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January 18, 2011

Big Ten: Great year until New Year's

MORE: ACC | Big East | Big 12 | SEC | Pac-10

It was more of the same in the Big Ten in 2010, with Ohio State winning a piece of its league-record sixth conference title in a row. The Buckeyes shared the crown with Wisconsin and Michigan State, with all finishing 11-1 overall and 7-1 in league action in the regular season. It was the Big Ten's first tri-championship since 2000.

But the postseason was a different story. The league was 3-5 during a time of the year when conferences are judged against one another.

Not good.

And it gets worse: In what should be dubbed the "New Year's Day Massacre," the Big Ten went 0-5 on the high holy day of the bowl season with all of America watching.

TCU clipped Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.

Florida dumped Penn State in the Outback Bowl.

Texas Tech tripped up Northwestern in the TicketCity Bowl.

Alabama crushed Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl.

Mississippi State annihilated Michigan in the Gator Bowl.

It's a day the Big Ten never will be able to live down.

The league will move into a new era in 2011 with the arrival of Nebraska from the Big 12 swelling the conference membership to 12. The Big Ten will move into two divisions and cap the season with a conference championship game.

The new divisions will be The Leaders (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin) and The Legends (Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern).

The Big Ten also bid farewell to three coaches, with Minnesota's Tim Brewster getting canned in October, Indiana dumping Bill Lynch in November and Michigan's Rich Rodriguez was fired in January. The Golden Gophers hired Northern Illinois' Jerry Kill, the Hoosiers brought in Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and the Wolverines named San Diego State's Brady Hoke.

Biggest surprise: Michigan State. Coming off a 6-7 season, the Spartans weren't expected to contend for the Big Ten crown. But Michigan State ended up winning a share of its first league title since 1990 by compiling an 11-2 overall record and 7-1 Big Ten mark. And the Spartans pulled off the feat despite coach Mark Dantonio suffering a heart attack in September and missing two games while recovering.

Biggest disappointment: Iowa. The Hawkeyes were supposed to be national championship contenders. But Iowa lost at Arizona in September and never got on track en route to finishing 8-5. The Hawkeyes ended the season on a tailspin, losing their last three regular-season games, with the low point being a defeat to moribund Minnesota. Things got worse, as the team's top receiver (Derrell Johnson-Koulianos) and running back (Adam Robinson) were suspended for off-field issues that made some wonder if this was a program out of control. But Iowa rallied to end the season on an high note by toppling No. 12 Missouri in the Insight Bowl.

Best postseason performance: Iowa. After losing its last three regular-season games, the Hawkeyes were left for dead entering the Insight Bowl against Missouri. Exacerbating matters was the fact Iowa would be without its two best offensive players in Johnson-Koulianos and Robinson. But the Hawkeyes rallied for a 27-24 victory over the Tigers, scoring the winning points on a 72-yard interception return by CB Micah Hyde with less than six minutes left in the game.

Worst postseason performance: Wisconsin. Michigan's 52-14 loss to an offensively challenged Mississippi State squad in the Gator Bowl was bad, but not unexpected. The Badgers, though, lost on sacred Big Ten ground in the Rose Bowl after arguably being the most dominating team in the Big Ten. Entering the game, Wisconsin ranked as the nation's No. 4 scoring offense (43.3 ppg). In its last four regular-season contests, the team outscored foes 235-84. And in eight Big Ten games, the Badgers averaged 45.2 points, the second-highest average in league history. But TCU's quick, athletic defense stymied the big, bad Badgers, allowing 385 yards and only 19 points to become the first school from a non-Big Six conference to win the Rose Bowl. The Horned Frogs secured victory by turning away a potential tying two-point conversion in final minutes.

Underclassmen going pro early: Wisconsin RB John Clay, Indiana WR Tandon Doss, Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure, Illinois DT Corey Liuget, Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt, Illinois LB Martez Wilson.

Next season's breakout offensive player: Penn State RB Silas Redd. Redd impressed as a true freshman this season, running 77 times for 437 yards and two scores. The strong, tough and fast Redd will be the feature back with Evan Royster having graduated as the school's leading career rusher.

Next season's breakout defensive player: Michigan NT Mike Martin. He was one of the few bright spots on an awful Wolverines defense. Martin (6 feet 2/299 pounds) is a playmaker who notched 36 tackles, six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in 2010. He's a quick and disruptive force who explodes off the ball. Count on Martin being the best defensive lineman in the Big Ten next season with Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn, Ohio State's Cameron Heyward and Wisconsin's J.J. Watt all gone.

Player most on the spot next season: Iowa QB James Vandenberg. He saw action in four games at the end of 2009, almost orchestrating a win at Ohio State when Ricky Stanzi was hurt. He is a good passer who understands the offense, but he will be under pressure replacing the steady Stanzi, who went 26-9 as a starter to rank second all-time among Hawkeyes quarterbacks in victories. Stanzi also is the only Iowa quarterback to start and win three bowls.

Next season's conference champions: Nebraska and Ohio State. A new era of 12-team, two-division football will begin. In its first season in the Big Ten, Nebraska should be the favorite in the Legends Division. Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State don't have enough to keep up with a loaded Cornhuskers team. The Leaders Division will be contested as well, with Ohio State appearing to be the front-runner ahead of Penn State and Wisconsin. The Big Ten will play its inaugural league title game in December in Indianapolis.

National title contenders: Ohio State. After having three teams in national title contention in 2010 with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State, the Big Ten looks to have only one in 2011: the Buckeyes. Yes, five players -- including QB Terrelle Pryor, WR DeVier Posey and RB Dan Herron -- are suspended for the first five games (Akron, Toledo, at Miami, Colorado, Michigan State), but Ohio State should overcome the suspensions and still contend. The suspensions could be reduced, as Ohio State has appealed to the NCAA.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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