After decades dreaming about it, years demanding it, and months arguing about it – the Playoff Era is finally here. As the #4 seed, Ohio State instantly proved the legitimacy of the new 4-team playoff by knocking off #1 Alabama and then #3 Oregon in the inaugural CFP Championship Game. We all saw the performances down the stretch, but the journey up to that point is nothing short of remarkable. Pegged as a preseason favorite to earn a Playoff bid, Ohio State lost its Heisman-caliber starting QB in August, lost in Week 2 and nearly dropped out of the polls. This coaching job by Urban Meyer goes down as one of the best ever, as he molded a freshman quarterback into a Heisman contender in 10 short weeks. But heading into the Big Ten Championship, injury struck again, and the 3rd string quarterback became the unlikely hero – leading the surging Buckeyes to three monumental wins: 59-0 over #11 Wisconsin, 42-35 over #1 Alabama, and of course 42-20 over #3 Oregon for the program’s 8th National Title.
How’s that for a storybook season?
The scary part is that many felt that the 2014 team was the precursor to an even better 2015 - the ‘next year is the year’ mentality. Well, considering how that team grew stronger with every game and every quarter…how can you NOT place Ohio State as the overwhelming favorites to defend their title?
Meyer, who has shown year after year that he is the most masterful motivator in the sport, has banned the team from using that very phrase: “defend the title.” Meyer says they aren’t defending anything, put the rings away, and go chase the 2015 Playoffs. It’s that forward thinking and motivational talent that helped him rally the 2012 team to an undefeated season (despite no postseason dreams), and to refocus the 2014 team through TWO starting quarterback injuries en route to the crystal football trophy.
You can put away all that talk about Michigan State being Michigan’s “little brothers.” Besides the 2012 down year when the program was catching its breath, the 5-year stretch includes a 46-8 record and 4 victories over Michigan. And those wins weren’t even close, as none of them were within two touchdowns. Mark Dantonio has excelled at player development and has a knack for turning 3-star recruits into All-Americans and draft picks. This season, the uniforms will don a commemorative patch that signifies the combined 24-3 record of 2013 and 2014, plus the two major bowl victories in the Rose and Cotton. Connor Cook was the quarterback in control of that entire patch; he and Shilique Calhoun both turned the NFL Draft despite 1st round forecasts. There is unfinished business here to attend to. Michigan State ruined Ohio State’s season in the 2013 Big Ten Championship, but the Buckeyes returned the favor last November. All signs are pointing towards the Week 12 showdown to determine who wins the East Division and likely who will represent the league in the College Football Playoff. That’s where the program’s sights are set, and there is legit reason for that high target. Dantonio has already done an excellent job here, but that ultimate prize of a national championship is within striking distance.
Scandal struck Happy Valley in November of 2011, and over the following offseason the NCAA dropped the hammer on Penn State. With crippling scholarship reductions and a 4-year bowl ban, I correctly called for drops in the win column every year since. Heading into Year 4 post-meltdown, the program is in a high place no one – not even the State College locals, could have ever imagined. Bill O’Brien calmed the storm in his 2-year recovery here, then handed the keys over to Central Pennsylvanian James Franklin who did the unthinkable at lowly Vanderbilt: win football games. Then, in September last season, the NCAA lifted the bowl ban and vastly reduced the sanctions. And despite another regular season step back in the win column, it is almost as if a dark cloud has been removed from above Beaver Stadium. The proverbial sun may actually be shining through this fall, as optimism is running high around the program, and for good reason.
Unless you live under a rock or prefer the other kind of futbol, you are well aware of Michigan’s new head coach. Jim Harbaugh returns to Ann Arbor after quarterbacking the 1986 and 1987 teams to top ten finishes. He brings with him a trademark high-intensity and a penchant for getting the most out of his teams. This seems to be a complete shift of gears from Brady Hoke, who continually squandered high recruiting talent and saw the win total decrease in each of his 4 seasons here. Much help is needed on offense, a unit that finished towards the bottom in every category. While transition years are expected through coaching changes, any amount of “rebuilding” will be forgiven by a win on November 28th against “Ohio.” The Buckeyes have dominated the series by winning 12 of 14 since 2001, but the long list of comparisons to the great upset of 1969 is certainly eye-catching.
The 1869 National Champs are fresh off their 10th bowl appearance all-time and 9th since 2005. The Scarlet Knights competed in the Big East from 1991 until 2012 when the league was poached by conference realignment and resurfaced as the American (AAC). After just one season there, Rutgers shocked many and joined the Midwestern-based Big Ten with Maryland. Many are calling out the Big Ten for its talent imbalance between the East and West Divisions. While these things are cyclical and nature (take a look at the early-2000s Big 12, and late-1990s SEC), there is no avoiding that 4 powerhouse football brands (Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Michigan State) outnumber the 2 in the West (Nebraska, Wisconsin). Rutgers finds itself entrenched in one of the most loaded divisions in football, but exceeded expectations in their 2014 debut. Picked last unanimously, Rutgers rallied for 3 league wins including a win over Michigan and a near-upset over Penn State. That 3-point loss in mid-September will look to be avenged this season. Despite the all-time series deficit (2-23), this has the makings of a heated rivalry between the border states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. As much as holier-than-thou Penn State fans will attempt to ignore it, this series is gaining momentum, especially with the recruiting battles taking place in the fertile grounds of North Jersey and Southeastern PA, and head coach Kyle Flood’s repeated emphasis on locking down the state borders. Taking a card out of the Woody Hayes playbook, Flood refuses to call PSU by name, and only refers to them as “that team from Pennsylvania.” Besides the much-anticipated primetime rematch, Rutgers has reason for optimism to return to its 5th consecutive bowl game, even if the overall win total isn’t matched.
2007 is Indiana’s most recent winning season and bowl appearance, and the only since the year this senior class was born (1994). After 9 years coaching at Oklahoma, Kevin Wilson took over as head coach here in 2011. His first and second seasons were labeled as rebuilding/transitional years and the 2013 and 2014 teams were veteran-filled. Those were supposed to be the breakthrough years, each with 17 starters returning that featured a dynamic duo of quarterbacks and a speedy tailback. Each season featured an important win for the program. 2013 saw Indiana not just upset, but thoroughly dominate PSU, winning 44-24 for the first time in school history after losing the first 16 in the series. Then in 2014, they knocked off eventual SEC Eastern Division champs #18 Missouri, the first win over a top 20 opponent since 2006. Yes, these were the high points of the Wilson era, and should not be underappreciated. But both of these seasons failed to return the program to bowl season, finishing 5-7 and then 4-8. There is reason to believe that the Hoosiers can climb out of the division basement and reach that elusive 6-win total here in Wilson’s 5th season.
At the beginning of his decade at the helm, Ralph Friedgen brought the school its first double-digit win season since 1976, and then proceeded to continue the trend in his second and third seasons. After that gilded stretch, results were more inconsistent, and he was eventually let go after the 2010 season despite winning 9 games and the ACC Coach of the Year Award for a second time. His successor, Randy Edsall, has had to deal with a hefty amount of injuries and a change no one saw coming: a move to the Big Ten. Maryland is as ACC as it gets. UM was a founding member and over the course of 62 years built tradition-filled rivalries, most notably UVA in football and Duke on the hardwood. In their inaugural season in the Midwest-centered Big Ten, the Terps exceeded expectations and were two 3-point finishes away from a 9-win regular season. To come into a new conference and beat classic brands such as Michigan, Iowa, and Penn State certainly sent shockwaves through the league. That last one was especially important for regional bragging rights, and was important to back up their brash actions in the captains circle before kickoff. Taking a page out of the 1980s Miami playbook, Maryland players refused to shake hands with Penn State – this coming from a program that was just 1-35 against the Nittany Lions. The 20-19 win in Happy Valley was a big one for the program, to say the least. But now moving into year two, a dozen starters depart, and last year’s 3rd place finish in the talented Big Ten East seems like an even higher mark to match.