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Ohio State's victory over Oregon not only settled the question of the 2014 college football championship but also validated - at least for the inaugural season - the playoff format.
As Deadspin rightly pointed out, the doubters, haters, and the delusional few who harkened back to the Golden Years of the BCS were proven wrong as Ohio State ran the table against the nation's elite. The Buckeyes took all the "Yes, but . . . " objections off the table. The only question remained, not did the best or most deserving team win, but how badly the Buckeyes would have spanked the opposition had they fielded the starting, much less second-string, quarterback for the Playoffs rather than third-stringer and surprise hero Cardale Jones.
However much it pains us to say it, Urban Meyer and his indomitable squad merit all the hardware. Oddly enough, if not for "Ohio State" on the jersey, it would have made for a classic David-Goliath story, but most people outside of Columbus (not just Ohio) hate OSU, so that doesn't work, and Jones is way too big, and far too talented, to play Rudy.
All in all, the happiest contingent had to have been the sharps. At +$175, the OSU money line paid out a tidy sum to those who believed Marcus Mariota was overhyped and the Buckeyes undervalued.
And with that, the first half of the season draws to a close with a sweet mix of relief and regret. Now, on to the second half of the season: The offseason. Mock NFL drafts are in full force, with the latest grades from the wonks weighing in on in the Senior Bowl and recruiting battles for the nation's elite high school players. We can't get too fired up about the offseason, though we have a newfound interest in the reporting of ESPN's Gerry Hamilton.
Big Ten Offseason Improvement Guide
Free advice, and totally worth it.
Illinois: Focus on improving areas of weakness on defense, such as stopping the run, stopping the pass, and preventing the other team from scoring. The Illini ranked as the 109th best defense for "points against" at 34.0 per game, so any improvement in any facet should help.
Also: work on the running game. At 117.5 yards per game (good for 114th in the FBS), U of I may be better served by taking a knee on first and second down, and passing on third-and-long in every series. At minimum, the clock would keep running and cut into opponents' time of possession.
We'll say this much, the Illini have gotten the recruiting season off to a strong start. The school brought out the big guns for two recent visitors: DT Jamal Milan (a three-star prospect from Chicago) and RB prospect KeShawn Vaughn (four stars, listed at 5'10" and a healthy 198 lb). No doubt the ice sculpture made a strong impression.
Not to be outdone, Ohio State and IU busted out the cookie cakes:
Take that, ice sculpture! Can you eat an ice helmet? No! Well, technically, yes, but it would require a good deal of effort and a pickax. You can just plow (sticking with the farm implement theme) into a cookie cake.
Indiana: Lobby for rule changes to resize the field, play on parquet flooring, replace goalposts with hoops, eliminate pads and helmets, use a rounder ball, limit lineups to five players, and mandate that quarterbacks be six-footers named Yogi.
There is some positive news for IU. Former UAB star Jordan Howard will join the team in 2015 and may fill the gaping hole left by the departure of RB Tevin Coleman. With UAB shutting down its football program, Howard is eligible to play immediately. Good thing, because IU needs him desperately. Coleman piled up a school-record 2,036 yards - obliterating the previous record-holder by more than 200 yards - at a ridiculous 7.5 yards per rush clip. Coleman's announcement on December 29 that he would forgo his senior year for the NFL surprised absolutely no one, even the bunker-dwelling diehards in Bloomington.
As an aside, we must give the Hoosiers props for all the swag accompanying the cookie cake. A cookie cake lasts but a moment, but an IU beanie is forever.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes underwhelmed in 2014, punctuated by a 45-28 drubbing in the TaxSlayer.com Bowl at the hands of equally mediocre Tennessee. Entering the season, many projected Iowa as the favorite to win the West thanks to a favorable schedule heavy with sure-wins against the likes of Northern Iowa (W), Ball State (W), and . . .oops, Iowa State (L). A 7-6 final record topped off a five-year stretch that saw head coach Kirk Ferentz (the Mark Richt of the Big Ten) post a disappointing 34-30 record overall and a 19-21 mark in conference play. Good enough for a bowl game most years, but fans expect a New Years Day berth at minimum.
Our advice to Iowa: Start playing Powerball. School officials are staring down the barrel of a hefty buyout clause in Ferentz's contract. Among the most lucrative in Division I, the contract requires a 75% payout for every remaining year following his termination. The total would reach $17.8 million if Iowa releases Ferentz before the start of next season, but the school can save $3.15 million in longevity incentives by making a move before the end of January.
Hiring a hot-shot young coach would breathe some desperately needed life into the fan base, but the available candidates might not fit in the Big Ten. As Ohio State proved in the title game, the conference doesn't field the flashiest teams on offense but can dominate with solid defense and strong running attacks - the league produced six rushers with 1,500 yards or more in '14, twice more than the next conference to do so. Offensive coordinators like Scott Frost (Oregon) and Doug Meacham (TCU) would find themselves at the helm of a team thin on playmakers, the kiss of death for zone-read offensive systems requiring hyperspeed backs and wideouts.
Is Iowa likely to let Ferentz go? No. Would it be financially sound? Yes, to the point of being a no-brainer. We doubt the Corn Belt could handle the Ritalin-binge pace of TCU's offense, but injecting some speed into the Big Ten West would be a nice change.
Michigan: On some level, Urban Meyer must be thankful for the arrival of new Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh. Rather than "Can Ohio State Repeat?" dominating the headlines, most of the country will be asking "How Weird Is Jim Harbaugh?"
Michigan State: If MSU is to replicate 2014's success, the athletic director should politely ask head coach Mark Dantonio to stay away from the "blue vase" that features prominently on his desk. Seriously, what is that? Did Dantonio steal it from Le'Veon Bell?
The Spartans dropped only two games last year and finished 2014 with a miraculous 42-41 comeback against #4 Baylor in the Cotton Bowl. If you missed the game on New Years Day, check out this recap set to sick beats by rapper Bizzair.
That the Ls came against Ohio State and Oregon must be somewhat comforting to MSU's coaching staff, but both will reappear on the 2015 schedule. Win both, and we could be talking about the national champion Spartys this time next year.
Minnesota: Win the Ax, retire it, and bring back the Slab of Bacon.
Nebraska: We still aren't used to the idea of Nebraska being in the Big Ten. Not to the level of Maryland or Rutgers (see below), but including the Huskers on this list is offputting.
Northwestern: Northwestern needs a deeper bench. The Wildcats failed to reach the postseason again in 2014, marking the second year NU has struggled since their Gator Bowl victory in 2012. Injuries at key positions derailed the past two seasons, forcing Pat Fitzgerald to scramble after talented skill-position players went down.
Our solution: Merge with the Northeastern Illinois University, instantly deepening the pool of available talent.
Northeastern ceased all sports programs in 1998, including the Golden Eagles football team. Despite the lack of a gridiron, Fitzy should find talent on club team such as the aikido and Brazilian jiu-jitsu squads.
Imagine the Wild Eagles playbook. Inspired by the school's jiu-jitsu tradition, linebackers could terrorize opposing QBs with the Crucifix Neck Crank, the O-Line could run the Pendulum Sweep, and kickers could spring the Gogoplata Variation on unsuspecting coverage units. The Wild Eagles of Northweastern Illinois University (NEWIU, pronounced new-ee-ooh-ee) would dominate the lower echelons of the Big Ten for years, at least until Indiana and Illinois follow suit to form the Fighting Illiianawiks.
Here's the new Northweastern rallying cry: "Finish him!"
Related: Why hasn't a school used Wild Eagles as a nickname? All other Eagles (except Auburn) would sound tame (ho, ho!) by comparison.
Ohio State: Pick a name out of a hat (amongst the three potential starting QBs for 2015) and win the title again. Easy enough. Next!
Penn State: Unless the Nitanny Lions improve the offensive line, the equipment manager should stock up on smelling salts for QB Christian Hackenburg. Penn State allowed 44 sacks last season, the worst of any team in the conference and nearly the worst in the country. Not good times.
Purdue: Forget last season. Just pretend it never happened.
The Boilermakers managed to compete against Minnesota (which says volumes about the Golden Gophers in 2014; "moral" victories in Minnesota games are usually the other way around) and Michigan State but ended the year at 3-9 total and 1-7 in the Big Ten. Purdue's lone victory came against Illinois, which should also tell you everything you need to know (desperation, floundering) about the state of things in Champaign.
Wisconsin: See Minnesota.
Maryland, Rutgers: Relocate to the Midwest. Toledo, Detroit, Cleveland, and Rockford should make the short list.
Mike Luce is our man on campus. He welcomes your comments.