The Big Ten's regular season is over, except for one game. The bowl bids aren't out yet. It isn't 2011, so there's no Big Ten championship game this weekend. What better time to gaze at the conference's 11 navels and hand out some well-earned honors? It was a great season overall, though it was better for some teams, players and coaches than it was for others. Let's recognize the best and gloss over the rest, shall we?
Team of the Year: Michigan State. No other Big Ten team has a resume like the Spartans. They're the only Big Ten team with a victory over a current Top 5 team. They provided us with some of the most engrossing plays of the season. They're almost certainly going to get screwed over by the BCS. And they did all this in the same season their coach suffered a mild heart attack and missed a couple games. I think they'd get stomped flat in a rematch with Wisconsin, but Michigan State is the Big Ten's team of the year.
Coach of the Year: Jim Tressel. No, not Mark Dantonio. Not Bret Bielema either. Both finished as tri-champions with Tressel's Buckeyes, but they did it with the most talented teams they've coached. This year's Buckeyes are not the most talented team Tressel has had, but he got the same kind of results out of them that he always gets. Michigan State fans can argue it should be their team and not his that gets the BCS bid (sorry, Sparty, but the choice is not between you and Wisconsin), but they can't argue that Tressel remains the 500-pound gorilla of Big Ten coaches.
Offensive Player of the Year: Denard Robinson, Michigan. Why is everybody talking about what a hard decision this is, picking a Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year? I'll grant that the league has never been as loaded with quarterbacks as it is this year, and just among the three co-champions there are seven running backs who deserve accolades as well. You could pick any of them and say "This guy would be Player of the Year if Denard Robinson wasn't in the league." But that's all you can say. Robinson is a singular talent.
Defensive Player of the Year: Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue. It's a tough call between Kerrigan and Wisconsin's JJ Watt, but I have to give the nod to Kerrigan. Watt had more of a supporting cast around him and, thanks to Wisconsin's offense, he spent less time on the field. Kerrigan probably kept Purdue in a couple games singlehandedly. No defender meant more to his team this year.
Best Non-Conference Win of the Year: Wisconsin 20, Arizona State 19. What? Wasn't this a horrible, stinking outhouse of a game for the Badgers? Why yes, yes it was. It was also the point at which Wisconsin learned that it wasn't going to win games just by showing up. It took a couple more weeks for all the pieces to fit together, but after the Michigan State loss, the Badgers played better than any other team in the Big Ten and all but two or three nationally. They never quite solved the kick coverage problems, though.
Play of the Year: "Little Giants." Come on, you knew it was either this or "Mousetrap." Both were brassy, oh-no-you-won't calls that helped make this a special season for Sparty, but the biggest praise has to go to the first one. From that point on everyone should have been expecting trickeration from Sparty's special teams. In other words, Northwestern should have seen "Mousetrap" coming.
Disappointment of the Year: Iowa. A true no-brainer. I admit, I biffed big time on my preseason prediction of Iowa's 2010 season. I thought the Hawkeyes had finally solved the mental-toughness issues that plagued them from 2006 to the moment in 2008 when Daniel Murray's field goal wobbled through an Iowa City snowstorm and sent Penn State home befuddled. I was wrong, and I take no comfort in the fact that it puts me in pretty good company. But seriously, 7-5? How did this talented, experienced team wind up with such a mediocre record? When and how did this team lose its mental edge? That bears further investigation.
Right. The game. There is a game Friday night, after all.
Illinois at Fresno State
Teams that got lost in the sauce this year close out their seasons in Boise State's usual Friday night timeslot. Illinois was hands-down the Big Ten's most improved team this season and deserves a trip to a bowl game, even if it winds up not being a good one. Hiring Vic Koenning and Paul Petrino turned out to be the right move to rescue Ron Zook. The Zooker is an excellent motivator and recruiter, but he needs wonky coordinators like Koenning and Petrino to make the gears mesh. Illinois has plenty of good wins this season and only lost two games by more than 10 points. The Illini are a team to look out for next year.
Meanwhile, there's a reason you haven't heard much about Fresno State recently. It isn't just that Nevada has ascended to become the official WAC Team That Isn't Boise State. Pat Hill has put together another winning squad, but the Bulldogs can claim victory over one team that will finish with a winning record: Cal Poly of the FCS. Blame the defense, mostly. Fresno State has given up 20 or more points in seven of its 11 games this year. The last team to hold the Illini under 34 points was Michigan State, and that was a month and a half ago. The Bulldogs are always tough at home, but I don't think Illinois will have too much trouble here. Illinois 41, Fresno State 27.