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.
What do the analytics say about the Badgers 2nd half schedule?
Yes, the loss to Michigan has everyone reeling and plenty of people questioning if the Wisconsin Badgers will ever truly become a national contender.
It’s been one step forward and two giant steps backwards every time the path has been there for the Badgers to date. But, the bitter loss to Michigan is in the rearview mirror and it also was the end of the first half of the Badgers schedule.
So, we thought it would be a good idea to see how some of the computers believe the second half of the schedule looks for the Cardinal and White.
Will the Badgers run the table and get to 10 wins again? Is there disappointment ahead?
Answers vary depending on the models used, but let’s explore how analytics see things going for Paul Chryst’s crew.
Unsurprisingly, the analytics tell us that the Badgers are going to have one big game and a whole lot of control towards a potential 10-win season still in the mix.
According to ESPN’s FPI index, Wisconsin will be favored in all but one game the remainder of the season. That one game of course is the trip to Happy Valley to take on Penn State. The FPI index gives the Badgers a 20 percent chance to win that game.
However, they do give the Badgers better odds against most of the rest of the schedule. It starts with a 95 percent chance at winning the Homecoming matchup with Illinois this weekend.
Wisconsin is also favored to win by 80 percent or more in two other games — Rutgers (97.6) and Minnesota (82.9). The Rutgers result is expected given how little resistance the Scarlet Knights have given to other teams at the bottom of the Big Ten pecking order so far this season.
As for the other games, perhaps the toughest to figure out on the schedule will surprise you. That’s because the FPI believes Purdue will be the biggest challenge outside of the Penn State game. Wisconsin has just a 58.2 chance of winning that game.
That leaves Northwestern in two weeks, and the FPI believes the Badgers have a 62.9 percent chance to win that game in Evanston. With the Wildcats finally getting on a win at Ryan Field last weekend, it will be interesting to see how this contest tracks after this upcoming weekend.
So, if all things hold out ESPN’s FPI see’s the Badgers at 9-3 to end the regular season and still winning the Big Ten West division championship. However, their projections have UW closer to 8-4 and that would likely mean a third loss inside the conference and if that is the case it could be an interesting race in the West division.
ESPN’s rating system is just one of many, so what do the others have to say?
College Football Analytics believes a lot of the same things as ESPN does, but they give the Badgers a good chance of finishing 9-3 overall. To be exact, they put UW’s probability of winning 9 games at 64.4 percent.
Perhaps the most interesting projection comes in the Penn State game, where they give the Badgers much better odds of pulling that game off. Currently, UW is given a win probability of 42.4 precent in that game and a score of 40.2 to 32.9.
Like the FPI, this model has the Badgers winning every other game on its schedule and doing so handily over Illinois, Rutgers and Minnesota. It also believes UW’s biggest toss-up game will be against Purdue, where the Badgers are just a 51 percent favorite to win that game.
But, it’s always good to get a third set of data to work with. That comes from the S&P+ system and not shockingly, they too have the Badgers finishing 9-3 on the season.
But, like the CFB Analytics numbers and unlike the FPI, they believe this game is going to be much closer than expected. The S&P+ system believes it will be less than a touchdown difference in the game.
This model also sees the game at Purdue as the biggest toss up on the UW schedule, with the Badgers given a 57 percent chance of winning and only an expected winning margin of 3.2 points.
So, as you can see there is a lot of agreement amongst the analytics side of the college football world.
It’s hard to disagree with their thoughts given the relative softness of the Badgers overall schedule in the second half of the season.
Pair of Big Ten players named to PFF mid-season All-American team
It hasn’t been a banner year for the Big Ten, with it seeming more and more like the days of the big two and little 10 (12 today). So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that All-American honors are few and far between.
But, it was near barren for the Big Ten when Pro Football Focus gave out its mid-season All-American honors. Just two players — both on offense — made the cut from the conference.
Ohio State wide receiver K.J. Hill and Wisconsin right guard Beau Benzschawel were both named to the offensive All-American team.
Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor was named honorable mention. So was OSU defensive tackle Dre’mont Jones on the other side of the ball.
What makes Pro Football Focus’ lists so different are the fact that they are based on analyzing actual play from every player in college football throughout the season.
It means, actual play on the field dictates getting on this list and not reputation or PR.
Benzschawel is the second-highest rated guard in the country according to PFF, as they say this about his performance at the midway mark:
Benzschawel is close behind [Terrone] Prescod, grading at 81.1 as a run-blocker, good for sixth among guards while allowing only three pressures on 151 snaps in pass protection.
Much like Benzschawel, Hill is also the second highest rated player at his position. Hill trails only Colorado’s superstar receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. and has a grade of 90.9 on the season.
According to PFF, “Hill has been incredibly efficient as well, catching 85.1% of his targets while averaging 8.2 yards after the catch per reception.”
It will be interesting to see how thing shake out in the second half of the season and if players like Chase Winovich, Rashan Gary or many other of the Badgers offensive lineman grade out better.
Good, Bad, Ugly: The tale of Buckeyes, Badgers and Illini in Week 3
There is no two ways about it — Week 3 was the Big Ten’s collective worst nightmare.
Just take a look at the final scores from the weekend:
So, on a Saturday in which contenders were dropping like flies, how do we make sense of what took place?
Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Week 3 around the Big Ten.
On a weekend that saw so much carnage from Big Ten teams, there is no doubt that Ohio State’s big win over TCU is the good of the weekend. It wasn’t just that the pickings were slim either, the Buckeyes put on a show in the win over the Horned Frogs at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
With the eyes of most of the college football world on them, OSU came up big. They punched hard first, going up 10-0 and then took a big punch from TCU for a pair of touchdowns, the last of which was a school-record 93-yard run by Darius Anderson for the 14-10 lead early in the second quarter.
Let’s not forget there were two defensive touchdowns (albeit one shouldn’t have counted after further review that never happened on the field), including a “fat guy” TD by Dre’mont Jones.
Lost in some of the craziness was the fact that Dwayne Haskins showed out in a big way. He was 24 of 38 for a crazy 344 yards and two touchdowns in the win. Haskins also had a rushing touchdown to cap off all the offensive scoring for his team.
Sure, the defense gave up 511 yards, but it seemed more a byproduct of TCU’s offensive style than anything worrisome about the Buckeyes defense. After all, they forced three total turnovers, had three sacks and seven tackles for loss on the day.
It was a shot across the bow of the rest of the elite in college football and arguable the most dangerous the Buckeyes have looked on both sides of the ball in awhile.
There’s no where to go here other than to head to Madison, Wis. where the Badgers came in to their contest against BYU with a 41-game home non-conference win streak.
By the time the mid-afternoon matchup was over, the Badgers streak was also over and it wasn’t a fluke. The visiting Cougars took a page out of the Wisconsin playbook and simply out-muscled the Badgers on both sides of the ball.
UW’s normally potent run game averaged just 4.7 yards per carry. Its defense allowed 191 yards to BYU on the ground. That pretty much sums up the shock that happened inside Camp Randall.
For the first time in over 15 years, a non-conference opponent came in to Camp Randall, outplayed and finally beat the Badgers. We’ll see if this is a wake up call or the start of a snowball effect that can’t be stopped.
Having rival Iowa on the road and at night should certainly get the Badgers attention this coming week.
Sure, we could’ve gone with Northwestern getting blown out by a MAC opponent at home. There was also Rutgers’ piss-poor day at Kansas and Temple working over Maryland. But, those were all blowouts and there was just one loss that hurt more than any other…Illinois.
For just over 57 minutes, this week felt different for Illini fans…until South Florida’s Darnell Salomon hauled in a 50-yard touchdown from Blake Barnett with 2:24 to play.
That was just a downright brutal blow to a program that could’ve used the win in the worst way. Illinois got an early touchdown from running back Mike Epstein and then four field goals (three of which were over 40 yards) for a 19-7 lead late in the third quarter.
Then the fourth quarter happened and you could just feel the game slipping away. Just over three minutes after the last of Illinois last field goal, it was Salomon who broke through with a 14-yard touchdown catch to make it a 5-point game. Add in a field goal midway through the quarter and a 19-7 lead was whittled down to 19-17.
But, the Illini really only have themselves to blame. After all, they squandered four drives that were in USF territory and couldn’t get in the end zone. The Illini also couldn’t score a single point in the final quarter, and that’s usually not a good thing.
The play in the final stanza was particularly brutal, as USF’s defense held the Illini to just 94 total yards and forced them to go 2-of-7 on third downs. That’s how you lose a game you should’ve taken care of.
If there was a silver lining in the ugly way this loss happened, it was that MJ Rivers’ debut at quarterback was a success. He was 20 of 29 passing for 168 yards. While he didn’t get in to the end zone through the air, Rivers also didn’t turn the ball over while passing either. That’s a positive step lost in the brutal way this loss took place.
Badgers win big battle for 2019 LB Spencer Lytle
The 2019 Wisconsin Badgers football recruiting class already has hit new heights. But, there was one key piece to the puzzle the coaching staff was waiting on — its top of the board linebacker.
On Saturday, UW got the answer it was looking for as three-star linebacker Spencer Lytle committed to the Badgers over his other finalist, Clemson.
Lytle was the No. 1 outside linebacker on the Badgers board and the biggest missing piece to the puzzle for this recruiting class. While the three-star rating may not blow you away, make no mistake, Lytle was one of the most sought-after players at his position in the country.
It is easy to see why when you put on the tape, and equally so when you see his numbers on paper. Lytle had 77 tackles, 3.0 sacks, and nine additional hurries for Servite High School in Anaheim last season.
He held offers from 40-plus programs, most of which reads like a who’s who of national contenders on an annual basis. In the end, it came down to Wisconsin and Clemson, with few really knowing where Lytle was leaning.
The Badgers got their biggest target at outside linebacker and alongside in-state product Leo Chenal, appear done with recruiting the overall linebacker position for the 2019 class.
UW’s class now has 13 verbal commits and Lytle’s pledge pushed the Badgers near the top 25 in the national team rankings. Currently, Wisconsin sits No. 26 in the 247Sports composite rankings. The Badgers jumped seven spots with this announcement on Saturday.
Lytle was able to keep his recruitment tight-lipped and same with his commitment choice. Few knew what was really going to happen when he announced earlier on Saturday, but it went the Badgers way.
Wisconsin also continues to make small inroads in recruiting one of the biggest states for talent in the country — California. Lytle’s commitment means back-to-back seasons with a prospect from the state, as Alexander Smith signed in the 2018 class and will likely redshirt this upcoming season.
Equally important, Lytle is attending one of the top high school programs in the country this year in St. John Bosco. They are the preseason No. 1 team in the country and consistently put out high-level FBS players.
While Lytle will only be there for one season, he could be a good foot in the door for UW at the school.
It will be interesting to see how quickly Lytle fits in at Wisconsin, because after this season things will be wide open on one side of the outside linebacker spot as Andrew Van Ginkel will graduate.
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