There are 39 bowl games plus a national championship this year, but with the college football regular season finished, let's take stock of the regular season, conference by conference, with league awards and grades for every Power Five team. The series already covered the ACC. We continue with the Big Ten.
Offensive Player of the Year: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State. Barkley's rushing numbers didn't end up being eye-popping -- 119 carries for 1,134 yards and 16 TDs -- but nobody in the Big Ten made a bigger impact. That's because defenses focused so much energy trying to slow Barkley down, against a vulnerable Penn State O-line, and also because Barkley impacted the game in so many ways. On top of that rushing production, Barkley caught 47 passes for 594 yards and three TDs, threw a TD pass and averaged 28.4 yards per kick return with two TDs. He's second nationally in all-purpose yards and seventh in yards from scrimmage per game. Nobody has a more impressive highlight reel or did more memorable things on a football field this season.
Defensive Player of the Year: Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa. Linebacker Josey Jewell is the biggest name on the Iowa defense, and he's worthy of all the praise; he had an All-America season, too. But with 2015 Thorpe Award winner Desmond King gone, Jackson stepped up as an ace cornerback in his first season starting as a junior. Iowa has allowed only 5.9 yards per pass attempt as a team, and Jackson has played the biggest part in that, as he racked up 18 pass breakups, seven interceptions and two pick-sixes. He had three interceptions in the blowout win over Ohio State alone.
Coach of the Year: Paul Chryst, Wisconsin. Sure, Wisconsin had a favorable schedule, but it took advantage of that favorable schedule. Despite losing another defensive coordinator (new Cal coach Justin Wilcox) and despite losing star LB Jack Cichy to a preseason injury, Wisconsin marched through the Big Ten regular season undefeated, going a perfect 12-0 before a Big Ten title loss to Ohio State ended its playoff push. The championship game was disappointing, but Wisconsin is going to the Orange Bowl and has gone from 10 to 11 to 12 wins in Chryst's three seasons. The Badgers have achieved remarkable stability in on-field results despite coaching turnover, and a win over Miami in the Orange Bowl would give Wisconsin a school-record 13 wins.
Freshman of the Year: Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin. The Badgers' running game took a step back after the departure of Melvin Gordon, but the rebound is just about complete: As a true freshman, Taylor got nine carries in the opener, then took control of the starting tailback job with 223 yards in Week 2 against Florida Atlantic. From there, Taylor racked up big game after big game, ultimately running 273 times for 1,847 yards and 13 TDs, with an average of 6.8 yards per carry. He had over 200 yards in three of his first six games.
How successful should this season be viewed by each team? Grades for each team's season reflect 2017 achievements within the context of program history and expectations.
Wisconsin (12-1): A. Yes, the Badgers fell short of the playoff, and they fell short of what would have been a fourth Big Ten championship this decade. No, they didn't have many marquee wins. But it still can't help be viewed as anything but a resounding success and one of the best seasons in Wisconsin history. The Badgers went 12-0 in the regular season, played great defense under first-year coordinator Jim Leonhard and got back to what they do best by overpowering teams in the running game. They shut out Minnesota for their 14th straight win in that rivalry, they beat Michigan by 14, they crushed Iowa and Nebraska and they lost by only six to Ohio State in the conference title game. Now, they're rewarded with their first Orange Bowl trip ever.
Purdue (6-6): A-: This season represented exactly what Purdue should have wanted in Year 1 under Jeff Brohm: The Boilermakers doubled their 2016 win total, going 6-6 to make a bowl for the first time since 2012. The defense was surprisingly better than the offense, but the offense showed signs of life -- and creativity -- that give it confidence moving forward. Most importantly, Brohm didn't leave for another job at the end of the regular season. After winning nine games in the past four years, Purdue made a leap to becoming competitive and pesky. It blew out Missouri on the road and also beat Iowa on the road, and it ended its regular season by beating rival Indiana for both the Old Oaken Bucket and a bowl bid. Purdue is a difficult job, and the football team has gone through some rough years. Brohm has ushered in renewed optimism.
Ohio State (11-2): B+. In some ways, Ohio State's season played out how it has wanted its seasons to play out, historically speaking: The Buckeyes beat Michigan, won the Big Ten championship and will meet the Pac-12 champion, USC, in a major bowl game. However, it won't be in the Rose Bowl, because the Rose is part of the playoff and Ohio State was left out. The Buckeyes occasionally looked as good as any team in the country, particularly in the second half of the comeback win over Penn State that put them on track to win the Big Ten title. But they also lost by 15 at home against Oklahoma and, worse, lost 55-24 at Iowa in a shocking blowout loss that ultimately cost them a playoff spot. Despite the 11-2 record and conference title, it was a weirdly inconsistent season for Ohio State, on the heels of the playoff shutout loss to Clemson last year. But 11-2 is 11-2, and Ohio State is likely going to finish in the top 10 for the 13th time in 16 years. Only Alabama has higher expectations on an annual basis, and this is still a team that ranks in the top 10 in yards per play on both offense and defense, has two wins over top-10 teams and beat its chief rival for the 13th time in 14 years.
Northwestern (9-3): B+. The season went far better than anyone could have thought in early October. Losses to Wisconsin and Penn State were excusable, but the Week 2 41-17 loss at Duke meant that the Wildcats started just 2-3. Little did anybody know that they'd run the table the rest of the regular season. Northwestern won seven in a row, including a run of three straight overtime victories against Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska, to get to 9-3 and end the regular season in the top 25. It finished in second place in the Big Ten West, three games ahead of third-place Iowa and Purdue. The defense has been stellar, again, and tailback Justin Jackson surpassed 1,000 yards on the ground for the fourth year in a row. A win over Kentucky in the Music City Bowl would give Northwestern three 10-win seasons in six years.
Michigan State (9-3): B+. Compared to much of this decade, 2017 was a step back. The Spartans are 9-3, but they won 11 games in 2010, '11 and '14, 12 games in 2015 and 13 in 2013. They finished in the top six of the AP poll three times in a row from 2013-15. Given that they rank 112th in yards per play, lost by 45 to Ohio State and 20 to Notre Dame and had five one-possession wins, it's not like this was a dominant team. But this really was a fantastic bounce-back season. Michigan State plummeted to 3-9 last year, and suddenly the Mark Dantonio era appeared to be heading in the wrong direction, especially with Michigan ascending under Jim Harbaugh. Instead, the Spartans won in Ann Arbor on Oct. 7, and they also won a rain-delayed game against playoff contender Penn State. There are issues to hash out on offense, but the defense made a recovery and double-digit wins are possible for the sixth time in eight years.
Penn State (10-2): B+. The heartbreaking nature of Penn State's losses make the season feel like more of a disappointment than it actually is. In the preseason, the most common predictions had Ohio State winning the Big Ten and Penn State going 10-2 with a major bowl trip. That's exactly what happened, and the two losses to the Buckeyes and Michigan State came by a total of four points. This team played at a high level all season and didn't have any embarrassing flops like Ohio State's loss at Iowa. It's just that, for a brief period on Oct. 28, Penn State felt on top of the world: It was undefeated and ranked No. 2. It had just blown out Michigan, and it led Ohio State by as many as 18 points in the first half. But the Lions' line play fell apart, and Ohio State played a perfect fourth quarter to storm back and win 39-38. A week later, Penn State's playoff dreams -- and Saquon Barkley's Heisman campaign -- ended with a lightning-delayed loss at Michigan State. This season wasn't far away from Penn State going to the playoff and Barkley winning the Heisman. Alas, it ends with Penn State going to the Fiesta Bowl and Barkley finishing fourth in the Heisman race. With all that said, the season looks better in the big picture: After three straight seven-win seasons, Penn State has won 19 of its past 22 games. It has won double-digit games in back-to-back seasons and is going to back-to-back major bowls for the first time since the start of the BCS era. It has nine blowout wins and held five teams to seven points or less. The midseason heartbreak doesn't take away from the big-picture rise under James Franklin the past couple seasons.
Iowa (7-5): B. Two things save this grade: Iowa beat rival Iowa State, and Iowa demolished Ohio State 55-24 in perhaps the most shocking game of the season. Low moments could drag this grade down, like finishing with 66 total yards in a loss to Wisconsin and losing by nine at Purdue, on top of heartbreaking close losses to Northwestern, Michigan State and Penn State, the latter of which happened on the final play. But Iowa also produced two defensive All-Americans (Josh Jackson, Josey Jewell) and humiliated Ohio State in a game that kept the Buckeyes out of the playoff. It's not necessarily been a memorable season -- a bowl win would put Iowa at 8-5, essentially the average Kirk Ferentz record -- but it did have some memorable moments. This will always be the season put up 55 on Urban Meyer's Big Ten championship team.
Michigan (8-4): C. This is what should have probably been expected in the first place, rather than the preseason AP No. 11 ranking that the Wolverines had. Yes, they returned plenty of talent, especially in the defensive front, but they said goodbye to 12 drafted players and returned just five starters, with significant questions on offense. This was always going to be a transition year, from a team made up of mostly veterans that Jim Harbaugh inherited from Brady Hoke's staff to developing the players that have made up Harbaugh's acclaimed recruiting classes. Still, even if a step back was reasonable to expect, the season couldn't help but feel frustrating. Michigan scored 10 points in a home loss to Michigan State, got blown out at Penn State and lost by double digits to Wisconsin and Ohio State. The defense was mostly excellent, but the offensive line is still a work-in-progress, the receiving corps was mostly young and, most importantly, quarterback has been an issue, with Wilton Speight (who was injured in September), John O'Korn and Brandon Peters all starting games. Michigan ranks 85th in scoring and 111th in passer rating, and the only bowl team it has beaten is 6-6 Purdue. The season has been entirely forgettable.
Maryland (4-8): C. The season started so promising: After going to a bowl in D.J. Durkin's first year as coach, the Terrapins traveled to Austin and spoiled the Texas debut of Tom Herman in a 51-41 win. Alas, Maryland beat only two FBS opponents the rest of the season and ended up going 4-8. It was partially due to bad luck: Opening day starting QB Tyrell Pigrome was lost for the season to an injury in the Texas game. Freshman Kasim Hill looked great replacing him, but he was lost for the season during a 38-10 loss to UCF on Sept. 23. That left the job in the hands of Max Bortenschlager, and the Terps ended up 109th in passer rating. Maryland won at Texas, but that wasn't its most difficult nonconference game, as it had to play a UCF team that ended up going undefeated. Maryland lost by 48 to Ohio State, 25 to Michigan, 63 to Penn State and 10 to Michigan State within its division, and it also drew Wisconsin and Northwestern, the top two teams in the Big Ten West. Bad injury luck at quarterback combined with one of the nation's most difficult schedules -- which included four major bowl teams -- made Year 2 for Durkin a losing battle that's difficult to fairly assess.
Indiana (5-7): C. Tom Allen has done a spectacular job with Indiana's defense in two years -- first as coordinator, then as head coach -- but the end result of his first season as the head coach felt like a totally average Indiana football season: 5-7 with an inability to get over the hump and close out a potential season-changing win. The Hoosiers beat Virginia, Georgia Southern, Charleston Southern, Illinois and Rutgers. Bowl eligibility was possible, but they lost by seven to Michigan, eight to Michigan State, three to Maryland and seven to Purdue. Flip any of those results, and the Hoosiers would have gone bowling for the third straight season. Instead, the offense fell to 115th in yards per play, and the Hoosiers finished with their 10th straight losing record.
Rutgers (4-8): C. Chris Ash's second season represented a step forward toward being competitive. In 2016, the Scarlet Knights went 2-10, didn't win a Big Ten game and lost to Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State by a total score of 224-0. This year, they still lost to those four schools by a total score of 166-27, but at least the gap between Rutgers and the rest of the conference decreased. The Scarlet Knights beat Illinois, Purdue and Maryland in conference play, allowing them to escape from the Big Ten basement. Still, between the blowout losses and a home loss to Eastern Michigan, 2017 showed that there's still a long way to go, particularly for an offense that ranks 128th in yards per play.
Minnesota (5-7): C. Minnesota had been on relatively solid ground, so a 5-7 record in P.J. Fleck's debut season is a mild disappointment, especially since the Golden Gophers avoided both Penn State and Ohio State. Still, Fleck stepped in as a culture-changer, a high-energy personality and high-energy recruiter who needs some transition time to put his own stamp on the program. There were some positive moments, including the 54-21 win over Nebraska, but the passing game proved to be a big problem, resulting in back-to-back shutout losses to Northwestern and Wisconsin to end the season. The Golden Gophers rank 119th in yards per play and 120th in passer rating, so substantial retooling and development is needed entering 2018 to make this team more efficient and more explosive on offense. But remember: Fleck inherited a 4-8 team at Western Michigan and went 1-11 in his debut before going 8-5, 8-5 and 13-1.
Illinois (2-10): D. In October, I put together midseason rankings of all 130 FBS teams in which I attempted to say something positive about everybody. For Illinois -- which was 2-4 at the time -- I asked for comment from colleague Will Leitch, a devoted Illini fan. His response was that Lovie Smith, in his second season, opted for a youth movement, choosing potential and development over experience in 2017. That 2-4 record became 2-10, and Illinois hopes that fans will continue to trust the process as the Illini attempt to build for down the road. On the field, the production couldn't help but be viewed unfavorably, no matter how young the team. Illinois ended the season on 10-game losing streak, went winless in the Big Ten and scored more than 17 points only once in nine conference games. The Illini weren't bad on defense, but they rank 124th in yards per play on offense and 126th in passer rating. Smith is now 5-19 overall and 2-16 in the Big Ten.
Nebraska (4-8): F. There's no way to sugarcoat it: This was the worst Nebraska football season in over half a century, worse than the two five-win seasons under Bill Callahan last decade. Mike Riley went 6-7 in his debut and 9-4 in his second year in 2016. This year, the Cornhuskers plummeted to 4-8. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst was fired following a home loss to Northern Illinois on Sept. 16; Riley's fate was all but sealed then, and he was eventually removed at the end of a season that featured the school's most losses since a 1-9 campaign in 1957. Nebraska ranks 117th in scoring defense, and it gave up at least 54 points in four of its final six games -- including against Minnesota, which scored a zero points in its two games after blowing out the Cornhuskers. Nebraska beat only Illinois, Rutgers and Purdue in Big Ten play, taking another step back in its ongoing quest to return to national relevance. New coach Scott Frost inherited a winless team at UCF, so at least this will be a step up from that.
Sports on Earth All-Big Ten Team
QB: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
RB: Saquon Barkley, Penn State
RB: Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin
WR: Stanley Morgan, Nebraska
WR: Simmie Cobbs, Indiana
TE: Mike Gesicki, Penn State
OL: Billy Price, Ohio State
OL: Beau Benzschawel, Wisconsin
OL: Jamarco Jones, Ohio State
OL: Michael Deiter, Wisconsin
OL: Sean Welsh, Iowa
DE: Nick Bosa, Ohio State
DE: Chase Winovich, Michigan
DT: Maurice Hurst, Michigan
LB: Josey Jewell, Iowa
LB: T.J. Edwards, Wisconsin
LB: Devin Bush, Michigan
LB: Tegray Scales, Indiana
CB: Josh Jackson, Iowa
CB: Denzel Ward, Ohio State
S: Marcus Allen, Penn State
S: Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern
K: Griffin Oakes, Indiana
P: Blake Gillikin, Penn State