It was a long, strange journey to this point. But the Big Ten managed to play football in 2020.
Some teams surprised. Others disappointed. And Ohio State once again stood above them all.
We take a look at the conference’s winners and losers following a year unlike any other:
There wasn’t a team in the Big Ten that had more incentive to play this season than Ohio State. With a stockpile of future NFL draft picks, Ohio State was again primed to make a run to the College Football Playoff. All the Buckeyes needed was an opportunity to play.
In the end, it really was as simple as that. The Big Ten cleared the path for the Buckeyes and accommodated them, bending their own rules to allow OSU to qualify for conference championship game despite their failure to meet the minimum requirement of six games. Ohio State weathered its own COVID-19 outbreak and cancellations to win its fourth consecutive league title and reach the CFP. The Buckeyes finished with a 6-0 record that included two victories over teams with winning records. Along the way, the Buckeyes reaffirmed their dominance over the conference, as their fiercest competitors went to bat for them in the weeks prior to the CFP selections.
This year only clarified the reality that this league has become the Big One and the Little 13.
There was some preseason belief that Indiana’s unexpected rise in 2019 was a fluke. After the Hoosiers won eight games for the first time since 1993 and coach Tom Allen’s staff was raided by other programs in the offseason, it seemed improbable that Indiana would continue along the same upward trajectory.
But Allen and Indiana defied expectations in 2020, finishing the regular season in the top 10 of the coaches' polls while beating Big Ten blue bloods Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. With a prolific offense and a ball-hawking defense that forced the most turnovers in the league, Indiana played an exciting brand of football that even pushed Ohio State to the brink of defeat.
Throughout it all, Allen’s profile was raised. He’s now the Big Ten Coach of the Year and is in the running for similar awards on the national level.
Michigan State and Rutgers
Yes, both Michigan State and Rutgers finished with losing records.
But they were disadvantaged from the beginning as they began transitions under new coaching regimes during a pandemic. Despite it all, the Spartans shocked their biggest rival and pulled off another stunning upset when they beat Northwestern. Rutgers, meanwhile, ended its 21-game conference losing streak and then won twice more as they emerged from the East division cellar.
The results, in many ways, were better than anticipated. But even more important than the victories was the opportunity for Mel Tucker and Greg Schiano to evaluate their programs. Had the season remained canceled, they wouldn’t have been able to assess their rosters and make the necessary adjustments this offseason.
In East Lansing, that process has already begun. Thirteen members of the team have entered the NCAA transfer portal since Nov. 16 while four players from other programs have committed to Michigan State. The turnover indicates Tucker is trying to reshape the program in his image.
That is the ultimate payoff of playing in 2020. The transition under Tucker is back on schedule. The wins were merely a bonus.
Just by looking at the field at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, it was hard to tell Ohio State and Northwestern were competing for the Big Ten title championship last weekend. Their school names weren’t painted in the end zones, and the local NFL team’s horseshoe logo remained at midfield. The whole presentation looked amateurish, which was fitting for a conference that bungled its handling of a five-week postponement and the rollout of a schedule that offered no flexibility for cancellations caused by COVID-19.
The league’s image began to erode from the summer onward, as the Big Ten faced a relentless wave of criticism from within its own ranks and outside them as well. Following the initial shutdown of fall sports in August, the backlash against the conference, included protests, a lawsuit and pressure from the president of the United States. Then the slew of games called off because of coronavirus outbreaks forced the league to change rules on the fly to accommodate its best team, Ohio State. The Buckeyes played only six games while each of the other participants in the CFP competed 11 times.
For the Big Ten, 2020 was a year it would like to forget. But for the foreseeable future, the conference will be haunted by its actions over the last five months.
Near the end of the season, Jim Harbaugh was asked if the struggle to get to this point was worth it.
He said it was. But the mere fact the question was asked revealed the state of a team in decline. The Wolverines finished with a 2-4 record, failing to take the field in their final three games because of COVID-19.
As the team suffered a string of humiliating losses to MSU, Indiana and Wisconsin, Harbaugh’s program was exposed. Attrition due to transfers and opts outs left the defense depleted and particularly vulnerable in the secondary. Shoddy quarterback play and bizarre coaching decisions undermined the offense. In all phases, the Wolverines lacked consistency — and in some instances — effort.
The poor results have cost defensive coordinator Don Brown his job and placed Harbaugh on shaky ground with his beloved alma mater: he’s on the cusp of entering the final year of his contract. Before this season, Harbaugh marched through the streets and campaigned to play.
Was it worth it?
Some suffering Michigan fans would say no.
Nebraska was hell-bent on competing this year.
When the Big Ten postponed the season in August, the Cornhuskers threatened to go rogue and arrange their own games.
A group of their players even filed a lawsuit, trying to get the league to reverse course.
When the conference did so five weeks after the initial shutdown, Nebraska complained about the difficulty of its new schedule.
All that whining didn’t yield much. Sure, the Cornhuskers got to play.
But they didn’t exactly play well.
For the fourth straight season, Nebraska finished with a losing record as the program’s descent from national power to also-ran continued.
Since Scott Frost returned to Lincoln to coach his alma mater, the Cornhuskers have gone 12-20 and signs of a turnaround have begun to fade. During the last four months, five scholarship players have entered the transfer portal. The latest to do so was offensive lineman Boe Wilson, a former All-Big Ten honorable mention selection who began the season as a starter.
The defeats on the field combined with the losses within the roster have made some wonder why Nebraska was so eager to play this year.
All the Cornhuskers did was affirm their status as a fallen program.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: 2020 Big Ten winners, losers: Michigan State benefited, Michigan didn't