Northwestern had an up-and-down season in 2016, losing its first two games to Western Michigan and Illinois State but rebounding to make -- and win -- a bowl game.
The Wildcats dropped off the national radar in some respects after that tough start, which obscured a really big development. That is, the actual development of quarterback Clayton Thorson.
As a redshirt freshman starter, Thorson helped lead the team to 10 wins, but he wasn't asked to do much more than manage the game. As a sophomore, Thorson showed vast improvement in virtually all areas. He more than doubled his passing yards, to 3,182, while throwing 22 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. In Big Ten games, he completed 60.9 percent of his passes with a 17 touchdowns and just six intereceptions.
Thorson has quietly turned into one of the top quarterbacks in the league and one of the more promising young signal-callers in the country. Continuing in our series looking at the to-do list for the Big Ten's top individual returners and some of their key statistics, let's see what Thorson should be working on this spring:
1. Avoiding the rush: This is by no means all on him, but Thorson was sacked 38 times last year, which ranked 118th among FBS quarterbacks. He also fumbled five times while being sacked and completed just 33.6 percent of his throws versus pressure. Of course, the offensive line has to do a better job against the pass rush, and receivers and running backs have to pick up their blocks. Still, as Thorson matures, he should continue to get a better feel for where the pressure is coming from, find safety valves and throw the ball away rather than take a sack when possible.
2. Pick spots in the running game: As long as Justin Jackson is still around, Northwestern won't have to rely on Thorson running the ball. He turned into a very good pocket passer and deep-ball deliverer last year. Yet Thorson has good wheels and showed that off with some big runs as a redshirt freshman, when he had 397 rushing yards. That dipped to just 98 total rushing yards last season, a figure hurt by all of sacks. The Wildcats don't want him to get hurt while running, but the judicious use of scrambles could add an extra layer to the offense.
3. Develop chemistry with new receivers: Much of Thorson's growth was tied into the unexpected star turn by Austin Carr last season. The senior receiver came out of nowhere to become a Biletnikoff Award finalist with 90 catches for 1,247 yards and 12 touchdowns. Carr had an uncanny ability to get open despite defenses geared to stop him, and Thorson completed 68.2 percent of his targets to Carr. But with Carr and second-leading receiver Andrew Scanlan both graduated, that's 42.5 percent of Thorson's 2016 completions gone. This offseason is a key time for Thorson to develop chemistry with guys such as Flynn Nagel, Garrett Dickerson and Oregon transfer Jalen Brown, much like he did last spring and summer with Carr.
Last week on the blog, we took a look at the reasons why several contenders would win the Big Ten title in 2017, including Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. We also examined some sleeper teams.
It was all very optimistic, as things tend to be this time of year. Now it's time to play the role of pessimist. We're here to tell you why your team won't win the Big Ten title in 2017.
The country-pop band Big & Rich will perform before the Scarlet Knights' spring game next month. Sorry, Piscataway. After a dismal 2-10 season, it's going to be a long time before any championships are comin' ... to your city.
Jeff Brohm will make things interesting and exciting in West Lafayette again. Eventually. Bear Bryant couldn't lead this team, which has won two Big Ten games in the past three years, to a title this season.
Hey, this is a program that's won two of the past four league championships, so it wouldn't be a total shock to see the Spartans rebound from 3-9. Except that the program currently is mired in turmoil. There's going to be a very strange vibe around the spring game, which might be the first time we find out officially who's still on the roster while a sexual assault and Title IX investigation swirls. The trend line here is not good.
The Illini have some young talent coming in, but they may be hard pressed to surpass last year's 3-9 mark in Lovie Smith's second year. The two-deep was razor thin this spring, and basically the entire defensive line must be replaced. Things may get worse before they get better in Champaign.
You've got to like the direction of D.J. Durkin's program after he brought in a very solid recruiting class. Again, though, we're talking about 2017, and this team is going to be very young and without a proven quarterback. Plus, there should be a five-year mandatory championship probation for wearing these uniforms.
The Hoosiers have thrown a scare into several of the league's best teams the past couple of years. But it has almost always just been a scare, which is why Tom Allen is using the slogan "Breakthrough" this year. Even if Indiana finds a way to win some more of those close games thanks to an improved defense, it just doesn't have enough talent to get to the top of a loaded East Division.
Crazier things have happened for the boys in purple. Like 1995, for instance. Or actually making -- and winning -- a game in this year's NCAA tournament. The Wildcats will have one of the league's best backfield duos in Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson. Yet they've been just a bit too inconsistent to believe they can make a championship run.
Every day is elite in P.J. Fleck's universe. But with a very young team, no experience at quarterback and a brand new coaching staff, this year could prove mediocre at best. And to win a title, the Golden Gophers need to beat Wisconsin again before we all die.
Maybe this is the year. (Note: I copied and pasted that sentence from every preseason article written about the Cornhuskers since 2002). It's hard to win a championship with four losses , and that's exactly how many games Nebraska has dropped in seven of the eight past years. Where's the top-shelf, All-America-type talent? Will the team show up in the big games away from home?
There's a new starting quarterback and hardly any receivers anybody's heard of. Penn State and Ohio State are among the crossover games (though both are at Kinnick). The Hawkeyes have to go to Wisconsin. There's enough here for Iowa to win eight games and trigger a $500,000 bonus for Kirk Ferentz, but hide your eyes at bowl time.
Eighteen starters are gone -- 18! If anyone besides Urban Meyer can get that much youth up to speed, it's Jim Harbaugh, and his four-hour practices will age anyone quickly. Still, that's an uphill battle. And last time we checked, Ohio State is still on the schedule.
Speaking of the Buckeyes, it's always dumb to bet against them winning the Big Ten. Except that Ohio State has somehow won only won one Big Ten championship in the past six years. Meyer has lost only three league games while in Columbus, but they have come at the most inopportune times. The offense also has to prove it can throw the ball more than a few yards downfield.
The Badgers are like a metronome. You can set your watch to their consistency. They're the West favorites until someone proves otherwise. But can they beat whomever comes out of the East? They lost to Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State last year. The offense always seems to come up a bit short in those huge games. Alex Hornibrook is promising, but he's not Russell Wilson.
The returning experience is outstanding and the Trace McSorley-Saquon Barkley combo is as good as it gets anywhere. Yet the Nittany Lions also caught some breaks last year with their schedule, with how that Ohio State game turned out and the East tiebreaker situation. This year, they have to go to the Horseshoe, not to mention the viper pit known as Kinnick Stadium. Michigan at home will be no picnic. Defending a title is much tougher than coming out of nowhere to win one.
There is nothing more exciting in college football than watching one player change the course of a game in a single play through sheer athleticism and grace. Few can pull off such a feat frequently enough that it becomes almost expected when fans watch him on the field.
Today, the Big Ten crew discusses which player in the league we expect to be the most dynamic and entertaining entering the 2017 season. Take a look:
Jesse Temple: Rutgers' receivers Janarion Grant
Grant's senior season was cut short last year because of a broken right ankle he sustained against Iowa in the Scarlet Knights' fourth game. Even on the play in which he was injured, however, Grant broke loose for a highlight-reel catch, taking a screen 76 yards down to the Iowa 3-yard line. Grant was given a medical redshirt, which means college football fans will have the opportunity to watch him work his magic for another season in 2017. He already has tied the NCAA record for career kick and punt returns for touchdowns with eight. In only 14 quarters of play a year ago, he tallied 210 receiving yards, 138 rushing yards and three touchdowns on the ground. He is so versatile that, against New Mexico last season, he returned a punt 69 yards for a touchdown and threw a 21-yard touchdown pass. Grant was back in action for Rutgers during the team's first spring practice last week, which is great news for the Scarlet Knights, who have one of the top playmakers in the Big Ten, if not the country.
Austin Ward: Ohio State's running back Demario McCall
There was no reason to rush the true freshman into action last season with the Buckeyes, both because McCall could use the time to put more weight on his 5-foot-9 frame and Curtis Samuel didn't need much help in the H-back role. But Urban Meyer still couldn't resist putting him on the field at times, and those glimpses at McCall's dynamic athleticism suggest that filling the void left by Samuel's early departure to the NFL might be easier than expected. McCall touched the football 53 times on offense during his debut season, racking up 354 yards and four touchdowns. He also had a cameo on special teams by returning three punts, and odds are McCall's involvement is about to skyrocket with Meyer looking to unleash that versatility any way he can this fall.
Dan Murphy: Penn State QB Trace McSorley
He may not be the most exciting athlete on this list, but Trace McSorley's bombs-away approach to running the Nittany Lions' high-scoring offense made them as fun to watch as any team in the Big Ten during the final stretch of the 2016 season. The mixture of his fearless attitude, versatility with the ball in his hands and a very distracting backfield mate in Saquon Barkley should create a recipe for more fireworks in 2017. Here's hoping the coaching staff loosens the reins even more in his second year running Joe Moorhead's attack.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- No matter how impressive the résumé is already, there are undoubtedly improvements to be made.
J.T. Barrett is the first to admit that he has areas of his game that need to be addressed during spring practice. But like the Ohio State offense as a whole, it's important to note that the veteran quarterback isn't broken.
The Buckeyes scored points in bunches -- with one notable exception, in the College Football Playoff. And Barrett has now accounted for 100 touchdowns in his career for a program that wouldn't have even been in contention for the national title without his presence at the most important spot on the field.
But what can he do to take another step forward and end his run with Ohio State with a championship? In the first in our series looking at the to-do list for the Big Ten's top individual returners and some of their key statistics, let's begin with a player who's already among the most decorated performers the Big Ten has ever seen.
What's J.T. Barrett working on this spring?
The deep ball: The inconsistencies that hampered the Buckeyes at times -- and the collapse against Clemson -- were a collective effort, and Barrett was often low on the list of problems. The offensive line struggled to protect him, the receivers had issues with their routes and dropped a few too many passes, and even the coaching staff put Barrett in tight spots with the playcalling. Nevertheless, the spotlight always winds up on the quarterback, and it's no secret that Barrett is being asked every day in spring camp to help stretch the field better. Arm strength has never been one of his best attributes, but ranking just No. 76 in the nation with 29 completions of 20 yards or more isn't going to cut it for Urban Meyer. During open portions of practice, new quarterbacks coach Ryan Day has been emphasizing those deep throws and finding new ways to teach how they should be delivered. If the young receivers can get to the right spots this fall, expect Barrett to be able to find them.
Touch and accuracy: Barrett's completion percentage dropped for the second consecutive season, finishing last year at 61.5 percent. That was still good enough to finish in the top half of quarterbacks nationally, but it's well below the level Meyer would like from his passers. Ideally, Barrett would be around the 65 percent mark he posted as a freshman, if not even better than that, and that's where Day comes in with those new drills. The process starts with fine-tuning the footwork in the pocket, and Day has added some obstacles during drills that otherwise don't include defenders to stress where and how some passes need to be thrown. In one drill during open periods, Ohio State has rolled out a net in front of a downfield target that snags attempts that aren't thrown with the proper arc, just one example of Day trying to squeeze more accuracy out of Barrett.
Chemistry: Leadership isn't a problem for the program's first three-time captain, and his speeches are already the stuff of legend at Ohio State. So this might be the easy part for Barrett as he tries to get on the same page with his wideouts, start incorporating new pieces like versatile Demario McCall into the attack and help center Billy Price bring along an offensive line trying to cut down on the 28 sacks allowed last season. Ordinarily, Ohio State might be inclined to take it easy with a guy who has played and won as many games as Barrett has and take a closer look at the backup quarterback options with an eye on the future. But with new coordinator Kevin Wilson taking over to put his mark on the offense and Barrett trying to take strides after realizing there wasn't much NFL interest in him after last season, there's no time for him to relax.
That's all well and good, but who would have guessed at this time a year ago that Penn State would win the league championship in 2016? Maybe there will be another sleeper team that rises up and surprises everyone this fall.
With that in mind, here are reasons why some teams outside of our list of four contenders could win the Big Ten title this year.
It was just two seasons ago that the Hawkeyes were 12-0 in the regular season and finished a yard short of winning the Big Ten championship game. They return a solid nucleus and solid leaders on both sides of the ball in linebacker Josey Jewell and running back Akrum Wadley. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz should reshape the offense into one that plays to its strengths. Iowa will have a first-year starting quarterback, Nathan Stanley, but as head coach Kirk Ferentz pointed out, first-year starters like C.J. Beathard and Ricky Stanzi fared pretty well in the past.
Hey, the Cornhuskers have to win another conference title sooner or later, right? Their three most likely challengers in the West Division -- Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern -- all have to come to Lincoln this season. Mike Riley has had some time to bring in his kind of players, including at quarterback. Nebraska should be as talented as any team in the West, and if it can just find a way to get over the hump in its biggest games, a trip to Indianapolis is certainly within reach.
OK, so things seem to be kind of a mess in East Lansing right now. But let's not forget this is a program that has won two of the past four Big Ten championships. It's going to be some seriously tough sledding in the East Division, but the Spartans have surprised us before. Of course, it would be nice if we even knew who was on the team right now or whether Mark Dantonio will speak publicly before the season starts.
Plenty of experience is back on offense, led by last year's Big Ten rushing champ, Justin Jackson, and junior quarterback Clayton Thorson. Northwestern won 10 games two years ago and had some nice wins last season at Iowa and over Pitt in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. The Wildcats' 2017 Big Ten opener is at Wisconsin. If they can find a way to pull off that upset, they could find themselves in the thick of the division race.
Row the dang boat. The Golden Gophers have come close the past couple years, and maybe first-year head coach P.J. Fleck's enthusiasm and new offense will help push them past the finish line. The roster has some holes, but the schedule is manageable early. It's not unthinkable that Minnesota could be 7-0 heading into the Floyd game in Iowa City. Crazier things have happened ... just look at last year.
Michigan gets a late start Friday to what will be a busy and important spring season for coach Jim Harbaugh and his team. The Wolverines, coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons, will set about trying to take the next step toward bringing a championship to Ann Arbor.
The unusually late start date was designed to keep a steady schedule leading up to the team’s spring finale: a week of practice in Rome. After going to Florida in February 2016, Harbaugh decided to go international with this year's off-site practices. He has plans to take the team to South Africa, Japan and Israel in future years. This is another major wrinkle the third-year head coach has introduced at Michigan, many of which have baffled or angered other college football coaches and administrators.
Harbaugh's innovations have made a lot of noise, and his coaching has helped shove Michigan back into the conference and national conversation quickly. His third season, though, should provide a test to see how far the program has come and whether his unorthodox methods are worthy of the attention they receive. Is Michigan, which must replace about two-thirds of a starting lineup that was loaded with NFL talent in 2016, already in the "reload" category or will 2017 require more time for the next wave of players to develop?
Spring schedule: Michigan starts practice Friday on the same day it hosts NFL coaches, executives and scouts for its annual pro day. The Wolverines will practice 12 times in the next three-plus weeks, including a scrimmage open to the public at Michigan Stadium on April 15. They'll take a brief hiatus before finishing with three practices at the AC Roma soccer club facilities starting on April 27.
What's new? Two coaches joined the staff this offseason. Former NFL offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton replaced Jedd Fisch as the passing-game coordinator. Hamilton and some others on the Michigan staff worked together at Stanford, where Hamilton coached receivers and quarterbacks. The offensive line will also get an extra set of eyes with Greg Frey joining the staff as the tackles/tight ends coach and run-game coordinator. Frey, who was on Rich Rodriguez's staff at Michigan as offensive line coach, was a Broyles Award nominee for his work on Indiana's offensive line during the last six years. He'll help offensive coordinator Tim Drevno develop a group that needs to replace three starters in 2017.
Three things we want to see:
1. There isn't likely to be a depth chart released, but there will be plenty of tea-leaf interpreting of the many position battles this spring. There are at least two spots on the offensive line up for grabs, a lot of contenders to replace all four starters in the secondary and a couple interesting decisions to make at linebacker. There will likely be several running backs -- now coached by Jay Harbaugh -- who will get chances on the field this fall, but spring will be an important time for players such as Kareem Walker, Chris Evans and Ty Isaac to start defining roles.
2. Eleven freshmen enrolled in January, and several of them will factor in position battles. All eyes will be on five-star receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones from Detroit. He ran the team's fastest 40 time in winter conditioning and tested well in other combine-type measurements. Others who stand to gain from showing up early include offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz, who could play himself into the rotation; Ambry Thomas, who will battle for reps at two vacant cornerback spots; and Tarik Black, who could join Peoples-Jones as a rookie making an impact in the passing game next fall.
3. Who will be the new voices to step up and take control of the team? The outgoing seniors not only had NFL talent, but they also were a deep and experienced group that Harbaugh has credited with leading a culture change. Spring will be an important time for Michigan to identify and develop its next group of leaders with the right combination of on-field credibility and a willingness to speak up. Quarterback Wilton Speight is in a natural leadership position and has the confident disposition needed to keep a young, talented offense grounded. On defense, linebacker Mike McCray might have to stretch out of his comfort zone to lead along with upperclassmen on the defensive line, such as Chase Winovich and Mo Hurst.
Spring practice is still in its early stages at several Big Ten schools, but it’s never too early to preview the 2017 conference race. This week, we’re breaking down the top contenders by looking at the top five factors that could make them champions by the time December rolls around.
Up next are the defending Big Ten West champions, who came oh-so-close to capturing the league title this past season: the Wisconsin Badgers.
1. They can control the clock against anybody: The Badgers demonstrated last season how dominant they can be in the time-of-possession battle. They had the ball for an average of 34 minutes, 58 seconds per game, which led the FBS. Wisconsin returns four starting offensive linemen and has a stable of players ready to contribute on the line, which will help open up holes for running backs and give quarterback Alex Hornibrook plenty of time to throw. Equally impressive is all the talent coming back on defense, which can force three-and-outs and quickly get off the field. Wisconsin will be able to wear down many opponents by controlling time of possession.
2. The defense will be loaded again: There's no question it hurts to lose outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton was a four-year starter, and safety Leo Musso was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2016. Still, that leaves seven returning starters for a defense that ranked No. 7 nationally in total defense and No. 4 in scoring defense. Wisconsin returns its entire starting defensive line, with ends Chikwe Obasih and Conor Sheehy, as well as nose tackle Olive Sagapolu. There are four inside linebackers who could start for just about any team in the Big Ten: Jack Cichy, T.J. Edwards, Chris Orr and Ryan Connelly. In the secondary, D'Cota Dixon and Derrick Tindal bring a veteran presence, and Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson is slated to fill Shelton's role. Plus, new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is one of the brightest young minds in the college game. If nothing else, the defense will provide Wisconsin with a chance in every game.
3. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook will be even better: Not many redshirt freshmen earn an opportunity to play at Wisconsin, let alone start. But Hornibrook was mature beyond his years when he arrived on campus and wound up starting nine games last year. Of course, he spent much of the season splitting reps with Bart Houston, which made it more difficult to simply cut loose during games. Hornibrook completed 58.6 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. With Houston gone, coaches named Hornibrook the unquestioned starter before spring practice even began this year. He'll have a proven receiving target with Jazz Peavy and a solid tight end in Troy Fumagalli, which is a good place to start. Those two combined for 90 catches and seven touchdowns last season. It's not a stretch to suggest Hornibrook could make one of the biggest leaps in production among Big Ten quarterbacks this season. Don't forget the jump former Badgers quarterback Joel Stave made from his freshman to sophomore year. Stave threw six touchdown passes as a redshirt freshman and 22 the following season, which is the most by a sophomore quarterback in Wisconsin history.
4. A more favorable path to the Big Ten championship game: Before Wisconsin can have a chance to win the conference, the Badgers first must win the West. Much was made last season of the supremely difficult early Big Ten schedule for Wisconsin, which played at Michigan State, at Michigan and home against Ohio State to open the conference slate. The Badgers began 1-2 before rallying to win their final six regular-season games to reach the Big Ten championship game. This season, Wisconsin faces a tough road game at Nebraska on Oct. 7 and plays host to Michigan on Nov. 18. Playing Iowa in Camp Randall Stadium and at Minnesota in the regular-season finale could be potential roadblocks as well. But the rest of the schedule seems manageable, with the other crossover games coming against East Division foes Maryland and Indiana, and another 7-2 conference record could be enough to capture the West. Wisconsin demonstrated last season that it could play with any of the major powers in the East, losing by one touchdown apiece to Michigan, Ohio State and, finally, Penn State in the Big Ten championship. The Badgers would love nothing more than another crack at the title this time around.
5. Paul Chryst: When athletic director Barry Alvarez hired Chryst in December 2014 as Wisconsin's coach, it wasn't the splashiest move in college football. But Alvarez knew he was getting someone whose consistent approach and understanding of the program made him the perfect fit. In his first two years in charge, Chryst has validated why he was the right man for the job. He is 21-6 overall, 13-4 in the Big Ten and has wins in the National Funding Holiday Bowl and Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. But what makes Chryst so good is that he won't spend one second thinking about his accomplishments as he prepares for the 2017 season. His football acumen is impressive, and he has surrounded himself with smart assistant coaches whom he trusts. He has quietly become one of the top coaches in the Big Ten, if not the country. And his meticulous work each week means no team will be more prepared for the grind of a potential championship season than Wisconsin.
There was never any indication the rebuild at Rutgers was going to be easy for Chris Ash. But the first season still had to be an eye-opener for him and the Scarlet Knights.
Taking much of what he learned at Ohio State and applying it to his program overhaul at Rutgers didn’t produce much success in Year One. And the blowout defeats against the Big Ten’s best and the winless record overall in the conference offered a clear reminder of just how sizable the challenge is for Ash.
But including everything from installing his defense to changing offseason conditioning workouts and adapting new social-media strategies, getting through the first year was crucial in laying the foundation for the Scarlet Knights -- no matter how difficult it might have been.
Now all the pieces should be in place to start showing progress. And spring camp is the perfect place to start.
Spring schedule: The Scarlet Knights hit the field for the first of 15 scheduled workouts on Thursday. They’ll work throughout the next four weeks leading up to the annual Scarlet-White Game on April 22 at 5 p.m.
What’s new: The revolving door on the offensive coordinator’s office continues to spin, but Rutgers is planning on establishing some long overdue stability by bringing in Jerry Kill to lead the attack. The former Minnesota coach seems to be in good health again, and he already has proven he can help lead a turnaround of a Big Ten program. Kill is inheriting a unit that ranked last in the conference in scoring a year ago, averaging less than 16 points per game for former coordinator Drew Mehringer and his spread attack. Kill has been known to experiment and show flexibility with his personnel, so what exactly he can cook up with the Scarlet Knights could be fascinating to watch in the spring.
Three things we want to see:
1. A clear starter emerge at quarterback: The first step for Kill in reshaping the offense will be figuring out who should run it, a question that isn’t exactly new for Rutgers recently. Giovanni Rescigno showed some occasional glimpses that suggest he has the potential to be a productive triggerman for the Scarlet Knights, and he’s likely going to enter camp as the leader to win the job. But Kill may see something he likes in Zach Allen or Tylin Oden that could shuffle up the depth chart again. And there’s always a chance Rutgers could revisit all of this again in the fall when Johnathan Lewis arrives -- unless somebody definitely steps forward to run the show.
2. Defensive growth: Ash rose to prominence by arriving at Ohio State tasked with revamping a defense in disarray and helping turn it into a championship-level unit within a year. That sort of instant success obviously wasn’t realistic with the talent on hand at Rutgers, but giving up more than 37 points per game still will sting a coach with the pride, track record and competitiveness of Ash. There were always going to be growing pains for a team that had four true freshmen see action at times defensively, with two of them starting games for the Scarlet Knights. That early experience could pay dividends, though, and Rutgers should be in better position now to turn the corner on that side of the ball with a strong spring.
3. A healthy Janarion Grant: There’s no need to rush him back to full participation this spring, but simply seeing the dynamic weapon back on the field could provide a jolt for the Scarlet Knights and a boost of optimism heading into the summer. Before breaking his ankle last year, Grant had established himself not just as the most dangerous threat on the roster for Rutgers, but also one of the top playmakers in the Big Ten as both a wide receiver and returner on special teams. How crucial is Grant to Rutgers? He still finished third on the team in all-purpose yardage and tied for the team lead in touchdowns despite playing in just four games. Getting him back in action, even on a limited basis, would be an encouraging sign.
Most of the Big Ten is hard at work by this time in March, trying to find a way to dethrone Penn State and win a conference title next December. It might be nine months away, but we’re taking a look this week at some of the top title contenders in 2017 and the reasons they have a legitimate shot to be making confetti snow angels in Indianapolis next winter.
Up next is Michigan, which begins its spring practice Friday after a few months to stew over three losses in its final four games by a total of five points. The Wolverines were close in the second year of coach Jim Harbaugh’s tenure in Ann Arbor. Here are five good arguments for the Wolverines taking the next step in Year 3.
1. Speed, speed and more speed. Three strong recruiting classes (including back-to-back finishes as No. 6 in ESPN’s recruiting team rankings) have put the Wolverines in the same conversation as rival Ohio State for the league’s fastest roster top to bottom.
Their quickness shows up all over the field. Young players such as running back Chris Evans and Eddie McDoom showed great bursts last year. They were both beaten by five-star freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones when the team tested the 40-yard dash (the rookie ran it in 4.41 seconds) earlier this month. Two defensive ends -- Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich -- ran the 40 in 4.7 or faster. And while all four starters have to be replaced in the secondary, last year’s standouts consistently said the next wave of players are more impressive athletes than they were at the same stage of their careers. Getting faster helped the entire Big Ten restore its reputation in the past half-decade, and it will be a key piece if Michigan is to restore its place as a regular Big Ten champ.
2. Experience at quarterback. Michigan loses a staggering 17 starters in 2017, but they return players at center and quarerback, where it counts most -- Mason Cole and Wilton Speight. Speight, a rising redshirt junior, established himself as a cool-under-pressure conductor of Harbaugh’s offense last year. This season, surrounded by young talent, the offense and maybe the entire team will be his to lead. Speight appears to have the steady confidence that can help a group that might be unsure of itself go about its business. The top three contenders in the East Division this season all return impressive quarterbacks, which should make for some very entertaining matchups.
3. The Harbaugh effect. The Wolverines repeated at 10-3 in Harbaugh's second season, but the continued progress was obvious to anyone watching closely in 2016. He has reshaped the program in his first two years, and, given his long track record, there is no reason to believe he won’t continue to push his team forward. For a guy who is reportedly competitive enough to strong-arm his niece to win a family pickup basketball game, losing leads in the final minute of two games and another on a controversial call in double-overtime aren’t likely to lead to a leisurely offseason.
4. Defensive coordinator Don Brown has produced with less. Brown had a stable of future NFL players at his disposal during his first season in Ann Arbor. He used them to finish No. 1 nationally in passing yards allowed and third-down defense as well as No. 2 in scoring defense and total defense. Let’s not forget, though, that Brown produced similar results at Boston College the previous year without the same level of pro talent. Most of Michigan’s starters are gone, but there is still more potential there – including possible Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Gary -- than Brown ever had with Boston College when he was shutting down the ACC’s best offenses.
5. Ohio State is a home game. The biggest roadblock between Michigan and a Big Ten title comes on the final week of the regular season against Ohio State. Yes, the Wolverines also have to go to Happy Valley and find a way to slow down Penn State's Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley -- an equally difficult challenge. But the competitive nature of the East Division makes it reasonable to assume the divisional winner might not be decided until the final weekend of play.
Last year’s version of The Game could not have been decided with a slimmer margin. Michigan came within an inch of stopping Ohio State on a fourth down in overtime that would have ended the game. Many in maize and blue, including Harbaugh, say they got the stop. Home-field advantage might not amount to too much in this rivalry, but perhaps a friendly crowd is the last little push Michigan will need to snap its five-game losing streak to the Buckeyes.
Iowa finished last season 8-5 overall with an Outback Bowl loss to Florida. Considering the Hawkeyes began the year with visions of repeating as Big Ten West champions and competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff, many will view the campaign as at least a moderate letdown.
But hope springs eternal this time of year, and the past is history. With Iowa set to begin spring practice this week, the Hawkeyes will take their first steps to getting back into the Big Ten West driver's seat. Here's a look at what we can expect from Iowa with the spring season on the horizon.
Spring schedule: Iowa opens spring practice Wednesday and will hold its first Friday night spring game on April 21. The scrimmage is slated to begin at either 8 or 9 p.m. ET. The Hawkeyes also are scheduled to conduct an open practice at Valley Stadium in Des Moines on Friday, April 7, with a youth clinic to follow the practice.
What's new: All sorts of changes took place on Iowa's coaching staff this offseason. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis retired after spending the last five seasons with the Hawkeyes. Head coach Kirk Ferentz did not retain running backs coach Chris White and receivers coach Bobby Kennedy. Brian Ferentz earned a promotion from offensive line coach to offensive coordinator, as well as running backs coach, and he'll have his work cut out for him to revive what was a stagnant Iowa offense last season. Former North Dakota State offensive coordinator Tim Polasek takes over as Iowa's offensive line coach, while new Hawkeyes receivers coach Kelton Copeland comes from Northern Illinois. The other coaching change involves someone with which Iowa fans should have plenty of familiarity. Ken O'Keefe returns to Iowa to serve as the team's quarterbacks coach. O'Keefe spent 13 seasons at Iowa as Ferentz's first offensive coordinator from 1999-2011 and then worked five seasons with the Miami Dolphins.
Three things we want to see:
1. How well does Nathan Stanley take to being the next starting quarterback?
Stanley, a sophomore, begins spring practice atop the depth chart as the replacement for C.J. Beathard. His ascension last fall came quickly, when he leapfrogged Tyler Wiegers and Drew Cook to become the Hawkeyes' backup. Last season, Stanley completed five of nine passes for 62 yards and looked impressive in limited duty against North Dakota State. But it's one thing to be a little-used backup and another thing entirely to be the guy in Iowa City. Stanley certainly will be given the necessary reps this spring to feel comfortable in his role. And Iowa will need him to help improve a passing offense that ranked 13th in the Big Ten last season.
2. How does the rest of Iowa's offense come together?
Four offensive coaches are in different roles this season at Iowa, three of whom weren't in Iowa City a year ago. Brian Ferentz has a huge task in front of him after spending the last five seasons as Iowa's offensive line coach. The Hawkeyes should continue to have a strong rushing attack given tailback Akrum Wadley's decision to return for his senior season, coupled with what ought to be a stellar offensive line. But Iowa threw for 153.2 passing yards per game last season, and the Hawkeyes need to identify some receivers to help increase that output. Top receiver Matt VandeBerg reportedly aggravated a foot injury and will not participate in spring ball, and Jay Scheel ended his career because of injuries. Jerminic Smith is the only returning wide receiver other than VandeBerg to have caught double-digit passes a year ago. Devonte Young is a name to watch at receiver this season.
3. How will Iowa's new starting cornerbacks perform?
Desmond King was a once-in-a-generation talent who was so good that teams rarely wanted to throw his way during his senior season last year. King still tied for the team lead with three interceptions and finished fifth with 58 tackles. Greg Mabin added 37 tackles and provided an experienced complement to King at cornerback. Now, both players are gone, and Iowa must move on. The pre-spring starters are listed as Michael Ojemudia and Manny Rugamba, with Joshua Jackson and Cedric Boswell in backup spots. Ojemudia played in 13 games last season and recorded five tackles. Rugamba had 19 tackles and two interceptions but missed the Outback Bowl with a shoulder injury. He'll be just a sophomore in 2017 and should develop into a standout player for the Hawkeyes. The cornerbacks will be a major key to an Iowa team that ranked fifth in the Big Ten in pass defense a year ago.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- First he was the guy without a clearly defined position.
Then he was the guy trying to replace Darron Lee.
At some point, maybe Chris Worley will finally get to stop answering questions about position changes and the shoes he’s trying to fill. But it won’t be this spring for Worley, who heads into his senior season and once again is essentially restarting what has become an annual process of making his own name with the Buckeyes.
So exactly who is Chris Worley? Whoever Ohio State needs him to be -- and himself.
“Nobody wants to be constantly sort of talked about by being compared with another guy,” Worley said. “Guys want to come in and make a name for themselves. But, you know, that’s not how the world works.
“My job is to go on the football field and perform at the highest level in college football. Whether that’s replacing Darron or replacing Raekwon, at the end of the day those two guys were considered at the top of college football at their positions. It’s up to me to live up to that name, and I have no problem with that at all.”
Worley has already done it once, filling in seamlessly for Lee after Lee was taken by the New York Jets in the first round of the NFL draft last year. And after racking up 70 tackles with an interception, a forced fumble and 4.5 tackles for loss as an outside linebacker, Worley now has a new standard to match with the Buckeyes moving him to the middle to replace another early entrant to the draft in McMillan.
Worley is still quick to point to a spirited competition with Lee in 2014 that stretched through training camp and into the first week of the season, before Lee pulled ahead and became one of the nation’s breakout defensive stars. And battling for so long with a future first-rounder only added to Worley’s overflowing confidence, even when he was coming off the bench. It offered him some evidence that he was already close to that level as a linebacker after starting his career at Ohio State as a hybrid who could have also played in the secondary.
The challenge this spring certainly isn’t identical, because he was playing alongside McMillan a year ago instead of serving as an understudy to him. But once again, Worley in some ways will be trying to escape the shadow of a predecessor.
“We lost what I think is a man’s man in Raekwon McMillan,” defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “Just a really fine football player and a smart football player. We needed to make sure that we could try to replace him with a guy who has that kind of presence about him.
“Chris Worley, he’s just a really, really smart football player. He’s a guy that I think understands the game at a very high level. ... I’m really impressed by him.”
That football knowledge will be particularly useful as Worley becomes the Ohio State defense's new quarterback. Schiano is trusting Worley to get everybody lined up, know each assignment in the playbook and provide leadership on the field. On top of that, Worley obviously still has to play at a high level in the heart of the defense.
Through three practices, the Buckeyes are expecting he’ll be able to do that without dramatically changing his body from its current 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame.
“When you think of Chris Worley, some say his weight may not be big enough to move over there,” new linebackers coach Billy Davis said. “I think with all the spread offenses you face, he has all the size to play in there at [middle linebacker], especially in the college game.
“He’s a great leader in there, he’s very vocal, everybody follows him, he knows what he’s doing, so he’s a great quarterback for us. ... Not everybody can do that. Chris is outstanding at that.”
There is still a long way to go in spring practice to know exactly how much Worley might thrive in that role. Even after the Buckeyes wrap up camp next month and head into the offseason, Worley is well aware that he’ll continue to be asked about the guy who played in the middle before him.
That, of course, will be nothing new for Worley. And it hasn’t slowed him down any in the past.
“When you play at a place like Ohio State, that’s going to happen,” Worley said. “You might hear guys say, ‘Well, I’m not trying to be Darron or J.T. [Barrett] or Cardale [Jones] or Braxton [Miller].’ But at the end of the day, you better try to be that. Those guys have ripped college football apart. Why wouldn’t you want to be that?
“You have to know the expectation and try to live up to it or surpass it, but you also can’t count another man’s blessings and miss your own. That was my whole take on last year, and it will be even this year. Of course I’m trying to play better than Darron, or play better than how Raekwon did last year, but I’ve been blessed with a certain skill set as well.”
Those skills have already proved invaluable for the Buckeyes.
At some point down the road, they’ve raised the bar for whoever has to try to be the next Chris Worley.
Every team has question marks when it enters spring practice, but Penn State might have fewer than just about any team in the Big Ten.
As head coach James Franklin mentioned at his spring preview news conference on Tuesday, the defending Big Ten champions return 99 percent of their rushing yards, 73 percent of their receiving yards, 72 percent of their tackles and 64 percent of their tackles for loss from last year's Rose Bowl squad. And they've got two Heisman Trophy candidates in running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley.
The biggest challenge for Franklin may be making sure his team stays humble, hungry and hard working.
"Now you take all those things, and you combine them with the experience that we gained, I think you've got a chance to do something special," he said.
Here's a look at what to expect from the Nittany Lions this spring:
Spring schedule: Practice begins on Wednesday morning. The annual Blue-White game will be held on April 22 at 3 p.m. ET inside Beaver Stadium.
What's new: Not all that much. Franklin was able to keep his coaching staff intact despite last year's success. Sixteen starters are back, making Penn State suddenly one of the most experienced teams in the Big Ten. There will be plenty of new faces this spring, however, as veterans like Barkley, linebacker Jason Cabinda, safety Marcus Allen, tight end Mike Gesicki and others will have limited reps as young players get a chance to step forward.
Three things we want to see:
1. A new go-to wide receiver emerging: Chris Godwin's decision to enter the NFL draft leaves the offense in search of a true No. 1 wideout. Luckily, there are plenty of candidates.
Saeed Blacknall is a veteran who's had big moments but has lacked consistency. Could he be ready to truly break out?
"We expect him to have a huge spring and a huge offseason and go and have a monster year this year and stay healthy," Franklin said.
2. What does the center position look like?: At long last, Penn State now has depth and talent on the offensive line, especially as young players who redshirted continue to develop. The big question there this spring is who replaces Brian Gaia at the all-important center spot.
Franklin said he would start spring by moving guard Connor McGovern over. Ryan Bates is another candidate, as well as Zach Simpson. If one player excels in the role quickly, it will simplify the other roles and allow the unit to build solid chemistry.
3. New pass-rushers: Last year's starting defensive ends, Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan, are both gone. So, too, is linebacker Brandon Bell. They took with them 16 of the team's 40 sacks a year ago. Everyone's eager to see redshirt Shane Simmons this spring, as well as classmates Daniel Joseph and Shaka Toney. Torrence Brown and Shareef Miller played a lot as backups last year. Defensive line has been a strength in State College the last few years, and if the young guys are ready, the Nittany Lions might not miss a beat here again in 2017.
Spring isn’t necessarily a time to deliver a finished product. But this time of year is crucial for setting up a team for success in the fall -- and some programs have more work to do than others.
Who stands to benefit the most from these workouts heading into the summer offseason in the Big Ten? Our conference reporters break it down, roundtable style.
Brian Bennett: Minnesota
After the player-led boycott last December, the wave of suspensions and the firing of coach Tracy Claeys, it's an important camp for Minnesota and few teams have as much to accomplish this spring as the Golden Gophers. They’ve got a new head coach in P.J. Fleck and an entirely new staff. There’s a wide-open quarterback race with no proven veterans on the roster. This is going to be a young team, one that’s led by running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Fleck’s personality and schemes represent a major change. It’s a fascinating story to watch, and spring is more important than it usually is in the Twin Cities.
Dan Murphy: Michigan
The Wolverines have to begin filling 17 openings in the starting lineup this spring. Some spots are fairly easy to figure out but will need to use the next month to get comfortable in a new role. Others (like the safeties, receivers and one or two offensive line positions, for example) are wide open competitions. Spring practice will go a long way in determining an offseason pecking order at those spots.
It's also a big month for quarterback Wilton Speight. If Michigan is going to contend for championships in 2017, Speight will have to take ownership of the offense (which loses seven seniors) and team as a whole. He can start asserting himself this spring as the guy his teammates can trust to pull them out of tight spots. After losing three of their last four games in dramatic fashion, head coach Jim Harbaugh and his players shouldn't have any problem finding motivation to get a lot accomplished in March and April.
Jesse Temple: Purdue
Boilermakers fans are hungry for a reversal of fortunes, and optimism abounds with new Purdue coach Jeff Brohm in charge. His first spring in West Lafayette will be essential as he begins to put the building blocks in place for a potential turnaround. Purdue ranked 11th in the Big Ten last season in scoring offense (24.6 points per game) and last in scoring defense (38.3 points). Brohm, who came from Western Kentucky, helped the Hilltoppers lead the FBS in scoring offense at 45.5 points per game last season. His up-tempo style could benefit Purdue quarterback David Blough, who has a ton of talent and led the Big Ten in passing offense last season. Brohm needs to find enough receivers to help out Blough, and the offensive line must improve to create more of a running game. That doesn't address defensive issues, particularly on the line and in the secondary. Brohm has much work to do and only 15 practices this spring to sort things out.
Austin Ward: Rutgers
Considering the situation Chris Ash inherited a year ago and the brutal division in which he’s trying to make up ground, it wouldn’t have been fair to expect significant improvements during his debut season with the Scarlet Knights. With the roster still in rebuilding mode and the Big Ten’s East Division only getting stronger, expectations should perhaps still remain relatively low heading into 2017. But the second season is generally a time to show progress and is critically important in solidifying the foundation of a coach’s program, which makes this a significant spring for Ash.
After showing flashes of productivity leading the offense last season, this spring could be a chance for Giovanni Rescigno to stake a solid claim to the quarterback job and build some momentum in new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill’s offense. That position is always under the spotlight, but perhaps even more than most programs, Rutgers needs to find a reliable answer there soon.
Spring practice is still in its early stages at several Big Ten schools, but it’s never too early to preview the conference race. This week, we’re breaking down the top contenders with the top-five factors that could make them champions by the time December rolls around.
Speaking of champions, we're taking a look at the defending champs today: the Penn State Nittany Lions.
1. They have the best player in the league: Saquon Barkley is a beast. There's no better word for it. He was the Big Ten's offensive player of the year, he shredded USC's defense in the Rose Bowl and he ran a hand-timed, sub 4.4 40-yard dash in winter workouts. He accumulated nearly 1,900 total yards last season with 22 total touchdowns, and with two years of experience under his belt, he should be even better in 2017. Barkley is a serious Heisman Trophy candidate, and he's the type of player who can drag his team to a title.
2. They might also have the best quarterback in the league: Going into last season, and even deep into it, there wasn't much debate that Ohio State's J.T. Barrett was the Big Ten's top quarterback. But Trace McSorley had a better season than Barrett. So much so that the league awarding Barrett its quarterback of the year trophy now looks pretty silly. McSorley threw for 3,614 yards and 29 touchdowns, with only eight interceptions. He got better as the season went along and was at his best in the Big Ten championship game, when he destroyed Wisconsin's elite defense for 384 passing yards and four scores. With Barkley and McSorley in the same backfield, running Joe Moorhead's high-paced offense, this will continue to be a pick-your-poison situation for opposing defenses.
3. The talent is getting better: It's still pretty amazing what James Franklin and his staff were able to do last season with such a young roster, as Penn State finally began to emerge out of the sanctions era. The kicker is that not only are several key players back, but the young ones who are coming in might be even more talented. Franklin has recruited very well, and former problem areas like the offensive line are rounding into legitimate upper-tier Big Ten units. This is illustrated by the team's testing during winter conditioning. Strength coach Dwight Galt told reporters recently that the Lions had two players run in the 4.4 second range in the 40 back in 2014. Now they have five players, including Barkley, in the 4.3s. Other benchmarks like, well, the bench press are the highest they've been in years as well. The weight room isn't the same as the football field, but this program is assembling more and more high-level athletes.
4. Experienced secondary: Penn State's defense has some question marks up front. But the back end boasts plenty of experience. Three starters return, including the underrated Marcus Allen at safety and cornerbacks John Reid and Grant Haley. One of the safety spots is up for grabs this spring, but Troy Apke played in every game as a backup last season. Division rivals Ohio State and Michigan will be basically starting from scratch with their defensive backs in 2017, though they have a lot of talent to work with.
5. Hunger: The Nittany Lions accomplished an awful lot in 2016, but they also fell just short enough of their ultimate goals to still be hungry for more this fall. They didn't make the College Football Playoff despite winning a stacked Big Ten and beating the league's playoff representative, Ohio State. They squandered a lead in Pasadena and lost a heartbreaker in the Rose Bowl. They will be eager for revenge against rival Pitt and to avenge last year's blowout at Michigan when the Wolverines come to Beaver Stadium. Combine the talent, experience and hunger, and you've got a recipe for a possible repeat.
Spring practice has barely started in some cases, and in a couple of Big Ten spots, the pads haven’t been put on at all yet.
But it’s never too early to forecast what should be another fascinating, competitive conference race this season. This week, we’re breaking down the top contenders with the top-five factors that could make them champions by the time December rolls around.
Up first: The league’s representative in the College Football Playoff last year, the Ohio State Buckeyes.
1. The talent level: No coach in the Big Ten has recruited as well during as many years as Urban Meyer. And now entering his sixth season with the Buckeyes, his machine is fully operational, keeping the pipeline flowing with elite talent at every position. But what could make Ohio State even more dangerous this season is that Meyer won’t be trying to plug in so many first-time starters the way he did a year ago, with no shortage of experienced veterans returning from a team that exceeded many expectations by growing up quickly last season on the way to the College Football Playoff.
2. J.T. Barrett is back: Among all those battle-tested, proven winners returning to the starting lineup is the most productive quarterback in Ohio State history. Any records that Barrett hasn’t broken yet will likely fall soon, and those that he already has might be put out of reach for any future successors at the most important position on the field. The redshirt senior had issues at times last season with his accuracy and footwork, but he was relatively low on the list of offensive problems for a team that struggled to protect the passer, didn’t reach its potential at wide receiver and was overly conservative calling plays. Quite simply, the Buckeyes wouldn’t have been in the College Football Playoff without him -- and he’s more than capable of taking them back there again.
3. Kevin Wilson has arrived: The Buckeyes are quick to point out that their offense isn’t broken after putting up more than 39 points per game last year. But the humbling shutout loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl exposed some significant problems with the passing attack that could no longer wait to be addressed. That inconsistency had shown up previously, and while there’s plenty of blame to go around, Meyer’s major move to upgrade the attack was to bring in former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson after he resigned from his post there last year. Wilson worked wonders with the Hoosiers and had the league’s highest-scoring offense two seasons ago -- edging the Buckeyes despite a clear difference in personnel. Giving him a full complement of weapons could be deadly for opposing defenses.
4. The defensive front seven is loaded: For all the conversations about Ohio State’s offense this offseason, there’s a good chance it won’t take that many points to win games thanks to the stingy Silver Bullets on the other side of the ball. Despite the loss of middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, the Buckeyes will have returning starters at every other spot in the front seven -- including a ridiculous surplus on the line. With Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes all deciding to stick around for another season, plus Nick Bosa heading into his sophomore campaign, Ohio State’s biggest problem might be finding playing time for all of its ferocious pass-rushers. And the Buckeyes may have found a ready-made solution for replacing McMillan, sliding Chris Worley inside and then filling his spot by sliding in another former starter in Dante Booker as he returns from injury.
5. Urban Meyer: When it comes down to it, the Buckeyes figure to always be in contention every year as long as Meyer remains in Columbus. The team he inherited lost seven games in 2011 -- and he has lost only six times during the last five seasons combined. Meyer has shown he isn’t afraid to shake things up to get results, and changes are coming for the second time in his tenure thanks to Clemson revealing a flaw in his system. The last time was after the 2013 season when the Tigers picked apart a crumbling defense. Meyer responded by hiring Chris Ash to revamp the pass defense, and the Buckeyes won a national title the next year. This time, it’s the offense that must improve after the goose egg in the semifinal, and Meyer will be expecting a very successful season again this fall.