The Big Ten entered the bowl season battered from a brutal decade.
How bad was it?
Michigan’s sworn enemies, Michigan State and Ohio State, had given up hating the Wolverines.
What was the point?
The Spartans and the Buckeyes could barely remember the last time the Wolverines had the upper hand. They no longer felt animosity, but pity – and frustration that the Wolverines weren’t keeping up their end of the deal.
In the previous ten years, Big Ten teams had lost two-thirds of their bowl games. For the third time in seven years, Michigan didn’t even qualify for a bowl. And the coming bowl season looked even worse. Ten conference teams qualified for bowl games -- and all ten were expected to lose.
The Big Ten’s best team, Ohio State, appeared to be in the greatest danger of getting crushed – but not a year ago.
Since Urban Meyer took over in 2012, the Buckeyes had won 24 straight regular season games. Their returning quarterback, Braxton Miller, was a top prospect for the Heisman Trophy. But in the off-season, Miller injured his shoulder, knocking him out for the season.
Urban Meyer replaced Miller with J.T. Barrett – who lost their second game. But they stuck with him, and coached him up so well that he became a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Miller won nine straight games. Against Michigan, after Miller scored to give Ohio State a 21-14 lead, he broke his ankle. Meyer put in his third string quarterback, Cardale Jones, who finished the job.
But the Buckeyes’ chances to get into the first college football playoff looked very slim. Only four teams would make it, and Ohio State ranked fifth. With a third-string quarterback, the odds makers figured the Buckeyes wouldn’t even get past Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.
Well, they did – squeaking by the Badgers with a 59-0 win. Yes, 59-0.
That blow-out catapulted the Buckeyes into the fourth and final playoff spot. Alas, that also meant they’d be facing perennial juggernaut Alabama, which had won three of the past five national titles.
Well, once again, Urban Meyer pulled off a minor miracle, beating top-ranked Alabama to get a title shot against second-ranked Oregon.
Ohio State was still the underdog, from an underdog conference. But the Buckeyes’ Big Ten brothers had already done surprisingly well in the bowls. Penn State won in overtime, Wisconsin beat a ranked Auburn team, and Michigan State came back from 20 points down in the fourth quarter to beat Baylor -- one of the best bowl games I’ve ever seen.
The Big Ten stood at 5-and-5. Not bad for a league expected to lose every single game. But surely the Big Ten’s luck would stop with the Bucks, and their third string quarterback.
The Big Ten was so desperate for respect, most Spartans and Wolverines I know were actually pulling for Ohio State. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
The experts were wrong again: third stringer Cardale Jones led the Bucks past the Ducks, 42-20.
Against all odds, Ohio State had claimed the national title. Many are calling Urban Meyer the best coach in the country.
Two weeks ago, the Big Ten was the scrawny wimp getting sand kicked in his face. Two weeks later, it’s become the kind of guy who watches somebody else get sand kicked in his face. Well, that’s progress.
Who knows? With Ohio State and Michigan State in the top five, Penn State on the rise, and Michigan’s favorite son, Jim Harbaugh, back in Ann Arbor, the Big Ten East could become college football’s toughest division.
Crazy? Maybe. But stranger things have happened. Just ask Cardale Jones – the national champion third string quarterback.