There are 40 bowl games plus a national championship this year, but with the college football regular season finished, now is a good time to take stock of the regular season, conference by conference, with league awards and grades for every Power Five team. Part I featured the ACC. Part II covers the Big Ten.
Offensive Player of the Year: Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State. Perhaps equal credit should go to Nittany Lions tailback Saquon Barkley, who put up 1,649 yards from scrimmage and often drew the attention of the defense to help open up Penn State's downfield passing. But McSorley proved to be a revelation in his first season as starter, doing some damage with his feet but becoming most known for repeatedly attacking defenses downfield with confidence and success in a new-look offense. With the help of an underrated receiving corps, McSorley averages 9.7 yards per pass attempt with 25 touchdowns, only five interceptions and 22 completions of 40-plus yards. He threw for 3,360 yards, and in the final two games against Michigan State and Wisconsin to lead Penn State to an improbable Big Ten championship, he completed 39 of 54 for 760 yards, eight TDs and zero INTs, getting better and better as the season went on.
Defensive Player of the Year: Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan. Jabrill Peppers was phenomenal as an all-purpose weapon on defense, offense and special teams, and he deserves a lot of accolades. But Lewis was the best player on the Michigan defense. After missing nonconference play with an injury, Lewis shined on a dominant defense that allowed only 135.9 passing yards per game with a 44.5 completion percentage. Lewis has 23 tackles, 10 pass breakups and two interceptions, but hardly anyone even dares to throw near him because it's mostly futile.
Coach of the Year: James Franklin, Penn State. By the end of September, some people began talking about Franklin on the hot seat. Now, Penn State has won nine games in a row with victories over Ohio State and Wisconsin, earning the school's first Big Ten championship and trip to the Rose Bowl since 2008. Dismissed as another mediocre, middle-of-the-road team early on, Penn State instead burst into the playoff conversation despite having only four senior starters on the current depth chart. Franklin and his staff suddenly found all the answers with a roster back at full strength, and it led to an unlikely conference title in a year in which all the headlines had belonged to Ohio State and Michigan.
Freshman of the Year: Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State. It wasn't a huge year for freshmen in the Big Ten, but Weber had a stellar season as part of an excellent Ohio State running game that also featured all-purpose weapon Curtis Samuel. With huge shoes to fill in place of Ezekiel Elliott, the redshirt freshman Weber ran 177 times for 1,072 yards and nine TDs, averaging over six yards per carry.
How successful should this season be viewed by each team? Grades for each team's season reflect 2016 achievements within the context of program history and expectations.
Penn State (11-2): A. Such a grade was impossible to believe in early October. That Penn State is fully deserving of high marks after losing to Pitt and getting blown out by Michigan in September makes this a truly remarkable season under coach James Franklin in his third year. The Nittany Lions underwent a spectacular post-sanctions transformation, morphing into a big-play offense known for second-half scoring outbursts under new coordinator Joe Moorhead. Led by QB Trace McSorley, RB Saquon Barkley and a deep group of athletic receivers, Penn State vaulted to the top of the Big Ten in yards per play and beat Ohio State (with a blocked field goal return) and Wisconsin (by erasing a 21-point deficit) to win an improbable Big Ten championship and earn a spot in the Rose Bowl. Getting left out of the playoff ultimately doesn't matter much. By winning the Big Ten and punching a ticket to Pasadena after such a scenario was unimaginable only a few weeks ago, Penn State has achieved one of the greatest seasons in school history.
Ohio State (11-1): A. Urban Meyer has lost five games in five years as Ohio State's coach, and the Buckeyes have lost exactly one nonconference game each of the past three years. In 2014, they overcame an early loss to Virginia Tech to win the national championship. In 2015, as the unanimous preseason No. 1, they lost to Michigan State, which kept them out of both the Big Ten title game and the playoff. This year, they lost to Penn State to prevent them from winning the Big Ten East, but they became the first non-conference champion to make the playoff anyway. They did this despite losing 16 starters from last year's loaded roster, blowing out Oklahoma on the road, beating Wisconsin by seven in OT on the road and beating Michigan at home in a double-OT classic. There was difficulty passing downfield and occasional difficulty protecting J.T. Barrett, and yet here Ohio State is anyway, heading to the Fiesta Bowl to meet Clemson with a chance to win the national championship. The loss to Penn State and the lack of a Big Ten title seem insignificant when the Buckeyes beat Michigan in their most anticipated rivalry game in years and used it as a springboard to the playoff.
Wisconsin (10-3): A-. After winning 10 games with the help of the easiest possible Big Ten schedule last year -- Rutgers and Maryland in cross-division games -- the Badgers had lowered expectations this year because of how difficult the schedule appeared to be: Not only did they have to play LSU, but they drew Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State in consecutive cross-division games. The blowout win over Michigan State turned out to be not nearly as impressive as we thought at the time, but the opening victory over LSU did thrust the Badgers back into the national consciousness. They stayed there all year, behind an excellent defense, despite seven-point losses to both the Wolverines and Buckeyes, and then also to Penn State in the Big Ten title game. Wisconsin played a redshirt freshman QB, Alex Hornibrook, much of the season and didn't have an explosive offense, but it still won 10 games, didn't lose inside its division and is heading back to a major bowl game -- its first-ever trip to the Cotton Bowl -- as a top-10 team. It was a season to remind us how reliably good this program has become.
Michigan (10-2): B+. The Wolverines were only a few inches and points away from this being so much more. They beat Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Colorado. They beat Rutgers 78-0 in the most lopsided game of the season. They also lost to Ohio State in double-OT and lost at Iowa on a field goal. They played some of the best defense in the country, and they frequently dominated inferior opponents. Ultimately, though, the Wolverines ended up finishing third in the Big Ten East standings and came up short in November against the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes. The Orange Bowl is a nice consolation, especially given how often the program has struggled over the past decade, but with a veteran-heavy roster, this will feel like a bit of a missed opportunity as Michigan has to watch as Ohio State heads to another playoff and continues its rivalry dominance, even if this year's game couldn't have been closer. The good news? Michigan is back on even footing with the Buckeyes and has regained its national stature under Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines aren't going to recede from the spotlight.
Minnesota (8-4): B. Let's say that this grade reflects only the results of the regular season. As of Thursday night, it was unclear if the Golden Gophers will even play in the Holiday Bowl after the entire team decided to boycott football activities following the suspension of 10 players. On the field, with a short contract and a new athletic director, Tracy Claeys did what he needed to do in his first full season as Minnesota's head coach. The Golden Gophers went 8-4 and were competitive all year, earning Claeys a contract extension behind what's been a stellar defense. The wins aren't exactly impressive, given that the Golden Gophers avoided Ohio State and Michigan and beat Oregon State, Indiana State, Colorado State, Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern. But they kept three of their losses -- Penn State, Iowa and Nebraska -- within one score and survived the season with a limited passing attack ranked 109th in passer rating with eight TDs and 12 INTs. It was a fairly unmemorable season in which Minnesota beat who it's supposed to beat and lost to it's supposed to lose to, but a third eight-win season in four years shouldn't be taken for granted.
Nebraska (9-3): B. And we're back to the new Nebraska normal. Mike Riley's first season felt like a disaster, with a 6-7 record thanks to a series of close losses. This year, the Cornhuskers bounced back to where they were under Bo Pelini, or possibly a little bit better. Pelini lost exactly four games six years in a row before being fired at the end of a 9-3 regular season, and Riley can avoid four losses if Nebraska beats Tennessee in the Music City Bowl. The Huskers rose as high as seventh in the AP poll against a weak first-half schedule -- the Oregon game wasn't as big as hoped -- but they lost by six at Wisconsin and were blown out 62-3 at Ohio State and 40-10 at Iowa. The bowl teams they beat were Wyoming, Northwestern, Indiana and Minnesota, so this season hasn't been particularly noteworthy. It's just another solid but unspectacular year for a Nebraska program that isn't the national power that it once was.
Indiana (6-6): B. Getting to a bowl game is a lot easier than it used to be, with 40 bowls offering 80 slots to the 128 FBS teams, with six wins not even required in some cases. So that should be acknowledged when celebrating back-to-back Indiana bowl bids for the first time since 1990-91 -- especially when the Hoosiers beat zero teams with a winning record (FIU, Ball State, Michigan State, Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue). A postseason trip is nevertheless always a noteworthy accomplishment for the Hoosiers, who will meet Utah in the Foster Farms Bowl under new coach Tom Allen. Allen unexpectedly replaced Kevin Wilson, who was fired for reasons not having to do with wins and losses. In his one season as defensive coordinator, Allen turned around a struggling Indiana defense that has regularly been in the 90s or worse in yards per play allowed. This year, while the Hoosiers offense regressed, the defense ranked 23rd in yards per play allowed, allowing the team to win six games despite a turnover problem. A win in the bowl game would allow Indiana to finish with a winning record for only the second time since 1994.
Iowa (8-4): B-. There was no way for Iowa's 2016 season to measure up to what improbably happened last year, when the Hawkeyes caught fire and went 12-0 in the regular season, earning a Rose Bowl bid after coming up just short of a Big Ten championship against Michigan State. Iowa entered this season ranked No. 17 in the AP poll, but any hopes of repeating last year were quickly dismissed when the Hawkeyes lost at home to FCS power North Dakota State. C.J. Beathard and the passing game didn't take the step forward that was hoped, and the season looked like it might be a disaster when the Hawkeyes were blown out at Penn State. Instead, Iowa engineered a late-season turnaround behind RBs Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels, stunning Michigan with an upset, shutting out Illinois and blowing out Nebraska in the final three games to earn a trip to the Outback Bowl against Florida. Given the low moments, the strong finish can make this season feel relatively satisfying, even if the final result is a bit of a letdown.
Northwestern (6-6): C+. Last year, Northwestern won 10 games despite huge problems on offense, as the defense carried it to a surprise season. This year, the Wildcats are lucky to be bowling with the help of an improved offense led by breakout WR Austin Carr. The offense is still only 91st in scoring, but the Wildcats got enough improvement to win key road games at Iowa and Michigan State and survive early losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State (by the ugly score of 9-7). Northwestern was due for some regression after last year, but back-to-back bowl trips after back-to-back 5-7 seasons feels like a relative success, at least, with a trip to the Pinstripe Bowl to face Pitt on tap.
Maryland (6-6): C+. Given that he inherited a 3-9 team, getting to a bowl game in his first season is a modest success for new coach D.J. Durkin. Of course, a Quick Lane Bowl bid against 6-6 Boston College is a fitting end to a season that features a rather flimsy resume: wins over Howard, FIU, UCF, Purdue, Michigan State and Rutgers. UCF, who is 6-6, is the only FBS team Maryland beat that has more than four wins, and the Terps were humiliated by stronger opponents: 38-14 at Penn State, 59-3 at Michigan, 62-3 vs. Ohio State, 28-7 at Nebraska. Maryland had a few strong rushing performances, but otherwise it was a mediocre season that doesn't say much about where the program is heading in a division in which the competition is difficult.
Purdue (3-9): D-. It feels sort of strange that Darrell Hazell was fired when Purdue actually had a 3-3 record -- a first half that accounted for one-third of his wins in three and a half seasons. Hazell was fired, an inevitable fate, following a loss to Iowa, and the Boilermakers failed to win the rest of the season. They beat Eastern Kentucky, Nevada and Illinois, giving them a total of nine wins in four years and three conference wins since firing Danny Hope. It was more of the same, as the Boilermakers stayed within single digits in only one (Indiana) of their nine losses and let a handful of decent starts turn into blowouts, ultimately finishing 100th in scoring and 117th in scoring defense. The only silver lining is that all eight Big Ten losses came to teams playing in bowl games.
Illinois (3-9): D-. Excitement for the start of the Lovie Smith era was tempered pretty quickly. The Fighting Illini lost to North Carolina, Western Michigan and Nebraska by double digits early, then saw the season spiral out of control with an overtime loss to Purdue. The Illini ultimately beat Murray State and two Big Ten teams with a combined five wins, Michigan State and Rutgers, and the eight non-Purdue losses were each by at least 15 points. Illinois wasn't particularly competitive, scoring a total of 37 points against Western Michigan, Nebraska, Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska. With WR Mikey Dudek out again, the offense lacked explosiveness and finished 127th in third-down conversions, a recipe for disaster. According to Sports-Reference's Simple Rating System, this Illinois team ranks 117th out of 125 major teams In school history. At least they beat Rutgers.
Michigan State (3-9): F. It was reasonable to believe that Michigan State would take a step back this year. After three straight top-six finishes and two Big Ten titles, the Spartans lost many of their core players. Last year's team was great, but it also won a lot of close games before getting demolished by Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. However, 3-9 would have sounded incomprehensible. The Spartans collapsed, getting worse seemingly across the board to finish with only three wins for the first time in 25 years. The disastrous season ended a streak of nine straight bowl bids under Mark Dantonio, who had led the team to a 36-5 record the previous three years. Michigan State began the season with wins over Furman and Notre Dame (who also collapsed), then lost nine of its final 10 games, beating Rutgers but losing to teams like Illinois, Maryland and Indiana. The only thing that could have given Michigan State something to be happy about would have been a win over Ohio State, but the Spartans fell a two-point conversion short and lost by one. A season after nearly everything broke the right away, just about everything broke wrong.
Rutgers (2-10): F. The high point of this season was a 37-28 win over New Mexico in Week 3. After that, this season was a complete disaster against a difficult schedule that featured two playoff teams and two others playing in major bowls. In Chris Ash's first season as head coach, Rutgers went 0-9 in the Big Ten. It lost to Michigan 78-0 in a game in which it had 39 total yards and no first downs until the first quarter. That was merely the worst game of a horrifying run of Big Ten games: Rutgers lost to Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State (who finished 3-9) by a total score of 224-0 and was outgained 2,258 total yards to 382 in those four games. Rutgers was held to one or zero touchdowns in seven of 12 games. It was held under 50 passing yards four times. It is 128th in yards per play on offense and 112th on defense. This season felt every bit as bad as 2002 or 1999 or 1997 or countless other seasons in which the Scarlet Knights were one of the worst teams in the country.
BIG TEN OVERALL GRADE: A. Yes, the bottom of the conference is ugly, with horrendous season for Rutgers, Illinois and Purdue and a bizarre collapse by Michigan State. Still, the Big Ten has regained the respect it lost over the past decade, with four teams in the playoff conversation in the final weeks of the season: Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin. All four teams earned bids to major bowl games, and they occupy four of the top eight spots in the final College Football Playoff rankings. From top to bottom, the Big Ten might not be the strongest conference, but nobody has had a better year at the top.
Sports on Earth All-Big Ten Team
QB: Trace McSorley, Penn State
RB: Saquon Barkley, Penn State
RB: Corey Clement, Wisconsin
WR: Austin Carr, Northwestern
WR: Amara Darboh, Michigan
TE: Jake Butt, Michigan
OL: Pat Elflein, Ohio State
OL: Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin
OL: Erik Magnuson, Michigan
OL: Mason Cole, Michigan
OL: Dan Feeney, Indiana
DL: Taco Charlton, Michigan
DL: Jaleel Johnson, Iowa
DL: Ryan Glasgow, Michigan
DL: Tyquan Lewis, Ohio State
LB: T.J. Watt, Wisconsin
LB: Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
LB: Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State
DB: Jourdan Lewis, Michigan
DB: Desmond King, Iowa
DB: Malik Hooker, Ohio State
DB: Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State
K: Emmit Carpenter, Minnesota
P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State
AP: Curtis Samuel, Ohio State