Big Ten Kicks Off 2015 On A High Note


Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Just three short months ago, the Big Ten was the laughingstock of college football. Wisconsin choked away a lead against LSU, Nebraska needed a late touchdown from Ameer Abdullah to sneak past McNeese State, Michigan State disappointed against Oregon, Ohio State was stunned at home by Virginia Tech and Brady Hoke was still coaching at Michigan.

The conference, which hasn’t had a national champion since Ohio State won it all in 2002, had especially fallen on rough times in recent years. Between 2010 and 2013, Big Ten teams went 35-48 against Power 5 opponents, 8-25 versus ranked Power 5 opponents and 7-15 against SEC foes. A once proud conference that had produced some of the greatest teams and players in the history of college football had been reduced to a shell of its former self, and it seemed doubtful that it would be reversing its fortunes anytime soon.

Well, that narrative might already be changing.

The last week has been phenomenal for Big Ten football, capped off by a phenomenal New Year’s Day. Last Saturday, Penn State won its first bowl game since the 2010 Capital One Bowl by defeating Boston College in overtime in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Just one day prior, conference newcomer Rutgers cruised to a 40-21 victory over North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl.

This past Tuesday, Michigan announced the hiring of Jim Harbaugh as its next head coach, a move that is expected to boost the fortunes of not just Michigan’s football program, but the conference as a whole. However, nothing compared to a memorable New Year’s Day showing by three of the Big Ten’s best programs.

Wisconsin kicked things off against Auburn, where Melvin Gordon capped off his legendary collegiate career in style. Gordon ran for 251 yards, an Outback Bowl and Wisconsin bowl record, and three touchdowns, including a 53-yard, fourth-down scamper near the end of the third quarter to give his team the lead.

Gordon’s performance helped him go out with a bang after Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne made comments last month calling into question the success of Gordon and other Big Ten running backs this season given the competition they face.

Barry Alvarez’s Badgers would end up outlasting the Tigers in overtime, giving the team a New Year’s Day victory after coming up short the previous four years.

Next up was Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State Spartans, who were facing the fifth-ranked Baylor Bears in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.

Bryce Petty and the Bears appeared to be cruising to an impressive victory and making a major statement to the College Football Playoff committee when it took a 41-21 lead into the fourth quarter. However, the Spartans scored a couple touchdowns, blocked a Baylor field goal that would’ve made it a two-possession game with just over a minute to go, and took the lead with 17 seconds remaining thanks to a 10-yard touchdown pass from Connor Cook to Keith Mumphery.

It was an improbable comeback for a Michigan State team that has now won four straight bowl games.

Of course, the icing on the cake for the Big Ten came later on when Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes took on Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

The Buckeyes’ inclusion in the inaugural College Football Playoff over teams like TCU and Baylor was criticized by many, and those criticisms seemed validated when Alabama jumped out to a 21-6 lead and appeared to be on the brink of running away with the game.

However, Ohio State rallied in a big way behind an excellent performance by quarterback Cardale Jones, a pick six by Steve Miller and an 85-yard touchdown run by Ezekiel Elliott. The Buckeyes held on late in the game to upset the Crimson Tide and Elliott finished the night with a Sugar Bowl-record 230 yards on the ground, making him the first player to rush for over 200 yards against Alabama during the Nick Saban era.

In total, Big Ten teams went 3-1 on the day (Minnesota fell to Missouri), with all three victories coming against top 20 opponents. According to ESPN Stats & Info, it marked the first time that three Big Ten teams won bowl games on the same day since New Year’s Day in 2000.

The Big Ten is now 5-4 during this bowl season, with a matchup between Iowa and Tennessee and the national championship game between Ohio State and Oregon still remaining. Big Ten teams, who were listed as underdogs in all 10 of their games heading into the bowl season, are also 2-1 against the SEC, the conference that has had a vise grip on college football for the last decade. Narratives are shifting not just for the Big Ten, but for the SEC as well, whose vaunted West division has gone 2-5 in bowl games.

This certainly isn’t to suggest that the SEC has, by any means, tumbled into futility or that criticisms of the Big Ten from earlier in the year weren’t warranted, because the conference was a total embarrassment early in the season. However, the Big Ten desperately needed a strong bowl season to give itself some legitimacy and it has delivered, something Meyer noted in his postgame press conference:

An Ohio State win over Oregon would obviously be another huge boost for the conference, but regardless of the outcome, a foundation has been put in place for the Big Ten to build upon and make itself a major player on the national stage once again.

Now, the conference needs to prove that its monumental New Year’s Day wasn’t just a flash in the pan.