BSDebate: The Real Big Ten Elite

The Big Ten Network's new show "Big Ten Elite" featured 1994 Nebraska this past week, a Big 12 team. It got the BSDebate team thinking, who really is the best Big Ten football team in the past 20 years?

The Big Ten Network is running a series called "Big Ten Elite" which profiles some of the greatest teams in the conference's history. Last Tuesday, they profiled the 1994 Nebraska Cornhuskers, a team that competed in the Big 12 Conference, not the Big Ten. Combine this with the fact that the 1995 team was lightyears ahead of the team that preceded it (it was named the conference's best team of the past 20 years a few weeks ago, yet I can't seem to find the list) and we're calling shenanigans on the entire process.

So who is the best team in the history of the Big Ten? To make this debate easier, Adam Collyer and Dan Vecellio put the limit at 20 years or right around the time that Penn State entered the Big Ten.

Welcome to another version of BSDebate: The Real Big Ten Elite.

Dan: 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes

My heart wanted to go with the 1994 Penn State team, a team that played when I was five years old but I have watched games of ever since, but my mind and gut told me to go with the Craig Krenzel-led Ohio State Buckeyes team from 2002 which took down the mighty Miami Hurricanes in the 2003 national championship.

The '02 Buckeyes were the first team in Division I-A history to go 14-0 in a season and did so with a dominating defense which sets them apart from the 1994 Lions in my opinion. The stringent defensive side of the ball was led by two-time All-American safety Mike Doss who returned to Columbus for his senior season to win a national championship. Ohio State only let up more than 20 points twice in the 2002 season -- to Texas Tech in their first game (21 points to Heisman front-runner, now best assistant coach in the nation, Kliff Kingsbury) and to Miami in the national championship game (24 points in two overtimes).

While Craig Krenzel was the signal-caller and vocal leader of the team, second-year head coach relied on true freshman running back Maurice Clarett to carry the offense on the field. For the season, Clarett ran for 1,237 yards and scored 18 total touchdowns in the only season he would play college football after being run from the team due to many points of misconduct during and after the season.

Outside of Clarett, the offense was not filled with stars. Michael Jenkins caught 61 balls for 1,076 yards, but after that offensive production was sparse. Their third best player was Chris Gamble who started both ways, something unheard of in this day of age. Kicker Mike Nugent, who would be named a unanimous All-American at the end of the year, booted 25 field goals and was the Buckeyes' leading scorer on the season. But, with that defense, they didn't need much scoring.

The Buckeyes won games against five ranked opponents on the year, including a hard-fought 13-7 victory over #17 Penn State in Columbus during the one-season break from the Dark Years. Larry Johnson, who would run for over 2,000 yards that season, was held to just 66 in the losing effort. They got lucky and pulled out nail-biters to middle of the pack Purdue and Illinois in consecutive weeks late in the season and knocked off #12 Michigan in their yearly rivalry game, 14-9 to close out a perfect Big Ten and regular season.

No one gave Ohio State much of a chance in the Fiesta Bowl when they were slated to take on Ken Dorsey, Willis McGahee, Kellen Winslow, Andre Johnson, Jon Vilma, Sean Taylor, etc. etc. and the Miami Hurricanes. But Krenzel and Clarett both ran for two touchdowns and the Ohio State defense was able to shut down the playmakers of Miami (just like another Big Ten team did in the 1986 national title game) and the Buckeyes won what might be the greatest college football game of all-time in double overtime, 31-24.

This was a team that played hard-nosed defense (A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter were backups on that defense), scored when they needed to, compiled the greatest record of all-time up to that point and beat maybe the greatest team I have seen in my years of watching college football during that 2002 season. All of that put together gives you a truly special team and one that stands above the rest in the last 20 years of the Big Ten.

Honorable Mentions: 1994 Penn State, 1997 Michigan, 2005 Penn State, *WILD CARD* 1998 Wisconsin

Adam: 1994 Penn State Nittany Lions

This isn’t really a debate; at least it shouldn’t be. The best team in the Big Ten since the 1993 expansion is a team that featured college football’s most prolific offense. A team that featured two Heisman Trophy finalists, several first round draft picks, and multiple players who spent a decade or more as productive professional football players. A team that even the World Wide Leader discussed as one of the top 5 teams in the history of the game when attempting to compare Southern Cal’s 2005 team to that list. You know, before the Trojans lost to Texas several weeks later in the Rose Bowl.

Penn State’s 1994 squad waltzed into the Big Ten, curb stomped the competition, dominated statistically, and won the Rose Bowl. Wondering whether they are the Big Ten’s best since expansion is like wondering whether Oregon’s defense will catch Ki-Jana Carter.

The better question, really, is who’s second?

There’s a truly compelling case to be made for the 2002 Ohio State team. Those Buckeyes were the first team in history to win 14 games in a single season. They featured a stifling defense, a competent quarterback, and a rock star freshman tailback.

Even still, there were flaws in that Buckeye team. Ohio State won every game they played, but all too often snuck by their competition. They went into overtime against an Illinois team with a losing record. They scored one touchdown late in the fourth quarter to pull out a 10-6 win against a 4-5 Purdue team. They beat a Cincinnati team that finished 6-7 by a mere four points. This was not an unstoppable team.

Contrast that record with the following:

In 1997, the Big Ten was won by an undefeated national championship team. That team featured a stifling defense, a school record breaking quarterback selected in the third round of the following year’s NFL draft, and a backfield that showcased both a nine-time 100-yard rusher and the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. More impressively, this team featured a Big Ten cornerback who won the Heisman Trophy, the first and only primarily defensive player to be named college football’s Most Outstanding Player.

The 1997 Michigan Wolverines, unlike that 2002 Buckeye squad, hammered inferior competition and compiled an impressive resume against ranked teams. At the time they played, the Wolverines beat the 2nd, 4th, 7th, 8th, 14th, 15th, and 23rd ranked teams in the nation. Most impressively, in early-November, Michigan beat the second ranked Nittany Lions in Beaver Stadium by a score of 34-8.

Despite the Big Ten’s recent reputation, the league has been filled with excellent squads for the last twenty years. There is plenty to be said for Penn State and Ohio State’s 2005 teams, as well as the 2006 Ohio State and Michigan teams. But the best teams of the last twenty years? 1994 Penn State, 1997 Michigan, and 2002 Ohio State.

Agree with Dan? Agree with Adam? Have someone else entirely? Let us know in the comments.


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