Bizarre might be the best word to describe the 2012 edition of Big Ten football. The best teams with the best player and the best coach won't be playing for a championship of any kind after finishing the season as one of only two undefeated teams in the nation. The non-conference performance by the league as a whole was fairly atrocious as a road win over Syracuse might be the best out-of-league win this season. What about the emotional roller coaster fans in Happy Valley have been on for over a year?
Yet, there is room for optimism. Nebraska appears to be back competing for league titles, Montee Ball broke a historic all-time NCAA record, the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry is officially back and, by the way, the league will be at 14 teams in a matter of months.
Offensive Player of the Year Standings
1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State – Much like Michigan's Denard Robinson, Miller spends a lot of time writhing in pain. But when he is upright, he is the most gifted, most electric player in the league. And his team never lost this fall. He finished No. 2 in total offense (275.8 ypg), No. 3 in passing efficiency (140.46) and No. 5 in rushing (105.9 ypg). He accounted for 28 touchdowns (15 pass, 13 rush) with only six interceptions while completing 58.3 percent of his passes.
2. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska – Martinez had a slightly better statistical year than Miller, but his team lost twice, including a blowout at the hands of Miller and the Buckeyes. If the voting for this award took place after the title game, Ohio State was eligible and T-Mart defeated Miller to win the Big Ten crown? Things would be different. But without that win, the league's leading passer (148.34 rating) and total producer (276.3 ypg) trails Miller.
3. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin – The Wisconsin Badgers' record-setting running back led the league in touchdowns (18) and finished second in rushing with 1,528 yards. He set the all-time NCAA record for total touchdowns scored with 79 and is currently tied for the NCAA mark of 73 rushing TD. He and the Badgers will attempt to avenge one of their close losses against Nebraska in Indianapolis this weekend.
Defensive Player of the Year Standings
1. Mike Mauti, LB, Penn State – The numbers are good, but no player might have meant more to his team than Mauti. Even as an innocent bystander in the season finale he impacted the game. He posted 96 tackles, three interceptions, three forced fumbles, 4.0 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
2. John Simon, DL, Ohio State – He lost the award by not being able to play against Michigan likely. But Simon was the star he was expected to be this season. He posted 44 total tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and 9.0 sacks for the best team in the league. He never quits and makes everyone around him better.
3. Will Compton, LB, Nebraska – One of the nation's best, Compton registered 98 tackles, 5.0 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, one interceptions and seven passes deflected for the team that will likely earn the Big Ten crown.
Coach of the Year Standings
1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State – To lead his team to a perfect record in the face of NCAA sanctions and bowl ineligibility in his first season is nothing short of amazing. This team lost seven games last year and the 12-0 mark was Meyer's first undefeated BCS team.
2. Bill O'Brien, Penn State – The job BoB did in Happy Valley was also remarkable. His sanctions were worse and his roster wasn't nearly as talented. But he totally revamped a stagnant PSU offense and won eight games in a city reeling from the worst scandal in NCAA history.
3. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern – This is a two-horse race but Coach Fitz deserves a nod. As does Bo Pelini. No one gets more out of less than Pat Fitzgerald, but more on that in a moment...
10 Things We Learned From the Big Ten in 2012
1. Brady Hoke vs. Urban Meyer could save the Big Ten
The Big Ten had a down year in 2012. There is no arguing that. But they also had an undefeated team, a potential Heisman trophy candidate, one of the most productive players in the history of the game (Denard Robinson) and two elite coaches on the same field this Saturday. Ohio State and Michigan have a chance to save the most lucrative league in college football. If Hoke and Meyer continue to set the Big Ten standard of excellence and success, the rest of the league will have no choice but to elevate themselves to the same level of commitment. After a back-and-forth affair in Columbus that was as enjoyable as any meeting in the long history of the rivalry, the nation once again must pay attention to the Buckeyes-Wolverines showdown. The spread offenses may not remind fans of Bo and Woody, but the throwback coaches and national importance certainly will. The Big Ten will return to national prominence at some point — e.g., competing for national championships — and it will happen because these two coaches have begun another 10-year war.
2. The Buckeyes are a national title contender in 2013
There will be plenty of holes to fill on defense, but this team has to be considered the frontrunner in the Big Ten next fall. And that should put them in the preseason Top 10 with relative ease. As long as Braxton Miller and Urban Meyer are together on offense, this team has a chance to win every game it plays. Miller is a transcendent talent who fits Meyer's system perfectly and will make another serious run at Ohio State's eighth Heisman Trophy. But after a year of great success with no payoff, expectations will soar down the banks of the Olentangy. Handling the constant offseason pressure to win — which Kansas State and Oregon couldn't handle for one week — will be Meyer's tallest order this spring.
3. Brady Hoke is going to be just fine in Ann Arbor
Michigan isn't "back" yet, but they are getting awfully close. Four losses indicate this program is still a couple of more Hoke recruiting classes away from being a national contender. But those four losses came to four teams with a combined record of 45-3 (Notre Dame, Alabama, Ohio State and Nebraska). Denard Robinson is an amazing player who has a long highlight reel loaded with eye-popping runs and won't soon be forgotten by Wolverine faithful. But he doesn't possess the skillset Hoke wants from his quarterback and fans saw a glimpse of the future with Devin Gardner late in the year. Hoke has pulled the Maize and Blue out of the Lloyd Carr-RichRod hole and is as old-school as old-school can get (SEE: short sleeves in snow). He is building towards a long run at Big Ten championships, Rose Bowls and possibly more.
4. The Big Ten is still an extremely attractive place to be
The oldest conference in America is easily the richest and most lucrative league in all of college football. That is why Maryland, against the wishes of many outspoken alumni, and Rutgers jumped at the chance to collect a Big Ten paycheck. Jim Delany may not be the nicest guy in the world, but he is one of the smartest and one of the shrewdest. The fact that the announcement of Maryland and Rutgers joining the league didn't leak until the day before the official vote and press conference indicates Delany's air-tight grasp on Big Ten operations. He has called Mike Slive's expansion raise and is staring directly at the biggest payday in college football history in the form of the conference's next (2017) TV contracts. Aside from a program like North Carolina (who would never leave) or Louisville (which lacks the TV and academic requirements), no teams were more attractive and have more potential than the Terps and Scarlet Knights. The onus of competition now falls to those two schools putting the right leaders in the right places.
5. Bill O'Brien is a pretty sharp dude
No one in the history of college football has taken over a program with more swirling turmoil than O'Brien at Penn State. The scandal that shook the college football world didn't shake the seniors on this football team, and Coach BoB deserves much of the credit for keeping this team together. He began his tenure watching as a dozen key contributors walked away from his program after unprecedented heavy-handed NCAA sanctions — all before playing a single game. But somehow, O'Brien turned an unimaginative, lethargic offense into an exciting, creative product that won eight games. He will have his hands full rebuilding the Nittany Lions brand name on the recruiting trail and depth will be a major issue for the next few years. But if the emotion and excitement in Beaver Stadium for Senior Day in the win over Wisconsin was any indication, the Nittany Lions won't be down for long.
6. Taylor Martinez quieted the doubters and is poised for a huge 2013
As a freshman, Martinez displayed a lack of mental toughness and maturity. He also was banged up down the stretch. As a sophomore, he developed as a leader within the huddle and the locker room. The question about his third season under center at Nebraska was going to be his ability to throw the football efficiently. As it turns out, he is pretty good. He led the league in passing efficiency while consistently leading his team back from second-half deficits. He has developed into one of the most complete quarterbacks in the nation and has a chance to win a Big Ten championship with one more win.
7. Michigan State doesn't reload, they rebuild
Kirk Cousins was just one of many key departures from the Spartans' back-to-back 11-win teams. The off-season question surrounding Mark Dantonio's team was if Michigan State had grown into a program that simply reloads instead of having to rebuild. There is a fine line between the two and fans in East Lansing were given a definitive and resounding "no." The offense was one-dimensional and predictable without Cousins and this team failed to finish close games all season. Dantonio is an excellent coach and the Spartans will be back soon enough, but many young players were forced into key roles this fall and it cost MSU in a big way.
8. Does anyone get more from less than Pat Fitzgerald?
His coaching ability and style may not work at a place like Ohio State or Michigan, but there is no better person to lead the Northwestern Wildcats than Pat Fitzgerald. He has never finished higher than 9th in the Big Ten in the recruiting rankings and consistently produces a winner on the field. He has averaged nearly eight wins per season over the last five seasons (7.8) and with a bowl win, the Wildcats would post their first 10-win season since Coach Fitz' 1995 Rose Bowl team. That said, his team could have had a special season this fall had they simply held onto a lead or two. Northwestern gave up second-half leads to Nebraska, Michigan State and Michigan, leaving Coach Fitz to wonder "what if?"
9. Iowa deserves better from a $39 million coach
Kirk Ferentz makes roughly $4 million per season and is the sixth highest paid coach in the nation. The math isn't difficult to follow for fans in Iowa City. One million per win isn't getting the job done. Ferentz isn't going anywhere this season, and more coaching staff changes might be expected. The hires he made last season — Greg Davis on offense and Phil Parker on defense — will be heavily scrutinized this off-season. Parker has the name and a long tenure on Ferentz staff, so a move on that side isn't likely. Davis, however, is in danger. His offense lacked creativity as quarterback James Vandenberg and the passing game took a major step back this season. It may not be justified to cut Davis loose after just one season, but he may not have a choice as the pressure will be on Ferentz to shake things up. Four wins at Iowa isn't acceptable.
10. This league might have the best coaches in the nation
Iowa's struggles this year aside, Ferentz has been one of the Hawkeyes' most successful coaches. Bret Bielema did an excellent job this fall with a very non-descript Badgers team and could earn a third straight trip to Pasadena. Bo Pelini is poised to win Nebraska's first conference title since 1999. Pat Fitzgerald's exploits in Evanston are well documented. New coaches hired in the last two years at Michigan, Ohio State, Indiana and Penn State all appear to be great hires. Jerry Kill has the Golden Gophers back in a bowl game. And Mark Dantonio is as respected a coach as there is in the nation. The jury is still out on Tim Beckman, but unlike most leagues, the Big Ten won't see any turnover on the sidelines this fall. This is why Purdue, after two bowl games in a row, might be the only coaching vacancy in the league this winter.
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