Big Ten: Nebraska Cornhuskers
Developing the deep threat was a common theme among Big Ten teams this spring. As the conference continue to leave its reputation for boring offenses in the dust, a pack of talented pass-catchers should have chances to shine this season.
Most of the league’s top teams return starters under center this fall -- and most of those starters have some healthy competition to keep them honest during the summer workouts. This week we’ll be highlighting the best groups on the offensive side of the ball at several positions as well as some other teams and players that are worth watching closely. Next up is a look at the best receiving corps in the conference.
Best of the best: Penn State is stacked with veteran options in the passing game this fall. Seniors DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall and Mike Gesicki will set the pace for the passing game and provide plenty of size as well. Hamilton has played in 40 college games already and has catches in 38 of them. Gesicki is a candidate to be the league’s best tight end in 2017. He had five touchdowns and 48 catches as a junior last year.
There is rising talent in Happy Valley as well. Juwan Johnson’s spring might have been as promising of a step forward as any player at any position in the Big Ten. His 6-foot-4, 218-pound frame provides yet another big target for quarterback Trace McSorley through the air.
Next in line: Indiana might not have the depth at wide receiver that rosters like Ohio State's and Michigan's (both teams could end up with very dangerous passing attacks) can claim, but the Hoosiers have a one-two punch that could be as tough to cover as any in the Big Ten if both are moving at full speed. Nick Westbrook and Simmie Cobbs Jr. are both tall and fast and able to bring down most balls thrown in their vicinity.
Cobbs missed almost all of 2016 with an ankle injury after racking up more than 1,000 receiving yards the previous season. Westbrook had 995 receiving yards in Cobbs’ absence last season, which is more than any other receiver returning to the Big Ten next season. Indiana could also add a speedy smaller option if J-Shun Harris gets healthy after missing both of the past two years with ACL tears.
Don’t sleep on: Nebraska features a good mix of experience and young studs. If all of them hit their potential, they could have more options than most defenses are equipped to handle. The group starts with De’Mornay Pierson-El and Stanley Morgan Jr., both of whom impressed coaches this spring with increased speed and the way they handled a transition into leadership roles.
The Huskers are hoping that pair will be complemented by some incoming freshmen with impressive resumes. Keyshawn Johnson Jr. and Jaevon McQuitty didn’t get an opportunity to do much during their first semester on campus. Joining them will be blue-chip prospect Tyjon Lindsey. If a couple of the young guys are ready to contribute, new quarterback Tanner Lee will be able to spread the ball. One concern that could slow them down is the roster’s lack of experience at tight end.
The impact of a recruiting battle isn’t felt until the prospect hits the field for whichever team he chose. The team that missed out is often left with a void that the prospect could have filled and the team that won is left gloating if he pans out.
Since recruiting battles happen all the time within the Big Ten, there will likely be a few big names on the field this season that teams wish they could have landed. Here is a look at past recruiting battles within the conference and who they’re impacting.
RB Karan Higdon, Michigan
Higdon was headed to Iowa in the 2015 recruiting class until Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh swooped in and got him to commit to Michigan. Higdon was at the center of a few battles as Michigan was also pursuing running back Mike Weber, who eventually signed with Ohio State after debating between the Buckeyes and Michigan.
Iowa losing out on Higdon stings because the Hawkeyes ranked 64th in the nation in rushing yards last season and 71st in rushing touchdowns. The Hawkeyes also must replace Leshun Daniels Jr., who rushed for 1,058 yards last season.
Haskins and Jones both decommitted from Maryland and flipped to Ohio State during the 2016 cycle in what ended up being a big sting for the Terps. While Maryland is headed in the right direction, these two would have been huge additions to the roster.
Having Haskins in his second season at quarterback would have been a big help to Walt Bell’s offense and could have accelerated the process. The staff has landed some nice pieces, including ESPN 300 quarterback Kasim Hill in the 2017 class.
The Buckeyes have recruited well at quarterback and will have Haskins in the mix as the backup this season.
WR K.J. Hamler, Penn State
For quite some time in his recruitment, it seemed as though Hamler would be headed to Michigan State. An in-state prospect in the 2017 class, Michigan State was hot on his trail.
Needing receivers and playmakers on offense, Hamler would have been a big addition to the Spartans’ offense, but a late push by the Nittany Lions swung him in their favor.
Penn State coaches put in a lot of work to reel in Hamler and the staff eventually won out. While Michigan State did land a few other receivers in the class, none were as explosive as Hamler.
The shifty receiver sustained an ACL injury his senior high school season, but if he fully recovers, Hamler could be a big playmaker for the Nittany Lions.
WR Tyjon Lindsey, Nebraska
Lindsey’s recruitment in the 2017 cycle was a bit odd, to say the least. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound receiver was committed to Ohio State with Las Vegas (Nevada) Bishop Gorman teammates Haskell Garrett and Tate Martell until Lindsey abruptly decommitted and switched to Nebraska.
By all accounts, Lindsey seemed solid to the Buckeyes for most of his commitment. Nebraska started making a big push as the process got closer to signing day, ultimately leading to his commitment.
Ohio State has options on the roster, but Lindsey would have been a good fit and a big help on new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson’s offense.
ATH Ambry Thomas, Michigan
Thomas is a dynamic prospect who can play offense or defense and was heavily considering Michigan State as well as Michigan. He ultimately landed with Michigan, but would have been a much-needed addition to the Michigan State roster.
The Spartans could use help on both offense and defense, and Thomas is the type of player who realistically could have had an impact both sides in East Lansing. He is a local prospect and was one of the highest-ranked prospects in the state, so not only did it sting for Michigan State not to get him on the field on their side, but it also meant losing an in-state battle to their top rival.
Defending Big Ten champion Penn State is loaded with experience on offense. Quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley are preseason Heisman Trophy contenders. They'll play behind a veteran offensive line and with a standout tight end in Mike Gesicki.
The one question about that unit going into the spring was at wide receiver. Not necessarily in depth of talent, as the Nittany Lions bring back accomplished players Saeed Blacknail and DaeSean Hamilton at the position. The question was more along the lines of who would become the true No. 1 wideout, someone who could replace the production of Chris Godwin?
The answer to that question might be one of the biggest breakout players in the Big Ten this spring: Juwan Johnson.
The redshirt sophomore created major buzz around the program all spring, earning raves from coaches and teammates and winning Penn State's most improve offensive player award. He showed the public what the fuss was about with seven catches for 81 yards in Saturday's Blue-White game.
Johnson played mainly on special teams last season, though he did start on offense against Purdue. He finished the year with two catches for 70 yards.
"I've been patient the past two years," Johnson told reporters Saturday. "It's time for me to step up and play a role on the team."
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Johnson is ready to make an impact. He's a former ESPN 300 recruit who's listed at an impressive 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds. He could become a top target for McSorley, who often sought out Godwin (59 catches for 982 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2016) during key situations.
"He has just has taken a very mature approach, a very aggressive approach all offseason," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "He's playing with a lot of confidence right now, and I think we all know he's got some special physical abilities. It's all kind of coming together for him right now."
Here's a look at some other breakout players from around the league this spring now that every team has wrapped up its practice sessions until fall camp (in alphabetical order):
Ohio State CB Damon Arnette: Whoever emerges in the secondary for the Buckeyes is a good bet to become a star. Arnette had some struggles as a redshirt freshman last season but performed very well all spring to become the front-runner to start opposite Denzel Ward. Given how much pure talent Ohio State has at the position, that's saying something.
Wisconsin WR Quintez Cephus: The sophomore -- who had four catches for for 94 yards as a true freshman -- turned in some big practices for the Badgers this spring. It was an emotional spring for him after his father was shot and killed. Cephus is in line to replace Robert Wheelwright as the team's No. 2 receiver.
Michigan LB/S Khaleke Hudson: It's unfair to compare Hudson to Jabrill Peppers. But Hudson might well be the guy who replaces Hudson at the Viper position, one where he'll be asked to do many of the same things Peppers excelled at. The early returns have been positive, as Hudson looked like a playmaker during an active spring game performance.
Minnesota S Jacob Huff: The junior has no career starts but has played as a backup the past two seasons. He showed up in a major way this spring at a position of need for the Golden Gophers. "All he does is make plays," head coach P.J. Fleck said of Huff.
Michigan State CB/WR Justin Layne: He made an impact as a true freshman in the Spartans' secondary, even returning an interception for a touchdown. Layne played on offense and defense during the spring game, catching a touchdown pass at receiver. Could he be a true two-way star this fall?
Nebraska slot receiver JD Spielman: The MVP of the scout team offense last year, Spielman looks ready to contribute where it counts this season. He impressed coaches most of the spring and went out and grabbed a 30-yard touchdown among his four catches in the spring game.
Indiana TE Ian Thomas: New offensive coordinator Mike DeBord intends to use the tight ends more than the Hoosiers have in previous seasons, and Thomas should be the biggest beneficiary of that strategy. A standout in junior college, Thomas had only three catches last season but snagged a touchdown in the spring game, a potential sign of things to come.
Iowa RB Toren Young: Akrum Wadley is the No. 1 tailback, but the Hawkeyes like A) spreading the carries around and B) occasionally putting Wadley out in space. Young and Toks Akinribade are both in the mix for work this fall, but it was Young who ran for 96 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. "I liked the energy he ran with and the toughness he ran with, and he's pretty much been doing that all spring," head coach Kirk Ferentz said.
The Big Ten had a banner year in 2016, with four teams jockeying for spots in the College Football Playoff until the final days of the regular season.
The postseason didn’t go so well for the league, as only one of its four New Year’s Six bowl participants (Wisconsin) brought home a victory. That brought out the usual Big Ten skeptics who wondered if the conference had been overrated all along and whether 2016 was just a fluke.
There’s no guarantee of a repeat of last year’s success in 2017. But there is one simple yet large reason to be very excited about the league’s fortunes this fall and beyond: the Big Ten has the best roster of head coaches of any conference in America.
A grand statement like that naturally requires lots of evidence to back it up. So here goes.
Start with Ohio State's Urban Meyer. He’s no worse than one of the two best coaches in college football, with only Alabama’s Nick Saban as serious competition. Meyer has three national titles, the highest winning percentage among active coaches (.851 -- third-highest all time among those who coached at least 10 years) -- and an absurd 61-6 record with the Buckeyes. Enough said.
Michigan's Jim Harbaugh also belongs on the short list of best coaches in the land. Though he has never won a national title, he’s the master of the program turnaround. He’s gone 32-7 in his last three seasons in college, including Stanford, and was the NFL coach of the year during his time in San Francisco. Whether you like his online shtick or find it annoying, dude can coach 'em up as well as anyone.
Penn State's James Franklin joined the ranks of the elite coaches last year by leading the Nittany Lions to a surprise Big Ten title. Franklin had already worked wonders at Vanderbilt, of all places, and he silenced his doubters en route to winning Sporting News national coach of the year honors in 2016.
Though Michigan State is going through some turbulent times right now after a 3-9 debacle, Mark Dantonio has firmly established himself as one of the top coaches. His Spartans won at least 11 games five times in the six years prior to last season and made the playoff in 2015.
That’s four cream-of-the-crop coaches right there. What other league can claim that?
The ACC might come the closest, with Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher owning national titles and Louisville’s Bobby Petrino being one of the top offensive minds around. But unless you’re buying into North Carolina’s Larry Fedora or Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente as elite, the list pretty much stops at three.
The Big 12 has Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, TCU’s Gary Patterson and legendary Kansas State boss Bill Snyder. Maybe first-year Texas coach Tom Herman lives up to the hype. Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy has done good work but hasn’t quite reached the level of the Big Ten’s top four.
In the Pac-12, Washington’s Chris Petersen belongs on any short list of top coaches. Stanford’s David Shaw is highly accomplished, and Colorado’s Mike McIntyre won several national coach of the year honors last year. The jury is still out on USC’s Clay Helton, though he did beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
What about the SEC, you ask? Saban rules, obviously. But who’s the second-best coach in that league? It might be Florida’s Jim McElwain. Or Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. Would either school’s fan base trade them for Harbaugh? You betcha.
It’s not just the top tier that makes the Big Ten coaching roster so special, either. Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst is quickly rising up the ladder toward elite, having gone 21-6 in two years at his alma mater. His middling 19-19 record at Pitt before returning to Madison must be considered in relation to the mess he inherited there.
Chryst is also a perfect fit for the Badgers, just as Pat Fitzgerald is at Northwestern and Kirk Ferentz is for Iowa. Fitzgerald’s 11-year run in Evanston seems unusually long except when compared to Ferentz, who’s going into Year 19 with the Hawkeyes while showing signs of slowing down.
Nebraska's Mike Riley is one of the most respected coaches around, and while it’s fair to question whether he was the right fit for the Cornhuskers, he has won 10 of his last 14 games in Lincoln. Illinois' Lovie Smith has plenty to prove as a college coach but had a strong track record in the NFL.
The Big Ten also added two of the hottest young coaches in the country this offseason in Minnesota's P.J. Fleck, who led Western Michigan to a 13-0 record and Cotton Bowl appearance last year, and Purdue's Jeff Brohm, who went 30-10 at Western Kentucky with one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses.The story is still being written for Indiana's Tom Allen, Maryland's D.J. Durkin and Rutgers' Chris Ash, though all three were outstanding defensive coordinators.
Add it all up, and you’ve got the best lineup of coaches in any conference.
“I think it’s outstanding,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve gotten a huge commitment from all of our teams to do whatever it takes to be successful. It’s a special time to be a part of the Big Ten.”
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On Wednesday's spring teleconference between reporters and Big Ten coaches, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald leaned into a familiar football saw.
"There's an old saying out there that when you have a quarterback, you have a chance," Fitzgerald said.
If there's truth in that cliché, then it stands to reason that the Big Ten has a chance of being very good in 2017.
The vast majority of league teams already know who their quarterback will be this fall and feel good about it. Most remaining quarterback competitions are coming into focus. If having a proven signal-caller is a good indication of success, then the conference's best teams from last season should be primed to contend again.
The four Big Ten clubs that were in the playoff mix last December -- Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin -- all return their starters from a year ago.
J.T. Barrett didn't finish strong for the Buckeyes and drew some criticism for his downfield throws. But he's still a two-time Big Ten quarterback of the year with a top-five Heisman Trophy finish on his résumé. Penn State's Trace McSorley should have won the league's quarterback of the year award last year and will enter 2017 as a Heisman candidate. Michigan's Wilton Speight showed promise his first year as a starter last season and, according to Jim Harbaugh, has taken a step forward with his understanding of the game and the Wolverines' system. Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook is the least accomplished of the quartet, as a redshirt sophomore, but the Badgers are confident in his ability.
Other returnees include Indiana's Richard Lagow, a strong-armed pocket passer capable of putting up some big numbers in his second year as a starter; Purdue's David Blough, who led the league in passing yards and touchdowns last year and who should improve his decision-making under new head coach Jeff Brohm; and Northwestern's Clayton Thorson, who somewhat quietly threw for more than 3,000 yards as a sophomore and continues to get better.
"He's shown absolutely amazing growth as a leader," Fitzgerald said. "His confidence is at an all-time high."
Some teams that went into spring with ostensible competitions have all but settled on their guy.
Michigan State's Mark Dantonio said in the winter that sophomore Brian Lewerke was the leading candidate to start. Lewerke solidified that by playing well this spring, bulking up to 215 pounds and not getting much competition from redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver, who rarely practiced because of back issues.
"He's bigger and stronger and throws the ball in great rhythm," Dantonio said of Lewerke. "He's clearly the starter, and I think that's warranted."
Lovie Smith called Chayce Crouch his starting quarterback at Illinois before spring ball began. Even though Crouch was held out of contact drills while recovering from offseason surgery, he still has Smith's full backing.
"He's the undisputed leader of our football team," Smith said of the junior, who threw 32 passes in 2016.
Rutgers began the offseason with an open audition under center, but Giovanni Rescigno -- who started the final five games last year -- has fended off challengers. Scarlet Knights coach Chris Ash called Rescigno's improvement this spring "a pleasant surprise" and called him the team's "clear No. 1."
That leaves just four teams currently undecided, at least officially, on a starter. An alphabetical rundown:
Iowa: Quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe called the race between Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers "neck and neck" on Wednesday. But Stanley was the backup to C.J. Beathard as a true freshman, and most believe he'll win the job.
Maryland: D.J. Durkin says there's still a three-way competition raging, but North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson seems like the safe bet to take the snaps in the opener at Texas.
Minnesota: This might be the one truly wide-open battle in the league, as there's very little experience on hand for first-year coach P.J. Fleck. Senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft appear to be the leading candidates, with early enrollee Tanner Morgan a dark horse. Fleck said he likely won't name a starter until training camp.
Nebraska: For the first time since they entered the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers don't have an obvious starting quarterback lined up. Mike Riley said he has split the reps evenly between Tulane transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien; both will get a chance to shine at Saturday's spring game.
"We've been through it a few times in our life," Riley said. "One thing it does is, it kind of keeps an edge there."
Experience isn't everything. McSorley had never started a college game before leading Penn State to the Big Ten title last year. But coaches would usually prefer certainty at the game's most important position. The veteran returning talent and coaches' confidence in their options this spring would seem to bode well for the league's chances.
It's been a while since the ol' Big Ten mailbag showed its face around these parts. But with college basketball leaving the stage and spring practice waning, it's time to once again take your questions. You can send them any time via Twitter or by emailing ESPNBigTenMailbag@gmail.com.
And we're back ...
— Jason Draper (@JD5330) April 11, 2017
Brian Bennett: I loved Mike Riley's hiring of Bob Diaco to be the Cornhuskers' defensive coordinator. I covered Diaco when he was at Cincinnati and Notre Dame, where he put together some outstanding defenses. He's extremely quirky, but players respond to Diaco's fiery attitude. And the dude can coach.
The question is, does he have the right personnel for his 3-4 scheme? I'd expect the secondary to be one of the best in the Big Ten with returning players such as Chris Jones, Joshua Kalu and Kieron Williams. The front seven is another story. Nebraska wasn't a great pass-rushing team last season, and I wonder if it has the run-stuffing defensive linemen and playmaking linebackers to make this unit truly special. I'm not expecting a dominant, top-20-type defense this season but would look for some strides made and a leap forward perhaps in 2018.
— Justin <9 (@MrHooterz) April 11, 2017
Brian Bennett: It could be challenging. Minnesota has had between four and six healthy offensive linemen this spring, which is a giant red flag. There's almost no experience at quarterback. The roster is very young, and this is a major culture change with an entirely new staff.
The situation is far different than when P.J. Fleck took over Western Michigan, but his first season in Kalamazoo resulted in a 1-11 record for the Broncos. So it took some time for him to work his magic. The Golden Gophers won nine games last season and have some dynamic playmakers at running back in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, so this is not a major rebuild. Still, I think it very likely could be a transition year.
— Brett <ú<ø (@BrettGHughes) April 11, 2017
Brian Bennett: I've thought for a while now that Akrum Wadley was Iowa's most explosive running back. After he ran for 1,081 yards on just 168 carries last season, it will be really intriguing to see what he can do consistently with more carries. Keeping weight on has been a problem for Wadley in the past, but he should be beyond that now as a senior.
He might never be a bell cow a la Shonn Greene, but Wadley should be one of the Big Ten's best running backs this season and could top 1,500 yards. Stay tuned: I hope to write more about him soon.
@BennettESPN Assuming PSU has another great season, where does Joe Moorehead end up? Think it is a power 5 (or ND) type of job or something else?
— LeftyMarlins (@LeftyMarlins) April 11, 2017
Brian Bennett: Unlike other coordinators, Joe Moorhead actually has head-coaching experience. And he was highly successful at it, albeit at a lower level (Fordham).
That might make him an even more attractive candidate for a school looking for a head coach next winter. Yet landing at a place like Notre Dame seems like a bit of a stretch. It's still fairly rare for coordinators with no strong ties to a school to suddenly become head coaches at traditional powers. Instead, I'd look to the paths of a couple of other Big Ten coordinators who were hot commodities: Tom Herman, who took over at Houston before eventually getting the Texas gig, and Pat Narduzzi, who was hired by Pitt. Think mid- to low-tier Power 5 jobs or a strong Group of 5 program.
@BennettESPN Will Maryland make a jump from last year in with the QB position? Caleb Henderson looks like a big upgrade.
— bob jacobs (@BobJacobs2000) April 11, 2017
Brian Bennett: Perry Hills wasn't bad last season for the Terrapins, finishing second in the Big Ten behind McSorley in pass efficiency while completing 61.9 percent of his passes. But he also threw for less than 1,500 yards in 11 games, so he wasn't exactly Boomer Esiason.
Caleb Henderson, the North Carolina transfer, is a thickly built, strong dude who was once an ESPN 300 recruit. He simply got buried on the depth chart in Chapel Hill behind a potential first-rounder, Mitch Trubisky. He should be able to sling it down the field and stretch defenses vertically more than Hills did, and he can bowl people over running it as well. After sitting out last season as a transfer and learning the system, he should have a leg up in the team's quarterback competition.
Henderson still hasn't proved anything in college football. But with him and incoming freshman Kasim Hill, it sure looks as though Maryland's quarterback play, which has been uninspiring for a while now, could soon go up a few notches.
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.
De'Mornay Pierson-El and Stanley Morgan Jr. had no need to discuss their new roles and responsibilities in the Nebraska passing game as spring practice began earlier this month. That was a conversation that happened a long time ago.
Sometime during the second half of a 9-4 2016 season in Lincoln -- neither Pierson-El nor Morgan nor receivers coach Keith Williams can remember precisely when -- Williams gathered the only two players in his group with substantial playing experience that would be returning for a heart-to-heart. He told them that it was no mystery that they would need to be focal points of the offense in 2017. So there was no sense in waiting any longer to act like it. It was time to step up.
"They don't have to wait until today to start thinking that way," Williams said. "I just felt like at that point, not only would that help them for the conversations we're having now, but right then it would help push them around the corner they need to turn before the season."
Six of the Cornhuskers' top eight pass-catchers from a year ago ended their careers in December. Morgan finished the 2016 season second on the team with 33 catches for 453 yards. Pierson-El caught 20 balls for 254 yards. The rest of the returning wide receiver group had a total of six catches. The recruiting trail netted three highly-touted incoming freshmen who could compete for snaps right away, but the lion's share of production for an offense breaking in a new starting quarterback next fall is expected to come from the duo that Williams pulled aside for their chat.
For a variety of reasons, Pierson-El's numbers jumped after that discussion. After spending a good chunk of his junior season trying to find his stride and his confidence, the 5-foot-9 speedster put on his best performance (five catches, 49 yards) in a bowl loss to Tennessee.
A fractured foot and torn ACL during his sophomore season stripped Pierson-El of the shiftiness that made him one of college football's most exciting freshmen in 2014. He couldn't move the way he did as a rookie, when he led the nation in punt return yards and scored seven touchdowns. That took a toll on him mentally, and he turned to family, the Bible and a sports psychologist to try to get his groove back. He said his new spot at the top of the receiver food chain this spring has helped too.
"The difference is I'm all the way focused on that and doing my job," Pierson-El said. "It was difficult, but I felt myself holding myself back. It was a lot of thinking. I wasn't comfortable instead of being 100 percent confident like I was my freshman year."
Williams said that Pierson-El is as strong and fast as he has seen since the new coaching staff arrived two years ago. Morgan is also noticeably stronger after a winter of working out with higher expectations.
Morgan -- heading into his junior season -- said having a couple new faces around to mentor has helped motivate him to more on top of the details of his own game. Jaevon McQuitty and Keyshawn Johnson Jr. both enrolled early this January. Both have missed parts of spring ball for health reasons, but they've had plenty of questions for Morgan.
"When I come to practice I already have to know what I've got to do every snap and every play," Morgan said. "You're a veteran guy and the young guys are looking up to you to show them the ropes. You have to be on our Ps and Qs every day all day."
The Cornhuskers are going to ask a lot of their two coming-of-age veterans in the passing game this season, but spring practice isn't exactly the start of something new for them. It's a role they've been working toward for months.
Spring practice is underway at most Big Ten schools. We're still waiting for Iowa, Michigan, Penn State and Rutgers to get started, while Illinois is already done. One of the best things about spring practice is identifying breakout players for the following season. Our crew of Big Ten writers offer their picks for breakouts this spring:
Jesse Temple: Wisconsin LB Garret Dooley
Wisconsin will be loaded again on defense in 2017, but the biggest question centers on how the Badgers can replace the production of outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel. Those two combined for 107 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks. Dooley made a big leap as a redshirt sophomore last season. He went from making three tackles in 2015 to 40 tackles with 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He also earned his first two career starts replacing an injured Biegel at midseason.
Wisconsin has produced two All-Americans at outside linebacker the past two seasons with Joe Schobert and Watt. Dooley has a long way to go to reach that lofty status, but his predecessors have shown what is possible playing the position at Wisconsin.
Dan Murphy: Murphy: Nebraska WR Stanley Morgan Jr.
The Cornhuskers are going to need a new go-to target in the passing came now that Jordan Westerkamp is gone, and Morgan seems to be stepping up among a very young receiver corps in that role so far this spring. Coaches say the rising junior has hit the new stage of taking a more professional approach that many players reach when they're ready to blossom as newly minted upperclassmen.
Morgan's numbers in the weight room have increased and he has looked a step faster in running his routes so far in practice, they say. The New Orleans native had 33 catches and two touchdowns last year. Those numbers could jump significantly in 2017 with Morgan and De'Mornay Pierson-El leading a group of talented, but raw younger players in the passing game.
Austin Ward: Ohio State WR Binjimen Victor
The Buckeyes have been searching for a replacement for Devin Smith since he left after the national title two years ago, trying to find somebody capable of causing fits of panic for defensive backs worried about matching the speed of a consistent, dangerous deep threat. Midway through last year, Urban Meyer sounded like he was on the brink of unleashing one with 6-foot-4 size to go with athleticism to burn, but Victor apparently wasn’t quite ready yet as a true freshman.
He finished with just four catches for 64 yards and a touchdown, though one was the longest reception of the shutout loss to Clemson in a game where he also flashed explosive potential on a route that earned a pass interference penalty. For an offense looking to expand its passing game, Victor figures to be in the spotlight this spring.
I'll cheat a bit by going with one team that's well into spring ball (Northwestern) and another that has already wrapped up (Illinois finished its drills last week). But, hey, performances are better than predictions, right?
Nagel will be counted on to fill an enormous void left by Biletnikoff Award finalist Austin Carr. Nagel had 40 catches for 447 yards last year and is stepping into Carr's No. 1 receiver role this spring. The 5-foot-11 junior probably isn't going to replicate Carr's numbers, but if he can continue to build chemistry with Clayton Thorson, he'll be an important target out of the slot.
Crawford is a fifth-year senior -- not a designation you usually see in breakout-type lists. But he is making a key position change, from linebacker down to the rush-end spot. That's the same position that Carroll Phillips played last year en route to nine sacks and 20 tackles for loss last season. The Illini are replacing most of their defensive line, and Crawford showed good pass-rushing ability this spring.
Mick Stoltenberg is not a household name outside of Lincoln, Nebraska. He might not be all that more recognizable at the end of the 2017 season. But for Bob Diaco’s first season as Cornhuskers defensive coordinator to be a success, no piece of the puzzle will be more important in 2017 than Stoltenberg.
The junior defensive lineman has stacked on somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 pounds since coming to campus three years ago. He added almost a third of that weight in the last couple months, since he learned that Diaco would be searching for a big body to anchor his 3-4 defense at nose tackle. Stoltenberg’s combination of experience and size make him the front-runner this spring for a crucial position where bigger is almost always better.
“That’s definitely something I’ve been working on,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Lincoln this past week. “I can hopefully gain maybe a little bit more before next fall. Obviously you lose weight during the season, so the heavier I can start, probably the better, while obviously keeping my athleticism in there, too.”
The 6-foot-5 Nebraska native checked into spring ball at more than 300 pounds. Diaco’s best defenses at previous stops have featured nose tackles who go underappreciated despite being nearly impossible to miss.
The nose tackle’s job in Diaco’s scheme is to occupy as many gaps and opposing linemen as possible, clearing the path for the linebackers behind him to clean up with tackles. At its best, this approach has created defenses good enough to propel national championship bids. Diaco’s Notre Dame defense in 2012 – when the Irish lost to Alabama in the BCS Championship -- allowed 105 rushing yards and 12.8 points per game. Linebacker Manti Te’o was the team's star on defense, but big man Louis Nix did yeoman’s work in front of him to set the group’s foundation. Without a strong presence in the middle of the defensive line, it is more difficult to stop the run in a 3-4 scheme.
Diaco told reporters that he was “super, super excited” about what he’s seen from his new team during the first week of spring practice.
“There’s enough brain power and fast action through diagnosis; I know that’s not going to be a limitation,” Diaco said. “Conditioning is built up so they can go hard long, and I’m pleased with the tangible skill of the defensive players. We can definitely get our work done.”
Nebraska’s defense, which must replace its top three tacklers from a year ago, posted middle-of-the-pack stats against the run in the Big Ten last fall. The Blackshirts gave up an average of 147.8 yards per game on the ground, but struggled in that department while losing three of their last five games. They gave up 244 yards per game in losses to Ohio State, Iowa and Tennessee.
Stoltenberg played in 12 games last season, finishing with 25 tackles and 1.5 sacks. His numbers don’t necessarily have to grow as much as his body has this offseason, but the junior will have to take on an outsized role in the Cornhuskers defense to help smooth the transition to a new defensive style.
Mike Riley had Nebraska back in contention in the Big Ten in his second season. But there’s still a gap he’s trying to close in his third season after coming up short in the biggest tests a year ago.
For all the clear signs of progress the Huskers showed by opening with seven straight wins and finishing with nine overall, the blowout losses to Ohio State and Iowa might actually wind up overshadowing Riley’s second campaign in charge. The steps forward shouldn’t be overlooked, and the momentum certainly appears to be building again at Nebraska. But it should be easy for Riley to motivate his team for 15 spring workouts this year, because all he’ll need to do is mention that 62-3 beatdown at the hands of the Buckeyes to remind the Huskers there is still more work to do.
Spring schedule: The Huskers will open with a morning workout on Saturday, and they’ll continue to practice on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays leading up to the spring game at Memorial Stadium on April 15. Kickoff for the closing exhibition is set for 1 p.m.
What’s new: Despite the improvement in the standings last season, the defense let Nebraska down in a big way in a couple of key matchups that prompted some changes from Riley. When Bob Diaco hit the open market, the Huskers swooped in to hire him as defensive coordinator and gave him the responsibility of retooling the Blackshirts. That wasn’t the only move Riley made to try to get Nebraska back to a Big Ten title game, but it was far and away the most notable tweak ahead of what should be an interesting spring in Lincoln.
Three things we want to see
1. The Diaco defense: After the former UConn coach became available, he was a hot property, thanks to his stellar reputation on defense. That Riley was able to lure him to Nebraska was a major coup for his program, and it should yield instant results for a unit that finished in the middle of the pack in scoring a year ago -- even with those meltdowns against the Hawkeyes and the Buckeyes. The Huskers have one of the most talented veteran groups of defensive backs in the Big Ten back in the fold for Diaco to work with, and assuming they pick up his system quickly, there’s no reason why the Blackshirts can’t be back among the league’s best in a hurry.
2. New QB in charge: After four years of stability and record-setting passing, the Huskers are finally starting life without Tommy Armstrong. And with no clear favorite between Tanner Lee or Patrick O'Brien, Nebraska is planning to flip a coin to decide who will take the first snap when practice opens on Saturday. There’s really no rush at this point to make a decision, but the sooner the Huskers can put a leader in place, the better off they’ll likely be. Lee has an edge in experience after two seasons at Tulane before transferring to Nebraska, but O’Brien should be physically ready to handle the job as well after learning under Armstrong last season as a redshirt. As far as quarterback derbies in the Big Ten, Nebraska’s might just be the most meaningful.
3. Improvements on the ground: As rich as the running-back tradition is for the Huskers, there’s just something that doesn’t feel right when the program finishes a season without a 1,000-yard rusher. Terrell Newby was more than 100 yards short a year ago, which was partly because of Armstrong’s ability to rack up yardage with his feet and the role Devine Ozigbo played when he was healthy. The Huskers finished just No. 9 in the league in rushing offense, and that’s as good a place as any for Riley to address when camp opens this weekend.
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