College football season is officially back, with North Dakota State and Charleston Southern kicking things off in FCS action on Saturday. However, the biggest of the big boys get things going over Labor Day weekend (and a few days earlier).
It means the return of insane tailgating set ups, brutal Group of 5 opponents looking for a paycheck and the first FBS football game in the history of legendary Lambeau Field. With the season about to start everyone seems excited (sorry, everyone but Purdue fans) about the season ahead and hopeful that goals are achieved.
With Week 1 finally upon us, let’s take a look at the biggest storylines to watch for Big Ten football.
Can Wisconsin Handle Its Crazy Schedule?
Few topics surrounding the 2016 Wisconsin Badgers were as talked about this offseason as much as UW’s insane schedule. It all kicks off on Saturday afternoon against the LSU Tigers at Lambeau Field. It also is clearly the most difficult non-conference game on the slate for the Badgers, and how it goes could be a sign of things to come for UW this season.
With Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska all in a row to open Big Ten play, confidence is going to be key. Get crushed by LSU and what happens to a team with a lot of moving parts and young players filling up the two deep?
Shock most of the college football world and win? Does that signal a Badgers team that is vastly underrated in 2016?
A lot may depend on the play of newly minted starting quarterback Bart Houston, and the team’s confidence in competing against the best of the best is likely going to come from its confidence that its starting QB can get the job done when called upon in difficult situations.
There are a lot of questions that will be answered about the Badgers on Saturday, but perhaps the most important answer will be how this team looks against the top of the college football heap out of the gate.
Are Young Bucks Ready to Step Up?
Ohio State’s biggest question to answer this offseason has been how it replaces all those draft picks, especially the nine players who left for the NFL before their eligibility was up in Columbus.
Few believe that Urban Meyer’s team is going to fall off the face of the earth given its insane run on the recruiting trail and having one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the country still around. Yet, change abounds around J.T. Barrett and even if the hype is there for just about every player stepping on to the field on Saturday, this is still the first go-round for a lot of starters.
There is a new starter at running back who has never played a college football game (Mike Weber) and a backup who is a true freshman (Antonio Williams). OSU also has to deal with its No. 1 wide receiver, Noah Brown, coming off a broken leg last season.
Are there enough proven and capable weapons to not allow teams to just shut down Barrett and call it a day?
Even last season’s sack leader, TyQuan Lewis, has question marks surrounding him after the departure of the uber-talented and offensive line attention grabbing Joey Bosa. Can he really keep that pace up now that he is likely the focus of way more attention from opposing offensive lines?
Bowling Green may not be Michigan or Wisconsin, but they aren’t a pushover team and should this team show a lot of rust from its veterans or shaky play from the newcomers questions will start to become concerns quickly.
Is Northwestern’s Offense Back?
The long-standing hope of Northwestern fans was seeing its team finally put together a good defense to go with a scoring machine on offense. Said fans saw the defense come together and be one of the most dominant in the Big Ten last season…they also saw an offense that struggled mightily.
A lot of that had to do with a brand new starting QB in Clayton Thorson.
This season, the hope is that Thorson is ready to have the handcuffs taken off of him and for the offense to blossom while the defense continues to be very good. Should that happen it could be an interesting season in Evanston, Ill.
Reports from spring and fall camp show that Thorson has been much improved and the offense has been more dynamic. Let’s see it happen on the field against a team that is pretty darn good in Western Michigan.
Should the offense sputter against the Broncos, it might be time to worry that Northwestern is in store for a disappointing season ahead.
Can Big Ten Avoid Embarrassing Upsets?
Week 1 of the 2016 season isn’t exactly full of awesome matchups, as we struggled to find six meaningful games being played in the opening week for Big Ten teams. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some tricky games to be watching.
Kent State isn’t the pushover it has been in the past, and Penn State certainly has a lot to prove with a brand new looking offense and a brand new quarterback behind center. Western Michigan has been one of the best programs the MAC has to offer and certainly its best team on the recruiting trail. Northwestern isn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut after last season, so if the Broncos can score points it could be an interesting opener in Evanston.
Indiana has an interesting trip to Florida International in the offing, and it certainly has questions to answer on defense. Let’s just say it is a game to keep an eye on given IU’s history of playing down to its competition.
Then there is Purdue facing Eastern Kentucky, and lord knows nothing is safe when it comes to the Boilermakers football program.
Many see the Big Ten as the second-best conference in the country — going through the first week of the season without being laughed at for a major upset would be helpful to say the least.
The New Coaches in New Places
Illinois, Maryland and Rutgers all have new head coaches and all three turned to defensive-minded coaches to try to turn around the fortunes of their struggling programs. All three also need to make a statement in Week 1 of play.
Rutgers clearly has the toughest go of it in the opening week, with a trip to one of the Pac-12’s preseason favorites — the Washington Huskies. While a win may not be in the offing, being competitive and showing some defensive pride would be a welcome sight to the coaching staff and fans alike.
Maryland and Illinois take on FCS foes, so a win is likely in the offing. However, it will be important to see the tone that has been set on the heels of camp. Falling flat or struggling for victory would not be a good sign for a quick turnaround.
These changing programs have to show that it is positive change, and what better week to establish that strong base for future success than in Week 1, right?
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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