Big Ten: Minnesota Golden Gophers
In eight of the past nine college football seasons, at least one Big Ten program has held its opponents to less than an average of 100 rushing yards per game. No other league can claim that. Michigan State came up just shy of helping the conference make it nine out of nine when it allowed 100.5 yards per game in 2011. Will another group join the ranks of that elite accomplishment in 2017?
There are certainly some contenders. Last week we reviewed the most promising looking units the Big Ten has to offer on the offensive side of the ball. This week, we’ll examine defense and special teams. That starts with a look at the teams that should have the most success in what most coordinators think is the foundation of a good defense: stopping the run.
Best of the best: Wisconsin has held its opponents’ rushing average below the century mark in each of the past two seasons. The Badgers' front seven is loaded with depth, talent and experience again. The starting defensive line’s two-deep returns intact. There are at least three or four viable starters for the inside linebacker positions as well, including last year’s leading tackler, T.J. Edwards, and Chris Orr, who was expected to do big things before suffering a season-ending injury on the first snap in 2016.
The only questions about the Badgers' ability to build on their run-stopping reputation come from having to replace stars at outside linebacker and defensive coordinator. First-round draft pick T.J. Watt and newly-minted Green Bay Packer Vince Biegel were both game-changing players for the Badgers. New coordinator Jim Leonhard thinks he’ll have some answers at that position, especially with junior college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel.
Next in line: Ohio State doesn’t sit very far from the top in any phase of the game for 2017. The Buckeyes may end up with the best defensive line in college football, which should help the speed behind them clean up any ball carriers that slip past the line of scrimmage.
Tyquan Lewis is the returning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and there’s a decent chance he’ll be battling for a starting spot with the likes of Nick Bosa and Sam Hubbard. Behind them, linebackers Chris Worley and Jerome Baker provide a very athletic second line of defense. Michigan warrants some consideration here as well. The Wolverines lack depth and experience in the front seven, but coaches in Ann Arbor think this group (led by star defensive end Rashan Gary) could be even faster than the unit that allowed a league-best 3.22 yards per carry a year ago.
Don’t sleep on: Minnesota may not have faced offensive juggernauts in the West Division at quite the same frequency as some of those teams on the other side of the conference, but the Gophers allowed more than 200 yards on the ground only once -- against rival Wisconsin. Linebacker is the deepest position on the roster for first-year coach P.J. Fleck. That group has the potential to be one of the best in the league, especially if redshirt senior Cody Poock can stay healthy. There’s depth there, too, with a trio of young players who all saw significant playing time as true freshmen last season.
Lastly, it would be a mistake to talk about Big Ten front-seven strength without mentioning Iowa. The Hawkeyes return star linebacker Josey Jewell for a final season and have plenty of pieces around him to be stout against the run.
Defending Big Ten champion Penn State is loaded with experience on offense. Quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley are preseason Heisman Trophy contenders. They'll play behind a veteran offensive line and with a standout tight end in Mike Gesicki.
The one question about that unit going into the spring was at wide receiver. Not necessarily in depth of talent, as the Nittany Lions bring back accomplished players Saeed Blacknail and DaeSean Hamilton at the position. The question was more along the lines of who would become the true No. 1 wideout, someone who could replace the production of Chris Godwin?
The answer to that question might be one of the biggest breakout players in the Big Ten this spring: Juwan Johnson.
The redshirt sophomore created major buzz around the program all spring, earning raves from coaches and teammates and winning Penn State's most improve offensive player award. He showed the public what the fuss was about with seven catches for 81 yards in Saturday's Blue-White game.
Johnson played mainly on special teams last season, though he did start on offense against Purdue. He finished the year with two catches for 70 yards.
"I've been patient the past two years," Johnson told reporters Saturday. "It's time for me to step up and play a role on the team."
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Johnson is ready to make an impact. He's a former ESPN 300 recruit who's listed at an impressive 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds. He could become a top target for McSorley, who often sought out Godwin (59 catches for 982 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2016) during key situations.
"He has just has taken a very mature approach, a very aggressive approach all offseason," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "He's playing with a lot of confidence right now, and I think we all know he's got some special physical abilities. It's all kind of coming together for him right now."
Here's a look at some other breakout players from around the league this spring now that every team has wrapped up its practice sessions until fall camp (in alphabetical order):
Ohio State CB Damon Arnette: Whoever emerges in the secondary for the Buckeyes is a good bet to become a star. Arnette had some struggles as a redshirt freshman last season but performed very well all spring to become the front-runner to start opposite Denzel Ward. Given how much pure talent Ohio State has at the position, that's saying something.
Wisconsin WR Quintez Cephus: The sophomore -- who had four catches for for 94 yards as a true freshman -- turned in some big practices for the Badgers this spring. It was an emotional spring for him after his father was shot and killed. Cephus is in line to replace Robert Wheelwright as the team's No. 2 receiver.
Michigan LB/S Khaleke Hudson: It's unfair to compare Hudson to Jabrill Peppers. But Hudson might well be the guy who replaces Hudson at the Viper position, one where he'll be asked to do many of the same things Peppers excelled at. The early returns have been positive, as Hudson looked like a playmaker during an active spring game performance.
Minnesota S Jacob Huff: The junior has no career starts but has played as a backup the past two seasons. He showed up in a major way this spring at a position of need for the Golden Gophers. "All he does is make plays," head coach P.J. Fleck said of Huff.
Michigan State CB/WR Justin Layne: He made an impact as a true freshman in the Spartans' secondary, even returning an interception for a touchdown. Layne played on offense and defense during the spring game, catching a touchdown pass at receiver. Could he be a true two-way star this fall?
Nebraska slot receiver JD Spielman: The MVP of the scout team offense last year, Spielman looks ready to contribute where it counts this season. He impressed coaches most of the spring and went out and grabbed a 30-yard touchdown among his four catches in the spring game.
Indiana TE Ian Thomas: New offensive coordinator Mike DeBord intends to use the tight ends more than the Hoosiers have in previous seasons, and Thomas should be the biggest beneficiary of that strategy. A standout in junior college, Thomas had only three catches last season but snagged a touchdown in the spring game, a potential sign of things to come.
Iowa RB Toren Young: Akrum Wadley is the No. 1 tailback, but the Hawkeyes like A) spreading the carries around and B) occasionally putting Wadley out in space. Young and Toks Akinribade are both in the mix for work this fall, but it was Young who ran for 96 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. "I liked the energy he ran with and the toughness he ran with, and he's pretty much been doing that all spring," head coach Kirk Ferentz said.
The Big Ten had a banner year in 2016, with four teams jockeying for spots in the College Football Playoff until the final days of the regular season.
The postseason didn’t go so well for the league, as only one of its four New Year’s Six bowl participants (Wisconsin) brought home a victory. That brought out the usual Big Ten skeptics who wondered if the conference had been overrated all along and whether 2016 was just a fluke.
There’s no guarantee of a repeat of last year’s success in 2017. But there is one simple yet large reason to be very excited about the league’s fortunes this fall and beyond: the Big Ten has the best roster of head coaches of any conference in America.
A grand statement like that naturally requires lots of evidence to back it up. So here goes.
Start with Ohio State's Urban Meyer. He’s no worse than one of the two best coaches in college football, with only Alabama’s Nick Saban as serious competition. Meyer has three national titles, the highest winning percentage among active coaches (.851 -- third-highest all time among those who coached at least 10 years) -- and an absurd 61-6 record with the Buckeyes. Enough said.
Michigan's Jim Harbaugh also belongs on the short list of best coaches in the land. Though he has never won a national title, he’s the master of the program turnaround. He’s gone 32-7 in his last three seasons in college, including Stanford, and was the NFL coach of the year during his time in San Francisco. Whether you like his online shtick or find it annoying, dude can coach 'em up as well as anyone.
Penn State's James Franklin joined the ranks of the elite coaches last year by leading the Nittany Lions to a surprise Big Ten title. Franklin had already worked wonders at Vanderbilt, of all places, and he silenced his doubters en route to winning Sporting News national coach of the year honors in 2016.
Though Michigan State is going through some turbulent times right now after a 3-9 debacle, Mark Dantonio has firmly established himself as one of the top coaches. His Spartans won at least 11 games five times in the six years prior to last season and made the playoff in 2015.
That’s four cream-of-the-crop coaches right there. What other league can claim that?
The ACC might come the closest, with Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher owning national titles and Louisville’s Bobby Petrino being one of the top offensive minds around. But unless you’re buying into North Carolina’s Larry Fedora or Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente as elite, the list pretty much stops at three.
The Big 12 has Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, TCU’s Gary Patterson and legendary Kansas State boss Bill Snyder. Maybe first-year Texas coach Tom Herman lives up to the hype. Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy has done good work but hasn’t quite reached the level of the Big Ten’s top four.
In the Pac-12, Washington’s Chris Petersen belongs on any short list of top coaches. Stanford’s David Shaw is highly accomplished, and Colorado’s Mike McIntyre won several national coach of the year honors last year. The jury is still out on USC’s Clay Helton, though he did beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
What about the SEC, you ask? Saban rules, obviously. But who’s the second-best coach in that league? It might be Florida’s Jim McElwain. Or Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. Would either school’s fan base trade them for Harbaugh? You betcha.
It’s not just the top tier that makes the Big Ten coaching roster so special, either. Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst is quickly rising up the ladder toward elite, having gone 21-6 in two years at his alma mater. His middling 19-19 record at Pitt before returning to Madison must be considered in relation to the mess he inherited there.
Chryst is also a perfect fit for the Badgers, just as Pat Fitzgerald is at Northwestern and Kirk Ferentz is for Iowa. Fitzgerald’s 11-year run in Evanston seems unusually long except when compared to Ferentz, who’s going into Year 19 with the Hawkeyes while showing signs of slowing down.
Nebraska's Mike Riley is one of the most respected coaches around, and while it’s fair to question whether he was the right fit for the Cornhuskers, he has won 10 of his last 14 games in Lincoln. Illinois' Lovie Smith has plenty to prove as a college coach but had a strong track record in the NFL.
The Big Ten also added two of the hottest young coaches in the country this offseason in Minnesota's P.J. Fleck, who led Western Michigan to a 13-0 record and Cotton Bowl appearance last year, and Purdue's Jeff Brohm, who went 30-10 at Western Kentucky with one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses.The story is still being written for Indiana's Tom Allen, Maryland's D.J. Durkin and Rutgers' Chris Ash, though all three were outstanding defensive coordinators.
Add it all up, and you’ve got the best lineup of coaches in any conference.
“I think it’s outstanding,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve gotten a huge commitment from all of our teams to do whatever it takes to be successful. It’s a special time to be a part of the Big Ten.”
On Wednesday's spring teleconference between reporters and Big Ten coaches, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald leaned into a familiar football saw.
"There's an old saying out there that when you have a quarterback, you have a chance," Fitzgerald said.
If there's truth in that cliché, then it stands to reason that the Big Ten has a chance of being very good in 2017.
The vast majority of league teams already know who their quarterback will be this fall and feel good about it. Most remaining quarterback competitions are coming into focus. If having a proven signal-caller is a good indication of success, then the conference's best teams from last season should be primed to contend again.
The four Big Ten clubs that were in the playoff mix last December -- Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin -- all return their starters from a year ago.
J.T. Barrett didn't finish strong for the Buckeyes and drew some criticism for his downfield throws. But he's still a two-time Big Ten quarterback of the year with a top-five Heisman Trophy finish on his résumé. Penn State's Trace McSorley should have won the league's quarterback of the year award last year and will enter 2017 as a Heisman candidate. Michigan's Wilton Speight showed promise his first year as a starter last season and, according to Jim Harbaugh, has taken a step forward with his understanding of the game and the Wolverines' system. Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook is the least accomplished of the quartet, as a redshirt sophomore, but the Badgers are confident in his ability.
Other returnees include Indiana's Richard Lagow, a strong-armed pocket passer capable of putting up some big numbers in his second year as a starter; Purdue's David Blough, who led the league in passing yards and touchdowns last year and who should improve his decision-making under new head coach Jeff Brohm; and Northwestern's Clayton Thorson, who somewhat quietly threw for more than 3,000 yards as a sophomore and continues to get better.
"He's shown absolutely amazing growth as a leader," Fitzgerald said. "His confidence is at an all-time high."
Some teams that went into spring with ostensible competitions have all but settled on their guy.
Michigan State's Mark Dantonio said in the winter that sophomore Brian Lewerke was the leading candidate to start. Lewerke solidified that by playing well this spring, bulking up to 215 pounds and not getting much competition from redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver, who rarely practiced because of back issues.
"He's bigger and stronger and throws the ball in great rhythm," Dantonio said of Lewerke. "He's clearly the starter, and I think that's warranted."
Lovie Smith called Chayce Crouch his starting quarterback at Illinois before spring ball began. Even though Crouch was held out of contact drills while recovering from offseason surgery, he still has Smith's full backing.
"He's the undisputed leader of our football team," Smith said of the junior, who threw 32 passes in 2016.
Rutgers began the offseason with an open audition under center, but Giovanni Rescigno -- who started the final five games last year -- has fended off challengers. Scarlet Knights coach Chris Ash called Rescigno's improvement this spring "a pleasant surprise" and called him the team's "clear No. 1."
That leaves just four teams currently undecided, at least officially, on a starter. An alphabetical rundown:
Iowa: Quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe called the race between Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers "neck and neck" on Wednesday. But Stanley was the backup to C.J. Beathard as a true freshman, and most believe he'll win the job.
Maryland: D.J. Durkin says there's still a three-way competition raging, but North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson seems like the safe bet to take the snaps in the opener at Texas.
Minnesota: This might be the one truly wide-open battle in the league, as there's very little experience on hand for first-year coach P.J. Fleck. Senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft appear to be the leading candidates, with early enrollee Tanner Morgan a dark horse. Fleck said he likely won't name a starter until training camp.
Nebraska: For the first time since they entered the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers don't have an obvious starting quarterback lined up. Mike Riley said he has split the reps evenly between Tulane transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien; both will get a chance to shine at Saturday's spring game.
"We've been through it a few times in our life," Riley said. "One thing it does is, it kind of keeps an edge there."
Experience isn't everything. McSorley had never started a college game before leading Penn State to the Big Ten title last year. But coaches would usually prefer certainty at the game's most important position. The veteran returning talent and coaches' confidence in their options this spring would seem to bode well for the league's chances.
It's been a while since the ol' Big Ten mailbag showed its face around these parts. But with college basketball leaving the stage and spring practice waning, it's time to once again take your questions. You can send them any time via Twitter or by emailing ESPNBigTenMailbag@gmail.com.
And we're back ...
— Jason Draper (@JD5330) April 11, 2017
Brian Bennett: I loved Mike Riley's hiring of Bob Diaco to be the Cornhuskers' defensive coordinator. I covered Diaco when he was at Cincinnati and Notre Dame, where he put together some outstanding defenses. He's extremely quirky, but players respond to Diaco's fiery attitude. And the dude can coach.
The question is, does he have the right personnel for his 3-4 scheme? I'd expect the secondary to be one of the best in the Big Ten with returning players such as Chris Jones, Joshua Kalu and Kieron Williams. The front seven is another story. Nebraska wasn't a great pass-rushing team last season, and I wonder if it has the run-stuffing defensive linemen and playmaking linebackers to make this unit truly special. I'm not expecting a dominant, top-20-type defense this season but would look for some strides made and a leap forward perhaps in 2018.
— Justin <9 (@MrHooterz) April 11, 2017
Brian Bennett: It could be challenging. Minnesota has had between four and six healthy offensive linemen this spring, which is a giant red flag. There's almost no experience at quarterback. The roster is very young, and this is a major culture change with an entirely new staff.
The situation is far different than when P.J. Fleck took over Western Michigan, but his first season in Kalamazoo resulted in a 1-11 record for the Broncos. So it took some time for him to work his magic. The Golden Gophers won nine games last season and have some dynamic playmakers at running back in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, so this is not a major rebuild. Still, I think it very likely could be a transition year.
— Brett <ú<ø (@BrettGHughes) April 11, 2017
Brian Bennett: I've thought for a while now that Akrum Wadley was Iowa's most explosive running back. After he ran for 1,081 yards on just 168 carries last season, it will be really intriguing to see what he can do consistently with more carries. Keeping weight on has been a problem for Wadley in the past, but he should be beyond that now as a senior.
He might never be a bell cow a la Shonn Greene, but Wadley should be one of the Big Ten's best running backs this season and could top 1,500 yards. Stay tuned: I hope to write more about him soon.
@BennettESPN Assuming PSU has another great season, where does Joe Moorehead end up? Think it is a power 5 (or ND) type of job or something else?
— LeftyMarlins (@LeftyMarlins) April 11, 2017
Brian Bennett: Unlike other coordinators, Joe Moorhead actually has head-coaching experience. And he was highly successful at it, albeit at a lower level (Fordham).
That might make him an even more attractive candidate for a school looking for a head coach next winter. Yet landing at a place like Notre Dame seems like a bit of a stretch. It's still fairly rare for coordinators with no strong ties to a school to suddenly become head coaches at traditional powers. Instead, I'd look to the paths of a couple of other Big Ten coordinators who were hot commodities: Tom Herman, who took over at Houston before eventually getting the Texas gig, and Pat Narduzzi, who was hired by Pitt. Think mid- to low-tier Power 5 jobs or a strong Group of 5 program.
@BennettESPN Will Maryland make a jump from last year in with the QB position? Caleb Henderson looks like a big upgrade.
— bob jacobs (@BobJacobs2000) April 11, 2017
Brian Bennett: Perry Hills wasn't bad last season for the Terrapins, finishing second in the Big Ten behind McSorley in pass efficiency while completing 61.9 percent of his passes. But he also threw for less than 1,500 yards in 11 games, so he wasn't exactly Boomer Esiason.
Caleb Henderson, the North Carolina transfer, is a thickly built, strong dude who was once an ESPN 300 recruit. He simply got buried on the depth chart in Chapel Hill behind a potential first-rounder, Mitch Trubisky. He should be able to sling it down the field and stretch defenses vertically more than Hills did, and he can bowl people over running it as well. After sitting out last season as a transfer and learning the system, he should have a leg up in the team's quarterback competition.
Henderson still hasn't proved anything in college football. But with him and incoming freshman Kasim Hill, it sure looks as though Maryland's quarterback play, which has been uninspiring for a while now, could soon go up a few notches.
Last week on the blog, we took a look at the reasons why several contenders would win the Big Ten title in 2017, including Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. We also examined some sleeper teams.
It was all very optimistic, as things tend to be this time of year. Now it's time to play the role of pessimist. We're here to tell you why your team won't win the Big Ten title in 2017.
The country-pop band Big & Rich will perform before the Scarlet Knights' spring game next month. Sorry, Piscataway. After a dismal 2-10 season, it's going to be a long time before any championships are comin' ... to your city.
Jeff Brohm will make things interesting and exciting in West Lafayette again. Eventually. Bear Bryant couldn't lead this team, which has won two Big Ten games in the past three years, to a title this season.
Hey, this is a program that's won two of the past four league championships, so it wouldn't be a total shock to see the Spartans rebound from 3-9. Except that the program currently is mired in turmoil. There's going to be a very strange vibe around the spring game, which might be the first time we find out officially who's still on the roster while a sexual assault and Title IX investigation swirls. The trend line here is not good.
The Illini have some young talent coming in, but they may be hard pressed to surpass last year's 3-9 mark in Lovie Smith's second year. The two-deep was razor thin this spring, and basically the entire defensive line must be replaced. Things may get worse before they get better in Champaign.
You've got to like the direction of D.J. Durkin's program after he brought in a very solid recruiting class. Again, though, we're talking about 2017, and this team is going to be very young and without a proven quarterback. Plus, there should be a five-year mandatory championship probation for wearing these uniforms.
The Hoosiers have thrown a scare into several of the league's best teams the past couple of years. But it has almost always just been a scare, which is why Tom Allen is using the slogan "Breakthrough" this year. Even if Indiana finds a way to win some more of those close games thanks to an improved defense, it just doesn't have enough talent to get to the top of a loaded East Division.
Crazier things have happened for the boys in purple. Like 1995, for instance. Or actually making -- and winning -- a game in this year's NCAA tournament. The Wildcats will have one of the league's best backfield duos in Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson. Yet they've been just a bit too inconsistent to believe they can make a championship run.
Every day is elite in P.J. Fleck's universe. But with a very young team, no experience at quarterback and a brand new coaching staff, this year could prove mediocre at best. And to win a title, the Golden Gophers need to beat Wisconsin again before we all die.
Maybe this is the year. (Note: I copied and pasted that sentence from every preseason article written about the Cornhuskers since 2002). It's hard to win a championship with four losses , and that's exactly how many games Nebraska has dropped in seven of the eight past years. Where's the top-shelf, All-America-type talent? Will the team show up in the big games away from home?
There's a new starting quarterback and hardly any receivers anybody's heard of. Penn State and Ohio State are among the crossover games (though both are at Kinnick). The Hawkeyes have to go to Wisconsin. There's enough here for Iowa to win eight games and trigger a $500,000 bonus for Kirk Ferentz, but hide your eyes at bowl time.
Eighteen starters are gone -- 18! If anyone besides Urban Meyer can get that much youth up to speed, it's Jim Harbaugh, and his four-hour practices will age anyone quickly. Still, that's an uphill battle. And last time we checked, Ohio State is still on the schedule.
Speaking of the Buckeyes, it's always dumb to bet against them winning the Big Ten. Except that Ohio State has somehow won only won one Big Ten championship in the past six years. Meyer has lost only three league games while in Columbus, but they have come at the most inopportune times. The offense also has to prove it can throw the ball more than a few yards downfield.
The Badgers are like a metronome. You can set your watch to their consistency. They're the West favorites until someone proves otherwise. But can they beat whomever comes out of the East? They lost to Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State last year. The offense always seems to come up a bit short in those huge games. Alex Hornibrook is promising, but he's not Russell Wilson.
The returning experience is outstanding and the Trace McSorley-Saquon Barkley combo is as good as it gets anywhere. Yet the Nittany Lions also caught some breaks last year with their schedule, with how that Ohio State game turned out and the East tiebreaker situation. This year, they have to go to the Horseshoe, not to mention the viper pit known as Kinnick Stadium. Michigan at home will be no picnic. Defending a title is much tougher than coming out of nowhere to win one.
That's all well and good, but who would have guessed at this time a year ago that Penn State would win the league championship in 2016? Maybe there will be another sleeper team that rises up and surprises everyone this fall.
With that in mind, here are reasons why some teams outside of our list of four contenders could win the Big Ten title this year.
It was just two seasons ago that the Hawkeyes were 12-0 in the regular season and finished a yard short of winning the Big Ten championship game. They return a solid nucleus and solid leaders on both sides of the ball in linebacker Josey Jewell and running back Akrum Wadley. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz should reshape the offense into one that plays to its strengths. Iowa will have a first-year starting quarterback, Nathan Stanley, but as head coach Kirk Ferentz pointed out, first-year starters like C.J. Beathard and Ricky Stanzi fared pretty well in the past.
Hey, the Cornhuskers have to win another conference title sooner or later, right? Their three most likely challengers in the West Division -- Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern -- all have to come to Lincoln this season. Mike Riley has had some time to bring in his kind of players, including at quarterback. Nebraska should be as talented as any team in the West, and if it can just find a way to get over the hump in its biggest games, a trip to Indianapolis is certainly within reach.
OK, so things seem to be kind of a mess in East Lansing right now. But let's not forget this is a program that has won two of the past four Big Ten championships. It's going to be some seriously tough sledding in the East Division, but the Spartans have surprised us before. Of course, it would be nice if we even knew who was on the team right now or whether Mark Dantonio will speak publicly before the season starts.
Plenty of experience is back on offense, led by last year's Big Ten rushing champ, Justin Jackson, and junior quarterback Clayton Thorson. Northwestern won 10 games two years ago and had some nice wins last season at Iowa and over Pitt in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. The Wildcats' 2017 Big Ten opener is at Wisconsin. If they can find a way to pull off that upset, they could find themselves in the thick of the division race.
Row the dang boat. The Golden Gophers have come close the past couple years, and maybe first-year head coach P.J. Fleck's enthusiasm and new offense will help push them past the finish line. The roster has some holes, but the schedule is manageable early. It's not unthinkable that Minnesota could be 7-0 heading into the Floyd game in Iowa City. Crazier things have happened ... just look at last year.
Spring isn’t necessarily a time to deliver a finished product. But this time of year is crucial for setting up a team for success in the fall -- and some programs have more work to do than others.
Who stands to benefit the most from these workouts heading into the summer offseason in the Big Ten? Our conference reporters break it down, roundtable style.
Brian Bennett: Minnesota
After the player-led boycott last December, the wave of suspensions and the firing of coach Tracy Claeys, it's an important camp for Minnesota and few teams have as much to accomplish this spring as the Golden Gophers. They’ve got a new head coach in P.J. Fleck and an entirely new staff. There’s a wide-open quarterback race with no proven veterans on the roster. This is going to be a young team, one that’s led by running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Fleck’s personality and schemes represent a major change. It’s a fascinating story to watch, and spring is more important than it usually is in the Twin Cities.
Dan Murphy: Michigan
The Wolverines have to begin filling 17 openings in the starting lineup this spring. Some spots are fairly easy to figure out but will need to use the next month to get comfortable in a new role. Others (like the safeties, receivers and one or two offensive line positions, for example) are wide open competitions. Spring practice will go a long way in determining an offseason pecking order at those spots.
It's also a big month for quarterback Wilton Speight. If Michigan is going to contend for championships in 2017, Speight will have to take ownership of the offense (which loses seven seniors) and team as a whole. He can start asserting himself this spring as the guy his teammates can trust to pull them out of tight spots. After losing three of their last four games in dramatic fashion, head coach Jim Harbaugh and his players shouldn't have any problem finding motivation to get a lot accomplished in March and April.
Jesse Temple: Purdue
Boilermakers fans are hungry for a reversal of fortunes, and optimism abounds with new Purdue coach Jeff Brohm in charge. His first spring in West Lafayette will be essential as he begins to put the building blocks in place for a potential turnaround. Purdue ranked 11th in the Big Ten last season in scoring offense (24.6 points per game) and last in scoring defense (38.3 points). Brohm, who came from Western Kentucky, helped the Hilltoppers lead the FBS in scoring offense at 45.5 points per game last season. His up-tempo style could benefit Purdue quarterback David Blough, who has a ton of talent and led the Big Ten in passing offense last season. Brohm needs to find enough receivers to help out Blough, and the offensive line must improve to create more of a running game. That doesn't address defensive issues, particularly on the line and in the secondary. Brohm has much work to do and only 15 practices this spring to sort things out.
Austin Ward: Rutgers
Considering the situation Chris Ash inherited a year ago and the brutal division in which he’s trying to make up ground, it wouldn’t have been fair to expect significant improvements during his debut season with the Scarlet Knights. With the roster still in rebuilding mode and the Big Ten’s East Division only getting stronger, expectations should perhaps still remain relatively low heading into 2017. But the second season is generally a time to show progress and is critically important in solidifying the foundation of a coach’s program, which makes this a significant spring for Ash.
After showing flashes of productivity leading the offense last season, this spring could be a chance for Giovanni Rescigno to stake a solid claim to the quarterback job and build some momentum in new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill’s offense. That position is always under the spotlight, but perhaps even more than most programs, Rutgers needs to find a reliable answer there soon.
"Row the boat" and "elite" are now staples in the Minnesota football vocabulary.
They are some of the buzzwords that new coach P.J. Fleck used at Western Michigan, a program he took to the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic last season, and they are concepts he brought with him to the Twin Cities. Of course, it's going to take a lot more than slogans and catch phrases to get the Golden Gophers up to speed, beginning with their first spring practice Tuesday.
Minnesota is coming off a nine-win season and a victory over Washington State in the National Funding Holiday Bowl. But there was also turmoil in the program, with mass player suspensions for an alleged sexual assault, a brief player-led bowl boycott and the firing of former head coach Tracy Claeys. Fleck's unending enthusiasm and positive attitude might be exactly what this program needs right now, but there are some personnel questions that must be answered.
That's why the Gophers will be one of the most fascinating teams to watch this spring.
Spring schedule: Minnesota will practice Tuesday and Thursday behind closed doors, then take a week off for spring break. The first two workouts will be focused on installing Fleck's schemes. The team will return to the field March 21, hold its spring game on April 15 at TCF Bank Stadium and have one last practice April 17.
What’s new: The entire coaching staff. Fleck didn't keep any Claeys holdovers. He brought Kirk Ciarrocca with him from Western Michigan as offensive coordinator and hired Robb Smith, who was the defensive coordinator at Arkansas the past three seasons, to run that side of the ball. Ed Warriner, who was Ohio State’s offensive coordinator the past two years, is now the Gophers' offensive line coach/run game coordinator.
Three things we want to see:
1. Who is next at QB?: It only seemed like Mitch Leidner had a lifetime scholarship. Leidner appeared at three straight Big Ten media days and started 41 games under center for the Gophers. His departure means there isn't much experience at quarterback on the roster. Senior Conor Rhoda did start the Maryland Terrapins game last year but has thrown for just 88 yards in his career. Redshirt sophomore Demry Croft and redshirt freshman Seth Green have much to prove. There's also a juco transfer in Neil McLaurin, who signed with the previous staff, and an early enrollee in Tanner Morgan, who flipped from Western Michigan to follow Fleck. It should be a wide-open competition.
2. Secondary concerns: Two starters from last season, safety Damarius Travis and cornerback Jalen Myrick, were at the NFL combine. Two other contributors, corner Ray Buford and safety Dior Johnson, left the program after being suspended. Getting Antoine Winfield Jr. back from suspension was a big boost to a position that has been one of the program's best in recent years. But there still isn't a ton of depth or experience here, and this should be a focus this spring.
3. How it all comes together: This one is more esoteric and probably difficult to quantify in spring. Still, there was definitely a rift between the players and the administration over the winter, and many were sad to see Claeys go. Fleck's personality might not fit everyone. The schemes are going to be different than what the veterans are used to, especially on offense. Can Fleck and his staff get total buy-in during this crucial development period? Will everyone be on the same page going forward? This could be a transition year for the Golden Gophers, and spring could tell us a lot about the team's direction.
With spring practice gearing up throughout much of the Big Ten, it's time to bring back the mailbag. You can send in questions any time via Twitter or by emailing me at ESPNBigTenMailbag@gmail.com.
— Benny (@FLBuckeye14) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Good question, if a bit early. We should have a better sense of these teams once they get through spring ball. But allow me to make a couple of way-too-early calls, which are subject to change.
Most improved? I think you have to go with Michigan State. Even though the offseason has had its share of difficulties for the Spartans, it's simply too hard for me to imagine this program going 3-9 again. Mark Dantonio's team probably still won't be good enough to seriously contend in the East Division, but 7-to-8 wins is totally in reach.
As for digressing (good word choice by you), I'll go with Minnesota. The schedule is still manageable early on for new head coach P.J. Fleck. But given the personnel losses, the uncertainty at quarterback, the turmoil around the program and the transition to a new staff, I find it unreasonable to expect another nine-win campaign out of the Golden Gophers. This is more likely a team that will have to scrap for a bowl bid.
@BennettESPN what are the most interesting out of conference games?
— Slotter (@Slotter) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Well, the big ones are well known. Michigan vs. Florida in Arlington, Texas, on opening weekend. Oklahoma at Ohio State and Nebraska at Oregon in Week 2. Michigan State hosting Notre Dame on Sept. 23.
A couple of other lesser-heralded ones I like: Wisconsin at BYU in Week 3 -- not quite LSU at Lambeau, but it's an intriguing road trip nonetheless. Maryland at Texas and new coach Tom Herman in the opener. Penn State vs. Pitt, naturally. Purdue vs. Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and Jeff Brohm's alma mater, Louisville, in Indianapolis in Week 1.
The nonconference schedule maybe doesn't look as glamorous in 2017 as it did in the summer of 2016, but there are still some very interesting games on tap.
— Ben Weinberg (@bweiny) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Well, you're already eliminating Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State from the East and Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska from the West with your parameters. I think we can agree Rutgers, Purdue and Illinois aren't particularly close to winning a division, and Indiana and Maryland have the deck stacked against them in the East. So that leaves only Michigan, Northwestern and Minnesota. As I wrote earlier, I think the Golden Gophers are in for some rebuilding. So yeah, the Wolverines and Wildcats are your best bets to be the next teams to break through and get to Indianapolis.
John A. emails: Do you see Alex Hornibrook taking a step forward for a Wisconsin team that is just a QB away from a special season? And if he does take that step, how do you see their season panning out?
Brian Bennett: I do think you'll see Hornibrook take a step forward. He showed good poise and made plays as a redshirt freshman in some tough games a year ago, and that can only help his development. The big question is what is Hornibrook's ceiling. Can he be a star at quarterback, or is he destined to be a solid game manager? The Badgers have managed a lot of success with the latter type of signalcaller, so he doesn't have to be Russell Wilson 2.0.
I'm fairly bullish on Hornibrook's potential because of two things: his outstanding makeup, and the tutelage of Paul Chryst. I think you could see Hornibrook develop into a slightly better version of late-career Scott Tolzien, which was pretty darn good.
— YetiHawk (@AlgoHawk) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Well, all right.
Best team offense: Penn State, though Ohio State with Kevin Wilson pulling the levers is fascinating and dangerous.
Best team defense: Ohio State, because of its experienced defensive line. But Michigan and Wisconsin should both be really good defensively, too.
— TODD (@OhHeyItsTodd) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Things certainly can't get much worse, but I don't know how much a recruiting class will help. You're talking about a bunch of extremely young players who'd be outmatched physically in the Big Ten.
There is bound to be improvement, though, and there's no real reason why the Scarlet Knights couldn't compete with teams like Illinois, Purdue, Maryland and Indiana. The bad news is that Washington, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are still on the schedule, plus a trip to Nebraska. Ouch.
On Oct. 28, 2015, Jerry Kill announced his retirement as Minnesota's head football coach in a teary-eyed news conference. Battling seizures as a result of his epilepsy, Kill stepped down under his doctors instructions.
And that, he figured, would be the end of his long coaching career.
"I had reached the point where there was nothing left at all," he told ESPN.com earlier this month.
Less than a year and a half later, though, Kill is back working in the game he loves, if in a slightly different capacity. In December, Rutgers hired the former Big Ten coach of the year as its offensive coordinator.
The move came with some serious question marks. The pressure and stress of coaching certainly contributed to Kill's health problems in the past, which included a seven-game leave of absence from Minnesota in 2013 after a series of seizures. Yet the 55-year-old Kill is moving forward with no hesitations.
"I'm sure some people are like, 'What the hell is he doing?'" Kill said. "But the way I look at it is, you only have one life. There's no do-overs. And, hey, I don't feel like I'm done helping kids."
Besides, Kill has reason to believe things will be different this time around.
After stepping down from the Golden Gophers, he took some time to relax in Florida. He then went back to work on controlling his epilepsy.
A big breakthrough was teaching himself how to sleep. Kill estimated that he slept an average of only three hours a night in the previous 12 years, as he was unable to keep his mind from spinning when he lay down in bed. He began practicing meditation, which helped him get much more rest.
He also altered the way he eats, going to a low-carb diet. Those changes, he said, have kept him seizure free for the past year.
Kill said he had several offers to get back into coaching right after he left Minnesota. They included a call from Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, who told him he could have any part-time role he wanted with the Wolverines. But Kill wasn’t ready to go back to work until May 2016, when he took a job as an assistant athletic director at Kansas State, where he worked closely with the football program and head coach Bill Snyder in an administrative capacity.
"Going to K-State was one of the greatest things I ever did," Kill said. "It allowed me to test drive myself a little bit, health-wise."
Reinvigorated by that job, Kill decided he was ready to coach again when Rutgers' Chris Ash called about his vacant offensive coordinator position.
"When I heard through the coaching rumor mill that he might want back in, I reached out right away," Ash said. "The obvious question was, 'What type of shape are you in?'"
The two went over what Kill's schedule would look like. Ash insists that his coaches go home on Wednesday and Thursday nights during the season. There will still be long work days, but Kill assured Ash that he's properly managed his condition and could handle the load.
Now an assistant coach for the first time since 1993, Kill won't have as much on his plate as he did when he was a head coach. He was stretched in many directions at Minnesota, where he often had to be the face of the entire athletic program through some administrative disarray and lead a major fundraising campaign.
"You've got a problem every day when you're the head coach," Kill said. "Your mind's never going to stop, because there's always a problem."
Kill has another motivation for getting back into football. He knows his elevated profile as a coach can help raise more awareness and money for people with epilepsy.
He has his own foundation, Chasing Dreams. It supports such projects as Camp Oz, a summer camp for Minnesota kids with epilepsy, and instructing schools how to respond to and care for students who have seizures. Kill also wrote a book, "Chasing Dreams: Living My Life One Yard at a Time"; all proceeds from sales go to the foundation.
He also promotes the social media campaign #TackleEpilepsy, which was tied in with the NFL during the Super Bowl.
— Jerry Kill (@JerryKillCoach) February 5, 2017
Once reluctant to discuss his health in detail, Kill is now using the platform he has with football to bring as much attention as possible to epilepsy. He knows that every time Rutgers plays on TV this season, for example, the announcers will likely tell his story. He embraces the role of public advocate.
"His willingness to speak out and share the struggles and successes he's had living with seizures is inspiring to all," said Phil Gattone, president and CEO of the Epilepsy Foundation. "He is inspirational and courageous as he continually moves forward with the challenges ahead of him. He is changing the world and its view on epilepsy as he rises above his own personal circumstances to help and give hope to others."
Kill's immediate coaching challenge is a tall one. The Scarlet Knights had one of the worst offenses in the country last season, finishing 127th out of 128 FBS teams at just 15.7 points per game. It's a major rebuilding job. Then again, Kill's entire career, from small schools like Saginaw Valley State to places such as Northern Illinois and Minnesota, has been about rebuilding.
"These are the things I'm used to doing," he said.
Ash, in just his second year as a head coach, appreciates the experience and knowledge that Kill brings to the staff.
"People assume he's a sounding board for you as a head coach and he does bring that," Ash said. "But more than anything, it's the way he attacks his job. He goes out and attacks it the way he wanted his assistants to do when he was a head coach. That's a great thing for me, because it's one less thing I have to worry about."
Kill isn't worried that his health will derail him this time around. He wants to be a shining example of someone living with epilepsy and still realizing their dreams.
"My life's good, but some of these young people are having 40-50 seizures a day and there’s no answer," he said. "So we need people to help. And it's a lot easier to help when you have a platform to do so."
We knew Michigan was loaded with senior talent last year. The NFL knew it, too.
The Wolverines lead all schools with 14 players invited to this year's NFL combine, the annual prodding and poking of draft hopefuls. The Michigan contingent includes Jabrill Peppers, who declared early, and 13 seniors from last year's Orange Bowl runners-up.
Ohio State was second in the Big Ten with eight invitees, six of whom were underclassmen. Purdue and Rutgers were the only Big Ten schools without a representative.
Here's the full list of all 51 Big Ten players invited to the event, which will be held Feb. 28 through March 6 in Indianapolis:
OG Dan Feeney
DB Desmond King
OG Ben Braden
TE Jake Butt
WR Jehu Chesson
DB Jeremy Clark
WR Amara Darboh
LB Ben Gedeon
DT Ryan Glasgow
CB Jalen Myrick
WR Noah Brown
WR Chris Godwin
LB Vince Biegel
OT Ryan Ramczyk
LB T.J. Watt
The 2017 season is still several months away. But we never stop looking forward here at the Big Ten blog.
It may be ridiculously early, but we're examining the must-win game and the potential trap game for each league team this fall. Up next: the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Must-win game: Maryland, Sept. 30
For the second straight year, Minnesota has an advantageous early-season schedule, and it needs to take advantage of it. It's likely going to be a transition year under new head coach P.J. Fleck, who will inherit a young roster without any proven quarterbacks. But Fleck and the Golden Gophers can build some momentum with a nonconference slate that features two highly winnable games at home (Buffalo and Middle Tennessee) and a road trip to Oregon State, which went 4-8 last year. The Big Ten opener sees Maryland come to TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota beat the Terrapins by three touchdowns on the road last year, and while Maryland should be better in 2017, this will be an early litmus test for Fleck's program. If the Gophers are going to be any kind of factor in the West Division this fall, they need to get off on the right foot. That makes this a must win.
Trap game: Middle Tennessee, Sept. 16
At first glance, this doesn't look like all that dangerous of a game for Minnesota. But consider that it comes the Saturday after that trip to Oregon State, meaning the players will likely get home late from the West Coast and have to adjust their body clocks for the following week. Also consider that the Blue Raiders won eight games last year, including a road victory at Missouri. They also bring back quarterback Brent Stockstill, who threw for 3,233 yards and 31 touchdowns last year in just 10 games. He leads an offense that averaged 39.7 ppg in 2016, 12th-most in the FBS. This Conference USA team will have a puncher's chance, and the Gophers had better be ready.
With the 2017 recruiting classes in the books and spring practice just around the corner, we're taking a look at how the Big Ten teams stack up at each position group.
Hey, it's still early February, so things can change a lot between now and Labor Day weekend. Who saw Trace McSorley as arguably the best Big Ten quarterback this time a year ago, after all? Or Austin Carr as the league's top receiver in 2016?
Young players and new faces will no doubt step in and surprise us. So we're basing a lot of this off returning experience. And since it's by position group, depth matters as well as star power.
Staying on offense, next up in the series will be the offensive lines.
The Hawkeyes and all their returners up front have already earned national acclaim as one of the nation’s best units, but the reigning Joe Moore Award winners should be even better this season with another year to develop. And assuming Iowa can stay healthy and avoid needing to play seven different combinations of starters on the line, it could improve on the 30 sacks allowed a year ago and help the rushing attack shoot up the charts in the Big Ten after finishing just eighth in the league in yardage. Kirk Ferentz will only have to replace Cole Croston in the rotation after the veteran started seven games in his final season, but due to injuries, the Hawkeyes already have a jumpstart on that heading into spring practice.
Ohio State clearly had issues in pass protection at the end of the year, but once again, the big guys paved the way for the best ground game in the Big Ten and will have no shortage of talent and experience on hand this year. Losing Pat Elflein at center leaves a big hole to fill, but just like the Buckeyes did a year ago by sliding over the captain from guard to take over snapping duties, Billy Price is set to do the same this spring. With three other returning starters alongside Price, Ohio State won’t need to spend much time worrying about the future up front.
The tradition of success in the trenches isn’t going away any time soon for the Badgers, who could easily find themselves on top of the rankings by the end of the season depending on how seamless the process of replacing star left tackle Ryan Ramczyk winds up being this offseason. Wisconsin has some similarities with Ohio State as it returns four starters from a unit that was better in pass protection by allowing just 24 sacks while finishing a distant third behind the Buckeyes in rushing offense. And the Badgers, too, should be expected to be even stronger on the line with so many experienced veterans back in the fold.
Along those same lines, Mike Riley’s Huskers took a significant step forward last season and could duplicate that again with a skilled group returning this fall. The loss of Dylan Utter is significant, but the rest of the line is stocked with players who have already shown they can handle the blocking responsibilities for a team that allowed the fewest sacks in the Big Ten last year.
Team that could surprise: Minnesota
After posting one of the most productive, under-the-radar campaigns in the league a year ago, a Minnesota unit that finished in the top five in the Big Ten in both rushing offense and sacks allowed will have three starters returning for P.J. Fleck as he takes over the program. As far as building blocks go for a first-year coach, Fleck should be in relatively decent shape -- and he hired a proven offensive line coach in Ed Warinner who can get the most out of the Gophers. There are questions elsewhere on the roster, but Minnesota could again be a sleeper pick to thrive up front.
The Terrapins have some intriguing pieces and potential, but there will have to be significant improvement by the blockers if they’re going to climb a rung or two in the brutally challenging East Division. Maryland gave up 49 sacks last season, though it did show some encouraging flashes as a run-blocking unit.
The Boilermakers finished last in rushing and gave up 29 sacks, putting another item on Jeff Brohm’s lengthy to-do list as he takes over and tries to upgrade the offensive attack.
When all the craziness of last week's national signing day had ended, coaches could finally catch their breath for a moment. And perhaps reflect on the fact that things will never be the same going forward.
The hype and run-up to the first Wednesday in February will be altered forever if a mid-December early signing period is approved by conference commissioners in June, as expected. But it's the other piece of new recruiting legislation that should have the biggest impact in the Big Ten: earlier official visits.
The NCAA Division I Council likely will make that a reality this spring. If so, prospects could take paid official visits to schools beginning in April of their junior year of high school and lasting into late June. Right now, recruits can only take official visits beginning in September of their senior year.
"I think it changes everything," Penn State head coach James Franklin told ESPN.com last week. "It changes your camp model, your recruiting model and your spring practice model. You have to factor all those things in."
Earlier official visits have long been viewed as a change that would benefit the Big Ten, perhaps more than any other league. To understand why, one only has to consider geography and timing.
Several Big Ten programs, especially West Division schools Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota, are located far away from the top recruiting hotbeds. Getting a kid on campus obviously is crucial to eventually signing him, but it's not easy for a prospect from, say, Florida or Texas to get to the upper Midwest for an unofficial visit in the spring or summer, considering he and his family would have to foot the cost.
Plus, more and more recruits are committing early, before the current official visit schedule even begins. That puts many Big Ten schools behind the curve and gives even more of an advantage to programs whose campuses are closer to where recruits live.
Then, of course, there's the weather. A recruit visiting a northern Big Ten school in the fall could well encounter the snow, cold and wind that make late-season conference games a challenge for all involved. Earlier official visits allow teams to show off their surroundings in a potentially better light.
"I think that's critical," first-year Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. "There are not many better places in the spring and summer than the Twin Cities and the state of Minnesota. It's some of the most beautiful weather you'll find in the entire country. That's what we look forward to showing off."
As the westernmost Big Ten school, Nebraska could reap major rewards from the earlier visit model.
The Cornhuskers are second to none in terms of facilities and fan support, and often can seal the deal when players and their families see the campus in person. But with a far-flung recruiting base that this year included players from California, Florida, Texas and Louisiana, it's not always easy to get those prospects to Lincoln on their own dime.
"It’d be great to be able to pay for that visit," Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. "I think that’s right for these families. I think that’s good."
Riley was in favor of another early signing period in the summer, a proposal that was tossed around last year but ultimately rejected. While he likes the idea of earlier visits, he still has some questions. Is it ideal to bring in a player in April or May when he can't actually sign until December? And is it better to have recruits come to the spring game or an actual home game in the fall?
"Do we shoot the bullet in June, and then we don’t get to bring him from Texas to one of our games?" Riley asked. "What we have found is that the game is a great experience for these guys. Half of our early  commitments had been to the spring game, and then about half of our signees, I believe, had been on our campus before July 1."
"Did we hit the exact right mark [on the signing date]? I think we kind of chickened out at the end. Now we’ve got some decisions to make on how to use the visits."
Coaches will have some time to figure this out. Though the December signing date would go into effect this year once approved, the earlier official visits wouldn't be enacted until 2018, for the class of 2019.
Franklin said his staff already has plans in place on how to best use the potential new calendar, though the Nittany Lions won't finalize anything until the measures are officially approved. Penn State sits closer to the players it recruits than other Big Ten schools, but State College lacks a readily accessible airport.
"You can make an argument that being able to visit with kids when the weather’s really nice and the campus is going to show best and those types of things, it really helps," Franklin said. "I also think that when you do something new, there's always a concern about unforeseen consequences, and there are going to be some to those."
As always, new rules bring new complications. But the earlier official visits figure to eventually be a good thing for the Big Ten.