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COLUMN: Nightmare Big Ten season finally over

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INDIANAPOLIS — As confetti rained down on elated Wisconsin and solemn Nebraska Saturday night and Jim Delany exited into the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium flanked by security, U2’s “Beautiful Day” serenaded what was left of the crowd that witnessed the shellacking posing at the Big Ten’s second-ever championship game.

“The sky falls and you feel like it’s a beautiful day.”

The Badgers, 7-5 on the season and 4-4 in conference play, bullied the 11-1 Huskers to the tune of 539 rushing yards en route to a 70-31 win. Wisconsin, only spending the weekend in Indy because Ohio State and Penn State — the teams who handed the Badgers their last two regular-season losses and were the top two teams in the Leaders Division — were banned from postseason play.

Standing on the awards podium, Delany, the Big Ten’s head of state, surely must have been wondering what a difference a year makes as he shook the hands of former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, current Head Badger Bret Bielema and Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, the game’s MVP.

In the inaugural Big Ten championship game last December, Wisconsin outlasted Michigan State 42-39 in an exhilarating affair before an announced crowd of 64,152.

Saturday night, 41,260 observed a fitting end of to a season that saw Delany’s conference take a beating, particularly during a nightmare non-conference slate.

Three Big Ten teams dropped home tilts to Mid-American Conference squads: Penn State vs. Ohio, Iowa vs. Central Michigan and Indiana vs. Ball State.

Minnesota needed triple overtime to beat a 2-11 UNLV team.

Michigan was throttled by Alabama in its season-opener.

Ohio State, which had narrow triumphs in its pre-Big Ten schedule against Alabama-Birmingham and California, finished a perfect 12-0, but was barred from playing Saturday night because of sanctions resulting from tattoo-for-memorabilia scandal.

In 2014, newly minted conference members Maryland and Rutgers will have the chance to make it Indianapolis. Delany and Maryland President Wallace D. Loh made no bones about the reasons behind Terrapins’ exit from the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The latest shift in conference realignment was a television market grab for Delany, as Sports Illustrated reported that the additions of TV markets in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington D.C. could be worth up to $200 million.

For Maryland, its abandoning of a 60-year relationship with the ACC was about saving its athletic department. The Washington Post reported that without the move to the Big Ten, Maryland’s athletic department faced an annual budget deficit of $17 million by 2017. By then, the Big Ten Network’s per-school payouts could reach $43 million a year.

“By being a member of the Big Ten Conference, we are able to ensure financially stability for Maryland athletics for decades to come,” Loh said at a news conference announcing Maryland’s move to the Big Ten.

Big Ten facts, foretelling and football history:

Bielema put his name next to a Big Ten coaching icon Saturday night by taking Wisconsin to its third straight Rose Bowl. The last conference team to claim that feat was Bo Schembechler-coached Michigan from 1977-79. The seventh-year Wisconsin coach may want to start purchasing lottery tickets in the Hoosier State, as Bielema is 9-0 in games played in Indiana. The Badgers average margin of victory in games played at Purdue, at Indiana and vs. Nebraska this year: 40 points.

In its seven bowl matchups, the Big Ten will take on three Southeastern Conference teams. The SEC has rightfully earned its perch atop college football by crowning the past six national champions. And while its perceived superiority over the Big Ten is probably more fact than fiction, since the inception of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998, the SEC is 10-10 vs. the Big Ten in bowl games.

Geographic footprints played a dual role in Big Ten expansion, keeping pace with national trends in the movement. After its sensible addition of Nebraska in June of 2010, the conference sat back and watched the chaos of realignment rear its ugly head, destroying long-held rivalries and further illustrating the reality that nothing in the college football world matters more than money and potential TV sets. But thanks to the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, population trends also now play a role. Data from the 2010 Census shows the Midwest, the footprint of the Big Ten, growing at a 3.9 percent clip. Conversely, the South showed a 14.3 percent gain.

Taylor Martinez, Nebraska’s QB, had a game to forget Saturday night, but managed one memorable moment. While Wisconsin was scoring at will at the end of the first quarter and through the second frame, Martinez engineered four drives in that span. They resulted in three punts and a fumble. Yet, Martinez did account for 360 total yards, and his 76-yard scramble for a touchdown in the first quarter is undoubtedly one of the plays of the year. Martinez easily ran over 115 yards on the play, as he ventured back to his own 6-yard line and nearly the entire length of the wide side of the field during his marvelous run that elevated Gus Johnson’s vocal chords up to full volume.

Early forecasts are dangerous (as indicated in the Predictions Review below), but the run of success Urban Meyer’s outfits enjoy in his second season could continue next season in Columbus. During Meyer’s second year at Utah, the Utes finished 12-0 and beat Pittsburgh 35-7 in the Fiesta Bowl. Two years later, Meyer was completing his second go-around at Florida when his Gators throttled previously unbeaten Ohio State 41-14 in the BCS Championship Game. Most of the Buckeyes offense, including Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller, returns in 2013, and there’s depth along the defensive line to curtail the loss of Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year John Simon. OSU’s lone demanding nonconference game next fall is at California, and Meyer’s unit will host Wisconsin and Penn State in Big Ten play. Though the Buckeyes have been felled in their past two visits to Purdue, their road schedule in Big Ten play is less than intimidating. It’s entirely plausible OSU will be 23-0 under Meyer entering next season’s date with Michigan in Ann Arbor. Even if Michigan were to win that contest, a rematch to decide a potential Rose Bowl berth could be had the following Saturday in the Big Ten Championship game.

New Palestine residents, a golf clap is in order for the play-calling of Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada Saturday night. Canada, a New Pal native, is in his first year directing the Badgers’ offense after running the Northern Illinois (2011) and Indiana (2007-10) attacks before that. Saturday night, Nebraska surrendered a school-record 539 rushing yards and 42 first-half points. Count Bielema among those impressed with Canada’s game plan.

“The reason I hired him, I’ve been impressed with his creativity ever since I’ve known him,” Bielema said postgame. “…I give a lot of credit to Matt Canada, (and) all of my offensive coaches overall.”

What to watch for in 2013

Keep an eye on two things to begin the new year: the Big Ten’s bowl record (especially vs. the SEC) and further realignment talk.

It will be a tall task for Northwestern (vs. Mississippi State), Michigan (vs. South Carolina) and Nebraska (vs. Georgia) to emerge victorious on Jan. 1.

In his conference expansion career, Delany has proven to be an instigator, rather than a reactor. We’ll see if that trend continues. North Carolina, Delany’s alma mater, is on record stating it wants to remain in the ACC.

In the meantime, enjoy the Big Ten basketball season. By the time current No. 3 Michigan visits No. 1 Indiana in early February, the memories of a mediocre football season will have been whisked away.

Predictions Review

If not for a clock management snafu by Georgia, I would have correctly selected one of my teams for the national championship game. My other squad was USC, and its quarterback, Matt Barkley, was my pick to win the Heisman Trophy. The Trojans’ championship hopes and Barkley’s Heisman chances went up in smoke after USC’s second loss of the season, a 39-36 setback to Arizona and former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez in late October. As for the Big Ten, I thought Wisconsin would get back to Indianapolis, only to fall to Michigan. The Badgers made a return trip to the Big Ten title game even though Ohio State technically won the Leaders Division. I whiffed on Iowa and Illinois, each of whom I picked to finish 4-4 in the league and instead were 2-6 and 0-8, respectively. I overstated Penn State’s demise, as the Nittany Lions were 8-4 (6-2 B10) instead of the forecasted 5-7 (2-6). However, I mostly got the top of the conference correct, with Michigan, Nebraska and Ohio State finishing at or near the top of the divisions.

Grant Freking is a sportswriter for The Daily Reporter. Contact him at (317) 477-3230 or at gfreking@greenfieldreporter.com.

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