INDIANAPOLIS — Imagine the snickers, cross-eyed glares and shrieks of laughter you’d have encountered last year, on this very weekend, if you’d made these declarations:
• One year from now, either team in the Big Ten title game will be guaranteed to reach the College Football Playoff with a victory. *Neither of those teams will be Ohio State.
• No other conference will be able to claim that both of its division winners are guaranteed a spot in the playoff.
• The Big Ten will have three of the top six teams in the playoff rankings, and bedraggled Michigan will re-emerge as a top 15 team.
One year ago, those projections would have got you cut off at the Slippery Noodle, a popular watering hole in Indianapolis. But here in the bizarre college football reality of 2015, the Big Ten’s ascension from college football punch line to penthouse happened with, well, SEC speed.
In no other sport are reputations overhauled, revived and obliterated at the warp speed in which the Big Ten has transformed itself over the past 365 days. The surge of a league that’s won just three national titles since 1970 can be attributed to the fragile, fickle and flat world of college football.
Michigan State outslugged Iowa 16–13 to clinch a spot in the playoff Saturday night. Iowa led 13–9 until the final and fateful minute when Michigan State executed a classic soul-sucking drive that spanned 22 plays, covered 82 yards and ate 9:04 from the clock in the fourth quarter (Has there every been a scoring drive so important that went on for so long?). This drive should be put in a time capsule and placed next to Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio’s College Football Hall of Fame bust, as there was no more appropriate snapshot of a coach, program and climatic moment than the Spartans’ winning drive.
“It’s a special time, with special people at a special place,” Dantonio said.
The drive culminated in the most fitting fashion for this slobberknocker of a game, with Michigan State’s LJ Scott fighting through four Iowa defenders to stretch the ball over the goal line with 27 seconds remaining for a one-yard touchdown run. That capped a possession that included five third-down conversions (including the touchdown) and a fourth-down conversion on an option run by quarterback Connor Cook.
While Urban Meyer’s presence at Ohio State is considered the biggest reason that the Big Ten has surged ahead as a top league, it should not overshadow the work of Dantonio. Michigan State won the Big Ten title for the second time in three years, and the Spartans have won 11 games a jaw-dropping five times in the past six seasons. Pound-for-pound, Michigan State has established itself as one of the toughest, most resilient and ornery teams in college football. Much like the Big Ten itself, Michigan State has transformed its reputation from plodding to exciting and an afterthought nationally to a consistent national contender. Those reputational overhauls have been intricately intertwined, as one rise can’t be noted without the other. Dantonio is 36–4 the past three seasons, including delivering two of Meyer’s four losses during his four seasons at Ohio State. Yes, getting to this point took a miraculous end-game play against Michigan and a last-second field goal at Ohio State, but that is the Spartan way: steel-willed and irrepressible to the waning moments.
On one of the most exciting days the sport has seen in years—with Alabama’s Derrick Henry, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson all making Heisman cases—the Big Ten delivered a final and authoritative salvo. A snoozer game for three quarters turned succinctly on the first play of fourth quarter, when Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard threw a sweet play-action bullet to Tevaun Smith for an 85-yard touchdown. That flipped the script of this game from a Big Ten game with Neanderthal game plans to a taut and riveting classic that will be a touchstone game in this league for years.
It marked a jarring difference from last year, when the Big Ten headed into the final weekend of the college football season with a problem in both perception and reality. Ohio State sat at No. 5 in the playoff rankings with little expectation to move into the Final Four, as the Buckeyes were an underdog to Wisconsin and starting a little-known third-string quarterback after injuries to Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. The Big Ten spent most of the 2014 season as a punch line, especially after early losses by Michigan State and Ohio State dimmed the league’s national title hopes. We all know what happened then. Cardale Jones and Ezekiel Elliott led Ohio State on three definitive victories over favorites Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon, the Big Ten dominated the marquee games of the bowl season and Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh. In one year, the Big Ten has undergone the most drastic zip code overhaul since the Clampetts. “I just think that winning solves everything,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said by phone Saturday evening. “Michigan State beating Stanford in the Rose Bowl and beating Baylor last year. Wisconsin beating Auburn (in the Outback Bowl). There’s only one thing that changes perception, and that’s winning. And that’s what the Big Ten has done the past couple of years.”
Credit goes to Northwestern for beating Stanford this year. Credit goes Michigan State for getting past Oregon. Credit goes Iowa for edging Pitt. Credit goes Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin—the league’s three best teams last season—for going 4–0 in their postseason bowl games against Alabama, Oregon, Baylor and Auburn.
Credit goes to the league itself for eliminating games with FCS schools starting next year. Credit also goes to the league for ramping up its nonconference schedules and investing in new facilities with the Big Ten Network money that began flowing in when the network debuted nine years ago. Credit goes to commissioner Jim Delany for taking all the hard questions during the bad times and not gloating during the good ones.
“I just think when I got to Ohio State (in 2012), there were a lot of negative things about the Big Ten,” Meyer said. “I never looked at it that way. It is a different conference right now. The quality of play is much better.”
The premise of this column, of course, is that there are few things in sports more fragile than the conference domination argument. There are so few conference crossover games that a real pulse on comparing conferences will always be somewhat of an ethereal endeavor.
On Saturday night in Indianapolis, Michigan State secured the Big Ten’s place in the College Football Playoff in the most fitting possible fashion. “Let’s get on with the party,” Dantonio said after the game. The Big Ten is cruising into the College Football Playoff, and no one was laughing.