ARLINGTON, Texas — The hiring of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan a few days before the new year was as purely positive and hopeful a football moment as the Big Ten had experienced in quite some time. Harbaugh was roundly approved of — raved about, even — by analysts around the country, who agreed the restoration of excellence in the Wolverines program would be the key to the conference’s chances to finally advance a rung or two up the national ladder. Even if it would take a couple of years for Harbaugh to deliver on his enormous promise, better days for the oft-beleaguered Big Ten were coming.
But then the next two weeks happened, a period that was so astonishingly good for the Big Ten, so in-everyone-else’s-face glorious, that it seems the overall reputation of the league already has changed — dramatically — for the better.
There was Ohio State’s gangbusters performance in winning the inaugural College Football Playoff, of course, but there also were the Jan. 1 bowl victories by Michigan State over Baylor and by Wisconsin over Auburn. The Big Ten scored postseason wins against champions from the SEC, Pac-12 and Big-12, the three leagues most everyone would’ve ranked above the Big Ten after the regular season. And Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer credits Wisconsin’s success in the Outback Bowl with emboldening his own team to believe it could line up a few hours later against Alabama — Auburn’s rival — and win.
Overall, the Big Ten was 5-5 in bowl games and 6-5 including Ohio State’s 42-20 blowout of Oregon in the playoff finale. Considering the league was favored to win precisely zero of those games, its success was truly extraordinary and a real game-changer in terms of public perception. Now the Big Ten has to live up to the sudden hype in 2015.
“I still think top to bottom, we have some work to do in our conference,” Meyer said. “But it’s moving.”
Fab five postseason moments
1. All quarterback Cardale Jones did for Ohio State was author perhaps the greatest rags-to-riches story in college football history. Jones went from lazy third-stringer who didn’t have the respect or confidence of his coaches and teammates, to sudden starter in the Big Ten title game and, by the time the confetti was falling here on Monday, to household name and serious NFL prospect. But the twin moments (let’s count them as one) I’ll always remember: Jones’ attempt to hurdle three Alabama defenders early in the Sugar Bowl and his trucking of Tide All-American safety Landon Collins just before halftime. It let everyone know he had no fear of Bama and gave his team the juice it needed.
2. TCU’s 42-3 romp over Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl was so fitting. The Horned Frogs were led on and then cruelly dumped by the playoff committee, but they clearly were one of the best four teams in the country and so thoroughly proved it in their final game.
3. What a special thing it had to be for Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez to get a Gatorade bath from players after he’d led them to the victory over Auburn as the team’s interim coach. It was well-deserved after the first coaching win in nine years for the architect of the Big Ten’s best sustained success story in the modern era.
4. Even higher up the totem pole than Alvarez, in my opinion, when it comes to program builders: Kansas State’s Bill Snyder, who built and sustained success at what had been the worst major-college program in the country. I voted for him for the College Football Hall of Fame and was there last week for his induction announcement in Dallas. A real highlight for me.
5. Ohio State’s completely unnecessary last-minute touchdown against Oregon was far from a show of sportsmanship and rankled many Ducks fans and others who were watching, but you know what? Welcome to life with Urban Meyer at the top. To cut the head off the new Big Ten dragon, so to speak, the league’s other programs will have to get a little meaner — and a lot better — themselves.