Thrilling finishes. De facto playoff games. Incredible individual performances and crazy comebacks.
The Big Ten had just about everything this year in what may go down as one of the more entertaining, successful seasons in recent memory for the league. In fact, it was the high stakes seemingly every week with so many elite teams in the mix for the College Football Playoff that made for must-watch games that won’t soon be forgotten around the conference.
The abundance of entertainment and top-shelf competition also made it hard to narrow down the candidates for ESPN’s Best Games list in the Big Ten this year. But here’s the rundown of the top matchups of the 2016 regular season -- with a few more memorable moments sure to pop up in the bowls later this month.
1. Ohio State 30, Michigan 27: After a year of hype, The Game more than lived up to the advanced billing. And it also couldn’t be settled during regulation, with the Buckeyes coming back from a double-digit, second-half deficit and eventually winning in double overtime. Coming into the showdown with Ohio State ranked No. 2 and Michigan just one spot back at No. 3, the rivalry hadn’t had as much on the line nationally in a decade. And Urban Meyer’s team punched a ticket to the College Football Playoff when Curtis Samuel sprinted around the left side and into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
2. Penn State 24, Ohio State 21: After the conversation about James Franklin’s long-term viability leading the Nittany Lions had grown louder in September with a rivalry loss to Pittsburgh and a thorough beatdown at the hands of Michigan, he finally claimed an elusive signature victory with the late comeback at home in a White Out. The rally was sparked by a pair of blocked kicks and some stout defense, and the victory marked a turning point for Penn State with the newfound confidence helping fuel the run to the Big Ten title.
3. Penn State 38, Wisconsin 31: The matchup with the conference title on the line certainly wasn’t one anybody was expecting in the preseason, but both the Badgers and Nittany Lions clearly earned their spots and validated them by putting on a show in Indianapolis. The Badgers jumped out to a 21-point lead and looked like they might be on the brink of jumping into the playoff committee’s top four with a lopsided victory, but the Nittany Lions again used their second-half magic to storm back and claim a spot in the Rose Bowl.
4. Iowa 14, Michigan 13: There wasn’t anything all that pretty about the defensive slugfest, but it’s somewhat fitting that an old-fashioned, low-scoring Big Ten battle wound up playing such a crucial role in deciding both the league champion and sorting out the national-title race. The Wolverines lost control of their destiny when Keith Duncan knocked through a 33-yard field goal as time expired, giving the Hawkeyes an upset win and wreaking some havoc on the college football landscape. Iowa didn’t have the kind of success it was expecting this season, but it still pulled off one of the season’s biggest victories.
5. Wisconsin 23, Nebraska 17: The two favorites in the West Division kicked off the wild sprint to the finish with a competitive classic, giving the Big Ten another crucial game that would need overtime to decide a winner. Nebraska was back in the national spotlight after a seven-game winning streak to open the season, and it looked the part of a contender by fighting back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter on the road to force the extra session with the Badgers. But Wisconsin was able to do what it couldn’t earlier in the season in a similar dogfight with Ohio State -- getting a score and a stop that would eventually help ensure it would represent the West in Indianapolis.
Honorable mentions: Ohio State 30, Wisconsin 23 (OT); Penn State 29, Minnesota 26 (OT); Minnesota 34, Rutgers 32; Wisconsin 16, LSU 14; North Dakota State 23, Iowa 21; Nebraska 35, Oregon 32; Indiana 42, Maryland 36.