At long last we’ve reached the conclusion of our look back at the last 10 years of Big Ten football, and as voted by the writing staff here are the top three Big Ten football seasons of the last ten years.
3. 2009 (Average: 3.9)
Prepare to watch me do a whole bunch of mental gymnastics to talk about why the one season I’ll never get over is the third best season of the past ten years.
Both Ohio State and Penn State began the season in the AP Top 10 and a total of 51 players were on preseason awards watch lists, with Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn appearing on four and three watch lists respectively. The season started strong for the league; in spite of Iowa nearly falling to Northern Iowa and Ohio State getting a scare from Navy, ten of the eleven teams won their opening game while Illinois lost 37-9 against Missouri after Benn left early with an ankle sprain that would nag him all year and star linebacker Martez Wilson suffered a season-ending neck injury,
Despite two MAC losses (one by Michigan State to Central Michigan and one by Purdue to Northern Illinois) and a 1-2 record against Notre Dame, the Big Ten had snuck four teams into the top 25 by the time Week 4 came around thanks to Iowa’s road upset of the top-5 Nittany Lions. Despite an 18-15 loss to one of the last Pete Carroll USC teams, the Terrelle Pryor-led Buckeyes kept cruising as well, crushing Illinois 30-0 as Williams, who was by this point the all-time Illinois leader in total offensive yardage, was benched for Eddie McGee after throwing two picks.
Pryor, Ricky Stanzi and Daryll Clark emerged as the faces of the 2009 Big Ten race, while Mike Kafka and Adam Weber put up great numbers for Northwestern and Minnesota and Eddie McGee was pulled from a loss to Michigan State after going 2-for-11. I was at that game and I don’t remember anything about it. We put up about 90 more punting yards than offensive yards in that game. Penn State remained a game behind Iowa and Ohio State, the latter of whom had smooth sailing ahead. Jim Tressell docked his ship in an unassuming harbor, hoping to refuel and relax.
October 17th, 2009. A date that will live in infamy.
Purdue Harbor saw the Buckeyes enter the fourth quarter trailing the 1-5 Boilermakers 23-7 and eventually lose 26-18, opening the door wide open for Iowa. Michigan, meanwhile, had started 4-0 but would lose 7 of their last 8 including a Halloween beatdown at the hands of the Fighting Illini who had just realized that 21 eventual NFL starters were on their team, including halfback Mikel Leshoure.
Now in first place, all Iowa needed to do was not dicktrip against Northwestern. However, they couldn’t help themselves and lost 17-10. Ohio State would take care of business against Penn State and Iowa to clinch the conference title, while Illinois would go with some guy named Jacob Charest at quarterback against Northwestern on what was ostensibly Senior Day; a comeback bid was ended by a complete bullshit assessment by the officials that, despite literally catching the ball and falling on his back, Jarred Fayson was not in fact down by contact when Sherrick McManis dove on him and picked up the ball and it was somehow an interception. Juice Williams didn’t take a single snap.
For some reason, Wisconsin played Hawaii on December 5th, while Illinois just happened to play the best team in the history of the Cincinnati program and put up 36 points on them before playing Fresno State in front of 10,000 people in December. As the defenses grew tired, it became a track meet between Leshoure and Ryan Mathews, only to end with a 2-point conversion for the win. The Fresno quarterback was tackled behind the line but not before he lobbed the ball grenade-style towards the end zone. Several Illini jumped for it and the pass was swatted out of the end zone, directly into the arms of an offensive lineman, who fell into the end zone for the 53-52 victory. Ron Zook was not fired.
The Big Ten went 4-3 in bowl season. The league was guaranteed a loss since Northwestern was playing, but Penn State defeated LSU in the Citrus Bowl and Ohio State won the Rose Bowl. Iowa, however, won the Orange Bowl AND America.
2. 2014 (Average: 3.7)
The only season on this list to end with a Big Ten team as National Champions, the 2014 season was a time of great change for the college football landscape. Maryland and Rutgers joined the Big Ten, which then reorganized into the East and West divisions. The season would end in the first-ever College Football Playoff, a dramatic departure from the one-game BCS National Championship system.
Three teams started the season ranked, but the #5 Ohio State Buckeyes had serious problems. Star quarterback Braxton Miller hurt his shoulder in training camp and missed the entire year, and then a swarming Virginia Tech defense mauled the Buckeyes in week 2 for a 35-21 win. By Week 2, the conference had racked up two of its three MAC losses and came one heroic Ameer Abdullah run away from overtime with McNeese State. Oregon blew away Michigan State and Notre Dame took a gigantic 31-0 dump on Brady Hoke’s Michigan Wolverines.
Week three looked like a disaster, with the conference going 3-6 in non-con games that week. This included Illinois being down 35-5 in the second quarter to Washington, and yet another embarrassing Iowa loss to Iowa State (notice how I haven’t been bringing those up? I can no longer ignore them). Week Three did however gift us Penn State 13, Rutgers 10, and one of the greatest Rutgers GIFs.
The next week, things began to turn around. Save Michigan’s listless loss to Utah, all the conference teams that played won, including eventual SEC West Champion Indiana, who marched to Faurot Field and knocked off the #18 Missouri Tigers. It was one of only four wins for the Hoosiers. lolsec.
In their first season of Big Ten play, Rutgers knocked off Big Ten icon Michigan 26-24. The Wolverines would turn around and beat Penn State at home. Minnesota made an appearance in the Coaches’ Poll despite a bizarre 39-38 barnburner against Darrell Hazell’s Purdue Boilermakers. The #24 Golden Gophers were led by Future First Round Draft Pick Mitch Leidner into Champaign to take on a reeling 3-4 Illinois team coached by legendary doofus Tim Beckman.
Reilly O’Toole led the Fighting Illini to the upset and Penn State tried to join in on the fun in double overtime, but a resurgent Ohio State would not allow it. Freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett was coming into his own as a legitimate star.
Something dumb involving a tent stake happened before the Michigan-Michigan State game, and the Spartans proceeded to hold the Wolverines under zero yards rushing. Afterwards, Brady Hoke famously said he was “aware that something had happened, but was not fully aware.” With Illinois turning around and Michigan falling apart, Hoke appeared to have struck the decisive blow in the Doofus War between himself and Tim Beckman.
League newcomer Maryland got a signature win of their own against Penn State, whose James Franklin had been vying to get in on the aforementioned Doofus War. He’d get his chance later, but now was the turn of Pat Fitzgerald to enter the battle. He engaged Hoke in one of history’s most memorable doofus duels: the M00N Game.
Ohio State, meanwhile, showed its world-class firepower by hanging 49 on the Galaxy Class Defense of Michigan State. The following week, Northwestern knocked off Notre Dame in South Bend, proving that even the most irrelevant Big Ten team in a mediocre season still outclasses Notre Dame. Feel free to wax nostalgic about the one time I wanted Northwestern to win a football game!
Concerned that the Doofus Wars would pass him by, James Franklin rallied the troops in Champaign to ignore the 2,000 people in the crowd and focus on derping as hard as they could. Late in the game, Franklin himself set the gold standard. With an overpowering offensive line springing Akeel Lynch to 5 yards per carry, Franklin punted on 4th and inches at his own 41, giving the Illini one more chance to drive down to kick the game-winning field goal. To this day, James Franklin is 0-1 against Tim Beckman.
The newcomers battle between Rutgers and Maryland ended in a 41-38 win for the ‘Gers, while Pat Fitzgerald launched a last-second assault in the Doofus Wars as his team turned the ball over five times with bowl eligibility and the HAT on the line. It was Tim Beckman’s finest hour, as the Fighting Illini clinched bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011. (Beckman would go on to be the clear winner in the Doofus Wars).
Ohio State had climbed to #6 in the country, but Barrett had broken his ankle. What would they do? Not much, just thump Wisconsin 59-0 in the conference championship game behind Cardale Jones.
Rutgers filled its part in the Big Ten adequately, going to the Detroit bowl game and winning. The Big Ten went 5-5 in the bowl season, with Wisconsin defeating Auburn and Michigan State making a furious rally from a 20-point fourth quarter deficit to knock off Baylor in the Cotton Bowl. The Big 12, having abandoned their championship game, had Baylor and TCU both get shut out of the playoffs, much to everyone’s amusement.
So the Buckeyes, down to their third string quarterback, faced off against Nick Saban’s juggernaut Crimson Tide, and proceeded to Saban them to death on 230 yards from Ezekiel Elliott. The 42-35 victory propelled the Buckeyes to the national title game against Heisman winner Marcus Mariota and the Oregon Ducks, who were no match and fell 42-20.
So what could top a year where the Big Ten brought home the title?
1. 2015 (Average: 3.0)
Yep, this was the one that we went with. The following season.
2014 ushered in some changes. Brady Hoke was finally jettisoned for the furious jawline of Jim Harbaugh, and Tim Beckman negligent-doofused his way out of a job, leaving Illinois with offensive coordinator Bill Cubit as a year-long interim coach. Two teams started the year in the AP Top 5, and #1 Ohio State returned Elliott, Jones, Barrett and even Miller (now a wideout). Minnesota nearly knocked off #2 TCU in week 1, and though there were a few high profile losses, only Purdue’s loss to Marshall was problematic.
Except for Penn State’s loss to Temple, but that was fantastic. There’s nothing quite like giving up a sack to a two man rush. Christian Hackenberg took TEN SACKS. Against Temple.
Bowling Green was the MAC Juggernaut Of The Year, handing out the only two MAC losses of the year to Maryland and Purdue. Northwestern shocked Stanford on the road and Ohio State avenged its loss to Virginia Tech. A ranked BYU team was demolished by the invigorated Michigan Wolverines 31-0, and though West Virginia and North Carolina thrashed Maryland and Illinois, the Big Ten had a whopping 9 teams receiving votes in the Coaches’ Poll by week 5. In fact, the nation watched with baited breath as #2 Michigan State and #1 Ohio State headed towards their Week 12 matchup.
Then some weird things happened. The Buckeyes survived a furious charge from Zander Diamont’s Hoosiers in the fourth quarter, while Michigan State couldn’t put Purdue away and won 24-21. Mike Riley lost his mind and kept trying to throw into the wind at Illinois despite an effective rushing game and Tommy Armstrong going 10 for 31; the Illini defeated Nebraska for the first time since the 1980’s when Bill Cubit called the same play four times in a row near the goal line until Geronimo Allison came up with the touchdown.
Northwestern carried much bluster and a #13 ranking into Ann Arbor and came out with a 38-0 loss. Michigan State fell to 4th in the AP Poll after the Purdue game, then survived a last-gasp Rutgers drive only after Chris Laviano spiked the ball on fourth down. For this, they were dropped to 7th despite still being undefeated. This gave the #12 Wolverines confidence that they could finally knock off the Spartans for the first time since 2012, and sure enough they held on for a 23-21 victory.
Wait a second.
No they didn’t!
This was the culmination of Michigan State’s season-long experiment determining how close you can get to losing without actually doing so. I don’t think this can be beaten.
An explosion of offense saw Rutgers rally for a 55-52 comeback win at Indiana, and Iowa crushed Northwestern 40-10, which warmed my soul greatly. With Tommy Armstrong injured, a bewildered Nebraska launched the Good Ship Ryker Fyfe into Purdue Harbor and took a 55-45 loss, the only Big Ten victory of Darrell Hazell’s career that didn’t take place in Champaign. The Spartans, meanwhile, held steady at #6, preparing to take on #1 Ohio State.
Unfortunately, they went to Nebraska thinking they could get closer to losing than they did in Ann Arbor without actually losing. They were incorrect and lost 39-38. On the other side of the equation, Ohio State was dropped to AP #2 for not beating Minnesota by more than 14 points. Shame on you, Buckeyes.
The Game of the Year was on, and Connor Cook was unable to play for the Spartans. A completely different gameplan involving option running, Damion Terry and Tyler O’Connor allowed the Spartans to hold on to the ball for most of the game and the rain aided the defense in holding the defending national champs to just 132 yards of offense.
Somehow, that game wasn’t as ugly as Wisconsin turning the ball over 5 times and losing to Northwestern. Meanwhile, Iowa quietly kept winning and found themselves ranked #3 by week 13. Michigan State had won the East and Iowa had won the West, and they found themselves essentially in a quarterfinal for the College Football Playoff. It was about as Big Ten a game as you’ll ever see, with the Spartans winning 16-13 after an L.J. Scott touchdown capped off a 22-play, 82-yard drive that took over nine minutes off the clock.
Ten Big Ten teams went to bowls, including 5-7 Nebraska and Minnesota. Five of those teams won their bowl games, with a ridiculously long Griffin Oakes kick denying Indiana (!!!!) a second overtime against Duke by sailing high and ever so slightly outside. Or not.
Michigan crushed Florida nearly as badly as Northwestern was decimated by Tennessee. C’mon Cats, why you always gotta do this? Stop flying close to the sun, you crash hard. Ohio State took it to Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, and reportedly a couple other games happened that year.
So, there you have it. Let us know your favorite memories of the past 10 years in the comments!