While there may be some grumblings from those down South, there’s little doubt in most minds that the Big Ten was the best conference in college football this season. That’s quite evident when you look at all those teams in the top 25 of the College Football Playoff rankings, the fact that the league produced the first-ever non-champion in the final four and the placement of four teams in the New Year’s Six bowl games.
The end result was a banner year for Jim Delany’s league, with numerous classics that will be talked about among Big Ten fans for years to come. Among all those upsets, wild endings and hugely important shakeups, which ones were the best games? It’s hard to narrow things down of course, but here are the best 10 Big Ten games of the 2016 regular season and the five best non-conference contests involving an Big Ten school.
10 Best Big Ten Games of 2016 Regular Season
10. Minnesota 34, Rutgers 32 – Oct. 22
Wait, what is a Rutgers game doing on this list? Well, if you tuned into this one in late October, you know how close the Scarlet Knights came to ending their conference futility against the Gophers. Minnesota had looked like it was going to win at home in a runaway by jumping out to a big lead but Rutgers clawed back in the second half, starting with Damon Hayes’ 55-yard pick-six. The team couldn’t make the extra point to tie the game however and promptly gave up a 94-yard kick return to the Gophers’ Rodney Smith. Two late scores did give Rutgers a fourth quarter lead but Minnesota wound up kicking a 28-yard field goal to win it with six seconds left on the clock.
9. Penn State 29, Minnesota 26 (OT) – Oct. 1
Given how the rest of the season played out, you could say this game was the spark that sent Penn State on its way to the Big Ten title. The team trailed Minnesota 13-3 and couldn’t get much going offensively until the Nittany Lions finally snapped out of their funk to force overtime. Trace McSorley threw for 408 yards, hit on some big plays late, and Tyler Davis hit a 40-yard field goal with two seconds left to tie the game 23-23. After a Gophers field goal, Saquon Barkley answered right away with the game-winning 25-yard touchdown run. The most memorable moment might have been the fact that a Minnesota player was ejected for getting into a fight and then later getting called for targeting against Penn State’s kicker.
8. Nebraska 27, Indiana 22 – Oct. 15
Nebraska stayed perfect on the season in Bloomington but did its best to nearly give one away to a pesky Indiana squad. Two Hoosiers safeties collided with each other to set up a Stanley Morgan Jr. 72-yard touchdown catch. The Cornhuskers also needed some late help from the replay booth to extend a drive and booted a 39-yard field goal with 45 seconds left to escape with a close win. Add in a late interception by the defense and a pick-six as part of a whopping 17-point scoring binge in a 14-second span to start off the game and this had a little bit of everything. Heck, there was even a bobbling catch off a knee and a helmet by a wideout that was flat on his back for good measure.
7. Iowa 14, Michigan 13 – Nov. 12
On a day when the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 teams in the country all went down, one of the most surprising outcomes was that of the Wolverines falling on the road at unranked Iowa. The Hawkeyes were coming off a pair of losses (as well three straight at home) and had been struggling on both sides of the ball but had just enough to get past Michigan on a bitter cold night at Kinnick Stadium that had many remembering a similar upset when Jim Harbaugh was the quarterback of the maize and blue in 1985. Both defenses made it tough to move the ball but Iowa prevailed thanks to a fourth-down stop, a facemask penalty and a 33-yard field goal as time expired to send the crowd into a frenzy. You probably knew things were going to get weird when the Hawkeyes’ punter played a key role early in the game by drawing penalties, but in the end it was this game that may have cost Michigan a shot at the national title.
6. Penn State 45, Indiana 31 – Nov. 12
The final score may not indicate it, but Penn State was in trouble most of the afternoon at Indiana in another one of those strange Big Ten games that ended up helping give the Nittany Lions the conference crown. Saquon Barkley was mostly bottled up through three quarters but stepped up in the final one to punch it in twice for a pair of big scores. Indiana wound up losing five — five! — fumbles in the game but had plenty of opportunities to win this one in the second half. All told, there were four second-half lead changes and 31 crazy points in the fourth quarter alone.
5. Wisconsin 23, Nebraska 17 (OT) – Oct. 29
This game essentially decided the Big Ten West division title and did so in incredibly interesting fashion as Camp Randall was rocking just before Halloween with another top-10 matchup. Nebraska came back from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to force overtime with a 35-yard field goal that tied things up at 17 in a hard-fought defensive battle. Dare Ogunbowale scored the game-winning touchdown from 11 yards out and the Wisconsin defense stepped up by knocking away the Cornhuskers’ desperation pass to the end zone to secure the victory. It was a bit of a rough night for both Tommy Armstrong and a pair of Badgers quarterbacks trying to pass the ball but that had a lot to do with both defenses making plays on just about every snap. UW kicker Andrew Endicott contributed to a few heart palpitations in the state when he missed a potential game-winner with less than two minutes to go and then shanked an extra point in overtime.
4. Penn State 24, Ohio State 21 – Oct. 23
This was undoubtedly the signature victory for James Franklin in his tenure at Penn State and shook up the Big Ten and College Football Playoff races in the process. The Buckeyes entered as the No. 2 team in the country and looked to all but certainly be on a collision course with Alabama for the national title but simply couldn’t put away the Nittany Lions in the middle of a Happy Valley whiteout. While OSU mostly dominated the low-scoring affair, the Buckeyes failed to capture the victory after Marcus Allen leaped to block a 45-yard field goal attempt and Grant Haley returned the ball 60 yards for the game-winning touchdown. A pair of sacks from the PSU defense sealed the win and kicked off a wild celebration after an important victory that gave the team a key tiebreaker.
3. Ohio State 30, Wisconsin 23 (OT) – Oct. 15
Two of the top defenses in the country met up in Madison for a fun Big Ten night game that had all the fun and intensity of a big-time bowl game. Ohio State quarterback J.T Barrett broke Braxton Miller’s school record for touchdowns and helped the Buckeyes’ offense move the ball with his arm and his legs. Corey Clement was the main weapon for Wisconsin and had one of the best games of his career with 164 yards on the ground. The Badgers’ offense too often had to settle for field goals however, despite several creative plays leading to big gains. OSU needed 17 points in the second half to force overtime where Barrett found Noah Brown for an incredible score in the corner of the end zone for the eventual game-winner.
2. Ohio State 30, Michigan 27 (2OT) – Nov. 26
The latest edition of “The Game” lived up to its billing as two of the best teams in the country battled back and forth with each other in another classic edition of the much-hyped rivalry. Michigan certainly had its chances in this game, which had both conference and national implications, and led for most of the first half. Ohio State came storming back however, taking advantage of the Wolverines’ mistakes on offense to end up tying the game. Tyler Durbin missed a 20-yard field goal in the fourth quarter that would have tied things up but sent the game to OT with a short kick and just a second left on the clock. The two traded touchdowns in the first overtime but the Buckeyes’ defense held the Wolverines to a field goal. OSU would have kicked one to extend the game but Urban Meyer opted to go for it on fourth down, resulting in a controversial spot that just barely gave them the Buckeyes the first down. Curtis Samuel punched it in from 15 yards out on the next play to give the home team a huge win over their rivals and (eventually) a place in the College Football Playoff.
1. Penn State 38, Wisconsin 31 – Dec. 3
While the other Power Five conference title games were almost all duds, the Big Ten delivered with theirs in a game befitting the kind of season the league had. Wisconsin jumped out to a 28-7 lead in the first half and seemed to be on its way to a rout given how good the defense was playing up to that point. Penn State responded however, with the offense starting to click in impressive fashion with a 31-3 scoring run to close out the game. Quarterback Trace McSorley was making big plays all over the field and finished with four touchdown passes and 384 yards through the air while Saquon Barkley added another great game on the ground. Corey Clement also had a big game for Wisconsin with 164 yards and a wild run in the first quarter from 67 yards out that set the tone early for the Badgers. While the outcome wasn’t quite enough to get PSU into the playoff, it was certainly one of the best Big Ten title games in conference history and one folks will be talking about for years to come.
Best of the Rest:
Illinois 31, Michigan State 27
Northwestern 38, Iowa 31
Michigan 14, Wisconsin 7
Indiana 24, Michigan State 21 (OT)
Wisconsin 30, Michigan State 6
5 Best Big Ten Non-Conference Games of 2016
1. Pitt 42, Penn State 39 – Sept. 10
Who knew back in September that this game would carry significant postseason weight when it came to the College Football Playoff? Pitt jumped out to a three-touchdown lead in the second quarter but needed to hold on late to prevent a furious rally from its in-state rivals. Running back James Conner ran for 117 yards and scored twice for one of the feel-good stories of the year following his return from cancer treatment, and the Panthers’ defense came up with a crucial interception seal the victory over the eventual Big Ten champions on a day where Pitt honored its 1976 national championship. To add to things, PSU’s Saquon Barkley scored five touchdowns on the day and helped make this contest one everybody discussed later in the year.
2. Wisconsin 16, LSU 14 – Sept. 3
This was one of the bigger surprises in the non-conference slate based on preseason expectations but helped to set the tone early on for the Big Ten and for Wisconsin. Rafael Gaglianone nailed a 47-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to provide the winning points and the Badgers’ defense proved to be the better of the two teams when facing off against old coordinator Dave Aranda. Neither of the starting quarterbacks had much to write home about as a result, but both Leonard Fournette and Corey Clement were productive running the football between the tackles. Add to this the fun atmosphere of playing a college game at Lambeau Field and the fact that this signaled the beginning of the end of Les Miles and there was a lot happening from Green Bay in the season opener.
3. North Dakota State 23, Iowa 21 – Sept. 17
Don’t schedule North Dakota State. That was the lesson Iowa learned as NDSU knocked off yet another FBS team — its sixth straight — and foretold that things wouldn’t be quite as easy in the regular season for the Hawkeyes as 2015 was. The Bison scored late in the fourth quarter and opted to go for two on the road but couldn’t punch it into the end zone. The defense came up with a stop however and a quarterback run set up Cam Pedersen’s 37-yarder as the clock expired to seal a signature win for NDSU and cause plenty of jokes about Kirk Ferentz’s recently signed contract extension.
4. Penn State 34, Temple 27 – Sept. 17
The Nittany Lions extracted a little revenge from last season’s loss to the Owls and showed the first flashes of their big passing game behind Trace McSorley in this one. Saquon Barkley left early in the game with an injury but Penn State was able to jump out to a comfortable lead before holding on late in the game as Temple clawed its way back into things and make it close. Eventually both of these teams would become conference champions, which only enhances this in-state rivalry game after the fact.
5. Nebraska 35, Oregon 32 – Sept. 17
Tommy Armstrong converted a 4th-and-9 pass down the stretch and then ran the ball into the end zone two plays later to help give Nebraska an improbable victory over Oregon that helped shape the season for both teams. The Ducks led by 13 points in the third quarter but continued to shoot themselves in the foot all game long with a massive amount of penalties and defensive slip ups. This game was such a notable loss for the team that the school cited it — and specifically a number of ill-fated two point conversion attempts — when it eventually fired head coach Mark Helfrich. Nebraska ended up scoring 21 points in the second half to secure the victory and used a big defensive stand to hold on in the end of a fun one.
Best of the Rest:
Michigan 45, Colorado 28
Ohio State 45, Oklahoma 24
Western Michigan 22, Northwestern 21
Michigan State 36, Notre Dame 28
Nebraska 52, Wyoming 17
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)