Big Ten: Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Last week on the blog, we took a look at the reasons why several contenders would win the Big Ten title in 2017, including Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. We also examined some sleeper teams.
It was all very optimistic, as things tend to be this time of year. Now it's time to play the role of pessimist. We're here to tell you why your team won't win the Big Ten title in 2017.
The country-pop band Big & Rich will perform before the Scarlet Knights' spring game next month. Sorry, Piscataway. After a dismal 2-10 season, it's going to be a long time before any championships are comin' ... to your city.
Jeff Brohm will make things interesting and exciting in West Lafayette again. Eventually. Bear Bryant couldn't lead this team, which has won two Big Ten games in the past three years, to a title this season.
Hey, this is a program that's won two of the past four league championships, so it wouldn't be a total shock to see the Spartans rebound from 3-9. Except that the program currently is mired in turmoil. There's going to be a very strange vibe around the spring game, which might be the first time we find out officially who's still on the roster while a sexual assault and Title IX investigation swirls. The trend line here is not good.
The Illini have some young talent coming in, but they may be hard pressed to surpass last year's 3-9 mark in Lovie Smith's second year. The two-deep was razor thin this spring, and basically the entire defensive line must be replaced. Things may get worse before they get better in Champaign.
You've got to like the direction of D.J. Durkin's program after he brought in a very solid recruiting class. Again, though, we're talking about 2017, and this team is going to be very young and without a proven quarterback. Plus, there should be a five-year mandatory championship probation for wearing these uniforms.
The Hoosiers have thrown a scare into several of the league's best teams the past couple of years. But it has almost always just been a scare, which is why Tom Allen is using the slogan "Breakthrough" this year. Even if Indiana finds a way to win some more of those close games thanks to an improved defense, it just doesn't have enough talent to get to the top of a loaded East Division.
Crazier things have happened for the boys in purple. Like 1995, for instance. Or actually making -- and winning -- a game in this year's NCAA tournament. The Wildcats will have one of the league's best backfield duos in Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson. Yet they've been just a bit too inconsistent to believe they can make a championship run.
Every day is elite in P.J. Fleck's universe. But with a very young team, no experience at quarterback and a brand new coaching staff, this year could prove mediocre at best. And to win a title, the Golden Gophers need to beat Wisconsin again before we all die.
Maybe this is the year. (Note: I copied and pasted that sentence from every preseason article written about the Cornhuskers since 2002). It's hard to win a championship with four losses , and that's exactly how many games Nebraska has dropped in seven of the eight past years. Where's the top-shelf, All-America-type talent? Will the team show up in the big games away from home?
There's a new starting quarterback and hardly any receivers anybody's heard of. Penn State and Ohio State are among the crossover games (though both are at Kinnick). The Hawkeyes have to go to Wisconsin. There's enough here for Iowa to win eight games and trigger a $500,000 bonus for Kirk Ferentz, but hide your eyes at bowl time.
Eighteen starters are gone -- 18! If anyone besides Urban Meyer can get that much youth up to speed, it's Jim Harbaugh, and his four-hour practices will age anyone quickly. Still, that's an uphill battle. And last time we checked, Ohio State is still on the schedule.
Speaking of the Buckeyes, it's always dumb to bet against them winning the Big Ten. Except that Ohio State has somehow won only won one Big Ten championship in the past six years. Meyer has lost only three league games while in Columbus, but they have come at the most inopportune times. The offense also has to prove it can throw the ball more than a few yards downfield.
The Badgers are like a metronome. You can set your watch to their consistency. They're the West favorites until someone proves otherwise. But can they beat whomever comes out of the East? They lost to Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State last year. The offense always seems to come up a bit short in those huge games. Alex Hornibrook is promising, but he's not Russell Wilson.
The returning experience is outstanding and the Trace McSorley-Saquon Barkley combo is as good as it gets anywhere. Yet the Nittany Lions also caught some breaks last year with their schedule, with how that Ohio State game turned out and the East tiebreaker situation. This year, they have to go to the Horseshoe, not to mention the viper pit known as Kinnick Stadium. Michigan at home will be no picnic. Defending a title is much tougher than coming out of nowhere to win one.
There was never any indication the rebuild at Rutgers was going to be easy for Chris Ash. But the first season still had to be an eye-opener for him and the Scarlet Knights.
Taking much of what he learned at Ohio State and applying it to his program overhaul at Rutgers didn’t produce much success in Year One. And the blowout defeats against the Big Ten’s best and the winless record overall in the conference offered a clear reminder of just how sizable the challenge is for Ash.
But including everything from installing his defense to changing offseason conditioning workouts and adapting new social-media strategies, getting through the first year was crucial in laying the foundation for the Scarlet Knights -- no matter how difficult it might have been.
Now all the pieces should be in place to start showing progress. And spring camp is the perfect place to start.
Spring schedule: The Scarlet Knights hit the field for the first of 15 scheduled workouts on Thursday. They’ll work throughout the next four weeks leading up to the annual Scarlet-White Game on April 22 at 5 p.m.
What’s new: The revolving door on the offensive coordinator’s office continues to spin, but Rutgers is planning on establishing some long overdue stability by bringing in Jerry Kill to lead the attack. The former Minnesota coach seems to be in good health again, and he already has proven he can help lead a turnaround of a Big Ten program. Kill is inheriting a unit that ranked last in the conference in scoring a year ago, averaging less than 16 points per game for former coordinator Drew Mehringer and his spread attack. Kill has been known to experiment and show flexibility with his personnel, so what exactly he can cook up with the Scarlet Knights could be fascinating to watch in the spring.
Three things we want to see:
1. A clear starter emerge at quarterback: The first step for Kill in reshaping the offense will be figuring out who should run it, a question that isn’t exactly new for Rutgers recently. Giovanni Rescigno showed some occasional glimpses that suggest he has the potential to be a productive triggerman for the Scarlet Knights, and he’s likely going to enter camp as the leader to win the job. But Kill may see something he likes in Zach Allen or Tylin Oden that could shuffle up the depth chart again. And there’s always a chance Rutgers could revisit all of this again in the fall when Johnathan Lewis arrives -- unless somebody definitely steps forward to run the show.
2. Defensive growth: Ash rose to prominence by arriving at Ohio State tasked with revamping a defense in disarray and helping turn it into a championship-level unit within a year. That sort of instant success obviously wasn’t realistic with the talent on hand at Rutgers, but giving up more than 37 points per game still will sting a coach with the pride, track record and competitiveness of Ash. There were always going to be growing pains for a team that had four true freshmen see action at times defensively, with two of them starting games for the Scarlet Knights. That early experience could pay dividends, though, and Rutgers should be in better position now to turn the corner on that side of the ball with a strong spring.
3. A healthy Janarion Grant: There’s no need to rush him back to full participation this spring, but simply seeing the dynamic weapon back on the field could provide a jolt for the Scarlet Knights and a boost of optimism heading into the summer. Before breaking his ankle last year, Grant had established himself not just as the most dangerous threat on the roster for Rutgers, but also one of the top playmakers in the Big Ten as both a wide receiver and returner on special teams. How crucial is Grant to Rutgers? He still finished third on the team in all-purpose yardage and tied for the team lead in touchdowns despite playing in just four games. Getting him back in action, even on a limited basis, would be an encouraging sign.
Spring isn’t necessarily a time to deliver a finished product. But this time of year is crucial for setting up a team for success in the fall -- and some programs have more work to do than others.
Who stands to benefit the most from these workouts heading into the summer offseason in the Big Ten? Our conference reporters break it down, roundtable style.
Brian Bennett: Minnesota
After the player-led boycott last December, the wave of suspensions and the firing of coach Tracy Claeys, it's an important camp for Minnesota and few teams have as much to accomplish this spring as the Golden Gophers. They’ve got a new head coach in P.J. Fleck and an entirely new staff. There’s a wide-open quarterback race with no proven veterans on the roster. This is going to be a young team, one that’s led by running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Fleck’s personality and schemes represent a major change. It’s a fascinating story to watch, and spring is more important than it usually is in the Twin Cities.
Dan Murphy: Michigan
The Wolverines have to begin filling 17 openings in the starting lineup this spring. Some spots are fairly easy to figure out but will need to use the next month to get comfortable in a new role. Others (like the safeties, receivers and one or two offensive line positions, for example) are wide open competitions. Spring practice will go a long way in determining an offseason pecking order at those spots.
It's also a big month for quarterback Wilton Speight. If Michigan is going to contend for championships in 2017, Speight will have to take ownership of the offense (which loses seven seniors) and team as a whole. He can start asserting himself this spring as the guy his teammates can trust to pull them out of tight spots. After losing three of their last four games in dramatic fashion, head coach Jim Harbaugh and his players shouldn't have any problem finding motivation to get a lot accomplished in March and April.
Jesse Temple: Purdue
Boilermakers fans are hungry for a reversal of fortunes, and optimism abounds with new Purdue coach Jeff Brohm in charge. His first spring in West Lafayette will be essential as he begins to put the building blocks in place for a potential turnaround. Purdue ranked 11th in the Big Ten last season in scoring offense (24.6 points per game) and last in scoring defense (38.3 points). Brohm, who came from Western Kentucky, helped the Hilltoppers lead the FBS in scoring offense at 45.5 points per game last season. His up-tempo style could benefit Purdue quarterback David Blough, who has a ton of talent and led the Big Ten in passing offense last season. Brohm needs to find enough receivers to help out Blough, and the offensive line must improve to create more of a running game. That doesn't address defensive issues, particularly on the line and in the secondary. Brohm has much work to do and only 15 practices this spring to sort things out.
Austin Ward: Rutgers
Considering the situation Chris Ash inherited a year ago and the brutal division in which he’s trying to make up ground, it wouldn’t have been fair to expect significant improvements during his debut season with the Scarlet Knights. With the roster still in rebuilding mode and the Big Ten’s East Division only getting stronger, expectations should perhaps still remain relatively low heading into 2017. But the second season is generally a time to show progress and is critically important in solidifying the foundation of a coach’s program, which makes this a significant spring for Ash.
After showing flashes of productivity leading the offense last season, this spring could be a chance for Giovanni Rescigno to stake a solid claim to the quarterback job and build some momentum in new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill’s offense. That position is always under the spotlight, but perhaps even more than most programs, Rutgers needs to find a reliable answer there soon.
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.
On Oct. 28, 2015, Jerry Kill announced his retirement as Minnesota's head football coach in a teary-eyed news conference. Battling seizures as a result of his epilepsy, Kill stepped down under his doctors instructions.
And that, he figured, would be the end of his long coaching career.
"I had reached the point where there was nothing left at all," he told ESPN.com earlier this month.
Less than a year and a half later, though, Kill is back working in the game he loves, if in a slightly different capacity. In December, Rutgers hired the former Big Ten coach of the year as its offensive coordinator.
The move came with some serious question marks. The pressure and stress of coaching certainly contributed to Kill's health problems in the past, which included a seven-game leave of absence from Minnesota in 2013 after a series of seizures. Yet the 55-year-old Kill is moving forward with no hesitations.
"I'm sure some people are like, 'What the hell is he doing?'" Kill said. "But the way I look at it is, you only have one life. There's no do-overs. And, hey, I don't feel like I'm done helping kids."
Besides, Kill has reason to believe things will be different this time around.
After stepping down from the Golden Gophers, he took some time to relax in Florida. He then went back to work on controlling his epilepsy.
A big breakthrough was teaching himself how to sleep. Kill estimated that he slept an average of only three hours a night in the previous 12 years, as he was unable to keep his mind from spinning when he lay down in bed. He began practicing meditation, which helped him get much more rest.
He also altered the way he eats, going to a low-carb diet. Those changes, he said, have kept him seizure free for the past year.
Kill said he had several offers to get back into coaching right after he left Minnesota. They included a call from Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, who told him he could have any part-time role he wanted with the Wolverines. But Kill wasn’t ready to go back to work until May 2016, when he took a job as an assistant athletic director at Kansas State, where he worked closely with the football program and head coach Bill Snyder in an administrative capacity.
"Going to K-State was one of the greatest things I ever did," Kill said. "It allowed me to test drive myself a little bit, health-wise."
Reinvigorated by that job, Kill decided he was ready to coach again when Rutgers' Chris Ash called about his vacant offensive coordinator position.
"When I heard through the coaching rumor mill that he might want back in, I reached out right away," Ash said. "The obvious question was, 'What type of shape are you in?'"
The two went over what Kill's schedule would look like. Ash insists that his coaches go home on Wednesday and Thursday nights during the season. There will still be long work days, but Kill assured Ash that he's properly managed his condition and could handle the load.
Now an assistant coach for the first time since 1993, Kill won't have as much on his plate as he did when he was a head coach. He was stretched in many directions at Minnesota, where he often had to be the face of the entire athletic program through some administrative disarray and lead a major fundraising campaign.
"You've got a problem every day when you're the head coach," Kill said. "Your mind's never going to stop, because there's always a problem."
Kill has another motivation for getting back into football. He knows his elevated profile as a coach can help raise more awareness and money for people with epilepsy.
He has his own foundation, Chasing Dreams. It supports such projects as Camp Oz, a summer camp for Minnesota kids with epilepsy, and instructing schools how to respond to and care for students who have seizures. Kill also wrote a book, "Chasing Dreams: Living My Life One Yard at a Time"; all proceeds from sales go to the foundation.
He also promotes the social media campaign #TackleEpilepsy, which was tied in with the NFL during the Super Bowl.
— Jerry Kill (@JerryKillCoach) February 5, 2017
Once reluctant to discuss his health in detail, Kill is now using the platform he has with football to bring as much attention as possible to epilepsy. He knows that every time Rutgers plays on TV this season, for example, the announcers will likely tell his story. He embraces the role of public advocate.
"His willingness to speak out and share the struggles and successes he's had living with seizures is inspiring to all," said Phil Gattone, president and CEO of the Epilepsy Foundation. "He is inspirational and courageous as he continually moves forward with the challenges ahead of him. He is changing the world and its view on epilepsy as he rises above his own personal circumstances to help and give hope to others."
Kill's immediate coaching challenge is a tall one. The Scarlet Knights had one of the worst offenses in the country last season, finishing 127th out of 128 FBS teams at just 15.7 points per game. It's a major rebuilding job. Then again, Kill's entire career, from small schools like Saginaw Valley State to places such as Northern Illinois and Minnesota, has been about rebuilding.
"These are the things I'm used to doing," he said.
Ash, in just his second year as a head coach, appreciates the experience and knowledge that Kill brings to the staff.
"People assume he's a sounding board for you as a head coach and he does bring that," Ash said. "But more than anything, it's the way he attacks his job. He goes out and attacks it the way he wanted his assistants to do when he was a head coach. That's a great thing for me, because it's one less thing I have to worry about."
Kill isn't worried that his health will derail him this time around. He wants to be a shining example of someone living with epilepsy and still realizing their dreams.
"My life's good, but some of these young people are having 40-50 seizures a day and there’s no answer," he said. "So we need people to help. And it's a lot easier to help when you have a platform to do so."
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 Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
Must-win game: Oct. 14 at Illinois. Rutgers needs to break the Big Ten ice after going winless in conference play during Chris Ash’s first season as head coach in 2016. Ash’s second go-round in the league starts with games at Nebraska and against Ohio State. Neither of those are realistic victories for the Scarlet Knights at this point, but a trip to Illinois the following week might be the best chance they have to get some positive vibes flowing in Piscataway. The Illini won 24-7 last year at Rutgers, but a more settled lineup might have a better chance this time despite being on the road.
Trap game: Sept. 9 vs. Eastern Michigan. The last time a team from southeast Michigan visited Rutgers, it didn’t go well for the Scarlet Knights. Eastern Michigan doesn’t have the firepower that their neighbors at Michigan brought to High Point Solutions Stadium in 2016, but the Eagles are coming off of their best year (6-7) in recent history. Redshirt senior quarterback Brogan Roback and redshirt junior running back Ian Eriksen both return this season, which should help their offense continue to improve. A loss against Eastern Michigan would likely leave the Scarlet Knights with four defeats in their first five games and an increasingly deep hole for Ash and company to try to escape.
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 new player has the potential to make an instant impact for each conference team in 2017.
Up next: Rutgers
Player: QB Johnathan Lewis
There's no nice way to put this: The Scarlet Knights stunk at quarterback last year. Just look at Rutgers' passing stats from this game. Or this one. Or this one. You get the point. It was almost historically bad.
That's why Lewis has a chance to make an impact from Day 1, even though it's unusual for true freshmen to start at quarterback in the Big Ten.
He won't arrive on campus until this summer, so veteran players such as Giovanni Rescigno, Zach Allen and Tylin Odin will have a big upper hand in experience and a headstart to learn new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill's system. Then again, all three guys had a chance to make an impact last year, and it didn't go so well.
The 6-foot-4, 228-pound Lewis is a dual threat who ran a similar offense in high school and looks like a perfect fit for what Rutgers coach Chris Ash wants to do. The Jersey City native was an important recruit for Rutgers, and even though Ash isn't guaranteeing him immediate playing time, the path certainly exists.
"I don't care what level of football you're a part of -- whether it's the NFL, college, high school -- if you don't have a quarterback, you really don't have a chance," Ash said on national signing day. "And to be able to get a quarterback with the characteristics Johnathan Lewis has means everything to us."
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.
Staying on the defensive side of the ball, next up will be the linebackers.
Best of the best: Iowa and Indiana
A top spot on defense is obviously unfamiliar ground for the Hoosiers recently, but with the league’s most productive tackler returning for a unit that new coach Tom Allen has helped find a higher level, it’s deserved heading into this season. Tegray Scales isn’t exactly a secret within the Big Ten, though he remains undervalued nationally for all the ways he can contribute at linebacker and his decision to return for another campaign was a huge boost for Indiana after losing Marcus Oliver to the NFL draft. But counting hybrid defensive back Marcelino Ball as a member of this group, the Hoosiers should still be in position to roll out one of the league's best groups with junior-college signee Mike McGinnis and returning veterans Dameon Willis and Chris Covington all vying for playing time.
Iowa is in a similarly strong position, with Josey Jewell electing to come back for another year after finishing just behind Scales in total tackles last season. With Ben Niemann and Bo Bower on hand, the Hawkeyes have three seniors to lean on and anchor the defense -- guys who combined for 284 tackles a year ago.
Runners-up: Ohio State and Wisconsin
Given the rich tradition of both programs at this position, it’s no surprise that the Badgers and Buckeyes are in the mix and more than capable of rising up to potentially become the best unit in the Big Ten. Both have key losses to address this spring that are currently keeping them just outside of the top spots, though, and just how painless the transition without Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan or Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel turns out will be key.
Wisconsin addressed one of those outside spots with a rare junior college pickup, and the pressure will be on Andrew Van Ginkel right away to contribute. But the Badgers are loaded on the inside with four proven commodities, and throwing a healthy Jack Cichy back in the mix could be huge for new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, are loaded on the outside with Jerome Baker and Chris Worley coming back after breakout campaigns. And while the picture isn’t clear yet in the middle, Dante Booker's return from an injury that kept him on the shelf virtually all of last season could provide a solution. And if not, maybe four-star freshman Baron Browning, who is already on campus, could find his way into that role.
Team that could surprise: Maryland
The Terrapins appear to be growing nicely under DJ Durkin and appear to have plenty of potential to move up the ranks in the Big Ten based on the recent signing class that unexpectedly finished in the top 20 in the nation. And with more teams lighting up the scoreboard in the East Division recently, putting together a solid corps of linebackers, like the one led by Jermaine Carter, could be crucial in taking a step forward. Jalen Brooks is also on hand with some experience, and if leading tackler Shane Cockerille is cleared again after being ruled ineligible for the bowl game last year, the Terrapins have the makings of a defense that could turn a few heads.
Teams that need to step it up: Rutgers and Purdue
The Scarlet Knights finished last in the Big Ten in both rush and total defense in Chris Ash’s first season with the program, which won’t sit well with a coach who has made his name on that side of the football. The linebackers weren’t solely to blame and Trevor Morris did some impressive work at times while piling up 102 tackles, but Rutgers clearly needs to take a step forward at the second level.
If not for the Scarlet Knights, Purdue would have finished in the basement in both of those key categories, putting another item on the list of improvements Jeff Brohm needs to work on in his debut season. The Boilermakers have a solid building block in Markus Bailey, and he still has room to improve after posting 97 tackles and snagging four interceptions as a redshirt freshman.
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.
By the end of the regular season, it looked like the Big Ten coaching carousel might not spin all that much.
Sure, Purdue had fired Darrell Hazell in midseason. But there weren't any other obvious head-coaching changes on the horizon, or so we thought. Just goes to show, you never say never in the coaching biz. Indiana surprised everybody by dumping Kevin Wilson a few days after the season and promoting defensive coordinator Tom Allen to head coach, while an off-field scandal and brief bowl boycott led Minnesota to fire Tracy Claeys despite a 9-4 campaign.
Three head coaching changes is pretty much par for the course these days. Purdue's hiring of Jeff Brohm and the Golden Gophers snagging P.J. Fleck have gotten both fan bases excited. But there have been a lot more changes than just at the head coaching level. Today, we're going to look at the five most significant assistant coaching hires of the Big Ten offseason. Or at least so far, as Wisconsin still needs to name a defensive coordinator and other moves still could happen -- because the carousel never really stops.
The list of five, in alphabetical order:
Bob Diaco, defensive coordinator, Nebraska: Diaco's three-year stint as head coach at UConn was remembered more for his bizarre invention of a rivalry with Central Florida than any actual on-field success. Whether he's cut out to be a head coach remains to be seen because the UConn job is not an easy one. Still, there's very little question that he's one of the top defensive minds in the game, as he proved at both Cincinnati and Notre Dame. Diaco is more than a little off-center personality-wise, but his players usually respond to him. He could be the key for Nebraska to get back to its Blackshirt tradition of tough, physical defenses.
Brian Ferentz, offensive coordinator, Iowa: There's no doubt that the Hawkeyes needed a jolt after finishing 121st in the FBS in total offense last season. With the notable exception of the 2015 run to the Big Ten title game, Greg Davis' philosophies didn't always seem to mesh well with Iowa's bread-and-butter staples. Ferentz certainly will be on the same page as his father, and the staff will be reworked to get everybody moving in the right direction. The younger Ferentz gained valuable experience during his time with the New England Patriots, and the former offensive line coach will push an aggressive, physical run game to the forefront.
Pep Hamilton, assistant head coach/passing game coordinator, Michigan: The only non-coordinator on our list, Hamilton reunites with Jim Harbaugh after serving as his wide receivers coach at Stanford in 2010. Hamilton later went on to be the offensive coordinator for the Cardinal and with the NFL's Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns. You could say he's overqualified for his new role in Ann Arbor, but Michigan certainly is thrilled to have him working with Wilton Speight and a host of young receivers and quarterbacks.
Jerry Kill, offensive coordinator, Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights averaged just 13.4 offensive points per game, last in the FBS, and were shut out four times in Big Ten play. A major overhaul was needed, and head coach Chris Ash scored a coup by luring former Minnesota head coach Kill out of retirement. Kill insists that his epilepsy is under control, and hopefully he'll be better able to manage his condition without all the pressures and requirements that a head coaching job brings. He's still going to have a ton of work to do to right this ship, beginning first and foremost with finding and developing a quarterback.
Kevin Wilson, offensive coordinator, Ohio State: Urban Meyer vowed to fix the Buckeyes' passing game after his team shockingly was shut out in the Fiesta Bowl by Clemson, and Wilson is one of the best offensive schemers around. His Hoosiers were consistently ranked among the top passing teams in the Big Ten, and they combined a fast pace with a creative running attack. Both Wilson and Meyer will have to answer some tough questions about the circumstances in which Wilson left Indiana, which included allegations of player mistreatment. But if there are appropriate firewalls in place, this could be as productive a marriage as that of Meyer and Greg Schiano, his defensive coordinator and another former head coach.
Out-of-league games comprise only 25 percent of a team's regular-season schedule, however. What's even more important for many teams is how their Big Ten schedules stack up.
So today we're taking a look at which teams have the most and least favorable Big Ten schedules in 2017. We're not using "tough" and "easy" because it's never easy to get through a conference slate. And things are all kind of relative here. Playing in the East Division is going to present a major challenge with all the heavyweights located on that side. But we're more looking toward who has the more advantageous crossover games and how the home/road splits sort out. (As a reminder, West Division clubs gets five conference home games each this year, while East teams have only four apiece.)
After going through all these, I have to say I'm pretty impressed with how the league has managed to balance things out in Year 2 of the nine-game schedule. There are few glaringly obvious discrepancies in who plays whom.
Still, schedules will never be truly equal when there's no round-robin. So here are the three most favorable conference schedules -- at least on paper -- in late January:
1. Wisconsin: One year after facing one of the most brutal schedules imaginable, the Badgers get a bit of a letup in 2017. Their East crossovers are Maryland, Michigan and Indiana, with only the game against the Hoosiers coming on the road. Wisconsin does have to go to Nebraska on Oct. 7, but that's the only road game against a league team that had a winning record last year until the finale at Minnesota. And Wisconsin has absolutely dominated the series with the Gophers in the last decade-plus.
2. Illinois: The Fighting Illini do have to go to Ohio State. But their other crossovers are at home against Indiana and Rutgers, and they get Wisconsin, Nebraska and rival Northwestern all in Champaign. It's just a question of whether Lovie Smith's team will be good enough to take advantage of those matchups.
3. Rutgers: After going winless in the Big Ten last year, the Scarlet Knights can't count any game as easy. But their crossover schedule includes winnable games against Purdue and Illinois, along with a trip to Nebraska. That won't make the division games any more manageable, especially with road trips to Penn State and Michigan, but it sure beats the early days of facing both Wisconsin and Nebraska as West crossovers. A close fourth is the Golden Gophers, who get Nebraska and Wisconsin at home and whose crossover schedule (Maryland, Michigan State and at Michigan) depends heavily on how good Michigan State will be in 2017.
And here are the teams that appear to have the three least favorable conference schedules, same caveats applying:
1. Iowa: Rival fans have complained that the Hawkeyes' league schedules were too generous the past few years. Not so in 2017. Kirk Ferentz's team drew Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State as crossovers. While the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes do have to come to Kinnick Stadium, they are both likely preseason top-10 teams. And the Spartans could be poised to bounce back. Iowa also has to play both Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road, so they'll have to earn everything next season.
2. Nebraska: The good: Wisconsin and Iowa both come to Lincoln, and one of the three crossovers is Rutgers. The bad: Like Iowa, the Cornhuskers must play both Ohio State (at home) and Penn State (on the road). That's about as tough as it gets. And both Wisconsin and Iowa have had recent success winning in Memorial Stadium.
3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions' three crossovers could all be against West contenders: at Iowa, at Northwestern and versus Nebraska. The defending Big Ten champs also have to go to Ohio State. That game in Columbus convinced me to put Penn State here over the Buckeyes, who have road games against Iowa and Nebraska, plus the end-of-season trip to Michigan.
Let the hype begin for Super Bowl LI. The New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons will play for football's biggest prize in Houston on Feb. 5. And as always, several Big Ten alums will be part of the extravaganza.
It might surprise you to learn that Rutgers -- that is not a typo -- has more players on the Super Bowl rosters than any other Big Ten team. In fact, as NJ.com's Steve Politi points out, the Scarlet Knights' five representatives on both rosters (counting injured linebacker Jonathan Freeny) is the most of any college team.
Penn State has one player on the rosters -- sort of. Wide receiver Chris Hogan, who starred in Sunday's AFC championship game for New England, was a star lacrosse player for the Nittany Lions from 2007-09. After graduating from Penn State, he transferred to FCS Monmouth and played football for one season. He eventually became another Bill Belichick diamond-in-the-rough story.
Belichick has had a close relationship with Rutgers, dating back to his friendship with former Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano. His son, Steve Belichick, played long-snapper and graduated from the school. He is now the Patriots' safeties coach.
Falcons running backs coach Bobby Turner was the offensive coordinator and running backs coach at Purdue from 1991-94 and the running backs coach at Ohio State from 1989-90. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and tight ends coach Brian Daboll were graduate assistants at Michigan State under Nick Saban.
Here's a look at the players from Big Ten schools who will be in the Super Bowl:
DL Alan Branch, Michigan
DB Nate Ebner, Ohio State
OL Chase Farris, Ohio State#
LB Jonathan Freeny, Rutgers*
DB Duron Harmon, Rutgers
DB Devin McCourty, Rutgers
LB Rob Ninkovich, Purdue
CB Logan Ryan, Rutgers
S Ricardo Allen, Purdue
DT Jonathan Babineaux, Iowa
DL Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota
WR Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers
# -- Practice squad
* -- Reserve/injured list
The 2016 season is officially in the rear-view mirror, but the Big Ten blog is taking one last look back at the numbers that defined each conference program. Some teams underperformed, while others surprised by making drastic improvements in key areas.
Here are three stats that help explain the 2016 season for each Big Ten team. Next up: Rutgers, which went 2-10 and was winless in the Big Ten under first-year head coach Chris Ash.
99: That's how many points Rutgers scored against its Power 5 opponents. For you non-math majors out there, that equates to 9.9 points per game. It's pretty hard to average single digits for an entire season against equal competition, but somehow the Scarlet Knights pulled it off. Even counting their lone wins against Howard and New Mexico, in which the team scored a combined 89 points, they still finished last in the FBS in offensive points per game at 13.4. And they were shut out four times in conference play. Yeah, it was ghastly. New offensive coordinator Jerry Kill has a lot of work to do.
264.2: That's how many rushing yards per game Rutgers allowed. Only two FBS teams were more generous against the run. That included a 410-yard performance on the ground by Ohio State, 481 rushing yards by Michigan and 339 by Penn State. That's ugly, with a capital U. Ash will need to recruit more defensive linemen who can hang in against the better Big Ten offensive lines.
128: Well, there are 128 FBS teams. Here are some categories where Rutgers finished 128th nationally in 2016: Yards per game, yards per play, net yards per pass attempt, net yards per punt, red-zone offensive efficiency and yardage margin per game. This was truly one of the worst seasons by a Big Ten team in a long time, and there's no reason to belabor the point any further.