If you wanted to summarize the 2019-20 athletic season in the B1G with one word, the term “surprising” comes to mind. That was the case in August when the football season started and it’s become even more true during the basketball season.
On the field, Ohio State finished with a 13-1 record and a B1G title under first-year head coach Ryan Day, Penn State and Minnesota both finished with 11 victories, Indiana had its best season in over two decades and Illinois went bowling. On the court, Rutgers is undefeated at home, Illinois has been near the top of the standings and Penn State has been flirting with the top 25.
Is it fair to say that — while a few of these examples may not be too crazy — it’s been a pretty unpredictable year for the conference? I’d say yes.
So, keeping that in mind, I had one question for B1G fans this past weekend, after another interesting weekend on the basketball floor — which B1G schools is enjoying the most surprising year, combining both sports? I had four schools in mind.
The case of Illinois
The Fighting Illini overcame a 2-4 start on the field, rattled off four-straight victories — including an upset win over No. 6 Wisconsin and a 25-point comeback against Michigan State — to get to 6-4 and secure bowl eligibility. It was probably one of the more exciting stretches — if not the most exciting — of the decade.
Brad Underwood’s squad suffered a similar start on the court, struggling to beat quality teams through the first month of the season. But since B1G play has been in full swing, the Illini have looked like a team capable of making a deep tournament run. In the second full week of February, Illinois sits at No. 2 in the standings with an 8-4 mark in conference play.
The case for Iowa
Perhaps no team in college football went as unnoticed as Iowa. The Hawkeyes finished the year with 10 wins, defeated Iowa State and Nebraska on the road, handed Minnesota its first loss of the season and pummeled USC in the Holiday Bowl. And, when you look at the three losses, only 14 points separated the Hawkeyes from wins over Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin. It was an outstanding year for Kirk Ferentz and company.
Despite a recent blowout loss to Purdue, Iowa has been in and out of the top 25 in the Associated Press Poll all season long and has registered some significant wins. Luka Garza is proving to be one of the top big men in the nation and has the Hawkeyes within 1.5 games of first place in the league.
The case for Ohio State
Sure, we knew Ohio State’s football team had the most talent in the B1G, but with Justin Fields being a first-time starter, Ryan Day being a first-time head coach and several changes to the staff in the offseason, not many thought the Buckeyes would be firing on all cylinders so quickly. But Ohio State put together one of the most complete seasons we’ve ever seen, finishing 13-1, winning another B1G championship, sending two players (Fields and Chase Young) to the Heisman Trophy ceremony and earning a spot in the College Football Playoff. Not many were predicting all that.
Chris Holtmann’s bunch has fallen on some tough times recently, but the Buckeyes are still firmly in the NCAA Tournament picture and have notched wins over North Carolina, Cincinnati, Villanova and Kentucky outside of conference play. It should be interesting to see how this group finishes the season, and whether it’ll find some of that magic it had earlier in the year.
The case for Penn State
The 2019 season was supposed to be a “rebuilding year” for Penn State, but the Nittany Lions were still expected to have the talent to be at the top of the B1G East. But an 11-2 record with losses coming on the road against Minnesota and Ohio State was a lot better than most expected. When it comes to maximizing potential, James Franklin did one of the best jobs in the country.
Speaking of maximizing potential this year, Pat Chambers has done a pretty good job of that, too. Yes, Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins are great players, but tied for second in the B1G and ranked No. 22 nationally after a 14-18 season is really impressive. This team has brought interest in basketball back to Happy Valley.
The voting was total, with only 151 votes coming in, but Illinois ran away with this poll question. The Illini received 58 percent of the vote while Penn State was in a distant second with 28 percent of the total. Iowa got 12 percent and Ohio State landed just 2 percent of the votes.
Which B1G school is having the most surprising (better than expected) year in football AND basketball?
— Dustin Schutte (@SchutteCFB) February 9, 2020