For the first time since 2010, the Big Ten finished the season on a positive note and posted a winning postseason record. Typically, the end of the year in the conference has featured many negatives moving forward.
With a 3-1 record on New Year’s Day, an overall record of 6-5 in bowl games and a national championship ring, things are finally looking up for the Big Ten.
Here are a few things we learned as the season concluded on Monday.
Urban Meyer is the best coach in college football – It could’ve been argued when Ohio State went through the regular season unscathed with a back-up quarterback. Winning a Big Ten and national championship with a third-string quarterback leading a team that was “one year away,” was remarkable. With now three national championships in the past 10 years and a 38-3 record with the Buckeyes, Meyer has proven he’s not just a good football coach, he’s the top in his field.
This year’s group of running backs was special – We didn’t need the bowl season to understand that running backs in the conference this year were incomparable to any other conference. Just to solidify their spot as one of the greatest groups in history, David Cobb, Ameer Abdullah, Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott and Jeremy Langford combined for 1,058 yards and 13 touchdowns in the postseason. Of course that number is a little unfair, with Elliott getting two bowl games, but that just makes up for Tevin Coleman and Justin Jackson absences from postseason play.
The West division will continue to struggle – It was considered the nation’s weakest division all season long and things didn’t improve during bowl play. The West finished 1-4 in its bowl games with the lone win coming from Wisconsin in a 34-31 Outback Bowl victory over Auburn. Iowa and Illinois were blown out, Nebraska needed a miraculous comeback to get it close and Minnesota played well through three quarters. With most of these teams losing their top talent, the future looks fairly bleak for a division stuck in the cellar.
Quarterback play will improve in 2015 – With the running backs stealing much of the spotlight this season, there wasn’t much attention on Big Ten quarterbacks this year. That will change next season. The guys under center didn’t post a marquee year, but there are signs of life moving forward. Wes Lunt, Tommy Armstrong, Christian Hackenberg, Connor Cook and any or all of Ohio State’s quarterbacks will have a huge impact next season. With most of the running backs headed elsewhere, there should be plenty of opportunities for the quarterbacks to be the talk of the conference.
Defense was key – The Big Ten was involved in some high scoring affairs this postseason, but when it mattered, the defense stepped up. Michigan State held Baylor scoreless in the fourth quarter to rally from 20 points down to win 42-41 in the Cotton Bowl. Penn State limited Boston College to just three points in the final 17 minutes of play in the PinStripe Bowl to force overtime and pull off a 31-30 win. Rutgers shut out North Carolina in the first half of the Quick Lane Bowl. Wisconsin and Ohio State both made big plays throughout their respective games to upset Auburn and Alabama. Yes, offense and scoring was the headline for most of these games, but if the defense didn’t step up it could’ve been another sub .500 bowl season.
Michigan State is going to miss Pat Narduzzi – This wasn’t the Spartans’ best season defensively but his leaving for Pittsburgh rings an end to a powerful era in East Lansing. Michigan State shutting down the high-powered Baylor offense in the fourth quarter was the perfect sendoff for the former defensive coordinator. In the past four seasons, Narduzzi’s defense has always ranked in the top 25 in points allowed per game, with three of those seasons in the top 10. He’s going to be one tough guy to replace.
The conference is finally relevant again – For the first time in a long time, a positive postseason performance from the conference signals the potential for a new beginning. It’s a huge milestone for a conference that was considered out of the College Football Playoff mix after the second week of the season. The conference harbored the nation’s most talented running backs and was home to some of the stingiest defenses which was all showcased after the regular season concluded in November. With momentum moving forward an opportunity lies in 2015 for the Big Ten to return to glory and regain consideration as the top conference in the country.