It was a different vibe after last season in the world of the Big Ten. Sure, they had failed to get a team into the Playoff, but the compass was pointing north. Michigan’s recruiting would get them off the snide, Michigan State had just won another 10 games, Penn State was strong, Wisconsin was strong (and many projected them to finally take that step), Purdue and Northwestern were looking to make massive strides as was Minnesota. And Iowa was Iowa (in a good way)
Then the 2018 season happened. Michigan and Ohio State fulfilled their end of the bargain, though for Ohio State, controversy plagued them and they had too many close calls to the weaker squads. Penn State had hiccups along the way. Michigan State and Wisconsin both disappointed. Purdue got off to a slow start as had Northwestern. And Minnesota was up-and-down. And Iowa was Iowa (in a bad way) And what you got was no team for the second straight year making the Playoff from the Big Ten.
So the question now is, can the Big Ten return to being that conference that was a massive threat not just for the Playoff, but a national championship.
In the Big Ten East, it was Ohio State despite all the controversy. However, the Buckeye close calls and the beatdown loss to Purdue really eliminated them from a talk on the Playoff. Michigan’s slow start at Notre Dame probably hindered their shot and their fate was sealed in Columbus where they had no response to the Buckeyes. Penn State’s two home losses to Ohio State and Michigan State deflated their season and the beatdown that was given to them by Michigan set them back. Michigan State’s offensive woes were horrid to the point they nearly collapsed in their final regular season game to Rutgers. Indiana, Maryland, and Rutgers all remained a struggle (though the Terrapins did knock off Texas for the second straight year).
The Big Ten West was a mess. Northwestern won the division at 8-4. Wisconsin, who many had to be a favorite for the title, had issues with the offense and at times defense, and realized the schedule wasn’t as easy as years before fell apart. Iowa never gained consistency nor did Purdue nor Minnesota. Nebraska got off to a very slow start, but turned it up in the second half of the season. And Illinois….um, yeah.
So looking back at my godawful predictions, let’s see what I got right, wrong, and also let’s see what to look ahead on.
I WAS RIGHT ON: Mostly the Big Ten West, but especially Iowa and Wisconsin. Iowa because while many feel like they are pretty vanilla in terms of how they play football, it isn’t like they rank near the bottom and stink yearly. I had them in 2nd place at 8-4 so voila. Wisconsin I was right on. I didn’t like their schedule. The turnover rate for returning starters was pretty high. Alex Hornibrook is not anyone’s answer (have fun with him Florida State fans) and their schedule was pretty tough compared to years prior. Though to be fair, the losses at home to BYU and Minnesota took me aback.
I WAS WRONG ON: The Big Ten East. I’ll just say that. Thank you Michigan State for crashing and burning. Thank you Rutgers for somehow being able to take a major step backwards. Thank you Penn State (notably James Franklin) for faltering against Ohio State and letting it spoil your season. Thank you Michigan for being dominant in games 2 through 11. Thank you Ohio State for winning by the skin of your teeth. Honorable mention goes to Nebraska for their slow start under Scott Frost.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State. The one thing that the Buckeyes did right and had it not been for him, Ohio State may have ended up 8-4. Haskins did it all at quarterback for the Buckeyes, which really had been up and down since their national championship run in 2014. He made the needed throws, adjusted, and did all the things in order for the Buckeyes to avoid some disaster losses to Nebraska and Maryland. But when the guy was on fire, he was a Heisman lock. He had some moments, but again, he made the adjustments.
COACH OF THE YEAR: Jim Harbaugh, Michigan. Of course, people will be ridiculing him more in part because of the inability of winning the big game against Ohio State (0-4 now) and how Michigan can’t get over that hump. But this was the first time really that the Wolverines looked like a dominant team under Harbaugh prior to that. The recruits are coming in, and with Urban Meyer not on the sidelines in Columbus, he can really take the Big Ten East.
MOST SURPRISING TEAM: None. Nobody really sneaked up an anyone this year.
MOST DISAPPOINTING TEAM: Michigan State. The Spartans defense is a top ten defense in the nation. But the offense stepped back to about 50 years ago where they couldn’t pass, couldn’t run, and couldn’t do anything right. Some you can point to the injury to Brian Lewerke, but for only so long. The running game struggled and the special teams were a problem. The hope was with a solid offense to go along with the defense, the Spartans would have been in the mix for the Big Ten title and possibly a playoff. But the offense killed this team.
COACHING CHANGES: Mike Locksley replaces DJ Durkin/Matt Canada at Maryland; Ryan Day replaces Urban Meyer at Ohio State. The big news was Urban Meyer stepped down. Of course there will be debate whether it was Ohio State politely asking him to step aside in light of the controversies that plagued him all season or if Urban really wanted to coach and if his mental state is in question. Anyway…Ryan Day takes over an elite football program and all eyes in Columbus and Buckeye Nation will be on him. If the Buckeyes struggle in 2019 (their schedule isn’t demanding as no power 5 non-conference game happens, and the road game at Michigan is their toughest one right now) and if he can’t beat Michigan, he will be looked at very closely after this year so for him, there’s no “getting accustomed.” It is win or else. Mike Locksley takes over at Maryland again (he was the interim after the Terps fired Randy Edsall and was a meager 1-5), but he went under the tutelage of Nick Saban at Alabama for three seasons including transforming Alabama into an offensive juggernaut. So there is hope perhaps for the Terps with Locksley.
TOP 3 QUESTIONS
IS IT BOOM OR BUST FOR JIM HARBAUGH? Yes and no. I think yes because he HAS to beat Ohio State now with Urban Meyer gone and the fact the Buckeyes and Michigan State come to Ann Arbor, a place where Harbaugh is 0-4 against both. Next year Michigan’s schedule is VERY favorable of a 12-0/11-1 run (road games at Wisconsin and Penn State are on there, but honestly, I don’t see the Badgers being a threat again nor do I see Penn State look as dominant as they have in the past few seasons). However, while maybe not a Playoff berth will happen, but giving the Wolverines a Big Ten title would also suffice and a return to the Rose Bowl will temporarily satisfy the Maize and Blue faithful. But he has to do something against Ohio State. And it’s not up for debate on that.
IS THERE ANYBODY IN THE BIG TEN WEST THAT CAN LOOK LIKE A MAJOR THREAT TO THE BIG TEN EAST? Nope. Wisconsin showed they were not the legit threat. And until they find something at quarterback and handle a tough road schedule, they cannot be taken seriously. But Michigan, at Ohio State and two interesting road trips to Nebraska and Minnesota (who beat them in Madison this year), and I don’t see the Badgers winning more than 8 or 9 games. Purdue is in a similar situation at quarterback, but if that gets solved, they avoid Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State this year, but three roadies at Penn State, Northwestern, and Wisconsin is going to be tough. Nebraska if the trend continues upward (Ohio State and Wisconsin both are at home), could see the Big Ten Championship game (I said that last year and failed miserably however), but they are a year away at the earliest.
WHO IS ON THE HOTTEST SEAT HEADING INTO 2019? Well probably the obvious is Lovie Smith if Illinois can’t get to a bowl game and given how Smith has now been there for 5 seasons, yep, time is ticking. But also while I don’t think either one is in danger of losing their jobs for next season, both James Franklin (Penn State) and Mark Dantonio (Michigan State) started to get plenty of critics within their own bases. Franklin for not beating any of the Big Ten threats last year (1-5 in the last two seasons against Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State) and Dantonio for having inexplicable futility in some of Michigan State’s losses during the season (home to Northwestern, at Nebraska) and just inept play on offense (3 of the last 4 games the Spartans failed to score a TD and the other game could only muster 14 points to Rutgers…..AT HOME). So both Penn State and Michigan State need rebound years in a big way (of course, both have to travel to Columbus-good luck with that), but people will bicker more if these two teams fail to take that next step.
That’s it for this week.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat