(11) 2012 Iowa Hawkeyes 4-8/2-6 (3-8 vs. FBS) vs. (6) 2016 Michigan State Spartans 3-9/1-8 (2-9 vs. FBS)
YOUR IOWA HAWKEYES
The Hawkeyes’ only entry earned their way in by demonstrating the standard trajectory of a very bad football team: reasonable start to maintain hopes, but early signs of foreboding, followed by the wheels coming off down the stretch.
Why they were better than you think: The season-opening 18-17 win over Northern Illinois ended up being a victory over a BCS team. We all know there is less than meets the eye to that statement, but it is still true. The two conference wins—vs. Minnesota and @ MSU—were both over bowl teams (each went 6-6).
Why they were worse than you imagine: Not only did they lose to Central Michigan 32-31, they let CMU score twice in the final minute to do so. The 9-6 loss to Iowa State is exhibit 1 in explaining the concept of El Assico. And just now are we getting to Iowa’s 0-6 finish. Here’s a 24 point home loss to Penn State. There’s a home loss to the Purdue Boilermakers team that got Danny Hope fired. And over there is a 42-17 drubbing at the hands of Brady Hoke. And let’s not let Iowa off the hook. Unlike other teams in the field, this happened with a senior QB who was healthy all year. This was just a bad team.
YOUR MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
No team in the field fell farther faster, and it’s not particularly close. From a Big 10 title and CFP spot to two FBS wins in the span of a year. The overall stats look reasonable, which just means that this team didn’t have a single signature way of losing. They would lose shootouts or defensives struggles equally well. Let’s take a look.
Why they were better than you think: They spent the better part of 60 minutes throttling #18 Notre Dame in South Bend, getting up 36-7, and they were a failed 2-pt conversion away from giving Urban Meyer another Sad Pizza moment. They were a last minute TD, an OT loss, and one more non-conference cupcake away from being your standard 6-6 bowl team.
Why they were worse than you imagine: Notre Dame sucked (4-8) so beating them means nothing. The non-OSU gut punch losses were @ Indiana and vs. Illinois. And hanging with OSU is more indictment than vindication. This was a team good enough to approximate 80% of the standard Dantonio recipe, but instead the only thing standing between them and a winless conference season was Jim Delaney’s desperate thirst for the NYC media market.
Who was WORSE?
This poll is closed
2016 Michigan State
(10) 2010 Minnesota Golden Gophers 3-9/2-6 (3-8 vs. FBS) vs. (7) 2003 Penn State Nittany Lions 3-9/1-7
YOUR MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
Tim Brewster was fired midseason, and the Gophers’s 2-3 finish almost cost them a spot here. However, the committee was not fooled and made a reasonable departure from their standard principles. I mean, just look at the damage done in September and October.
Why they were better than you think: Closing the season with two fourth quarter comebacks, one on the road (38-34 @ Illinois), and the other in a trophy game (27-24 vs. Iowa), IS a great way to end a season. Adam Weber ended a 10,000 yard career with his best season. He could feast on most defenses in this tournament.
Why they were worse than you imagine: North Dakota State is a FCS powerhouse. South Dakota State is the really good program that just can’t quite get past NDSU. South Dakota is…neither of those, going 4-7 in 2010. Minnesota lost to South Dakota. Minnesota gave up 41 points to a sub .500 FCS team. Other than the first and last game of the year, every team Minnesota played scored at least 4 TDs. Bret Bielema went for two leading by 25 in the 4th quarter. While that says something about Bielema, it also says something about how wrong Brewster’s approach proved to be.
YOUR PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS
2000 and 2001 were bowl-less seasons, but Penn State rebounded in 2002 behind a monster year from Larry Johnson. Good times were back, right? Right?
Why they were better than you think: All nine losses were to bowl teams. They actually are on the plus side of the SRS rating. This was a really deep year for the Big 10 and PSU was done no favors by missing fellow entrant 2003 Illinois. The defense was very good, finishing 30th in points allowed. When given a chance to prove that they were legitimately terrible, the Lions instead destroyed fellow entrant 2003 Indiana 52-7. You won’t find many 45 point victories in this bracket.
Why they were worse than you imagine: They also missed the Big 10 champion Michigan Wolverines. Just because a lot of teams around you are good doesn’t mean that you’re not bad. The defensive stats look good, but several teams rammed it down PSU’s throat and then just coasted to victory behind 200+ rushing yards (Purdue (!) ran the ball 51 times on this team). Penn State was outgained by 87 yds/game on the ground. In other words, the offense was too anemic to allow the defense to look as bad as it probably was.
Who was WORSE?
This poll is closed
2003 Penn State
(12) 2001 Wisconsin Badgers 5-7/3-5 (4-7 vs. FBS) vs. (5) 2019 Northwestern Wildcats 3-9/1-8
YOUR WISCONSIN BADGERS
Technically, this is an auto bid, but if you think 2001 Wisconsin is in the same league as the 2011 Ohio State Buckeyes, you are too young to remember 2001 Wisconsin. OSU could point to turmoil and the gap year between Tressel and Meyer. What’s Wisconsin’s excuse?
Why they were better than you think: The non-conference losses were @ Oregon (11-1, #2 nationally) and vs. Fresno State (11-3, David Carr #1 overall pick). They lost a 42-35 shootout @ Big Ten champ Illinois (did I just type that?), and were a special teams gaffe away from, at worst, OT vs. Michigan. Freshman Anthony Davis went for nearly 1500 yards and the Badgers beat bowl-bound Iowa and Ohio State squads.
Why they were worse than you imagine: The offense was inconsistent. The defense was bad, giving up 40+ to four Big Ten opponents. But let’s keep this simple. On October 6, Indiana came to Camp Randall having won once in the last 365 days. By the end of the 1st quarter, the Hoosiers led 32-0 despite possessing the ball for fewer than five minutes. The 63-32 final was merciful. 449 Hoosier rushing yards (including 280 on just 20 carries for Levron Williams) show you it could have been much worse. As it was, the 63 points marked Indiana’s highest output since 1924. That will get you a bid.
YOUR NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS
If any belly flop could give 2016 MSU a run (and none really can), this one is in the conversation. It takes a very fine engineering school (so, Champaign?) to figure out as quick a descent in the division standings as Northwestern experienced in 2018-2019.
Why they were better than you think: Only one team broke 40 on this defense, and half their opponents were held to 20 or less. Northwestern could probably ugly things up against anybody in this tournament. The Wildcats finished the season by completely dominating a bowl-bound Illinois team, outgaining them by almost 273 yards. This is especially impressive given that in over half of their games, Northwestern failed to gain 273 yards of offense, period.
Why they were worse than you imagine: You, I, and everybody else knows that beating UMass shouldn’t count as an FCS win. Remove that game, and NW averaged 13.7 ppg. Their 0-6 start in conference play saw them average 6.8 ppg. During this stretch, they scored two (!) TDs while trailing by fewer than 20 points. This was just last year, so you remember. You all know how much negative karma this team had. If that follows them to the tournament, they have Final Four potential (unless they run into Illinois).
Who was WORSE?
This poll is closed
(9) 2016 Illinois Fighting Illini 3-9/2-7 (2-9 vs. FBS) vs. (8) 2009 Indiana Hoosiers 4-8/1-7 (3-8 vs. FBS)
YOUR ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
Welcome aboard Lovie Smith! If any coach can get the most out of an offensively challenged team, it has to be the guy that made a Super Bowl with Rex Grossman at QB, right? Let’s see what sort of wrinkles he has ready to go to help vault Illinois back towards respectability.
Why they were better than you think: Four different 2016 squads are in this tournament. Illinois had the best Big Ten season of the four and beat fellow entrants 2016 Rutgers Scarlet Knights (24-7!) and 2016 Michigan State (4th quarter comeback!). They also led the only >.500 Nebraska Cornhuskers team in the last five years in the 4th quarter in Lincoln.
Why they were worse than you imagine: Besides that Nebraska game, the 34-31 home loss to fellow entrant 2016 Purdue (Purdue’s only conference win) was the only loss by less than 20 points all year. They averaged 16.7 ppg vs. FBS competition and only Rutgers failed to score fewer than 27 against Lovie’s defense.
YOUR INDIANA HOOSIERS
But for allowing a late TD in Ann Arbor to fellow entrant 2009 Michigan, this team would’ve started 4-0. Considering what followed, it was probably better to start letting the air out of the balloon when they did, though.
Why they were better than you think: Beating a fellow entrant like 2009 Illinois isn’t usually worth bragging about, but Indiana controlled that game throughout, leading 27-7 until late. Close losses to bowl-bound Wisconsin and Northwestern squads show that the Hoosiers had some scrap. Tandon Doss had a huge year at WR.
Why they were worse than you imagine: The close loss to Northwestern is less heartening when you consider Indiana led that game 28-3. Way to take advantage of the +3 turnover ratio, Hoosiers. 3-9 Virginia was the only thing stopping Indiana from sweeping the non-conference slate…47-7 Cavaliers, you say? Nevermind. Purdue entered the Old Oaken Bucket game 4-7…28-7 Purdue after taking the 2nd half kickoff the distance? Fine. Indiana’s three FBS victories came over teams that went 11-25. This was a team not quite capable of being historically bad, so it settled for being uninspiringly bad.
Who was WORSE?
This poll is closed