Michigan Wolverines: B.J. Cunningham

Now that the season is over, it's time to take a look back at our Top 10 moments of the year in Big Ten football, on and off the field:

No. 1

"Rocket" men (Oct. 22)


[+] EnlargeMichigan State Spartans wide receiver Keith Nichol
Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIREMichigan State Spartans wide receiver Keith Nichols' (right) catch to defeat the Wisconsin Badgers was the top play of the 2011 Big Ten season.
Michigan State's 44-yard Hail Mary pass from Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol (via B.J. Cunningham's facemask) stands as the most memorable play of the Big Ten season and, we would argue, the top play of the college football year. The Spartans' 37-31 win over Wisconsin derailed the Badgers' national title hopes and helped propel Michigan State to a Legends Division title. And that set up another fantastic moment ...

No. 2

Badgers get revenge (Dec. 3)

The first Big Ten championship game couldn't have asked for much more drama, as Wisconsin and Michigan State staged a highly-anticipated rematch of their earlier classic. This one played out in almost the same fashion, with each team trading huge plays in a thrilling game. This time, the Badgers completed a desperation heave, as Russell Wilson found Jeff Duckworth on a long pass in the fourth quarter to set up the go-ahead touchdown. A running-into-the-punter penalty ended the Spartans' chances of winning in the final minute again. Wisconsin clinched a second straight Rose Bowl appearance with its 42-39 victory, and another Spartans-Badgers epic duel made the inaugural title game a smashing success.

No. 3

Michigan's miracle (Sept. 10)

If not for those Michigan State-Wisconsin games, Michigan's 35-31 win over Notre Dame would likely be remembered as the most exciting game of the Big Ten season. The Wolverines trailed 24-7 after three quarters and couldn't get much going offensively. But then Denard Robinson took over. The two teams scored three touchdowns in the final 1:12, until Robinson ended matters with a 16-yard scoring strike to Roy Roundtree with two seconds left. That kind of magic would stay with Michigan all season long, right through its equally improbable Allstate Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech.

No. 4

Braxton's bomb (Oct. 29)

A week after losing on that Hail Mary in East Lansing, Wisconsin had its guts ripped out all over again in Columbus. Precocious Ohio State freshman quarterback Braxton Miller scrambled and nearly crossed the line of scrimmage before firing a 40-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Devin Smith with 20 seconds left as the Buckeyes won 33-29. Little did we know then that it would be Ohio State's last great moment of the season, or that the Badgers would somehow regroup to still win the league championship.

No. 5

The fall of an icon (Nov. 9)

No story in the Big Ten, or in all of sports, was bigger than the child sex abuse scandal that erupted at Penn State in November. The rape allegations against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, as well as charges that school administrators failed to stop him and/or lied under oath, became international news. And on Nov. 9, that scandal led to the firing of legendary head coach Joe Paterno, who won 409 games while leading the program since 1966. Everything about that week in State College, from students rallying on Paterno's front lawn to the bizarre, circus-like atmosphere at the Board of Trustees news conference announcing his dismissal, was and remains surreal.

No. 6

A time for healing (Nov. 12)

After all the events and controversy leading up to Penn State's home game against Nebraska, which included student riots in the streets of downtown a few days earlier, there was serious concern about what would happen at Beaver Stadium that Saturday. Security was on high alert. But the Nittany Lions and Huskers players helped diffuse the tension by meeting at midfield just before kickoff for a moving prayer. Nebraska won the game and won some admirers for how it handled the difficult situation.

No. 7

Urban renewal (Nov. 28)

Most of Ohio State's season, which featured a 6-7 record and a 2012 NCAA bowl ban handed down in December, was something its fans would like to forget. But Buckeyes fans can't wait for the future after the school hired Ohio native Urban Meyer as its next head coach. Meyer's first season will be hampered by the postseason ban. Still, for Ohio State to go through the mess it faced during 2011 and still end up with a coach of Meyer's stature and pedigree has to be considered a victory.

No. 8

Gophers go hog wild (Oct. 29)

Minnesota barely looked like an FBS team, much less a Big Ten one, during its 1-6 start. The Gophers had lost to North Dakota State and were outscored 144-31 in their first three league contests. But the rivalry game against Iowa brought out the best in them. Minnesota scored two touchdowns in the final 8:22 and pulled off a daring onside kick to stun the Hawkeyes 22-21 in the upset of the Big Ten season. The Gophers kept the Floyd of Rosedale trophy in Minneapolis for a second straight season.

No. 9



Huskers' historic comeback (Oct. 8)

Nebraska's first Big Ten home game was one to remember. The Huskers trailed Ohio State by 21 points in the second half before rallying for the biggest comeback victory in program history. Taylor Martinez, Rex Burkhead and Lavonte David all had huge nights as the team scored 28 straight points for a 34-27 victory. And by beating the league's reigning blue-chip program, Nebraska proved it belonged in the Big Ten.

No. 10

The Streak ends (Nov. 26)

Brady Hoke promised to "Beat Ohio" when he took the Michigan job. And he delivered with an exciting 40-34 victory that snapped an infuriating seven-game losing streak to the hated Buckeyes. Robinson accounted for five touchdowns as the Wolverines held off a big performance from Ohio State's Miller. With Hoke and Meyer now battling it out every year, The Game could resume its place as college football's top rivalry.

The college football season is officially over. So it's time to break out the crystal ball and offer our projections for the preposterously-too-early 2012 Big Ten power rankings.

1. Michigan State: The Spartans must replace a lot of leadership, including quarterback Kirk Cousins, receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin and All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. But nine starters return off the Big Ten's top overall defense, featuring Will Gholston, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis as potential breakout stars. Le'Veon Bell could have a big year as the No. 1 tailback, and if Andrew Maxwell can adequately fill in for Cousins, the offense should be fine, especially if Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett gets his waiver to become immediately eligible at receiver. Plus, the road schedule (at Central Michigan, at Indiana, at Michigan, at Wisconsin, at Minnesota) is far more manageable than what the team navigated in 2011.

2. Michigan: A lot of things went right for the Wolverines in 2011, including a favorable schedule. That slate gets harder in 2012, beginning with Alabama at Cowboys Stadium and including road trips to Nebraska and Ohio State. Still, Denard Robinson and Fitz Toussaint form one of the most dangerous offensive duos in the league, and the second year under Brady Hoke and his staff should mean more familiarity and comfort. Coming off a BCS win, Michigan could start the season in the Top 10.

3. Wisconsin: The Badgers will have to overcome many challenges to reach their third straight Rose Bowl. The biggest concern is at quarterback, where there's no experience to replace Russell Wilson and his record-breaking efficiency level. Bret Bielema will have to remake almost his entire offensive coaching staff after Paul Chryst took several assistants with him to Pittsburgh. Still, Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball returns to keep the Wisconsin running game among the best in the country. And the two Big Ten teams who beat the Badgers in 2011 -- Michigan State and Ohio State -- must come to Madison in '12.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes aren't eligible to make the Big Ten title game, but don't be surprised if they put up the best record in the Leaders Division. A transition period can be expected as Urban Meyer takes over as head coach and installs an entirely new offensive system. But Ohio State had a small senior class in 2011 and brings back many talented players, such as defensive lineman John Simon, quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde. A schedule that features eight home games should equal much improvement over this year's 6-7 record.

5. Nebraska: Few teams will be as experienced on offense as Nebraska, which returns seven starters and just about every key skill player on that side of the ball. Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead should be even better with another year in offensive coordinator Tim Beck's system. The questions are on defense, where the Huskers struggled at times in 2011 before losing their top two players in linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. Nebraska must get tougher up front defensively to handle the Big Ten grind and has difficult road assignments looming at Ohio State and Michigan State.

6. Penn State: For the first time since 1965, we'll see what a Penn State team looks like that is not coached by Joe Paterno to start the season. New coach Bill O'Brien made a wise decision to retain defensive assistants Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden, and even without All-American lineman Devon Still, that side of the ball should stay stout with standouts like Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill and hopefully a healthy Michael Mauti. O'Brien's biggest impact should come on offense. The former New England Patriots offensive coordinator will try to bring the Nittany Lions attack into the 21st century with a competent passing game. Tailback Silas Redd provides a nice crutch while that transition occurs.

7. Iowa: After two straight 7-5 regular-season finishes, the Hawkeyes will look to get back into Big Ten contention. But they'll have to overcome the losses of star receiver Marvin McNutt, offensive tackle Riley Reiff, defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns and cornerback Shaun Prater. When he's on, James Vandenberg is as good a dropback passer as there is in the Big Ten, but making up for McNutt's production won't be easy. Assuming Marcus Coker returns from suspension, the running game should be very good. The defense simply has to improve after giving up too many big plays in 2011, and Kirk Ferentz hasn't yet named a successor to veteran defensive coordinator Norm Parker, who retired.

8. Purdue: The Boilermakers have a chance to make a move in a Leaders Division that is marked by coaching changes. They return most of the major pieces of their Little Caesars Bowl-winning team, and the return of Rob Henry from his season-ending knee surgery opens up some interesting possibilities at quarterback. Kawann Short should be one of the top defensive linemen in the league if he decides to return for his senior year. We'd still like to see more consistency from Danny Hope's program before we rank Purdue too high, however.

9. Northwestern: Dan Persa and his record-breaking accuracy are gone, along with top receiver Jeremy Ebert. Yet we're not too concerned about the offense and like the multi-dimensional options that Kain Colter provides with his all-around athleticism. Northwestern's issue is whether it can fix a defense that had trouble stopping anybody. The fact that the Wildcats lose their top three defensive backs from a secondary that was routinely torched does not inspire confidence.

10. Illinois: New coach Tim Beckman has his work cut out for him in Year One. He has to completely revamp an offense that couldn't shoot straight in the back half of 2011 while implementing a new spread style. He has to try to maintain the defense without coordinator Vic Koenning or All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus. And he faces a schedule that sees the Illini going to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan, all three of which won in Champaign this past season. There's still talent on defense, led by promising linebacker Jonathan Brown. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase needs to build on his second-half showing in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

11. Minnesota: After a horrible start, the Gophers showed a lot more fight down the stretch in 2011, beating Iowa and Illinois at home. Jerry Kill knows how to build a program, and the team can't help but be better in 2012, especially if MarQueis Gray continues to develop at quarterback. But Minnesota still has some holes on its roster that can only be fixed through recruiting, and while the Gophers could make a run at bowl eligibility this year, they'll be hard-pressed to make too much noise in a stacked Legends Division.

12. Indiana: The good news for the Hoosiers is that they played a ton of freshmen in 2011, and the growing pains should start to pay off for guys such as Tre Roberson and Mark Murphy in 2012. The second year under Kevin Wilson should also bring progress. Still, this is a team that went 1-11 in 2011 with no wins over FBS teams, so it remains an uphill climb.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan coach Brady Hoke is always at least a little concerned with quarterback Denard Robinson taking too many hits either from opponents or during practice. So far, though, Robinson has been mostly healthy save for a small injury to his left wrist against Northwestern and wearing a wrap against Minnesota to cover up an unknown injury.

"He’s a pretty tough guy, has a great mentality about the game of football and his teammates and how he wants to perform for them," Hoke said. "So far, we’re hanging in there."

Handling Jerel Worthy

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