Record year for the Big Ten
Hail to the Victors. After dodging bullets again all fall, Ohio State caught one right between the eyes in its finale at Michigan. The Wolverines finally solved the Buckeyes after coming up short in their first two showdowns with new Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel.
That knocked Ohio State out of a likely showdown with Oklahoma to defend its national championship in the Sugar Bowl and gave Michigan its first ticket to Pasadena since 1997. But the Buckeyes still landed a trip back to the Fiesta Bowl, this time to play Kansas State instead of playing for the national title.
There's no question, though, that it was another very good year in the Big Ten, which will send an unprecedented eight teams to bowl games. At one time or another, five Big Ten teams -- Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa, Purdue and Michigan State -- were ranked in the top 10, and two others -- Minnesota and Wisconsin -- were ranked in the top 15.
Considering that the Big Ten also crossed the five-million-fan barrier for the second straight and set a number of other attendance records, the league has a lot to feel good about.
Most Valuable Player
Chris Perry, Michigan
After some early road stumbles, Michigan rallied behind its two senior offensive stars, tailback Chris Perry and quarterback John Navarre. It's difficult to choose between the two, but the nod goes to Perry, who came up big in the Wolverines' most important games and stands fourth in the nation in rushing, with 132.4 yards a game.
Coach of the Year
Lloyd Carr, Michigan
Again, this is a crowded field. Cases can be made for Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, Minnesota's Glen Mason and Michigan State's John L. Smith. But there's no arguing with Michigan's Lloyd Carr, who kept the Wolverines moving forward when their season was on the brink. After a big fourth-quarter comeback to win at Minnesota, a game that easily could have left Michigan saddled with a 1-2 Big Ten start, Carr kept the Wolverines rolling through a difficult final month that included potentially dangerous games with Michigan State and Purdue as well as Ohio State.
Newcomer of the Year
Laurence Maroney, Minnesota
It isn't often that a team returns a junior (Terry Jackson II, 1,317 rushing yards in 2002) and a senior (Thomas Tapeh, 906 rushing yards in '02) from a bowl team, and winds up going with a sophomore (Marion Barber III, 1,159 rushing yards this fall) and a true freshman (Laurence Maroney, 990 rushing yards this fall). But that was the situation at Minnesota, which improved from 7-5 to 9-3 while shuffling its running backs.
And so, Maroney is an easy choice for Big Ten newcomer. He finished fifth in the league in rushing behind Perry, Iowa's Fred Russell and Barber in all games. In Big Ten play, he was fourth in the league with a rushing average of 94 yards a game.
Iowa did a nice job of remaining strong despite major personnel losses from its 2002 conference co-championship squad. But the biggest surprise was Michigan State, which had been expected to be in a massive rebuilding mode. The Spartans not only picked up the pieces from their 2002 meltdown. They rose to the top 10 in the nation with their 7-1 start. And their three losses after that don't dramatically diminish the statement they made under new coach John L. Smith. State won't be underrated next year.
Illinois' slide to 1-11 just two years after it won the Big Ten outright was a major surprise. But if Illinois football is known for anything, it's known for inconsistency. The biggest disappointment this fall was Penn State, which turned in its third losing season in four years. More importantly, the Nittany Lions weren't competitive in many of their games, and the controversy over whether Joe Paterno should retire is an issue that is likely to linger.
All-Big Ten Team
WR: Braylon Edwards, Michigan
WR: Lee Evans, Wisconsin
OL: Robert Gallery, Iowa
OL: Tony Pape, Michigan
OL: Alex Stepanovich, Ohio State
OL: Greg Eslinger, Minnesota
OL: Joe Quinn, Minnesota
TE: Ben Utecht, Minnesota
QB: John Navarre, Michigan
RB: Chris Perry, Michigan
RB: Fred Russell, Iowa
DL: Shaun Phillips, Purdue
DL: Will Smith, Ohio State
DL: Matt Roth, Iowa
DL: Anttaj Hawthorne, Wisconsin
LB: Niko Koutouvides, Purdue
LB: A.J. Hawk, Ohio State
LB: Alex Lewis, Wisconsin
DB: Bob Sanders, Iowa
DB: Stuart Schweigert, Purdue
DB: Will Allen, Ohio State
DB: Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin
P: B.J. Sander, Ohio State
K: Mike Nugent, Ohio State
KR: DeAndra Cobb, Michigan State
Herb Gould covers the Big Ten for the Chicago Sun-Times.
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