-4 OLB … Can line up at 4-3 RDE but ideally he would add weight and get stronger first.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 3.

Who’s taking over: Former walk-on Jack Gangwish started when Gregory was injured this season, and he’ll be a senior next year. Gangwish finished with 19 tackles and four tackles-for-loss in 2014.




Rutgers TE Tyler Kroft, 6-6, 240 pounds

2014 stats: 24 catches, 269 yards, 0 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A. Mel Kiper listed him as the fifth-best tight end prospect in October, but Kroft does not yet have a new draft grade/ranking.

Who’s taking over: Nick Arcidiacono and Matt Flanagan both played behind Kroft in 2014, so they’re next in line. Flanagan played in nine games; Arcidiacono played in 10 (and started one). They finished with just one catch apiece.




Penn State OT Donovan Smith, 6-5, 340 pounds

2014 stats: 11 starts at left tackle

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A. No ESPN grades/ranks yet on Smith here, but OurLads.com’s Dan Shonka recently told us Smith would likely be a late third- or fourth-rounder.

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A.

Who’s taking over: Right tackle Andrew Nelson could move over to left, meaning that junior-college signee Paris Palmer – the nation’s No. 25 overall juco player – would become the new starter on the line.




Ohio State DE Noah Spence, 6-3, 250 pounds

2014 stats: Did not play. He was suspended indefinitely after failing another drug test in September; his appeal was denied in November.

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 92. No scouting report is available, but he’s listed as an outside linebacker for the NFL draft.

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 6 (at outside linebacker).

Who’s taking over: Well, in this case, someone already took over – and that’s senior Steve Miller. So far, he has 33 tackles and 6.5 tackles-for-loss this season. But he’ll be most remembered for a pick-6 against Alabama.




Michigan State CB Trae Waynes, 6-1, 182 pounds

2014 stats: 46 tackles, 2 tackles-for-loss, 3 interceptions, 8 pass breakups, 11 deflections

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 22. “Above average field awareness. Shows strong eyes in zone coverage. … Above-average fluidity and balance with movement skills.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 1.

Who’s taking over: Safety Demetrious Cox could move to cornerback, or the position could be filled by Jermaine Edmondson, who backed up Waynes this past season. (Darian Hicks will likely reclaim his old spot at field corner.)




Minnesota TE Maxx Williams, 6-4, 250 pounds

2014 stats: 36 catches, 569 yards, 8 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A. As a redshirt sophomore who recently declared, there are not yet any ESPN grades/rankings on him – but he’s right outside the top-32 overall players on at least one other analyst’s big board.

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A.

Who’s taking over: With the departure of fellow TE Drew Goodger, mostly a blocker, there’ll be several new faces vying for time. Lincoln Plsek played in every game and saw the most time this season while Duke Anyanwu, who missed the year with a torn ACL, could challenge for a spot. Brandon Lingen, Nick Hart and Nate Wozniak also could factor in.
Most see New Year's Day as a new beginning, a clean slate, a time where the present decleats the past like Tony Lippett decleated poor Chris Callahan in the Cotton Bowl (it's OK, the Baylor kicker is alive). Big Ten fans are no different, but for them, New Year's Day had become Groundhog Day -- and not in a good way.

Remember when Bill Murray, in the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day," kept finding creative ways to kill himself because he knew he'd have another chance in the morning? My favorite: when Phil (the man) kidnaps Phil (the groundhog) in a pickup truck and drives into a quarry. The day's master of ceremonies, Buster, tells the cop who's trying to stop him: "If you gotta shoot, aim high. I don't wanna hit the groundhog."

Words to live by.

[+] EnlargeOhio State celebration
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesOhio State's victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl capped a banner New Year's Day for the Big Ten.
As Phil (the man) said: "I've killed myself so many times, I don't even exist anymore."

That had been the Big Ten on New Year's Day -- different and occasionally entertaining methods of failure ending with the same morbid result, followed by the familiar onslaught of national criticism. If Big Ten fans wanted to spend Jan. 1 away from televisions, computers, cell phones and stadiums just to escape the inevitable, who could blame them?

New Year's Day 2011 is one that will live in Big Ten infamy, as the league went 0-5 in bowls. Things didn't improve much, as the Big Ten went 4-10 on the next three New Year's days. (The 2012 games were played on Jan. 2 because of the NFL playoffs.)

Most Big Ten fans can't stand the way the league clusters most of its major bowl games on New Year's Day -- except for the Rose Bowl, of course. Their complaint makes sense, as it's hard to track all of the teams at once. The method becomes more maddening when every Big Ten team loses, turning New Year's Day into a national showcase of Big Ten ineptitude.

The conference appeared headed toward another New Year's downer last week. Wisconsin saw a late lead disappear against Auburn, Michigan State was getting pummeled by Baylor and Minnesota couldn't get out of its own way against Missouri. Ohio State was playing Alabama in a College Football Playoff semifinal that night at the Allstate Sugar Bowl, but the Buckeyes, starting a third-string quarterback against the mighty Tide defense, were a long shot to advance.

Another Big Ten New Year's oh-fer seemed imminent, complete with another reminder from the SEC that the Big Ten wasn't up to snuff with the top conferences. It's OK if you stopped watching.

But then quarterback Joel Stave got hot and Wisconsin sent the Outback Bowl to overtime, where it prevailed 34-31. Michigan State mounted one of the wildest comebacks in bowl history, erasing a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 42-41.

Hours later, Ohio State beat Bama, piling up 42 points and 537 yards in a definitive victory that, despite ending just after midnight ET, still counts as part of the Big Ten's New Year's haul.

And what a haul it was. New Year's Day 2015 marked the Big Ten's best day in 4,382 days -- specifically, since Jan. 3, 2003, when Ohio State beat Miami to win the league's most recent national championship and its only title in the BCS era. The logjam of games fans gripe about suddenly wasn't so annoying.

Ohio State's victory carried the day because of who it came against and where it took place. Ultimately, the Big Ten needs a team to win a national title, but the Buckeyes' win against what most consider the nation's premier program in SEC territory will reverberate, regardless of what they do against Oregon a week from now.

Fairly or not, Wisconsin had become the epitome of Big Ten big-game futility in recent years. The Badgers dropped three straight Rose Bowls and last year's Capital One Bowl. They blew a big lead against LSU in this season's opener, and with an assist from Pac-12 officials, stumbled last fall at Arizona State. Badgers fans had seen the movie before, the one with underwhelming quarterback play and not quite enough speed, and braced for the familiar ending. But this time, Wisconsin came through to beat a talented Auburn squad.

A 10-win season -- Michigan State's fourth in the past five seasons -- is nothing to sneeze at, but the Spartans needed a signature victory to stamp the 2014 campaign as another success. They fell short of their preseason goals but recorded their team-record fourth consecutive bowl win. Now that Jim Harbaugh is at Michigan, you'll hear a lot about how the Big Two -- Michigan and Ohio State -- will lord over the league again. It's a lazy theory. Mark Dantonio and his Spartans aren't going anywhere, as the bowl win reminded everyone.

New Year's Day gave the league something it rarely has this time of year: momentum. The national media will never toast the Big Ten the way it does the SEC, but credit is being doled out, even from some reluctant sources.

There's also talk about the Big Ten's bright future, and rightfully so.

Regardless of what happens Jan. 12 at Jerry World, Ohio State should have a better team this coming season. Love him or hate him, Urban Meyer is the best thing that happened to the Big Ten.

Michigan State returns quarterback Connor Cook, a proven winner, and several other key pieces. Wisconsin rolls on with a new coach (Paul Chryst) who can fix an old problem (inconsistent quarterback play). Michigan hired the perfect coach to fast-track its comeback. Penn State, another Big Ten bowl winner, will improve as James Franklin injects more talent and depth into the roster.

Despite its bowl loss, Minnesota is ascending under Jerry Kill. If new Nebraska coach Mike Riley maximizes the talent on his roster, the Big Ten will have another team in the national discussion. The Big Ten's much-panned new additions, Rutgers and Maryland, don't look so bad after Year 1. Even Indiana got some good news on New Year's Day, as UAB standout running back Jordan Howard announced he would transfer to IU.

Groundhog Day is over for the Big Ten and its fans.

After seemingly a decade of cold, harsh, unrelenting winter, the sun is out in the heartland.

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