On Monday, we wrote about the very worst teams Ohio State has ever played in non-conference play, and boy howdy, are there some clunkers on that list. Over the past few years, 2011 Akron, 2010 Eastern Michigan and 1994 Houston were all especially bad, and that's ignoring all the garden-variety crummy teams the Buckeyes have waxed (sup, 1996 Pitt).
That got us thinking though. The non-conference schedule is only a small portion of the schedule each year, and over the long and illustrious history of the Big Ten, surely there have been some horrible Big Ten squads as well. So who was the worst Big Ten team of all time?
Again, since F/+ only goes back to 2005, and most commonly used computer rankings (Sagarin, Massey, etc) only go back to 1998, we'll be using the SRS, found on Sports-Reference.com. SRS creates a numerical ranking based on victory margin and strength of schedules, where 0.0 is totally average. Since we're looking at the worst teams in history, these should be negative numbers, and by a wide margin.
There's a lot of teams in the conference now, so let's take a look at each team's worst seasons.
Michigan: 2008 (3-9, -4.66 STS) 1934 (1-7, -3.99 STS)
Ah, who could forget the glorious 2008 Michigan season? Rich Rod's first year at the helm led to a disjointed Wolverine squad whose personnel didn't match their scheme, and a leaky defense gave way to multiple embarrassments. Michigan lost by 25 to a bad Illinois team, gave up 48 in a loss to an equally bad Purdue squad, and was demolished 42-7 by Ohio State. The biggest insult of the year was probably Michigan's 13-10 loss to Toledo (and not even a good Toledo team!), a loss that Ohio State fans will probably never forget.
The second worst Michigan team was way back in 1934, a team that won only a single game (9-2 over Georgia Tech), and scored only 18 points over the entire year, which seems bad, in our opinion. Ohio State clobbered them, 34-0.
Still, if those are the worst seasons in your entire illustrious history, you're doing pretty damn good. Only nine years in all of Michigan football history had a negative SRS ranking.
Michigan State: 1926 ( 3-4-1, -5.38 SRS), 1991 (3-8, -4.57 SRS)
You would think that after all the "SPARTY, NO" memes, Michigan State's worst squads would have been a little worse than this, but the Spartans have actually been pretty consistent, only recording seven seasons with a negative ranking. The worst year, strangely enough, was a 1926 team that posted a relatively respectable 3-4-1 record. To be fair though, that team was demolished by Colgate, and lost to something called a Haskell, 40-7 (Michigan State wasn't in the Big Ten back then).
The worst season in modern Spartan history was back in 1991, a year after they won eight games and beat USC in the Sun Bowl. During that campaign, the Spartans managed to lose to both Central Michigan and Rutgers within the first three weeks of the year. Ugly, but not really historically ugly.
Iowa: 1971 (1-10, -9.67), 1937 (1-7, -7.24)
Okay, now we're looking at some actually bad teams. The 1971 Hawkeyes, under first year coach Frank Lauterbur, got outscored by Ohio State and Michigan 115-28. They lost to Penn State by 30. They lost to Purdue by more. Only three games all season were decided by single digits, and only one, a 20-16 victory over Wisconsin, resulted in a win. Lauterbur was fired two seasons later, with a 4-28-1 record at Iowa. That seems bad.
The 1937 edition managed to beat a team called Bradley Tech by a 14-7 score, and then lost to everybody else, although at least they kept most of those scores close.
The 2012 Iowa team that finished 4-8, by comparison, had an SRS ranking of -2.62.
Wisconsin: 1988 (1-10, -12.99), 1968 (0-10, -9.45)
Wisconsin has been a pretty good football team for the past twenty years or so, but that doesn't mean they were always good. The 1988 squad was putrid by any measure, losing to Western Michigan by two touchdowns and then to NIU. The Badgers didn't score 20 points in a game the entire year, and got dumptrucked by any quality Big Ten side they faced (Michigan:62, Wisconsin: 14). That was an ugly year.
But somehow, the 1988 team at least won a game (they beat Minnesota, 14-7). The 1968 squad couldn't even do that, and only cracked single digits three times. The Badgers were either shut out or held to single digits in an astonishing six of their ten games. Yikes.
Minnesota: 1983 (1-10, -12.14), 2007 (1-11, -11.69)
If you watched the Tim Brewster experiment, it might be difficult to imagine a worse Minnesota team, but according to the numbers, it totally happened. The 1983 squad beat Rice in the opener, and then got murdered by everybody else they played. They gave up 84 points to Nebraska. They gave up 69 to Ohio State. Iowa scored 61. Michigan scored 58. All but two teams scored at least 34 points on the Golden Gophers, who just never had a chance.
The 2007 Gopher team, of course, also went 1-11, lost to Bowling Green, Florida Atlantic, and most famously, to North Dakota State. They needed three overtimes to beat Miami (OH) at home. Welp.
Nebraska: 1943 (2-6, -15.48), 1957 (1-9, -10.25)
You typically don't think of Nebraska when you think of historically horrible football teams. In fact, some of the best squads of all time have been Cornhuskers. But before Nebraska joined the Big Ten, the math says they were worse than every single one of these original Big Ten teams ahead of them.
Specifics are a little light on the 1943 team. They averaged 9.9 points a game, and gave up 32.6. They lost to Minnesota, Indiana and Missouri by a combined 164-33 score, and won their two games by a combined seven points. The 1957 team was even more offensively inept, as they were shut out four times and never scored more than 14 points.
You know what's really impressive though? Nebraska hasn't posted a negative SRS ranking since 1958. Even the Bill Callahan years were technically "above average". That's consistency.
Illinois: 1997 (0-11, -12.97), 1969 (0-10, -12.34)
Ah yes, the Ron Turner experience! In Turner's first season, the Illini lost every single game but one by double digits, scored less than 11 points a game, and finished near the bottom nationally of virtually every major statistical category. Neat.
The 1969 team wasn't much better. They also failed to win at all, and got shut out or held to single digits points five times. The Illini gave up 40+ points six times, and never scored more than 22. Ugliness all around.
The third worst season, in case you were wondering, is indeed a Tim Beckman season (2012).
Purdue: 1906 (0-5, -15.87), 2013 (1-11, -12.43)
As bad as Purdue has been over the last few seasons, according to SRS, the worst was actually way back in the early 1900s. That team scored in only one game (a 29-5 loss to Wisconsin), and lost to Chicago and Wabash. It's sort of hard to really conceptualize how good or bad a football team could have been so long ago, given that the sport has changed so dramatically since the early 1900s.
So if we want to look at the next worst team, well, that was 2013. Hazel's Heroes barely beat Indiana State, and then just got crushed by everybody else they played...including Cincinnati and Northern Illinois. As bad as that team was though, SRS says that there were 15 worse teams in college football in 2013, so Purdue fans at least have that going for them. Which is nice.
Penn State: 1889 (2-2, -11.05), 1932 (2-5, -6.82), 1950 (5-3-1, -1.15)
Not many teams have been more consistent than Penn State, which hasn't truly been bad in decades. The 1889 team was only Penn State's third season playing football, and it's probably skewed by the fact that Lehigh beat them 106 to nothing (no, that's not a typo). The 1932 team also featured some forgettable losses (Waynesburg, Harvard, Colgate), but again, football was basically a different sport back then. The closest thing to a bad team in anything resembling a modern era, per SRS, was the 1950 team, which still finished with a winning record. You could do a lot worse than that.
Ohio State: 1966 (4-5, -0.32), 1913 (4-2-1, .32)
You probably already know this, but Ohio State fans are beyond spoiled. In the entire history of Buckeye football, they've only recorded a negative SRS rating once, and that was in 1966, a team that only lost one game by double digits, and three by a combined seven points. The 1913 team was a little underwhelming, but still finished with a positive ranking and a winning record (suck it, Ohio Wesleyan). If 1966 is what passes for a catastrophic season, you know your program is in damn good shape.
Maryland: 1938 (2-7, -14.08), 1940 (-13.05)
The Big Ten's newest members bring some particular putrid seasons along with them. Playing in the Southern Conference, the 1938 team only managed to beat McDaniel and Washington and Lee, and got outscored by Penn State, Syracuse and VMI by a score of 133-14. More detailed stats are hard to come by, but it isn't hard to see why that's pretty bad.
The worst team approaching a more modern era would be the 1967 squad that finished 0-9, and recorded a -11.87 SRS ranking. That team only averaged 5.1 points a game, second worst in the entire country, and hit double digits only once. Still not very good.
Northwestern: 1981: (0-11, -14.39), 1989 (0-11, -14.37)
When we first brainstormed this idea, our staff guessed that Northwestern would probably have the worst team. After all, the Wildcats had a losing season every year from 1972-1994, and with Lake the Posts business (and rumors about wanting to head to ditch the Big Ten for the Ivy League), when you think historically bad Big Ten football, you'd be forgiven for thinking of Northwestern.
And make no mistake, there has been some terrible Northwestern football. The 1981 team lost to Indiana by a single point and then proceeded to basically stop trying the rest of the year. They were shut out five times, and scored seven points or less two more times. Opponents scored at least 35 points in every game but one. Dennis Green's team was dead last in both points scored and points allowed, and it's to imagine how an FBS team could have been much worse (SPOILER: teams were worse). The 1989 team was almost as bad, also losing every game and often by hilarious margins, but at least that team was able to score every time. That one lost to Rutgers, though.
Indiana: 2011 (1-11, -10.91), 2002 (3-9, -10.42)
It's possible that our perception of Indiana football has been skewed a little bit, since the four worst seasons of all time all occurred after the year 2000. The 2011 squad clocks in with the lowest ranking, and even though they only beat an FCS squad, they were at least competitive in several of their Big Ten losses. The defense completely fell apart near the end of the year, as the Hoosiers gave up over 50 points in three of their last six games, and at least 33 in all six of them.
The 2002 team had a slightly better computer record, but had a similar defensive implosion at the end of the season, giving up over 37 points a game over the season. Indiana history is full of more failures than successes, but the seasons after the year 2000 have been especially unkind.
Rutgers: 1997 (0-11, -22.06), 1956 (3-7, -20.74)
There has been some terrible football played over the last hundred plus years by Big Ten teams, but nothing compares to what newcomer Rutgers brings to the table. The 1997 Rutgers team is easily the worst STS score of any team in Big Ten history (even though Rutgers wasn't in the Big Ten then). The Scarlet Knights gave up more than 30 points in every single game but one (a 28-14 loss to a 5-6 Wake Forest team), lost every game by double digits except for two, and were mostly uncompetitive against a not very good schedule.
But that isn't the only example of Rutgers ineptitude. If we looked at the five worst SRS scores among Big Ten teams, all five would come from Rutgers. While most of the other terrible teams come from the 1950s and 1960s, the 2002 squad that went 1-11 is just outside that top five.
Yes, we know Rutgers hasn't historically invested in football. Yes, we know that with access to Big Ten money, things may be different. Yes, we know that everybody knows that Rutgers used to suck, and no, I didn't write this just to pick on you specifically, Rutgers. But those are the facts. With over a hundred years of potential football misery, the championship belt belongs on the banks.
If we're keeping score (and we are), here are the five worst seasons ever by a team that is currently in the Big Ten:
1997 Rutgers (-22.06)
1956 Rutgers (-20.74)
1965 Rutgers (-20.17)
1955 Rutgers (-18.42)
1953 Rutgers (-17.14)
Now, If we are going to limit the list to only teams who were in the Big Ten during that season, then the five worst teams were:
*1938 University of Chicago (-16.43)
1981 Northwestern (-14.39)
1989 Northwestern (-14.37)
1978 Northwestern (-13.60)
1980 Northwestern (-13.30)
1988 Wisconsin (-12.99)
Great job, everybody.