Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE
The Leg...no, wait, Lead...oh fine. The West Division in review
Nebraska: 10-3, 7-1
Nebraska won 10 games and made their conference championship game for the third time in Bo Pelini's 5 year tenure in Lincoln. They also lost that championship game for the third time. The championship game was the worst performance of a shaky run defense that gave up over 300 rushing yards in two other games this season, but the rest of the team was solid: the pass defense led the Big Ten in yards per game and per attempt, only allowing opponents to complete more than 50% of their passes in 3 games (2 of which were against Wisconsin). The offense led the conference in yards per game and was just a hair behind Michigan in yards per play (6.27 to 6.25), driven by a league-leading rushing attack (254 yards per game, 5.42 yards per carry).
Because this is Nebraska, the championship game performance has overwhelmed everything else in the eyes of much of the fanbase, which is caught in the dumbest canned argument in sports: the "can he get over the hump" argument. Again: Pelini's teams have made 3 championship games in 5 years, he has won at least 9 games in all 5 years, and he has never lost more than 4 games. Contrast that to his predecessor, whose best season was a 9-5 showing in 2006. Even Tom Osborne didn't win every year, and this isn't the Big 8, where beating Oklahoma meant a championship. Nebraska fans are free to gnash their teeth, and if the rest of us are so lucky they might chase Pelini out of town, but there is no world in which Pelini's performance is anything less than elite. Nebraska is playing in the Capital One Bowl (I know the Citrus Bowl was a corporate sponsorship too, but it was soooooo much better as a name), part of the January 1 glut of Big Ten games that you can't watch because they are all on at the same time.
Michigan: 8-4, 6-2
Michigan gets credit upfront for playing one of the hardest schedules in the country. They played both participants in the NCG and both FBS teams that remain unbeaten. Their fourth loss came when Denard Robinson had to leave the Nebraska game with an injury and they had to play Russell Bellomy for most of the game. Sure, they got incredibly lucky to beat Northwestern, but then Northwestern was a fairly good team this year. The bigger problem for this team is that the Northwestern win was easily their best win; while they played Notre Dame and Ohio State tough, they couldn't come away with the wins. Offensive inconsistency was the biggest culprit; while the defense allowed opponents to score more than 30 points only two times (Alabama and Northwestern), the offense swung from crushing weak opponents (over 40 points 4 times) to disappearing against good defenses (under 20 4 times).
The rushing attack was the primary culprit in this variation. It was extraordinarily dependent on Denard Robinson, both for volume (1166 of 2248 yards) and efficiency (7.57 YPC to 3.95 for Fitzgerald Touissant, the next leading rusher). When Robinson was contained or injured, Michigan couldn't get the running backs going or produce enough passing offense to make up for the lost production. Michigan is heading to Tampa for the Outback Bowl against South Carolina, another game that the Big Ten bowl schedule makes impossible for other Big Ten fans to watch.
Michigan State: 6-6, 3-5
However you look at it, Michigan State had one of the nation's best defenses. They finished 4th in yards per game, 4th in yards per play, 10th in points allowed, 3rd in FEI, and 1st in S&P+. The offense did their best to squander the defense's effort. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell completed only 52.9% of his passes for an anemic 6 yards per attempt, while LeVeon Bell absorbed a massive workload (350 carries) without exceptional productivity (4.7 yards per carry). The combination of great defense and terrible offense produced close games almost every week; 8 Michigan State games were decided by 1 score, and they went 3-5 in those games. This includes a 2-5 mark in their first 7 Big Ten games.
This year was seriously disappointing for MSU, but they have good reasons to think that the team can snap back to contention next year. Their record in close games suggests that they could easily be a game or more ahead of where they are now. If nothing else, it shows that they aren't too far away from where they need to be to win 6 or 7 games in the conference. Furthermore, they don't lose much to graduation; the depth chart from their season finale against Minnesota includes only 1 senior starter on offense and 2 on defense. They do have some star juniors who could bolt for the NFL (if Dion Sims would please do so I would appreciate it), but even if all of those guys leave they will be returning a ton of solid players. This is a team to watch out for next year; their last game this year is the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on December 29 at 9:15 central time.
Minnesota 6-6, 2-6
Jerry Kill got his team to a bowl in the coach's second year, so Minnesota's most important goal for this year was accomplished. The only team they beat with a winning record was Syracuse, but the Gophers established their dominance over the bottom of the other division with wins over Purdue and Illinois and posted a perfect 4-0 mark in their out of conference schedule to reach 6 wins. An early season injury to Marqueis Gray left bowl eligibility in doubt, but it may have turned into a long-term blessing by allowing some younger quarterbacks to get a shot at playing time. In any case, it is hard to argue that a healthy Gray would have been a great help, as Northwestern was the only Big Ten team to beat the Gophers by less than 16. He definitely could have made a difference in that game, but the rest of the schedule was just a bit too much.
The question for next year is whether Minnesota can return to bowl eligibility. The good news is that they return their two leading passers and their leading rusher; though only a junior, leading receiver AJ Barker left the team over his treatment by Jerry Kill. They lose a lot more on defense, including sack leader D.L. Wilhite, tackle leader Troy Stoudermire, and co-interception leader Michael Carter. Since the defense was the stronger unit this year, those losses may be too much to overcome; the offense will need to step up if Minnesota is to return to bowl eligibility. The Gophers are playing in the Car Care Bowl at 8 CT on December 28.
Iowa: 4-8, 2-6
In retrospect, Iowa's 18-17 win over Northern Illinois in the season opener was the highlight of their season. The Huskies didn't lose another game all year and are headed for the Orange Bowl; Iowa won't be bowling for the first time since 2007 and finished under .500 for the first time since 2000. While the defense wasn't up to its usual standard, the chief responsibility for Iowa's struggles lies with an offense that finished the year 11th in the Big Ten in both yards and points per game. The regression of senior quarterback James Vandenberg, whose yards per attempt dropped from 7.5 to 5.8, was the most visible sign of the struggle to adapt to new offensive coordinator Greg Davis's scheme. When Mark Weisman was in the game the Hawkeyes at least had a decent running game, but he took time to be discovered and was limited by injuries down the stretch.
The outlook for next year isn't much better. Vandenberg was the only quarterback to attempt a pass, so who knows what the rest of the roster looks like there. The top three running backs were all underclassmen, which would be cause for optimism anywhere else, but by the time AIRBHG is done they may or may not be ready to contribute. Whoever rises from the carnage will be running behind a line replacing its left tackle and center. Receiving yardage co-leader Keenan Davis is gone, though the rest of the receiving options return. Defensively, 2 of the 3 players tied for the team interception lead are gone, as well as all-B1G DB Micah Hyde. Sack leader Joe Gaglione departs. The top three in tackles were all juniors, so there will be at least some experience on the field. The departures are potentially manageable, but much will hinge on whether Greg Davis can field an improved offense in year two.