It would be nice if we never had to hear the Bo Pelini – Nick Saban comparison stat ever again. The one about how they are the only coaches to have won 9+ games in each of the last 7 seasons. While factually correct at face value, there was a whole other darkside to the stat regarding Nebraska’s former head coach. To outsiders, Nebraska seemed foolish to have fired a consistent winner, and their rabid fan base looked insatiable. Yes, the mid-1990s will probably never be repeated here. Heck, they probably wont be repeated anywhere. It was a run that saw a stoic leader bring his program to a 5-year pinnacle that featured a 60-3 record, three national championships, and a field goal short of a fourth.
While no one is expecting consecutive national championships led by a reincarnated Tommie Frazier, the fans do expect a hard-nosed team to compete for conference titles, to join the national playoff discussion occasionally, and to go toe-to-toe with the other top Big Ten brands on Signing Day. They also expect for their head coach, the highest paid state employee, to conduct himself professionally and to NOT push away their unmatched loyalty with profanity-laced tirades. That’s all.
So yes, the Pelini era featured a string of 9 and 10-win seasons, but was also littered with defensive collapses on the national scale that became too much to regularly stomach. The distracting and unprofessional behavior from Bo just made the blowout losses feel worse. Enter Mike Riley, who is virtually the exact opposite of Pelini. The mild-mannered veteran brings most of his staff from Oregon State, where they have countless years of experience together, and a penchant for making more from less.
What is the takeaway from the 2014 Wisconsin football season? It opened with a loss to LSU in a game that Wisconsin had in control until a late Melvin Gordon injury shifted the momentum. The Badgers inexplicably dropped a game at Northwestern, and then dropped out of the top 25 rankings. But then Melvin Gordon kept churning into the record books setting the single-game record (408 yards) against Nebraska, and nearly setting the single season rushing record (2587 yards). That specific game was an absolute blowout, as the Badgers ripped apart the Huskers (again) 59-24. But then Wisconsin was on the other end of destruction in the Big Ten Championship when the Playoff-hungry Buckeyes played a perfect game, winning 59-0. These severe ups and downs came and went throughout the season, but nothing was as shocking as the news that Gary Andersen was heading to Oregon State after just 2 seasons here. Apparently players were laughing when they first heard the news because it was so unbelievable that it had to be a practical joke. Well, it was no April Fools. Andersen is gone, and Paul Chryst returns to Madison where he quarterbacked from 1986 to 1988 and coached from 2005 to 2011. Can he keep this rushing machine churning?
During his decade-long era from 1997-2006, Glen Mason brought Minnesota to 7 bowl games. But the ensuing Tim Brewster years (17-33 overall record) were disastrous and Jerry Kill was brought in to pick up the pieces. That’s just what he has done, with steady improvement over the last 4 seasons culminating with a New Year’s Day bowl – the program’s first since the back-to-back Rose Bowls in 1961 and 1962. His staff has an incredible 140 years of combined coaching years together, and is perhaps the most intact coaching staff in the land. Kill has his team playing at an extremely high level of physicality, and has them pushing around traditional big-name powers. The 2014 team played well against rivals, and fittingly, Minnesota now holds four of their five rivalry trophies. But this squad still has its sights set on two additional trophies: Paul Bunyan’s Ax (Wisconsin 11 years straight) and the Big Ten Championship Trophy. Despite losing some star power, both goals are at least possibilities for the first time since the mid-2000s.
Kirk Ferentz is by far the longest tenured coach in the Big Ten, has produced 11 winning seasons to just 4 losing years, and basically should’ve taken out a timeshare in Florida for his nearly-annual New Year’s Day bowl game there. All these accomplishments yet his seat is one of the warmest in the league, mostly due to stale on-field production since the Orange Bowl team of 2009. No question, Ferentz has been amazing for the program, but fans are building unrest and may start to ponder a change. Yes, Iowa went 7-5 in the regular season and 4 of those losses were by a score or less. But losses to every rival – Iowa State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska – has left a sour after-taste. The Hawkeyes need a very productive fall camp to get up to speed with the division favorites.
Five straight bowl seasons culminated in 2012 with a 10-3 campaign that coach Pat Fitzgerald claims was five minutes away from being 13-0. Back-to-back 5-7 seasons since, have tempered expectations heading into the 10th season of the Fitz era. This time last preseason, Northwestern found itself in the center of the player unionization movement that involves paying student athletes. While this isn’t the time or place to discuss that mess, let’s just say that it caused quite the preseason distraction. This offseason has been more focused on actual football and the drive to return to the postseason. Before the 2014 season, if you would have said that the ‘Cats would have defeated Penn State, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame, I would have assumed we were discussing a 10-win team and potential division champ. Those high points weren’t enough to mask ugly losses to Northern Illinois, Iowa, Cal, Illinois, and a 10-9 heartbreaker against Michigan. This inconsistency makes Northwestern a challenging team to evaluate heading into 2015.
Since Juice Williams, Rashard Mendenhall & co. invaded the Horseshoe and knocked off #1 Ohio State in 2007, the Illinois program is just 35-54. Tim Beckman took over the helm in 2012 and has seen steady improvements each season, topped off with a bowl appearance last season. Despite 15 starters returning, the tough schedule and question marks on both lines make a return trip to bowl season seem even tougher. For the 2-win increase to continue, Illinois will have to pull some upsets, yet all possibilities are on the road. The rebuild pattern may slow this season, but there is still legitimate reason for bowl season optimism.
Purdue has always been known for displaying the “World’s Largest Drum” on fall Saturdays, but in his 3rd season, coach Darrell Hazell may be facing the “World’s Largest Rebuilding Project.” He has been a part of successful teams at Ohio State with Jim Tressel (2005-2010) and even turned around Kent State in just two years. After a 1-11 season that was statistically one of the worst in league history, Purdue made some improvements to finish 3-9 last season. For how historically bad the ’13 Boilermakers were, history has shown that rough first seasons can lead to successful tenures. Rick Ferentz (1-10 in 1999), Barry Alvarez (1-10 in 1990), and Frank Beamer (2-9 in 1987) are all testimonials to the rebuilding ups and downs. While it was easy to quickly jump on Hazell after his opening season, there is room for cautious optimism – the guy clearly has a vision, a plan, and now some tangible progress to build off of in year 3.