- Adam Rittenberg, College Football
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Consider it an early Christmas gift for a league that could use some good tidings.
The inaugural Big Ten championship game allows the conference to put its best foot forward after a year where little went right.
A rough 2011 began, fittingly, on New Year's Day when the Big Ten went 0-5 in bowl games, including three double-digit losses to the dreaded SEC. It led many to call the day the worst in league history. While the label might be applicable to what happens on the field, the bad news for the Big Ten was only getting started. Ohio State's NCAA case blew up during the spring and early summer, and the Penn State sex-abuse scandal dominated the headlines for much of the past month.
The Big Ten needs to shift the spotlight and change the discussion. The title game provides a nice diversion.
It features Michigan State and Wisconsin, widely regarded as the Big Ten's top teams. The championship marks a rematch of arguably the most entertaining game of the college football season, which ended on a Hail Mary touchdown pass as time expired that lifted Michigan State to a 37-31 win Oct. 22. The Spartans and Badgers are emerging powers in the league and, unlike other potential title game participants, they have kept the championship week discussion to the happenings on the field rather than the controversy off of it.
"These are the two most deserving teams," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com. "They both have play-makers, they both have great defenders, they've both been consistent, and they had an earlier game that was, if not the best game, one of the best games in the country this year.
"We're expecting a great inaugural game. Tremendous excitement."
Highlighting the game are the quarterbacks, Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Wisconsin's Russell Wilson. After a year where some of the Big Ten's more prominent players and coaches made headlines for the wrong reasons, the league couldn't have two better representatives for its signature game.
Cousins is the winningest quarterback in Michigan State history (26 victories) and has guided the Spartans to consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time. He holds team records for career touchdown passes (62), completion percentage (64.3) and passing efficiency (147.4). Cousins is just the second player in Spartans history to be named a team captain three times.
Despite all his success on the field and in the locker room, Cousins might be better known for his contributions elsewhere. He speaks to religious groups and volunteers at the local children's hospital. His riveting speech at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon in late July made national news.
"He's a very different type of person in terms of the normal college student you see," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. "He can be on this phone call with [reporters] and speak to you like a college coach who's been coaching for 30 years. He can speak to presidents at universities, he can speak to the board of trustees, and then he can also go in the locker room and clown around with the players: black, white, walk-on, scholarship, starter, freshman, whatever it is. He just makes a smooth transition into every environment where he's speaking, whether it's the Big Ten luncheon or whether it's in the locker room.
"Those are the things that really become difference-makers for you in a position such as quarterback."
Dantonio added that in his three decades in coaching he's never seen a player with Cousins' adaptability as a leader.
"I'm just wired to be a relational person," Cousins said. "It's who I am. I would struggle in an environment where there aren't a great deal of relationships. I would struggle in a place where people aren't relational, and I would thrive and succeed in a place where people are open and friendly and communicating. I've learned a lot about myself in my five years here, and that's certainly one of the things I've learned.
"I succeed in a place that's a relational environment, and I've tried, as a quarterback and a leader on this team to make it that in the locker room, to be able to break down walls and build chemistry."
While Cousins had years to break down walls and build chemistry, Wilson has left his imprint at Wisconsin in just five months on campus. Just seven weeks after his arrival, Wilson was elected a co-captain by his teammates, a move that surprised him.
Wilson's impact on the field has been profound for a Badgers offense coming off of a record-setting season in 2010. The senior quarterback leads the nation in pass efficiency (192.9) and is on pace to break Colt Brennan's NCAA record (186). He already has set the team record for single-season touchdown passes (28) and has fired a scoring strike on every 9.3 pass attempts, a mark that leads the nation. A top Heisman Trophy candidate for the first half of the season, Wilson has given Wisconsin a new type of weapon at quarterback.
Some have criticized Wisconsin for adding a "rent-a-quarterback" and questioned whether Wilson should have been allowed to transfer without sitting out a season, but Wilson has approached the opportunity the right way and has been an exemplary addition both on and off the field.
"The No. 1 thing that Russell brings to the table is consistency," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "Whether it's football play, whether it's character, whether it's practice habits, preparation, execution, coming through in clutch situations ... everything about Russell Wilson is consistent."
One of Wilson's most important moments as a Badger didn't come on a Saturday, but rather after the team suffered back-to-back heartbreaking losses. Along with fellow captain Aaron Henry, Wilson asked the coaches to leave the locker room and held a players' meeting.
"If you love the game, you have to bring it every single day," Wilson said. "That's what I talked to the guys about. Forget all the noise and focus on what we need to focus on, and that's to play the best football we can play from here on out. I think we've done that. Everybody adjusted. Everybody made sure that we were on the same page.
"The communication this season has been great."
Amid the wild celebration at Spartan Stadium after Michigan State beat Wisconsin on Oct. 22, Cousins found Wilson on the field and delivered a message.
"I said, 'First of all, you're a class act and you're the real deal as a person and not just a football player," Cousins said. "Secondly, 'I think we're going to see you guys again. It was a tough battle here today, but it may not be the end of it.
"Both of us felt that would be the case, and here we are."
And after a rough year, the Big Ten is better off for it.
Consider it an early Christmas gift for a league that could use some good tidings.The inaugural Big Ten championship game allows the conference to put its best foot forward after a year where little went right.