B1G Year in Review: The highs, the lows and everything in between
The year began with the Big Ten left out of the national title game for a fifth straight season, as Ohio State lost to Clemson in the College Football Playoff during the final days of 2019. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come.
The Big Ten made 2020 more chaotic than it needed to be. While it had good intentions in looking out for its athletes, first-year commissioner Kevin Warren showed his inexperience with communicating with his 14 member schools. At times, the Big Ten was the joke of college football, never quite able to figure out where it was going.
Here’s a rundown of all the major story lines of 2020, featuring some of the top moments and top players from the conference and the controversial decisions from the commissioner. Let’s hope smoother days are ahead in 2021:
Wisconsin loses fourth straight Rose Bowl
The Badgers had won 5 straight non-Rose Bowl bowl games, but for whatever reason, they just can’t seem to win “The Grandaddy of Them All.” Holding Justin Herbert — the front-runner for NFL Rookie of the Year” — to 28 points seems pretty dang good. But when your offense only puts up 27, it’s all the same.
Mark Dantonio steps down, Mel Tucker steps up
There was a changing of the guard at one of the Big Ten’s best programs over the last 10 years, as Mark Dantonio abruptly stepped down at Michigan State after 13 seasons. The strangest part was the timing — Feb. 4, nearly 6 weeks after the Spartans’ season ended — because it didn’t allow Michigan State to go after the top available coaches. The Spartans were able to lure Mel Tucker away from Colorado after just 1 season, but only after doubling his salary and giving him more than $1 million more annually than Dantonio.
B1G players go 2-3 in NFL Draft
The Big Ten continued its recent trend of its best players being drafted in the top 4. Ohio State’s Chase Young and Jeff Okudah went second and third, respectively, marking the third time in 5 years that the league has had multiple players picked in the top 4 (Joey Bosa and Ezekiel Elliott in 2016, and Saquon Barkley and Denzel Ward in 2018) and the third time in 5 years that the league has had a player selected second overall (Barkley and Nick Bosa).
Former players revealed racial disparities within the Iowa football program, resulting in the resignation of longtime strength and conditioning coach Tim Doyle, who at the time was the highest-paid strength coach in the country. Head coach Kirk Ferentz was just the latest highly successful B1G coach to be plagued by scandal, joining Dantonio, Urban Meyer, Joe Paterno and Jim Tressell. Ferentz was lucky to keep his job. After 2 straight losses to open the season by a combined 5 points, the Hawkeyes reeled off 6 straight wins and climbed up to No. 15 in the CFP rankings.
Stars go MIA
The Big Ten, like most leagues, was plagued by some of its star players opting to skip this chaotic season, with most opting to just train for the NFL Draft. Players such as Penn State’s Micah Parsons, Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater, Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman and Purdue’s Rondale Moore all initially opted out, though Bateman and Moore eventually returned for part of the season. Ohio State was one of the only teams not to have any significant opt-outs, giving it an even greater advantage over the rest of the league.
B1G goes conference-only
The Big Ten was the first to pull the trigger on the conference-only schedule, and it made sense. With conferences across the country making different decisions about COVID protocols, the Big Ten decided to make sure its teams would be able to confidently take the field knowing the opponent had gone through the exact same procedures to get ready. It did mean we missed out on juicy matchups like Ohio State/Oregon, Wisconsin/Notre Dame and more. This rogue move from Warren foreshadowed the next 2 months as the Big Ten blindly moved forward without any coordinating with the other Power 5 leagues.
B1G postpones season to spring while teams are openly feuding with commissioner
Just 5 days after releasing its new schedule, the Big Ten made the shocking decision to postpone its season to the spring, becoming the first Power 5 league to do so. The Big Ten thought it was leading the way, but ultimately, it wound up with egg on its face after the SEC, ACC and Big 12 decided to plow through. Warren, in particular, was rightfully vilified for the way he handled the decision. Only 3 schools (Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska) voted to play, but Warren’s lack of planning made this a disaster of a move from a PR standpoint. When your teams and their fans have no idea what’s going on, you’re headed for trouble.
B1G comes back with tight, shortened schedule — and suffers the consequences
I’m not sure what we expected in this crazy year, but the Big Ten postponing its season was only the start of the drama. It seemed like there were new developments daily. Sports talk host Dan Patrick seemed to have a new nugget of information every few days. Eventually, President Donald Trump got involved in working with Warren to ensure the Big Ten had what it needed in terms of testing. There were numerous heroes in helping get the Big Ten to return to the field, notably Justin Fields, Big Ten parents, the state of Nebraska and Big Ten coaches.
In the end, the Big Ten suffered the consequences of the shortened schedule, as it nearly kept its best team out of its own conference championship and the College Football Playoff. The league played 50 out of a possible 63 games, which seems good considering the circumstances — until you realize that the Big Ten could’ve gotten nearly all of them in like the SEC, ACC and Big 12 if it had just been a little more patient.
Wisconsin epitomizes wacky B1G season
If you want a synopsis of the wacky season, look no further than Wisconsin, which looked unbeatable in averaging 47 points through 2 games, only to score a total of 20 in the next 3. The Badgers were ravaged by injuries and COVID cases, looking like a completely different team from the start of the season until now.
Indiana’s major breakthrough comes at expense of Penn State, Michigan
Indiana won the most exciting game of the year, a thrilling come-from-behind overtime victory over No. 8 Penn State. QB Michael Penix Jr. dove for the pylon to give the Hoosiers a win, kicking off a season in which it climbed all the way up to No. 7 in the AP poll, its best ranking since 1967. Indiana wound up beating Michigan, too, though ultimately the Hoosiers were snubbed from a New Year’s Six bowl. Michigan, meanwhile, opened the season looking like a B1G contender, only to crash and burn a week later against Michigan State. Jim Harbaugh’s contract situation loomed over this entire season. Penn State, expected to be the league’s second-best team, opened the season 0-5.
Ibrahim emerges as one of league’s best players
The Big Ten has had some terrific running backs the last few years, most notably Jonathan Taylor and J.K. Dobbins. With those guys off to the NFL, that made room for a new RB to emerge in Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim. The junior is second in the country in rushing yards per game (153.7) and fifth in rushing TDs (15). Even better, he is surprisingly coming back in 2021, which is great news for the league.
Fighting Rece Davises go from worst to first in the West
Joey Galloway’s comment about Northwestern having a bunch of Rece Davises on the roster was one of the most fun moments of the season, as Pat Fitzgerald had a great time with it. The Wildcats, with one of the best defenses in the country, went from last place in the B1G West in 2019 to first place in 2020, marking their second division title in 3 seasons.
Big Ten changes rule to boost Ohio State
In one last dash of incompetency for 2020, the Big Ten changed its own made-up rule of needing 6 games to qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game so that Ohio State, which could only play 5 due to COVID, wasn’t left out. The Big Ten, though, misread the situation as usual, as it should have just gotten Ohio State an extra game in Week 8 rather than changing the rule. That would have allowed the Buckeyes one more week to get better and also close the wide gap between the Buckeyes and the rest of the CFP teams, which have all played 5 more games than OSU.
Bret Bielema is back in the Big Ten
Illinois fired Lovie Smith after 5 seasons, opening the door for former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema to return to the Big Ten. After flopping at Arkansas and coaching in the NFL for a few seasons, he will have a tough task ahead of him in making Illinois football relevant.
Ohio State wins B1G, earns rematch with Clemson
The last big headline of 2020 was that Ohio State won the Big Ten, finished No. 3 in the CFP rankings and earned a rematch with Clemson. After a wild year, it’s a bit ironic that the Buckeyes ended up exactly where we thought they would, with a chance to avenge last season’s crushing defeat and win a national title. It sets up a matchup between arguably the 2 best players in college football, Fields and Trevor Lawrence. The matchup on New Year’s Day will be an excellent way to kick off 2021 and leave 2020 in the dust.