What a difference a year makes. Maybe that’s cliché, but in the case of the Big Ten, it’s just the truth.

The year 2020 in the B1G was marked by indecision, poor leadership, and to a certain extent, controversy. Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren showed his inexperience in dealing with the pandemic, creating an unfavorable situation for Ohio State and the rest of the league members.

But 2021 was great for all the reasons that 2020 fell short. For one, the football season went off without a hitch. And as predictable as 2020 felt with Ohio State winning the conference for a fourth straight season, Michigan shocked us all with a thrilling upset on the way to its first B1G title since 2004 before falling in the Playoff semifinal to Georgia.

Here were the events that made 2021:

Justin Fields’ performance for the ages

The Big Ten’s calendar year started off with a bang, even if it was still technically part of the 2020 season. On the second day of 2021, Justin Fields out-dueled future No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence as Ohio State rolled Clemson 49-28 in a College Football Playoff semifinal. Fields racked up 385 yards and 6 TD passes, coming back from a brutal hit to his ribs to launch bombs to Chris Olave and Jameson Williams.

Unfortunately, Fields didn’t quite look like himself in the national title game, though I’m not sure it would’ve mattered against an Alabama team that looked unbeatable even without a healthy Jaylen Waddle. The way Fields beat his nemesis, Lawrence, was a lasting image from 2021.

A promising men’s basketball season ends with a whimper

All season long, the talk was about how strong the Big Ten was in men’s basketball. The conference wound up with 2 No. 1 seeds (Michigan and Illinois) and 2 No. 2 seeds (Iowa and Ohio State). This was supposed to be the year that the B1G finally ended its national title drought that dates to 2001.

Not only did the Big Ten not get its national champion, but it didn’t even get a team to the Final Four. Michigan was the only team to make the Sweet 16. Ohio State became the ninth No. 2 seed to lose to a No. 15 seed in NCAA Tournament history when it fell to Oral Roberts; Iowa lost by 15 to Oregon in the Round of 32; and Illinois was upset by in-state rival Loyola in the Round of 32. Oh, and No. 4 seed Purdue was upset by No. 13 North Texas in the opener.

It was a massive letdown after such a strong regular season.

Big Ten makes yet another COVID blunder

While the Big Ten went on to have a semi-normal basketball season and a normal football season, the spring sports season was a mess. The conference’s baseball and softball programs were relegated to only playing conference games because of financial hardships during the pandemic.

This made zero sense. The Big Ten has the richest college football contract of any conference, yet it decided to restrict travel for its baseball and softball teams because of money?

And playing only conference opponents is very tough for programs like Nebraska, which is the B1G’s further school to the West. The Huskers had to travel a long way to play conference opponents rather than playing someone down the road like Creighton or Nebraska Omaha.

It also hurt Big Ten teams in the postseason since they couldn’t build a resume outside of their own conference. To do this to baseball and softball teams who also lost their season to the pandemic in 2020 was wrong.

Iowa climbs all the way to No. 2

The highlight of the early part of this football season was Iowa’s torrid start in which it beat 3 ranked opponents in its first 6 games to climb all the way to No. 2. It culminated in a showdown with No. 4 Penn State, the B1G’s first top-5 matchup that didn’t include Ohio State or Michigan since 1962. Iowa prevailed after Sean Clifford left with an injury.

Perhaps in a sign of things to come, none of Iowa’s 3 ranked wins wound up in the Top 25 by the end of the season, and Iowa faded, too, losing in blowout fashion to Purdue and Wisconsin. Despite the poor finish, the Hawkeyes still won the West and proceeded to get routed by 39 to Michigan in the Big Ten Championship Game.

What a weird season in Iowa City.

Illinois and Penn State make history with 9-OT game

Who wants to win? That’s the question viewers were asking after watching Illinois and Penn State trade zeros in overtime. This was the first time we got a taste of the new overtime rules in which the offense gets only a 2-point conversion try from the third overtime on, instead of starting a drive at the 25 like normal. Illinois and Penn State failed on 5 straight 2-point conversion attempts apiece before finally converting in OT No. 8. Illinois won it in the ninth to cap the longest game in college football history.

Kenneth Walker III’s Heisman run leads Michigan State turnaround

The league’s most exciting player all season was Kenneth Walker III, a transfer running back from Wake Forest. He set the tone with a 75-yard TD on the first play of the season against Northwestern, part of a 264-yard, 4-TD debut. He also added 172 yards in a statement win at Miami (FL) and 233 against Rutgers before his signature performance against Michigan that momentarily vaulted him into the Heisman conversation.

Walker erupted for 197 yards and 5 TDs in a battle of unbeatens with Michigan. The Spartans trailed by 16 late in the third quarter, but Walker ran for 3 TDs in the final 19 minutes to elevate Michigan State to No. 3 in the CFP rankings.

While Michigan State ultimately lost 2 of its last 4 games, it was still an incredible season in which the Spartans went from being picked last in the East to going to a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Purdue’s twin upsets

Many programs would love to have just 1 signature win every year or 2. Maybe beat a top-25 team or a rival, keep the fan base engaged. Purdue took down 2 top-3 opponents in 2021, derailing undefeated seasons for Iowa and Michigan State. Even more impressive is that Purdue won convincingly in both games, taking down Iowa by 17 and Michigan State by 11.

The Boilermakers should’ve been on everyone’s radar after upsetting Ohio State back in 2018. Top-5 teams, you’ve been warned.

Ohio State’s offensive explosion

Ultimately, this will be remembered as the year Ohio State didn’t win the Big Ten. But it should also be remembered for the year it had one heck of an offense. The Buckeyes averaged 551 yards per game and 7.8 yards per play, both tops in the country.

Ohio State had so many future pros on offense that it was a wonder when it didn’t score at least 40. The Buckeyes were at their best in back-to-back weeks against a couple top-20 teams, Purdue and Michigan State, combining for 115 points — 94 of which came in the first half. It was a jaw-dropping display of offense.

Big Ten keeps its coaches

A couple big-name programs threatened to poach Mel Tucker and James Franklin, but Michigan State and Penn State signed their respective coaches to massive extensions. Tucker got a $95 million, 10-year deal in just his second season in East Lansing, while Franklin got 10 more years and upped his annual salary to $7.5 million.

Nebraska, meanwhile, is bringing back embattled coach Scott Frost, who failed to lead the Huskers to a bowl game for the fourth straight season. Frost’s team went 3-9 and 1-8 in B1G play, with all 9 losses coming by single digits and 8 coming by 1 score or less. Frost will essentially get half of next season before it’s financially feasible for Nebraska to pay his buyout.

Wisconsin volleyball beats Nebraska in all-B1G final

The best volleyball is in the Big Ten, and Wisconsin and Nebraska showed that with a 5-set thriller in the national championship match. The Badgers won their first national title and denied the Huskers their sixth banner. It was vindication for Wisconsin after it had gone through last season undefeated but was upset in the semifinals by Texas. For the Badgers and National Player of the Year Dana Rettke, this was worth the wait.

Indiana goes from darling to abomination

Few programs, if any, felt better about where they stood coming into the 2021 football season. And now, no program feels worse than Indiana. After starting the season ranked No. 17 in the country, Indiana went 0-9 in B1G play. Tom Allen had to fire his offensive coordinator and take a pay cut.

Michigan (finally) beats Ohio State on way to winning Big Ten

The best part of this season was Michigan’s upset of Ohio State. And that’s with all due respect to Ohio State fans, but this needed to happen for the sake of college football and the sake of the Big Ten. The most top-heavy sport needed some new blood in the CFP. And even though it ended badly in a lopsided loss to Georgia in the Orange Bowl semifinal, this was important for the Big Ten to get a different team in the CFP, something the Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC failed to do this season.

Michigan has been through a lot under Jim Harbaugh, but the program that annually leads the country in attendance made it worth the wait for its fan base. The Wolverines should give the rest of college football hope (or at least other Power 5 programs) with the way they’ve done this: They didn’t fire their coach after a bad season, they didn’t have a top recruiting class, they didn’t load up on transfers and they started the season unranked.

In a world where it feels like only Alabama, Ohio State and a few others can be successful, Michigan proved what is possible.