Last week we took a look at the East division, now it is time to go West my friends. While a lot of the questions out East revolve around offense, will the same hold true in the West division?
With a new head coach in at Nebraska, new coordinators in other places and plenty of high-level recruiting happening, there is no shortage of intrigue in the
Let’s take a look at the 5 biggest storylines we’ll watch this spring in the Big Ten West division.
Frost’s First Spring
As if there is any storyline bigger in the West division than prodigal son returning to bring the
Let’s just consider it the West division’s version of Jim Harbaugh, shall we.
Nebraska fans are hoping that the results are at least as good if not better than what Harbaugh has brought to Michigan to date, and sadly getting to the 10-win mark would be a huge win for the Huskers of today.
Frost will have a big challenge on his hand, needing to rebuild the run game, strengthen a porous defense and bring the pride back to the Huskers program.
Oh, and he’ll have to break in a new quarterback to go with all of the rest of the tweaks needed in the program. 4-star dual threat quarterback Adrian Martinez singed early and is on campus already, and there will be competition with much-touted sophomore Patrick O’Brien in the mix as well as redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and sophomore Andrew Bunch.
O’Brien, Gebbia and Bunch are more the classic West Coast style of QB, and that may make Frost’s first season an interesting one in Lincoln.
Northwestern’s Life Without Thorson and Jackson
Northwestern knew that 2018 would be a challenge, especially with the graduation of easily the greatest running back in school history. With Justin Jackson graduated, where would the Wildcats turn to get the production needed.
Then the 2018 season was dealt a brutal blow as quarterback Clayton Thorson tore up his knee on a trick play in the Music City Bowl. He’ll likely be back for fall camp, but in what shape and condition will that be? A torn ACL for a mobile quarterback can be a game changer and in any case this upcoming season is going to be his last in a Wildcats uniform.
So, as Northwestern heads in to spring practice, it will get a big glimpse of its future life without its two biggest names. We’ll see plenty of reps for junior T.J. Green, redshirt freshman Andrew Marty, and sophomore Aidan Smith this spring. Northwestern opens with Purdue on Aug. 30 and should Thorson not be ready to go, spring could go a long way to deciding who gets the nod.
Leonhard’s Big Test at Wisconsin
Rumors circulated throughout much of December and in to January that Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was a candidate for the Florida State defensive coordinator position. That’s what happens when year one of you as UW’s DC ends with the Badgers having one of the best defenses in the country.
Year two will be a different story though, as Leonhard faces a secondary that loses 3 starters, a defensive line that loses both starting ends and both starting outside linebackers. Wisconsin has proven to be a plug-and-play program at outside linebacker and that shouldn’t be an issue with the likes of Andrew Van Ginkle and Tyler Johnson having gained plenty of experience last season. There’s also intrigue in names like Christian Bell and redshirt freshman Noah Burks.
However, things are dicey in the secondary as only one player with any real game experience is back at cornerback and that is Donyte Carrier-Williams. So, this is where Leonhard would be earning a salary increase this spring. He’ll have to mold a really young group of cornerbacks in to a quality group of players given all the spread offenses that will be in place across the West division — with all but Iowa running some version of the spread attack.
Can names like Madison Cone, Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks show enough for the coaching staff to be confident in them going in to the season or will their need to be a lean on the newcomers in the fall? There certainly won’t be a shortage of reps and opportunity for playing time in this spring.
Lovie’s Last-Ditch Offensive Overhaul
There isn’t a bigger trainwreck in the Big Ten than Illinois Fighting Illini athletics (not just football) at the moment. So, this spring is all about finding some hope for the football program. To that end, head coach Lovie Smith enters his second full offseason in a position to overhaul his offense.
It started as quarterbacks Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. decided to leave the program and continued with the hire of Arizona offensive coordinator Rod Smith. The Wildcats offense has been amongst the most prolific and high-scoring in the country, but this is Big Ten land where defense reigns supreme. Can Smith translate his Wildcats offense to something that works in Champaign?
Cam Thomas is the lone scholarship quarterback and proved a much better rushing threat than anything in the pass game last season. So, Smith’s first task is to see if Thomas has what it takes to really lead a spread offense like his. If not, this could be a long spring spent trying to find answers to a whole lot of questions.
I love getting Smith away from Arizona, it was a master stroke by Smith, but will it be enough, soon enough to keep his job? Athletic director Mike Thomas seems to have a long-term plan in place and the patience to see it out with Smith, but real progress needs to shown this spring and in the fall for that patience to be warranted.
Let’s see if this last-ditch effort pays off.
Brohm’s Encore Performance
What Jeff Brohm did in one season at the helm of the Purdue Boilermakers football program was nothing short of remarkable. He took a program left for dead and not only gave it life, but a bowl game appearance in his first season. It’s no wonder his name came up for the Tennessee job this offseason.
But, this season there are actual expectations following that 7-6 finish last season and this spring will see some big changes to the program. That’s not a bad thing, because Purdue got to a bowl game with a lot of smoke and mirrors while it awaited more talent to come aboard in West Lafayette, Ind.
There was also a reliance on a pretty good defense last season, one that featured talented linebackers T.J. McCollum and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Both are gone now and replacing their production and leadership will be key this spring. Luckily, the returning starter is Markus Bailey, who could be poised for a national breakout year now that the spotlight is all to his own. Beyond that, this is a position that will be a microcosm of the team, as they see what kind of talent is coming in and how fast they can contribute.
Early Big Ten results remind us why bowl season matters
Don’t tell Iowa, Michigan State and Purdue that their bowl games and wins were meaningless, because they sure weren’t.
Bowl season is usually a cruel, cruel mistress to the Big Ten. Let’s just say hopes always start high and results crash fans of the teams in the conference back down to earth quickly.
There are a myriad of reasons and excuses often given, and some of them are valid (or at least used to be). Examples usually include the fact that 90 percent of the games are played well outside of the Big Ten footprint and the old reliable of huge disparities in caliber of opponents (addressed a bit by the last change in bowl alignment).
So, as the 2017-18 bowl season got underway it was hard to expect much from the Big Ten. After all, the conference teams managed to go just 3-7 last year and only one of those three wins was very meaningful (Wisconsin over Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl).
Then the games were played and we here in Big Ten country have been reminded just how meaningful bowl season really is.
Purdue not only got to a bowl game, but it won its bowl game against another offense-first team in Arizona. Sophomore quarterback Elijah Sindelar overcame injury and threw for nearly 400 yards (396 to be exact) and four touchdowns, while running back D.J. Knox had 101 yards on 11 carries.
If you believe bowl games don’t matter, just talk to anyone on the Purdue or Arizona sidelines following that game. Going 7-6 in season one under Jeff Brohm was huge, but most importantly it sets new expectations for the program’s floor going forward.
When is the last time there were anything but dreadful expectations surrounding the Purdue football program? If anything, that should tell you just how meaningful bowl games are.
But, it was just Purdue’s three-point win out in the Foster Farms Bowl that showcased the importance of winning so-called meaningless bowl games.
Michigan State not only rebounded from a 3-9 season to go 9-3, but it just beat a fellow top 25 program in Washington State. Sure, you can point to Luke Falk being out of the game, but the Spartans looked like the Spartans that climbed their way to the College Football Playoff just two years ago again.
Dantonio’s crew pounded the ball down the throat of Wazzu’s smaller defensive line and that led to LJ Scott putting up 110 yards on just 18 carries. Meanwhile, the Spartans defense held the Cougars high-scoring offense to just 17 points in the 42-17 win in the Holiday Bowl.
Think MSU will be overlooked by bowl games in the future again?
Even Iowa, who had the most maddening up and down season of any Big Ten team, pulled off a win in the opening game for a Big Ten team this bowl season.
It wasn’t always pretty, but in a matchup of two 7-5 teams, what else would you expect? Most importantly, the game showed that Iowa could win a close game against a quality defense. For a team full of young players at key positions, it’s a win that builds momentum heading in to the offseason.
All three wins set up increase expectations for next season and there’s nothing better than expecting quality football and increased competition within the Big Ten at all.
Of course, the rest of the Big Ten teams in bowl games have some huge matchups to play in.
It’s a nice start to reversing the trend of horrible bowl seasons for the conference, but there’s a lot of work still to be done for the rest of the conference. With three teams in New Year’s Six bowl games, winning them puts the conference at the forefront of the offseason discussion and as much as we hate to admit it — perception is reality these days in the college football world.
That was the lesson we were supposed to take away from the College Football Playoff committee’s selection of Alabama over an actual conference champion, right?
With a snub from the College Football Playoff committee this season, a huge turnaround in bowl game results would mean a whole lot to the reputation – fair or not – of the conference going forward.
Let’s see if the early momentum can be maintained by the big dogs of the B1G.
Joe Tiller’s passing reminds us of indelible mark left on Purdue, Big Ten
Joe Tiller, one of college football’s true innovators, passes away at age 74
It seems like Purdue football has been bad forever these days. However, things were just about as bad today as they were back in 1996. Then the Boilermakers brass went to Wyoming and picked Joe Tiller to lead their program.
With Tiller’s hire, a new and innovative offense called the “spread offense” came to the land of power-I rushing offenses…and the rest they say is history.
Sadly, Tiller passed away today at the age of 74.
Tiller was 87-62 in 12 seasons in West Lafayette, led Purdue to eight or more wins in six of those 12 seasons and took Purdue to the 2001 Rose Bowl as conference champion.
You knew things were different in West Lafayette immediately, as Purdue went 9-3 in Tiller’s first season in 1997.
What we know as the spread offense today was infamously dubbed “basketball on grass” by Tiller. He had names like Drew Brees, Kyle Orton and Curtis Painter to execute his high-powered passing attack to near perfection.
In an age where three yards and a cloud of dust was the norm, Tiller’s spread attack was as foreign as it came. Not only did other teams begin to follow suit over the years, he made defensive football change in the Big Ten.
Athletic ability more than power became essential to success in the Big Ten — and Tiller’s offense made that happen on both sides of the football. Don’t let anyone tell you anything different.
But, those Tiller Purdue teams were more than innovative offenses. Purdue played some great defense for large parts of Tiller’s time at at the helm of the program, and put multiple defensive stars in to the NFL too.
Tiller wasn’t just a genius X’s and O’s guy, he knew how to put together a staff. Names like Brock Spack, Kevin Sumlin, Jim Chaney, Greg Olson, Mark Hagan, Danny Hope, Terrell Williams, Ted Gilmore, Bill Legg, Bob DeBesse, Randy Melvin, Gary Emanuel and Scott Downing all made stops in West Lafayette while Tiller was the head coach there.
Purdue’s innovative offense became less so as the 2000’s went on and ultimately it became time to move on. However, it is also a testament to his coaching ability that the program has never really been the same since his departure.
He will certainly be missed as a coach, but also as one of the better people to ever grace a sideline in the Big Ten. Modest, unassuming but commanding, Tiller’s impact off the field is almost as great as his impact on it.
College football and the world has lost an influential man.
R.I.P. Joe Tiller.
Purdue showing why Jeff Brohm was perfect hire for them
Boilers show just how much the right hire at head coach matters in 44-21 beating of Ohio Bobcats.
When did you know she was the one? Often the answer is something along the lines of “when you know, you just know.”
Usually we’re talking about getting married to the love of your life and not a football team though.
For Purdue football fans, they may be feeling like they are back in love with their program after Friday night’s 44-21 victory over the Ohio Bobcats.
Oh, and their “when did you know” moment likely came on Friday night as well.
Purdue hosted the Ohio Bobcats and promptly trounced the visitors 44-21 in front of a crowd of 45,633 at Ross-Ade Stadium.
Perhaps the attendance should be the first dead giveaway that something is different. I mean, there were more butts in seats than not, and that is certainly different from the final few seasons of the previous regime.
But, beyond that, Purdue actually handled a game from start to finish against a halfway decent opponent. Let’s just say beating down a MAC opponent was a tough one for any Darrell Hazell-led team.
Even trick plays were working on Friday night, as Brohm dialed up the old hand-off, reverse, pitch to the QB and drop a 62-yard bomb for a touchdown play. That opened up a 24-7 lead for Purdue and they were never really troubled again.
Purdue scored 24 unanswered points to take a 34-7 lead just before halftime and then dominated following an early third quarter touchdown by the Bobcats.
Tell me again how Hazell’s teams could rip off 24 points against anyone, let alone make them unanswered?
All of this came on the back of a competitive performance and near upset of ACC favorite Louisville in the season opener.
It is nearly impossible to ignore the night and day difference in confidence, pride and offensive firepower from a season ago. Purdue’s defense may still be giving up points, but it is also creating opportunities for the offense to make up for any points given up.
The Boilermakers have recovered five fumbles through two games and are starting to show they won’t be an easy team to run on either. Ohio gained just 160 yards on the ground, which is sadly a marked improvement for Purdue’s defense.
Of course, one can’t overreact to a single victory over a MAC program if you’re in the Big Ten. But, if you can’t see the marked improvement from the Boilermakers in 2017 then there isn’t much more that can be done to convince you.
There is still the matter of a defense that seems to be a sieve against just about anyone and a team counting on a lot of youth to step up to the plate weekly. There are bound to be growing pains given those two factors.
I’m also not saying the Boilermakers are suddenly West division or Big Ten title contenders either. But, I am saying Purdue won’t be the doormat it has been since Darrell Hazell arrived a few long, agonizing years ago.
For now, Boilermaker fans need to revel in the fact that their athletic department finally got a football coaching hire right for once.
talking10 Power Poll: Surprises galore in Week 1 poll
We’re back…after a long offseason, the staff is finally back to watching football, crunching numbers and giving you our opinions on all things Big Ten football.
It also means our weekly staff Power Poll is back as well.
This season we’ve got five staff members voting every week. That includes the following names:
Andy Coppens – @AndyOnFootball
Phil Harrison – @PhilHarrisonCFB
Philip Rossmann-Reich – @RiseNU
Dave Fitzgerald – @BuckeyeFitzy
Zach Worthington – @Worthyton
Normally the opening week of the season provides little in the way of knowledge, but that certainly wasn’t the case in 2017. Dare we say the first week of action for the Big Ten was highly entertaining?
You can say that, and we did over at the #B1GRewind Show.
But, how did all of that excitement shake out when it came time to vote? Let’s take a look at the official poll for Week 1:
Let’s just say things were a bit wackier than usual, huh?
- Only three teams lost this week, yet it was a winner, Illinois, coming up dead last and it wasn’t even close. The Illini’s unimpressive three-point win was also our winner for “Disappointment of the Week” on the #B1GRewind show…so perhaps their last place finish in the power poll this week was really warranted. It also appears that hanging tough with ranked teams meant a lot to our voters.
- While the rest of the college football world is in love with Ohio State…our staff is much more in love with the Nittany Lions…well not “much more” but they won out with three first place votes and OSU falling outside the top two in one voters mind.
- It appears there is going to be an interesting battle for the middle of the pack over the next few weeks. Michigan State was No. 7 in this poll, but had just a three-point lead on No. 10 Nebraska. Let’s just say the next few weeks should shake out the middle a bit more.
- Speaking of close fights…the battle between Michigan and Wisconsin for the third spot should be an interesting one indeed. Can Wisconsin’s offense keep up the high-scoring and keep UW ahead or will Michigan’s exciting youth movement grow up fast enough to challenge for the top of the East division and thus our poll as well?