Recapping the Big Ten in the aughts

January, 18, 2010
1/18/10
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The Big Ten began the decade near the top of the college football world.

The league boasted the Rose Bowl champion (Wisconsin), the Orange Bowl champion (Michigan) and four teams ranked in the top 15 of the final polls in January 2000.

Sound familiar?

The Big Ten finds itself in a similar position after a strong showing in this year's postseason. Ohio State won the Rose Bowl, Iowa claimed the Orange and four teams finished in the top 20 of the final polls.

While Big Ten success bookends the last 10 years, the league endured its share of ups and downs in between. After thriving from 1993-99 -- the league won six Rose Bowls, went 26-18 in all bowls and claimed a national title in 1997 -- the Big Ten did a lot more surviving in the aughts.

As college football's power base gradually shifted south and west, the Big Ten often seemed under siege during the decade. There was the speed argument and the claims that the Big Ten had fallen behind in recruiting and schemes. No league benefited more from the BCS system -- the Big Ten placed multiple teams in BCS bowls in seven of the 10 years -- and as a result, no league faced more criticism around the country.

Six consecutive Rose Bowl losses and only one winning bowl record through the first nine years perpetuated the bashing, but the Big Ten always found ways to restore itself as one of the nation's premier conferences.

The league took heat entering the 2002 season, only to emerge with a national champion and three top 10 teams. The national criticism reached a fever pitch before the 2009 season, but the Big Ten responded again with four bowl wins against top 15 teams, including two in BCS games.

If nothing else, the Big Ten was extremely resilient during the aughts.

Take Penn State, for example. The Nittany Lions went 26-33 in the first half of the decade, a stretch that nearly forced legendary coach Joe Paterno to step down. In the last five years, Penn State went 51-13, had three top 10 finishes and won two Big Ten championships and four bowl games. At 83 years young, Paterno has an NCAA-record 394 wins ... and counting.

The ups and downs also applied to Ohio State, the program that defined Big Ten football in the decade. The Buckeyes won or shared six Big Ten titles, including each of the last five. They won a national title in 2002 and produced a Heisman Trophy winner four years later in quarterback Troy Smith. Ohio State also drew criticism for its big-game blues toward the end of the decade, but Jim Tressel's team rebounded with a huge win in the Rose Bowl against Oregon (OK, technically happened in a new decade, but it applied to the aughts).

Michigan ended the decade at its lowest point since the early 1960s, with back-to-back bowl-less seasons and a six-game slide in The Game. But the Wolverines also won or shared three league championships and produced eight first-round draft picks during the same period.

This was the decade when Kirk Ferentz revived Iowa, when Purdue became a consistent bowl team, when the spread offense spread throughout the league, when Wisconsin started the coach in-waiting trend, when Northwestern elevated its profile, when Indiana ended its bowl drought, when Minnesota ran into the record books and when Michigan State found a bit of stability.

No team in the country had a stranger decade than Illinois, which reached two BCS bowls and had eight losing seasons.

The Big Ten had its share of triumph: Ohio State's national title, Smith's Heisman, three Outland Trophy winners, two Maxwell Award winners, three Doak Walker Award winners and many more honorees. The league also experienced tragedy, namely the losses of two head coaches, Northwestern's Randy Walker and Indiana's Terry Hoeppner.

Off the field, the league made news by forming its own television network and publicly putting expansion on the table.

The aughts might not have represented great times for the Big Ten, but they were important times.

And just like in January 2000, the league is set up for success as a new decade dawns.

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