Big Ten: Wisconsin Badgers
It doesn’t take long to think of college football games that hinge on a major special teams play. Whether it’s a last-second field-goal attempt or a field-flipping punt return, a strong third phase is usually the difference that can turn one or two losses into wins. A weak one can quickly turn a couple wins into losses.
In the past two weeks, we’ve reviewed the Big Ten’s cream of the crop at key position groups on both sides of the ball. We wrap up our list of the league’s best units by taking a look at special teams.
Best of the best: According to ESPN’s special teams efficiency rankings, only two teams (Stanford and Memphis) were more effective on special teams in 2016 than Michigan. The Wolverines led the Big Ten in several special teams stats. Despite losing do-it-all kicker Kenny Allen and do-it-all returner Jabrill Peppers, they should be a formidable group again this fall.
Quinn Nordin will take over placekicking duties for Allen, and the big-legged sophomore made a good early impression by knocking down a 48-yard field goal with plenty of room to spare during the spring game. A whole host of young athletes are in the running to take over for Peppers in the return game. And as electric as he was, Michigan's best plays while lining up against a kicker came on blocks. The Wolverines blocked a combined seven kicks and punts a year ago – more than any other power five school. This year, special teams coach Chris Partridge said the goal is to focus more on breaking big returns than blocking kicks.
Next in line: Penn State returns a trio of talented specialists in the kicking game. Redshirt senior Tyler Davis tied for the league's best field-goal percentage by hitting 22 of 24 attempts last season, although his longest attempt was only 40 yards out. Blake Gillikin set a freshman school record by averaging 42.8 yards per punt, including 13 attempts that traveled at least 50 yards. And Joey Julius added an extra dimension to the Nittany Lions’ kickoff coverage by being as punishing of a tackler as any kicker in recent memory. With the athletes to make big plays in the return game, Penn State is set up well for all angles of special teams.
Wisconsin is another team to watch, especially as the Badgers expect to get placekicker Rafael Gaglianone back after the Brazilian missed most of 2016 with an injury.
Don’t sleep on: Iowa was among the league’s most efficient special teams units a year ago. Assistant coach LeVar Woods said this spring that he’s had starters lining up outside his office to ask about playing on special teams this offseason. The Hawkeyes have to replace several key figures -- most notably returner Desmond King -- but the focus on that area of the field and the dividends it paid last year bode well for Kirk Ferentz’s team.
Last season we saw some outstanding defensive performances from Big Ten teams, especially when it came to pass defense. The conference had four teams in the top 15 for interceptions, four in the top 25 for sacks and five teams in the top 25 for pass breakups. Teams within the conference are hoping to duplicate that production this season and continue to disrupt opposing offenses.
Which team, though, will have the best pass defense in the conference? We continue our look at the best defensive groups within the Big Ten by answering that question.
The Badgers’ defense led the conference last season in interceptions, had the second-most pass breakups, the second-best third-down conversion percentage on passes, the second-best touchdown-to-interception ratio and the third-best opponent passer efficiency rating. Losing Shelton, Musso and linebacker T.J. Watt will sting, but there is still plenty to work with remaining on this defense.
Safety D'Cota Dixon and cornerback Derrick Tindal return, and Wisconsin is adding Hawaii cornerback transfer Nick Nelson. Outside of the secondary, the staff also has linebacker T.J. Edwards and defensive end Chikwe Obasih coming back and is adding junior college defensive end Andrew Van Ginkel.
Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard should have this unit rolling again this season.
Next in line: Ohio State lost a ton of production in the secondary to the NFL draft with Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore moving on, but there is still a ton of talent on this roster. Putting Ohio State in this spot is somewhat of a projection based on potential, but the staff has proven they can bring in new faces season after season without skipping a beat.
What will help the Buckeyes offset some of the losses in the secondary is how many returning starters they have along the defensive line. The pass rush next season should be outstanding, as most of the starting defensive line is back this season, as are as linebackers Chris Worley and Jerome Baker.
On top of that, Ohio State recruited some of the top defensive backs in the 2017 class, including five-stars Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade. The staff also added junior college corner Kendall Sheffield, and all three should be able to contribute this season to help keep this pass defense in top shape.
Don’t sleep on: Northwestern is in under the radar this season, but the Wildcats return a ton of starters on defense. Cornerback Montre Hartage led the team in interceptions last season and will be back to try to top his five picks from 2016. Safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro are also returning, along with cornerback Keith Watkins II, which should equate to a tough secondary on the field. Indiana is in a similar boat, returning five starting defensive backs as well as team sack leader Tegray Scales. The Hoosiers made some impressive leaps under now head coach Tom Allen, who was leading the defense in 2016. If Allen can continue to improve and develop his players, Indiana could have a solid pass defense in 2017.
With spring in the rear-view mirror and the season approaching, odds on Big Ten teams are starting to take shape. The oddsmakers at Las Vegas sportsbook operator GC Technology have set the over/under win totals, and we take a look at each team with a set number and where they'll end up at the completion of the regular season. There are no odds listed at this point for Minnesota, Purdue and Illinois.
Wisconsin Badgers: 9.5 wins
Our pick: Over. After playing a brutal schedule in 2016, the Badgers' slate looks like it will provide a little reprieve this fall. The toughest nonconference game is a trip to BYU in September and Paul Chryst and company don't have to face Ohio State or Penn State in their divisional crossover games. Michigan and Northwestern are both home games. Wisconsin has won 10 games in two of the last three regular seasons, and the schedule in 2017 adds up to a fairly clear path to double digits once again.
Northwestern Wildcats: 7 wins
Our pick: Over. Pat Fitzgerald's team has seesawed between a borderline bowl team and a West Division challenger for the past five years. The end of 2016 and the offseason to date seem to be putting the Wildcats on the positive side of that ledger for the coming fall. An experienced backfield and a steady defense are reasons for optimism. The team's early trip to Duke and a late visit from Minnesota could be keys in getting past seven.
Iowa Hawkeyes: 6.5 wins
Our pick: Under. The Hawkeyes have a good chance at getting back to a bowl win, but a seventh win is a harder sell. The stretch of schedule from late October to mid-November (at Northwestern, Minnesota, Ohio State, at Wisconsin) does Iowa no favors. Challenges in the passing game will make it hard for this team to stick with anyone who can put up points. An early loss to Wyoming or Iowa State would pretty much seal the under.
Nebraska Cornhuskers: 6 wins
Our pick: Over. This becomes a safe bet if Nebraska can get past a couple of first-year coaches in Willie Taggart at Oregon early in the year and P.J. Fleck at Minnesota in November. Neither of those wins are a layup for the Huskers, who head into Mike Riley's third season with a new quarterback and a new defense. Nebraska should be able to get four, maybe even five, wins in September, but things get considerably more difficult from there.
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.
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.
Spring practice is underway at most Big Ten schools. We're still waiting for Iowa, Michigan, Penn State and Rutgers to get started, while Illinois is already done. One of the best things about spring practice is identifying breakout players for the following season. Our crew of Big Ten writers offer their picks for breakouts this spring:
Jesse Temple: Wisconsin LB Garret Dooley
Wisconsin will be loaded again on defense in 2017, but the biggest question centers on how the Badgers can replace the production of outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel. Those two combined for 107 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks. Dooley made a big leap as a redshirt sophomore last season. He went from making three tackles in 2015 to 40 tackles with 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He also earned his first two career starts replacing an injured Biegel at midseason.
Wisconsin has produced two All-Americans at outside linebacker the past two seasons with Joe Schobert and Watt. Dooley has a long way to go to reach that lofty status, but his predecessors have shown what is possible playing the position at Wisconsin.
Dan Murphy: Murphy: Nebraska WR Stanley Morgan Jr.
The Cornhuskers are going to need a new go-to target in the passing came now that Jordan Westerkamp is gone, and Morgan seems to be stepping up among a very young receiver corps in that role so far this spring. Coaches say the rising junior has hit the new stage of taking a more professional approach that many players reach when they're ready to blossom as newly minted upperclassmen.
Morgan's numbers in the weight room have increased and he has looked a step faster in running his routes so far in practice, they say. The New Orleans native had 33 catches and two touchdowns last year. Those numbers could jump significantly in 2017 with Morgan and De'Mornay Pierson-El leading a group of talented, but raw younger players in the passing game.
Austin Ward: Ohio State WR Binjimen Victor
The Buckeyes have been searching for a replacement for Devin Smith since he left after the national title two years ago, trying to find somebody capable of causing fits of panic for defensive backs worried about matching the speed of a consistent, dangerous deep threat. Midway through last year, Urban Meyer sounded like he was on the brink of unleashing one with 6-foot-4 size to go with athleticism to burn, but Victor apparently wasn’t quite ready yet as a true freshman.
He finished with just four catches for 64 yards and a touchdown, though one was the longest reception of the shutout loss to Clemson in a game where he also flashed explosive potential on a route that earned a pass interference penalty. For an offense looking to expand its passing game, Victor figures to be in the spotlight this spring.
I'll cheat a bit by going with one team that's well into spring ball (Northwestern) and another that has already wrapped up (Illinois finished its drills last week). But, hey, performances are better than predictions, right?
Nagel will be counted on to fill an enormous void left by Biletnikoff Award finalist Austin Carr. Nagel had 40 catches for 447 yards last year and is stepping into Carr's No. 1 receiver role this spring. The 5-foot-11 junior probably isn't going to replicate Carr's numbers, but if he can continue to build chemistry with Clayton Thorson, he'll be an important target out of the slot.
Crawford is a fifth-year senior -- not a designation you usually see in breakout-type lists. But he is making a key position change, from linebacker down to the rush-end spot. That's the same position that Carroll Phillips played last year en route to nine sacks and 20 tackles for loss last season. The Illini are replacing most of their defensive line, and Crawford showed good pass-rushing ability this spring.
And in the final week they busted out the motorcycles.
The excitement of starting a new year of offseason workouts can quickly give way to the tedium of mat drills in the winter and basic playbook installations in spring. There are no upcoming opponents to study, no palpable buzz that crescendos toward a big game on campus like in the fall. Coaches need to get creative to keep spirits high.
For players, a break from the norm makes the hard work a bit more tolerable. For spectators, the entertainment value is as good as a football fan can expect when the season is still six months away. Here are some of our favorite offseason attempts to spice up a workout so far.
The Buckeyes' strength staff slipped into its leather chaps last week to wrap up winter workouts with the team’s annual Harley Davidson workout. Coaches rode motorcycle onto the practice field. Later the team strapped the logos of their rivals onto punching bags and let loose a little frustration.
— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) March 4, 2017
The team took a much different tenor than earlier in the same week when players held their own slam dunk contest. They might not have been playing at a full 10 feet, but linebacker Malik Harrison brought more style in his contest-winning slams than the competitors in the NBA All-Star contest this year.
— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) March 1, 2017
At Penn State, dodgeball was the game of choice as the Nittany Lions wrapped up winter workouts. Head coach James Franklin and his staff suited up in uniform to challenge their players to a match. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer even donned a pair of futuristic-looking Rec Specs a la Gordon from the movie "Dodgeball".
The staff challenged the players to a dodgeball tournament this morning. It was a bold strategy, let's see if it payed off for 'em... pic.twitter.com/YgQMVmViPy
— Penn State Football (@PennStateFball) March 2, 2017
Wisconsin doesn’t take the field for spring practice until next week, but here’s hoping the Badgers return their series of big guys doing things normally reserved for little guys. The trend started with a punt-catching competition between the offense line and defensive line a year ago. The Badgers also had their linemen run through a wide receiver gauntlet last spring with equally entertaining results.
And lastly there’s Michigan. The Wolverines will break up the doldrums of their spring practices with a trip to the Eternal City in late April. Last year the Wolverines spent a week of practice at the IMG Academy in Florida, and players said they enjoyed the beach trips they got to take between workouts. This year in Rome their non-football activities are scheduled to include visiting the Vatican, a trip to a Syrian refugee camp and some Italian sightseeing destinations. There are no known plans for any motorcycles for Jim Harbaugh’s team, but perhaps a Vespa or two.
It's March, and it's championship week, so basketball and brackets have taken over the sports world.
That also has us thinking about which Big Ten basketball players might be able to make the transition to football. It's not unheard of. All-Pro tight ends Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez each played college basketball. Late last month, LSU power forward Brian Bridgewater said he'd like to join the Tigers football team in the fall.
With that in mind, here's a starting five and a sixth man from the world of Big Ten basketball hoops who would be fun to see on the gridiron:
Purdue's Caleb Swanigan: The Big Ten's no-doubt player of the year and Wooden Award candidate is a beast in the paint and likely would be in the trenches, too. He's listed at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds after dropping more than 100 pounds since eighth grade. Think Jeff Brohm would like to see the man they call "Biggie" at left tackle or perhaps stuffing runs as a nose guard?
Iowa's Ahmad Wagner: The 6-foot-7 sophomore had interest from Big Ten schools as a football player out of Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio. He even received a football scholarship offer from Kentucky after hauling in 58 catches for 1,082 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior. He played with Wisconsin reserve guard D'Mitrik Trice, who was a star quarterback at Wayne.
Michigan State's Miles Bridges: If anybody could make a Gates/Gonzalez-type transition to tight end, it might well be Bridges. With great footwork and balance for a 6-foot-7, 230-pounder, Bridges would be a nightmare for opposing defenders to cover. And since Tom Izzo is known to use football pads in practice, maybe the new sport wouldn't seem so unfamiliar for the Spartans freshman.
Maryland's Melo Trimble: At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Trimble could make an interesting wide receiver for D.J. Durkin's squad. Or maybe a safety. Doesn't really matter what position he plays. Trimble is a gamer who's unafraid of big moments, which is why he'd likely succeed in football as well.
Indiana's OG Anunoby: He's currently out with a torn ACL, but the Hoosiers' 6-foot-8 forward is one of the most explosive players in college basketball when healthy. Can't you just see him rushing the passer as a terrifying defensive end? It's not that outlandish, given the bloodlines. Anunoby's older brother, Chigbo, is a defensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns.
Northwestern's Nathan Taphorn: Hey, if he can make that perfect 90-foot pass for the game-winning layup against Michigan, then maybe the 6-foot-7 Taphorn could be a backup to Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson. Even Thorson had difficulty recreating Taphorn's throw.
The developmental work at Position U is over, and now it's up to the scouts, coaches and general managers to sum up the work.
There's no easy way to hand out those unofficial titles for the best programs around the country or the top Big Ten school to crank out stars in specific spots on the field. How much does college production count? Is it just about churning out draft picks or how much weight should be given to production at the next level? Quality or quantity?
Sorting through those claims to the crown will have to wait another day. But based on annual invites to the NFL scouting combine which opens this week in Indianapolis, there are hints that some schools have a position that the talent scouts want to see every year -- which is at least the beginning of a claim to Position U.
This time around, here are three units with players on the market who are trying to build on a legacy.
Ohio State defensive backs: The Buckeyes have emerged as the league's current kings of the combine looking back over the last four seasons overall. And while rival Michigan actually has more overall attendees this year, once again Ohio State's loaded draft class in the secondary is in line to steal the show. Since Bradley Roby left early and became a first-round pick in 2014, the Buckeyes have sent eight cornerbacks and safeties to the combine to flash their speed, versatility and ball skills ahead of the draft. And now Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore are all pushing to either solidify a first-round grade or sneak into that position after earning their invitations to Indianapolis. There's not much doubt that Ohio State has stamped itself as DBU in the Big Ten recently, and this year could strengthen the claim that it has become that nationally as well.
Wisconsin offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk: The latest blocker off the assembly line in Madison might not be ready to do much physically after undergoing offseason hip surgery, but he'll still draw plenty of attention from teams looking to shore up the protection and run blocking up front. Ramczyk can still show off his football intelligence and answer questions about his rehabilitation, and even if he hadn't emerged as a star last season, simply having ties to a program that has become a staple at the combine would likely help his case. The Badgers have a rich history producing linemen, but even just looking at a smaller time frame they've been represented at the event every year since 2011 -- with eight blockers ultimately drafted from OLU. Ramczyk is about to add to that total no matter what he can do physically at the moment.
Indiana running back Devine Redding: The tradition is undoubtedly richer at Wisconsin when it comes to running backs, and even this season it is sending a pair of rushers to the combine to add to the legacy. So that crown is probably safe with the Badgers, but the Hoosiers are at least making a strong push for short-term consideration with Redding continuing a run that started with Tevin Coleman and was followed up by Jordan Howard last year. Again, that's a small sample size and part of Indiana's case relies on how well those rushers have performed at the next level. But Redding has a chance now to build on that by going up the road from Bloomington to work out and show that he has the same kind of ability that has translated so well from Indiana's aspiring RBU on to the pros recently.
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.
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 what will be the must-win game and the potential trap game for each league team this fall. Up next: the Wisconsin Badgers.
Must-win game: Oct. 7 at Nebraska. The two most consistent West Division contenders during the last half decade have a good chance to be at the top of the list for a trip to Indianapolis again in December. The winner of this early conference matchup will likely be in control of their postseason hopes as they hit the halfway point of the season. With Purdue, Maryland and Illinois on the schedule following the trip to Nebraska, Wisconsin has a chance to stack up some league victories if they can’t get past the Cornhuskers. The Badgers have won five of the last six meetings between these two teams, but only one of those came at the friendly confines of Memorial Stadium.
Trap game: Nov. 25 at Minnesota. Wisconsin has beaten the rival Gophers 13 times in a row -- a record streak in the 127-year-old series. After games against Iowa and Michigan in late November, though, there’s a danger of the Badgers wearing plenty of black and blue to go along with their red jerseys for this game. Minnesota will have had a full season under new coach P.J. Fleck. If there’s one thing Fleck has shown in his young coaching career, it is that he has the ability to get his team fired up for a big game. Perhaps by then the new coach will have positioned his team as more of a formidable challenge than a trap, but as it stands, Minnesota is more likely to be playing a potential spoiler role on the final week of the year. That streak has to end eventually, and if Wisconsin’s not careful, it could be a heartbreaking loss if their Big Ten title chances are still hanging in the balance.