College football's greatest teams: The best season from every Big Ten program


The Big Ten has existed for a long time, and it’s seen plenty of changes over the years. It was created in 1896 as the Western Conference and consisted of seven schools: Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin, Michigan and Chicago. Indiana and Iowa joined in 1899, Michigan left for a decade in the early 1900s, Ohio State joined in 1912, Chicago dropped out in 1946, and then Michigan State, Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland eventually made their way in too.

The point is, there’s a lot of football history in the Big Ten, with each program claiming plenty of its own.

But which of the hundreds of teams in the conference’s history were the best in the histories of their school? Well, it’s quite a coincidence that you’ve asked such a question because I happen to have all the answers handy.

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Graphic illustration by Michael Meredith

Illinois (1914)

Illini fans might be surprised to see I’ve chosen the 1914 team over the 1923 team, even though that 1923 team had the greatest Illini player in history: Red Grange. Non-Illini fans might be surprised to see that Illinois was once really good at football. Anyway, the reason I chose this 1914 team was that it was a more dominant squad than Grange’s teams. It went 7-0 while outscoring its opponents 224-22, posting four shutouts, and never allowing another team to score 10 points.

Record: 7-0 | Final ranking: n/a
Coach: Robert Zuppke | MVP: DE Perry Graves
Championships won: National (Billingsley), Western Conference
Accolades: Two consensus All-Americans (Perry Graves, Ralph Chapman)
NFL Draft picks on roster: n/a
Did you know? The 1914 national title was the first of four national titles that Illinois would win under coach Robert Zuppke. The Illini won again in 1919, 1923 (with Red Grange) and 1927.

Indiana (1945)

Indiana has never won a national title in football, but its 1945 team had a legitimate claim to the throne. The Hoosiers went 9-0-1 that season, marking the first and last time they’ve ever gone unbeaten in a campaign. It was also Indiana’s first Big Ten title. The Hoosiers outscored their opponents 279-56 during the season, but they only finished fourth in the AP Top 25. The reason was that their lone blemish was a 7-7 tie against a Northwestern team that finished the season 4-4-1. Army finished 9-0 and was No. 1 in the final AP Top 25 with 9-0 Alabama at No. 2 and 7-1-1 Navy at No. 3. I want to complain about Navy’s ranking is a result of the dang media’s service academy bias.

Record: 9-0-1 | Final ranking: No. 4
Coach: Bo McMillin | MVP: RB George Taliaferro
Championships won: Big Ten Conference
Accolades: Coach of the Year (McMillin), consensus All-American (Bob Ravensberg)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 11
Did you know? Running back George Taliaferro became the first African-American to lead the Big Ten in rushing in a single season, and leading receiver Mel Groomes became the first African-American to ever sign with the NFL‘s Detroit Lions.

Iowa (1958)

I spent plenty of time trying to decide between the 1958 Iowa team and the 1960 team. Both finished with eight wins and a loss, but the deciding factor was that the 1958 team played in and won the Rose Bowl, and it was named the national champion by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). It’s the only claimed national title in Iowa football history. (The 1960 team tied Minnesota for a Big Ten title, but the Gophers were chosen for the Rose Bowl after handing Iowa its only loss that season.) The 1958 team finished the season ranked No. 2 in the AP Top 25 behind LSU, but the AP Top 25 came out before the bowl games were played. Either way, that No. 2 ranking remains the highest ranking to finish a season in Iowa history.

Record: 8-1-1 | Final ranking: No. 2
Coach: Forest Evashevski | MVP: QB Randy Duncan
Championships won: National (FWAA), Big Ten
Accolades: Big Ten MVP (Duncan)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 12
Did you know? Following the 1958 season, one in which he finished second in Heisman Trophy voting, Duncan went on to become the No. 1 overall pick of the 1959 NFL Draft. Selected by the Green Bay Packers, Duncan is the only No. 1 pick in Iowa football history. He never played for the Packers, though. He started two games for the Dallas Texans during his NFL career.

Maryland (1951)

This selection may be controversial to some, but it’s the right call in my mind, and an easy one at that. Maryland’s 1953 team is the only team in school history to win a recognized national title. That team went 10-1 and lost to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. It finished the season ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25, but the final polls came out before the bowl games. Maryland’s 1951 team didn’t win a recognized title, but it went 10-0 and beat No. 1 Tennessee 28-13 in the Sugar Bowl. It outscored its opponents 381-74, held seven opponents to seven points or less, and was the first Maryland team to post a perfect record since 1893. It was a dominant team. The most dominant in Maryland history.

Record: 10-0 | Final ranking: No. 3
Coach: Jim Tatum | MVP: OG Bob Ward
Championships won: Southern Conference co-champion
Accolades: Southern Conference Coach of the Year (Tatum), Knute Rockne Award (Bob Ward), Southern Conference Player of the Year (Ward), consensus All-American: (Ward)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 19
Did you know? Maryland’s 1951 team led the nation in points scored per game (38.1) and finished third in points allowed per game (7.5).

Michigan (1947)

Michigan has won more college football games (917) than any other program in the history of the sport. It has claimed 11 national titles, 42 conference titles, three Heisman Trophy winners and had 92 Consensus All-Americans. Attempting to whittle through all that success to find the best team in program history was not easy. In the end, I had to ignore my own recency bias toward 1997’s group and go with 1947’s version of the Wolverines. We’re talking about a team that went 10-0, outscoring opponents 394-53 — a team that posted five shutouts (including three in its final four games) during the season, finishing the year with a 49-0 drubbing of No. 8 USC in the Rose Bowl.

In fact, that Rose Bowl annihilation led to something that had never happened before. Notre Dame finished the season at No. 1 in the final AP Top 25 (back when they came out before the bowls) at 9-0. It didn’t play in a bowl game and finished the season with a 38-7 win over the same USC squad. Michigan’s Rose Bowl performance was so impressive that the AP did a special post-bowl game ranking to settle the debate between Michigan and Notre Dame. Michigan won the post-bowl poll by a vote of 226-119.

Record: 10-0 | Final ranking: No. 2
Coach: Fritz Crisler | MVP: RB Bump Elliott
Championships won: National (consensus), Big Nine
Accolades: Two consensus All-Americans: (Elliott, Bob Chappuis)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 15
Did you know? At the time, Michigan’s 49-0 victory over USC in the Rose Bowl was the largest margin of victory anybody had ever posted against USC, and 49 points were the most scored in Rose Bowl history.

Michigan State (1965)

I debated between 1965 and 1966 (both national title winners) and went with 1965 in the end. I chose it over the 1966 team because, even though it lost a game, it just looks like the more dominant team in retrospect. It played a tougher schedule, defeating both No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 6 Purdue on the road (it also beat Michigan on the road), and its lone loss was a 14-12 loss to No. 5 UCLA in the Rose Bowl. The 1966 team’s only win over a ranked team was at home against No. 9 Purdue. Of course, there was also the infamous 10-10 tie against No. 1 Notre Dame to finish the 1966 season and the result of a split national title.

Record: 10-1 | Final ranking: No. 2
Coach: Duffy Daugherty | MVP: DL Bubba Smith
Championships won: National (Coaches), Big Ten
Accolades: Coach of the Year (Daugherty), two consensus All-Americans: (Smith, George Webster)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 16
Did you know? Four of the top 10 picks in the 1967 NFL Draft were Michigan State players from the 1965 team: No. 1 Bubba Smith, No. 2 Clint Jones, No. 5 George Webster and No. 8 Gene Washington. It was a good team, folks.

Minnesota (1940)

There was a time when Minnesota was a dominant program. It has claimed seven national titles in its history with five of them coming between 1934 and 1941. Bernie Bierman built a dynasty with his Gophers, and his 1940 team looks to be the best of the bunch. I give it the edge over 1941’s title team because according to the strength of schedule metric at College Football Reference, the 1940 team played the most challenging schedule in the country that season. That schedule included three narrow victories at No. 15 Ohio State, at No. 8 Northwestern and home against No. 3 Michigan. The Gophers won those three games by a combined eight points.

Record: 8-0 | Final ranking: No. 1
Coach: Bernie Bierman | MVP: RB George Franck
Championships won: National (consensus), Big Ten
Accolades: Consensus All-American (Franck)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 13
Did you know? After winning another national title in 1941 coach, Bierman left Minnesota to coach at Iowa Pre-Flight. He spent one season there, going 7-3-1 (including a 7-6 win over Minnesota) before returning to Minnesota for the 1945 season following World War II. He was never able to rekindle the magic with the Gophers, though, going 30-23 over six seasons.

Nebraska (1995)

As a program with five national title winners, I had plenty of options to choose from, but the truth is I was going with the 1995 team no matter what. The only other option was the 1994 team. The reason for this is because both teams had one of my all-time favorite players at QB: Tommie Frazier. I went with the 1995 group, though, because it was the better of the two. It just ran roughshod over everybody. The Huskers went 12-0 that year and won those 12 games by an average of 38.7 points per game. Seriously, the closest game Nebraska played that season was its 35-21 win over Washington State. No other game had a final margin smaller than 23 points. In four games against top 10 teams (Kansas State, Colorado, Kansas and Florida), the Huskers won by an average of 30.75 points per game, and that includes a 62-24 win over No. 2 Florida in the Fiesta Bowl to put the final stamp on a national title.

Record: 12-0 | Final ranking: No. 1
Coach: Tom Osborne | MVP: QB Tommie Frazier
Championships won: National (consensus), Big 8
Accolades: Unitas Golden Arm Award (Frazier), Maxwell Award (Frazier), Big 8 Offensive Player of the Year (Frazier), Big 8 Freshman of the Year (Ahman Green)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 20
Did you know? Of the 20 players on this team to be drafted into the NFL, none of them were Frazier. It’s not that teams weren’t interested in his talent, it’s that he was dealing with blood clots. Also, you’ll notice that Frazier won damn near every significant award but the Heisman in 1995. He finished second to Ohio State’s Eddie George, and yes, I’m still mad about it.

Northwestern (1995)

You could argue that there were better Northwestern teams before 1995, but I give this team the nod because it wasn’t just an excellent team, but also an incredibly important team in the history of the program. Northwestern has never won a national title but has won eight conference titles. This 1995 team was the first team to win a conference title since 1936, however. Hell, the 1995 Northwestern team was the first to even finish with a winning record since the 1971 team went 7-4. The Wildcats went 3-7-1 in 1994 and came out of absolutely nowhere in 1995, opening the season with a 17-15 win over No. 8 Notre Dame in South Bend. The following week it lost to Miami (OH) and you thought it was still the same old Northwestern. But it wasn’t.

This team went 8-0 in the Big Ten, beating No. 7 Michigan in Ann Arbor, as well as No. 24 Wisconsin and No. 12 Penn State at home. It resulted in a conference title and Northwestern’s first trip to the Rose Bowl in 47 years. It lost to USC 41-32 while there, but nobody cared. It was still a fantastic run, and it is mostly responsible for the vastly improved Northwestern we’ve seen during the 21st century.

Record: 10-2 | Final ranking: No. 8
Coach: Gary Barnett | MVP: LB Pat Fitzgerald
Championships won: Big Ten
Accolades: Bear Bryant Award (Barnett), Walter Camp Coach of the Year (Barnett), Chuck Bednarik Award (Fitzgerald), Bronko Nagurski Award (Fitzgerald), Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year (Fitzgerald)
NFL Draft picks on roster: Three
Did you know? During its improbable run to a Big Ten title, Northwestern ended a 22-game losing streak to Iowa, a 19-game losing streak to Michigan, and a 14-game losing streak to Notre Dame.

Ohio State (2014)

There are only five schools who have won more national titles than Ohio State’s eight, and only three have won more conference titles than the 39 the Buckeyes have. So, you know, there are a lot of good teams to choose from in its history. I strongly considered a 1973 team that didn’t win a national title but was still one of the strongest in school history, but in the end, I went with the most recent winner because that team was just so ridiculously talented. This is a team that managed to go 14-1, winning the first College Football Playoff in history, using three different quarterbacks. Its third-string QB started the national title game. The finish to the season was ridiculous, as the Buckeyes beat No. 11 Wisconsin, No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Oregon by a combined score of 143-55 at three different neutral sites.

Record: 14-1 | Final ranking: No. 1
Coach: Urban Meyer | MVP: RB Ezekiel Elliott
Championships won: National (CFP), Big Ten
Accolades: Big Ten Quarterback of the Year (J.T. Barrett), Big Ten Freshman of the Year (Barrett), Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year (Joey Bosa), Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year (Bosa), consensus All-Americans  (Bosa)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 22
Did you know? Of the 22 players on the roster to be drafted into the NFL, six were taken in the first round, and 16 were selected in the first three rounds.

Penn State (1994)

I wrote earlier that I chose the 1995 Nebraska team over the 1994 team because I felt the 1995 team was better. Well, there are plenty of people who will tell you the 1994 Penn State team was better than the 1994 Nebraska team, too, but Nebraska won the national title that year. This Penn State team didn’t. Unfortunately, 1994 was a few years before the BCS, so we’ll never know. Still, I think this team is the best in Penn State history, better than the two teams that won national titles (1982, 1986). It just played a more difficult schedule than those two title winners, as it was Penn State’s second season in the Big Ten.

The Nittany Lions went undefeated, beating No. 14 USC and No. 21 Ohio State at home, as well as No. 5 Michigan on the road. The finished the season beating No. 12 Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Their average of 47 points per game was the most in the country and they won games by an average of 26 points. The problem was that Penn State played the No. 12 team in the Rose Bowl while Nebraska played No. 3 Miami in the Orange Bowl. Using College Football Reference’s SOS metric, Penn State played the eighth most difficult schedule in the country in 1994. Nebraska played the 40th, but that last win over the No. 3 team sealed the deal in the minds of so many voters.

Record: 12-0 | Final ranking: No. 2
Coach: Joe Paterno | MVP: RB Ki-Jana Carter
Championships won: Big Ten
Accolades: Maxwell Award (Kerry Collins), Davey O’Brien Award (Collins), FWAA Coach of the Year (Paterno), consensus All-American (Carter)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 15
Did you know? Carter became Penn State’s first No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft following the 1994 season. Five years later, Penn State defensive end Courtney Brown would become the second.

Purdue (1943)

Purdue claims a national title in 1931, but it’s a flimsy case. Parke H. Davis retroactively declared a 9-1 Purdue team 1931’s champion, but at the time a 10-1 USC team was declared the consensus champ. So, I’m going with the consensus. Besides, the 1931 team wasn’t Purdue’s best. That title belongs to its 1943 squad. The last Purdue team to escape a season without a single loss, the 1943 Boilermakers went 9-0 en route to splitting a Big Ten Conference title (Michigan also finished 6-0 in the conference and the two teams didn’t play), outscoring its opponents 214-55 along the way.

Record: 9-0 | Final ranking: No. 5
Coach: Elmer Burnham | MVP: OG Alex Agase
Championships won: Big Ten (co-champion)
Accolades: Consensus All-American (Agase)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 10
Did you know? Purdue’s 1943 team finished the season ranked No. 5 in the AP Top 25. It’s never finished higher.

Rutgers (2006)

Rutgers may have invented college football, but it’s never been very good at it. At least, not since the sport became what we know it as today. Still, that’s what made the 2006 season so special. Rutgers opened the season 9-0 and leaped to No. 7 in the AP Top 25 after beating No. 3 Louisville 28-25. Unfortunately for the Scarlet Knights, their time in the top 10 didn’t last long, as they lost on the road to Cincinnati 30-11 nine days later. The Knights would lose another heartbreaker, falling to West Virginia 41-39 in three overtimes a couple of weeks later. That loss cost the Knights a Big East title. They finished the season with a 37-10 win over Kansas State in the Texas Bowl. It was the first bowl win in school history.

Record: 11-2 | Final ranking: No. 12
Coach: Greg Schiano | MVP: RB Ray Rice
Championships won: n/a
Accolades: Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year (Schiano)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 10
Did you know? The 2006 Texas Bowl was the first bowl victory in Rutgers history, but Schiano would win four more before leaving for the NFL.

Wisconsin (2017)

When you think of Wisconsin football, you envision a program that is always good but is never elite. It’s a program that has never won a national title and has only gone undefeated three times in its history but hasn’t done so since 1912. That makes it difficult to figure out the best team in program history because it’s somewhat subjective, but the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that we just witnessed it. Last year’s Wisconsin team is the only team in program history to win 13 games in a single season. Its only loss of the season came in a thrilling Big Ten Championship against Ohio State, and it’s 13 wins came by an average of 21.8 points. It had an offense and defense that could both be described as suffocating, and while there have been plenty of excellent Wisconsin teams in history, this may have been the most complete.

Record: 13-1 | Final ranking: No. 7
Coach: Paul Chryst | MVP: RB Jonathan Taylor
Championships won: Big Ten West
Accolades: n/a
NFL Draft picks on roster: Three (so far)
Did you know? The Badgers will have 13 starters from the 2017 team back in 2018, including nine on offense.



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