TAMPA, Fla. – For the Chinese, 2002 was the Year of the Horse. For college football, 2002 was the Year of the Darkhorse. No bowl season in recent memory has seen as many underdogs win in games where they were so outmatched on paper. And in dramatic style – it rose and fell, only to rise again – the Big Ten is once again the best conference in college football.

Paul Wong
True freshman wide receiver Jason Avant (left) escorts senior safety Julius Curry (right) and senior defensive end Dan Rumishek (back) off the field for the last time in their Michigan uniforms.
Paul Wong
Michigan running back Chris Perry (23) — the Outback Bowl Most Valuable Player — jumps into the air and meets a flying Ronald Bellamy (19) as senior fullback B. J. Askew looks on.

As a conference, Big Ten teams went 5-2 in bowl games, including Ohio State’s improbable victory over Miami (Fla.) to win the national title. In those seven games, only Penn State was favored, and in the case of Minnesota, Purdue and Wisconsin, their in-conference performance gave no indication of how they would surprise their opponents.

This year in the Big Ten, the buzzword was parity. Now it’s not just a word that stupid coaches use to make themselves sound smart, it’s actually applicable, as the bottom-feeders showed themselves capable of defeating the conference’s top teams. Illinois and Purdue nearly defeated the Buckeyes, and the Wolverines eeked out victories over the Badgers and Boilermakers. Yet in the end, Ohio State and Michigan (and Iowa) were still at the top and everyone else was left scrambling – and there is little reason to believe that next season will be any different.

Ending the season with a win always gives fans hope for next season, but for Michigan and Ohio State, their success is secured. The day after defeating the Hurricanes, the Buckeyes were already talking repeat and they have returning talent to do it. They lose six starters, including All-America safety Mike Doss and All-America linebacker Matt Wilhelm, but only one on offense, wide receiver Chris Vance. With the return of running back Maurice Clarett and all-everything performer Chris Gamble, there is little reason to bet against Ohio State.

The Wolverines, who nearly defeated said Buckeyes in their own stadium, gave the nation a little taste of what to expect next season. Their offense exploded for 38 points against Florida and played nearly mistake free, anchored by running back Chris Perry and quarterback John Navarre. After B.J. Askew left the game in the first quarter with a broken hand, Perry showed his versatility with six receptions for 108 yards. He also rushed for 85 yards and four touchdowns to be the game’s most valuable player. It was the kind of game that Perry had been expected to produce ever since his 123-yard, three-touchdown game against Washington.

Navarre was poised and efficient in playing perhaps his best game for the Wolverines. He completed 21-of-36 passes for 319 yards and a touchdown and threw no interceptions. He withstood the pressure of the Florida defensive line and linebackers and showed none of the panic that had plagued him in the past.

The offensive line remains intact with Dave Petruziello being the only also remains intact, as Ron Bellamy’s departure leaves an opening for Jason Avant and heralded redshirts Steve Breaston and Carl Tabb.

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