Big Ten 2011 regular-season wrap

The Big Ten entered the 2011 season with two chief goals: win a national title for the first time since 2002 and build better depth throughout the league.

A BCS championship would tone down the Big Ten bashing around the country and grab some of the spotlight away from the rival SEC. Greater depth would prevent the New Year's Day disaster from happening again.

It appears as though the Big Ten went 1-1 in these objectives.

The league's national championship drought reached nine years as the Big Ten was out of the title talk by the end of October and had only one team (No. 10 Wisconsin) finish in the top 10 of the final BCS standings. With the SEC ensured of a sixth consecutive national championship, the Big Ten still has a gap to close with the nation's top conference.

While a Big Ten team won't be raising the crystal football in New Orleans, the league seemingly will enter the bowls with greater depth than it did a year ago, when only three teams finished the regular season with more than seven wins. Three teams finished with 10 or more wins, as Wisconsin and Michigan State both took another step toward becoming new Big Ten powers and Michigan made significant strides under first-year coach Brady Hoke and his staff.

Nebraska's transition to the Big Ten brought a few hiccups, as the Huskers struggled in losses to Wisconsin, Michigan and Northwestern. But Big Red also played very well for stretches, dominating Legends division champion Michigan State on Oct. 30 and beating Penn State in State College under very difficult circumstances. Penn State rode star lineman Devon Still and a dominating defense to an 8-1 start before enduring a tough November on the field and especially off of it.

While the Big Ten lacked elite teams, it had five squads ranked in the polls for most of the season and produced plenty of exciting games, particularly the two contests between division winners Wisconsin and Michigan State.

The conference endured its share of disappointment both on and off the field. Ohio State, which dominated the Big Ten for the past decade, endured its worst record since 1999 and suffered five conference losses. Illinois couldn't capitalize on a schedule that featured eight home games and became the first FBS team to lose its final six games after winning its first six. Northwestern and Iowa both fell short of preseason expectations and Indiana was the only major-conference team that failed to record a victory against an FBS foe. While Minnesota looked better late in the season, the Gophers endured a historically bad stretch from Sept. 24-Oct. 22.

Ohio State's NCAA troubles continued, and the Penn State sex-abuse scandal has dominated the national spotlight for the past month. The scandal led to coach Joe Paterno's firing and continues to impact the university.

The season also marked the end for Ron Zook at Illinois, while Ohio State interim coach Luke Fickell will return to an assistant role on the staff of new boss Urban Meyer.

While it was a rough year for several Big Ten coaches, the league produced plenty of star players. Wisconsin had the best combined quarterback-running back performance in league history with Montee Ball and Russell Wilson, the nation's most valuable transfer. Defensive line continued to be the Big Ten's strongest position as standouts like Penn State's Still, Illinois' Whitney Mercilus and Michigan State's Jerel Worthy emerged. Nebraska's Lavonte David was among the nation's top linebackers. The Big Ten also saw upgrades at both running back and receiver and featured arguably the nation's top two centers in Wisconsin's Peter Konz and Michigan's David Molk.

Without many signature nonconference wins, the league once again enters the bowl season needing a boost after last year's struggles. We'll find out in the coming weeks whether improved Big Ten depth is perception or reality.

Offensive MVP: Wisconsin RB Montee Ball.

Only one player in FBS history has ever scored more touchdowns in a single season than Ball, who has 38. And we might not be able to say that after the Rose Bowl, because Ball trails Barry Sanders by just one score for the all-time record. The junior also has more rushing yards -- 1,759 yards -- than any player in the country this year while averaging 6.4 yards per carry. He has scored at least two touchdowns in every game this season, setting an NCAA record for most consecutive multi-touchdown games.

Defensive MVP: Penn State DT Devon Still

In a tremendous year for defensive players in the Big Ten, especially up front, Still stood out. The Nittany Lions senior had 17 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks from his interior line position, helping his team finish No. 5 nationally in scoring defense. Honorable mention to Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who leads the nation in sacks and forced fumbles, and Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David, who registered 122 tackles as the Huskers' leader on defense.

Newcomer of the year: Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson

It's not every day that a highly-touted senior quarterback with three years of starting experience in the ACC drops in your lap, but that's the gift Wisconsin got in Wilson this season. Wilson led the Big Ten with 31 touchdown passes while throwing just three interceptions. He currently ranks second in the FBS in pass efficiency rating, slightly behind Baylor's Robert Griffin III and on pace to break the previous NCAA record. Wilson was also the Big Ten championship game MVP and a real godsend to a Badgers team that didn't have any other good options at quarterback to start the season. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller gets the nod as the league's top freshman.

Coach of the year: Michigan's Brady Hoke

Hoke inherited a 7-6 team from 2010 and took it to a 10-2 record and the school's first BCS game since the 2006 season in his first year as head coach in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines no doubt benefited from having eight home games and missing Wisconsin and Penn State on the schedule. But their improvement on defense was stunning, and Hoke has injected new life into what had been a struggling brand-name program. Michigan State's Mark Dantonio also deserves recognition for leading the Spartans to a 10-3 record and Legends Division title despite a tough road schedule.

Biggest Surprise: Michigan

As we noted, some improvement was expected given the Wolverines' schedule. But hardly anybody saw a 10-win season and BCS bid coming this year. Michigan finished seventh nationally in scoring defense a year after allowing a Big Ten worst 35.2 points per game in 2010. The Wolverines also finished the season strong by blowing out Nebraska and snapping a seven-game losing streak to Ohio State.

Biggest Disappointment: Ohio State

Most figured the Buckeyes would have problems this season after a controversy-plagued year that saw head coach Jim Tressel resign under pressure on Memorial Day. But a 6-6 record and an often-toothless offense exceeded even some of the most dire worst-case scenarios. What made the season even more disappointing was that the team had a very real chance to win the Leaders Division after beating Wisconsin at home. But the Buckeyes ended the year with three straight losses. The good news is the NCAA infractions case should soon finally be over, and Meyer is ready to bring the program back. Illinois also ranks as a major disappointment, especially after starting the season 6-0 and ending it 0-6 with putrid offensive production.

Best Game: (tie) Michigan State 37, Wisconsin 31 on Oct. 22 and Wisconsin 42, Michigan State 39 on Dec. 3

Who says rematches are a bad thing? After playing an instant classic in October that ended on a Hail Mary, Wisconsin and Michigan State staged another thriller in the first-ever Big Ten title game. There were so many twists and turns, momentum shifts and side stories to those two games that you could write a book on them. We wouldn't mind just scrapping the bowls and having these teams play a rubber-match third game for Big Ten supremacy.