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Thursday Morning Brews (3/12/15)

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Twenty Predictions

Winter is dragging on, isn't it? The sun is tantalizing, warming up hearts almost as much as the whispers about improved football teams, or the potential to make big things happen. Something is in the air - whether it's spring baseball or the NFL Draft, college football practices or the countdown to the Kentucky Derby, there's always something about spring.

And when there's absolutely nothing else to do but wait, some predictions and list-making are usually in order. We'll do a little of both.

1. Jeff Jones will win the running back job at Minnesota.

Jones might not be as fast as Berkley Edwards, but he has some body control and change of direction that Edwards lacks. Jones is a more complete, physical back, although Edwards has bulked up to try and compete for those carries.

2. Darrell Hazell will start feeling the hot seat.

The quarterback battle is raging on in West Lafayette, but that isn't the only question that needs answering. Unfortunately for the Boilermakers, Hazell and his staff haven't shown the ability to develop talent in the same way as Kirk Ferentz, Mark Dantonio, or Pat Fitzgerald, and they have entire positions filled with players who need development. They also suffered plenty of injuries a year ago, and need to prove they can

A bump in wins (over the three they had last year) is possible, given that Bowling Green, Indiana State, and Marshall are on the schedule. Plus, there's Indiana, Iowa, and Northwestern. If Hazell can't get four wins in his third year, he has to go.

3. In a transition year, Nebraska goes 8-5.

On offense, Mike Riley has to choose between Tommy Armstrong, a productive but somewhat inaccurate dual-threat quarterback, and Johnny Stanton IV, who closely fits the mold of what Riley does on offense. But the real transition is on defense, where linebacker depth is paper-thin and there are few established returners in the secondary.

4. Iowa loses all of its conference trophy games.

They technically have a fourth, against Iowa State, that looks very winnable. But of all the four, only Minnesota travels to Iowa City next year. For an Iowa team that's struggling to remain competitive at a time when teams can't wait four years to develop players, away games against the top of the West are a bit forboding.

5. Nebraska beats Minnesota, and claims the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy.

In the first year of the trophy's existence, Minnesota introduced it at the game, beat Nebraska and then kept it afterward. Now, with positive press and a Nebraska fan base that's eager to settle in to the Big Ten, a Big Red victory could mean that Mike Riley finds some room for the trophy-turned-Internet-sensation on the bus back home. Then, it would really be official.

6. Michigan will boast two runners who get 800 yards.

With an improving offensive line, and stiff competition, it's likely that multiple tailbacks come ready to play. The staff wants a lead guy to emerge, but production, effort and possibly injuries could force other running backs onto the field.

7. Christian Hackenberg throws for 3,000 yards, then leaves for the NFL.

Penn State has a fleet of great wide receivers, and Hackenberg knows this year will make a big impression on NFL scouts. He'll be ready to play, and James Franklin will be ready to get the ball out of the backfield as quickly as possible. With the diversity of pass catchers available, the pass game simply offers more to an offense that was too often crippled by poor line play.

8. MSU's defensive line becomes the most dominant in the conference.

This has been building for a while. Shilique Calhoun returns, Demetrius Cooper fills in easily for the departed Marcus Rush, and the inside will be even more stout and disruptive next year.

9. Maryland finishes last in the East.

Maryland quietly got ravished by graduation, and Stefon Diggs left early for the NFL Draft. Now, Randy Edsall needs to find answers on both sides of the ball while the other teams around him are improving.

10. Illinois' linebackers start getting some press.

Mason Monheim got some attention for leading the Illini in tackles, but he's actually just part of a unit that's made great strides last year. T.J. Neal has great instincts, and Mike Sventina is ready to break out.

11. Indiana has a pulse.

On defense, they lose some of their better pieces, but this is an offense that's ready to take off and a defensive line with young talent. They may not be in the race for the division crown, but they'll compete.

12. A promising Northwestern season is undone by footwork on the O-Line.

Northwestern is not without talent. Ibraheim Campbell is ranked as one of the top safeties entering this year's draft. Justin Jackson is one of the bright young running backs in the conference. The passing game has intriguing athleticism and promise.

But the offensive line has hampered Fitzgerald's efforts. This group struggled across the board, but they showed potential as pile drivers and run blockers. Against the pass, this group gets exposed. Fitzgerald needs more up front to be able to get the ball to his play-makers, but that might be asking too much. His most agile lineman, center Brandon Vitabile, departs.

13. Rutgers gains respect.

Eventually, with enough 8-win seasons in a row, Rutgers will get noticed. It'll happen this year. Or next.

14. For the second straight year, there are no big OOC wins.

Minnesota takes on TCU, Michigan State faces Oregon, and Wisconsin faces off with Alabama. All of those will be tough games, and pulling out a win in any of them would give the conference a boost. Unfortunately, those may be three of the top five countries in America.

15. Two head coaches are fired.

Whether Kirk Ferentz finally loses his job, or Darrell Hazell fails to right the sinking ship. Whoever it is, there will be Big Ten teams who are looking to poach other conferences after this season is over.

16. OSU's Michael Thomas gets 900 yards.

Ohio State has done a good job of being pretty balanced through the air. In fact, they haven't had a 1,000-yard receiver since 2002. And it won't happen again this year.

17. A Big Ten assistant wins the Broyles Award.

In the second year of the Broyles Award, in 1997, Michigan's Jim Herrmann took home the honors. And until 2013, only one other Big Ten coach ever captured the elusive trophy. Now, with Pat Narduzzi and Tom Herman winning it in back-to-back years, it's time to continue the streak. Michigan's Tim Drevno, Ohio State's Ed Warinner, and Wisconsin's Dave Aranda are likely possibilities.

18. Five running backs get 1,200 yards.

Corey Clement, Jeff Jones, Ezekiel Elliott, Justin Jackson, and Imani Cross are my picks.

19. Wisconsin wins 9-11 games.

Going out on a limb, I know. Wisconsin has won that many in five of the last six years, and through new coaches or new running backs, they just reload.

20. The Big Ten does not win the national title.

But they do improve and sign a few five-star prospects in the 2016 class.

Hitting the Links Needs to Clean

Spring Practice Begins: Offensive UpdatesDefensive Updates

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Jake Rudock Transfering from IowaCould Provide Bridge for Michigan

Developing starters into stars, and stars into superstars, is the name of the game. Harbaugh can do that.

Justin Jackson InjuredBreaking Down Northwestern's O-Line

Quarterback and offensive line are the big questions, but the Wildcats will also need some play-makers on defense if they want to stave off the top teams in the West.

Summary of SEC Quarterback Battles

SEC quarterbacks are something to keep an eye on, and looking around the conference, the options are at least a bit underwhelming. Jacob Coker is a safe bet to play well, along with Georgia's Brice Ramsey and Auburn's Jeremy Johnson. Great quarterbacks help to win bowl games, and the SEC will have a few

Q&A: Shawn Robinson

This five-star quarterback happens to really like Northwestern.

Big Ten Mailbag

Discussing Illinois' chances next year, Nebraska's MVP and how much time Darrell Hazell should have.