The Big Ten expanded to two divisions last year and crowned Wisconsin as its champion following the inaugural Big Ten Championship game at Indianapolis.
The Badgers outpointed Michigan State 42-39 in a game that ended with a controversial penalty against the Spartans for running into the punter, negating a return to the Badger 5-yard line with about 2 minutes left in the contest. The regular season matchup of these teams was won 37-31 by Michigan State on a Hail Mary touchdown pass.
Wisconsin fell 45-38 to Oregon in the Rose Bowl as the Ducks became Rose Bowl champs for the first time since the 1916 season. It was the second consecutive Rose Bowl loss for Wisconsin which fell a 2-point conversion short of a rally in a 21-19 loss to TCU to close out the 2010 season.
Overall, Big Ten teams went 4-6 in bowl games. Purdue beat Central Michigan 37-32 in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl, Iowa lost 31-14 to Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl, Northwestern was on the short end of a 33-22 result against Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, Illinois edged UCLA 20-14 in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Penn State lost 30-14 to Houston in the TicketCity Bowl, Michigan State defeated Georgia 33-30 in overtime in the Outback Bowl, Nebraska was smacked 30-13 by South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl, Ohio State was defeated 24-17 by Florida in the Gator Bowl, and Michigan edged Virginia Tech 23-20 in overtime in the Sugar Bowl.
After a lengthy NCAA investigation, Ohio State was cited on December 20, 2011 with "failure to monitor" and received a postseason ban for 2012. Former head coach Jim Tressel was found to have engaged in unethical conduct for not reporting NCAA rule violations. He had already resigned on Memorial Day (May 30), three months prior to the start of the 2011 season. Assistant head coach Luke Fickell, who served as Tressel's linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator, assumed the interim head coaching duties for the 2011 season and guided the Buckeyes to their first 7-loss season (6-7) since since 1897.
Urban Meyer now takes the reins of a Buckeye program that will be banned from the postseason this year and must endure three years of other probation penalties from the NCAA. The University of Cincinnati and Ohio State alumnus, and former assistant coach of Ohio State (1986-87), enjoyed brilliantly successful 2-year stints at Bowling Green (17-6, 2001-2002) and Utah (22-2, 2003-2004) before landing and Florida (65-15, 2005-2010) and winning 2 BCS titles in 6 years, including a 2006 season defeat of Ohio State. Meyer brings a career record of 104-23 to Columbus and a 7-1 bowl record. His 81.9 winning percentage tops all active coaches with a minimum 5 years on the job (source: BuckeyeGrove.com).
While Ohio State struggled through the 2011 campaign, its main adversary found new life. Brady Hoke guided the Wolverines to a 4-win improvement over the previous season and a 23-20 overtime win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. It was Michigan's first victory in a BCS bowl since the 1999 season Orange Bowl. Michigan also notched its first 10-win season (11-2) since 2006.
Indiana and Minnesota entered the 2011 season with new head coaches, as well.
Under former Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, the Hoosiers managed just one win and that came against FSC member South Carolina State. Indiana has lost 11 straight games to FBS teams and 16 of its last 17.
The Golden Gophers snatched Jerry Kill from Northern Illinois where he was 23-16 in three seasons, and finished just 3-9 as Kill dealt with his own medical issues throughout the season as the cancer survivor has often had to deal with seizures. He collapsed on the sideline during a 28-21 upset home loss to New Mexico State in the second game of the season.
The 2011 season also saw the unfolding of a monumental scandal at Penn State and the firing, and ultimate death, of its beloved longtime head coach, Joe Paterno.
Paterno was unceremoniously dismissed on November 9, a shocking development that came 11 days after he won an FBS record 409th division 1 football game. He passed Eddie Robinson as the all-time wins leader with his teams' victory over Illinois on October 29. His sudden firing came in the wake of a hailstorm of revelations regarding former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky's alleged sexual abuse of minors on the Penn State campus.
Paterno was targeted for admittedly not notifying police in 2002 when he was informed by then-graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary that he had witnessed an incident involving Sandusky and a minor. Paterno instead referred the matter to PSU administrators. A trial for Sandusky ended June 22, 2012 with 45 findings of guilt on 48 charged counts of child sex abuse.
Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley was named interim head coach and finished the season 1-3, including a 30-14 loss to Houston (13-1) in the TicketCity Bowl.
Penn State introduced Bill O'Brien as the new head coach on January 7th. The New England Patriots offensive coordinator became just the 15th head football coach in the school's 125-year football history. O'Brien served 14 years in the college ranks with Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke. He had been with the Patriots since 2008.
Paterno, a Penn State and college football icon, passed away from lung cancer on January 22 at the age of 85. A statue of Peterno that stood prominently outside the stadium was removed on July 22.
On July 23, the NCAA imposed unprecedented penalties:
- $60 million in fines be paid into an endowment for external programs preventing child sexual abuse or assisting victims;
- 111 vacated wins under Paterno from 1998-2011, and 112 overall;
- A loss of 20 scholarships for each of four years from 2014-2017;
- A postseason ban of four years to begin immediately;
- 4-year ban from sharing in Big Ten bowl revenue;
- Current and incoming football players immediately freed to transfer and compete at another school.
Those penalties could easily have a crippling effect on the Penn State football program for at least six years, given the time it would take to rebuild a full-strength team of FBS calibre.
Aside from Ohio State and Penn State, only Illinois will begin the 2012 season under a new head coach. The Fighting Illini hired Tim Beckman away from Toledo where was 21-16 in three seasons. Beckman replaces Ron Zook who was let go on November 27 after his team collapsed to an 0-6 finish after they reeled off 6 straight wins to open the season. Zook began his Illinois head coaching stint in 2006 after spending three seasons in Florida (23-14). His third Illinois team made it the Rose Bowl where it suffered a 49-17 loss to USC. The next two years ended with sub-.500 records, but Illinois went 7-6 in 2010 and defeated Baylor in the Texas Bowl. The 2011 squad was the first in FBS history to win its first 6 games and lose its last 6. Zook's final record in Champaign was 34-51.
The 2012 forecast from the Congrove Computer Rankings calls for Michigan and Wisconsin to meet in the Big Ten championship game with the Wolverines prevailing by 8.69 points to dethrone the Badgers. It would be Big Blue's first Big Ten title since 2004 and first outright title since 2003.
Michigan will first have to fight through a top-heavy Legends division. The computer has the Wolverines tying with Michigan State and Nebraska, and advancing to Indianapolis due to an expected higher BCS Ranking. The next-closest team to those three, Northwestern, trails all frontrunners by at least 18.60 power points.
The Leaders division appears to firmly be Wisconsin's to take. The Badgers are projected to finish just one game ahead of Illinois, but they are more than 7 power points ahead of the Illini and a projected 10.47-point home winner when the two schools meet in Madison on October 6. The battle is this division is for 2nd place where Ohio State and Purdue each have slightly higher power ratings than the Illini.
The effects of the Penn State scandal are evident in the computer's expectation that the Nittany Lions will win just two games.
Indiana and Minnesota are picked to finish last again.
Hoosier fans know not to get too excited when their team opens the season with two victories, as they are expected to do this year before losing their final 10 games. Between 2004 and 2010, Indiana started the season 3-0 four times and 2-0 the other three years to account for 17 of their 31 total wins during that period.