Big Ten Football: Observations from Bowl Season

The Big Ten went 4-5 in bowl games in December and January

The Big Ten conference sent nine teams to college football's postseason, including the College Football Playoff, for the second straight season. Unfortunately, the results weren't the most desirable, as the conference posted a losing bowl game record for the first time since the 2016 campaign.

 

The Big Ten went 4-5 this postseason, showing the nation a mixture of what the conference has to offer. With the 2019 season in the books for this conference, they must now look ahead to '20. For these nine programs, the bowl games have already given us an early outlook into what 2020 may have in store.

 

Iowa is still a force to be reckoned with

The Hawkeyes capped off a 9-3 regular season with a 49-24 dismantling of USC in the Holiday Bowl. Iowa hasn't won the Big Ten West since 2015 and has yet to win a conference title in its current format. And because of that, this team is sometimes underestimated once bowl season rolls around. But the Hawkeyes proved that they can step up on the big stage, as they eclipsed their previous season-high total (48) for points. At the game time, Iowa held the Trojans to their second-lowest output of the season.

 

The Hawkeyes' offense scored five touchdowns while totaling 328 yards of offense. On defense, they held USC to just 22 rushing yards, while also forcing three turnovers and scoring a defensive touchdown as well. Iowa has won three straight bowl games by a combined score of 103-66. The Hawkeyes will have to replace some talent next season, most notably quarterback Nate Stanley (and his 8,302 career passing yards), Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year Tristan Wirfs, and two-time, first-team all-conference defensive end A.J. Epenesa, but head coach Kirk Ferentz has proven that his team is always up for the task.

 

Michigan State will rebound in 2020

The Spartans needed to win their final two regular-season games just to become bowl eligible. They did that, and they wound up getting into the Pinstripe Bowl as a result. In the Bronx, the Spartans' (7-6) defense forced Wake Forest to punt and turn the ball over on downs twice in their final three possessions to take home a 27-21 victory. Injuries almost did the Spartans in this season. They started the season at 4-1 but lost their next five games as injuries piled up, which left them in the must-win situation at season's end.

 

Defeating the Demon Deacons gives MSU some much-needed momentum heading into recruiting season. And while the Spartans are set to lose quarterback Brian Lewerke (59 percent career completion rate, 122.5 career passer rating) and some key players on defense, head coach Mark Dantonio should get the recruits he needs in order to be Big Ten East contenders again in 2020.

 

Ohio State will be College Football Playoff contenders again next season

The Buckeye faithful are still reeling from the team's Fiesta Bowl/CFP semifinal loss to Clemson in late December. But I have no doubt that head coach Ryan Day will have his team in prime contention again next year. While OSU will be losing running back J.K. Dobbins (4,459 career rushing yards, 38 touchdowns), defensive end Chase Young (30.5 career sacks), and linebacker Malik Harrison (136 career tackles), among others, to the NFL draft, they'll still have some key players returning. The biggest being quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist Justin Fields (3,757 total offensive yards, 51 combined touchdowns in 2019) whose dual-threat abilities guided this offense with ease.

 

Also returning will be his leading pass catcher in wide receiver Chris Olave (849 receiving yards, 12 TDs this season) and linebackers Pete Werner and Tuf Borland (119 combined tackles), while Master Teague III looks to take over at running back next season (789 rushing yards, 4 TDs). The pipeline of talent continues to flow in Columbus.

 

Penn State may have something to say about Ohio State's chances

While their loss at Minnesota on Nov. 9 certainly put a dent in the Nittany Lions' postseason plans, it was the loss to the Buckeyes two weeks later that stung the most, as it ended their hopes of getting into the College Football Playoff. But after Penn State (11-2) gave Memphis a 24-point wake-up call at the Cotton Bowl, they proved to the nation that they won't go quietly. The team will miss dynamic receiver KJ Hamler, who is forgoing his final two years of eligibility to go pro, but will return quarterback Sean Clifford, running back Journey Brown, and tight end Pat Freiermuth (combined for 4,587 total yards and 48 touchdowns in 2019) on offense. And with linebacker Micah Parsons and safety Garrett Taylor (193 total tackles between them) also expected back, the Nittany Lions can't wait to welcome the Buckeyes to Happy Valley this fall.

 

Illinois has a bright future

While Illinois' loss to California in the Redbox Bowl gave the Fighting Illini three straight losses to end the 2019 season, the future does indeed have an excellent outlook. For the most part, the loss in the Redbox Bowl can be attributed to a lack of experience. Many players on the Illini roster were playing in a bowl game for the first time ever. The Illini had quite the regular season to get to this point, and with many of their players —including quarterback Brandon Peters — returning next season, this team will push for another bowl game in 2020.

 

One player who was originally expected to return won't be staying in Champaign after all. Defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr., who became a major force in the Illini front seven in the wake of Bobby Roundtree's injury, announced recently that he will be entering the NFL draft. Betiku made 36 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, nine sacks, and seven quarterback hurries in his lone season as a starter after transferring from USC. Head coach Lovie Smith will have to find a way to replace his production. But make no mistake about it, the Fighting Illini are here to stay in 2020.

 

What's next for Michigan?

That's the question being asked in Ann Arbor after the Wolverines fell to Alabama in the Citrus Bowl. It was a game in which Michigan had a 16-14 halftime lead but then was held scoreless (outscored 21-0) in the second half. With this loss, Jim Harbaugh is 1-4 in bowl games at Michigan, 10-15 against Top 25 opponents, 3-3 in last six matchups with Power 5 teams, and 2-3 against the SEC. This marked the 13th game in the Harbaugh era in which the Wolverines were held under 20 points, and they are 2-11 in those games. Not to mention the fact that Michigan has failed to defeat archrival Ohio State on Harbaugh's watch (0-5, outscored 221-126).

 

While I don't think that Harbaugh is on the hot seat, I would have to imagine that the Michigan faithful are disappointed with those stats. Another issue that has marred Harbaugh in Ann Arbor has been the quarterback position. Transfers have mostly started under center for the Wolverines since 2015. And Shea Patterson, one of the more notable transfers in the Harbaugh era, will now turn his attention to the NFL draft. One thing that could help Michigan overcome some of these hurdles will be to develop a signal-caller that can start for more than a season or two. It won't fix everything, but it would certainly help this program.

 

Minnesota will contend for the Big Ten West again next season

How can you argue with that after the amazing season that the Golden Gophers had? Their statement victory over Auburn in the Outback Bowl gave Minnesota (11-2) its first 11-win season since going 13-0 in 1904. That year marked the only national championship in school history. That's quite an accomplishment, and Minnesota should once again be a prime contender in the Big Ten West next season.

 

Quarterback Tanner Morgan, running backs Mohamed Ibrahim, Cam Wiley, Bryce Williams, Preston Jelen, and Treyson Potts, along with wide receivers Rashod Bateman, Chris Autman-Bell, and Demetrius Douglas (combined for 5,756 total yards of offense and 56 total touchdowns) are all expected to be back in 2020. And considering that this offense averaged more than 30 points per game this season, head coach P.J. Fleck will be looking to "row the boat" all the way to Indianapolis for next year's Big Ten Championship Game.

 

The road back to the Big Ten West crown could be tougher for Wisconsin

The Badgers finished the campaign by losing both the Big Ten Championship Game to Ohio State and the Rose Bowl to Oregon. Not a fun way to end an otherwise successful year. And with the Badgers set to lose running back Jonathan Taylor (second in school history with 6,174 rushing yards, sixth in FBS history), wide receiver Quintez Cephus (1,496 career receiving yards, 13 touchdowns), All-American center Tyler Biadasz, and linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr (combined for 340 tackles, 29 sacks, and 4 interceptions) to the NFL, this team has plenty of holes to fill. Now while I do expect Wisconsin to contend again next season, getting back to the Big Ten title game will be much easier said than done.

 

Here is what the Big Ten West could look like in 2020: You have a resurgent Iowa team that's set to prove that they can't be overlooked, a Minnesota team that's seeking to make more history, an Illinois team that's out to shock the world, a Nebraska team that could finally turn the corner (went 5-7 this season), a Purdue team that's ready to bounce back, and a Northwestern team that's a little more optimistic after hiring a new offensive coordinator. The Big Ten West will be one of college football's tougher divisions next season.

 

Don't sleep on Indiana in 2020

Although the Hoosiers fell to Tennessee 23-22 in the Gator Bowl after holding a 10-point lead, they returned to Bloomington with their heads held high. The 2019 season was a huge turnaround for this program. This was their first bowl game since the 2016 Foster Farms Bowl, just the 12th bowl game in team history, only their fifth winning season since 1993, and the 39th winning campaign in program history. Indiana is more known for basketball, but head coach Tom Allen is looking to change that.

 

Helping in this regard will be numerous key contributors expected to return, including quarterback Peyton Ramsey (2,454 passing yards, 13 touchdowns), running back Stevie Scott III (845 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns), wide receiver Whop Philyor (1,002 receiving yards, 5 touchdowns), tight end Peyton Hendershot (622, 4), linebacker Micah McFadden (60 tackles), and defensive lineman Jerome Johnson (5 sacks). The Hoosiers probably won't win the loaded Big Ten East just yet, but don't be surprised if they go bowling again.

 

— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.

 

(Top photo courtesy of @PennStateFball)

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