Bowl season has become something to dread in recent years for the Big Ten, losing big games and meaningless contests all the same. It usually has led to an offseason of “just how bad is the Big Ten” or questioning if the Big Ten will ever get to the top of the mountain again.
Most of that centered around the Big Ten finding ways to absolutely choke on New Years Day. Things were much different this time around as the conference that wasn’t favored to win a single game by the pundits managed to go 5-5.
Not only was it five wins more than the Vegas oddsmakers thought the conference would win, but the Big Ten finally got some close games to go its way for a change. Wisconsin took down Auburn in overtime, Michigan State came back in a big way on Baylor and
However, there were also some absolute stinkers out of the conference as well — looking at you Maryland and Illinois.
With bowl season all but one game away from being complete, here’s what we’ve learned about the Big Ten and its teams.
Illinois Still Has a Long Way To Go
Making a bowl game was nice, but watching the game against Louisiana Tech proved that the Illini are far from a team on the rise. The defense was downright awful (like it was all season long) and the offense couldn’t find a running game to save its life.
Going 6-6 and being a completely mediocre team is not what the Illini faithful are looking for, and unless the offseason brings some major upgrades in talent and coaching on the defensive side of the ball it could be a struggle to get back to a bowl game for Illinois in 2015.
Wes Lunt getting healthy and Mike Dudek only getting better with some seasoning is a great place for the offense to start from, but without a running game to balance this offense out it’s going to be tough to salt games away or prevent teams from blitzing like crazy.
Then there’s the age-old problem under Tim Beckman — defense. It was on display in a big way in the loss to Louisiana Tech and that was with a month of preparation and film work going in to it. While giving up 361 yards may not have been terrible, giving up three touchdowns of over 20 yards was.
Holding a team to 3 of 13 on third down conversions indicates the team is capable of doing some good things defensively at times the consistent effort and talent just isn’t there yet. With Jihad Ward and Mason Monheim back for their senior years next year there are some building blocks to work with, but that’s been the case since Ward and Monheim came on the scene in a big way last year.
Wisconsin is a Quarterback Away from Being Really Special
The Wisconsin Badgers went as far as a once-in-a-lifetime season from a running back could take you in 2014. Melvin Gordon came less than 40 yards away from breaking Barry Sanders’ sacred single-season rushing record, but the Badgers were just 11-3 on the season.
UW’s missing link in all three losses was a quarterback who could take this team on his back and will a team to victory. In the opener against LSU the Badgers simply had no passing game to speak of out of surprise starter Tanner McEvoy. Then Joel Stave replacing McEvoy in the Northwestern game didn’t do much to change the outcome of perhaps the most head-scratching loss of the season. Finally, the Badgers run game was bottled up against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and Stave proved he couldn’t handle having to be the answer.
On Thursday against Auburn it was more than painfully obvious that Stave isn’t the answer going forward.
Melvin Gordon won’t be around to bail the Badgers out in 2015, and while Corey Clement is a great back in his own right, the Badgers can’t be a nationally elite team without a reliable and potentially dynamic quarterback under center.
Options exist for new head coach Paul Chryst, as Stave will return and could benefit from Chryst’s quarterback coaching and there are some really young options in athletic quarterbacks D.J. Gillins and incoming freshman phenom Austin Kafentzis.
If there’s one thing the Outback Bowl taught us it was the fact that Wisconsin’s offense can be nearly unstoppable with a quality quarterback under center to go along with its always dangerous run game.
Maryland and Rutgers Could Be Headed in Opposite Directions
Was there a more shocking and more expected result in the Big Ten bowl season than what the newcomers did? Rutgers was given a chance to win a likely shootout with North Carolina, but it won in convincing fashion. Maryland was expected to get crushed by Stanford and that’s exactly what happened.
Heading in to 2015 these two teams just feel like they are heading in opposite directions. Maryland arguably had the better talent on paper with names like Will Likely, Stefon Diggs, Deon Long and Andre Monroe, but none of them showed up against Stanford in any big way.
In fact, one could argue that Randy Edsall’s team digressed as the season went along. Injuries and suspensions to guys like Diggs (both) and quarterback C.J. Brown (injuries) didn’t help matters, but the results simply weren’t there as the season went along.
Maryland failed to beat a single ranked opponent on the season and gave up 40-plus points in five of its six losses this season. The bowl game was a microcosm of the issues Maryland had all season, as they got beat up front on both sides of the ball, rushing for just 17 yards as a team and giving up 206 yards to a Stanford team that averaged 158 yards per game.
Instead of using the bowl prep to get its running game going, the Terps seemed to just not want to be out on the field. It also became difficult to see how there was much in the way of positive momentum as Brown is gone, Diggs could end up leaving for the NFL and there was little punch to the team that went 2-4 in the final six games of the season.
Rutgers on the other hand has had all the momentum since coming back in the 41-38 win over Maryland in the regular season finale.
Sure, the Scarlet Knights will lose Gary Nova and star tight end Tyler Kroft declared early for the NFL draft, but there just seems to be some magic in the offense and some life to the defense as they enter the 2015 offseason.
It’s really hard to ignore just how opposite the finishes to the season were for the newcomers to the league. Will that momentum carry over the new year? Only time will tell, but for now it certainly seems as if one of these two is set up to do some damage in 2015, and that team is Rutgers.
Michigan State’s Offense Must Carry Team in 2015
How Baylor let Michigan State back in a game they were completely dominating is one of the great mysteries of the 2014-15 bowl season, but credit the Spartans for never giving up and eventually finding a way to win the game.
Also credit the MSU offense for being good enough to win a shootout with the Baylor Bears. It was an important statement to make, because the national perception of the Spartans program has been centered around the defense for the past four or five years.
While the defense had its moments of greatness in 2014, it was the offense that brought it to within two wins over two playoff teams away from a perfect season.
Lots will change about the Spartans in 2015, including no more Pat Narduzzi at defensive coordinator. There will be big decisions for the likes of Trae Waynes and Shilique Calhoun as well. Safe to say the 2015 defense is going to look a lot different.
That means it will be on the Spartans offense to carry more of the load in 2015, and with Conor Cook back at quarterback and three offensive linemen returning this team could up for some big things again. Of course there is finding a replacement for Tony Lippett at wide receiver and Jeremy Langford at running back to worry about.
However, this team is deeper and more talented at the skill positions than ever before and should be able to absorb those losses much easier than in previous years.
Minnesota Has Hit Its Ceiling Without Better Recruiting Results
The fact that Minnesota has won eight or more games in back-to-back seasons for just the fifth time in program history tells you a lot about where head coach Jerry Kill has his team at. However, in each of the last two seasons the lack of better overall talent has caught up to them in the bowl game.
It was painfully evident the gap in overall athletic ability between the Gophers and Missouri in the 33-17 Citrus Bowl loss.
Sure, sophomore tight end Maxx Williams can give you the highlight reel moments, but outside of him the Gophers are woefully incapable of big play moments on offense.
Scheme and good coaching can get you far, but there’s no substitute for raw athletic talent and the Gophers could be really, really dangerous with the combination of athletic talent and great coaching.
Just don’t expect this team to be more than an eight-win machine without better results on the recruiting trail. Also, don’t expect that to be happening in the 2015 recruiting class, as the Gophers are currently ranked No. 13 in the Big Ten and No. 58 in the country according to 247Sports heading in to the final month of recruiting.
We’re not calling for the Gophers to begin recruiting top 25 classes or anything, but finding a way to pull one or two 4-star players in to the program each year could really bolster the opportunity for this program to really take off. So far this year the Gophers have 18 verbal commitments and not a single one is of the 5 or 4-star variety.
Ohio State Is Going to Be Easy Favorite to Win Conference Again
Not only did Ohio State put the Big Ten on notice with its 59-0 drubbing of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, but it put the nation on notice in beating No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff at the Sugar Bowl.
In doing so, the Buckeyes will meet Oregon for the national championship in what is being billed as the “Rose Bowl presented by Jerry Jones.” Never before has a team had the entirety of a conference (minus Michigan fans) rooting for it to be successful.
That said, winning or losing the game won’t affect the Buckeyes 2015 fortunes one bit. One just needs to look at the roster to realize this team is going to really freaking good next season too.
Sure, OSU will have to figure out what to do at quarterback and we still are hearing rumors of Braxton Miller moving on this offseason. No matter Miller’s decision this team has two or three quarterbacks that could start anywhere else in the country.
This team will also have Jalin Marshall, Ezekiel Elliot and four starting offensive linemen back, just to name a few. You know things are good when you can absorb losses like Devin Smith and Evan Spencer at wide receiver and not miss a beat on paper.
Defensively there will still be Vonn Bell, Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, Joey Bosa and Darron Lee back starting. That doesn’t even include a two-deep that has 5-star players waiting in the wings too.
One look at the returning roster and a schedule that is a little easier given Va Tech’s current state and how down Hawaii actually is. Plus, OSU gets Michigan State, Minnesota and Penn State all at home next year.
It’s really hard not to think of this team as the clear-cut favorite to win the league, and to have a good shot at going undefeated in conference play for a fourth straight year.