Pickin' On The Big Ten: Championship Edition
There is but a single game to pick this week. It's a doozy, but still, just one game. So let's put on our sepia-colored glasses and look back over this season, starting with last weekend.
WHAT I GOT RIGHT AND WHAT I GOT WRONG
Northwestern at Illinois: I said Illinois 20, Northwestern 16; actual score, Northwestern 45, Illinois 43.
Missed it by ... that much.
Ohio State at Michigan: I said Michigan 31, Ohio State 30; actual score, Michigan 30, Ohio State 24.
It will take some time for me to forgive the Buckeyes for causing people to think Lou Holtz might have been right about something. In this day and age, that is unforgiveable.
Penn State vs. Michigan State: I said Penn State 31, Michigan State 13; actual score, Penn State 42, Michigan State 0.
Since MSU lost, it has to put the Land Grant Trophy on display for another year.
Wisconsin at Minnesota: I said Wisconsin 17, Minnesota 14; actual score, Wisconsin 28, Minnesota 14.
At least I nailed the part about the Minnesota offense not showing up when there was something on the line.
Iowa at Nebraska: I said Iowa 13, Nebraska 10; actual score, Iowa 13, Nebraska 10.
For the third time in twenty years of writing this column, I called a game exactly right. Let that be all the evidence you need that you're a sucker if you bet off my picks.
Indiana at Purdue: I said Purdue 21, Indiana 17; actual score, Purdue 35, Indiana 31.
This actually turned out to be a pretty good game, but not better than Ohio State-Michigan.
Maryland at Rutgers: I said Maryland 28, Rutgers 13; actual score, Maryland 42, Rutgers 24.
I am officially done trying to understand Maryland football, forever.
Tempted as I am to give myself bonus points for the perfect Iowa-Nebraska prediction, I don't want tainted clout, so I'll treat it like a normal correct call. That puts my record at 6-1 for the second week in a row and 85-20 (.809) for the season.
There's only one game to pick this week, of course. But before we get to it, let's take a moment to reflect on each team's 2023 regular season, shall we? Alphabetical order, but saving the best for last.
ILLINOIS: REGRESSION TO THE MEAN, EMPHASIS ON 'MEAN'
Illinois is a school that has been mediocre at football for my entire life -- and I was born during Richard Nixon's first term. So it was not surprising to me that Bret Bielema was unable to replicate last season's pretty good run. He has never been able to win consistently outside of Barry Alvarez's umbrella. A 5-7 final record sounds so disappointing, just one win from another bowl trip. But is finishing 3-9 more painful? You can ask an Illini fan, they've done both more times than they can count.
INDIANA: GOOD LUCK, NEXT!
Indiana finally put Tom Allen out of their mutual misery. While Allen had some good moments with the Hoosiers, he was never able to turn the corner. It's not like he didn't have plenty of chances either. His seven full seasons made him the longest-tenured IU football coach since Bill Mallory. The last coach to mount a career winning record in Bloomington was Bo McMillen. You've never heard of him? Neither had I before I went down the most miserable Wikipedia rabbit hole I've ever spelunked. He coached at IU from 1934 to 1947, putting up a 63-48-11 record before spending four miserable seasons as an NFL head coach.
What I'm trying to say is that I don't think it really matters who coaches Indiana football.
MARYLAND: JUST TAKE OCTOBER OFF
The Maryland Terrapins started 5-0 but once the calendar flipped to the tenth month, the glass slipper broke. The Terps dropped all three of their October games and their first game in November but still managed a 7-5 overall record. In the Big Ten East, that has to count as success.
MICHIGAN: EMBRACE THE HEEL TURN
College sports needs villains. Alabama has dropped off the past couple seasons so it's time for Michigan to step into the role of That @#$%ing Team. The Wolverines are fighting their destiny because they still believe that Michigan Man nonsense, like somehow they're just more virtuous than that school in Columbus.
So they (allegedly) stole their opponents' signs. Yawn. The NFL has been protecting playcalling for almost 30 years with in-helmet communication, which wasn't even a new idea when it first began. The NCAA has never done so, proving its essential worthlessness as an organization. Yes, there's a rule against in-person scouting, and I am sure that Connor Stalions is the first person ever to break it.
If you're a Michigan fan reading this (a) are you lost or something and (b) just lean into being the villain, because you can only be the villain if you're successful, and right now you are. Your team's an all-timer. FINISH HIM is flashing on the screen. You know what to do.
MICHIGAN STATE: LET US NEVER SPEAK OF THIS AGAIN
I will forever bear a grudge against Michigan State for the whole Larry Nassar thing. I want to be clear, though, that my grudge extends only to the institution that protected a predator and not to the team, the students, the alumni, et cetera. So while I feel terrible for the snakebit season Sparty just endured, the school had it coming. It had at least this coming.
MINNESOTA: NELSON MUNTZ HA HA DOT GIF
It is time to accept that P.J. Fleck has taken Minnesota as far as he will ever take them. To beat Iowa -- even if it was on a bogus call -- in the weakest season of a division that never had a strong season and still somehow wind up 5-7 is proof that 2019 was as good as it will ever get for the boatrower-in-chief. Granted, that was a really good season, but he couldn't keep the ball rolling. It doesn't make sense. Minnesota has enough money and a sizeable population base. North Dakota State and South Dakota State have been dominant in the FCS for a solid decade, largely on the backs of Minnesota preps.
A likely APR-based bowl bid will allow for more practice time, and for as little as I care for Fleck, he's never lost a bowl game as Gophers coach. But starting quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis is entering the transfer portal, looking to spend his last two seasons elsewhere. Something ain't right in Minneapolis. Enjoy the pig.
NEBRASKA: A FAMILIAR TUNE
Credit where credit is due: this 5-7 season is the best first season Matt Rhule has had anywhere he's coached. But it means the Huskers have now had seven straight losing seasons. Nebraska fired Frank Solich for not winning enough and Bo Pelini for not winning enough and talking trash about administration. It seemed like Scott Frost was the perfect candidate to lead them back to the promised land but it turned out he just wasn't a seasoned enough coach to navigate the minefield that was ... the Big Ten West.
The 'Skers may have found their quarterback in Chubba Purdy so next season could actually be Rhule's breakthrough year. Assuming the Nebraska faithful haven't sworn off optimism forever, it's a good time to feel positive about the future.
NORTHWESTERN: NOBODY SAW IT COMING
When Pat Fitzgerald got let go on the cusp of the season I, along with a small group of sports pundits known as "literally everyone else," wrote off Northwestern for the season. I figured 3-9 was the absolute ceiling for the Wildcats.
David Braun proved me wrong. He was rewarded with the permanent job and the Big Ten's Coach of the Year award. But face the facts: Northwestern didn't beat any team that finished with a record better than 7-5. The good teams on the schedule, plus Nebraska, all bested the 'Cats. It was a good season. It wasn't a great one. Will Northwestern improve on this year?
OHIO STATE: DON'T MAKE ME SAY 'JOHN COOPER'
For those of you too young to remember, John Cooper coached Ohio State from 1988 to 2000, replacing the late Earle Bruce. Cooper was 111-43-4 on the sidelines in Columbus, but never won an outright Big Ten title, was 3-8 in bowl games and, most damningly, was a dismal 2-10-1 against Michigan. Buckeye fans who remember him will gleefully tell you he was the worst coach of their lifetimes -- and they're not wrong about that.
I don't think Ryan Day is in danger of being the 21st century Cooper quite yet. He's putting up much better records, except against the Wolverines. But losing to them again next season would shorten his leash considerably.
PENN STATE: NEVER WHEN IT COUNTS
The knock on James Franklin has always been that his team doesn't show up in big games like it ought to. This season did nothing to dispel that notion. While all of Penn State's other opponents got "blowed up real good," the Nits again went 0-2 against Michigan and Ohio State.
It may be that not even Joe Paterno's ghost could get past those two programs right now; they certainly both seem to be at high-water marks. But I wouldn't count on Penn State fans to be fine with receding into the second tier of what will very soon be a bigger and more competitive conference.
PURDUE: IT'S GONNA TAKE SOME TIME THIS TIME
Ryan Walters moved across the state line from Illinois, where he was Bret Bielema's defensive coordinator. Somehow the defenses for both Illinois and Purdue got worse. At least his best game of the season was a 44-19 splattering of his old team.
Purdue is in the same boat as Indiana: nobody really cares about either football program, it's just an appetizer for basketball season. The Boilermakers will certainly tighten up on defense next season. It may not make much of a difference.
RUTGERS: IS STILL PLAYING FOOTBALL
At least Google says so. It also says Greg Schiano is still coaching there. Rutgers had it much easier in the Big East. Then again, who wouldn't?
WISCONSIN: FALLING BACK
The rot in Wisconsin was obvious in Paul Chryst's last couple seasons, and it would have been far too much to expect Luke Fickell to clean it all up while installing a new offensive philosophy into players recruited for something very different. Still, it'll take a bowl win to improve on last season's 7-6 record. It'll take more than that for Badger fans to get over Jim Leonhard.
IOWA: THE CLUB SANDWICH OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL
You know what I'm talking about. Club sandwiches are solid, seemingly easy to execute, and boring. You can try to gussy them up but anything much beyond the basics of toasted bread, mayo, turkey, bacon, lettuce, and tomato isn't going to improve the experience; it'll just taste like someone added something weird to a club sandwich. You really can't even add cheese to one.
But every diner worth its salt has it on the menu and very, very few mess with the formula.
I know, as someone who has been paying close attention to Iowa football for forty-five years, that the current offense is bad. I don't expect radical change in that department no matter who the new coordinator is. It is boring to the point of pain to watch the Hawkeyes on offense.
Boring football isn't a problem. Bad, boring football is. The Hawkeyes are boring but they're 10-2. They aren't bad. I'll grant that we all can see even minimal improvement on offense would make a huge difference in Iowa's entertainment value. I think this season it would have flipped exactly one of the two losses, because there was no way this Iowa team was going to win in Happy Valley.
I'm optimistic that Iowa's record will not drop off dramatically next season, as so many grave-dancers are predicting. But let's give those grave-dancers their due ...
NO. 16 IOWA VS. NO. 2 MICHIGAN | 7 PM CT | FOX
You've seen the odds, I'm sure. The sportsbooks are saying Iowa might not even score on Michigan. As a Hawkeye homer I want to tell you to please ignore that, it's just stink bait being dangled in front of clueless catfish with money in their pockets, fish who deeply believe Iowa bumbled and lucked its way into this game. But as an amateur analyst, there's certainly a chance it might happen, since Michigan has by far the best defense the Hawkeyes have faced this season. And you saw how well Iowa's defense held up against Penn State, a team with maybe 40% of the offensive talent Michigan has.
Still, a pick-six and a blocked kick (or some such thing) could turn this game for the Hawkeyes. I just don't think you can count on that. File this under "predictions I hope to be wrong about."
Michigan 27, Iowa 6