The last of the finest of my previews for the season. And I’m going with my favorite conference, the Big Ten (while I live in SEC Country in Georgia, I grew up in Big Ten Territory in Michigan so my allegiances lie with that conference).
The Big Ten is either you think highly of the conference or you don’t. Last year many thought the Big Ten may have been the best conference, despite not sending a team to the Playoff. The teams who made a bowl game made strong performances all around, including three of them who won New Year’s Six games (Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin). This year, hopes are still high with the Big Ten as the big four teams in the Big Ten East all have conference championship and playoff aspirations (Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan) and the Big Ten West hope to make strides (Wisconsin) and there may be a few teams that could be a major sleeper out there (Nebraska, Purdue, Northwestern).
Of course, the Big Ten this off-season has been pretty plagued with controversies starting with Michigan State’s scandal with Larry Nassar and other major issues of abuse from players (though it seemed like the football program, while it wasn’t shown in a positive light either with issues in the past, wasn’t the focal point), Ohio State’s recent issues with Urban Meyer which still could cost him his job, and now Maryland’s problems. To say the Big Ten has some headaches heading into this season is a bit of an understatement.
So will the Big Ten get a team back into the Playoff or will they be sitting out? Is Ohio State still the kings or will one of their rivals in the state north of them or the state east of them drop them like a bad habit and take the division? Will Wisconsin get over that hump of being college football’s bridesmaid? Will Nebraska get back to their glory years under Scott Frost? Will Purdue keep making strides? Will Northwestern finally stun everybody?
BIG TEN EAST:
PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS: Saquon Barkley is gone, I get it. But I also think Penn State made a key mistake of trying to make Barkley too much of a focal point, notably with their losses to Ohio State and Michigan State. I think we will see more of a balanced attack and more weapons being utilized under Trace McSorley, who has to be a Heisman favorite this year. He threw for 3,500 yards and 28 TD’s with only 10 INT’s. He’s a tough dude and had Penn State stunned Ohio State in Columbus last year, he probably gets more nods as being one of the best QB’s in the nation if not the best. And Penn State gets in the Playoff. Miles Sanders takes over for Barkley, but there will be other backs like Mark Allen and Johnathan Thomas to shoulder the load. So while it is never easy replacing somebody like Barkley, I do think Penn State is strong enough on offense to set up a great balanced attack where everybody shoulders the load and not really rely on just one guy. Of course the key question will be the defense. Only two starters return, but I do think there are guys who can step up and have big years. The key question will be at linebackers as that is pretty thin. But if the defensive line gets after it, it may shore up those deficiencies. And the secondary, though new at all spots will get John Reid, who is a strong contributor and a group that is vastly experienced and solid. Out of the four big boys in the East, Penn State may be the one lagging the most on defense, but they will still be tough against the run and the pass. And if they continue getting turnovers, with Amani Oruwariye still there, they should be at the top with a favorable schedule (sort of) that sees Ohio State and Michigan State come to Happy Valley early on and they have a bye in between those two instead of the back-to-back road games that ultimately sealed their playoff fate last year. The rest of the schedule should be fine though a road trip to Michigan will be problematic. Wisconsin also comes to Happy Valley this year, but as you will see later on, it may not be as scary as you may first believe. BEST CASE RECORD: 12-0. WORST CASE RECORD: 8-4. MY PREDICTION: 11-1. People may be overlooking Penn State because of the loss of Barkley. That is a very bad thing when McSorley is still there and has plenty of weapons at his disposal.
(2) MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS: The fourth of the big four teams in the Big Ten East or the forgotten one in part because they don’t get the same recruits as their in-state foes of Michigan or Ohio State, Michigan State is still that team that nobody wants to see and makes you pay for it when you forget about them. With being projected to always finish behind the other three, the Spartans somewhat revel in it and have done it in the Mark Dantonio Era. This year, they are again overlooked with Michigan getting Shea Patterson, Ohio State being Ohio State, and Penn State still being a threat. Here’s the bad part for those teams: Michigan State returns the most starters (19 of 22) on a team that won 9 games last year and seemed to get better on both sides of the ball as the year progressed. And this is when they beat Michigan early on in the season and Penn State in early November. There is a lot of experience across the board as well as good young stars that are making names for themselves. On offense, however, the major issue is really consistency in both aspects of the offense. LJ Scott has the potential to be a great back and shows flashes of it at times, but last year he took a massive step backwards, underachieving and unable to net 1,000 yards while being fumble prone. He has to be better holding on to the football. Brian Lewerke is a dual threat quarterback, and many Spartans fans think he can be the next in line of quality quarterbacks under Dantonio like Kirk Cousins and Connor Cook. But he too struggles with consistency in the passing category, though he is one of the best run-pass option quarterbacks in the league and knows when to tuck it and run for big yards. Lewerke will have a talent at receiver if he is more accurate and the corps doesn’t make key drops, which has been something that has hindered the program even when they were winning the Big Ten titles and making the Playoff. But the reason why many people feel Michigan State is back near the top of the conference is the return of their defense. After the lost year of 2016 where they were a mess, the Spartans returned to being a top 25 defense while ranking 2nd in the nation to only Alabama against the run as they made lives miserable for opposing Big Ten backs, including Saquon Barkley last year. And they bring back a stout line. The passing defense is trending upwards with the secondary all returning, stopping passes, and taking the ball away from teams, thus having a feel that there is a “No Fly Zone” defense like they had with Darqueze Dennard, Trae Waynes, and Kurtis Drummond,. And the Spartans also have a solid pass rush led by Kenny Willekes who had seven sacks last year as a sophomore. He could have more this year. Michigan State sees their chief rivals of Michigan and Ohio State in East Lansing this year so that helps, but they still have a roadie at Penn State and a late road trip to Nebraska, which has been the red sea of horrors, even when the Huskers have been down in the Big Ten. And they have an interesting road game out west in Arizona State in the second week. But like Penn State, Michigan, and Ohio State, they may have a shot at running the table this year. It will depend on how far Lewerke and Scott carry them on offense. BEST CASE RECORD: 12-0. WORST CASE RECORD: 7-5 MY PREDICTION: 10-2. I honestly think Michigan State will win their home slate (though they haven’t won against Ohio State at home in a while), but the two games that may cost them a shot at a Playoff is at Penn State and Nebraska.
(3) OHIO STATE BUCKEYES: First off, any Buckeye fans griping I have them third, I had them third last year and the year before. Obviously, they don’t listen to me so that’s a good thing for you Buckeye fans. However (and I may jinx this too), I do believe Urban Meyer stays put at Ohio State. But is that a good thing? I know, 73-8 since he’s joined the Bucks, I get it. But remembering Meyer’s last year at Florida where he was somewhat under the scope (not the hot seat), he somewhat buckled. With this controversy, you know the media, fans and others will keep throwing it at Meyer’s way. But already Meyer has been banned from talking to his players on his leave so that is a small problem. So let’s say Meyer doesn’t make it into the season, Ryan Day who is already assuming head coaching duties, takes over. It wouldn’t be the Bob Stoops-Lincoln Riley situation at Oklahoma last year, and Day really isn’t looked at as one of those “go-to” coordinators for a head coaching job. But like Riley, he has a bevvy of talent at Ohio State. But unlike Riley, he doesn’t have an experienced quarterback. Dwayne Haskins takes over, but is highly regarded as a QB with a strong arm. He will have to show that he can do it, where at times since Ohio State’s national championship, the quarterback has been an issue with consistency. But Haskins has a good left side of the line with Isaiah Prince, and Michael Jordan protecting his backside. And those two can open holes for another Ohio State beast at running back in JK Dobbins. Oh yeah, they still have Mike Weber. But if there is one question, it may be the right side of the line as they all are new, but is Ohio State. If they do struggle though, there may be concerns. The defense is stout with Nick Bosa going after quarterbacks like his brother used to do at Ohio State and now in the NFL. The pass rush is one of the strongest in the nation if not the strongest and covers up issues with the secondary and even linebacker where the Buckeyes do have weaknesses agianst the pass (though “weaknesses” for them is strengths to others). But Ohio State’s passing defense has to get better as it was hurt from time to time even with Denzel Ward there. The good news again is, they are not in a pass-driven conference like the Big 12 so the Buckeyes may be safe on that end. Ohio State’s schedule is interesting and nobody should think it is a cream-puff anymore. They have a tilt in Texas with TCU that is really a “home” game for TCU in Arlington (but let’s face it, Ohio State will pack Jerryworld in there with their fans) but they have three road games at Penn State, Purdue, and Michigan State that none of them can be overlooked at all, especially if they are under scrutiny with Meyer or Day or whoever is coaching. And if it is scrutinized, then it will be another headache when they see Michigan in Columbus this year. So I do think a lot rides on the situation of Meyer this year. BEST CASE RECORD: 12-0. WORST CASE RECORD: 7-5. MY PREDICTION: 10-2. I still say Meyer stays, but I do think there are some effects of this situation that will linger for Ohio State. The “litmus test” will be the TCU game. I think Ohio State wins, but if that game is very close and TCU actually outplays them, I would be slightly worried.
(4) MICHIGAN WOLVERINES: Michigan fans had hoped by now that Jim Harbaugh would have netted at least one Big Ten Title and a Playoff appearance while taking down hated foes of Michigan State and Ohio State on a consistent basis. Three years in and no Big Ten title, two finishes of third place or worse, and a 1-5 record agianst their hated foes. The Wolverines could have Brady Hoke to do that. Michigan’s troubles under Harbaugh fall under one major reason: the quarterback. That SHOULD be solved with Shea Patterson, the Ole Miss transfer, who put up strong numbers with the Rebels last season. However, while Michigan fans hope Patterson is the savior since Tom Brady or at least an adequate quarterback since…well, Tom Brady, there may be a slight concern with it as while Patterson was in a daunting conference in the SEC West with the likes of Alabama, Auburn, and LSU, the Big Ten East is pretty top-heavy and probably stronger with the top dogs than what the SEC West had to offer. And the two games he struggled in last season were to the strong defenses of Alabama and LSU. So while Patterson will automatically be the top quarterback Harbaugh has had at Michigan, the other three powers aren’t necessarily pushovers so there may be a bit of a letdown in that case. However, Patterson doesn’t need to put up Heisman numbers either as he has a talented crew, starting with running back Karan Higdon, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and Tarik Black at receiver while having Sean McKeon at tight end. and an offensive line that returns three starters. The defense brings back 8 which helps from a defense that was near the top in the nation. The Wolverines bring back everybody in the secondary that contributed to the #1 passing defense in the nation last year which will give the other teams in the Big Ten nightmares and will have a crew that was 18th nationally against the run (but actually only 6th in the conference). And the group will only get better with Devin Bush, and having two guys with 8 sacks each (Chase Winovich, Khaleke Hudson). the slight concern will be up the middle at tackles, but they should be overall fine. Overall, though for a defense that great, the offense has to step up at some point. The Wolverines may have the best defense in the conference, but the distance between them, Michigan State, Ohio State, and even Penn State isn’t a wide distance so they need to have that offense rolling to think of a title and beat their foes. Michigan gets the short end this year having to see their foes on the road, but they also have two intriguing games on the road at Notre Dame to start the year and then one at Northwestern. Penn State is at least at home as is Wisconsin so that helps the resume if the Wolverines are in the Playoff discussion later in the season. BEST CASE RECORD: 12-0. WORST CASE RECORD: 7-5. MY PREDICTION: 9-3. Michigan has a defense that can win games and run the table. But it will always come back to that offense and if Shea Patterson is the quarterback that Harbaugh desperately needs. If Patterson plays great, Michigan is in the running. If not, well, the honeymoon is already over for Harbaugh and divorce papers may be proceeding.
(5) RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHTS: I said to start last year that Rutgers may have been the worst Power 5 team, even over lowly Kansas. But last year they actually made strides of improvement. Granted, they are still very far away from being competitive. But there are things they have going. Jonathan Hilliman comes from Boston College, and he is durable at running back. Also Raheem Blackshear can be a playmaker if Rutgers establishes an identity with their running game. But the passing game has been the giant mess and even in a run-heavy, run often Big Ten, you need an adequate passing game. And they haven’t been able to do so. Giovanna Rescigno is the returning starter, but he may not be starting long if he cannot improve on his dismal performance in 2017. They do have a good tight end in Jordan Washington that Rescigno or whoever can look at, but they have to utilize him right. The defense last year may have won a game against Purdue and there is plenty of room for improvement, with 8 returning starters. Trevor Morris could be a great linebacker and one that can really anchor the defense. They have all four starters in the secondary return, which is nice as they weren’t rough on that side of the ball. So the back seven could give teams, even the big boys some fits. But what may hurt the entire unit will be if the front four doesn’t step up. They lose their best end and they don’t have many guys who can get to the quarterback while the depth is a massive issue. It will be interesting to see what happens to Rutgers in 2018. Chris Ash has to show his team is better than the one he inherited 3 years ago and he pretty much inherited a dumpster fire. He’s not going to compete with the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, or Penn State and in his first two years it has shown (they’ve been outscored by a mind-boggling 390-27 by those four teams in two years), but to me, a successful game is if they can at least be semi-competitive (something like 31-21) and this year they get the fun task of seeing Wisconsin in Madison. Aside from those games, they could have a shot at winning most of them, including Illinois, Indiana, and maybe even a road game in Maryland as well as their out-of-conference schedule (which has Kansas too-get your tickets now people!). BEST CASE RECORD: 6-6. WORST CASE RECORD: 2-10 MY PREDICTION: 5-7. The irony is Rutgers could acutally be 5-1 midway through the season, but then that’s where they get their gauntlet of the powers (final four games: at Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State, at Michigan State-ouch). And the passing game is nonexistent still.
(6) INDIANA HOOSIERS: Indiana just a couple of years ago were that team that not even the Big Ten powers wanted to see on their schedule because of how they played offense, notably when Kevin Wilson was coaching them. Would they have been a threat to the division? Probably not, but at least giving those teams fits would have been fun to see. With Wilson unexpectedly getting fired, Indiana’s offense went backwards. Badly. The first thing is the quarterback issue. Is it Peyton Ramsey? Is it Arizona transfer Brandon Dawkins? Or is it Michael Penix who chose the Hoosiers over Florida State? So that question needs to be answered early. The running game is in slight question not really because Morgan Ellison is “meh” (he is very good), but can the lines stand up to the Big Ten powers? That’s a concern. The defense wasn’t rough as a whole but they now have 8 guys to replace on defense which knocks out a considerable amount of depth in Indiana and that is bad there. They may stand pat against the pass as they were top 25 against he pass, but they will need a pass rush to continue that. So there are plenty of problems on both sides of the ball for Indiana in the wrong division to have plenty of problems. Indiana didn’t draw a friendly schedule (like others who don’t have the name “Michigan” or “State” in their names in the East) as they also have to see Iowa and Purdue while a trip to Minnesota as well. It may be a long year in Bloomington. BEST CASE RECORD: 7-5. WORST CASE RECORD: 3-9. MY PREDICTION: 4-8. The Hoosiers have a lot of questions and few answers right now. That’s bad in the division that they are in.
(7) MARYLAND TERRAPINS: The last thing a program trying to establish themselves in a conference that is tough as nails (and a division that is REALLY tough) is to have issues with how things are run. DJ Durkin has to answer questions with how things were handled leading up to offensive tackle Jordan McNair’s death in June of a heatstroke. When you have uncertainty of what is happening and you are a player, it does weigh on you and there could be a lot of things on edge in Maryland. The offensive line has depth, even with the tragic loss of McNair and they will be more of a ball-control offense under new coordinator Matt Canada. It also means Ty Johnson will see a lot of carries and positive carries, even in a brutally tough division against the run. Kasim Hill looks to be the starter in Week 1 against Texas as he is more of a dropback guy and he could have a good year in Canada’s offense. But there is no DJ Moore in Maryland to throw at but it looks to be Tavion Jacobs as the feature receiver. So the offense should get better with a strong line and if Hill shows he is accurate and solid. The defense really went backwards in 2018 and pretty much ranking near the bottom of the conference in everything. But there are some spots, notably at end with Jesse Aniebonam (if healthy) and do have guys in the secondary in Antoine Brooks and Darnell Savage who can create havoc. It’s a relatively young group but these are more of the Durkin recruits coming in so they should fit the system a little bit better than what the outgoing guys were able to do. Maryland starts off with Texas, a team they put up 51 points on last year in Austin, but it seems like a far distant memory now after the season the Terps had last year, but they have to be in the Big Ten East, which means it won’t be fun for them. They will have a favorable home go with Illinois and Rutgers there and could steal a win against Minnesota. But with a program in question right now, it could really spiral outward for Maryland. BEST CASE RECORD: 6-6. WORST CASE RECORD: 3-9 MY PREDICTION: 5-7. I do have the 5-7 Terps behind the 4-8 Hoosiers in part because I think Indiana will actually have a better in-conference record than Maryland will. But this issue with Maryland has no winners regardless.
BIG TEN WEST:
(1) NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS: Maybe this is just too high of a prediction for first year coach Scott Frost’s tenure at Nebraska. I know the lines on both side of the ball were battered, bruised, and beaten on a consistent basis last year and there isn’t much of a change on a personnel front there, but on the offensive line, you have a new scheme, a spread scheme that really nobody in the West really gets at. The spread will utilize the speed of the line as well as shore up any major deficiencies they have. Of course, the big question will be if Tristan Gebbia can play at a high level. But it seems like Gebbia is a great fit on what Frost would want his quarterback to do. If he is able to be consistent with the arm as well, watch out everybody. Defensively, the Huskers were a giant mess last year. They bring back 7, but is that a good thing? The defense couldn’t stop the run, which is a major issue, but changes are happening, notably switching Bent Stille from linebacker to end, which could create more havoc, both against the run and the pass. The linebacker should improve tremendously with Juco transfer Will Honas and if he plays healthy Luke Gifford and it could also help stop the run. The secondary may be the strength of the team, but will be playing more physical in Erik Chinander’s system and could net some turnovers as well as be one of the tougher pass defenses in the conference. Nebraska doesn’t get a lot of love in 2018 as they see Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State (Michigan and Ohio State on the road) as well as a road trip to Wisconsin, but they could sweep the home slate (which includes Purdue, Minnesota, and yes, Michigan State as well as old Big 12 foe Colorado), and find some win either at Northwestern, Iowa, or even Wisconsin, they could steal the division as teams are making steps forward. BEST CASE RECORD: 9-3. WORST CASE RECORD: 5-7 MY PREDICTION: 8-4. I think Nebraska will be getting better and better as the season goes on, where I think that they can take down the likes of Michigan State (who could be vying for the Big Ten East title) and Iowa even in Iowa. And with teams being very close to one another now, it may be advantage Cornhuskers, even with a tough schedule.
(2) IOWA HAWKEYES: Iowa has always been that one team that has that stale as stale can be personality about themselves, but still manages to be in the thick of things late in the season. Last year was an odd year as consistency really bit Iowa. They put up dogfights with Penn State and Michigan State, both games coming up short. They famously put up 55 points on the powerful Buckeyes team and won by 31 on them, which ultimately was the nail in the Buckeyes coffin for a Playoff chance. But then they had those games of losing to Northwestern by putting up 10 points or losing by 9 to Purdue at home and only putting up 15 points two weeks after embarrassing the Buckeyes. The offense has always been somewhat of a “meh” offense, even with good quarterbacks. Nate Stanley has to be more consistent than last year where he was good a lot but also showed he was rough at times. If he can show that consistency then Iowa should really feel comfortable with Stanley if the running game isn’t working. Akrum Wadley is gone, so there is at least some concern of who becomes that guy that Iowa always has to really lean on in big games. Toren Young and Ivory Kelley-Martin take over, so it may be a competition to see who is that feature guy. Defense is an interesting situation for Iowa. They’ve always had those big physical guys bullying opponents (like they did against Ohio State), but 4 starters return and only two of them are slated to start. However, the secondary is deep even after Josh Jackson left for the NFL. And honestly they may be fine if they can continue a pass rush with Anthony Nelson, and Parker Hesse while having a defensive end in waiting in AJ Epenesa. The middle of the line will be some question and the linebackers, which has always been a strength, may be a concern as well as new linebackers in all three spots so there may be growing pains there. Iowa’s schedule sees Iowa State early in their state rivalry game which could be another fun and interesting tilt. It’s a tough one to manage, but if they can get a big win against Wisconsin at Kinnick Stadium, they could end up 7-0 when they travel to Penn State in late October. And then that’s where the schedule gets intriguing because Purdue is right after and Northwestern is always a tough out. And this year Nebraska looks to be stronger than what it has been under Mike Riley. BEST CASE RECORD: 11-1. WORST CASE RECORD: 5-7. MY PREDICTION: 8-4. I do think Iowa will get off to a nice run, but I think the minute they get to Penn State and have that gut-punch, things may spiral outward on them a little bit.
(3) WISCONSIN BADGERS: I know what you’re thinking: “You have Wisconsin at 3rd in the Big Ten West?! Are you out of your mind?! They have been really the best team in that division for the past decade! They won the Orange Bowl last year and went 13-1! Are you insane?!” First off, let me address a few things. 1. I’ve never been one that goes with the flow. 2. I’m looking at it from different aspects. 3. I’ve been wrong time after time so really this wouldn’t surprise me if I am wrong. 4. It doesn’t necessarily mean Wisconsin takes a major step back. 5. They have a rougher schedule and teams are getting better in their division so it isn’t as easy. The knock on last year’s team was a simple one: their schedule was very weak. They avoided Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan State on their schedule and had an offensively inept Michigan squad at home. And save for a few games, they didn’t have that “we dominated from start to finish” game too many times against the weaker squads. “But we beat Miami in the Orange Bowl!” A depleted Miami squad at that. This year is a very different year. Again, similar to last season, Wisconsin does not see a Power 5 team outside the Big Ten and all three non-conference games are at home. But the road trips in the conference are not going to be fun with going to Iowa, an improved Michigan team, an always tough Northwestern squad, and back-to-back games at Penn State and Purdue. “But they have Jonathan Taylor! He’s a stud and nearly ran for 2,000 yards!” Yes, they do. And he had some big games against Iowa and even Michigan, but he royally struggled against Ohio State (#6 against the run last year in the nation) and Northwestern (#9th). This year there are teams that are getting better (Purdue) and they have to see Penn State and a Michigan defense which should be better against the run next year. So it may be tougher for Taylor to replicate his amazing Freshman season. And of course, what has really doomed the Badgers from taking that next step has been the lack of a passing game. Alex Hornibrook has shown flashes of brilliance, but still a very inconsistent quarterback. And with having a strange year of possibly having a slight rebuild on the defense, Wisconsin HAS to put points to compete. But if they get down early and have to rely on Hornibrook’s arm, it may be one of those years that doesn’t go down as one of Wisconsin’s memorable seasons. BEST CASE RECORD: 10-2. WORST CASE RECORD: 6-6 MY PREDICTION: 7-5. I think they will be physical on defense, but there are concerns on that side of the ball and Hornibrook is just too much of a liability. Even as good as Taylor is, I just don’t see Wisconsin being at the front of the conference this year.
(4) MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS: “Row the Boat” was the moniker PJ Fleck had going for him when he was at Western Michigan. He took that moniker with him to Minnesota. Gophers fans were hoping big things for Fleck in 2017, but ultimately found themselves losing 7 of their final 9, including being outscored 70-0 by Northwestern and rival Wisconsin in the final two weeks, thus not making a bowl game. While the “honeymoon” for Fleck and Minnesota isn’t at an end by any means, fans may be very cautious with Fleck, who is one of those “rah rah” coaches (and those ones in my book are never overly successful) and do all the little gimmicks with phrases and such (see Butch Jones at Tennessee). But Fleck is an interesting guy as I think he’s more driven to do well and improve and I think that starts this year. There are key questions though on offense, notably quarterback. Tanner Morgan looks like he’s going to be the starter, but he’s a freshman though nobody knows what to expect. Given he was recruited by Fleck, it may be a case of the right guy in the right system for the run-pass offense. Whoever is the quarterback will have Rodney Smith, who nearly ran for a 1,000 yards last year and should get the large sum of the carries and with three starters on the line as well as having depth there, it may be a fun thing to see what Minnesota does on the ground. Defensively the Gophers could be better than last year, which says something because they were pretty good (though they did fall apart down the stretch and was a key factor in Minnesota’s 1-4 run to end the year). But they have a strong secondary with Antoine Winfield (if healthy) and if the defensive line with Carter Coughlin shows improvement, keep an eye on how they stop the run. But Minnesota added Alabama transfer OJ Smith to shore up the tackle spot so it could be another spot that shows great improvement to a team that should be on its way up. Minnesota’s schedule is manageable. They don’t see a Power 5 school this year outside the Big Ten, all three games are at home, and the home schedule has winnable games on there. But they didn’t draw the road slate too well (back-to-back games at Nebraska and Ohio State and then their trip to Madison to see Wisconsin). BEST CASE RECORD: 9-3. WORST CASE RECORD: 5-7 MY PREDICTION: 7-5. Fleck has some things working on in Minnesota. It’s just questions abound at quarterback and they have to be more physical on both sides, which I think is something they lack. But they could surprise a few teams.
(5) PURDUE BOILERMAKERS: Jeff Brohm stepped in his first year in West Lafayette and turned what really had been the worst football program in the conference under Darrell Hazell and turned them into a team that nobody wants to see on their schedule. Purdue was in nearly every game they played, including a road trip last year to Wisconsin where they lost 17-9. Were they consistent in any manner really? Not really. They showed they can stop the run pretty well, but even then there were ups & downs to that. They were that team that again, the inconsistency was there, but really for a young group and one that hadn’t seen much on-field successes, it was definitely a relief for the great Purdue fans as the team played hard every game. This year, they have to move forward. One of the major inconsistencies has been the offense. David Blough (a scrambler), and Elijah Sindelar (drop-back) will continue to compete for the QB job as both struggled with that consistency (notice a trend of Big Ten West quarterbacks and consistency?) and injury. Markell Jones, if he is also healthy for a full season, could be a major impact runner for Brohm’s offense where they return four linemen so it may be a big year on the ground and could take off burden for either Blough or Sindelar. The defense will be the key question as only 4 starters return, but Markus Bailey is back at his natural position, though you wouldn’t know that from how he played. And the safeties for both Jacob Thieneman and Navon Mosley are as solid as they come. And the feel is despite replacing seven guys, Purdue may be better because the guys coming in are all Brohm guys that may be talented now as the ones they are replacing. Purdue has an intriguing schedule with two power 5 opponents heading to Ross Ade Stadium this year in Missouri and Boston College. They thumped Mizzou in Columbia last year but many feel that this year’s game will be tougher and perhaps it going Missouri’s way given how the Tigers finished strong at the end. Missouri and Boston College cap off the first month of home games including the season opener against conference foe Northwestern. If they get off to a hot start, there may be some excitement that hasn’t been seen in Purdue since Drew Brees was there. But there is a murderous two-week run of seeing Ohio State (though at home) and going to Michigan State. And they do have their first road game at Nebraska which will not be easy either. But there is a chance that Purdue faces off against Ohio State at 6-0 or 5-1 and given Ohio State’s current situation, who knows what might happen. BEST CASE RECORD: 9-3. WORST CASE RECORD: 4-8. MY PREDICTION: 7-5. Purdue isn’t there, yet, but whenever the quarterback situation under Brohm can be answered, they will be a threat in the west for a while.
(6) NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS: Northwestern is that team that when November comes, you blink and go “how are they still in it for the division title?” But they are also that team that when people look at and go “well, they could be a sleeper team to watch” they actually fall asleep. They do bring a lot back from last year’s team that went 9-3 and just kept on getting better as the season went on. Clayton Thorson was solid, but questions abound if he can be healthy after his ACL injury in the Music City Bowl against Kentucky. The other major question on offense is who will replace Justin Jackson? Jeremy Larkin is somewhat of that home-run hitter back for the Wildcats, but when you have a guy like that, is it the best idea to make him the feature back? He is a great runner, but if teams zero in on him, that advantage he has doesn’t really come out all too well. But the good news for Thorson and Larkin is they have four starters return on the line to create some havoc. On defense, the Wildcats are a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde. Great against the run, but struggles against the pass. The major thing though, is that the conference is more run dominated and the passing games from the West save Nebraska maybe problematic. So the Wildcats, who return 6 starters and 5 of their front 7, could actually be stronger up front than last year, which says something in this conference. The issue is that the Big Ten West, there isn’t really a vast difference between the seven schools and teams like Purdue, Minnesota, and Nebraska are making strides up while you still have the likes of Wisconsin and Iowa playing that physical, smash-mouth play that keeps them near the top of the division on a yearly basis. So it will be tough this year to repeat what they did last year, especially with Michigan and Michigan State in back-to-back weeks while having a run of seeing Wisconsin, Notre Dame, and Iowa near the end of the season. Good times. BEST CASE RECORD: 10-2. WORST CASE RECORD: 4-8. MY PREDICTION: 7-5. Northwestern’s schedule is tougher this year having to see Michigan and Notre Dame while a road trip to an improved Michigan State team will not be fun. But the Michigan, Notre Dame, and Wisconsin games are all at home (though their fans will pack it in for those games)
(7) ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI: With Purdue making strides, Indiana being competitive and even Rutgers making improvements, Illinois has become the undisputed Big Ten cellar dweller. Lovie Smith was an underrated NFL coach and was really handed a bad hand the minute he got to Champaign as the team was a wreck. However, things haven’t improved much for the Illini since he joined. The talent level is still relatively weak across the board, but there look to be pieces to work with, notably on the defense in the secondary which was pretty solid last year (6th in the conference, 34th in the nation). But teams gashed Illinois on the ground as they ranked dead last in that category, where there are only 3 starters in the front 7 that return (though it may not be a bad thing). The problem with Illinois though is that they see some great runners in the Big Ten with Taylor, Smith, Jones, and Johnson (all slated to have 1,000 yard years), though it isn’t a massive surplus so their yards allowed may drop a bit. The offense is where the major questions reside. It sounds like it is a question at quarterback with Cam Thomas and AJ Bush competing to take the starting job. It is still up in the air three weeks before kickoff and that is a problem especially for new offensive coordinator Rod Smith. Adding on, Illinois running backs have been the walking wounded with their guys and haven’t made any impact. The one constant though and if the running game improves is because of a young yet very experienced offensive line that returns all starters. And whoever the quarterback is, may have good protection to get the ball out of there to throw it at Mike Dudek and Ricky Smalling, who could make plays if given the chance. Illinois schedule is not a favorable one, though if they can show they can handle their early games with Kent State and Western Illinois, teams may have to take a closer look at them when they play South Florida in Chicago to see where they go. However, the schedule isn’t going to be a fun one, but could steal a game or two against Rutgers on the road or even their rivalry game against Northwestern at home. But I highly doubt in the division they are in where it is dog-eat-dog, they will be in the mix for even a bowl game again. BEST CASE RECORD: 6-6. WORST CASE RECORD: 2-10. MY PREDICTION: 3-9 Illinois has way too many questions on offense and up front on defense, but they may be more competitive than last year where they were not in any game outside of Minnesota in conference play last season.
BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP: PENN STATE VS. NEBRASKA: While if this happens it may have a feel of David vs. Goliath, but I think it may be problematic for the Nittany Lions to go against a team that would be somewhat riding on a wave of momentum (that I think will happen for Nebraska). But I think Nebraska’s offense with Frost there now could give Penn State fits more than they would if the Huskers play Michigan or Ohio State. I think it would be a high scoring game and expose certain elements of Penn State’s defense. With that said, I think Nebraska would have zero answer for McSorley and a guy with McSorley’s experience would be just too much for the Huskers in a game of that magnitude. But I do think Nebraska would leave that game knowing they are on the right track of a rebirth in Lincoln. PENN STATE 41, NEBRASKA 34
TOP 3 QUESTIONS:
(DISCLAIMER: I won’t play the hypotheticals on Ohio State with Meyer since we still don’t know what is going on).
(1) IF MICHIGAN GETS SWEPT AGAIN BY RIVALS MICHIGAN STATE AND OHIO STATE, IS JIM HARBAUGH ON A HOT SEAT? Yes. If you’ve lived in Michigan and/or Ohio at some point in your life, you know that the fans of the Wolverines and Buckeyes just despise losing to each other. If either team goes 11-1 but that one loss is to each other, many feel it as a failed season. But what makes it sting is that in the past decade, Michigan is losing to their in-state enemy in Michigan State. So the two teams you have pure disdain for, have practically owned the series for a while and Michigan fans are getting tired of seeing them on the losing end of both games every year. And not even Harbaugh is safe from it. Will he get fired for it if Michigan goes 10-2 or 9-3? No, but people have been saying “okay Jim, it is time to get your act together and kick Little Brother back to the curb and smash Blowhio State and run this conference again and if you don’t, see ya.”
(2) WILL THE BIG TEN WEST EVER OVERTAKE THE BIG TEN EAST? If you mean will they have a constant power in the West aside Wisconsin to face off against the big boys, no. Nebraska, if everything aligns right, has a chance to really dominate under Frost. But as much as I love what I see out in Purdue with Brohm, Purdue isn’t going to be a major recruiting hotbed for a long period of time and that is similar to Northwestern. Wisconsin has that giant monkey on their back of not beating the top dogs in college football, let alone their own conference. Minnesota hasn’t been really relevant for a while. It is going to have to be a team that just dominates on a yearly basis while a second team follows suit. With that said, the Big Ten West has a chance of being a far deeper division 1-7 than the Big Ten East where Rutgers, Maryland, and Indiana will just hope to have a 7-5 or even an 8-4 season as that would be considered a success. Right now you can see 6 of the 7 teams in the Big Ten West (Illinois excluded) that could play in Indianapolis THIS year as the competition I think is better.
(3) WITH THE BIG TEN HAVING A STRONG FINISH IN BOWL SEASON, ARE THEY THE BEST CONFERENCE IN THE NATION? It’s hard to say. I think the 4 teams in the Big Ten East would probably win any Power 5 conference with what they have, save maybe the SEC where Alabama and Georgia reside, but they would put up fights with them. What helped was how the Big Ten really dominated in the Bowl games (though of course other conferences shrugged it off, but the hypocrisy is that when the Big Ten struggled against others in bowl games, they taunted the Big Ten, so you can’t have it both ways). However, the depth of the Big Ten is pretty deep from about 1-10 (11-14 is giant mess right now though with Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, and Rutgers). Right now I lean towards a slight “no.” But the play that the Big Ten has is really a blend of speed and physicality which will frustrate other conferences such as the PAC-12 and Big 12 and to a lesser extent, the ACC.
That’s it for this week. Some predictions for December/January next week!
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat