Wild, Wild West
'Tis the season for football predictions. On the one hand, football season tends to rip early expectations apart, but on the other, people like me would rather seem sane when predicting a resurgent, 13-0 Purdue beats Alabama and the Miami Dolphins in the College Football Playoff.
When Stewart Mandel and Bruce Feldman came out with their Big Ten picks for FOX Sports earlier this month, they erred on the safe side. Both said Ohio State at 12-0, Michigan State at 11-1, Penn State and Michigan leading the rest of the East. Mandel, in particular, threw his hands up in the air when it came to the Big Ten West. He picked a pair of teams at 4-8, three all at 7-5, one at 8-4, and one at 9-3, only two wins separating every team except bottom-feeders Illinois and Purdue. Bruce Feldman had something remarkably similar.
But, part of the fun of doing this in the first place is going out on a limb, and yet also doing it with some sound reasoning behind it. So, the following season predictions are going to be a little bit riskier - but they will also have some hopefully sound reasons why things may turn out that way. Of course, they may not come true, but then again, football is not exactly kind to the safe predictions, either.
* Minnesota Golden Gophers: 9-3 (6-2)
Every year. Every year, Minnesota loses some key players, and sports writers spend their time commending Jerry Kill for a really impressive season, and then explaining why he won't be able to do it again. Well, not me. Not this time.
I'm on board. Even though the Gophers lose two terrific talents in David Cobb and Maxx Williams - who fit into Matt Limegrover's offense and did their jobs exceptionally well - I'm expecting the factory up in Minneapolis that produces NFL talent out of three-star players will be able to do something with Berkley Edwards, Rodrick Williams, and their young receiver talent (including four-star Jeff Jones). This offense is getting faster, and combined with its already established physicality, the Gophers are going to be a handful for most teams.
And on defense, athletic freak (and former two-star player, by the way) Damien Wilson will no longer patrol the middle linebacker spot. Instead, the fourth-round pick will be playing for the Dallas Cowboys. The good news, though, for Minnesota is they have DeVondre Campbell, an established front four, and one of the best, most physical, most tenacious secondaries in the Big Ten.
* Wisconsin Badgers: 8-4 (5-3)
Players tend to follow a familiar growth trajectory. With time, they improve - and sometimes dramatically if they put in the work during an off-season.
With coaches, the growth trajectories are a little more complicated, but sometimes they follow that same trajectory. Nick Saban took what he learned at Michigan State to LSU, and won a title. That morphed into an NFL opportunity, and his time at Alabama has proven to be the pinnacle of his personal growth as a coach. For Les Miles, LSU has been a much better fit than Oklahoma State. For Mark Dantonio, his time at MSU (and the last few years, especially) have been a departure from what he was able to do at Cincinnati. There are many other examples.
This trend is often interrupted, though, by assistant changes or program fits or schemes. Mike Leach has not replicated what he did at Texas Tech at Washington State, partly because his Air Raid was so revolutionary that everyone copied bits of it. (Also, recruiting.) Mack Brown got complacent at Texas. Rich Rodriguez worked much better with Jeff Casteel. Mike Gundy worked much better with Joe Wickline. Coaches sometimes get better as they age, but the why, when, and how can be complicated.
I'm bringing this up, of course, because of Paul Chryst. The 49-year old former offensive coordinator underwhelmed a little in his time at Pitt, but we are told (and very reasonably) that it was a learning experience. Certainly, Wisconsin is a good fit for the former Badgers quarterback, and more than that, it's a good fit right now, with their struggles in the passing game holding the offense back. The move is made even better by the fact that Dave Aranda was retained. But I'll be curious to see how seamlessly the transition goes, and how much of an asset Chryst is right away. At this point, he's a little bit of an unknown.
* Nebraska Cornhuskers: 8-4 (4-4)
The upside: Tommy Armstrong is one of the better QB's in the conference, there's talent at the skill positions and some potentially great play-makers at every level of the defense. The downside: that defense has depth issues and holes, Tommy still has a ways to go to prove himself as a pure quarterback (can he avoid turnovers?), and the offensive line is not very good. Oh, and they need to find a pass rush without Randy Gregory.
If Mike Riley's staff is stellar on the defensive side, and the Huskers aren't burned with injuries, then this is potentially a complete team. The offense, at least, will probably hum. But there are a whole lot of questions with the roster, not to mention any issues from the coaching change. For what it's worth, John Papuchis was not a well regarded defensive coordinator, but how will Mark Banker adjust from the air-it-out Pac-12 to the Big Ten?
* Northwestern Wildcats: 7-5 (4-4)
I've been critical of certain parts of Pat Fitzgerald's coaching before, and those issues might come up again down the road. But probably not in 2015, which sees a roster built to Fitz's coaching talents and a pretty intriguing defense.
After Trevor Siemian led the Wildcats in 2014, this year's offense might see the return of quarterback platoons, possibly led by a talented redshirt freshman in Clayton Thorson. Justin Jackson will have a chance to build on a fantastic freshman season in which he got 1,187 yards, and there could also be a surprise option or two at the wideout position.
Defense, though, will be the strong suit. Northwestern boasts some fast corners, really physical and athletic safeties, a great middle linebacker in Anthony Walker, and a solid defensive line. This group won't be completely impenetrable, but they will stand up to a lot of tests. Combined with a flawed but multi-sided offense, the Wildcats should win some games - and be close in a few more.
* Purdue Boilermakers: 6-6 (4-4)
It's impossible, right? It's Purdue - the team we've all grown accustomed to making fun of. But somebody in the Big Ten West has to win, and I'm not sure it's going to be Illinois or Iowa. Northwestern has flown a little under the radar, but I doubt they have the horses to break out in a major way. And, Nebraska might not have the back seven to be a division contender (though of all these predictions, that might prove to be the most horribly wrong). But if none of those teams dominate the division slate, then there are wins on the table for the Boilermakers.
Purdue has improved slowly and steadily over the last two years, and Darrell Hazell has shown a nice touch in developing the defense out of spare parts. The offense has pretty serious work to do, with two star running backs leaving and a young, shaky quarterback under center. But between wide receiver Danny Anthrop, running backs Keyante Green and D.J. Knox, and, yes, quarterback Austin Appleby, there is a chance to craft something functional - spare parts, maybe, but enough to be an effective Big Ten offense.
If this was the Pac-12 South or the Big Ten East, I'd say good luck. But there are a couple out-of-conference wins Purdue could grab, and they will play their most winnable Big Ten matchups at the end of the year, when Purdue could be at its strongest: Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa, and Indiana. If Purdue can get physical enough, and recreate some of the magic that produced close matchups against Michigan State and Minnesota last year, this might be a team that's ready to make a statement.
* Iowa Hawkeyes: 5-7 (3-5)
The secondary is good. Drew Ott is pretty awesome, and Kirk Ferentz has a long-earned reputation for building up linemen. C.J. Beathard is exciting, and there are a couple pass-catchers (Tevaun Smith, Jake Duzey) and tailbacks (LeShun Daniels, Jordan Canzeri) who could be nicely productive.
But this team is not really athletic, they're not deep .... anywhere, really, and the coaches haven't shown the ability to put their individual successes (great linebackers in 2013! Great defensive line in 2014!) together. Beathard is a genuine star, a play-maker who could do some great things, but what else is there? Linebacker? Defensive tackle? Can they fix the glaring holes in their interior offensive line, and replace their tackles? Maybe. Maybe Ferentz does have a few more tricks up his sleeve, but if he does this time, it will feel a little bit miraculous.
* Illinois Fighting Illini: 5-7 (2-6)
The offense is run on a few key guys, like Wes Lunt, Josh Ferguson, and Mikey Dudek, one of whom has already suffered a big injury. Behind those elite play-makers, there's not a lot of depth, and that could get exposed pretty quickly. The tailback position is exciting, but did the offensive line (which was built to grade roads, but lacks the strength) put in the time during the summer? How motivated was this team on common goals, in an off-season that featured division and scandal? And are they ready for an encore to last year's surprise 6-7 breakout?
Hitting the Links Arm-Wrestled Megatron
And let the boxing match begin.
If it turns out to be true, I will give full credit to SI, which was the one to start floating the idea. Certainly, all the coaches are well-respected (Chris Petersen! Rich Rodriguez! Todd Graham! Steve Sarkisian! David Shaw! Mike Leach! Kyle Whittingham!), and one truism is not to bet against the really, really (really) good coaches, who always find a way to make their rosters work. Call me a skeptic, though, until I see some more defensive depth and play-making.
Let me talk up Penn State's center Angelo Mangiro a little bit. James Franklin's back-up plan, if their JUCO left tackle doesn't play well, is to take their redshirt sophomore right tackle (who struggled last year, but showed promise) and move him to left tackle, and take their center and put him at right tackle. Mangiro is a bull on the inside against defensive linemen, but he is also surprisingly quick for an interior player. Guys like Mangiro (or Mason Cole) simply don't come around very often.
Congrats to Perry, is about all I've got. It'll be interesting to watch this unfold and watch them play.
In some other quarterback battle news, Oklahoma named Baker Mayfield its starter against Akron. Mayfield transferred from Texas Tech, after throwing for 2,315 yards and 12 touchdowns as a frosh in 2013.
This is a follow-up to a really adorable question asked to Jim Harbaugh.
Before last year's win, Minnesota had lost 39 of its last 42 meetings with Michigan, dating back to 1968.
When he says he can play linebacker, I believe him. The guy does not look like a defensive tackle.
Not a big deal, but interesting behind-the-scenes stuff.
Williams was already surprisingly quick for a 250-pounder; I had not known he lost that much weight over the summer. This helps explain Jeff Jones' move outside, because Williams will probably be a very good option as David Cobb's replacement.
Rutgers' offense should be good. Kyle Flood has said he will announce a starting quarterback soon, after initially promising to do it in the first seven to ten days of camp but then holding off. Both Chris Laviano and Hayden Rettig have played well.
A quote from this piece made me want to make a poster of Anthony Thomas or Mike Hart and put it on my wall: "In the ACC, teams liked to run. In the Big Ten, they are committed to it."
For Thursday: We'll talk in some depth about the Baylor scandal, and go back in time for some old highlights - some mind bleach, if you will.