Will quarterback Trace McSorley be able to help the Penn State Nittany Lions avoid the road upset against the Northwestern Wildcats?
There was a time when the Nebraska Cornhuskers were the gold standard of success in college football. From 1969-2001, Nebraska never finished lower than 19th in the Associated Press Poll as they claimed five national championships over that stretch to go along with numerous conference championships. But following Nebraska’s loss in the 2002 Rose Bowl to the Miami Hurricanes for the national championship, the fortunes of this once proud program changed. In 2002, the Cornhuskers would record their first non-winning season since 1961 as their vintage “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense appeared to be a dinosaur in college football.
Nebraska attempted to keep up with the Joneses in college football as they hired Bill Callahan in 2004 to be their new head football coach. Callahan was fresh off of helping the Oakland Raiders win the AFC Championship in 2002. Callahan attempted to change Nebraska’s offense by implementing the West Coast offense in Lincoln. Callahan was able to have some success which included him getting the ‘Huskers to the Big 12 Championship Game in 2007. But when Nebraska went 5-7 in 2008 which included their defense surrendering at least 40 points to six opponents, the folks in Lincoln had seen enough and thus he was fired.
Callahan was replaced by Bo Pelini who had previously served as a defensive coordinator at Nebraska and he understood the importance of defense at the school which includes the tradition of “The Blackshirts”.
In seven seasons at Nebraska, Pelini compiled an overall record of 67-27 and his teams never won less than nine games in each year. But the fact that Nebraska was never able to win a conference championship led to his termination in 2014 in spite of the fact that only Tom Osborne and Bob Devaney had higher winning percentages than him at the school.
Pelini would be replaced by former Oregon State Beavers head football coach Mike Riley who like Callahan has built his reputation on offense. However Riley’s time at Oregon State would consistently see him put together one quality season every few years while the Beavers never won the Pac-12 Conference under him.
But after the Cornhuskers went 9-4 last season, they have not gotten off on the right foot this season as they are currently 1-2 which includes losing to the Oregon Ducks, as well as a surprising home loss last Saturday to the Northern Illinois Huskies of the Mid-American Conference. And thus the honeymoon for Riley in Lincoln appears to be over.
This week saw Shawn Eichorst fired as Nebraska’s athletic director following the school’s upset loss to Northern Illinois. And in the process Riley lost his security blanket being that Eichorst was the man who fired Pelini in favor of him. School officials at Nebraska will conduct a nationwide search to find the school’s next athletic director, and you can anticipate the person who is hired will want to bring his/her own head football coach in which makes the 64-year old Riley expendable; especially after a slow start this year.
Under Riley, Nebraska is only 9-8 within the Big Ten Conference, and with games this season versus the Ohio State Buckeyes, Wisconsin Badgers, Penn State Nittany Lions, and Iowa Hawkeyes, the idea of seeing the Cornhuskers being one of the top teams in the Big Ten West is slim to none. And unless a miracle happens for Riley during the next two months with the ‘Huskers, the folks in Lincoln will help him pack his bags.
Once Nebraska is able to find themselves a new athletic director, one name that you can expect to hear thrown around in regards to being the school’s new head football coach will be Chip Kelly. In four years as the head football coach at Oregon, Kelly compiled a record of 46-7 which included a pair of Pac-12 Conference Titles. And after Kelly’s unsuccessful run as a head coach in the National Football League, school administrators will probably present him with a blank check in order to work for them. But Nebraska could have their work cut out for them in order to sign Kelly as there could be some marquee programs within the Southeastern and Pac-12 Conferences that’ll be looking for a new head coach which means that they might have to look elsewhere to find someone to reignite their program.
Since Osborne retired following the end of the 1997 college football season, Nebraska has been unsure of what they want they want to do as a program with everyone not being on the same page. And with the landscape of college football having changed so drastically with more teams having television time while rocking outrageous uniforms, the allure of playing for Nebraska isn’t what it was in the days of Devaney and Osborne. Nebraska has some of the best athletic facilities in college football, but they have always struggled to recruit places such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and California which are states that have been known to produce quality college football players.
When Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011, they brought with them a ton of tradition to a conference that was already steeped in it. However the success that the Cornhuskers enjoyed in the Big 8 and Big 12 Conferences has not traveled with them. And whomever will be hired to lead Nebraska going forward will have to find a way to put a spark behind the offense regardless of what system that they choose to operate.
Currently Nebraska is 71st in the nation in total offense as the consistency is not there. Junior quarterback Tanner Lee who began his collegiate career with the Tulane Green Wave is struggling in Lincoln in the same way that he did in Louisiana. And as working with quarterbacks is Riley’s specialty, the struggles of Lee and the offense at Nebraska fall into his lap.
For years Nebraska was at the forefront of what success was in college football. But as the Cornhuskers are struggling and have failed to keep up with the times, it is a shame to see this program struggle which has meant so much to college football for so long.
Z-Ohio State Buckeyes 12-1 (9-1)
It has not taken head football coach Urban Meyer that much time to restore order for the Ohio State Buckeyes as in his five years in Columbus, they’ve only lost six games while claiming one national championship. The Buckeyes didn’t win the Big Ten Conference last season, but they still went 8-1 within the conference. Ohio State’s strong regular season saw them qualify for the College Football Playoff. However after a 31-0 shellacking at the hands of the Clemson Tigers in the Fiesta Bowl, it’s back to the drawing board for Ohio State as they look to win the Big Ten and return to the College Football Playoff.
J.T. Barrett is back for his senior season at Ohio State and he’s looking to leave on a strong note. Barrett has been able win numerous big games as the starting quarterback of the Buckeyes which included going undefeated as a freshman in 2014, along with a Fiesta Bowl victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and getting a road win over the Oklahoma Sooners last year. However Barrett did falter in Ohio State’s last three games of the 2016 college football season which gives him something to work on heading into a new campaign.
Barrett is still one of the better play makers at the quarterback position in the Big Ten Conference, but the Buckeyes will need him to become more efficient as far as making plays in the pocket goes. As the defenses that Ohio State faced towards the end of the season in 2016 got better, Barrett struggled as he never had a completion percentage higher than 57.6 in their last three games. And Barrett’s play could be the determining factor in whether or not that the Buckeyes will be able to win the Big Ten.
Meyer’s spread offense is predicated on the ability to run the football and the Buckeyes have themselves another dynamic tailback in sophomore Mike Weber. Last year as a freshman, Weber averaged 6 yards per carry as he totaled 1,096 yards on the ground. Weber has that explosiveness in the mode of former Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliot and he could be a dark horse to win the Heisman Trophy, while also being in the mix to be the Big Ten Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Barrett and Weber will have the luxury of being protected by an experienced offensive line which includes senior center Brady Taylor. This offensive line has the ability to lean on opposing defenses as the Buckeyes offense tends to get better as the game goes along.
Defensively the Buckeyes will have to replace key talent that helped the unit be sixth in the nation in total defense last season. But under Meyer the cupboard is never bare in Columbus.
After recording 5 sacks last year as a freshman, defensive end Nick Bosa could be ready for a breakout performance here in 2017. And Junior linebacker Jerome Baker was second on the team in tackles last season with 83 as he should continue to be one of the better coverage linebackers in the Big Ten.
After Ohio State went on the road last year and defeated the Oklahoma Sooners, they’ll get an extra motivated team that will travel to Columbus on September 9th for the rematch. The Penn State Nittany Lions were the only team to defeat the Buckeyes in the regular season last year; however this time around Ohio State will get them at home on October 28. And of course there is regular season finale with the Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor on November 25th as these two games will go a very long way in determining who wins the Eastern Division of the Big Ten this year in order to qualify for the conference title game.
Y-Penn State Nittany Lions 10-2 (7-2)
It’s safe to say that the Penn State Nittany Lions are back as far as being a football power. After not finishing ranked in the Associated Press Poll since 2009, the Nittany Lions roared through the competition last year as they won the Big Ten Conference for the first time since 2008. Penn State had the luxury of sneaking up on teams last season which included a victory at home over the Ohio State Buckeyes. And although that Penn State head football coach James Franklin has a very talented team to work with, the element of surprise is gone. But luckily for Franklin, he has arguably the top backfield combination in the Big Ten at his disposal.
At 6’1″, junior quarterback Trace McSorley doesn’t have the prototypical size for a signal caller, but he fits Franklin’s system to a tee. McSorley has tremendous mobility and agility which makes him so difficult for opposing defenses to stop. Last year McSorley threw 29 touchdown passes to just 8 interceptions which can traced back to his ability to improvise and create when the initial play breaks down. And whereas most mobile quarterbacks tend to take off, McSorley gives his wide receivers the opportunity to get open for the big play down the field.
And if dealing with McSorley isn’t enough, teams that face Penn State must also account for junior running back Saquon Barkley. Barkley rushed for 1,496 yards last year to go along with 18 touchdowns on the ground as he was the Big Ten Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year. At 5’11”, 223 lbs., Barkley is a load for defenders to tackle as he has a thick lower body, while also becoming a better runner as the game progresses. Had it not been for a rule which requires players to be out of high school for three years before entering the National Football League, Barkley would be playing pro ball right now. But the NFL’s rule works out immensely for Penn State as they arguably have the best ball carrier in the nation in their backfield this season.
Senior tight end Mike Gesicki was a little under appreciated last year after he was the Nittany Lions second leading receiver with 679 receiving yards and 5 touchdown grabs as he can get the job done. Gesicki is like a swiss army knife for the Penn State offense as he can be used as an H-back, a blocker in pass protection, a run blocker, and he also has the ability to stretch the field vertically in the passing game by keeping opposing safeties and linebackers honest. McSorley won’t have a problem getting Gesicki the football this season and thus he could be an All-Big Ten performer.
Aside from Gesicki, senior wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton has the potential to be a breakout performer in the Nittany Lions passing game. At 6’1″, 211 lbs., Hamilton has size and speed, while being the perfect compliment to the play making ability of McSorley and Barkley in Penn State’s offense.
Penn State had a young offensive line last year, but led by junior center Connor McGovern, this is now a veteran offensive line that could be the best that the Big Ten has to offer.
The Nittany Lions were a young team on both sides of the ball last year which led to them getting plenty of seasoning. Senior linebacker Jason Cabinda and junior linebacker Manny Bowen are solid tacklers, while defensive back Marcus Allen is a play maker and an enforcer in the secondary. And this will be vital for Penn State as they will be seeking to improve being the 37th ranked defense in 2016.
The Nittany Lions were the kings of the comeback in 2016 which could once again work in their favor in 2017. However Penn State must deal with a daunting schedule that will see them travel to face the Iowa Hawkeyes who are never an easy squad to secure a road win against. In three consecutive weeks the Nittany Lions will face the Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Michigan State Spartans as this stretch will decide their fate as to whether or not that they’ll be able to get back to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Title Game in December.
Y-Michigan Wolverines 10-2 (7-2)
It hasn’t taken head football coach Jim Harbaugh that long to turn around the fortunes of the Michigan Wolverines program. After the Wolverines only had one 10-win season in the previous eight years, they’ve gone 10-3 in each of the last two campaigns under Harbaugh. Harbaugh is taking Michigan back to being a national brand as they are once again a perennial top-10 program. But will 2017 be the year that Harbaugh will be able to bring the maize and blue a Big Ten Championship?
Under Harbaugh there hasn’t been anything that has been pretty about the Wolverines as they are an old-school, lunch pale crew, but it has been effective. Senior quarterback Wilton Speight is set to begin his second consecutive year as the starting quarterback for the Wolverines. Speight needs to show that he is more than just a game manager as in Michigan’s three losses last season, he threw a combined 4 interceptions. However Speight has good size for a quarterback at 6’6″, while he weighs 243 lbs., and being under the tutelage of Harbaugh should once again help him to get prepared for the riggers of playing in the Big Ten Conference.
Harbaugh is in the process making the Wolverines a more physical football team which means being able to run the football effectively. In 2015, Michigan averaged 4.2 yards per carry, while last year it was 4.8. However the Wolverines need to find a game changing play maker at the tailback position. With just 88 carries last year as a true freshman, running back Chris Evans showed his potential as he averaged 7 yards per carry, and he’ll be vital to the success of Michigan’s offense in 2017.
Senior offensive tackle Mason Cole will anchor a Michigan offensive line that is truly a lunch pale crew as they could be the engine of this squad.
It will be tough for Michigan to duplicate their success on defense from last year as they were ranked second in the nation in total defense. Don Brown is set to begin his second year as Michigan’s defensive coordinator as he looks to make sure that his unit remains stingy. However the Wolverines must replace their top eight tacklers from last season, along with defensive end Taco Charlton.
The Wolverines will be a work in progress as the season goes along, but they will get better as their regular season finale against the Ohio State Buckeyes should once again decide who’ll win the Eastern Division of the Big Ten Conference.
X-Indiana Hoosiers 7-5 (5-4)
For the first time since 1992, the Indiana Hoosiers enter the college football season looking to make their third consecutive bowl appearance. The Hoosiers have been able to survive some of the stiff competition within the Eastern Division of the Big Ten Conference to become bowl eligible, but things will be slightly different in Bloomington heading into a new college football season.
After nearly six years as Indiana’s head football coach, Kevin Wilson is out. The school and Wilson agreed to mutually part ways last December due to his mistreatment of players. Indiana didn’t look to far to find Wilson’s replacement as defensive coordinator Tom Allen was promoted. Allen has never been a head coach at the collegiate level as he must now learn on the fly in the Big Ten which will not be easy.
Quarterback Richard Lagow is set to be under center for his senior campaign and he needs to build off of what he did in 2016. Lagow was up and down at time as he threw 19 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions. And as Lagow goes, so does the Indiana offense as 11 of his interceptions came in losses last season.
Junior wide receiver Nick Westbrook was Lagow’s go-to-guy in the passing game last year and you can expect more of the same this time around. Last season Westbrook tallied 54 receptions and he was just five yards shy of reaching the coveted 1,000-yard mark. At 6’3″, 215 lbs., Westbrook is a big receiver that is a matchup problem for opposing cornerbacks and he and Lagow should be able to wreak some havoc on defenses in the Big Ten this fall.
There will be plenty of experience on Indiana’s offensive line as they’ll have a pair of seniors in right tackle Brandon Knight and left guard Wes Martin as well as juniors in left tackle Coy Cronk, center Hunter Littlejohn, and right guard Simon Stepaniak as this offense could be one to keep your eyes on.
Last year the Hoosiers were 45th in the nation in total defense and they should be able to improve in 2017. Led by senior linebackers Tegray Scales and Marcus Oliver, Indiana’s top nine tacklers from last season are returning on defense. Defensively the Hoosiers were also able to tally 13 interceptions last season and they should be able to set up their offense with solid field position via the turnover.
The schedule makers weren’t kind to Indiana as their first game right out of the chute will be at home versus the Ohio State Buckeyes, while they’ll also have road games against the Penn State Nittany Lions and Michigan State Spartans. But if the Hoosiers can handle their business versus the teams in which they are expected to defeat, they could once again be ready to go bowling.
X-Michigan State Spartans 7-5 (4-5)
During Mark Dantonio’s tenure as the head football coach of the Michigan State Spartans, the level of expectations have changed in East Lansing. Five of the last six seasons have seen the Spartans finished ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll which included them making the College Football Playoff in 2015. Michigan State has claimed two outright Big Ten Championships under Dantonio as well, but they took a huge step backwards in 2016.
After beginning the 2016 college football season with a record of 2-0, Michigan State would lose nine of their remaining ten contests for their worst campaign since 1991. Things never clicked for Sparty as last year marked the first time that they lost to the Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Penn State Nittany Lions in the same season. Aside from struggling against conference powerhouses, Michigan State also lost to the Rutgers Scarlet Knight and Illinois Fighting Illini who were a combined 5-19 last season. And after Dantonio worked so hard to build Michigan State into being one of the better teams within the Big Ten, he needs to have a bounce back campaign in the worst way here in 2017.
For the Spartans to turn things around this season, their offense is going to have to pick up the production. Last season Sparty was 75th in the nation in total offense which included them being held under 20 points five times. Dantonio is a firm believer in having an effective rushing attack which means that you can expect a heavy dose of junior running back LJ Scott. Scott was able to improve in his sophomore year in East Lansing, but he was still unable to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark on the ground. This was in part due to the fact that Michigan State lacked talent on that side of the football around Scott. However any success that Michigan State intends to have this year will rely on the running ability of Scott.
Michigan State was 32nd in the nation in defense last season as there is room for improvement for this unit under defensive coordinator Mike Tressel. Senior linebacker Chris Frey led the Spartans in tackles last year with 96 and she should be a leader for this team. But where the Spartans must improve the most in is their ability to force turnovers and put pressure for opposing quarterbacks. Last year Sparty was only able to tally 11 sacks, while only grabbing 8 interceptions which are two areas that they must improve in if they want to once again be a player in the Big Ten Conference.
I don’t see the Spartans being able to contend for the Big Ten Title here in 2017 as Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State are light years ahead of them. It also won’t help the Spartans cause that they have some difficult road games on tap which includes meetings with the Buckeyes and Wolverines and Buckeyes, along with a contest in Evanston, Illinois versus the Northwestern Wildcats. But Michigan State should be an improved team as I simply do not see Dantonio having consecutive bad seasons.
X-Maryland Terrapins 6-6 (3-6)
In D.J. Durkin’s first year as the head football coach of the Maryland Terrapins, he got the most out of his team by getting them to a bowl game. But after Maryland began the season with a record of 4-0, they went 2-7 the rest of the way as Durkin was indoctrinated into life in the Big Ten Conference. And as Maryland was only able to go 3-6 within the Big Ten last season, will they be able to build off of that mark in 2017?
After junior quarterback Caleb Henderson began his collegiate career with the North Carolina Tar Heels, he decided to transfer to Maryland. And after Henderson had to sit out last year, he is expected to be Maryland’s guy under center this season. Junior running back Ty Johnson provided plenty of explosiveness coming out of the backfield for the Terrapins and you can expect more of the same this time around. Last season Johnson averaged 9.1 yards per carry as he is Maryland’s home-run hitter on offense.
There will be plenty of experience on the offensive line for the Terps as led by left tackle Derwin Gray, you’re looking at an offensive line that has four seniors in the starting lineup which should make Henderson’s transition to be the starting quarterback in College Park a bit smoother.
Durkin’s specialty is defensive football and after the Terrapins were only 77th in the nation in total defense last season, this year should see them as an improved unit. Maryland’s top three tacklers from last season are returning which includes senior linebacker Shane Cockerille. Senior defensive end Jesse Aniebonam is a solid pass rusher coming off of the edge which should help to keep Maryland in games, while also potentially forcing turnovers. But the Terps needs to improve in the secondary as they were only able to force 5 interceptions last year.
Whereas last year’s non-conference schedule was easy for Maryland, that won’t be the case this time around as they’ll travel to take on the Texas Longhorns of the Big 12 Conference, while hosting the Central Florida Knights of the American Athletic Conference. And the Terps Big Ten slate isn’t easy either which includes road games versus the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Minnesota Golden Gophers and home dates with the Michigan State Spartans and Penn State Nittany Lions.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights 3-9 (1-8)
It has been a steady decline for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights since they joined the Big Ten Conference in 2014. That year would see Rutgers go 8-5 which included a bowl game victory. However since then the Scarlet Knights have lived up to their expectations in the Big Ten as they’ve become the whipping boys for the conference powerhouses. In three years in the Big Ten, Rutgers is a combined 1-11 versus the Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan State Spartans, and Penn State Nittany Lions. And if the Scarlet Knights have any chances of being a contender within the conference, these are the teams that they are going to need to get past.
Chris Ash is set to begin his second year as the head football coach of Rutgers. And after Ash and the Scarlet Knights were only able to go 2-10 last year, there is only one way for them to go which is up.
The talent pool for Rutgers isn’t deep as this is a team that was 97th in the nation in total defense last season, while they were dead last in total offense which isn’t going to cut it in the Big Ten. Rutgers calls the State of New Jersey home. And even though that the Garden State is littered with quality football talent, the Scarlet Knights has not been able to keep those players home as they are consistently losing out in the recruiting battle to the Big Ten powerhouse schools.
However two names to look out for this season for Rutgers are linebackers Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts who are both solid tacklers. And the ability of Morris and Roberts will be on display this year as they should be on the field a ton due to a lackluster offense.
Rutgers wanted the money of the Big Ten which they’ve gotten. But now the Scarlet Knights have to accept the reality of life for them in the Big Ten as they are now everyone’s homecoming game.
X-Wisconsin Badgers 9-4 (7-3)
Six of the last eight years have seen the Wisconsin Badgers win at least 10 games. But since Wisconsin is a program that lacks national sizzle, they tend to get lost in the shuffle. The Badgers are coming off of an 11-win season and a victory in the Cotton Bowl over the Western Michigan Broncos. Things could have been ever better for the Badgers had they not blown a 21-point lead in the Big Ten Championship Game to the Penn State Nittany Lions as they would have been Rose Bowl bound. However for Wisconsin head football coach Paul Chryst, he will head into the 2017 college football season looking to keep his program near the top of the Big Ten.
Last year saw quarterback Alex Hornibrook gain valuable time as a freshman and now he can hopefully build off of that. Hornibrook will now need to be more than just a game manager as he no longer has the protection of running back Corey Clement who is in the National Football League. The Badgers also have a young offensive line which includes a pair of sophomores in left tackle David Edwards and left guard and Jon Dietzen as this unit will have to get their feet under them in a hurry in order to keep up in the Big Ten.
Last year the Badgers were seventh in the nation in total defense and they’ll have some key components that will be returning. Junior inside linebacker T.J. Edwards led the team in tackles last season with 89, while senior inside linebacker Jack Cichy was fourth with 60. The Badgers lost 15.5 sacks when linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel went to the National Football League, but their departure could open the door for senior defensive end Alec James and senior outside linebacker Garrett Dooley to emerge. The Badgers pass rush also opened things up for their secondary and I anticipate senior strong safety D’Cota Dixon to have another big season. In 2016, Dixon had 4 interceptions, and his range will be important if Wisconsin intends on hanging tough in the Big Ten West.
The Badgers have never been known to take it easy in the non-conference portion of their schedule as a September 16th trip to face the BYU Cougars will be telling. And when the Big Ten portion of Wisconsin’s schedule begins, road meetings with the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Minnesota Golden Gophers, as well as home affairs with the Northwestern Wildcats, Michigan Wolverines, and Iowa Hawkeyes will show us a ton about the character of this team.
X-Northwestern Wildcats 9-3 (6-3)
Under head football coach Pat Fitzgerald, the Northwestern Wildcats are enjoying their best stretch in program history. After being a two-time Big Ten Conference Defensive Player of the Year during his playing career at Northwestern, Fitzgerald has brought the same hard working ethic to his team in Evanston, Illinois. Fitzgerald’s record with the Wildcats is 77-62 which is nothing to sneeze at. But can Fitzgerald do something which hasn’t been done at Northwestern since 1995 which is to lead them to the Big Ten Conference Title?
Whereas the Wildcats were only able to go 7-6 last season, led by their offense they have the ability to be a sleeper here in 2017. Senior running back Justin Jackson has the ability to frustrate defenders with his elusiveness coming out of the backfield. Last season saw Jackson gain 1,524 rushing yards to go along with 15 touchdowns on the ground and he has the potential to once again be one of the better running backs in the Big Ten.
Accuracy is the name of the game for Northwestern junior quarterback Clayton Thorson. After Thorson was only able to complete 50.8% of his passes as a freshman in 2015, he got that number to nearly 60% last year at 58.6. Now the key for Thorson as a junior is to get that number above 60, and he can do it by complimenting the rushing ability of Jackson which means utilizing the play-action pass in order to be efficient.
Led by left tackle Blake Hance, the Wildcats have three seniors that will be starting on their offensive line as they will not only be responsible for opening up holes in the run game for Jackson, but to also protect Thorson as this unit will be a big part of any chance that Northwestern has of getting to the Big Ten Title Game.
However as the old saying goes, offense might win games, but defense wins championships. And although that Northwestern might have a prolific offense on their hands, they are going to need a strong effort on the defensive side of the football in 2017. Last year the Wildcats were 60th in the nation in total defense, and on top of that they lost three of their top four tacklers from 2016 as well as their leading pass rusher.
But Fitzgerald knows a thing or two about strong linebacking play in the Big Ten and a player to watch out for at Northwestern this year is junior outside linebacker Nate Hall. After grabbing 5 interceptions last year as a sophomore, junior cornerback Montre Hartage should once again be one of the better corners in the Big Ten as it will be interesting to see how much that opposing offenses will be willing to test him.
The Wildcats should benefit from an easy non-conference schedule, but when Big Ten play begins they must hunker down for a pair of road games against the Wisconsin Badgers and Nebraska Cornhuskers which will more than likely decide who wins the Big Ten West.
X-Minnesota Golden Gophers 7-5 (5-4)
It might be hard to believe, but the Minnesota Golden Gophers have claimed a share or have outright won 15 Big Ten Conference Championships on the gridiron. Minnesota’s 15 titles are third most in conference history behind the 42 of the Michigan Wolverines and the 35 of the Ohio State Buckeyes. But unlike Michigan and Ohio State who are regularly atop the Big Ten standings, the Golden Gophers have not won the conference crown since 1967. Since then the Gophers have been an up and down program with just one appearance in a New Year’s bowl game. Each of the last five years have seen Minnesota reach a bowl game, but they’ve been unable to take that next step in the Big Ten. The Golden Gophers program dealt with their fair share of off-the-field issues last season which saw the school part with Tracy Claeys as their head football coach, but they may have struck it big in finding his replacement.
In January, Minnesota would name P.J. Fleck as their new head football coach. Fleck became a hot commodity on the coaching scene as in four years as the head football coach of the Western Michigan Broncos, he compiled a record of 30-22 which included leading the Broncos to their first undefeated regular season in school history. Fleck is a 36-year old that is full or energy, and now it will be interesting to see if he’ll be able to turn Minnesota into an upper echelon program within the Big Ten. But as Fleck is set to take over a new program, he can have solace in knowing that he inherits a team that won nine games last season, while three of their four losses came by a touchdown or less.
Conor Rhoda’s time with Minnesota has been in the role of being a backup quarterback. And as Rhoda is set to begin his final season in Minneapolis, he’ll be eager to show what he can do. But whereas Rhoda is inexperienced, he can lean on junior running back Rodney Smith. Last year Smith was the heart and soul of the Minnesota as he carried the football 240 times for 1,158 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns. And you can expect Smith to once again get his opportunity to show what he can do under Fleck.
Defensively in 2016, the Gophers amassed 37 sacks with junior linebacker Blake Cashman and senior defensive tackle Steven Richardson combining for 14.5 of those. The front seven of the Golden Gophers already had played with a solid level of intensity which will now only be magnified under Fleck.
The first half of Minnesota’s schedule is very manageable, but when the competition will pick up in the second half as they’ll have road games against the Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan Wolverines, and Northwestern Wildcats, Fleck will get a healthy dose of life in the Big Ten.
X-Nebraska Cornhuskers 7-5 (4-5)
The Nebraska Cornhuskers are coming off of their eighth 9-win season in the last nine years. But will the Huskers be able to build off of what they did last season in order to win the Big Ten Conference which is something that they’ve been unable to do since they joined the league in 2011?
Mike Riley is set to begin his third season as Nebraska’s head football coach. Riley is known for his offensive football, but the first two years of his regime in Lincoln has seen both he and the Cornhuskers offense in limbo. When Riley took over for his predecessor in Bo Pelini, he had to convert from a run oriented offense to a passing system that had philosophies of the West Coast offense. Riley was attempting to do this with players that Pelini had recruited and in year three he can potentially get some semblance of order.
The outlook for the Cornhuskers offense in 2017 will begin with junior quarterback Tanner Lee. Lee sat out the 2016 college football season after he transferred from the Tulane Green where he didn’t exactly light it up. In two years at Tulane, Lee 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions as he was on one of the worst teams in college football. And whereas Lee could get lost in the shuffle with the Green Wave, he will now have to contend with the “Sea of Red” at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln where they expect their team to contend for the Big Ten Title.
Defensively Nebraska must replace a ton of production as their top three tacklers from 2016 have graduated, but senior safety Kieron Williams who led the team in interceptions last season with 5 has the potential to be the best safety in the Big Ten.
The Huskers should once again be a bowl team here in 2017, however after finishing one win shy of winning the Big Ten West last season, they will more than likely take a step back this time around.
X-Iowa Hawkeyes 7-5 (4-5)
With the stunning retirement of Bob Stoops as the head football coach of the Oklahoma Sooners in June, Iowa Hawkeyes head football coach Kirk Ferentz is now the current longest tenured head coach at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. In 18 seasons at Iowa, Ferentz has a record of 135-92 which includes getting his team to a bowl game in 14 of those years in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes are coming off of consecutive New Year’s Day bowl games for the first time since 2005, but will they be able to avoid getting lost in the shuffle this year in the Big Ten Conference?
After C.J. Beathard spent the last two years as the starting quarterback for Iowa, it is now Nathan Stanley’s opportunity to take over the reigns. Stanley saw limited action last year as a freshman, and he should be another in a long line of game managers that Ferentz has relied on to keep his offense going. Last year saw running back Akrum Wadley split carries in the backfield with LeShun Daniels Jr. But with Daniels now in the National Football League, Wadley will have a bigger workload here in 2017 as he has a chance to be the best running back in the Big Ten in this his senior season.
The Hawkeyes offense will benefit from having one of the most experienced offensive lines in the nation that features three senior starters which includes left tackle Boone Myers. One of Ferentz’s specialties is developing quality offensive lineman and this group of big uglies could have a stellar season for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa was 23rd in the nation last year in total defense, and although that they lost some talent on the defensive side of the football, they still have have middle linebacker Josey Jewell. Jewell recorded 124 tackles last year as a junior and with his senior campaign set to begin, he should be in the running to win the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker.
The Hawkeyes have the potential to be a force in the Big Ten West, but they face a daunting journey. After a pedestrian like non-conference schedule, Iowa has home games within the Big Ten against the Penn State Nittany Lions, Minnesota Golden Gophers, and Ohio State Buckeyes, while they’ll also have road affairs with the Wisconsin Badgers and Nebraska Cornhuskers as this could be the conference’s tough schedule.
Purdue Boilermakers 2-10 (1-8)
In the expansion of the Big Ten Conference, the Purdue Boilermakers have been an afterthought. You have to go back to 2011 to find the last time in which Purdue was able to finish with a winning record, while they haven’t finished a season ranked since 2003. The last four seasons have seen the Boilermakers win a combined nine games which has resulted in a change of leadership in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Jeff Brohm is set to begin life in the Big Ten as the new head football coach of the Boilermakers. Brohm spent the last three years as the head football coach of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers where he compiled a record of 30-10 which included winning a pair of Conference USA Championships. Brohm is known for production on the offensive side of the football as Western Kentucky was fifth in the nation last year in total offense in 2016 and he will need to input some life into the Purdue offense.
As Brohm is taking over, he has a quarterback in place in junior David Blough. Last season Blough passed for 3,352 yards, but the majority of that was due to the fact that Purdue constantly attempting to play catch up. Blough threw 25 touchdowns, but he was also intercepted 21 times and that must change in order for the Boilermakers to be competitive in the Big Ten. However it will be tough for Blough to get that interception total drastically down in 2017 being that Purdue doesn’t have a ton of talent at the skill positions around him, while there aren’t any seniors on the offensive line which hurts; especially since Brohm will be instilling a new blocking system.
Defensively Purdue must become more competitive after they were 91st in the nation last year in total defense. The Boilermakers surrendered 44 points or more in a game last year six times which simply won’t cut it. Anthony Poindexter and Nick Holt will be co-defensive coordinators this year as they look to ignite a fire under Purdue’s defense. However last year saw the emergence of middle linebacker Markus Bailey who led the team in tackles (97) and interceptions (4) as a true freshman, and he’ll be a building block as well as a leader for this unit here in 2017.
Brohm will begin his time at Purdue by facing his alma mater in the Louisville Cardinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference as they’re led by head football coach Bobby Petrino who also happens to be his coaching mentor. And when Big Ten play begins, it will be simply about attempting to compete for Purdue as up is the only way for them to go.
Illinois Fighting Illini 2-10 (1-8)
The football program of the Illinois Fighting Illini currently finds themselves in a rut that they cannot get out of. 2010 was the last time that Illinois finished a college football campaign with a winning record as they’ve been taking a beating since then in the Big Ten. Former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith is coming off of a 3-9 campaign his first time around in Champaign as he was fighting an uphill battle. Smith wasn’t named as the head football coach until March 2016 which put him behind the eight-ball as far as recruiting and being able to put together a coaching staff as he set out to instill discipline and have a culture change for this team. And as a new college football season is on the horizon for the Illini, will they be able to show any signs of life?
It’s still unclear if Smith will go with junior Chayce Crouch or sophomore Jeff George Jr. as the Illinois starting quarterback, but this is a team that needs a leader. The Illini were 123rd in the nation in total offense last season as they were limited to 10 points or less five times. The inability of the Illinois offense didn’t make things better for their defense that spent too much time on field. And like the offense of the Fighting Illini, the defense needs to find some impact players as well.
Smith and his team are still fighting an uphill battle in the Big Ten, and until they are able to reverse the tide, they are going to keep watching the parade pass them by.
Big Ten Championship Game:Lucas Oil Stadium-Indianapolis, Indiana: Ohio State vs. Wisconsin
Conference Champion: Ohio State
Y-New Year’s Six
Sources: Sports-reference.com, Cfbstats.com, Ourlads.com
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
The 2016 college football season saw the Alabama Crimson Tide fall just short of winning their second consecutive national championship, but don’t expect this team to be falling off of the map anytime soon. The Tide must replace seven starters from a defense that was the top ranked unit in the nation as they only allowed 13 points per game. But when you have a head football coach like Alabama does in Nick Saban who has a pipeline to the National Football League, there are always plenty of reinforcements that are waiting in the wings looking to make a name for themselves.
The Crimson Tide defense had 16 interceptions last year with 6 of them going to the house. Junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick led the team in 2016 with 6 interceptions and you can expect to hear his name in the conversation as far as winning the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.
After an up and down marriage between Saban and former Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin who is now the head football coach of the Florida Atlantic Owls, another former USC Trojans head football coach in Steve Sarkisian appeared ready to call the offensive plays for Saban at Alabama. However after calling the offensive plays for Alabama during their national championship game loss to the Clemson Tigers, Sarkisian jumped at the chance to become offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons in the National Football League.
Saban will seek to have some stability at the offensive coordinator position as he has pegged Brian Daboll to call plays for the Crimson Tide this season. Daboll has spent the last three years as the tight ends coach for the New England Patriots, and after learning from one of the all-time head coaches in the National Football League in Bill Belichick, he now has an opportunity to learn from one of the best in college football history in Saban while he’ll call plays on offense for the Crimson Tide.
Daboll will have the opportunity to work with a quarterback who is built like a running back in sophomore Jalen Hurts. At this point of Hurts’ career, he is more dangerous with his legs than he is with his arm, but if he is able to get some consistency from the offensive coordinator, he could be one of the better quarterbacks in the Southeastern Conference.
The injury to running back Bo Scarbrough changed the dynamics of the national championship game for Alabama as Clemson never had an answer for him. Last year Scarbrough averaged 6.5 yards per carry as he was only a part-time ball carrier. And at 6’2″, 235 lbs., Scarbrough is a big physical running back in the form of former Alabama running back Derrick Henry. Scarbrough will once again split carries coming out of the Alabama backfield with junior running back Damien Harris as they’ll give the Crimson Tide a thunder and lightning tandem in Tuscaloosa.
Under Saban, the Tide have been the best team in college football in regards to playing in big games and they’ll get another one to start the season when the take on the Florida State Seminoles of the Atlantic Coast Conference at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. And when Southeastern Conference play begins, the Crimson Tide will get the LSU Tigers at home, while they’ll be on the road to meet the Auburn Tigers as these two games will go a long way in deciding whether or not that ‘Bama will be able to play for the national title for a third consecutive year.
2. Florida State Seminoles
The 2016 college football season saw the Florida State Seminoles have a very quiet 10-3 campaign as they lost three games within the Atlantic Coast Conference. But the Seminoles still managed to win the Orange Bowl while finishing ranked in the Associated Press Poll for the seventh consecutive year. In seven years as the head football coach at Florida State, Jimbo Fisher has compiled a record of 78-17 along with a national championship. And here in 2017 he once again has a team that will be in national title contention.
For nearly four decades the Florida State program has been a pipeline to the National Football League and this year is no different as they lost running back Dalvin Cook to the pro game. But this is another one of those programs that doesn’t rebuild as they instead opt to reload.
Last year as a freshman, quarterback Deondre Francois was unfazed as he started the entire season for Fisher. And after Francois was able to be named as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Freshman of the Year, which included him throwing 20 touchdowns, he should be more comfortable this season.
The ‘Noles will miss the contributions of Cook, but they have another power back in sophomore Jacques Patrick. Like Cook, Patrick is a big and physical runner who also possesses speed. I still anticipate Fisher using a heavy dose of the running game which should allow Francois to be efficient via play action passing.
However the offensive line could be an issue early on for Florida State as they will employ a pair of redshirt freshmen, along with a sophomore in the starting lineup. But as the season progresses I do see this unit being able to solidify.
Last year saw defensive end DeMarcus Walker lead the Seminoles in sacks with 16. And although that Walker is now in the National Football League, don’t expect Florida State’s pass rush to fall off. Sophomore defensive end Brian Burns and junior defensive end Josh Sweat are arguably the best combo of bookend pass rushers in the nation. And good luck to opposing offenses that want to game plan on slowing down one player as the other can quickly be in an opponent’s backfield wreaking havoc.
After snagging 8 interceptions last year, junior cornerback Tarvarus McAFadden will head into this season as one of the favorites to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. I don’t see McFadden being able to tally as many interceptions this year due to the fact that opposing offenses will be more conscious of testing him.
Florida State begins their season by meeting the Alabama Crimson Tide in Atlanta on September 2, and it would not surprise me to see them meet again in the College Football Playoff as outside of hosting the Louisville Cardinals on October 21, the Seminoles should be able to dominate the Atlantic Coast Conference.
3. Penn State Nittany Lions
The 2016 college football season was a clear indication that the Penn State Nittany Lions are back. The Nittany Lions were able to navigate through the very tough Eastern Division of the Big Ten Conference to take home the conference crown. Penn State would go on to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl where they put on a show before falling to the USC Trojans. But now the huge test for Penn State head football coach James Franklin will be that his squad is no longer able to sneak up on anyone.
However the Nittany Lions still have one of the better backfield tandems in the nation. At times junior quarterback Trace McSorley can look like Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch in the pocket, but he knows a thing or two about improvising in order to keep a play going. Junior running back Saquon Barkley is coming off of a season where he rushed for 1,496 yards and scored 18 touchdowns on the ground. At 5’11”, 233 lbs., Barkley is a load as his thick lower body allows him to easily shed tacklers.
And whereas Barkley should get some consideration in regards to winning the Heisman Trophy, senior tight end Mike Gesecki could be in line for the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end. Gesecki is extremely versatile as he can also be used as an H-back, while his 6’6″ frame is always an advantage for Penn State in the red zone.
Defensively the Nittany Lions had a bend but don’t break style on defense last year, however with six seniors projected to be in their starting lineup which includes middle linebacker Jason Cabinda, the Lions should once again be a very tough team.
With road games against the Iowa Hawkeyes, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Michigan State Spartans, it will be tough for Penn State to repeat as Big Ten Champs, but it is not out of the question to see them in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
4. USC Trojans
If you were to eliminate the first month of the 2016 college football season, then you would have seen the USC Trojans in the College Football Playoff. The Trojans began with a record of 1-3 before they reeled off nine consecutive victories to end the season which included getting the best of the Penn State Nittany Lions in the Rose Bowl.
USC’s turnaround began when head football coach Clay Helton inserted quarterback Sam Darnold into the starting lineup. After Darnold lost his first start, he was locked in as he completed more than 67% of his passes. Darnold became the leader the USC needed at quarterback, and now he has people considering him to win the Heisman Trophy this season.
As good as Darnold is, you cannot think about the USC offense and not think about “student body right”. The Trojans will have one of the best running games in the Pac-12 Conference with the speedster in junior running back Ronald Jones II leading the charge. Jones will be rushing behind an experienced offensive line that includes senior center Nico Falah.
Junior middle linebacker Cameron Smith has the potential to be the next great USC linebacker, while junior cornerback Iman Marshall could use this season to pad his National Football League resume.
The Trojans will be the team to beat in the Pac-12 this year, and after they got to the Rose Bowl last season, a trip there this time around would signal that the Men of Troy are in the College Football Playoff as Pasadena will play host to one of the national semifinals.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
Although that the 2016 college football season didn’t end on a positive note for the Ohio State Buckeyes, this team will be right back in the mix for 2017. The Buckeyes entered the College Football Playoff in spite of not winning the Big Ten Conference and they got smoked by the Clemson Tigers in the Fiesta Bowl. But at Ohio State, head football coach Urban Meyer doesn’t rebuild as he merely reloads, and thus the Buckeyes will once again be in the mix to win it all.
The Buckeyes were 12th in the nation last year in rushing and they’ll enter with two of the best athletes in the country in their backfield. Senior quarterback J.T. Barrett is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the Big Ten Conference, and his athletic ability will keep him in the mix as far as the Heisman Trophy conversation goes. Aside from Barrett, the Buckeyes have a dynamic running back in sophomore Mike Weber who will put a ton of pressure on the defenses in the Big Ten.
Barrett and Weber have the privilege of being protected by an offensive line that is returning four starters from 2016 which includes senior offensive tackle Jemarco Jones who could be the anchor of the unit.
The Buckeyes must replace a ton of talent from a defense which was ranked sixth in the nation in total defense last season, but the return of sophomore defensive end Nick Bosa is a huge positive.
Ohio State will once again be one of the top teams in the Big Ten Conference and if they are able to survive a pair of November road games against the Iowa Hawkeyes and Michigan Wolverines respectively, they could be heading to the College Football Playoff for a second consecutive year.
6. Washington Huskies
It hasn’t taken the Washington Huskies that long to once again become a power under head football coach Chris Petersen. It took Petersen just three years at Washington to lead the Huskies to their first Pac-12 Championship since 2000, and under his watch they don’t appear ready to fade.
Last year as a sophomore, quarterback Jake Browning lit up the Pac-12 Conference to the tune of 3,430 passing yards and 43 touchdowns. Browning is also one of the more accurate quarterbacks in the Pac-12 and another strong season on his part will definitely draw the eyes of scouts from the National Football League.
Along with Browning, junior running back Myles Gaskin will also receive some serious consideration from the National Football League. Gaskin has proven himself to be a durable ball carrier as he toted the rock 237 times last season. Peterson will once again give Gaskin every opportunity to be the featured running back for the Huskies as he is the best running back in the Pac-12 Conference.
At first when you think of Peterson, defensive football doesn’t come to mind as his defenses tend to be overshadowed by his high powered offenses. However the Huskies were 12th in the nation in total defense last season and it was a total team effort as it was a unit that didn’t solely rely on stars. But one player to keep an eye on this season defensively for Washington will be sophomore free safety Taylor Rapp who possesses some of the best ball skills of a defensive back in the Pac-12.
On September 23, the Huskies will travel to face the Colorado Buffaloes in a rematch of last year’s Pac-12 Title Game, while a November 10 road affair with the Stanford Cardinal will go a long way in determining if Washington will be able to get back to Santa Clara for the conference title game.
7. Michigan Wolverines
It hasn’t taken head football coach Jim Harbaugh that long to return the Michigan Wolverines to a national power as they’ve gone 10-3 in each of his first two seasons there. And after Michigan barely missed making the College Football Playoff last year, this could be the season in which they make the dubious field of four.
Junior quarterback Wilton Speight could be a dark horse in the race to be the Big Ten Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year as he has continued to progress under Harbaugh. And Michigan will need Speight more than ever since they lost seven starters from last year’s team on offense.
Defensively the Wolverines were ranked second in total defense as only four opponents scored more than 20 points against them. But in that Michigan must replace their top eight tacklers from last season along with their best pass rusher in defensive end Taco Charlton. Harbaugh will be rolling the dice at the start of the upcoming season due to the fact that including defensive end Rashan Gary, there are six freshman scheduled to start this season for the Wolverines.
Michigan begins their season on September 2 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas versus the Florida Gators of the Southeastern Conference. Michigan has never lost to Florida which included Harbaugh leading the Wolverines to a commanding 41-7 victory in the 2016 Citrus Bowl. The Wolverines will travel to face the Penn State Nittany Lions on October 21, while their regular season will conclude with a road meeting with the Wisconsin Badgers on November 18 before they host the Ohio State Buckeyes on November as these three games within the Big Ten will determine whether or not that the Wolverines will make the College Football Playoff.
8. Louisville Cardinals
Heading into the 2017 college football season, unfinished business will be the motto for the Louisville Cardinals. The Cards began 2016 with a record of 9-1 as they appeared to be on the verge of securing a spot in the College Football Playoff. But unfortunately for the Cardinals, they would not win another game as the final three games saw them lose by a combined 49 points. However hope springs eternal and for Louisville head football coach Bobby Petrino, he once again has a team that is set to contend in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Last year as a sophomore, quarterback Lamar Jackson was a one-man wrecking crew. Jackson accounted for 5114 and 51 touchdowns en route to becoming the first Louisville player to win the Heisman Trophy. And now as a junior, Jackson will look to do it again even though that defenses around the Atlantic Coast Conference will be gunning to stop him. But led by senior guard Skylar Lacy, the Cardinals will be returning four starters on their offensive line to protect Jackson.
Last year Louisville was 14th in the nation in total defense and under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, the Cards have some talented play makers in junior defensive back Jaire Alexander and senior linebacker Stacy Thomas.
If the Cards want to get to the College Football Playoff this year, the games that they must circle on the calendar are on September 16 when they host the Clemson Tigers, October 21 when they travel to face the Florida State Seminoles, and November 25 when they’ll be on the road to face the Kentucky Wildcats as they went 1-2 versus these teams last season.
9. Auburn Tigers
The Auburn Tigers are coming off of their third consecutive season in which they lost at least five games, but there is some optimism on the plains for War Eagle heading into the 2017 college football season. Three of Auburn’s five losses last year were against conference champions which included the Clemson Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide who played for the national championship. Gus Malzahn is set to begin his fifth season as the head football coach at Auburn, and although that he has been unable to recapture the success that the Tigers had under him in 2013, his squad could be a sleeper in the Southeastern Conference this year.
In 2015, Jarrett Stidham saw limited action as the starting quarterback for the Baylor Bears. Stidham would transfer to Auburn which forced him to sit out in 2016. Stidham might not be the runner that Malzahn typically incorporates at the quarterback position, but he arguably possesses the best arm for an Auburn quarterback since Cam Newton.
Under Malzahn, Auburn’s strength on offense is rushing the football as they were sixth in the nation in that category last season. Junior running backs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson are coming off of a season in which they combined for more than 2,100 yards on the ground. Auburn’s running game is the equivalent to fast break basketball and the speed and elusiveness of Pettway as well as Johnson will test the patience along with the endurance of their opponents this year.
It will also help Auburn’s case to be one of the top teams in the nation this season being that they’ll have three seniors on their starting offensive line which included left tackle Darius James.
Kevin Steele is set to begin his second year as Auburn’s defensive coordinator. Auburn doesn’t have a star player on defense coming into this season, but they play fast, aggressive, and physical on that side of the football which always keeps them in a game.
Auburn has a chance to make a statement in their second game of the season when they travel to face Clemson, while they will also have to survive the gauntlet of the Southeastern Conference which includes consecutive road games versus the LSU Tigers, Arkansas Razorbacks, and Texas A&M Aggies.
10. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Three of the last four years have seen the Oklahoma State Cowboys go 10-3, and there is once again some optimism in Stillwater around this team. Mike Gundy is set to begin his thirteenth season as the head football coach at Oklahoma State and his team has the potential to not only win the Big 12 Conference, but to also get a berth into the College Football Playoff.
The past two years have seen quarterback Mason Rudolph have his way with the defenses of the Big 12 to the tune of a combined 7,861 passing yards and 49 touchdown passes. Last season Rudolph was only picked off 4 times, while he completed 63.4% of his passes. And as Rudolph is set to begin his senior campaign, there is definitely be a buzz around him in regards to winning the Heisman Trophy.
Rudolph will be throwing the football to a talented group of wide receivers which is led by senior wide receiver James Washington. Last year Washington tallied 71 receptions for 1,380 yards and 10 touchdowns, and if he is able to come close to that level of production once more, he could take home the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver.
Under Gundy, the Cowboys have specialized in recruiting speedy, undersized running backs for his uptempo offense. Last year as a freshman, running back Justice Hill ran for 1,142 yards and he averaged 5.5 yards per carry as his ability to run the football is the perfect compliment to the passing ability of Rudolph.
Senior left tackle Aaron Cochran leads an experienced offensive line that could be the best in the Big 12, while he will be charged with protecting Rudolph’s blind side. And this unit is also the key to Oklahoma State potentially averaging 40 points per game this season.
Under Gundy, the Cowboys don’t have a strong reputation in regards to defensive football, but if players such as senior free safety Ramon Richards will be able to hold up their end of the bargain, this unit could be able to do just enough to offset their high powered offense.
With Bob Stoops stepping down at Oklahoma, it has opened the door for the Cowboys to win the Big 12 this year. But Oklahoma State will have a tough road ahead of them which includes away games against the Texas Longhorns and West Virginia Mountaineers, while they’ll get Oklahoma at home this season.
11. Oklahoma Sooners
When Bob Stoops became the head football coach of the Oklahoma Sooners in 1999, he was attempting to make the program respectable once again, but he has done that and then some. The Sooners have gone 190-48 under Stoops and they’ve never had a losing season while also claiming a national championship. After making the College Football Playoff in 2015, Oklahoma was poised to get back there last year. However a pair of non-conference losses to the Houston Cougars and Ohio State Buckeyes would change that. Oklahoma was still able to win the Big 12 Conference and after they knocked off the Auburn Tigers in the Sugar Bowl, it capped off an 11-2 campaign which saw them win their last 10 contests. By January, Oklahoma was one of the hottest teams in college football and Stoops appeared to have another dominant season coming around the bend in Norman.
However things would change on June 7 when Stoops would shock the college football world by deciding to retire. The timing was shocking, but it did not completely hurt Oklahoma as it was during an unofficial “dead period” in college football as the roster and coaching staff was set.
Lincoln Riley spent the last two years as the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, but now he will be the man who will succeed Stoops at the school. Stoops feels that Riley has been groomed for this position, but only time will tell if he’ll be able to keep the success at Oklahoma going.
After being a finalist for the Heisman Trophy last year, quarterback Baker Mayfield has returned to Oklahoma for his senior year. In two years as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback, Mayfield has thrown 76 touchdowns to only 15 interceptions while he can also make plays happen with his legs.
But after Mayfield, the Sooners will have to replace of talent at the skill position, and once you factor that in with a new head coach in Riley, will Oklahoma’s offense that was second in the nation last season take a step back?
Although that Bob Stoops is no longer running the show at Oklahoma, his brother Mark is set to begin his 11th year as the defensive coordinator in Norman. The Sooners have a reputation of having solid defensive players which has also meant having a pipeline to the National Football League. And one player to watch out for this season is senior outside linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo who will be in the running to be the Big 12 Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.
It will be weird to not see Stoops lead the Sooners out onto the field this year, but Riley inherits a team that will still be an elite unit in the Big 12.
12. LSU Tigers
The 2016 college football season was a tough one for LSU Tigers, but after surviving it they are looking to get back on track and returning to being one of the nation’s elite programs. Four games into the season Les Miles was fired as LSU’s head football coach and replaced by defensive line coach Ed Orgeron. Orgeron was only the interim head coach as LSU was seeking to hire then Houston Cougars head football coach Tom Herman. But after it appeared that Herman and LSU had an agreement in place, he decided to take over the Texas Longhorns football program which left LSU in a bind. LSU would ultimately decide to remove the interim tag from Orgeron who had compiled a 6-2 record which included a victory over the Louisville Cardinals in the Citrus Bowl. And now that this is all behind LSU, let’s see what they’ll be able to on the gridiron in 2017.
The past few years have seen the Bayou Bengals have their fair share of issues at the quarterback position, but it appears that Orgeron is ready to stick with senior Danny Etling. Unlike Miles, Orgeron is seeking to open things up more in the passing game which makes Etling their best option. But even with Orgeron seeking open the offense up more in 2017, the Tigers can still get it done on the ground with the best of them.
Coming into the 2016 college football season, all of the talk on offense was around running back Leonard Fournette as he was in the conversation to win the Heisman Trophy. But as injuries slowed Fournette down, it gave running back Derrius Guice the opportunity to shine. Last year as a sophomore, Guice rushed for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns which included 252 yards against the Arkansas Razorbacks, and 285 versus the Texas A&M Aggies. And with Fournette now in the National Football League, Guice will be the feature tailback for LSU.
Junior outside linebacker Arden Key is attempting to work his way back from shoulder surgery and he’ll be vital to the success of the Bayou Bengals defense which was tenth in the nation last year in total defense.
LSU will get their season started by taking on the BYU Cougars in Houston, while their Southeastern Conference schedule includes road games against the Florida Gators, Alabama Crimson Tide, and Tennessee Volunteers.
13. Colorado Buffaloes
After a magical run in 2016, the Colorado Buffaloes are seeking to return to being on the national scene in college football. Last year Colorado was able to secure its first bowl appearance since 2007 and their first winning season since 2005. And whereas the Buffs won’t be able to sneak up on anyone this year, will they have enough in their arsenal to reach the College Football Playoff?
Quarterback Steven Montez saw limited action last year for the Buffaloes, but he was responsible for a pair of victories. And now with the graduation of Sefo Liufau, Montez will be the full-time starter for Colorado as he is ready to show what he can do in this his sophomore campaign.
Senior running back Phillip Lindsay is coming off of a season in which he totaled 244 carries. Lindsay proved to be durable for Colorado and if he gets the rock in his hands at least 200 times this year, it should symbolize another solid season for the Buffaloes.
Senior wide receiver Shay Fields is a burner as he is one of the fastest wide receivers in the Pac-12 Conference, while the Buffs will also have an experienced offensive line that includes three seniors which features left tackle Jeromy Irwin.
The Buffaloes will have six seniors starting on defense this year, but the player to keep an eye on will be junior middle linebacker Rick Gamboa who is a solid tackler as well as a leader.
Colorado will begin the season with their annual showdown with the Colorado State Rams in Denver, while their first Pac-12 game will be a rematch of last year’s conference title tilt when they host the Washington Huskies. And on November 11, the Buffaloes will host the USC Trojans in a meeting that could determine who will win the Pac-12 South and ultimately get to Santa Clara for the conference title game.
14. Georgia Bulldogs
Kirby Smart enjoyed a solid first year as the head football coach of the Georgia Bulldogs. Georgia went 8-5 last season which included appearing in their 20th consecutive bowl game. The Bulldogs have been one of the most consistent teams in the nation in regards to winning and that trend should continue in 2017.
Smart turned to a true freshman last year at quarterback in Jacob Eason and he did not disappoint. Eason appeared in all 13 games for the Bulldogs as he threw 16 touchdown passes to 8 interceptions and that experience as a freshman should be very valuable for both he and the Dawgs. At 6’5″, 235 lbs., Eason has the size needed for the pros, while he could also be in the running to be the Southeastern Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Running back Nick Chubb had an opportunity to go to the National Football League, but he spurned it for one more year at Georgia. Chubb averaged 5 yards per carry last year as he runs very angry and looks for contact. But Georgia opponents cannot solely focus on slowing down Chubb and he has his tag-team partner in senior running back Sony Michel who is just as explosive as he is with the ball in his hands.
Defensively the Dawgs have a ton of talent returning which includes a pair of junior inside linebackers in Roquan Smith and Natrez Patrick as well a senior safety Dominick Sanders who is a game changer in the secondary.
On September 9, the Bulldogs will make a rare venture to South Bend, Indiana to face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. And when Southeastern Conference play begins, the Bulldogs will avoid having to face the Alabama Crimson Tide, but they’ll have road meetings with the Tennessee Volunteers and Auburn Tigers as well as their annual showdown in Jacksonville with the Florida Gators.
15. Miami Hurricanes
It’s safe to say that the Miami Hurricanes are back on the track to success under head football coach Mark Richt. In Richt’s first year at Miami, the Hurricanes won 9 games and finished the season ranked for the first time since 2009. In 16 years as a head football coach which included 15 with the Georgia Bulldogs, Richt has taken his team to a bowl game in each season. And after Miami’s strong showing in 2016, it is not out of the realm of possibilities that this team could win the Atlantic Coast Conference Title this season.
The ‘Canes will definitely miss the contributions of quarterback Brad Kaaya who is now in the National Football League as it will now be up to junior quarterback Malik Rosier under center. But whereas Rosier won’t begin the season with a ton of experience to his credit, he’ll be able to rely on junior running back Mark Walton to shoulder the load. Last season Walton rushed for 1,117 and 14 touchdowns and this time around he could be the best ball carrier in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Last year as a freshman, wide receiver Ahmmon Richards averaged 19.1 yards per reception as he was the go-to-guy for Kaaya. And with a new signal caller in Rosier set to take over, it will be important for he and Richards to get some cohesion heading into the season.
Defensively Miami held eight opponents to 20 points or less last season as they were 20th in the nation in total defense. Manny Diaz is entering his second year as the defensive coordinator for the ‘Canes as he has an attacking unit. Middle linebacker Shaquille Quarterman and defensive end Joseph Jackson became impact players last year as true freshman for the Hurricanes and they could become two of the best defensive players in the Atlantic Coast Conference this year.
Miami has a chance to make a statement on September 16 when they travel to face the Florida State Seminoles who are favored to win the Atlantic Coast Conference. And a conference title run would be just what the doctor ordered for Miami to put them back on the national stage.
16. Stanford Cardinal
Each year the Stanford Cardinal are a team that flies under the radar at the beginning of the college football season, but before you know it they are one of the top teams in the country. In five of the last six years the Cardinal have won at least 10 games which included them going 10-3 last season. And for head football coach David Shaw, his Stanford squad will once again be a force to be reckoned with here in 2017.
Senior quarterback Keller Chryst is in the category of a game manager which is okay at Stanford due to the program’s commitment to the running game. Chryst only threw 10 touchdown passes last season which was due to the fact that he wasn’t asked to throw the football a ton. But heading into Chryst’s senior season he should be more comfortable which means that the Cardinal could have more balance on offense.
The dynamic running back Christian McCaffrey has moved on to the National Football League, but the productivity at tailback will continue at Stanford as the next good back could be junior Bryce Love. Love has spent the past couple of seasons in the shadow of McCaffrey, but he appears ready to emerge which was highlighted by him gaining at least 100 yards on the ground in both of Stanford’s final two games in 2016.
Since 2010, Stanford has built a reputation as far as producing quality offensive linemen, and they should once again have one of the better units in the nation as this year they’ll be led by senior center Jesse Burkett up front.
As the years go by the Cardinal continue to have a defense which is difficult to score on. Led by senior nose tackle Harrison Phillips, Stanford will have eight senior starters on defense. Lance Anderson is entering his fourth year as Stanford’s defensive coordinator and once again he’ll have a unit that doesn’t make too many mistakes, while they also know how to fly around the football as their specialty is gang tackling.
The Cardinal will begin the season in Australia versus the Rice Owls, and after a bye week they will be in Los Angeles to face the USC Trojans who are favored to win the Pac-12 Conference. But in a seven-day span in early November, Stanford will face both the Washington State Cougars and Washington Huskies in two games that will more than likely determine who’ll win the Pac-12 North.
17. South Florida Bulls
2016 saw the South Florida Bulls breakthrough for their best year in program history, and now they must find a way to keep the momentum going. Willie Taggart’s success as South Florida’s head football coach led to him being named as the new coach of the Oregon Ducks last December. But South Florida didn’t cry over spilled milk as they hired Charlie Strong to replace Taggart. South Florida needs the Strong who went 37-15 in four seasons as the head football coach of the Louisville Cardinals, and not the Strong who went 16-21 in the last three years as the head football coach of the Texas Longhorns. But if Strong is on point, the Bulls could be ready to have a solid 2017 campaign.
The Bulls have lost their dynamic running back in Marlon Mack to the National Football League, but they still have senior quarterback Quinton Flowers. Flowers is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation as he totaled 4,342 all-purpose yards last season, and he should be in the running to be the American Athletic Conference’s Player of the Year. And Flowers will be protected by an offensive line that has two seniors in the starting lineup including center Cameron Ruff.
Senior linebacker Auggie Sanchez is one of the leaders on South Florida’s defense as he will tackle anything that moves which makes him one of the best linebackers in the conference, while putting him in the conversation to be the American Athletic Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.
South Florida will once again be one of the top teams in the American Athletic Conference. And a strong 2017 campaign by the Bulls could put them into the conversation for a New Year’s Six bowl bid.
18. Texas A&M Aggies
In five years as the head football coach of the Texas A&M Aggies, Kevin Sumlin has compiled a record of 44-21, but his hot seat is rather warm heading into the 2017 college football season. The Aggies have gone 8-5 in each of the last three years, which includes last season’s disappointing 2-5 finish after a 6-0 start. After a strong showing in their initial year in the Southeastern Conference in 2012, A&M has never finished higher than fourth in the SEC West, and Sumlin must find a way to get the most out of his team and then some this year.
One thing that has hurt A&M over the last few years has been their inconsistency at the quarterback position. In the last three years, Texas A&M has used five different quarterbacks and constant change at this position is never a good recipe. Senior quarterback Jake Hubernak started three games for the Aggies last year. But for Hubernak to help A&M succeed, he must find a way to improve his completion percentage which was at 58% last season.
Sophomore running back Trayveon Williams is looking to build off the solid freshman campaign that he had where he had 1,057 yards on the ground. But after Williams was able to rush for 217 yards against the Tennessee Volunteers on October 8, his productivity rapidly declined, and heading into the new season, Sumlin needs him to be able to answer the bell each Saturday.
During Christian Kirk’s time with the Aggies, he has been a dependable wide receiver as he led the team in receptions in each of the last two years. And with this being Kirk’s senior season, you can expect that trend to continue as he looks to polish up his resume for the National Football League scouts.
John Chavis is set to begin his third season as the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M. Chavis has a veteran laden group which includes six seniors as starters and that experience will be needed in order for the Aggies to navigate life in the Southeastern Conference.
A&M will face one of the toughest schedules in the country which includes road games with the UCLA Bruins, Florida Gators, and LSU Tigers, while they will be welcoming the Alabama Crimson Tide to College Station, Texas. And if the Aggies are unable to take the next step, Sumlin might be forced to pack his bags.
19. Boise State Broncos
The head coaches might change as well as the names that are on the back of the jerseys for the Boise State Broncos, but there is no denying that they possess one of the best programs in college football. In spite of not finishing either of the last two college football seasons ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll, Boise State won a combined 19 games. And even though that the Broncos saw some key talent go the National Football League, they will once again be a force to be reckoned with.
Junior quarterback Brett Rypien tends to get lost in the shuffle being that Boise State is not in a Power Five Conference, but he can play. In the last two years Rypien has thrown 44 touchdown passes to just 16 interceptions. Rypien has a solid arm, while he has completed 62.7% of his passes, and he has the potential to be the Mountain West Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Rypien has one of his top targets in the passing game returning in senior wide receiver Cedrick Wilson who will put pressure on opposing defensive backs in the Mountain West Conference who will cover him. Boise State will miss the contributions of running back Jeremy McNichols who is now in the National Football League as he rushed for 1,709 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns last year, but now it is time for sophomore running back Alexander Mattison to show what he can do. At 5’11”, 206 lbs., Mattison is a burner and he should benefit from running behind an offensive line that has three seniors which includes left tackle Archie Lewis.
The Broncos offense will have to carry the load early on as the defense will be very green after the departures of some key players. But junior defensive end David Moa led Boise State in sacks last year with 8.5 and his presence could once again loom big for the Broncos.
This year’s schedule will be tougher for Boise State head football coach Bryan Harsin and his team. The Broncos will travel to face the Washington State Huskies of the Pac-12 Conference on September 9, while they’ll also have a road date with the BYU Cougars on October 6. Boise will also have road meetings in the Mountain West against the San Diego State Aztecs and Utah State Aggies. However going on the road and getting wins has been a specialty for Boise State for quite some time now.
20. West Virginia Mountaineers
It has taken the West Virginia Mountaineers some time to get acclimated to life in the Big 12 Conference, but they could be ready to re-emerge on the national scene. The Mountaineers went 10-3 last season which matched their best season since 2011 when they were still in the Big East Conference as head football coach Dana Holgorsen has developed one of the best offenses in the nation.
Last year the Mountaineers were 17th in the nation in total offense and they have the potential to be just as good if not better this year. In 2015, Will Grier emerged from a muddled race to become the starting quarterback for the Florida Gators. But as soon as Grier appeared to be guy for Florida, he was suspended for one year by the NCAA due to the fact that he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Grier would then look for a fresh start which led to him transferring to West Virginia and as his junior year is set to begin, he will find himself in contention to be the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year.
The Mountaineers will have one of the fastest offenses in the Big 12 which includes senior running back Justin Crawford who is coming off of a season in which he averaged 7.3 yards per carry. And if Grier is able to get on the same page with wide receivers such as junior Gary Jennings, West Virginia could be very tough to stop on offense.
The Mountaineers don’t have any players who stand out on defense, but for defensive coordinator Tony Gibson his unit has a “bend, but don’t break” mentality which will allow them to hang around in the Big 12 Title race.
The Mountaineers will have a tough road in front of them in order to win the Big 12 as their schedule includes road games against the TCU Horned Frogs, Baylor Bears, Kansas State Wildcats, and Oklahoma Sooners.
21. Florida Gators
In the two years that Jim McElwain has been at the helm as the head football coach of the Florida Gators, his team has gone 19-8 and finished in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll. The Gators have also gone to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game in each year under McElwain. But some followers of the Gators aren’t satisfied as they feel that McElwain could be doing more. However to the surprise of those pessimistic Florida followers, the Gators have the potential to be a top-25 team for the entire 2017 college football season.
The frustration with some Florida fans in regards to the Gators has been the struggles of the offense under McElwain. Last season the Gators were 116th in the nation in total offense which is a far cry from the explosiveness that they’ve been accustomed to seeing in Gainesville. Last year as a sophomore, quarterback Luke Del Rio showed occasional flashes of being the guy under center for McElwain. But what McElwain and the Gators need is a guy that can consistently get it done from the pocket, and will Del Rio be that guy?
Junior running back Jordan Scarlett has the potential to be a 1,000-yard back for the Gators in spite of the fact that he’ll be running behind an offensive line that won’t have any seniors. But for the Gators to take that next step and once again become a top-10 team, they are going to need more from their passing game.
Last year Florida was 79th in the nation in passing offense and their offense has already taken a step back as junior wide receiver Antonio Callaway has had several off-the-field issues. And regardless of who is on offense for the Gators, they need to find more explosiveness in their passing game in order to keep opposing defenses honest.
McElwain has plenty of talent to replace on the defensive side of the football as the Gators were ranked fifth in the nation last year in total defense, but at Florida there is always talent that is waiting in the wings.
Last year as a freshman, Chauncey Gardner was second on the team in interceptions, while defensive end Jabari Zuniga led the team in sacks with 5. But as Gardner and Zuniga are each ready for their sophomore campaigns, I expect them to take the next step and become anchors for Florida.
September 2 will provide a rarity for the Gators as they will begin their season versus a national power when they’ll travel to AT&T Stadium in Arlington,Texas to face the Michigan Wolverines of the Big Ten Conference. With the exception of Florida’s annual regular season finale against the Florida State Seminoles of the Atlantic Coast Conference, this is a program that tends to take it light in their non-conference slate which won’t be the case here in 2017 with the showdown with Michigan right around the corner. Florida will then open Southeastern Conference play against the Tennessee Volunteers, while they’ll also have conference home games against the LSU Tigers and Texas A&M Aggies, along with their annual tilt with the Georgia Bulldogs in Jacksonville, Florida.
I expect the Gators to be a team that could in and out of the top 25 this year, but they should improve as the season goes along.
22. Virginia Tech Hokies
Under first-year head football coach Justin Fuente, the bar of expectations weren’t that high for the Virginia Tech Hokies. However what the Hokies were able to do on the gridiron far exceeded expectations as they won the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Hokies went 10-4 to finish the season ranked in the Associated Press Poll for the first time since 2011. And although that the Hokies won’t be able to sneak up on anyone in 2017, they should once again be a force to be reckoned with in the ACC.
Quarterback Josh Jackson redshirted last season and now he will take the field for his first go around the field in college football. And it could be a rough start to the beginning of Jackson’s career since Virginia Tech must replace a wealth of talent from last year’s team.
But what the Hokies do have is defensive coordinator Bud Foster who is in his 31st season at the school. Foster’s defenses at Virginia Tech are generally rock solid and they should once again be stout. Senior middle linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka who is a tackling machine will be in the running to win the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker. And aside from Motuapuaka, the Hokies have a very strong linebacking core which includes junior inside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.
Virginia Tech always has a knack for forcing turnovers and after they snagged 16 interceptions last year, they should once be one of the best defenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Hokies will begin their season by facing a familiar foe as they’ll take on the West Virginia Mountaineers. From 1991-2003, West Virginia and Virginia Tech were rivals in the Big East Conference as they have not met on the gridiron since then. The Hokies will have their shot at revenge on September 30 when they host the Clemson Tigers who got the best of them in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game last December. And consecutive road games in November versus the Miami Hurricanes and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets will show strong that the Hokies will be here in 2017.
23. Washington State Cougars
Under the football coach Mike Leach, the Washington State Cougars have won 17 games over the last two years which has been the best stretch for the program since 2003. But heading into the 2017 college football season, will the Cougars be able to finish ranked for the first time since 2003, while also contending in the tough Pac-12 Conference?
Leach’s offenses are always wide open which means that his starting quarterbacks tend to put up big numbers. The last two years have seen Washington State quarterback Luke Falk combine to pass for more than 9,000 yards. And as Falk is set to begin his senior season, I don’t expect Leach’s air-raid offense to slow down.
The Cougars had the third best passing offense in the nation last season, and even though that two of their top wide receivers from 2016 are no longer with the program, don’t expect them to slow down. Junior wide receiver Tavares Martin Jr. should become more of the feature guy for Falk this season as he brings speed to the table. And it will be important for the Cougars passing game to be on point as they struggle to run the football which includes them being 114 in the nation in the category last season.
Falk will operate behind an experienced offensive line which includes senior left guard Cody O’Connell as this unit will be the key to any potential success that the Cougars will have in 2017.
One player who stands out defensively for the Cougars is senior middle linebacker Peyton Pelluer who knows how to set the tone. And the intensity that Pelluer brings to the table will be important as Washington State will look to slow down the high octane offenses of the Pac-12 Conference.
We’ll see how good that Washington State can be when they host the USC Trojans on September 29, while they’ll be on the road to face the Arizona Wildcats, Utah Utes, and Washington Huskies. The Cougars were close to winning the Pac-12 North last year and it will be interesting to see if they can take the next step.
24. Wisconsin Badgers
The past 25 years have seen the Wisconsin Badgers become one of the most successful college football programs in the nation and head football coach Paul Chryst has kept that tradition going. In two years under Chryst, the Badgers are 21-6 which includes a berth in the Big Ten Conference Championship Game last year as well as the school’s first appearance and victory in the Cotton Bowl.
Last year was a learning process for quarterback Alex Hornibrook as a redshirt freshman. Hornibrook was limited in the passing game. but being that Chryst has a reputation in regards to being a quarterback guru, I anticipate him opening up the passing game some more this year. The Wisconsin offense will grow with Hornibrook as there are only three seniors projected to be in the starting lineup which includes wide receiver Jazz Peavy.
Defensively the Badgers were seventh in the nation last season in total defense. Wisconsin lost their defensive coordinator in Justin Wilcox who is now the head football coach of the California Golden Bears, but a familiar face in Jim Leonard will replace him. Leonard was a defensive back for Wisconsin who would go on to play in the National Football League for seven different teams And after Leonard spent 2016 as the Badgers defensive backs coach, he will now be calling the shots on that side of the football.
One defensive player to keep an eye on will be junior inside linebacker T.J. Edwards who flies around the football. The Badgers have long had a reputation in regards to having hard nosed defensive players and Edwards will add to that reputation here in 2017.
The Badgers will be a dark horse in regards to winning the Big Ten, however if they’ll be able to survive their final three games of the season as they will face the Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan Wolverines, and Minnesota Golden Gophers, Wisconsin could find themselves in the conference title game along with getting a potential Rose Bowl bid.
25. Arkansas Razorbacks
There will be some adversity that’ll be awaiting the Arkansas Razorbacks when the 2017 college football season begins. But for Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema, don’t expect him to want people to feel sorry for his squad.
Since Bielema joined Arkansas in 2014, the Razorbacks have had a commitment to rushing the football in spite of a dip in production. Last year the Hogs were tied for 77th in the nation in rushing after they were 34th in 2015. And after running back Rawleigh Williams III was expected to be the featured ball carrier for his junior season, he decided to retire due to injuries.
Sophomore Devwah Whaley will now be the feature running back for the Hogs this year and he’ll get every opportunity to prove himself as he’ll get at least 200 carries this season. But with senior quarterback Austin Allen under center for Arkansas, I do expect Bielema to open the offense up more than he has in the past which means that we’ll see more of a vertical game in Fayetteville.
Former Iowa State Cyclones head football coach Paul Rhoads is set to begin his first season as Arkansas’ defensive coordinator and he must find a way to get this unit to compete more than they did in 2016. Arkansas was 75th in the nation in total defense last year which included surrendering 40 points or more in a game four times.
The Razorbacks schedule won’t be a cakewalk as they have consecutive road games versus the South Carolina Gamecocks and Alabama Crimson Tide in October, while they will also be on the road to face the LSU Tigers.
Top 25 By Conference:
Southeastern Conference (7)
Pac-12 Conference (5)
Big Ten Conference (4)
Atlantic Coast Conference (4)
Big 12 Conference (3)
Mountain West Conference (1)
American Athletic Conference (1)
Sources: Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com
The Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball team program currently find themselves in a rough patch. The Illini haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2013. And after this season’s 19-14 campaign, head basketball coach John Groce was fired. In five years in Champaign, Groce compiled a record of 95-74, while he was only 37-53 in the Big Ten Conference. Illinois had one NCAA Tournament appearance under Groce and they never finished higher than seventh in the Big Ten. Overall it’s been a struggle for the Fighting Illini as since they made the NCAA Title Game in 2005, they’ve been unable to at least make the Sweet 16. And for the next head basketball coach in Champaign, his main focus must be recruiting.
Of the Illinois team this season, 11 players were from the State of Illinois. However the Illini have struggled to keep the top talent home in recent years.
The past few years have seen Illinois lose out on Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor who each committed to playing for the Duke Blue Devils of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Parker and Okafor were both from Chicago, but they chose Duke since playing for Mike Krzyzewski would give them the better chance of reaching their ultimate goal which was to play in the NBA. But you have to go back to 2010 to find the last McDonald’s All-American who committed to play basketball for the Illini in forward Jereme Richmond. However after just one year with the Fighting Illini, Richmond declared for the NBA Draft. And after Richmond went undrafted, legal troubles derailed his once promising basketball career. The last six Mr. Basketball Award winners from the State of Illinois have elected to play for schools in other conferences, while since 2000, the Illini have only had three players win this award and play for them as being in Champaign isn’t one of their top priorities.
Whether or not the Illinois likes it, they must accept the fact that they are an afterthought in the Big Ten as you have to go back to 2011 to find the last time that they were able to finish better than seventh in the conference standings. The Illini are second-class citizens to the Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan State Spartans, Maryland Terrapins, and Michigan Wolverines who have nationally recognized programs that are always pushing for the top spot in the Big Ten. And the cherry on the top is that the Fighting Illini’s in-state rival in the Northwestern Wildcats are set to make their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament this week.
The State Farm Center which is the Illini’s home court recently underwent renovation as a way to spark recruiting. However the Illini have still been unable to keep up with the top teams that the Big Ten has to offer.
For Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman, his next head coach must be someone that is going to be able to ward off the Michigan State’s, Duke’s, and Kentucky Wildcats of the college basketball world in order to get the top high school basketball players from the Windy City to make the short trek to Champaign as opposed to catching a flight to another part of the country.
Some names that could be thrown around in the head coaching search for Illinois are Dayton Flyers head basketball coach Archie Miller, Illinois State Redbirds head basketball coach Dan Muller, Butler Bulldogs head basketball coach Chris Holtmann, and Wichita State Shockers head basketball coach Gregg Marshall.
Miller has compiled a record of 140-62 in six years at Dayton, and he has the Flyers making their fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. In recent years schools from Power Conferences have attempted to lure Miller away from Dayton to no avail, and I am not sure if Illinois would be any different should they want him.
Muller seems more likely for Illinois to get rather than Miller after he had the Redbirds on the cusp of making their first NCAA Tournament since 1998. Illinois State pushed Wichita State for the top spot in the Missouri Valley Conference and they were the only team to defeat the Shockers within the conference. However a weak strength of schedule hurt Illinois State’s effort to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. And after losing to the Shockers in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Final, Muller could be ready to take over a bigger program where he would not have that problem.
There’s no pressure for Holtmann at Butler as he has a team that can make the Sweet 16. But the fact that Butler was able to defeat the Villanova Wildcats twice this season has raised his profile in college basketball circles which could also make him attractive to Illinois.
And it would be a long shot for Marshall to leave Wichita State as he is 260-89 in ten years there, along with having a Final Four appearance on his resume. Like all of the other head coaches mentioned, there isn’t any pressure on Marshall at his current job, and he would be giving up security in order to get into the pressure cooker of the Big Ten.
You also cannot rule out Jamall Walker who is currently serving as the interim head basketball coach at Illinois while they participate in the National Invitation Tournament. And a run to Madison Square Garden for the semifinals in the tournament could get Walker some support to get the full-time job in Champaign.
It is going to be very interesting to see what direction that Illinois will go in with their next hire. But for Whitman he has a chance to find someone that will allow his program to compete in the Big Ten, while also appeasing the alumni in Champaign.
The Big Ten Conference was the last power conference to get on the conference tournament bandwagon in men’s basketball. The inaugural Big Ten Tournament took place in 1998 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois and it was won by the Michigan Wolverines. From 1998-2016, the Big Ten Tournament alternated between Chicago and Indianapolis which gave it that classic Midwestern vibe. But recently the Big Ten decided to extend its brand by adding three schools in the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Maryland Terrapins, and Rutgers Scarlet Knights to become a 14-school conference as they’ve expanded to the Eastern Region of the United States with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers. To accommodate this, Big Ten Conference commissioner Jim Delany decided to have this year’s conference tournament at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C., while next year it will be at Madison Square Garden in New York City. And although that there is money in both of these cities for the Big Ten, it might be time from them to rethink this.
Aside from Michigan’s improbable run to the Big Ten Tournament Title, this year’s edition of the tourney lacked a spark due to the fact that the fan bases for the majority of these schools were not out in full force as there were some empty seats at the Verizon Center. Although that Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis would theoretically pose an advantage for the Indiana Hoosiers and Purdue Boilermakers, it’s always common to see the folks who support the Michigan State Spartans and Ohio State Spartans make the trek to Indy. The same can be said for the United Center which would pose an advantage for the Illinois Fighting Illini and Northwestern Wildcats, but the people who support Michigan and the Iowa Hawkeyes will always be out in full force in the Windy City. And with Rutgers and the Penn State Nittany Lions losing in the second round of this year’s edition of the Big Ten Tournament, while local favorite Maryland was knocked out in the quarterfinals, the bubble for Delany had burst.
These mega conferences have thrown out the tried and true normalcy of conferences being a regional thing as it more about capitalizing on big media markets in order to secure larger television deals. And I understand that conference commissioners are attempting to make it as fair as possible for all of their members, but at some point you are simply stretching yourself too far.
Maryland and Rutgers knew what they were getting into when school administrators at these respective institutions prostituted themselves to get more money for their universities, and more importantly themselves. Rutgers has always been that school in Northern New Jersey that could never cut it in the Big East Conference as they always struggled to keep local high school talent to remain in the Garden State. Maryland was always the little brother of the North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but they knew how to hang in there and compete.
Maryland has had success on the hardwood in the Big Ten as they’ve made the NCAA Tournament in each year that they have been affiliated with the conference. But why should the Big Ten have to accommodate Maryland for the conference tournament when they are going out of their way to make the majority of their road trips during the season as a few night during the month of March in Chicago or Indianapolis won’t hurt them, while the same can be said about Rutgers.
When you think of the Big Ten, the Midwest region comes to mind. And although that the Big Ten was late to the conference tournament party, they’ve gone on to produce one of the best which is due to the energy that is involved.
Hopefully after next year’s trip to the Big Apple for the Big Ten Tournament, Delany and the school presidents within the conference will sit back and decide to go back to their Midwestern routes as opposed to chasing the almighty dollar. However recent years have shown what college athletics are all about the money more than ever. And since that is the case, I wouldn’t be surprised to one day see the Big Ten have its conference tournament in Los Angeles.