Reviewing the Big Ten football season and previewing the bowl season
Since this post ballooned over 1000 words before I even got to the Big Ten, I am going to split it into 3 parts. Today, you get the B1G CCG, Northwestern, and the non-conference opponents (including Mississippi State). Later posts will look at the B1G by division.
Wisconsin 70, Nebraska 31
Wow. Wisconsin averaged over 10 yards per play, scored 3 touchdowns from 50+ yard runs, and generally beat the blackshirts into submission. At least Nebraska fans got this:
There isn't much else to say about a game in which Wisconsin had 2 rushers over 200 yards and a third over 100. All Nebraska fans out there: remember, even Northwestern has won a conference championship more recently than the Huskers. The only answer is to fire Bo Pelini ASAP. Experienced applicants are available:
Like Rodger, I'll start by quoting what I said in August:
Like Penn State, Iowa and Illinois replaced significant chunks of their coaching staffs this offseason; if those changes don't work, Northwestern could manage five conference wins with ease; a strong non-conference showing would put Northwestern at 9-3 or 8-4 on the year.
And then I stuck with that and didn't go any further wait what is happening no I totally didn't say anything else
More likely, the Cats pick up wins over Indiana, Minnesota, and one more conference opponent; I will go with Iowa. In the noncon, Vanderbilt looks like the most likely loss, South Dakota should be an easy win, and Syracuse and BC are likely wins for a 3-1 record. My final prediction is 6-6 (3-5) and a trip to another lower tier bowl.
So, Northwestern matched my best case win total, winning all the games I predicted plus Michigan State, Illinois, and Vanderbilt. I'm going to pat myself on the back for pointing to the potential for Iowa and Illinois to be undermined by coaching turnover (Penn State did well on their coaching change, but whatever), though I don't claim to have anticipated just how bad Illinois would look. To me, the bigger surprise was how well the team played against Michigan and Nebraska. Since the 2000 season, Northwestern has usually put together good seasons by winning every game within reach while getting blown off the field in a few others; not so much this year. The biggest deficit this team ever faced was the 11 point final against Penn State, and it lead every game in the fourth quarter. Northwestern never trailed in 4 games. That is the profile of a legitimate upper tier Big Ten team; while it is a shame to see a good year held back by losses like the Nebraska and Michigan games, sometimes things don't break your way. Furthermore, I find it hard to complain too much about those losses when Northwestern required a two minute drive to beat Syracuse and struggled to put away Vanderbilt, Boston College, Minnesota, and Michigan State. If you let teams hang around, you are usually going to lose some of those games.
More positives about this team: this was the first time one of Pat Fitzgerald's teams has scored over 30 PPG, while the scoring defense was the second best of his tenure, allowing only 22.8 PPG (in 2008, it allowed 20.2). The pass defense caused a lot of anxiety, but it was still significantly improved from last season. While yards per game is up (from 232 to 262), most of that difference disappears if you remove the Army game from last year's numbers (because let's face it, Army's 1/6 for 6 yards had nothing to do with the Northwestern defense). Yards per attempt improved from 8.5 to 6.7; though interceptions dropped from 12 to 9, passes defensed (both total and as a % of passes) increased overall. Northwestern had a stellar turnover margin (+13, 11th in the country and 1st in the Big Ten), which helped immensely on both sides of those scoring stats.
Bottom line, this was a good year with a lot to build on and enough young talent to make that building possible; unfortunately, you can never be sure about improvement in college football. Still, a bowl win is definitely within reach, which would make this team only the third 10 win team in school history. That wouldn't be as sweet as a conference title would have been, but I would still take it.
Since this is the first time I've included our bowl opponent, they go first. The Bulldogs went 8-4 (4-4), which isn't bad. On the other hand, let's look at their schedule: out of conference they played FCS Jackson State, Troy, South Alabama (4th year playing football, 1st year in FBS), and Middle Tennessee. That is about as soft a schedule as you will find; only Middle Tennessee (8-4, 6-2 Sun Belt) is even remotely decent (on an unrelated note, this is the kind of schedule Vandy dropped us to play). Still, they beat those teams, including a genuinely impressive 45-3 beatdown of Middle Tennessee. They also only beat Troy by 6 in MSU's only game of the year with a one-score margin, so they weren't universally impressive against that slate.
The 4 SEC wins came against Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Auburn; those teams combined for 3 SEC wins. That actually undersells how terrible those teams were, though, because they played 3 games against each other, so those 3 wins were a given. Against the other 10 teams in the conference, those teams went a mind-boggling 0-26; little wonder that all 4 of those schools fired their coaches. There is little shame in losing to Alabama, Texas A&M, and LSU (though being competitive in at least one of those games would have been a good sign), but losing 41-24 to Ole Miss (6-6, 3-5) to close the season is a bad loss. Northwestern should be salivating about drawing the Bulldogs instead of, uh, the other Bulldogs as a bowl opponent. How Mississippi State opened as the favorite is a mystery to me.
Syracuse is one of four teams to tie for the Big East title (fun fact: 3 of those teams are leaving the conference in the next two years). Their reward is to play West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl on December 29. Syracuse has turned out to be a decent team all-around, led by Ryan Nassib at quarterback. We remember him throwing for 482 yards with a 68.2 completion percentage (both season bests) against Northwestern, but that game was distinguished more by the 66 attempts (19 more than his next highest total) than exceptional productivity, as Nassib's YPA was higher in 8 games, and he didn't throw an interception in 6 games. The highlight of the season has to be the Orange's upset of then-unbeaten Louisville on senior day in the Carrier Dome, which opened the way to bowl eligibility and a share of the Big East.
Vanderbilt had a similar year to Northwestern by recording no signature wins or bad losses. Once they got through a rough opening stretch that saw the Commodores go 2-4 through the first half of the season, they ripped off a 6-game winning streak to finish the year. The strength of the team was a stellar pass defense that held opponents to 52% completions and 5.6 yards per attempt. Their run defense got beat up by the better teams on their schedule (Georgia and Florida both went over 300 yards, South Carolina went over 200, and Northwestern had 191; all four teams rushed for multiple touchdowns), but it dominated the weaker part of the schedule, holding opponents to 150 yards or fewer in all 8 wins, allowing more than one touchdown in only one of those wins, and allowing any touchdowns at all in only 3 of those games. Like Syracuse, Vandy is staying in-state for bowl season, as they will take on NC State in the Music City Bowl on December 31.
BC's football program is a stark lesson in why ADs should be slow to fire coaches. Under Tom O'Brien, BC was an impressively consistent program, reaching 8 straight bowl games from 1999 to 2006 and winning 7 of them, though their only conference title was a 4-way Big East split in 2004. After O'Brien left to coach NC State, BC hired Jeff Jagodzinski, who won 20 games over the next two years and reached the ACC championship game in both seasons. Following the 2008 season, however, Jagodzinski was fired for interviewing with the Jets and replaced with Frank Spaziani. Spaziani's tenure has seen the program collapse, with win totals falling each year until they reached 2. Spaziani was justifiably fired after this season's disaster, and hopefully BC can return to respectability under whoever they bring in next.