For all the positives in a remarkable year for the Big Ten, the ending certainly wasn’t one of them.
The league struggled at the finish line in the postseason, with bowl trophies slipping away from a conference that had spent the previous few months establishing itself as perhaps the best in the nation thanks to all those coveted spots near the top of the polls.
That turned out to be part of the problem as the Big Ten crowded into the New Year’s Six games, forcing just about everybody else to step up a weight class or two and creating a difficult slate of games from top to bottom. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t a few bright spots as the conference starts to turn the page to another promising year in 2017. Before moving on, it’s time to break down the winners and losers of bowl season.
Pat Fitzgerald: Northwestern capped its comeback from early-season adversity with an upset win over Pittsburgh in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, and the good news continued when Fitzgerald received word that he’d only be losing linebacker Anthony Walker early to the NFL draft. Obviously, he would rather have kept everybody in the fold, but holding on to Justin Jackson for another year in the backfield is a significant bonus for a team that has seen Clayton Thorson continue to develop at quarterback and will have no shortage of veteran starters returning this year. As far as springboards into the offseason go, Northwestern might have the best one in the league.
Wisconsin Badgers: Considering how loaded the schedule had been throughout the regular season, it was a bit strange to see Paul Chryst’s program in something of a no-win situation in such a high-profile game like the Goodyear Cotton Bowl. Western Michigan certainly earned its spot in the matchup with a fairy-tale, undefeated season, but MAC opponents are typically nonconference fodder that Big Ten programs are expected to beat, and the Badgers could have understandably been disappointed not to have a shot to prove themselves once more against a traditional power. But leaning again on their ferocious defense and another strong game plan from defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, they handled their business and may have generated some momentum for a West Division title defense.
Penn State’s dynamic duo: The Nittany Lions came up short in the end and the defense clearly still has some room to grow. But in the wild shootout that was the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual, which is on the short list of the year’s most entertaining games, the nation got a long look at just how dangerous Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley can be fueling the Penn State attack. Both established themselves as potential early-season Heisman Trophy candidates for next season, with Barkley scoring three times while gaining nearly 250 yards of offense and McSorley throwing for four touchdowns. There will be plenty of buzz around the reigning Big Ten champions over the next eight months.
Ohio State’s offense: There is probably a silver lining for the future at Ohio State, but before it emerges, coach Urban Meyer still has to pick through the wreckage of the first shutout loss of his career. The Buckeyes were a mess on offense, struggling in just about every way imaginable from the blocking up front to inconsistency with the passing attack and conservative, predictable playcalling. That bright side for the Buckeyes? Meyer has already worked quickly to revamp the coaching staff and won’t have to replace 16 starters again this offseason as a loaded roster returns. And the last time Clemson forced him to evaluate the state of his program after a loss to end the 2013 campaign, the Buckeyes stormed to the national title the next year.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz: There’s no great shame in an eight-win season for Iowa. But considering the raised expectations, a veteran roster and, of course, Ferentz's recent contract extension, Iowa ending the season with a blowout loss felt like a major disappointment. The Hawkeyes aren’t that far removed from hot-seat conversations and dwindling ticket sales, and a 30-3 loss to Florida in the Outback Bowl isn’t going to raise the excitement level for the program.
Michigan Wolverines: The margin of defeat was narrow once more, but that’s likely little solace for Jim Harbaugh as he looks back at the end of the season and sees the opportunities his veteran team missed. After the last-second upset loss to Iowa and the double-overtime loss at Ohio State, the Wolverines came up short in the clutch again with Florida State snatching away the Capital One Orange Bowl at the last minute. With so many seniors on the way out the door, Harbaugh has plenty of work to do to keep pace in the brutally competitive East Division and the latest loss might sting for a while.