Back on Aug. 26, I made an astute observation on how the Big Ten Championship Game was often red. But this season, I could see a spectrum of colors tinting the title.
Considering it’s Ohio State and Wisconsin meeting once again in Indianapolis on Saturday, I — along with most of the conference pundits — was wrong.
And not just about the East and West winners. I whiffed on basically everything. Of the 14 teams, I correctly chose Iowa at third in the West and Rutgers last in the East. That’s it. I said Michigan would finally overcome Ohio State (…), and Nebraska was on the rise (!!!).
Heck, the headline on that story: “Atop the Big Ten, big change is taking shape this football season.” The whole premise was with a wide-open West and transitional Ohio State, new contenders could emerge.
Mmm, not quite. Ohio State is making its fifth championship appearance and Wisconsin its sixth. This will be the third time these teams have met in the game. Wisconsin had its hiccups, a close loss to better-than-expected Illinois and a blowout at Ohio State. But when it mattered, the Badgers put the hurt on the Gophers to make the Big Ten Championship Game.
And it turns out Ohio State’s abundance of talent smoothed the way for first-year coach Ryan Day, who led the Buckeyes to a perfect No. 1 season and shoo-in College Football Playoff appearance.
But that T-word actually irks Day. He said his team is much more than just talent. It has leadership, toughness, chemistry and more.
“Coming into the season, they didn’t think much of us,” Day told reporters earlier this week. “… A lot of people say they’re very talented. If they’re that talented, why didn’t you pick us that way early in the season? These guys deserve, in my opinion, a lot of credit for what they’ve done this season. Retooled the whole defense, retooled an offensive line, had a quarterback who never had a college start walking into the season. Right now we’re undefeated going to play for the whole thing.”
Analysts who craved some shake-ups overestimated Nebraska (5-7), Michigan State (6-6) and Northwestern (3-9) and overlooked Illinois (6-6), Indiana (8-4) and the Gophers (10-2). But in the end, those all culminated in the same results the conference has seen for years. Ohio State almost certainly will win Saturday, maintaining the East’s dominance since geographical divisions began in 2014.
The Gophers, in a way, encapsulate this Big Ten season. While they accomplished their best result in decades — seven conference victories for the first time and the first 10-win regular season since 1905 — they dropped the ones that mattered most: rivalry games to Iowa and Wisconsin in November that ultimately foiled their conference hopes.
But coach P.J. Fleck has tried to stress the success amid that disappointment. Technically, the Gophers finished with the same record as the Badgers and thus a share of the Big Ten West title, a somewhat hollow reward when the Rose Bowl was within reach.
But just look back at what the Gophers’ preseason expectations were.
“This isn’t like we hope to be [good one day]. We are going to be that,” Fleck said after the Wisconsin loss. “… People picked us sixth in the West, don’t forget. Sixth. That’s 12 out of 14. [And we] tied for first in the West.”
For the record, I picked the Gophers fifth. But there’s always next year — for teams not named Wisconsin or Ohio State as well as my prognostications.
Megan Ryan covers the Gophers and college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @theothermegryan E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org