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Preseason Spotlights from Behind Enemy Lines: The Rest of the Big Ten

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Looking at the five other teams in the Big Ten that Michigan will not see this season.

Iowa v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Maize n Brew teamed up with the Big Ten team sites here at SB Nation for a preview of each of the football programs in the conference to help us look ahead to the 2020 season. Our final edition of this series comes in the form of a look at the teams that are not on the Michigan Wolverines schedule for this season from the Big Ten West. However, Michigan could still wind up seeing one of them in the final game of the year in Dec. 19’s crossover game.


Illinois - Champaign Room (Tristen Kissack)

Brief overview of the 2020 Illini

“This will likely be the last time the Illini are ~relevant~ for the foreseeable future. With an upperclassmen-heavy roster and not much depth on the recruiting front the past couple years, the bowl contention window is quickly fading. Illinois is anchored by seniors Brandon Peters, Josh Imatorbhebhe, Jake Hansen, Nate Hobbs, the list goes on. Optimistically, this team will steal one or two it isn’t supposed to — we’re looking at you Wisconsin and Michigan State — and win the one or two it should. The offense will keep the Illini in games this year if running back Mike Epstein can stay healthy or Chase Brown lives up to the hype. On the defensive side of things, I think we’ll see a similar product to what we saw last year. This is really just a Blake Hayes stan account.”

Illinois’ key departures

  • Reggie Corbin, RB, leading rusher
  • Dre Brown, RB, second leading rusher
  • Dele Harding, LB, leading tackler
  • Oluwole Betiku Jr., DE

Illinois’ key returnees

  • Brandon Peters, QB, starter; darkhorse Heisman candidate
  • Josh Imatorbhebhe, WR, leading receiver/TD scorer; have you seen his vertical?!,
  • Almost the entire veteran OL
  • Jake Hansen, MLB, team leader in FF
  • Nate Hobbs, CB, leader of the secondary
  • Blake Hayes, P, best damn punter in the country

True freshmen or transfers that could make an instant impact

  • Luke Ford, TE, former top-50 player in the country/hometown kid
  • Tre’von Riggins, DL, one of the top rated incoming freshmen
  • Brian Hightower, WR, possible no. 3 wide out
  • Anthony Shipton, DL, opportunity for playing time on the line

What’s your team’s biggest strength?

“Can we say special teams? We’re going to go with special teams. If you didn’t know, Blake Hayes is arguably the best punter in the country. Chase McLau— errrr, James McCourt was the hero last October with his game-winning field goal as time expired against No. 6 Wisconsin. He’s also tied for the longest field goal in program history. They’re both led by senior long snapper Ethan Tabel.”

What’s your team’s biggest weakness?

“Losing guys like Oluwole Betiku Jr., Ayo Shogbonyo and Jamal Milan off last year’s defensive line really hurts. There are a couple newcomers that could make some noise. We’ll see what Owen Carney Jr., Jamal Woods, Calvin Avery, and Isaiah Gay can do with more snaps.”

How does your fanbase feel about your coach and his staff?

“At one point last year, a significant portion of Illini Twitter was calling for Lovie’s head. We certainly never did such a thing. The bearded wonder bought himself a couple more years in Champaign after reaching the first bowl in half a decade. The defense looked better than it had earlier in his tenure, and Rod Smith is a good fit at OC. Right now, the jury is still out.”

Who is your team’s MVP this season and why?

“Josh Imatorbhebhe. The USC transfer burst onto the scene last year with nine touchdown catches and over twice as many yards receiving as the next closest receiver. He stepped up to the plate on numerous occasions when the Illini needed to make a play. The offense will rely on him heavily again.”

Predict your team’s record, its best win, and a potential surprise loss

“2-6, Purdue, Minnesota?”

Iowa - Black Heart Gold Pants (Jonah Parker)

Overview of the 2020 Hawkeyes

“This season has all the makings of a stress-induced heart attack for Iowa fans. The offense has more weapons than we’ve seen in a decade and an offensive line that should have at least two All-Big Ten players. But they’ll also be breaking in a new QB and the offense is run by a Ferentz.

“On the defensive side of the ball, Iowa loses one of the best pass rushers they’ve had under Ferentz and lost at least one starter at each position. Iowa fans have blind faith when it comes to Phil Parker and the secondary, but finding a way to generate pressure upfront will be a question mark at least early on.

“At the end of the day, this looks like your stereotypical 8-4/9-3 Iowa team that beats someone they shouldn’t and stubs their toe a time or maybe two. On an abbreviated 8-game schedule without the FCS and MAC matchups early on, that’s likely to translate to a 5-3/6-2 record depending on a few key matchups.”

Iowa’s key departures

  • Nate Stanley, QB
  • Tristan Wirfs, OT
  • AJ Epenesa, DE
  • Geno Stone, S
  • Michael Ojemudia, CB
  • Kristian Welch, LB

Iowa’s key returnees

  • Ihmir Smith-Marsette, WR and KR
  • Brandon Smith, WR
  • Tyrone Tracy, WR
  • Sam LaPorta, TE
  • Alaric Jackson, OT
  • Tyler Linderbaum, C
  • Tyler Goodson, RB
  • Chauncey Golston, DE
  • Daviyon Nixon, DT
  • Matt Hankins, CB
  • Dane Belton, S
  • Djimon Colbert, LB
  • Nick Niemann, LB

True freshmen or transfers that could make an instant impact

  • Coy Cronk, OT transfer from Indiana
  • Jack Heflin, DT transfer from Northern Illinois
  • Matt Lorbeck, DE transfer from Northern Illinois
  • Elijah Yelverton, 4-star TE
  • Luke Lachey, 3-star TE

What’s your team’s biggest strength?

“This is the best set of skill position players the Hawkeyes have had in over a decade. Ihmir Smith-Marsette is a game breaker in all facets (as he proved against USC in the Holiday Bowl) while Brandon Smith is a prototypical possession receiver and Tyrone Tracy is somewhere in between. The Hawkeyes bring back ALL receiving options from a year ago but add in a pair of highly-touted freshmen TEs to add to the mix. Add to that year two of the Tyler Goodson experience and first-year starter Spencer Petras has all the weapons a young QB could hope to have in an Iowa offense.”

What’s your team’s biggest weakness?

“The biggest question mark entering the year is where the edge pressure will come from. AJ Epenesa was a disruptive force but needs replaced. Chauncey Golston has played alongside Epenesa for two seasons and had success, but now he’ll need to elevate his game if Iowa wants to have a top tier defense again in 2020.”

How does your fanbase feel about your coach and his staff?

“In general, the fanbase is OK with Kirk Ferentz and his staff, though certainly not enthused. The offseason drama surrounding racial inequality within the strength program caught many fans off guard given the strong relationship between Ferentz and Chris Doyle and the foundation which the program has been built upon. However, all signs have pointed to the surfacing of the issues as being a very good thing for the direction of the program with players feeling more included, closer together, and ready to move forward as one unit.”

Who is your team’s MVP this season and why?

“This team is likely to live and die by Spencer Petras. As noted, the line and the weapons are there. If he delivers, this will be a good team that competes for the division title. If he falters, the season is likely to head south and there won’t be an MVP worth talking about.”

Predict your team’s record, its best win, and a potential surprise loss

“Prediction: 6-2; Best Win: Wisconsin; Surprise Loss: Purdue”

Nebraska - Corn Nation (Jon Johnston)

Overview of the 2020 Huskers

“I don’t see this year as being as much about athleticism as about will. Who lead the fight to bring back Big Ten football? Nebraska. Nebraska wants to play this season more than anyone else besides Ohio State. That will go a lot further than most people think. It takes will to win. Nebraska has that will.

“As a team, a group of athletes, Nebraska still needs to get more depth and a few more playmakers.”

Nebraska’s key departures

  • JD Spielman, top receiver - transferred to TCU
  • Mohamed Barry – ILB – top tackler
  • Lamar Jackson – CB
  • The entire defensive line – Carlos Davis, Khalil Davis, Darrion Daniels

Nebraska’s key returnees

  • Adrian Martinez, quarterback
  • Luke McCaffrey, quarterback – A McCaffrey who will take over if Adrian falters
  • Wan’Dale Robinson, receiver, all-around explosion better than Rondale Moore
  • Cameron Jurgens, center
  • Dedrick Mills, top returning running back

True freshmen or transfers that could make an instant impact

  • Kickers – Nebraska had to rely on a kicker from the soccer club who tried out to finish out the season last year. Any kicker who can kick will win games this season. We brought in about 30 of them.
  • Omar Manning – JUCO Wide Receiver – big bodied, 6’4, 225 lb. Ranked best JUCO receiver in 2019.
  • Blaise Gunnerson, OLB – Nebraska needs OLBs like the country needs a Covid vaccine.
  • A receiver who has a pulse. Wan’Dale Robinson is the only returning receiver, so we will need to find pass catchers!

What’s your team’s biggest strength? *

“Besides will?

“Despite the lack of a proven receiving corps, the offense will rise to be one of the best in the nation. The offensive line is much improved and finally has some depth. The quarterback position has great potential, as do the running backs. “

What’s your team’s biggest weakness?

“The defense needs to find some more playmakers and add some depth. Those pieces are slowing coming together, but they’re not close to being a championship-caliber defense. Hell, they’re not very close to being an average defense, but one can hope.

“We need OLBs’ pretty badly, and we need defensive linemen. A good rush end or OLB would go a long ways to making this lousy defense average.”

How does your fanbase feel about your coach and his staff?

“Everyone who calls themselves a Husker fan knows that Scott Frost is the right head coach for this program. Those that don’t are social media trolls and angry people whom no one loves. They are being hunted down and dealt with as I speak.

“Fans have some problems with the defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. The defense must improve. First, we need better players. If that doesn’t solve the problem, then we’ll need a better defensive coordinator. “

Who is your team’s MVP this season and why?

Adrian Martinez will return to his freshman season form, proving that 2019 was the fluke performance as he rises once again to Heisman hype in 2021.”

Predict your team’s record, its best win, and a potential surprise loss

“A rational person might say 5-3. I am not a rational person. I see us at 8-1 with a lone loss to Ohio State to begin the season. The Buckeyes will annihilate everything in their path as they are the only team comparable to Nebraska with regards to will. The first week will look awful, then my beloved Huskers will bounce back, knocking off Wisconsin, then get some much-needed experience against Northwestern before surprising Penn State in Lincoln. The rest of the season will be more of the same, with predictions all around that Nebraska falls back into the losing column. It won’t happen.

“Everyone expects Nebraska to lose now, so there is no such thing as an unexpected loss.”

What else should we know about your team this year?

“50% of the 155-man roster are freshmen and redshirt freshmen. There is a lot of youth, which is indicative of how badly Nebraska needed to turn over the roster. The Huskers are slowly rebuilding, but I expect them to surprise people this season.

“Did I mention will?”

Northwestern - Inside NU (Eli Karp and Lia Assimakopoulos)

Overview of the 2020 Wildcats

“We (likely) know what we’ll get from the defense, which returns nine starters. Trae Williams and Joe Gaziano represent significant losses, but NU has been here before. With the seniority and familiarity this group has with each other and longtime coach Mike Hankwitz’s scheme, it should be a strong unit that could rank in the top 25 of scoring. Now with their time to shine, defensive ends Alex Miller and Earnest Brown IV will be tasked with generating pressure, something Northwestern has lacked the last couple of years despite fielding solid units. Across from Greg Newsome, the team’s undisputed number one corner, is the secondary’s question mark. Will it be Cam Ruiz, AJ Hampton or someone else who earns the starting slot?

“The offense is another story. After a downright putrid 2019 that led to 12-year offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s departure, much of the core talent remains, and there’s a chance to be competent. And remember, Northwestern has won plenty of games with merely a partially functioning offense before - with this year’s schedule, they could do the same. Quarterback was a nightmare last year following Clayton Thorson’s graduation, and five-star Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson struggled. Indiana grad transfer Peyton Ramsey, who’s track record indicates he can hold his own in the Big Ten, should be the starter under new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. Expect plenty of runs, but it won’t look like the boring, predictable offense of before. The offense will play with tempo and look to keep defenses off balance. The offensive line for once looks like it won’t limit the rest of the unit, even after star left tackle Rashawn Slater opted out of the season. But can the wide receivers get open, and will tight ends factor into the passing game? If the answer is yes to either of those questions, NU could finally play the complementary football its head coach loves to talk about.”

Northwestern’s key departures

  • Rashawn Slater - LT, opted out after the season was originally postponed to the spring, declared for 2021 NFL Draft
  • Jared Thomas - C, graduated
  • Joe Gaziano - DE, graduated, school all-time sack leader, UDFA for the Chargers, now on practice squad

Northwestern’s key returnees

  • Greg Newsome - DB, star DB
  • Kyric McGowan - WR who was used as a running back at times last year, could continue to do so
  • Riley Lees - WR, led team in receiving, needs to step up this year
  • Paddy Fisher - LB, draft-bound linebacker, star defender since arriving on campus but needs a rebound after a mediocre 2019
  • Earnest Brown - DE, major shoes to fill at DE after Gaziano’s departure, battled injury in the past - has good size and talent but needs to show production
  • Travis Whillock & JR Pace - senior starting safety tandem
  • Isaiah Bowser - RB, starting running back, missed most of last year with injuries but burst onto the scene in 2018 as true freshman - bruising, old-school back

True freshmen or transfers that could make an instant impact

  • Peyton Ramsey - grad transfer QB, will likely step into the starting role after grad transfering from Indiana
  • John Raine - grad transfer TE, will fill a major void at TE after grad transferring from FAU
  • Derek Adams - grad transfer P, one of the MAC’s best punters continues NU’s cycle of recruiting grad transfers at the position
  • Peter Skoronski - OL, Northwestern’s highest rated OL recruit in program history - unclear if he’ll play as true frosh, but he could

What’s your team’s biggest strength?

“Defense, specifically its linebackers, has kept the team in close battles even when its offense struggles. The combination of Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher has been consistently reliable and a force to be reckoned with. On numerous occasions last season, the offense barely spent any time on the field but the defense kept things within striking distance. The core of Fisher, Galllagher and Chris Bergin will now be together for three years, so there’s plenty of comfort with one another.”

What’s your team’s biggest weakness?

“Northwestern’s biggest weakness overall is the pass game. It is still uncertain who will play under center and how they will perform, despite having plenty of options. It appears Peyton Ramsey will hold that role but is still uncertain. To make matters worse, the receiving unit struggled greatly last season, and without a real star receiver, it could struggle again in 2020.”

How does your fanbase feel about your coach and his staff?

“Our fan base loves Fitz. As an NU alum, star linebacker and member of the 1995 Rose Bowl team, as well as one of the best coaches in Northwestern history, he has secured a spot in the hearts of all NU fans. Do his mannerisms and lack of change sometimes irk fans? Yes, but his staff is now thought of better after the departure of longtime offensive coordinator Mick McCall, whom many fans did not like. With new OC Mike Bajakian, people are hopeful.”

Who is your team’s MVP this season and why?

“It’s either Ramsey or Fisher, neither of which are surprise choices. If Fisher can regain 2017 or 2018 form, the defense as a whole will elevate and make the impact plays it so lacked last year. Furthermore, he needs a good season to help out his draft stock. With Ramsey, Northwestern literally just needs a guy who is confident in the offense and brings the scoring unit up to average. After last year, fans realized how much they missed Clayton Thorson, even if he was maddening at times. If Ramsey can replicate his production from Indiana, things will be fine in Evanston.”

Predict your team’s record, its best win, and a potential surprise loss

“Let’s say 5-3. NU has a favorable schedule, and this would be a solid bounce back year after going 1-8 in the Big Ten last year. Best win is at Minnesota with a potential surprise loss (are there really any surprises in the Big Ten West?) to Purdue.”

What else should we know about your team this year?

“The kicking game is still very mediocre!Aside from that, the program feels embarrassed from last year and is highly motivated to avoid a repeat of that disaster.”

Purdue - Hammer and Rails (Travis Miller)

Overview of the 2020 Boilermakers

“Purdue was an extremely young team last year and had to play a lot of freshmen because of injuries. I believe at one point freshmen scored something like 17 straight touchdowns. We were also starting freshmen at QB, RB, WR, S, CB, and more. I feel this is a year of maturation. Our 2019 and 2020 recruiting classes were the best they have been in years and they will form a base for what I think is a real breakthrough in 2021.”

Purdue’s key departures

  • Brycen Hopkins - TE drafted by the Rams
  • Markus Bailey - LB, Drafted by the Bengals

Purdue’s key returnees

  • Rondale Moore - Receiver/returner/All-American badass
  • Lorenzo Neal - DT, missed all of last season due to torn ACL
  • David Bell - WR, Freshman All-American
  • Grant Hermanns - LT, 5th year senior and four year starter.

True freshmen or transfers that could make an instant impact

  • Tyler Coyle (UConn transfer safety)
  • Greg Long (OL transfer from UTEP)
  • Gus Hartwig, 4 star offensive lineman from Zionsville, IN
  • DaMarcus Mitchell (LB), JuCo transfer
  • Geovante Howard (CB), JuCo transfer

What’s your team’s biggest strength?

“Wide receiver. We have an embarrassment of riches there. Rondale Moore and David Bell are just the beginning. Purdue can legitimately go 7-8 deep in terms of either experience (fifth year seniors Jared Sparks and Jackson Anthrop) or highly rated talent (freshmen Maliq Carr and Abdur-Rahmaan Yaseen).”

What’s your team’s biggest weakness?

“Offensive line has been an issue the entire Brohm era. They need to be shored up and protect whoever wins the QB derby. Also, doe someone separate themselves from Jack Plummer, Aidan O’Connell, and Austin Burton at QB? If one of those guys does and the line holds up, Purdue can fling the ball all over the field. At that point Rondale would just make the offense absolutely lethal.”

How does your fanbase feel about your coach and his staff?

“Pretty good so far. Brohm has been up and down. He has some great highs like beating the brakes off of Ohio State. He also has had some really curious losses to Rutgers, Eastern Michigan, and Nevada. Five times in the last two years Purdue has lost on the very last snap of the game. That’s a lot of narrow losses where it has just missed an even better record.”

Who is your team’s MVP this season and why?

“David Bell. He and Rondale will absolutely torment Big Ten secondaries.”

Predict your team’s record, its best win, and a potential surprise loss

“I am think 5-3 with a season opening upset of Iowa. Brohm has done very well against the Hawkeyes and Ferentz’s conservative nature does not do well against him. As for curious loss, I will pick Illinois. We played an awful game against them last year and I feel like we should beat them, but are they really getting better under Lovie?”

What else should we know about your team this year?

“I forgot to mention George Karlaftis, another freshman All-American and general terror at defensive end. If anything, I think he will be better in year two as the game slows down for him.”


Thanks to all of the team sites from the Big Ten that chimed in over the last number of weeks. We look forward to doing battle with most of you on the field this fall!