College football season is officially back, with North Dakota State and Charleston Southern kicking things off in FCS action on Saturday. However, the biggest of the big boys get things going over Labor Day weekend (and a few days earlier).
It means the return of insane tailgating set ups, brutal Group of 5 opponents looking for a paycheck and the first FBS football game in the history of legendary Lambeau Field. With the season about to start everyone seems excited (sorry, everyone but Purdue fans) about the season ahead and hopeful that goals are achieved.
With Week 1 finally upon us, let’s take a look at the biggest storylines to watch for Big Ten football.
Can Wisconsin Handle Its Crazy Schedule?
Few topics surrounding the 2016 Wisconsin Badgers were as talked about this offseason as much as UW’s insane schedule. It all kicks off on Saturday afternoon against the LSU Tigers at Lambeau Field. It also is clearly the most difficult non-conference game on the slate for the Badgers, and how it goes could be a sign of things to come for UW this season.
With Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska all in a row to open Big Ten play, confidence is going to be key. Get crushed by LSU and what happens to a team with a lot of moving parts and young players filling up the two deep?
Shock most of the college football world and win? Does that signal a Badgers team that is vastly underrated in 2016?
A lot may depend on the play of newly minted starting quarterback Bart Houston, and the team’s confidence in competing against the best of the best is likely going to come from its confidence that its starting QB can get the job done when called upon in difficult situations.
There are a lot of questions that will be answered about the Badgers on Saturday, but perhaps the most important answer will be how this team looks against the top of the college football heap out of the gate.
Are Young Bucks Ready to Step Up?
Ohio State’s biggest question to answer this offseason has been how it replaces all those draft picks, especially the nine players who left for the NFL before their eligibility was up in Columbus.
Few believe that Urban Meyer’s team is going to fall off the face of the earth given its insane run on the recruiting trail and having one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the country still around. Yet, change abounds around J.T. Barrett and even if the hype is there for just about every player stepping on to the field on Saturday, this is still the first go-round for a lot of starters.
There is a new starter at running back who has never played a college football game (Mike Weber) and a backup who is a true freshman (Antonio Williams). OSU also has to deal with its No. 1 wide receiver, Noah Brown, coming off a broken leg last season.
Are there enough proven and capable weapons to not allow teams to just shut down Barrett and call it a day?
Even last season’s sack leader, TyQuan Lewis, has question marks surrounding him after the departure of the uber-talented and offensive line attention grabbing Joey Bosa. Can he really keep that pace up now that he is likely the focus of way more attention from opposing offensive lines?
Bowling Green may not be Michigan or Wisconsin, but they aren’t a pushover team and should this team show a lot of rust from its veterans or shaky play from the newcomers questions will start to become concerns quickly.
Is Northwestern’s Offense Back?
The long-standing hope of Northwestern fans was seeing its team finally put together a good defense to go with a scoring machine on offense. Said fans saw the defense come together and be one of the most dominant in the Big Ten last season…they also saw an offense that struggled mightily.
A lot of that had to do with a brand new starting QB in Clayton Thorson.
This season, the hope is that Thorson is ready to have the handcuffs taken off of him and for the offense to blossom while the defense continues to be very good. Should that happen it could be an interesting season in Evanston, Ill.
Reports from spring and fall camp show that Thorson has been much improved and the offense has been more dynamic. Let’s see it happen on the field against a team that is pretty darn good in Western Michigan.
Should the offense sputter against the Broncos, it might be time to worry that Northwestern is in store for a disappointing season ahead.
Can Big Ten Avoid Embarrassing Upsets?
Week 1 of the 2016 season isn’t exactly full of awesome matchups, as we struggled to find six meaningful games being played in the opening week for Big Ten teams. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some tricky games to be watching.
Kent State isn’t the pushover it has been in the past, and Penn State certainly has a lot to prove with a brand new looking offense and a brand new quarterback behind center. Western Michigan has been one of the best programs the MAC has to offer and certainly its best team on the recruiting trail. Northwestern isn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut after last season, so if the Broncos can score points it could be an interesting opener in Evanston.
Indiana has an interesting trip to Florida International in the offing, and it certainly has questions to answer on defense. Let’s just say it is a game to keep an eye on given IU’s history of playing down to its competition.
Then there is Purdue facing Eastern Kentucky, and lord knows nothing is safe when it comes to the Boilermakers football program.
Many see the Big Ten as the second-best conference in the country — going through the first week of the season without being laughed at for a major upset would be helpful to say the least.
The New Coaches in New Places
Illinois, Maryland and Rutgers all have new head coaches and all three turned to defensive-minded coaches to try to turn around the fortunes of their struggling programs. All three also need to make a statement in Week 1 of play.
Rutgers clearly has the toughest go of it in the opening week, with a trip to one of the Pac-12’s preseason favorites — the Washington Huskies. While a win may not be in the offing, being competitive and showing some defensive pride would be a welcome sight to the coaching staff and fans alike.
Maryland and Illinois take on FCS foes, so a win is likely in the offing. However, it will be important to see the tone that has been set on the heels of camp. Falling flat or struggling for victory would not be a good sign for a quick turnaround.
These changing programs have to show that it is positive change, and what better week to establish that strong base for future success than in Week 1, right?
Good, Bad, Ugly: The tale of Buckeyes, Badgers and Illini in Week 3
There is no two ways about it — Week 3 was the Big Ten’s collective worst nightmare.
Just take a look at the final scores from the weekend:
So, on a Saturday in which contenders were dropping like flies, how do we make sense of what took place?
Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Week 3 around the Big Ten.
On a weekend that saw so much carnage from Big Ten teams, there is no doubt that Ohio State’s big win over TCU is the good of the weekend. It wasn’t just that the pickings were slim either, the Buckeyes put on a show in the win over the Horned Frogs at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
With the eyes of most of the college football world on them, OSU came up big. They punched hard first, going up 10-0 and then took a big punch from TCU for a pair of touchdowns, the last of which was a school-record 93-yard run by Darius Anderson for the 14-10 lead early in the second quarter.
Let’s not forget there were two defensive touchdowns (albeit one shouldn’t have counted after further review that never happened on the field), including a “fat guy” TD by Dre’mont Jones.
Lost in some of the craziness was the fact that Dwayne Haskins showed out in a big way. He was 24 of 38 for a crazy 344 yards and two touchdowns in the win. Haskins also had a rushing touchdown to cap off all the offensive scoring for his team.
Sure, the defense gave up 511 yards, but it seemed more a byproduct of TCU’s offensive style than anything worrisome about the Buckeyes defense. After all, they forced three total turnovers, had three sacks and seven tackles for loss on the day.
It was a shot across the bow of the rest of the elite in college football and arguable the most dangerous the Buckeyes have looked on both sides of the ball in awhile.
There’s no where to go here other than to head to Madison, Wis. where the Badgers came in to their contest against BYU with a 41-game home non-conference win streak.
By the time the mid-afternoon matchup was over, the Badgers streak was also over and it wasn’t a fluke. The visiting Cougars took a page out of the Wisconsin playbook and simply out-muscled the Badgers on both sides of the ball.
UW’s normally potent run game averaged just 4.7 yards per carry. Its defense allowed 191 yards to BYU on the ground. That pretty much sums up the shock that happened inside Camp Randall.
For the first time in over 15 years, a non-conference opponent came in to Camp Randall, outplayed and finally beat the Badgers. We’ll see if this is a wake up call or the start of a snowball effect that can’t be stopped.
Having rival Iowa on the road and at night should certainly get the Badgers attention this coming week.
Sure, we could’ve gone with Northwestern getting blown out by a MAC opponent at home. There was also Rutgers’ piss-poor day at Kansas and Temple working over Maryland. But, those were all blowouts and there was just one loss that hurt more than any other…Illinois.
For just over 57 minutes, this week felt different for Illini fans…until South Florida’s Darnell Salomon hauled in a 50-yard touchdown from Blake Barnett with 2:24 to play.
That was just a downright brutal blow to a program that could’ve used the win in the worst way. Illinois got an early touchdown from running back Mike Epstein and then four field goals (three of which were over 40 yards) for a 19-7 lead late in the third quarter.
Then the fourth quarter happened and you could just feel the game slipping away. Just over three minutes after the last of Illinois last field goal, it was Salomon who broke through with a 14-yard touchdown catch to make it a 5-point game. Add in a field goal midway through the quarter and a 19-7 lead was whittled down to 19-17.
But, the Illini really only have themselves to blame. After all, they squandered four drives that were in USF territory and couldn’t get in the end zone. The Illini also couldn’t score a single point in the final quarter, and that’s usually not a good thing.
The play in the final stanza was particularly brutal, as USF’s defense held the Illini to just 94 total yards and forced them to go 2-of-7 on third downs. That’s how you lose a game you should’ve taken care of.
If there was a silver lining in the ugly way this loss happened, it was that MJ Rivers’ debut at quarterback was a success. He was 20 of 29 passing for 168 yards. While he didn’t get in to the end zone through the air, Rivers also didn’t turn the ball over while passing either. That’s a positive step lost in the brutal way this loss took place.
5 biggest Big Ten West division Spring Football storylines
What are the biggest storylines to follow as teams across the Big Ten West division begin spring football?
Last week we took a look at the East division, now it is time to go West my friends. While a lot of the questions out East revolve around offense, will the same hold true in the West division?
With a new head coach in at Nebraska, new coordinators in other places and plenty of high-level recruiting happening, there is no shortage of intrigue in the
Let’s take a look at the 5 biggest storylines we’ll watch this spring in the Big Ten West division.
Frost’s First Spring
As if there is any storyline bigger in the West division than prodigal son returning to bring the
Let’s just consider it the West division’s version of Jim Harbaugh, shall we.
Nebraska fans are hoping that the results are at least as good if not better than what Harbaugh has brought to Michigan to date, and sadly getting to the 10-win mark would be a huge win for the Huskers of today.
Frost will have a big challenge on his hand, needing to rebuild the run game, strengthen a porous defense and bring the pride back to the Huskers program.
Oh, and he’ll have to break in a new quarterback to go with all of the rest of the tweaks needed in the program. 4-star dual threat quarterback Adrian Martinez singed early and is on campus already, and there will be competition with much-touted sophomore Patrick O’Brien in the mix as well as redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and sophomore Andrew Bunch.
O’Brien, Gebbia and Bunch are more the classic West Coast style of QB, and that may make Frost’s first season an interesting one in Lincoln.
Northwestern’s Life Without Thorson and Jackson
Northwestern knew that 2018 would be a challenge, especially with the graduation of easily the greatest running back in school history. With Justin Jackson graduated, where would the Wildcats turn to get the production needed.
Then the 2018 season was dealt a brutal blow as quarterback Clayton Thorson tore up his knee on a trick play in the Music City Bowl. He’ll likely be back for fall camp, but in what shape and condition will that be? A torn ACL for a mobile quarterback can be a game changer and in any case this upcoming season is going to be his last in a Wildcats uniform.
So, as Northwestern heads in to spring practice, it will get a big glimpse of its future life without its two biggest names. We’ll see plenty of reps for junior T.J. Green, redshirt freshman Andrew Marty, and sophomore Aidan Smith this spring. Northwestern opens with Purdue on Aug. 30 and should Thorson not be ready to go, spring could go a long way to deciding who gets the nod.
Leonhard’s Big Test at Wisconsin
Rumors circulated throughout much of December and in to January that Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was a candidate for the Florida State defensive coordinator position. That’s what happens when year one of you as UW’s DC ends with the Badgers having one of the best defenses in the country.
Year two will be a different story though, as Leonhard faces a secondary that loses 3 starters, a defensive line that loses both starting ends and both starting outside linebackers. Wisconsin has proven to be a plug-and-play program at outside linebacker and that shouldn’t be an issue with the likes of Andrew Van Ginkle and Tyler Johnson having gained plenty of experience last season. There’s also intrigue in names like Christian Bell and redshirt freshman Noah Burks.
However, things are dicey in the secondary as only one player with any real game experience is back at cornerback and that is Donyte Carrier-Williams. So, this is where Leonhard would be earning a salary increase this spring. He’ll have to mold a really young group of cornerbacks in to a quality group of players given all the spread offenses that will be in place across the West division — with all but Iowa running some version of the spread attack.
Can names like Madison Cone, Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks show enough for the coaching staff to be confident in them going in to the season or will their need to be a lean on the newcomers in the fall? There certainly won’t be a shortage of reps and opportunity for playing time in this spring.
Lovie’s Last-Ditch Offensive Overhaul
There isn’t a bigger trainwreck in the Big Ten than Illinois Fighting Illini athletics (not just football) at the moment. So, this spring is all about finding some hope for the football program. To that end, head coach Lovie Smith enters his second full offseason in a position to overhaul his offense.
It started as quarterbacks Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. decided to leave the program and continued with the hire of Arizona offensive coordinator Rod Smith. The Wildcats offense has been amongst the most prolific and high-scoring in the country, but this is Big Ten land where defense reigns supreme. Can Smith translate his Wildcats offense to something that works in Champaign?
Cam Thomas is the lone scholarship quarterback and proved a much better rushing threat than anything in the pass game last season. So, Smith’s first task is to see if Thomas has what it takes to really lead a spread offense like his. If not, this could be a long spring spent trying to find answers to a whole lot of questions.
I love getting Smith away from Arizona, it was a master stroke by Smith, but will it be enough, soon enough to keep his job? Athletic director Mike Thomas seems to have a long-term plan in place and the patience to see it out with Smith, but real progress needs to shown this spring and in the fall for that patience to be warranted.
Let’s see if this last-ditch effort pays off.
Brohm’s Encore Performance
What Jeff Brohm did in one season at the helm of the Purdue Boilermakers football program was nothing short of remarkable. He took a program left for dead and not only gave it life, but a bowl game appearance in his first season. It’s no wonder his name came up for the Tennessee job this offseason.
But, this season there are actual expectations following that 7-6 finish last season and this spring will see some big changes to the program. That’s not a bad thing, because Purdue got to a bowl game with a lot of smoke and mirrors while it awaited more talent to come aboard in West Lafayette, Ind.
There was also a reliance on a pretty good defense last season, one that featured talented linebackers T.J. McCollum and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Both are gone now and replacing their production and leadership will be key this spring. Luckily, the returning starter is Markus Bailey, who could be poised for a national breakout year now that the spotlight is all to his own. Beyond that, this is a position that will be a microcosm of the team, as they see what kind of talent is coming in and how fast they can contribute.
Can Illinois or Indiana’s QB change spark either program?
We’ve nearly hit the halfway point for some teams in the Big Ten, and that means time for plenty of reflection. Two programs have done plenty of that over the past week, as both Illinois and Indiana have gone in different directions with their starting quarterbacks.
Earlier this week, Illinois announced that Jeff George Jr. would be the starter. It was a move few didn’t see coming given the anemic production of the Illini offense with Chayce Crouch at quarterback.
Indiana wasn’t far behind, as head coach Tom Allen revealed redshirt freshman Peyton Ramsey would become the sole quarterback to play going forward. It ended four weeks of a two-quarterback system in place.
Both decisions seems smart on paper, but which one will make the biggest impact on their team?
Case For Peyton Ramsey:
Sometimes you win the job out of necessity and some times you win the job because you’ve outplayed everyone else. For me, the latter is true for Ramsey.
One of the most undertold stories of this season has been Indiana’s struggles in the pass game. Everyone saw them carve up Ohio State’s defense for over a half and assumed all was good. Well, Lagow has been ineffective and Ramsey has added a different dimension to an offense trying to find an identity.
To date, Ramsey has split time with Lagow in four games. He’s completed 60.4 percent of his pass (besting Lagow’s 56.3 mark) for 316 yards (6.6 yards per attempt, compared to 6.4 for Lagow). In just 48 attempts this season, Ramsey has equaled Lagow’s TD number at 4, while throwing just one interception.
Throws like this one to Simmie Cobbs for an 18-yard TD is the spark and kind of performance Ramsey can produce:
With an offensive line in flux, Lagow’s immobility has shown to be a big issue. He’s got the arm, but it really isn’t any good when you are under pressure and can’t move? Lagow’s got minus-30 yards on the season, meanwhile Ramsey is second on the team with 117 yards on 34 carries in his limited time on the field. That’s good production for a team searching to get back to the wild offensive numbers they are used to putting up.
A spark is needed, but so is consistency more than anything. Ramsey provides both and for a Hoosiers team that has a ton of talent around him, this should be the calming influence needed to help this team get to a bowl game.
That’s especially the case when you notice how Allen and his teammates respond to his mentality on and off the field.
“It’s more collective. It was really just this game. It was more of a buildup over time,” Allen said earlier this week, via Indiana’s Scout website. “We love both guys, awesome people. … There’s just a grit to (Ramsey), a toughness to him. He’s got a linebacker mentality to how he works.”
Case for Jeff George Jr.:
Illinois is in the middle of a youth movement on both sides of the
George also isn’t a first time starter. He played starter last season, being inserted in to the toughest of road situations possible — a freshman on the road at Michigan. That experience can be helpful for sure, and something George Jr. brought up in talking to the media this week.
“I’m excited to go out there and try to make something happen and try to get this offense rolling. I think I can do my part,” George Jr. said, via IlliniInquirer. “I feel like I know how tough it is to win a game. We went through some ups and some downs last year and now nothing is new.”
There’s also the fact that it did seem as if his connection with the likes of Malik Turner, Mike Dudek and Co. was better than Crouch’s was.
Look, something had to happen, because with Crouch at QB the Illini offense became as one-dimensional as Minnesota’s offense often was with Mitch Leidner behind center the past two years. It didn’t work well for the Gophers, and with a defense still figuring out who it is for the Illini, that would’ve been disastrous the rest of the way.
This is also a great opportunity to showcase George Jr. against the toughest of competition. He’ll go up against a schedule that includes Northwestern, Ohio State and Wisconsin still to go.
Head coach Love Smith seems to be going with a sink or swim mentality to this team — pushing younger players to the brink to see if they respond or fold. Putting George out there as the starter the rest of the way is more of that, and it may be that the rest of his teammates respond to that idea more than they did with Crouch.
Final Verdict: Peyton Ramsey
This one is easy for me. Ramsey has more weapons to work with in the form of wide receivers like Simmie Cobbs and Luke Timian in the fold. He also has a decent running back in freshman Morgan Elison, who is averaging 5.8 yards per carry and has 310 yards in four games so far this season.
As for Jeff George Jr.? Sure, he’s got the same freshman running back with potential as Indiana does, but he’s not set up for success like Ramsey is. Mike Dudek is a weapon and Malik Turner can be good…but Turner has also been inconsistent to say the least.
George also has a bigger body of work, and that body of work suggests a pretty average quarterback at best. He’s completing just 43.1 percent of his passes for 681 yards and five touchdowns to seven interceptions in five games played in his career.
Call me crazy, but those numbers don’t inspire me.
Let’s see who can play better, but if there’s someone who has already shown the ability to succeed under pressure, that has been Ramsey. I’ll take his numbers, situation and moxie over George any day of the week.
Nebraska Cornhuskers at Illinois Fighting Illini: Preview, predictions and prognostications
Illinois and Nebraska meet under the lights on Friday night for the first time ever. Let’s preview the action.
When: Fri. Sept. 29; 8pm ET
Where: Champaign, Ill.; Memorial Stadium (60,670)
All-Time Series: Nebraska leads 10-3-1
Last Meeting: Nebraska win 31-16 (2016)
Line: Nebraska (-6)
Desperate may be a harsh word to use when describing the situations of the Illini and Huskers. However, it seems appropriate given the crumbling nature of both programs this season.
Illinois has decided that a youth movement is worth the growing pains in Lovie Smith’s second season at the helm. It’s resulted in not-so-shocking uneven start to the season, including a 47-23 blowout loss at the hands of USF two weeks ago.
Both of these programs being in a state of flux makes for an interesting proposition, but what about the game itself? Let us take an in-depth look at Friday night’s festivities in Champaign, Ill.
1 Burning Question: Can Nebraska Count on QB Tanner Lee?
There’s no secret to Mike Riley’s offensive gameplan — it requires the quarterback to be accurate and smart with the football. So far this season, off-season sensation Tanner Lee has failed in those two key areas.
Lee comes in to this game having thrown a nation-high nine interceptions to just seven touchdowns. He’s also only completing 52.1 percent of his passes. For a guy everyone hyped as the next coming of Joe Montana, Lee hasn’t delivered to say the least. His play is part of the reason the groans have gotten louder in Lincoln.
Illinois defense could be exactly what the doctor ordered though, as they are 83rd nationally in passing defense (248.7 yards per game) and have three interceptions so far. While the INT total could be scary, this could be the perfect game for Lee to find a rhythm and unleash all the potential people saw this offseason.
Should Lee struggle again, Nebraska might be in some big trouble in this one.
2 Key Stats:
184.3: That is the number of rushing yards per game given up by the Illini so far this season.
Illinois is 96th in the country against the run this season, not exactly great numbers. But, their could be a worse rushing offense to see this week than Nebraska, who is 11th in rushing offense in the Big Ten. However, Illinois should be worried a bit, as the Huskers racked up 197 yards on the ground against a much more stout Rutgers defense last weekend. Can Illinois button up some of the big plays given up or will the Huskers continue to build on last weekend’s positive rushing performance?
194: That is the total yards put up by Rutgers offense last weekend.
Nebraska’s defense gave up the fewest total yards to an opponent in the last 46 games last weekend. The question is was it all about Rutgers’ offensive ineptitude or an improving Nebraska defense under Bob Diaco? Nebraska gave up a ton of points to Arkansas State and Oregon to open the season, but were much saltier the last two games, giving up just 21 and 17 points respectively. Those numbers, plus the ability to hold a team under 200 total yards are good signs, especially when you have an equally struggling offense to go up against. Something is going to give in this matchup, and it could come down to how the Huskers defense holds up.
3 Key Players:
Bobby Roundtree, DE (Illinois): A sure-fire way to win this game is to get in the head of Huskers QB Tanner Lee. The guy who has shown a propensity to get after the quarterback a lot so far this season has been freshman defensive end Bobby Roundtree. His three sacks leads the team so far. Let’s see if Nebraska’s shuffling offensive line plus Roundtree’s growing knowledge of the college game can equal getting Lee off his game. If so, Illinois is in business in this one.
Chayce Crouch, QB (Illinois): Personally, I’m shocked to see Crouch back behind center after being pulled at halftime of the Illini’s brutal loss to USF. He was an awful 8 of 18 for 76 yards and an interception. Yet, Smith has shown more faith in him than I would’ve, giving him the starting nod after the bye week. It’ll be interesting to see if he responds to the challenge thrown down by the coaching staff or if he will wilt under the pressure.
De’Mornay Pierson-El, WR (Nebraska): Pierson-El has become much more than a dynamic punt and kick returner for the Huskers. He’s got 17 receptions for 210 yards and is tied at the top of the TD list with three so far this season. Illinois has had some struggles in the pass game defensively, and this would be a perfect time to showcase the speed and leadership to get the Huskers over the finish line.
While the Huskers have been underwhelming to say the least this season, Illinois has been downright brutal while it tries to see what it has with some young players on both sides of the ball. That experiment didn’t work out against USF very well and it won’t again tonight. For all the struggles of the Huskers, they have a massive talent and experience advantage and I expect Tanner Lee to wake up in this one. Illinois offense also struggles as Bob Diaco’s tutelage continues to pay off.
Nebraska 31, Illinois 17