Why: What a difference a year makes in Lincoln. 2015 was an absolute nightmare for the once mighty Cornhuskers, coming off of the firing of perennial 9/10 game winning coach Bo Pelini. Pelini, who was, without doubt, an insufferable twat of a man child, moved on to the greener pastures of Youngstown State, with the Big Red bizarrely selecting 62-year-old Mike Riley of Oregon State as his replacement.
Riley, universally recognized as a “nice guy” during his time in Corvallis and as Head Coach of the San Diego Chargers, rebuilt the Beavers’ football program from utter ruin, like a surgeon “rejuvenating” a vagina post-natural birth of triplets.
Unfortunately, Oregon State never reached the level of success most Cornhuskers envisioned for the Nebraska program, averaging just 6 wins per season over Riley’s final 5 years at the helm.
Fast forward to November and Nebraska is in the midst of its worst season in decades and needs a win against mighty Michigan State to hold out hope of bowl eligibility, lack of which is a cardinal sin for any Nebraska football coach.
In a shocking upset, with a little help from the officiating crew, the Cornhuskers stunned the undefeated Spartans, salvaging a bowl berth and an eventual victory over highly favored UCLA.
The Riley tenure has taken a turn. Returning Senior QB Tommy Armstrong and nine starters on defense, Nebraska is one of the most experienced teams in the nation. Perhaps most importantly, the Big Ten West should be extremely weak this season, with Iowa and Wisconsin taking a major step back from recent success.
The Cornhuskers shock visiting Oregon in Week 3, marking the official beginning of championship speculation in Lincoln. With a lone Big Ten loss in the Horseshoe vs. Ohio State, Nebraska narrowly defeats Iowa in their annual rivalry game, securing a place in the Big Ten Championship. However, like every other team in the West, Nebraska will fall to the East’s champion, which I project to be Michigan.
Why: 2015 was classic Kirk Ferentz. A surprise double-digit win season and near Big Ten Championship that will keep the Iowa staff one of the highest compensated, and mediocre, in the conference. Iowa is a fascinating team for a number of reasons; first, they recruit horribly, having not finished in the consensus top five in their own conference this decade. Perhaps even stranger, aside from four double-digit win seasons, the other thirteen years of Ferentz’s Iowa career have averaged just a tad over six wins per season. Bizarre.
So, though I am incredibly tempted to predict a signature Ferentz 6-6 year, the schedule is just too damn easy starting with a pathetic out of conference slate featuring Miami (OH) and rival Iowa State (I know this is “protected,” you fucks).
Iowa returns QB CJ Beathard after one of the greatest individual seasons for any Iowa quarterback ever in 2015, eclipsing multiple year starter Jake Rudock and prompting his transfer prior to spring practice. Count me in as a believer in running back Leshun Daniels, a rare mix of speed and power perfectly situated behind the trademark massive offensive line of the Hawkeyes.
If Iowa can get some semblance of consistent linebacker play, and keeps star corner Desmond King healthy, who led the nation in interceptions last year, the Hawkeyes should be the main competition for Nebraska in the West, and a serious threat to derail Michigan’s title hopes in Iowa City.
Iowa starts 7-0 for just the third time in the last quarter century before faltering in the second half of the season with narrow losses at home to Michigan and Nebraska. Iowa’s first loss will come against a desperate Penn State team in Happy Valley, rallying after a terrible start to conference play and for the job of their beloved coach James Franklin (he is very well liked by the players). The Iowa offense is the most prolific of recent history, but a struggle to stop the speed of more athletic offenses dooms the Iowa defense, and title chances.
Why: Again, Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald proves why he is consistently discussed when major Power 5 jobs become available, overachieving immensely with a young Wildcat roster and the strictest academic standards in all of major college football outside of perhaps Palo Alto.
Northwestern returns QB Clayton Thorson, the first freshman to win the QB job during Fitzgerald’s time in Evanston (without injury) and undoubtedly the beneficiary of a full season of experience. People forget the Wildcats quietly won ten games last season, perhaps due to blowout losses to Michigan and Tennessee on national television, but 2015 was an unmitigated success for the upstart Wildcats.
Northwestern returns seventeen starters, the second most in the B1G, eight of which comprise what was one of the best defensive units in the country last season, allowing less than two total touchdowns per game outside of the Michigan and Tennessee debacles.
The schedule is rough, but with a humiliatingly poor out of conference slate, the Wildcats should be 3-0 entering a brutal conference stretch that will test the resolve of the young Wildcats. Fitzgerald can, and will, guide them through the difficulties to another bowl berth.
Northwestern starts 3-0, but loses four of their next five to Ohio State, Michigan State, Nebraska, and in Iowa City. Fitzgerald holds things together with a narrow victory over Indiana, and a four-game winning streak to end the season 8-4, a definite success amidst what may be the most difficult stretch (Duke, Nebraska, at Iowa, at Michigan State, Indiana, at Ohio State, Wisconsin) in recent memory.
Why: We’re getting to the “holy shit, DeVry is going to be mad” portion of the column, but I cannot see a plausible path to seven wins for the Badgers this season. Minnesota returns perhaps the best QB in the conference in three-year starter Mitch Leidner, a projected 1st round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft by most scouts, including ESPN’s Mel Kiper.
Minnesota, unlike Wisconsin, has a relatively easy schedule, with three likely out of conference wins on the slate with Oregon State, Indiana State, and Colorado State (combining for single digit wins against D1-A competition in 2015), and all three matchups at home.
Week 4, the start of conference play, will be huge for the Gophers as they have the incredible luck of drawing Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers from the West division, avoiding MSU, Michigan, and Ohio State. If the Gophers can upend the Nittany Lions in the midst of their rough early season schedule, perhaps looking ahead to a matchup in the Big House the following week, the Gophers could be 8-1 headed to Evanston for a showdown with Northwestern.
Minnesota is young, but experienced at the skill positions and up front. The real question is “what can be expected of the new coaching staff led by HC Tracy Claeys in their first full season without Jerry Kill?” After watching the last minute of the 2015 Michigan game, I’m a little worried for the Minnesota faithful.
Minnesota starts 3-0 but narrowly loses late in Happy Valley. After a home loss to Iowa, Minnesota rebounds with a four-game winning streak against Maryland, Rutgers, Purdue, and Illinois, before limping to the finish line with losses to Northwestern, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. A nice first season for the new staff, but somewhat disappointing given the 2016 loss of Leidner and the schedule.
Why: Jared, don’t fire me — I’m just being honest. Wisconsin is the victim of the worst first nine games I’ve ever seen of any Big Ten team, starting with a week one matchup against national itle contender LSU at Lambeau Field. After easy home victories against Akron and Georgia State, please realize how absolutely horrific this stretch is: at Michigan State, at Michigan, Ohio State, at Iowa, Nebraska, at Northwestern. Ouch.
Still without a starter at quarterback with fall camp just days away, the competition centers around Bart Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook, with most Badgers fans preferring the Freshman over 5th year senior Houston, with the difficult schedule and future development in mind.
Regardless of who wins the job, their main responsibility should be handing the ball to Wisconsin’s stable of running backs headlined by surprise returnee Corey Clement. Clement, who suffered nagging injuries throughout 2015, will hope to regain his explosiveness that got him on the field even in the midst of the historic 2014 season of starter Melvin Gordon.
Wisconsin, however, for the first time in recent memory, is quite young, losing offensive leaders such as multiple year starter Alex Erickson, and all of the 2015 team captains. Coach Paul Chryst, severely hamstrung by salary restrictions, lost star defensive Coordinator Dave Aranda to LSU in the offseason, in a move most supposed experts deemed “the best hiring of the offseason.”
Recruiting at a lower level than his predecessor, the Badgers are a young and marginally talented team with a historically rough schedule and in the midst of a coaching turnover. Disaster in Madison.
The Badgers start 2-7 for the first time since any of us were alive. Yes, 2-7, losing to LSU, MSU, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Northwestern, and Nebraska before winning their final three games. I’m almost tempted to pick 4-8 here, as holding the young Badgers together during the aforementioned nightmare stretch of the schedule will be difficult. Chryst’s seat is warming.
Why: New Coach Lovie Smith inherits a nightmarish roster in his inaugural season, the result of former Coach Tim Beckman’s abrupt firing just a week before the 2015 season opener amidst claims of player abuse, and the profoundly bizarre decision of the Illinois administration to sign former Western Michigan Coach Bill Cubit to a two-year extension mid-season, only to fire him days after the Illini’s final game.
Recruiting is a game of stability and sales, neither of which the past staff could offer to prospective players, and the late hiring of Smith prevented the necessary time to cultivate meaningful relationships with highly rated players. To put some perspective on how difficult the challenge Smith faced truly was, in 2014 Jim Harbaugh failed to close a top 40 overall class after being hired with a similar timeline to that of Smith.
Michigan rebounded on the trail last season, securing a consensus top 5 class, and the new staff at Illinois should do the same to a lesser degree. Smith was a good hire for the flailing program, a recognizable NFL head coach with a sizable resume and ties to the state of Illinois. Lovie will get this thing on track, and has a decent quarterback in returning starter Wes Lunt, but a rough schedule and rampant instability dooms the Illini.
Illinois starts 2-1 out of conference, losing to North Carolina in a shootout. The team plays hard to the finish under their first-year coach, but are overwhelmed by Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State, and Iowa, losing narrowly to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Northwestern. 4-8, but not much more could be expected of Smith in year one.
Why: Darrell Hazell, we hardly knew you. Hazell, who has been nearly fired each of the last two seasons, will finally be ousted from West Lafayette after another disastrous season which sees the Boilermakers win just three total games.
Frankly, it could be even worse. Aside from Big Ten East bottom dweller Rutgers, this is one of the least talented teams in recent memory, a Power 5 member legitimately in danger of losing an out of conference game at home to Nevada, though I think they win narrowly.
The marriage of Hazell and Purdue never really worked out, nor made sense in the first place. Hazell, who served as WR coach for Jim Tressel at Ohio State, had only two years of head coaching experience, making a bowl game with Kent State in 2012, prompting his abrupt hiring by Purdue following the Danny Hope experiment.
Hazell almost immediately clashed with the administration, feeling a minuscule recruiting and assistant compensation package doomed the future of the program. Attempting to reach out nationally for players, the staff never made much of an imprint in states such as Florida and Ohio, filling their classes with an average star ranking less than that of even non-power five members such as Western Michigan.
The Boilermakers again have a tough schedule, and just not enough firepower to keep up.
I would go through it, but this could be a 1-11 season for Purdue. Hazell’s agent should already be working the phones. But it is time for Purdue to make a decision: the Joe Tiller era of Drew Brees and Curtis Painter putting up video game stats is over. To compete with the monsters of your own conference, it is time to open the checkbook and give the next staff an actual opportunity to succeed. I feel terribly for Hazell, by all accounts a respected and kind man, who at no point was given the tools to succeed by the administration he entrusted with his, and his assistants’, careers..
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