Jim Harbaugh explains what went wrong in another meltdown vs. Ohio State, a 56-27 loss at Michigan Stadium, Nov. 30, 2019. Detroit Free Press
Iowa had an Iowa season. Nebraska flopped. Minnesota surpassed expectations. Michigan football was worse than advertised. And Ohio State is still the best team in the Big Ten.
At the end of the regular season, these truths are self-evident.
The conference continues to be defined by the Buckeyes' supremacy. The other teams in the league, from year to year, continue to oscillate between good, average and bad — rarely achieving the success that would vault them into the sport’s elite tier.
That’s just the way it is, and 2019 illustrated as much:
1. Ohio State (12-0)
Last week: 1. Throughout the season, Ohio State proved it was a cut above the rest of the Big Ten. The Buckeyes, the top team in the College Football Playoff rankings, outscored its conference competition, 436-116. Rival Michigan was the latest team to be obliterated by the Buckeyes, falling by 29 points.
Next up: vs. Wisconsin, 7 p.m. Saturday, Fox.
2. Wisconsin (10-2)
Last week: 5. If not for a shocking loss to Illinois in October, Wisconsin would be in the running for a berth in the College Football Playoff. The Badgers’ only other defeat was to Ohio State, which is forgivable. The Badgers will get another shot at the Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game. And if they somehow pull off an upset, they’ll forever rue that miserable day in Champaign.
Next up: vs. Ohio State, 7 p.m. Saturday, Fox.
3. Penn State (10-2)
Last week: 4. In so many ways, Penn State and Michigan trace a similar trajectory. Like the Wolverines, the Nittany Lions always seem capable of winning nine or 10 games. But they also can be counted on to suffer at least two losses to teams that either are on equal footing with them or superior. So, 2019 followed the script as Penn State hit the double-digit win mark but fell to Minnesota and Ohio State – preventing the program from achieving anything meaningful.
4. Minnesota (10-2)
Last week: 3. When the schedule got tough, the Golden Gophers’ row boat guided by P.J. Fleck lost some steam. Minnesota lost two of its final three games – falling to Iowa on the road and Wisconsin at home. Still, Fleck has put a charge into a program that has spent past autumns hibernating by leading the Golden Gophers to their first 10-win season since 2003.
'I didn't see this coming:' Aidan Hutchinson reacts to Michigan's 56-27 thrashing at the hands of Ohio State, Nov. 30, 2019 at Michigan Stadium. Detroit Free Press
5. Michigan (9-3)
Last week: 2. Michigan is on the verge of an existential crisis. Jim Harbaugh has restored the program, making the Wolverines a fixture in the national polls again. But what does it really mean if the Wolverines don’t win any hardware? Another season with no Big Ten title and no chance at a national championship. Oh, and one more thing: No breakthrough against Ohio State, which beat the Wolverines for the eighth straight year. It all seems so pointless.
6. Iowa (9-3)
Last week: 6. Iowa doesn’t look like an elite team. The offense is too plodding. But consider this: The difference between Iowa and an undefeated record is two touchdowns. Yes, Iowa lost its three games by a total of 14 points. Kirk Ferentz did a masterful job during the final stretch of the regular season, steering the Hawkeyes to five victories in their last six games.
7. Indiana (8-4)
Last week: 7. The City of Bloomington should throw a parade for Tom Allen. The coach helped the Hoosiers reach an elusive benchmark of eight victories. It has been achieved only seven previous times in the program’s history, last occurring in 1993. Indiana spent the season beating up on weaker competition and losing to superior teams. But in the Big Ten, there were enough subpar squads that the Hoosiers could piece together one of its best campaigns in years.
Michigan State football eked out a 19-16 win over Maryland, the Spartans' 6th win that gets them bowl eligible at 6-6, Nov. 30, 2019. Detroit Free Press
8. Michigan State (6-6)
Last week: 9. MSU will be happy to leave this season behind and turn the page to 2020. Sure, the Spartans are relieved they qualified for a bowl game for the 12th in Mark Dantonio’s 13 seasons. But 2019 was a painful experience. Roster upheaval, a five-game losing streak, the suspension of its best defender and questions about Dantonio’s leadership created a climate of negativity that dampened the mood around the program.
9. Illinois (6-6)
Last week: 8. Illinois would still be ranked ahead of MSU, a team the Illini beat, if it just took care of Northwestern in the regular-season finale. But it lost to the dreadful Wildcats by 19 points … at home. It was a horrible result for Lovie Smith’s bunch and such a bad outcome that it effectively killed any mojo accrued during a four-game winning streak that launched the Illini toward bowl eligibility for the first time since 2014. You can’t lose to Northwestern in 2019. You just can’t.
10. Purdue (4-8)
Last week: 10. Purdue’s season essentially was lost on one play in late September. That's when the Boilermakers lost their best playmaker, receiver Rondale Moore, and their starting quarterback, Elijah Sindelar. Few teams could recover from that kind of adversity. But the Boilermakers stayed competitive. They defeated Nebraska, hung with Iowa and went down to the wire with Indiana. Head coach Jeff Brohm did a nice job, all things considered.
11. Nebraska (5-7)
Last week: 11. It will be another cold winter on the plains of Nebraska. It’s here where a once-proud football program has been reduced to chaff. The Cornhuskers haven’t qualified for a bowl game since 2016 and are still searching for a breakthrough in the Big Ten, which they joined in 2011. Scott Frost was supposed to return Nebraska to glory, but he’s gone 9-15 in two seasons there and his next haul of recruits is ranked below Purdue’s incoming class. Not good. Not good at all.
12. Northwestern (3-9)
Last week: 12. The Wildcats were saved from the embarrassment of losing all nine of their conference games a year after winning the Big Ten West. Pat Fitzgerald will get a pass for a forgettable season in Evanston. Northwestern, once a perennial doormat, has been in far worse shape in the past. Fitzgerald has shown he’s capable of achieving success. But he’s also struggled to sustain it from one year to the next.
13. Maryland (3-9)
Last week: 13. Mike Locksley’s first full season at Maryland was a bust. The Terrapins experienced an extended collapse after crushing Syracuse, 63-20, in the second week of the season. That result was an anomaly in retrospect. And now there are doubts about Locksley as Maryland’s coach. His career record is 6-40. Yikes.
14. Rutgers (2-10)
Last week: 14. Rutgers had to wait until after the end of its miserable season to gain a measure of hope. The news that Greg Schiano will return as head coach should be welcomed by the Scarlet Knights, who have lost 21 consecutive conference games. Schiano has the credentials and the track record to make Rutgers competitive, which would be a start for a program that has been stuck in the Big Ten badlands since its second year in the conference.