Commentary

Ohio State's rise, Illinois' resurgence highlight Big Ten's season

Updated: December 13, 2007, 12:33 PM ET
By Bruce Hooley | Special to ESPN.com

News that a Big Ten team would return to the national championship game -- or that two league teams would reach BCS bowls -- wouldn't have shocked anyone in August.

[+] EnlargeJim Tressel
Hunter Martin/Getty Images Jim Tressel admits that sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

Specifying which team would play for the BCS title, and which would land an at-large berth in the BCS rotation, would have arched eyebrows everywhere.

Michigan, No. 5 in the preseason polls, and Wisconsin, picked second in the conference behind the Wolverines and eventually the nation's No. 4 team in September, didn't deliver on expectations, largely because of injuries.

But Ohio State and Illinois stepped into the breach to give the league a national championship hopeful and two teams in the BCS for a third straight year and the fifth time in six seasons.

The Buckeyes (11-1, 7-1) will play for it all on Jan. 7, one day before the one-year anniversary of their 41-14 blowout loss to Florida in the 2006 national championship game. OSU is the favorite in ranking only, finishing No. 1 in the final BCS standings to No. 2 LSU (11-2), which is a solid favorite to extend Ohio State's bowl frustrations against Southeastern Conference opponents to 0-9.

The stunning transformation of Illinois (9-3, 6-2) from a bottom-feeder into college football royalty is a tale straight from Pygmalion. And who better to star in this rags-to-riches production than coach Ron Zook, the foil for FireRonZook.com even before his ill-fated three-year run as a rookie head coach at Florida?

Zook's Illini will oppose USC in the Rose Bowl presented by Citi on Jan. 1 (ABC, 4:30 p.m. ET), hoping to confound oddsmakers who've installed them as a near-two-touchdown underdog just the way they did on Nov. 10, when they were branded a 15-point long shot at Ohio State.

Illinois' 28-21 win that day knocked OSU off a four-week stay at No. 1 in the BCS, but the Buckeyes found their way back in the same fashion they landed there the first time.

Waiting for others to lose and advancing when that happened, Ohio State moved from No. 11 in the preseason to No. 1. Then, after falling back to No. 7 after losing to Illinois, the Buckeyes benefited from the six teams in front of them losing again over the season's final three weekends.

"I'd rather be lucky than good," OSU coach Jim Tressel mused.

That's not to say Tressel doesn't believe his team is qualified. It leads the nation in fewest points allowed (10.7 per-game) and supplements an effective passing game with tailback Chris Wells' 1,463 rushing yards.

Illinois used the same formula to reverse a combined 1-15 Big Ten record in 2005 and 2006.

Tailback Rashard Mendenhall's 1,526 rushing yards and a defense that forced 24 turnovers executed the Illini's remarkable turnaround.

Now the question remains whether the Big Ten's upper echelon can continue that theme in the postseason and recapture some national respect that was lost last season when Ohio State got hammered by Florida and Michigan suffered a 32-18 beating by USC in the Rose Bowl.

The Wolverines (8-4) play the defending champion Gators in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1 (ABC, 1 p.m. ET) and Wisconsin (9-3) plays SEC runner-up Tennessee in the Outback Bowl (Jan. 1, ESPN, 11 a.m. ET) in the other Big Ten bowl games that carry the potential to remake the league's image.

"I think it's imperative we do well in the bowls," Zook said. "People make their evaluations strictly on the bowl games. Obviously, with what happened last year in the national championship game and the Rose Bowl, I think it's imperative we go and play as well as we're capable. That's the only way we're going to prove anything.

"People in our conference know [Big Ten football is high quality]. People close to the conference know it. But for the people who aren't, wins and losses [in bowls] are the only way to evaluate it."

Most Valuable Player


TB Rashard Mendenhall, Illinois
Illinois hoped Mendenhall could emerge from the platoon in which he operated in 2006 to give quarterback Juice Williams a reliable running threat while taking the pressure off the passing game. Expecting him to improve from 640 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore to single-season school records of 1,526 yards and 16 scores would have been ridiculous. That's what Mendenhall produced, however, lifting the Illini to one fewer Big Ten victory than they managed the previous five years combined.

Coach of the Year


Ron Zook, Illinois
Zook deserves this honor not just for what he's done with his program, but for never once taking the chance to stick out his tongue at those who labeled him a disaster at Florida. He recruited 20 of the 22 starters on the Gators' 2006 national championship team and endured nothing but whispers and unfounded allegations when he started getting players away from Notre Dame and others to go to Illinois. Imagine what doors will open for him now that he's coached Illinois to its first Rose Bowl since 1983.

Newcomer of the Year


WR Arrelious Benn, Illinois
Ohio State cornerback Chimdi Chekwa (26 tackles, 10 pass breakups) and Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber (292.7 yds per game of total offense) get strong consideration here, but the winner is Illinois wide receiver Arrelious Benn. He gave Illinois a downfield passing threat to keep defenses honest and was a factor on kickoff returns. He caught 49 balls for 596 yards.

Biggest Surprise


Ohio State
Ohio State seamlessly replaced Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith at quarterback with Todd Boeckman, and receivers Brian Hartline and Brian Robiskie stepped up to take feature roles in the passing game to keep the Buckeyes' offense purring along. OSU averaged just 2.6 points per game less this season (32) than last, when Smith had NFL first-rounders Anthony Gonzalez and Ted Ginn Jr. at wide receiver. The loss of two-time 1,000-yard rusher Antonio Pittman to the NFL didn't hurt either, with Wells rushing for 1,463 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Biggest Disappointment


Michigan
Michigan will always wonder what its 2007 season could have been without the injuries that decimated its offense. Tailback Mike Hart bruised his thigh on the first play of the season opener and was limited to essentially two quarters that day. Quarterback Chad Henne sprained a knee the next week and was never the same because he separated his right shoulder when the knee began to heal. Hart had his bruised thigh came around, only to have a high ankle sprain bother him even more. Wide receiver Mario Manningham pouted through the first part of the season and was eventually suspended for a game. Michigan wound up never having Hart, Henne, Manningham and tackle Jake Long healthy for one entire game, and ended a season in which it hoped to contend for a national championship with a disappointing 8-4 record.

All-Big Ten Team
Offense
QB -- Kellen Lewis, Indiana
RB -- Mike Hart, Michigan
RB -- Rashard Mendenhall, Illinois
WR -- Devin Thomas, Michigan State
WR -- James Hardy, Indiana
TE -- Travis Beckum, Wisconsin
OL -- Jake Long, Michigan
OL -- Martin O'Donnell, Illinois
OL -- Kirk Barton, Ohio State
OL -- Ryan McDonald, Illinois
OL -- A. Q. Shipley, Penn State
K -- Austin Starr, Indiana

Defense
LB -- James Laurinaitis, Ohio State
LB -- J Leman, Illinois
LB -- Dan Connor, Penn State
LB/DL -- Shawn Crable, Michigan
DL -- Greg Middleton, Indiana
DL -- Jonal Saint-Dic, Michigan State
DL -- Vernon Gholston, Ohio State
DB -- Anderson Russell, Ohio State
DB -- Kevin Mitchell, Illinois
DB -- Jack Ikegwuonu, Wisconsin
DB -- Vontae Davis, Illinois
P -- Jeremy Boone, Penn State

Bruce Hooley has covered the Big Ten for 18 years and hosts a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.

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