The Big Ten: 2015 year in review

Michigan State defensive back Jalen Watts-Jackson runs toward the end zone after recovering a fumbled snap on a punt in the closing seconds of the second half. 

Carlos Osorio/AP

A wild finish in Ann Arbor was just part of another great season of Big Ten football. We pick some of the best players, moments and more. 

BEST PLAYER: Joey Bosa, Ohio State

Bosa was a force for a Buckeye defense that leads the nation in scoring average. After dominating mostly at end last year, Bosa expanded his role and continued to excel in 2015. Inside or outside, he was the focus of opposing blocking schemes and still managed 16 tackles for loss. He only had five sacks, but Bosa’s presence helped teammates Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard combine for 12.5. Bosa also remained a dynamic run stopper. 

Honorable mention: Connor Cook, Michigan State

BEST PLAY: Michigan’s botched punt snap against Michigan State

Michigan looked like it had a 23-21 win over its in-state rivalry wrapped up. All the Wolverines had to do was execute a punt with 10 seconds left. Then things went wild. Punter Blake O’Neill mishandled the snap and then lost the ball while trying to get a kick off anyway. It ended up in the hands of MSU defensive back Jalen Watts-Jackson, who ran it back 38 yards for an improbable touchdown that gave MSU a 27-23 lead with no time left at the Big House. MSU would not be heading to the Big Ten championship game this weekend if not for that play.

BEST COACHING JOB: Kirk Ferentz, Iowa

On the outside it doesn’t look like much has changed with the Iowa Hawkeyes football program. There has been lots of talk about the same ol’ boring style of play that has powered the team to a perfect 12-0 regular season. However, Kirk Ferentz had made enough changes inside of the program — like changing practice times and giving his players more time off — to turn around a program that had lost 30 games in the past five seasons. It will be a few years before his contract comes up as a national joke again.

Honorable mention: Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

BEST COMEBACK: Northwestern Wildcats

Ugly. Gritty. Scrappy. 

Those are all words you could use to describe Northwestern. Pat Fitzgerald would tell you that is "Wildcats football." The coach made a point to tell everyone at Big Ten Media Days this year that his team would be returning to Wildcats football, and we now know what he means. It wasn’t always pretty, but led by a good defense, the ‘Cats quietly won 10 games. After posting back-to-back 5-7 seasons, Fitzgerald’s fingerprints are all over this team, and that should bode well for more future success.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Iowa Hawkeyes

Coming into the season, Iowa was given a puncher’s chance to win the Big Ten West, but that was mostly thanks to the Hawkeyes’ soft schedule. It’s true that it helped that the Hawkeyes did not play Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State from the East in the regular season, but they have won every game put in front of them. Shutdown cornerback Desmond King leads the nation in interceptions on a nasty defense that has led the way. Making the move to C.J. Beathard at quarterback has also proved to be a great one for Kirk Ferentz’ squad, which completed a perfect regular season.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Nebraska Cornhuskers

When Nebraska hired Mike Riley, none of their fans expected a 5-7 campaign. The season was a complete roller coaster filled with more downs than ups, even if you grade on a curve for close losses and a system that doesn’t fit quarterback Tommy Armstrong. The glass-half-full version of 2015 says the ‘Huskers lost seven games by a combined 31 points and beat Big Ten East champion Michigan State. The glass-half-empty view says it’s never acceptable to lose to Purdue and Illinois if you are a program of Nebraska’s stature. Riley needs time to get his players in place, but real progress needs to be shown in year two.

MOST VIRAL/SOCIAL MEDIA MOMENT: Jim Harbaugh’s Halloween advice

Jim Harbaugh’s first season as head coach at Michigan had a lot of interesting moments. Off the field (since nothing beat MSU’s "gift six" on it), we thought one stood above the rest. In keeping up with his attempts to get the most out of every day, Harbaugh revealed that he tells his kids to get two costumes every year. Why? So after they are done making one trip around the neighborhood they can change costumes and make another one!

PLAYER TO LOOK FORWARD TO IN 2016: Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

We don’t know for sure what side of the ball the 2015 Big Ten Freshman of the Year will be on the most next season, but we know he will be worth keeping an eye on. Peppers was primarily a defensive player, but his role on offense expanded as the season went on. Whether lining up at quarterback, tailback or receiver — he even took a snap or two at fullback against Ohio State — Peppers was the center of attention, and he showed game-breaking ability with the ball in his hands. The rest of the time (if he wasn’t returning punts), he was a hard-hitting safety, nickel back or corner.

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