Erickson: Newfound parity benefiting Big Ten
The Big Ten could not have asked for a better season under its new format with multiple upsets, primetime games and a budding rivalry between two revenge-minded teams who are set up for the rematch of the year.But before either Michigan State or Wisconsin even clinched their respective divisions, an unprecedented sense of parity in the conference throughout the course of the season became apparent. And it’s a good thing.Only two teams in the conference finished below .500. Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin all finished with a 10-2 record. Nebraska and Penn State finished at 9-3, while Iowa was the lone 7-5. Indiana and Minnesota rounded out the bottom-feeders at 1-11 and 3-9, respectively, while everyone else (Northwestern, Purdue, Ohio State and Illinois) finished at 6-6.At some point this season, every team beat at least one other conference team, with the exception of Indiana.Before the season started, two things seemed clear: Wisconsin and Nebraska were going to control the battle for the conference title, and Minnesota was going to be the sad, forgotten, red-headed step-child of the Big Ten.But once the season was underway, it was clear Nebraska was not quite the hard-hitting, dominating team everyone expected, Wisconsin had special teams issues and was easily foiled twice by a Hail Mary pass, and Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill could do more with a riff-raff team than anyone thought possible.No one expected the Big Ten race to be as close as it was and still is.While Michigan State was still expected to be one of the conference’s best and few but The Badger Herald’s own sports editor Mike Fiammetta expected the Spartans to win the Legends Division. Even I had my doubts.Questions surrounded the Badgers’ offense as to whether transfer quarterback Russell Wilson knew the playbook well enough, but before long, much of the nation was touting Wisconsin as a potential national championship team.Analysts expected Nebraska to seamlessly transfer into its new conference and instantly dominate. Before anyone knew it, the Big Ten race was frighteningly closer than anyone imagined.After toppling the Badgers, the Spartans could not recreate their offensive magic after devastating Wisconsin as they fell to Nebraska the following week. Wisconsin allowed blocked punts in back-to-back games, leading to their demise twice over. After opening conference play at Camp Randall Stadium, Nebraska gave up a huge upset at home to Northwestern.And while the expected frontrunners struggled, the middle-of-the-road squads came up with key wins to keep things interesting.Lowly Purdue took care of business at home and outplayed Ohio State in overtime for a 26-23 win.Michigan surprised everyone, handing Nebraska and Ohio State a loss each.Defensive-minded Penn State outplayed Ohio State in the Horseshoe and even had a chance at a birth into the conference title game.But all of this is a good thing.Having two or three teams control a conference doesn’t bode well for the entertainment value of games. Sure, it’s fun to see your team win week in and week out, but constantly winning against a lack of competition does not say much for a team.This new level of competition – or rising level – that developed this season only indicates a stronger Big Ten conference next year.While individual teams are currently not all that strong, if they keep trying to work up to the level of the leading squads, forcing those upsets, the conference overall will get more competitive.The Big Ten has already started to move in that direction this year with the amount of upsets and progress that took place. Now more teams need to be more formidable than simply resting at .500.Kelly is a junior majoring in journalism. Were you surprised by this year’s Big Ten conference play? Let her know at [email protected] or tweet her @kellymerickson.