What did each Big Ten team learn in 2015?

By Gabriel Baumgaertner
February 17, 2016

It’s been a little more than a month since Alabama celebrated its latest national championship inside University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., but that doesn’t mean it’s too soon to review the 2015 season. For the Crimson Tide, it was mostly smooth sailing, but other teams endured plenty of turbulence. Over the next week, SI.com will lay out the biggest lessons learned by each squad from the Power 5 conferences and explain how those lessons can be instructive for 2016. We've already covered the ACC and Big 12 and now turn to the Big Ten.

Illinois: Bill Cubit is admirably navigating a tough situation

Bill Cubit was put in an impossible position to start the 2015 season. Head coach Tim Beckman was fired a week before the season started, but Cubit led the Illini to a 4–1 start and to within one win of bowl eligibility. The athletic department, which reportedly hired Division III Washington University’s Josh Whitman as its director this week, only awarded Cubit a two-year extension and claimed the situation “wasn’t ideal,” but for such an insurmountable task, Cubit is acquitting himself well.

Indiana: Jordan Howard was one of that nation’s best transfers

The ex-UAB running back, displaced after the Blazers temporarily shuttered the program, shined in his first season in Bloomington. Howard averaged 6.2 yards per carry and finished the season with 1,213 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in just nine games. A 238-yard rushing performance against Michigan, his second 200-yard rushing game of the season, was a tremendous performance against one of the nation’s stingier run defenses.

Iowa: It was right to hang on to Kirk Ferentz

Widely considered a coach on the hot seat entering the season, Ferentz navigated the Hawkeyes to their best season in program history. Behind a savvy quarterback in C.J. Beathard and a trio of running backs (Jordan Canzeri, Akrum Wadley, Leshun Daniels), the Hawkeyes trailed for a grand total of 3:35 over the final six regular season games. While the excitement surrounding the season was dulled by Stanford’s drubbing of the Hawkeyes in the Rose Bowl, Ferentz showed that he remains a gifted strategist.

Maryland: This team was a disaster

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From a 21-point loss to Bowling Green at home to the midseason firing of coach Randy Edsall, the ’15 campaign was one that anybody affiliated with Maryland would prefer to forget. Edsall couldn’t pick a quarterback (he used three in the first five games) before being fired six games into the season, which left interim coach Mike Locksley to try and salvage a sinking ship. The Terrapins hardly fared better after that, winning just one of their final six games.

Michigan: Jim Harbaugh’s magic worked in Year One

Few pegged Harbaugh to have the best season of any first-year head coach. The Wolverines had talent, but they were coming off of a disappointing season under Brady Hoke. Harbaugh infused the program with energy and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, who’s now the head coach at Maryland, guided one of the nation’s most fearsome defenses. Add in their dominant bowl performance against Florida and the Wolverines vastly exceeded expectations in Harbaugh’s first season.

Michigan State: Malik McDowell is an emerging star

While most opposing offenses keyed on trying to limit Shilique Calhoun, McDowell showcased why he was such a coveted high school recruit with 13 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in his sophomore season. With Calhoun headed to the pros, McDowell now becomes the leader of a defensive line that has been one of the Spartans’ strengths over the past two seasons.

Minnesota: Sometimes life isn’t fair

The retirement of Jerry Kill was one of the cruelest, saddest moments of the 2015 campaign. A coach who weaved his way through some of the least glamorous jobs in college football (Emporia State, Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois), Kill was in his fifth season at Minnesota before retiring due to nagging health problems (he missed most of the 2013 season after coping with epileptic seizures). Beloved by the student body and widely respected across college football, Kill turned the program over to trusted assistant Tracy Claeys, who was named the Gophers’ head coach on a permanent basis in November.

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Nebraska: Terrell Newby is blossoming into a great player

In a season where five of Nebraska’s seven losses came by five points or fewer, the Cornhuskers found somebody to help shepherd them through the tough times in running back Terrell Newby. The rising senior thrived both as a runner and as a pass-catching back and could be the next strong running back cultivated by Mike Riley, whose legacy includes Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers and Yvenson Bernard, all of whom had seasons of 1300-plus yards in college.

Northwestern: The defense is for real

Many chalked Stanford’s Week 1 loss to Northwestern as out-of-character or the Cardinal’s inability to adjust to the central time zone. But the Wildcats showed they had one of the nation’s top defenses. They finished seventh in the nation in yards allowed per play and found a budding star in linebacker Anthony Walker, who finished the season with 120 tackles. For a team with the 114th ranked offense in the nation to win ten games, it requires a top defense—and the Wildcats’ rose to the occasion.

Ohio State: Hand the ball to Zeke

After Ohio State throttled Notre Dame to win the Fiesta Bowl and Alabama routed Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, Buckeyes fans were probably lamenting what went wrong against the Spartans and what could have been. Ezekiel Elliott memorably carried the ball just 12 times for 33 yards on a soggy night at the Horseshoe, the only game he didn’t eclipse 100 yards. He spoke out about it after the game, inviting a new wave of controversy, but it was the decision to not give him the ball more often that may have cost Ohio State a shot at the College Football Playoff.

Penn State: Offensive line play is crucial to success

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Christian Hackenberg entered Penn State as one of the most heralded quarterback recruits in school history. His legacy will endure because he stuck with the Nittany Lions after the Sandusky scandal, but he declared for the NFL draft after two seasons of receiving virtually no protection from his offensive line. Penn State’s opening week loss to Temple saw Hackenberg get sacked 10 (!) times, and the offensive line surrendered 39 on the season, tied for 111th in the nation. A quarterback of Hackenberg’s caliber may not play for the Nittany Lions for a long time, so it’s pivotal James Franklin starts establishing depth up front.

Purdue: Darrell Hazell is struggling

In three seasons in charge of Purdue, Darrell Hazell has compiled a record of 6–30. At this point for the Boilermakers, it’s hard to see what positives the future holds. They finished 92nd in total offense, 113th in total defense and lost five games by 18 points or more. They did take Michigan State to the wire in a 24–21 loss, but considering that was the high point of the season, the Boilermakers have a long way to go before they can consistently compete with the Big Ten’s top teams.

Rutgers: It can’t get any worse

Rutgers had its head coach suspended because he illegally contacted a teaching assistant, its star player (Leonte Caroo) suspended for his role in a brawl and five players kicked off the team after a rash of arrests. For a team that was one win away from the BCS in 2012, the fall for the Scarlet Knights under Kyle Flood was spectacular. It’s a season everybody involved with the program probably wishes never happened.  

Wisconsin: Dare Ogunbowale was a revelation

The Badgers were intent on making Corey Clement the featured back after Melvin Gordon entered the NFL draft. With injuries hampering Clement all year, the Badgers received a standout season from Ogunbowale, who recorded 1,118 rushing and receiving yards combined with eight total touchdowns. 

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