This week, The Comeback will continue its preview of the 2017 college football season by looking at the Big Ten. Before we look forward to the 2017 season in the heartland, let’s rewind to the 2016 season that saw the conference elbow its way back into the limelight.
Remember when the Big Ten was the punching bag of the college football universe? Despite a storied history, many had it pegged somewhere between the ACC and the nether reaches of Davy Jones’ Locker just a short three years ago. There was a long-run of misses on the big stage, coupled with bowl seasons that fell short of expectations year after year.
Not so much anymore. With the likes of Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin, the Big Ten was what the SEC had been for the greater part of a decade or so in 2016, with four teams flashing in the top ten of the College Football Playoff Rankings throughout the home stretch. There were spotlight wins early on, and household names and riveting games in-conference throughout. Simply put; 2016 might be remembered as the year with the Big Ten took its perch back upon the mountain of the college football world.
It was a quick turn around in the cyclical world of the college football landscape, and it came within an Nittany Lion eyelash of getting two teams into the College Football Playoff.
Week one at Lambeau Field was our first inclination that it would be a different year in the Big Ten. Many picked LSU to roll right through the cheese and brats in Green Bay and cast Wisconsin aside just like SEC vs. Big Ten matchups of season’s past. Not so. Wisconsin used its suffocating defense and opportunistic offense to win a tight one 16-14, giving pause to expectations.
And that wouldn’t be all. In other non-conference matchups, Ohio State blew eventual Big Twelve Champion Oklahoma off the field in Norman 45-24, Michigan rolled through its non-conference schedule, and Wisconsin continued to prove the doubters wrong with an aggressive defense. Michigan State may have struggled to meet expectations, but by and large, the top of the conference kept separating itself. Perhaps the lone blemish being Penn State’s inability to win against rival Pittsburgh — though we didn’t know at the time just how big that game would end up being.
Once conference play began, it continued to be a case of the top of the conference versus everyone else. Penn State began to get its act together in a big way, Michigan kept on winning by flashing great defense, Ohio State was Ohio State, and Wisconsin found a way to beat its way through a brutal schedule to remain in the hunt for a trip to Indy.
All was right with the world, with anyone’s guess as to who would come out the other side of the College Football Rankings. All told, the four big teams continued to show in the top eight for the majority of the rankings with big game after big game resetting the scenario of who would punch a ticket to the playoff. It wasn’t a matter of if, but who, and maybe even how many would appear in the bracket.
Conference Champion: Penn State
Nobody saw what was coming. Left for dead after an embarrassing 49-10 loss to Michigan on September 24, it looked like more of the same in Happy Valley. Under James Franklin, the Nittany Lions had no problem beating teams it was supposed to handle, but getting a breakthrough win seemed to be more allusive than getting a high-resolution shot of Sasquatch. That all changed the night of October 22. Penn State somehow found a way to beat No. 2 Ohio State with big plays when it mattered most.
From there, Penn State just kept on building and getting better. Trace McSorley began to utilize the vertical passing game and his feet, the young defense started to believe in itself and make big plays, and the team just kept winning, landing spot of Lucas Oil Stadium as the Co-Champions of the East.
In the shadow of the Brickyard, the Nittany Lions fell down early to West Division champion Wisconsin, only to follow a familiar script of roaring back in the second half to wrestle the game away 38-31 and win the league championship. In doing so, Penn State made its case for a spot in the College Football Playoff, but that ultimately wouldn’t come to pass.
It was still a banner year at the base of Mount Nittany, and who could argue with a trip to Pasadena as a consolation prize?
Game of the Year: Penn State 24, Ohio State 21
No disrespect to the epic overtime game between bitter rivals Ohio State and Michigan, but Penn State’s win over the Buckeyes was better because of what it meant. Penn State has been in mired in a cloud of sanctions with no end in sight. James Franklin was starting to nudge up to the hot seat.
Despite getting out-gained, out-possessed, and outplayed for large portions of the contest, it all changed when special teams showed up to block and return an Ohio State FG attempt late in the fourth quarter. That play was the difference in the game, and acted as a catalyst for a renaissance in Happy Valley. It would be a revival that saw Penn State win its first Big Ten Championship since 2008.
The one major blemish against the Big Ten in 2016 is the rather abysmal showing during bowl season. Yeah the league got ten teams into the post-season, but only three teams (Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Minnesota) managed to come away with a trophy.
And it wasn’t just a loss in some cases, but embarrassing ones. Ohio State may have made the College Football Playoff, but it failed to step off the bus in Glendale, getting blasted by eventual national champion Clemson 31-0. In addition to that public flogging, Tennessee looked like the far superior team against Nebraska in the Music City Bowl, and Iowa got destroyed by an angry Florida team in the Outback Bowl, 30-3.
Big Ten champion Penn State looked to be in great position to celebrate a Rose Bowl victory against USC, but Sam Darnold and the Trojans roared back in the fourth quarter to stun the Nittany Lions in one of the most entertaining Rose Bowls since Vince Young led Texas past USC.
Other games were competitive, but the quality of play was nowhere near where it needed to be for commissioner Jim Delany to begin splicing together a promotional bowl tribute to send around to his colleagues in the SEC. You have to believe things will be better in 2017. They had better be.
2016 Coach of the Year: James Franklin (Penn State)
Perhaps no league has the coaching grit the Big Ten has been able to assemble. It’s the only conference that can boast of having four former NFL head coaches on staff. From one of the winningnest coaches of all time in Urban Meyer at Ohio State, to media and Twitter darling Jim Harbaugh, to the glare of Mark Dantonio, there’s no shortage of quality coaches in the league.
For 2016 though, the job that James Franklin did in Happy Valley has to be one for the ages. He got a band of guys to believe when their backs were against the wall, and at the end of the year had a team playing as well as anyone. Big Ten Champions. That’s now on Franklin’s résumé, and it could be the beginning of some pretty special seasons to come.
Time will tell.
Top Returning Offensive Player: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
The rest of the country has begun to see what the Big Ten already knew. Saquon Barkley is a beast and should be among the short-list of pre-season Heisman candidates for 2017. He came to Happy Valley with the size and strength of an upper-classman, yet has the vision and break-away ability to hit the home run.
He now goes into 2017 with what may be the best offensive-line he’s had the opportunity to run behind. That in combination with an outstanding wide-receiving corps and a dynamic quarterback that’ll no doubt keep defenses honest, should open things up even more for the 5-11, 223 lb. junior.
Top Returning Defensive Player: Tegray Scales, LB, Indiana
Football in Indiana will always play second-fiddle to basketball, but Scales should take a back-seat to no one on the defensive side of the ball. When Tom Allen became defensive coordinator in Bloomington last year, the Hoosiers finally began to get an identity on the side of the ball responsible for stopping opposing teams. He is now the head man, and there’s no doubt that he is counting on Scales to pick up where he left off.
All the 6-1, 227 lb. linebacker did in 2016 was lead the league in total tackles and tackles for loss. Yes, I said that correctly. A linebacker on the Indiana Hoosier football team led the entire Big Ten in tackles and disruptive tackles behind the chains. He’s not the tallest, or the biggest, but he’s great at diagnosing plays and using his feet to get his nose into the pile more often than not. The Hoosiers need him to be the quarterback of the defense and stud playmaker he was last year to make some noise in 2017.