Breaking down the greatest single season from each Big Ten college football team
The Big Ten is a conference with a lot of history, and a lot of great teams, but which ones were the best of the best?
The Big Ten has been around a long time. It's the oldest Division I athletic conference in the United States, forming as the Western Conference in 1896. It wouldn't become the Big Ten until 1953 and has expanded to 14 schools in the nearly 70 years since.
That's a lot of teams with a lot of history, so when it came to naming the greatest football team in the history of each Big Ten program, it wasn't an easy process. The definition of "best" is subjective. Does a team need to win a conference title or national title to be deemed the best in school history? Also, could a 9-0 team in 1914 really be better than an 8-1 team in 1965, or a 10-2 team in 2015?
These are questions I wrestled with when trying to determine the best team in each program's history. The odds are strong that you'll disagree with some of my choices, but I think we'll all agree that the teams listed below were great.
|Illinois was one of the dominant programs in the Big Ten's early years with players like Red Grange on the team, and I could have chosen one of its title winners from that era. Instead, I decided on the latest national title that the Illini claim. The 1951 team finished the season 9-0-1, with its only blemish being what must have been a scintillating 0-0 tie against Ohio State on the road. It was one of four shutouts posted by the Illini that season. The campaign ended with a resounding 40-7 win over No. 7 Stanford in the Rose Bowl, the first nationally-televised college football game. Illinois was named co-champion by the Boand System along with Georgia Tech. The 1951 team was the last Illini team to get through a season without a loss.|
|Indiana has never won a national title in football, but its 1945 team certainly had a strong claim to make. The Hoosiers, led by coach Bo McMillin and running back George Taliaferro, went 9-0-1 in the 1945 season. It was the first and last time the Hoosiers went undefeated in a season. The lone tie came in the second game of the season, a 7-7 affair with Northwestern. Indiana started the season 2-0-1, outscoring its first three opponents only 26-14. Then it turned it on, as the Hoosiers went on a run that saw them outscore their final seven opponents of the season 253-42 along the way. In fact, they allowed only eight points in their last five games, finishing the season with three consecutive shutouts. The problem was that since Indiana wasn't a program with a sustained history of success, it finished behind a 9-0 Army, a 9-0 Alabama and a 7-1-1 Navy squad in the final polls.|
|This wasn't easy. After whittling down my choices to the 1958, 1960, and 1985 teams, I chose 1958 for a simple reason. The 1958 Hawkeyes won the Rose Bowl. Of course, that's a bit unfair to the 1960 team because it didn't get to play in the Rose Bowl. While Iowa finished tied atop the Big Ten with Minnesota, since Iowa's lone loss was to Minnesota, the Gophers earned the trip to Pasadena. As for the 1958 team, it finished 8-1-1 and No. 2 in the AP poll but was named national champion by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). As for the finish in the AP Poll, funny story about that. LSU finished No. 1, but the final AP Poll of 1958 came out before the bowls were played. LSU won the Sugar Bowl against Clemson, and the odds are good it would have remained No. 1, but Iowa's 38-12 win over Cal in Pasadena might have changed some minds. Either way, the No. 2 finish in the poll remains the best Iowa has ever done in a season-ending AP Poll.|
|Maryland's lone national title in football came in 1953, so why would I choose the 1951 team instead? It's simple. The 1951 team was better! In 1953 the Terps finished No. 1 in the AP Poll, but it was released before Maryland lost to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. The 1953 team, meanwhile, was a damn juggernaut. In 1951 the Terps went 10-0, outscored opponents 381-74, and finished the season by whupping up on then No. 1 Tennessee 28-13 in the Sugar Bowl. The Terps led the nation in scoring with 38.1 points per game and finished third in points allowed per game at 7.5. Had the 1951 team had a chance to play the 1953 team, it would have beat them too.|
|Listen, when you're dealing with a program that has had 17 teams finish a season without a loss (10 without a tie), it's not easy to determine which one was the best. In the end, I chose the team that forced the AP Poll to do something it had never done before. You see, Notre Dame finished the year at No. 1 in the final AP Poll, or what was supposed to be the final AP Poll. The Irish finished their year with a 38-7 win over USC. Michigan finished the regular season at No. 2 in the AP Poll and then faced that same USC team in the Rose Bowl. It beat the crap out of the Trojans, winning 49-0. It was a beatdown so thorough that the AP Poll decided to do a post-bowl ranking for the first time. Michigan came out on top the second time around. So not only did the team dominate opponents (it outscored them 394-53 during the year), it was so good doing so that it altered tradition.|
|It was not easy choosing between Michigan State's 1965 team, and it's 1966 squad. Both won national titles, but while the 1966 team went undefeated, the 1965 team played a more difficult schedule and looked more dominant even with the loss. In 1965 the Spartans beat two top 10 teams on the road, as well as Michigan in Ann Arbor. The 1966 team had only one win against a ranked opponent. Plus, the 1965 team's lone loss was a 14-12 loss to No. 5 UCLA in the Rose Bowl. When looking at the entire picture, the 1965 team just looks better in retrospect. Both were great, however.|
|Between the 1934 and 1941 seasons, Minnesota won five national titles. It was a dominant program under Bernie Bierman in that time shortly before World War II, and I knew that I was going to pick one of those five teams as the best in program history. I chose the 1940 team because, according to College Football Reference's SOS metric, it played the most difficult schedule in the country that season. The Gophers picked up a couple of road wins against No. 8 Northwestern and No. 15 Ohio State, and also beat No. 3 Michigan at home. It was seldom easy, as Minnesota's average margin of victory during the season was 10.4 points per game, and that number is a bit misleading. Only two of Minnesota's wins came by more than 10 points (a 34-6 win against Iowa and a 33-6 win against Purdue). The other six wins came by an average of 4.7 points each. Still, they were all wins, and in the end, that's what matters.|
|There are a lot of great teams in Nebraska history, as we're dealing with a program that has won five national titles. All that said, this wasn't a difficult choice for me. The 1995 team was something to see, and it featured one of my favorite players in college history in QB Tommie Frazier. The '95 Huskers just killed everybody that got in their way. They went 12-0 and won by an average of 38.7 points per game. The closest game they played was a 35-21 win against Washington State, and the Cougars were the only team to come within 23 points of the Cornhuskers that season. Nebraska finished the season with a 62-24 rout over No. 2 Florida in the Fiesta Bowl, which was nothing new. Including the Fiesta Bowl, Nebraska played four top 10 teams during the 1995 campaign. It beat them by an average of 30.75 points each. Not only was this the best team in Nebraska history, it's one of the best college football teams of all time.|
|Best or most important? I suppose there's room for debate here, but considering what the 1995 Northwestern team has meant for this program since it's hard to go in another direction. The 1995 team became the first Northwestern team to win a Big Ten title since the 1936 team, and it was the first time Northwestern finished a season with a winning record since 1971. The Wildcats went 8-0 in conference play, beating No. 7 Michigan on the road, as well as a No. 12 Penn State team and No. 24 Wisconsin team in Evanston. In a sport that doesn't feature a lot of Cinderella teams, the 1995 Northwestern squad was a Cinderella. It would lose to USC 41-31 in the Rose Bowl, but nobody cared, and it reinvigorated the program as a whole. It's no coincidence that the MVP of the 1995 team is the same person who now coaches the Wildcats today: Pat Fitzgerald.|
|Ask 10 different people what the best Ohio State team was of all time, and you could get 10 different answers, each of which would have a legitimate argument. That's how powerful of a program we're dealing with here. Trying to determine which one was the best is an impossible task. Hell, according to College Football Reference's Simple Rating System, the 2019 team was the third-best in program history (it has 1944 as the best). I chose the 2014 team for a few reasons. One is that, in order to win a national title, it had to do something nobody had ever done before: win the College Football Playoff. It was there that the Buckeyes beat No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Oregon, and did so while using its third-string QB, which speaks to the depth of that team. Do you know what else speaks to the insane collection of talent on the 2014 team? There were 22 players on the roster who wound up being NFL Draft picks. It was an incredible team.|
|Penn State has two claimed national titles in its history, winning it all in both 1982 and 1986, but it has an argument for a third. In 1994 the Nittany Lions went undefeated, beating four ranked teams along the way. They started with a 38-14 win over No. 14 USC, and then in late October won 31-24 at No. 5 Michigan before beating No. 21 Ohio State 63-14 the following week. They finished the season with a 38-20 win over No. 12 Oregon in the Rose Bowl to finish 12-0. Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, the 1994 season came before the BCS, so even though it finished the regular season at No. 2 in the AP Poll, it didn't get a shot at No. 1 Nebraska. When the Cornhuskers beat No. 3 Miami in the Orange Bowl it took the title with it.|
|Purdue claims a national title in 1931, but that title was decided upon by Parke H. Davis, a college football historian who singlehandedly decided to declare teams national champions from the sports' early seasons in 1933. Which is basically what I'm doing here in a way, except nobody will be able to claim a national title based on this article (though I'll support any school that tries!). With all due respect to Mr. Davis, I'll take the 1943 Purdue squad that went 9-0 and won its games by an average of 17.7 points per game. The Boilermakers split the conference title with Michigan that season, as both finished 6-0 in conference play. It's also the last Purdue team to finish a season without a loss.|
|Greg Schiano is back at Rutgers largely for what he helped accomplish with the 2006 team. Rutgers will happily tell you that it invented college football, but like a lot of inventors, the product they invented is perfected and improved upon by others. In 2006, Rutgers started the season 9-0 and climbed as high as No. 7 in the AP Poll. Unfortunately for the Knights, they lose 30-11 at Cincinnati in their next game to fall out of the top 10. A couple of weeks later they lost a triple-overtime thriller to West Virginia 41-39, and that loss ultimately cost them a Big East title. Still, the Knights would finish the season at 11-2, finishing with double-digit wins for only the second time in program history (the 1976 team went 11-0). It was the kind of season that Rutgers fans hope to see more of now that Schiano has returned.|
|Wisconsin has never won a national title, but it's had plenty of really good, if not great teams. That made it difficult to parse through so many strong seasons to find a clear winner, but I believe that the team we saw in 2017 was the best of the Badger bunch. It's a Wisconsin team that finished the season with a record of 13-1 and never fell further than No. 10 in the AP Poll. While the first half of its schedule could be considered "easy," the Badgers picked up wins against No. 25 Iowa, No. 19 Michigan and No. 11 Miami over the course of their final five games. The team's lone loss was a 27-21 loss to No. 8 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship, a game that saw Wisconsin trailing by only three points late in the fourth quarter.|
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