The Big Ten power rankings saw plenty of shuffling throughout the 2011 regular season, and the bowls brought some more movement. There's a new No. 1 team atop the rankings, and several squads helped or hurt themselves in the final analysis. We had a tough decision for the top spot between Michigan State and Wisconsin but went with the team that ended on a stronger note. The Badgers land the No. 2 spot ahead of Michigan, while there's a significant drop-off after No. 3.
The overall depth in the Big Ten isn't as good as we thought it would be entering the year, although the league packed more punch than it did in 2010.
Let's get to the rundown.
1. Michigan State (11-3): The Spartans ended a very good season on a high note, rallying to force overtime against Georgia in the Outback Bowl and winning in dramatic fashion during the third extra session. Mark Dantonio recorded his first bowl win as Spartans coach and quarterback Kirk Cousins went out on top, but the MSU defense carried the day in Tampa. Although the Spartans didn't win the Big Ten title, they looked like the league's top squad during the bowl season and could be the conference favorite entering 2012.
2. Wisconsin (11-3): It's amazing that a team this talented found ways to lose three games. As Badgers running back Montee Ball said after the Rose Bowl, "If you take a minute off our season, we'd probably be undefeated." But a few key plays in all three defeats leave Wisconsin wondering what if? Credit Wisconsin for winning the Big Ten and making consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. Ball and Russell Wilson were brilliant all season. But you have to wonder if Wisconsin has missed its window of opportunity.
3. Michigan (11-2): Winning is all that matters, and while we're still figuring out how the Wolverines prevailed in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, they walked away as victors to cap a rebound season under first-year coach Brady Hoke. Michigan's seniors came through in their final game, as receiver Junior Hemingway made two terrific touchdown catches and defensive linemen Ryan Van Bergen and Mike Martin helped keep Virginia Tech out of the end zone. It added up to Michigan's first BCS bowl win since the 2000 Orange. While we don't know how a Wisconsin-Michigan matchup would turn out, we think Wisconsin had the stronger overall season.
4. Nebraska (9-4): While it's tempting to drop the Huskers more after they melted down against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl, there's really no other team to put in this spot. Nebraska had its great moments in its first Big Ten go-round and had talent in all three phases, but the team seemed too fragile at times. Three of Nebraska's four losses came by 17 points or more. Huskers fans aren't pleased with head coach Bo Pelini at the moment, and Pelini and his staff enter a crucial offseason.
5. Penn State (9-4): Here's another team that ended its season with a thud, although one that many expected after nearly two months of turmoil. A December locker-room scuffle left Penn State without starting quarterback Matthew McGloin (concussion), and the offense sputtered against a mediocre Houston defense in the TicketCity Bowl. Many of us expected more from the Nittany Lions' defense, but Case Keenum carved up Penn State in a 30-14 victory. The Bill O'Brien era now begins in Happy Valley, and Penn State has a chance to make noise in a wide-open division in 2012.
6. Purdue (7-6): We don't want to overvalue a bowl win against Western Michigan, but Purdue ended the season with consecutive victories for the first time in 2011. The Boilers' run game surged even without top running back Ralph Bolden (knee), as Akeem Shavers racked up 149 rush yards behind a punishing offensive line. Special teams also proved to be a big difference for Purdue, which converted two onside kicks and had a kick return for a touchdown by Raheem Mostert. Purdue still makes too many major mistakes, but the program enters the offseason with some much-needed momentum.
7. Iowa (7-6): For the second straight year Iowa hoped an Insight Bowl win would take the sting off of a disappointing season. This time, however, the Hawkeyes fell short in Tempe as Oklahoma shut down a Marcus Coker-less offense for three quarters. Iowa's defense performed admirably for retiring coordinator Norm Parker, but the offense lacked enough firepower and made too many mistakes against the Sooners. The Hawkeyes failed to capitalize on a favorable schedule and now reach a crossroads in 2012 in what should once again be a tough division.
8. Ohio State (6-7): A forgettable season in Columbus ended with a forgettable result, as Ohio State fell to Florida in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl because of special-teams breakdowns and not enough offense. The offense finished the season ranked 108th nationally in yards (318.2 ypg). Ohio State suffered its first seven-loss season since 1897 and ended with its first four-game losing streak since 1943. Can't see the Buckeyes being this far down for very long as new coach Urban Meyer inherits a young roster with the potential to make significant strides in 2012.
9. Illinois (7-6): A turbulent month ended with Illinois winning the Bizarro Bowl, er, Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, to record postseason wins in consecutive seasons for the first time in team history. Credit interim coach Vic Koenning for keeping the team united and a very good defense focused for the bowl game. Still, beating a sub-.500 UCLA team only earns you so much, and Illinois still had a very disappointing season relative to expectations in August. New coach Tim Beckman now steps in to try to get the program to the next level beginning in 2012.
10. Northwestern (6-7): The monkey will be wearing a No. 64 jersey in 2012 as Northwestern failed to end its 63-year bowl losing streak. The Wildcats now have dropped nine straight bowls, tying Notre Dame's for the longest postseason slide in FBS history. While the Wildcats' defense had its typical problems, the offense didn't show up for nearly three quarters and put the team in a hole against a superior Texas A&M squad. Northwestern has now seen its wins total drop in each of the past three seasons.
11. Minnesota (3-9): As the Gophers watched bowl season from their couches for the second straight year, the focus turns to how Minnesota can improve in 2012. Quarterback MarQueis Gray leads an offense that should be more fluid in its second year in the system. The bigger questions are on defense, as Minnesota allowed 31.7 points per game and 403.1 yards per game. Safety Kim Royston is a significant loss, and Minnesota must find a way to generate a better pass rush in 2012.
12. Indiana (1-11): The youth movement this past fall should pay off in some fashion for Indiana in 2012, and it's not a stretch to suggest the Hoosiers will make noise on offense. But as we have stated over and over, Indiana's Big Ten breakthrough only will take place when the defense takes significant steps in all three levels. The defense has to be the focus throughout the offseason after Indiana ranked 109th or worse nationally in four major statistical categories (total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense, pass efficiency defense).