Big Ten: Michigan State Spartans
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.
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.
It's March, and it's championship week, so basketball and brackets have taken over the sports world.
That also has us thinking about which Big Ten basketball players might be able to make the transition to football. It's not unheard of. All-Pro tight ends Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez each played college basketball. Late last month, LSU power forward Brian Bridgewater said he'd like to join the Tigers football team in the fall.
With that in mind, here's a starting five and a sixth man from the world of Big Ten basketball hoops who would be fun to see on the gridiron:
Purdue's Caleb Swanigan: The Big Ten's no-doubt player of the year and Wooden Award candidate is a beast in the paint and likely would be in the trenches, too. He's listed at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds after dropping more than 100 pounds since eighth grade. Think Jeff Brohm would like to see the man they call "Biggie" at left tackle or perhaps stuffing runs as a nose guard?
Iowa's Ahmad Wagner: The 6-foot-7 sophomore had interest from Big Ten schools as a football player out of Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio. He even received a football scholarship offer from Kentucky after hauling in 58 catches for 1,082 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior. He played with Wisconsin reserve guard D'Mitrik Trice, who was a star quarterback at Wayne.
Michigan State's Miles Bridges: If anybody could make a Gates/Gonzalez-type transition to tight end, it might well be Bridges. With great footwork and balance for a 6-foot-7, 230-pounder, Bridges would be a nightmare for opposing defenders to cover. And since Tom Izzo is known to use football pads in practice, maybe the new sport wouldn't seem so unfamiliar for the Spartans freshman.
Maryland's Melo Trimble: At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Trimble could make an interesting wide receiver for D.J. Durkin's squad. Or maybe a safety. Doesn't really matter what position he plays. Trimble is a gamer who's unafraid of big moments, which is why he'd likely succeed in football as well.
Indiana's OG Anunoby: He's currently out with a torn ACL, but the Hoosiers' 6-foot-8 forward is one of the most explosive players in college basketball when healthy. Can't you just see him rushing the passer as a terrifying defensive end? It's not that outlandish, given the bloodlines. Anunoby's older brother, Chigbo, is a defensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns.
Northwestern's Nathan Taphorn: Hey, if he can make that perfect 90-foot pass for the game-winning layup against Michigan, then maybe the 6-foot-7 Taphorn could be a backup to Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson. Even Thorson had difficulty recreating Taphorn's throw.
With spring practice gearing up throughout much of the Big Ten, it's time to bring back the mailbag. You can send in questions any time via Twitter or by emailing me at ESPNBigTenMailbag@gmail.com.
— Benny (@FLBuckeye14) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Good question, if a bit early. We should have a better sense of these teams once they get through spring ball. But allow me to make a couple of way-too-early calls, which are subject to change.
Most improved? I think you have to go with Michigan State. Even though the offseason has had its share of difficulties for the Spartans, it's simply too hard for me to imagine this program going 3-9 again. Mark Dantonio's team probably still won't be good enough to seriously contend in the East Division, but 7-to-8 wins is totally in reach.
As for digressing (good word choice by you), I'll go with Minnesota. The schedule is still manageable early on for new head coach P.J. Fleck. But given the personnel losses, the uncertainty at quarterback, the turmoil around the program and the transition to a new staff, I find it unreasonable to expect another nine-win campaign out of the Golden Gophers. This is more likely a team that will have to scrap for a bowl bid.
@BennettESPN what are the most interesting out of conference games?
— Slotter (@Slotter) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Well, the big ones are well known. Michigan vs. Florida in Arlington, Texas, on opening weekend. Oklahoma at Ohio State and Nebraska at Oregon in Week 2. Michigan State hosting Notre Dame on Sept. 23.
A couple of other lesser-heralded ones I like: Wisconsin at BYU in Week 3 -- not quite LSU at Lambeau, but it's an intriguing road trip nonetheless. Maryland at Texas and new coach Tom Herman in the opener. Penn State vs. Pitt, naturally. Purdue vs. Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and Jeff Brohm's alma mater, Louisville, in Indianapolis in Week 1.
The nonconference schedule maybe doesn't look as glamorous in 2017 as it did in the summer of 2016, but there are still some very interesting games on tap.
— Ben Weinberg (@bweiny) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Well, you're already eliminating Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State from the East and Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska from the West with your parameters. I think we can agree Rutgers, Purdue and Illinois aren't particularly close to winning a division, and Indiana and Maryland have the deck stacked against them in the East. So that leaves only Michigan, Northwestern and Minnesota. As I wrote earlier, I think the Golden Gophers are in for some rebuilding. So yeah, the Wolverines and Wildcats are your best bets to be the next teams to break through and get to Indianapolis.
John A. emails: Do you see Alex Hornibrook taking a step forward for a Wisconsin team that is just a QB away from a special season? And if he does take that step, how do you see their season panning out?
Brian Bennett: I do think you'll see Hornibrook take a step forward. He showed good poise and made plays as a redshirt freshman in some tough games a year ago, and that can only help his development. The big question is what is Hornibrook's ceiling. Can he be a star at quarterback, or is he destined to be a solid game manager? The Badgers have managed a lot of success with the latter type of signalcaller, so he doesn't have to be Russell Wilson 2.0.
I'm fairly bullish on Hornibrook's potential because of two things: his outstanding makeup, and the tutelage of Paul Chryst. I think you could see Hornibrook develop into a slightly better version of late-career Scott Tolzien, which was pretty darn good.
— YetiHawk (@AlgoHawk) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Well, all right.
Best team offense: Penn State, though Ohio State with Kevin Wilson pulling the levers is fascinating and dangerous.
Best team defense: Ohio State, because of its experienced defensive line. But Michigan and Wisconsin should both be really good defensively, too.
— TODD (@OhHeyItsTodd) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Things certainly can't get much worse, but I don't know how much a recruiting class will help. You're talking about a bunch of extremely young players who'd be outmatched physically in the Big Ten.
There is bound to be improvement, though, and there's no real reason why the Scarlet Knights couldn't compete with teams like Illinois, Purdue, Maryland and Indiana. The bad news is that Washington, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are still on the schedule, plus a trip to Nebraska. Ouch.
With spring practices beginning across the Big Ten, we're taking a look at some of the strengths and weaknesses that could shape the division races in 2017. Earlier this week, we examined the biggest strengths of each team in the East Division. Today, it's time for the weaknesses.
Indiana: Short-yardage offense. The Hoosiers converted only 71.4 percent of their red zone opportunities into scores in 2016 and were 121st nationally in scoring touchdowns inside the opponents' 20. Third-and-short and fourth downs were also a problem. New head coach Tom Allen has made fixing this a priority this spring.
Maryland: Pass protection. The Terrapins were more like turnstiles when it came to keeping defenders off their quarterback in 2016. Maryland surrendered an unconscionable 49 sacks in 13 games, more than all but one team in the FBS. The program is making strides under D.J. Durkin but won't go very far until that number improves substantially.
Michigan: Running the ball against good opponents. The Wolverines' 2016 rushing stats look good on paper. But they piled up a lot of yards against inferior teams. When Michigan absolutely needed to run the ball against outstanding defenses last year, it often stalled. See the 2.5 yards per carry against Florida State, the 2.1 ypc vs. Ohio State and the 2.8 vs. Iowa -- not coincidentally, all losses. The offensive line needs to get stronger in order to stand up against the best defenses on the schedule.
Michigan State: The pass rush. The Spartans managed just 11 total sacks in 12 games a year ago, the fewest of any Power 5 team. And that was with Malik McDowell in the lineup for much of the year. Mark Dantonio turned to playing several freshmen and sophomores on the defensive line late in the season, which could speed their development for this fall. But if Michigan State can't put pressure on the quarterback, the rest of its defense will continue to be ineffective.
Ohio State: The downfield passing game. J.T. Barrett struggled to get the ball to his receivers in the vertical passing game last year, as the Buckeyes averaged just 6.8 yards per pass attempt (88th in the FBS). New offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day were brought in to fix the passing issues, and Barrett will need to build chemistry this spring with a fleet of young wideouts.
Penn State: Third-down conversions. There's not much to complain about from the 2016 Nittany Lions' season, though third downs were strangely troubling for much of the year. Penn State converted just 32.6 percent of its third downs last year and was just 7-of-20 on third downs against Wisconsin and USC. With Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley back, there's no good reason for that to continue in 2017.
Rutgers: Quarterback play. We could go a number of different ways here after the Scarlet Knights' disastrous 2-10 campaign. No unit is blameless. But a lack of playmaking ability behind center was a chief culprit in why Rutgers averaged just 9.9 points per game against Power 5 opponents and was shut out four times. Job one for new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill is to find a quarterback who can move the offense.
With spring practices beginning across the Big Ten, we're taking a look at some of the key players and position groups that could shape the division races in 2017. Today, we'll examine the biggest strengths of each team in each division. Check back Thursday for a look at each team's biggest weakness.
Here's a look at the East:
Indiana: The back seven. Yes, the Hoosiers are best known for their offensive prowess, but their biggest strength might actually lie on the other side of the ball. Tegray Scales is back to lead the linebacker group after finishing with an FBS-best 23.5 tackles for loss last season. Marcelino Ball is also a force as a hybrid defensive back after recording 75 tackles as a true freshman. Throw in returning veterans and head coach Tom Allen's 4-2-5 scheme, and this might be the basis for Indiana's success in 2017.
Maryland: The running backs. The Terrapins quietly finished fourth in the Big Ten in rushing last season at nearly 200 yards per game. The potential is there for more in 2017. Ty Johnson ran for 1,004 yards on an insane 9.1 yards per carry as a sophomore. He'll be rejoined by Lorenzo Harrison, who averaged 7.2 yards per carry in nine games before earning a suspension. Maryland is bursting with big playmakers in the backfield.
Michigan: Quarterback depth. After losing a boatload of valuable seniors and sending 14 players to the NFL combine, the Wolverines have question marks going into the spring. Quarterback isn't really one of them. Wilton Speight played well in his first year as a starter, completing 61.6 percent of his passes and finishing with an 18-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He has a big edge to keep the job, but he also has talented youngsters Brandon Peters and incoming freshman Dylan McCaffrey behind him, along with veteran John O'Korn.
Michigan State: The linebacker group. Despite the loss of leader Riley Bullough, the Spartans should be able to count on this position group as an anchor in 2017. Jon Reschke and Chris Frey have lots of experience, and Andrew Dowell is on the rise. Yet another Bullough brother, Byron, will be pushing for playing time as well.
Ohio State: The pass-rush. Nick Bosa would start for just about any team in the Big Ten, and quite likely in America. But his playing time is in question for the Buckeyes, who bring back starting defensive ends Tyquan Lewis -- the league's defensive lineman of the year in 2016 -- and Sam Hubbard. That's a crazy amount of talent coming off the edge, and it doesn't even include senior Jalyn Holmes or blue-chip signee Chase Young.
Penn State: The offensive backfield. Running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley ranked 1-2 in our list of the top 25 returning Big Ten players last month. So it's kind of a nice advantage to have them in the same backfield, and it makes the Nittany Lions' run-pass option plays even more devastating. Miles Sanders is an excellent backup choice and change-of-pace guy behind Barkley, too.
Rutgers: The kick-return game. So the Scarlet Knights didn't have any discernible strengths during a miserable 2016 campaign, but at least Janarion Grant is back after suffering a season-ending injury early last fall. Assuming he's healthy, he should reclaim his reputation as one of the top return men in the country. He has eight career combined kick and punt return scores, tied for the most in FBS history.
The 2017 season is still several months away. But we never stop looking forward here at the Big Ten blog.
It may be ridiculously early, but we’re examining what will be the must-win game and the potential trap game for each league team this fall. Up next: the Michigan State Spartans.
Must-win game: Sept. 30 vs. Iowa. The Spartans are in need of a bounce-back season and don’t have much time to waste. They open their Big Ten schedule in late September against the Hawkeyes -- another team that dipped (albeit not as dramatically as Michigan State) after playing for a Big Ten title in 2015. Iowa’s visit is one of several swing games that could determine whether last season is viewed as a blip on the radar for a consistent program under Mark Dantonio or a blow that will set it back for several years. Results against the likes of Notre Dame, Indiana and Northwestern could prove to be the difference between a 6-6 record or a return to the upper crust of the conference. Iowa falls in that category, too, and a notable September victory could be important for building confidence for a relatively young team.
Trap game: Nov. 18 vs. Maryland. Coming on the heels of clashes with Penn State and Ohio State, Michigan’s State game against the Terps could be a sneaky test of its depth and consistency. Maryland took a step forward last season under new coach D.J. Durkin and his staff, including a 28-17 win against the out-of-sorts Spartans in late October. Michigan State isn’t in a position to overlook any opponent at this stage, which makes this "trap" feel a little unfair to Maryland. Nonetheless, if Michigan State does make progress in resurrecting its reputation in 2017, a loss to Durkin’s crew could knock them back toward the bottom of the East Division's pecking order.
We knew Michigan was loaded with senior talent last year. The NFL knew it, too.
The Wolverines lead all schools with 14 players invited to this year's NFL combine, the annual prodding and poking of draft hopefuls. The Michigan contingent includes Jabrill Peppers, who declared early, and 13 seniors from last year's Orange Bowl runners-up.
Ohio State was second in the Big Ten with eight invitees, six of whom were underclassmen. Purdue and Rutgers were the only Big Ten schools without a representative.
Here's the full list of all 51 Big Ten players invited to the event, which will be held Feb. 28 through March 6 in Indianapolis:
OG Dan Feeney
DB Desmond King
OG Ben Braden
TE Jake Butt
WR Jehu Chesson
DB Jeremy Clark
WR Amara Darboh
LB Ben Gedeon
DT Ryan Glasgow
CB Jalen Myrick
WR Noah Brown
WR Chris Godwin
LB Vince Biegel
OT Ryan Ramczyk
LB T.J. Watt
With the 2017 recruiting classes in the books and spring practice just around the corner, we're taking a look at how the Big Ten teams stack up at each position group.
It's ridiculously early, so things can change between now and the start of the season. Let's take a look at where things stand for our next position group, the defensive line.
Best of the best: Ohio State
The Buckeyes were hit hard again by early NFL decisions on defense, but not up front.
The returning nucleus is stellar. It includes 2016 Big Ten defensive lineman of the year Tyquan Lewis, who had 7.5 sacks last season; junior defensive end Sam Hubbard, a physical freak; Nick Bosa, who had five sacks as a true freshman; Dre'Mont Jones, who made our All-Big Ten freshman team at defensive tackle; veterans Jalyn Holmes, Tracy Sprinkle and Michael Hill; and promising sophomore Robert Landers. That doesn't include any incoming recruits like Chase Young.
The biggest question for defensive line coach Larry Johnson will be how to get all those guys playing time, especially a young rising star like Bosa. The Buckeyes might lack a truly dominant inside tackle right now, but the depth and skill on hand is otherwise the envy of the league.
Runners-up: Wisconsin and Michigan
Despite fielding some of the best defenses in the country the past few seasons, Badgers defensive linemen rarely get accolades. That's due in large part to the 3-4 system that allows linebackers to make a ton of plays, while the guys up front do most of the dirty work without big numbers. But it would be silly to ignore their contributions, and here's the great news for first-year Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard: all three starting defensive linemen -- Alec James, Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih -- are back. Top reserves Olive Sagapolu and Billy Hirschfeld also return, making this a very experienced group.
The Wolverines lose a lot of talent off their front four, including Taco Charlton, Ryan Glasgow and Chris Wormley. But we're still pretty bullish about their chances in 2017. Returning veterans include Maurice Hurst, Chase Winovich and Bryan Mone. The biggest reason for optimism, though, is the full unleashing of Rashan Gary, the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2016 class who got his feet wet as a true freshman. Add in the arrival of heralded recruit Aubrey Solomon, and this line can rival just about anybody in the Big Ten in terms of pure talent.
Team that could surprise: Northwestern
The Wildcats lost defensive ends C.J. Robbins and Ifeadi Odenigbo, the latter of whom had 10 sacks in 2016. But three other players who started are back, including tackles Jordan Thompson and Tyler Lancaster. There's some good young talent ready to step in, and Pat Fitzgerald scored a recruiting coup with four-star Texas pass-rusher Earnest Brown. It might be asking too much for Brown to have a huge impact as a true freshman, but this group has the pieces to be better than expected.
Teams that need to step it up: Michigan State and Nebraska
Defensive line had long been a strength of the Spartans -- until last season. Even when Malik McDowell was healthy, the '16 group put far too little pressure on opposing passers, finishing with just 11 total sacks. By the end of the season, Mark Dantonio was relying heavily on first- and second-year players up front. This recruiting class didn't bring as much help as expected, especially after one prospect was arrested right before signing day. So Dantonio and his staff will have to hope last season's experience sped up the development of guys like Raequan Williams and Josh King -- and that they stay healthy.
Nebraska has been decidedly average on the defensive line for a couple of years now and was pushed around down the stretch last season. Now, the Huskers will move to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Bob Diaco. Sophomore twins Carlos and Alex Davis form a good building block in the middle. Can Freedom Akinmoladun live up to his potential as a junior and become the outside pass-rushing force the scheme needs? Nebraska will need to step up in the defensive trenches to compete with Wisconsin and Iowa in the Big Ten West.
National signing day has come and gone, which means we can begin to fully evaluate the recruiting haul each team collected. This week on the Big Ten blog, we’re looking at which player or position group has the potential to make an instant impact for each team in 2017.
Up next: Michigan State
Player: TE Matt Dotson
Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati has been sending talented, college-ready players to schools throughout the Midwest for several decades. Tight end Matt Dotson is next in that long line.
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said he expects the 6-foot-5 pass-catcher to hit 250 pounds on the scale before he gets to East Lansing this summer. Dotson, who was ranked as one of the top 20 players in Ohio this past fall, might need time to be a physical force in college but he has the skills to be a threat in the passing game next year.
“I think Matt is a guy that’s going to play very early in his career,” Dantonio told reporters Wednesday. “He’s got toughness, can run and catch. A big target and has a great deal of enthusiasm that goes along with it.”
The Spartans’ depth chart at tight end provides Dotson with a better chance to get on the field as a true freshman -- a rarity at Michigan State until this past year. Josiah Price, the program’s all-time leader in tight end touchdowns, and Jamal Lyles are both out of eligibility. That leaves sophomore Matt Sokol as the only returning tight end who made a catch last season. Early enrollee Jack Camper will have a head start on Dotson to take some of those snaps, but the Moeller graduate’s ability to use his big frame to his advantage may end up helping him have an early impact.
With the 2017 recruiting classes in the books and spring practice just around the corner, we're taking a look at how the Big Ten teams stack up at each position group.
It's ridiculously early, so things can change between now and the start of the season. They surely will for our next position group, receivers and tight ends.
Eight of the top 10 receivers in the league from 2016 have moved on, so the field is wide open for new stars to emerge. Let's take a stab at where things stand:
Best of the best: Penn State
The Nittany Lions' No. 1 wide receiver in 2016 was Chris Godwin (59 catches, 982 yards, 11 touchdowns). He decided to skip his senior year and enter the NFL draft. The depth here is still good, though, especially since we are including tight ends.
DaeSean Hamilton had an up-and-down year and didn't record a catch in the Rose Bowl. He did perform well in the Big Ten championship game and should be a bigger factor as a senior. Saeed Blacknall was suspended for the Rose Bowl but is a good deep threat when available. Irvin Charles has earned a lot of hype around the program for his pure talent and could break through in 2017. Juwan Johnson is in a similar boat as Charles.
What really puts this group over the top, however, is tight end Mike Gesicki. A rare big-time playmaker at his position, Gesicki is a go-to guy for Trace McSorley who is capable of making spectacular catches.
The Hoosiers had three of the top 10 receivers in the league, and only one of them returns. Nick Westbrook had a breakout season with 54 catches for 995 yards, the second-highest total in the Big Ten behind Biletnikoff finalist Austin Carr. He should be joined by Simmie Cobbs Jr., who suffered a season-ending injury in the 2016 opener. Cobbs had 60 catches for 1,035 yards in 2015, averaging 18.1 yards per catch.
There are questions marks beyond those two -- such as, will J-Shun Harris be able to contribute after two straight ACL injuries? But with two tall deep threats in Westbrook and Cobbs, Indiana is ahead of most Big Ten teams in terms of proven performers at wideout. The Hoosiers could use more production out of the tight end spot, however.
Teams that could surprise: Michigan and Michigan State
These two are less potential surprises than teams who could flourish at the position if their youth comes of age.
The Wolverines lost a ton of production with the graduations of receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt. And Grant Perry is currently suspended. But there's also plenty of promise in sophomores Eddie McDoom and Kekoa Crawford, plus the untapped potential of oft-injured Drake Harris. Michigan also had a fantastic recruiting haul led by Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tarik Black. Meanwhile, Ian Bunting has the talent to replace Butt at tight end. A lot of development must take place, but this coaching staff understands how to teach the passing game.
Michigan State had a big freshman class of receivers last year, and Donnie Corley (33 catches, 453 yards) made an impact right out of the gate. Trishton Jackson also got his feet wet, and rising junior Felton Davis III continued to gain experience. Cam Chambers should contribute this year after redshirting, and incoming freshman Hunter Rison -- son of legendary Spartans receiver Andre Rison -- could force his way onto the field. The tight ends are unproven, and there's lots of projection involved here, but Mark Dantonio has good young depth.
Teams that need to step it up: Ohio State and Iowa
It's not often that a Buckeyes position group finds itself in this tier, but Ohio State struggled in the downfield passing game last year. Its top three receivers -- Curtis Samuel, Dontre Wilson and Noah Brown -- are off to the NFL. Ohio State notably went with bigger bodies at receiver in this year's signing class, and young players like K.J. Hill and Binjimen Victor showed flashes last year. Senior Marcus Baugh is a solid tight end who, like most of his predecessors in Columbus, doesn't get targeted enough. Talent isn't the question here, but the production simply must improve.
It's a different story at Iowa, where recruiting at the receiver position has been full of misses in recent years. Matt VandeBerg returns after being granted a medical redshirt, which should be a big boost. But the rest of the group is full of question marks that must be answered. Kind of like most of the Big Ten.
With the 2017 recruiting classes in the books and spring practice just around the corner, we're taking a look at how the Big Ten teams stack up at each position group.
Hey, it's still early February, so things can change a lot between now and Labor Day weekend. Who saw Trace McSorley as arguably the best Big Ten quarterback this time a year ago, after all? Or Austin Carr as the league's top receiver in 2016?
Young players and new faces will no doubt step in and surprise us. So we're basing a lot of this off returning experience. And since it's by position group, depth matters as well as star power.
Let's start with the most important position on the field: quarterback.
Best of the best: Penn State and Ohio State
No real surprises here.
McSorley, as we mentioned, was phenomenal in 2016. He led the league in pass efficiency while throwing for 3,614 yards and 29 touchdowns, with only nine interceptions. He also ran for seven scores, and his ability to keep plays alive was crucial to the Nittany Lions' offensive resurgence. He'll begin the season as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate. Tommy Stevens is still around as his backup, and four-star signee Sean Clifford is on the way.
Sure, J.T. Barrett struggled in the passing game down the stretch for Ohio State. But he's still one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in school history, and working with new assistants Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day should help Barrett rediscover his mojo as a senior. Dwayne Haskins, who redshirted in 2016, has a world of talent, and incoming freshman Tate Martell was the Gatorade national high school player of the year.
Runners-up: Michigan and Northwestern
The Wolverines don't return much experience on offense except for under center. Wilton Speight had a very solid first year as a starter, completing 61.7 percent of his passes with an 18-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He particularly excelled on the deep ball. Speight has a big edge going into the spring, but he'll face some talented competitors in redshirt freshmen Brandon Peters and incoming freshman Dylan McCaffrey. John O'Korn is still around, too, adding serious depth at this spot.
Northwestern's Clayton Thorson quietly put together a 3,000-yard campaign last season, with a 22-to-9 TD-to-INT rate. He needs to improve on his \completion percentage (58.6), but he has good wheels and continues to grow after starting every game as a redshirt freshman and sophomore. He could really blossom in 2017 if he has enough weapons around him at receiver.
Team that could surprise: Purdue
Perhaps surprise isn't the right word, since David Blough did lead the league in passing yards per game last year. Still, he accomplished that mostly on volume and was terribly inefficient, with a Big Ten-worst 21 interceptions.
The good news: He's now playing for a quarterback guru in new head coach Jeff Brohm, who coaxed great things out of his passing attacks at Western Kentucky. Blough has all the talent in the world, and if he can learn to improve his decision-making under Brohm, he could really have a special season. If not, backup Elijah Sindelar is waiting in the wings with his own blue-chip arm.
Teams that need to step it up: Michigan State and Nebraska
The Spartans were decidedly below average in the first year of the post-Connor Cook era and dealt with injuries to boot. Brian Lewerke is the favorite to win the job this spring, and he did show flashes of potential in his brief stint running the show last year. Redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver will try to push him, and Damion Terry is back even if it seems like he has been competing for this job since the Biggie Munn era.
Nebraska barely completed 50 percent of its pass attempts in 2016, and the two quarterbacks who started games -- Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ryker Fyfe -- are both gone. It will be an open competition this spring, though Tulane transfer Tanner Lee has the inside track over Patrick O'Brien. Someone needs to claim the job as his own and improve the Cornhuskers' consistency in the passing attack.
Signing day is over. So it's time for us to update our way-too-early Big Ten Power Rankings for 2017, which debuted Jan. 10.
How did recruiting affect the pecking order? Glad you asked:
1. Ohio State (four first-place votes): The Buckeyes led our first way-too-early power rankings and stay on top after signing a star-studded class ranked No. 2 in the country by ESPN RecruitingNation. The new crop of blue-chippers, especially in the defensive backfield, should offset another wave of early NFL defections. The offense should improve under the direction of former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson.
2. Penn State: Best quarterback-running back duo in the country? It's quite possibly in State College, where Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley return. James Franklin will have a veteran team that could dig down for reinforcements from a recruiting class that finished No. 17.
T-3. Michigan: The Wolverines move up slightly in the power rankings after signing the No. 6 class in the country, which was badly needed given how many valuable seniors are gone. New recruit Aubrey Solomon and last year's recruiting prize Rashan Gary could form a terrifying defensive line duo in the near future.
T-3. Wisconsin: The Badgers' class didn't wow the analysts, but they simply know how to evaluate and develop in Madison. Wisconsin remains the team to beat in the West Division until proven otherwise.
T-5. Nebraska: Mike Riley's staff pulled in the No. 21 class in the country, a much-needed infusion of talent. There will be several position battles to watch this spring in Lincoln, particularly at quarterback.
T-5. Northwestern: How's this for academic appeal: Defensive tackle Joe Spivak chose to walk on for the Wildcats instead of taking scholarship offers at Michigan State and elsewhere. Pat Fitzgerald's team is in great shape in the offensive backfield, with running back Justin Jackson gunning for a fourth-straight 1,000-yard season and quarterback Clayton Thorson coming off a 3,000-yard sophomore campaign.
7. Iowa: Defensive end A.J. Epenesa was the big catch on signing day, but the return of linebacker Josey Jewell and running back Akrum Wadley was even bigger news for the Hawkeyes. New quarterback Nathan Stanley takes over an offense that will be run by Brian Ferentz.
8. Michigan State: The Spartans managed to land a solid class despite last year's 3-9 record. Another bad season could have lasting ramifications, so Mark Dantonio will have to trust that their previous recruiting efforts pay off this year.
9. Indiana: New head coach Tom Allen emphasized size on both lines of scrimmage in this year's recruiting class. Even with Wilson gone, the Hoosiers could have an explosive offense with quarterback Richard Lagow (3,362 passing yards in '16) back behind center.
10. Maryland: The Terrapins exceeded expectations with the No. 20 class in the nation and could look to play a lot of those talented freshman in 2017. There are plenty of athletes here, though the trenches still need work.
11. Minnesota: The Golden Gophers were hit hard by graduation and a scandal that resulted in numerous indefinite suspensions. New head coach P.J. Fleck brings energy, but with little to no experience at quarterback and a whole new system, the transition could be bumpy.
12. Purdue: First-year head coach Jeff Brohm signed five junior college prospects to try to shore up the roster immediately. There are still many holes in the two-deep, especially on defense, but Brohm's offense might be able to outscore a few teams.
13. Illinois: This could be a bridge year in Champaign for Lovie Smith because of depth issues created by all the coaching transition. The Illini will have to wait until this summer for quarterback Dwayne Lawson, who didn't sign last week because of academic issues.
Michigan State suffered its share of setbacks in football this past fall, but the Spartans didn’t lose on the recruiting trail. None of the 16 high school prospects who committed to play for the Spartans prior to the 2016 season were scared away by the team’s 3-9 record on the field.
The Spartans signed the 32nd best recruiting class in college football on Wednesday, according to ESPN’s team rankings. The group lacks some of the spark of last year’s class, which came on the coattails of a College Football Playoff berth, but more closely resembles the types of classes that head coach Mark Dantonio and company used to build a perennial Big Ten contender in the past half decade.
Dantonio's slow-and-steady approach has been credited as the key ingredient for building that foundation during his time in East Lansing as well as the main cause of some erosion during the 2016 season. The recruits who signed with Michigan State this week said that consistency is a big part of why no one was tempted to look elsewhere when the Spartans started to struggle.
"They stayed in touch throughout the season letting us know what was happening," said three-star cornerback Josiah Scott. "I never second-guessed my commitment once. The coaching staff has been here for a while and they’re one of the most consistent coaching staffs in college football. You’re going to get consistent winning out of them. You know one bad season won’t hurt the reputation at Michigan State."
Scott is one of three early enrollees who arrived on campus last month, along with tight end Jack Camper and wide receiver Hunter Rison, son of former All-American receiver Andre Rison. That trio said the coaching staff didn’t change its tone or approach while keeping in touch with them during the season.
Dantonio thanked his newest players for their loyalty Wednesday, saying that has been a staple of past successful groups in East Lansing.
"We’ve had very, very few players decommit to the program over a long course in time," he said. "I try and be the same guy that's recruiting them as the guy who will be sitting in the chair when they come to see me in the office. I don't want there to be a difference when they show up in my office, 'who is that guy?' because I never met him during recruiting. I think that's important. That's how we've always done it here."
Dantonio didn’t make any changes to his coaching personnel this winter following the worst season of his tenure at Michigan State, which fit with the message recruits heard through the fall. Scott said defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett contacted him almost daily, and during the many conversations they had the coach made it clear that their adherence to consistency wouldn’t be changed by a bad season.
Rison said he got the same message on a regular basis from receivers coach Terry Samuel. Rison said the coaching staff took its time making him feel comfortable and didn’t rush him into accepting a scholarship offer. Rison originally made a pledge to Michigan State early in his recruiting process. He backed off that slightly during his junior year of high school, but didn’t waver after committing last April.
"It was really the lack of pressure," Rison said. "That was what it was. (Samuel) never talked about how great I could be here or whatever. He let it fall into place. He said there are great opportunities here and they’re going to be here waiting for me. If I come they’ve got a spot for me."
Rison and Scott said their classmates discussed the 3-9 season among themselves this fall, but none of them needed to be convinced to stick around.
"It was always just, 'Hey, it’s one bad season and there’s still the same consistency throughout the whole team," Scott said. "It’s just one bad season. The coaching staff is going to stick here and we’re going to work through it together."
Michigan State's steady message and lack of pressure might have cost them some recruiting battles during the final weeks of January and prevented them from making a splash on signing day. Those aren't the type of victories that helped Dantonio build his program's foundation, and he's betting that they won't be the victories that help the Spartans rebuild after 2016. This week served as yet another reminder that Dantonio and his coaching staff are doubling down on the consistency approach that helped them get to where they are, for better or worse.
On signing day three years ago, Penn State announced a class that included a quarterback who had previously committed to Vanderbilt. He was a three-star prospect who was rated as the 60th-best player at his position that year, according to ESPN's Recruiting Nation. Most other schools saw him as a safety. The Nittany Lions signed a higher-rated quarterback, four-star Michael O'Connor, in that same class.
No one was doing cartwheels over that letter of intent from Trace McSorley. Yet, arguably no player had a bigger impact on the Big Ten race in 2016 than McSorley did as a redshirt sophomore. He was the league's top-rated passer, throwing for over 3,600 yards and 29 touchdowns, and was named MVP of the Big Ten championship game.
McSorley led the Nittany Lions to victory in Indianapolis over Wisconsin, which was a second-half collapse away from staking a claim to the College Football Playoff. Those are the same Badgers whose previous four recruiting classes were ranked by ESPN, on average, as no better than the 36th-best in the country.
So consider this the annual reminder that signing day, while no doubt extremely important, doesn't always tell the full story in the Big Ten.
Only a fool would dismiss the comings and goings of each team's fax machines on Wednesday. Championships can be won on the decisions of high schoolers. Look no further than Ohio State's ridiculous 2013 class, which formed the backbone of the Buckeyes' national title team less than 24 months later. That crop included Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa, who were named the NFL's offensive and defensive rookies of the year, respectively, by the Pro Football Writers Association earlier this month.
This year's Ohio State class could be compared to that 2013 group in the near future. As of Monday afternoon, the Buckeyes counted 19 commitments, 18 of whom are ranked as either four- or five-star players by ESPN; sixteen of them are in the ESPN 300. Michigan also had 16 ESPN 300 commits as of Monday, with coach Jim Harbaugh still working the trail for some last-minute additions. The rest of the Big Ten, combined, accounted for 18 ESPN 300 commits.
Ohio State and Michigan should both land top-five classes, with Penn State and its seven ESPN 300 commits likely to finish with the third-best class in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions are also off to a flying start in the 2018 class after last season's Rose Bowl run. The three best and most aggressive recruiters in the league -- Harbaugh, Urban Meyer and James Franklin -- are at the height of their powers right now.
That trend line seems to reinforce the notion that the Big Ten East will continue to be one of the toughest, if not the most rugged, divisions in college football. An also-ran in that division, Maryland, looks to make a signing day splash with eight current four-star commits and five ESPN 300 prospects. That has to feel good for Terrapins fans and head coach D.J. Durkin, who saw their talent raided last January during the coaching transition from Randy Edsall.
Durkin and the Terps are angling toward a top-20 finish, which would be quite an accomplishment. Yet, it guarantees little.
If it did, then how would we explain Michigan State's recent success? The Spartans recruit a lot better than the national narrative would often have you believe, but they still generally place outside of the top 20 to 25 teams on signing day. Still, they've won one more Big Ten title in the past four years than Ohio State, while Michigan hasn't won a league championship since 2004.
Or how about the 2015 Iowa team that came within a couple of inches of beating Michigan State for that season's Big Ten crown? Or the poster child for downplaying signing day freakouts: Wisconsin. The Badgers just keep racking up double-digit wins, despite classes that don't excite the recruitniks.
There's no substitute for talent, and it's nearly impossible to win a national title without recruiting at the level Meyer, Harbaugh and Franklin are reaching. But there's also still room in the Big Ten for developmental programs and for coaches who know how to find the right needs for their own styles, regardless of the star ratings.
And there is plenty of room for guys like McSorley, who did nothing but win in high school and whose best measurable was his heart. Don't overlook the importance of Wednesday's developments and class rankings. But don't assume those will tell the whole story in the Big Ten.