After a string of 11 and 12-win seasons, Rose Bowls, and Big Ten titles, Bret Bielema left Madison for the SEC. Many feared the program would drop off in the transition, but coach Gary Andersen built success around the same core principles: a dominant run game and a fierce defense. One of those returns this season, while the latter must be entirely rebuilt. But Andersen, with a strong and successful defensive background should be able to piece together a new unit. The Badgers will live and die by its rushing attack, but with the league’s best offensive line (as usual) and a dynamic RB tandem, Wisconsin looks poised for a division title run.
Jared Abbrederis (2nd all-time receiver) was one heck of a playmaker and was relied on heavily over his career here. His departure, coupled with the graduation of tight end Jacob Pedersen leaves a huge vacancy in the passing game. New capable receivers need to step up to help returning starter QB Joel Stave, who may be dethroned by the dual-threat Tanner McEvoy, who was athletic enough to start at safety. But whoever claims the starting spot will benefit from a rock solid offensive line and explosive running back duo. From left to right the Wisconsin offensive line checks in at 6’5”, 6’6”, 6’3”, 6’5”, 6’8” making it again one of the nation’s best (and biggest). Despite the loss of James White, the other 2 backs are just as good, if not better. Melvin Gordon rushed for 1609 yards (7.8 per carry!) while Corey Clement added 547 for a crazy average of 8.2 yards per carry! The run game will be feared enough that teams will be forced to load the box with as many as 8 or 9 defenders – all the while opening up passing lanes to take advantage of. Even without Abbrederis, the offense will be able to match or even build on its 35 points per game.
Andersen took over an abysmal Utah State defense and eventually cut the points allowed in half (was 35 per, down to 17 per). He will need to prove himself again, as the tough 2013 defense is almost completely gutted. 8 starters are gone, including the linebacking core that excelled for years with All-American Chris Borland leading the way. In fact, not a single starter returns in the entire front seven, an area crucial in the physical Big Ten. The veteran secondary will need to compensate for the youth and inexperience up front. Sojourn Shelton (CB) and Michael Caputo each had solid seasons last year, will assume more leadership, and are fittingly receiving some All-BigTen preseason hype. Wisconsin has never been atop the recruiting rankings, as the program has been built on player development and strong walk-on program. How will Andersen fare with these prospects, and can he continue the Badger Defense tradition?
The season kicks off quickly, as Wisconsin travels to Houston to play LSU in easily UW’s biggest season opener in a long time. Regardless of how that physical battle turns out, UW will have plenty of time to recover and develop its defense in time for Big Ten play. Out of the East, they draw both newcomers Maryland and Rutgers; meanwhile they host Nebraska in mid-November in a game that could decide the West (and a game I plan on attending). Can't wait to "Jump Around" with the division title at stake.
On the surface it may look like just another typical 4 loss Bo Pelini team, but at its core, 2013 was the most unsettling year since the dark days of the Callahan era. The defensive inconsistencies, the turnovers (again), and the loss of their offensive leader made the season much more difficult to stomach. They allowed UCLA to score 38 straight points, and had issues slowing down their other low-caliber non-conference opponents. They turned the ball over 6 times against Michigan State despite otherwise playing right with the league champ Spartans. Iowa and Minnesota simply pushed them around, a level of physicality that the once-feared Blackshirts seemed to want no part of. If it weren’t for late-game heroics at Michigan and Penn State (and the Hail Mary vs. Northwestern), we would be looking at a losing team and possibly a new head coach. It’s not how many losses (always 4 under Bo), but how they lose. This team continues to meltdown a few games each season - it seems like it’s never a close, hard-fought, normal loss. More often than not under Pelini, the losses spiral out of control in embarrassing fashion.
But what rattled the program most, even more than its consistently inconsistent on-field product was an off-the-field issue stemming from Pelini himself. A 2011 audio recording containing a Pelini tirade about the media and (most hurtfully) the fans became public. Pelini talking down (and cursing out) a loyal, knowledgeable fan base that has sold out every single game since 1962 (NCAA record) is absolutely ridiculous and shook the program to its core. I have been optimistic the past few years that Nebraska was ready to turn the corner and compete for championships again. But its now at the point that they need to go out and prove it before earning back any level of trust.
The Taylor Martinez era is over. The 4-year starter quietly faded away due to a nagging turf toe injury that sidelined him for most of his senior season. Needing someone to place the blame on, some Husker fans undeservedly threw most of it onto Martinez. All he did was leave as the all-time career passing leader, conduct several 2nd half comebacks, and compile a highlight reel that rivals even the great Eric Crouch. Tommy Armstrong was thrown into the fire last fall and led the team to a 7-1 record as a freshman starter. While the phrase “Tommy on the option keeper” has a familiar ring to Husker fans, he will need to vastly improve his passing. Surely some of that will be improved with an entire offseason with first-team reps. Armstrong will be surrounded by explosive talent with one of the nation’s finest RB units, and a core of playmaking receivers. Ameer Abdullah rushed for 1690 yards including 11 100-yard games, while the big-back Imani Cross added in 10 touchdowns. The speedy Terrell Newby will be a nice wildcard for coordinator Tim Beck to throw in there for some carries. Kenny Bell’s speed, Jamal Turner’s elusiveness, and Jordan Westerkamp’s reliability make this an elite receiving core and one that is not earning enough respect nationally. Look for Cethan Carter to break out at tight end, and for Abdullah to continue to be an effective pass-catcher out of the backfield. The major concern here is the offensive line that returns just one starter in Jake Cotton. The Colorado transfer Alex Lewis will need to step up, as will the other juniors in the “Pipeline.” The offense’s success hinges on the offensive line’s development, and Armstrong’s maturation in the passing game.
Pelini inherited one of the most pathetic defenses in the nation and turned it into the nation’s finest 2 seasons later- heck, DT Ndamukong Suh almost (and should have) won the Heisman! Since the days of Suh, Amukamara, and Lavonte David, the Blackshirts have eroded, and its barely even a shock to see former punching bags pushing them around. At first it was “well, they are adjusting to a new conference,” and that is certainly understandable for a year, maybe two. But even in season 3 in the Big Ten, Nebraska was pushed around all too often.
Perhaps what Pelini needs is the combination of an emerging superstar and a collection of athletic pieces to the puzzle. The fact that he has both of those is quite encouraging. Defensive End Randy Gregory earned my vote for All-American last fall, and he will be gaining more support than just mine this season. I was in the Big House when Gregory took over the game and exposed the heralded Taylor Lewan. The entire line is stout with the hard-working Maliek Collins next to Vincent Valentine. This could actually be Nebraska’s best line since the days of Suh, Crick, and Steinkuhler. Even more experience returns at linebacker: sophomore Michael Rose has great potential, and Zaire Anderson reminds me a lot of Lavonte David. The secondary technically only returns one “starter” (All-BigTen candidate Corey Cooper), but Josh Mitchell and Nathan Gerry both received significant playing time. Two transfers provide depth: Jonathan Rose from Auburn, and the JUCO Byerson Cockrell who coaches are raving about. I think the defense HAS POTENTIAL to become a classic Pelini defense and be a feared unit once again.
Talent-wise and potential-wise, I like Nebraska better than Wisconsin and Iowa. But given the track record of Pelini’s teams, the Huskers continue to self-destruct once or twice a season. Their inconsistency, coupled with an unfavorable schedule that includes Michigan State from the East Division and the 3 other best West teams on the road, places Nebraska at my #2 spot in the West Division.
Last preseason, the guys over at HuskerBoard accused me of being a “kool-aid drinking Husker Fan,” and I hope they don’t take this one too hard. If the Huskers open up 5-0 and then go into East Lansing and knock off the defending Big Ten champs, then by all means pass me some more of that Big Red kool-aid, and fast! But until Nebraska truly proves themselves and plays to their high level consistently, I am afraid I’ve already hit last call.
The familiar slogan from fellow Big Ten member Michigan is “The Team. The Team. The Team.” Here in Iowa, at least this preseason, all you here about is “The Schedule. The Schedule. The Schedule.” I refuse to fall into this pattern of talking solely about the easy road Iowa has; instead, let’s first evaluate if they have the talent to compete with the division’s elite. Iowa suffered losses to all 3 ranked teams they faced, along with an unranked (at the time) Michigan State and Northern Illinois of the MAC. However, the most tenured coach in the Big Ten, Kirk Ferentz, saw his team double its win total from 4 to 8. The offense returns all the key pieces but will go under some major strategic renovations. Meanwhile, the stingy defense loses several starters and tons of production and leadership.
When you think traditional Big Ten offense, you immediately picture Iowa, the stereotypical 3 yards and a cloud of dust, punishing rushing attack behind a stout offensive line. Hard to believe, but it will be a new-look Iowa offense this fall. Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis (15 years under Mack Brown) wants to implement a more complex, multiple system and stray away from the basic Iowa offense of old. Davis thinks the perfect time for the change is now due to his returning starting quarterback Jake Rudock. An efficient drop-back passer, Rudock also did enough on the ground to keep the defense honest (68 carries for 218 yards and 5 TD’s). Perhaps his most valuable attribute is his cerebral strength; Rudock is smart enough to lead the complex offense and even had experience with a similar strategy in high school. He is surrounded by a deep, talented, and HEALTHY (knock on wood) stable of running backs. The bulky Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri, and Damon Bullock will all share time at RB. The top two receivers return, but star tight end CJ Fiedorowicz moves on to the pros. All-American left tackle Brandon Scherff shocked many by passing on the NFL to return to Iowa City for his senior season. Offensive line play will be crucial, especially early on, as Rudock will be working out the kinks to the offense and his several new reads.
The Hawkeye defense was very strong in ’13, allowing just 18 points per game which finished 3rd best in the Big Ten. Unfortunately, the unit was gutted, especially in the linebacking core. 5 of the top 7 tacklers are all gone, along with 1st team All-BigTen corner BJ Lowery. Carl Davis could be an emerging star up front, while John Lowdermilk mans the secondary. Iowa has never been elite in the recruiting department, so major question marks remain as to the talent levels of all these new starters. Overall, look for a step back from the defensive unit.
Compared to the other division favorites, the offense may look competitive, but the strategy overhaul will most likely be accompanied by some growing pains. Iowa simply doesn’t have the top-level, game-changing playmakers that Nebraska and Wisconsin have. Easy schedule aside, to win the West, you have to beat the other top West teams. I see Iowa dropping a game to either Maryland or Northwestern, then losing to both Wisconsin and Nebraska to finish with a 5-3 conference record. Schedule- CHECK. Elite talent- NOPE.
Fresh off of a 10-3 season that was a collective 5 minutes away from 13-0, expectations were reaching an all-time high heading into the 2013 season. With College Gameday broadcasting in Evanston, the Week 5 primetime matchup against undefeated #4 Ohio State was dubbed the biggest home game in NU history. For 3 quarters, Northwestern controlled the game and looked poised to earn that program-changing victory. But then Braxton Miller knocked the rust off to return to his elite form, and a fluky last-second touchdown sealed the game, setting into motion a string of losses that seemed to compound week to week. Of the 7 straight losses, 4 were by a score or less. It appeared that the Wildcats were about to clinch their 2nd straight win in Lincoln, but Nebraska’s Hail Mary prayer was answered on the final play. The 49-yard heartbreaker was a microcosm of the entire 2013 NU football season: poor luck and inability to finish games.
Cain Kolter elevated the NU offense to a new level over his 3 years starting here. The dual-threat QB added an extra spark, with improvisation skills that drove defenses crazy. Kolter was even used as a “triple-threat” when moved to receiver on plays where pocket-passer Trevor Siemian was under center. Venric Mark is the workhorse RB that was a vital part of the successful 2012 offense (1366 yards); his early season injury disrupted the offense even further. While Kolter graduates, Mark is back and healthy, ready to support Siemian in his first season as the sole quarterback. But will the loss of do-it-all Kolter cause the offense to revert? Siemian will be protected by one of the Big Ten’s most experienced offensive lines; the entire two-deep returns fully intact. Led by Rimington candidate Brandon Vitabile, the NU line should provide Siemian time to progress through his reads without needing to flee the pocket as quickly and often as Kolter. The absence of playmakers at receiver has hindered the offense for quite some time, but three players have the potential to add some electricity to the passing game: Tony Jones, Christian Jones, and the former #1 High School WR (USC Transfer) Kyle Prater.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald won back-to-back Nagurski and Bednarik Awards here as a LB in the 1990s, and brings intensity and expertise to the defense. The points allowed per game rose to 27 (9th in the league), but that experience will prove beneficial this fall, as 8 starters return to what will be Fitzgerald’s most veteran group in years. The entire secondary returns and features playmaking Safety Ibraheim Campbell (4 INT in ‘13). Despite losing their leading tackler (Damien Proby), the linebacking unit is stout with Chi Chi Ariguzo (potential All-BigTen), and Collin Ellis, who had 2 Pick Sixes in the same game (and took home our weekly Deion Sanders Award). If a few spots up front can be fixed, this unit has potential for drastic improvement.
It is all too easy to simply look at the 5-7 record and write off Northwestern football, tossing them back to the Big Ten cellar where they have resided for decades. Besides the definitive losses to Wisconsin and Michigan State, the other 5 losses were all very winnable. This easily could have been an 8 or 9 win team. Moving forward, the Cardiac Cats must find ways to succeed offensively without Cain Kolter, and also find ways to ignore Kolter’s off-the-field drama with the NCAA and unionization of college athletes. Strictly football speaking, look for a bounce back from Fitzgerald, but not quite a big enough jump to crack the division elite.
Minnesota’s “Drive for Five (Wins)” came up short in Week 5 against rival Iowa, as the Hawkeyes defended the Floyd of Rosedale. After a blowout loss in the Big House, the Gophers found a spark, and rallied for 4 straight upset wins. One by one they knocked off Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana, and Penn State to reach their highest win total (8) since the Marion Barber/Laurence Maroney team in 2003. The team and coaching staff united despite coach Jerry Kill’s seizures; Kill will be back on the sidelines and recently inked a deal lasting until 2018. Two major losses will be difficult to recover from: QB Philip Nelson transferring to Rutgers, and DT Ra’Shede Hageman.
RB David Cobb, and the quarterbacks Nelson and Mitch Leidner ran behind a stout offensive line and established a hard-nosed rushing attack that valued ball control and attempted to wear down opponents. The two quarterbacks split time, but Nelson clearly had more snaps and a bigger role; his departure puts Leidner in the driver seat full-time. Luckily for Leidner, the top rusher (Cobb), 6 of the top 7 receivers, and 4 of 5 lineman all return. Quarterbacks tend to make their biggest jump from their first to second year starting, and such a jump is crucial for the Sophomore QB. Offensive Coordinator Matt Limegrover has improved the scoring per game each season, and looks to move up again from the 25 per game in 2013. Depending on Leidner’s offseason development, that figure is quite attainable.
On the surface, the quick stat of 7 returning starters looks promising. But there remains a 6’6” 315 pound void at defensive tackle, as All-BigTen DT Ra’Shede Hageman moves onto the pros. He was a space-eater in the core of the defense, a force that benefited those around him, especially Theiren Cockran (7.5 sacks). With the double and triple team attention now off of Hageman, will Cockran be as successful? To stay at the level of last year’s defense, he will have to be, considering the remaining defensive roster is not up to par with the talented upper tier of the division. Look for a step back on this side of the ball.
In addition to season-ending roadtrips to the division favorites (Nebraska and Wisconsin), Minnesota also draws Ohio State and Michigan out of the East. It will be tough to open 4-0 for a third straight season, as a Week 3 trip to TCU looms heavy. There is no way the Gophers eclipse or even match last year’s 8 wins, in fact bowl season looks very questionable at this point. The games against Iowa and Northwestern look to be the swing games that could either get them into the postseason or be forced to spend the winter at home watching the Gopher Hockey team.
The Scheelhaase era has ended. The 4-year saga started with a record of 13-6, but finished just 7-24, with a coaching change halfway through. Tim Beckman replaced Ron Zook, and is now in his third season with his most experienced team yet. He inherited quite a rebuilding project, and has only been able to achieve one Big Ten win – a 20-16 victory of lowly Purdue.
Any hope of returning to bowl season lies in the hands of new starting quarterback Wes Lunt, a transfer from Oklahoma State. As a true freshman, Lunt was the unlikely winner of a quarterback battle at OSU, but lost his role after an injury. After redshirting and running the scout team last fall, Lunt is primed and ready. RB Josh Ferguson is the leading returning rusher AND receiver (set the school record for RB receiving) and will be the feature of the Illini offensive attack. The top 4 wide receivers are gone, leaving huge voids on the outside. The offensive line is experienced enough to give the immobile Lunt a chance to progress through his reads.
Defensively, it couldn’t get much worse. Illinois gave up 35 points per game (41 per game in Big Ten play) making it one of the league’s worst. The sole bright spot is gone with the loss of 2nd Team All-BigTen LB and top tackler Jonathan Brown. Still, the strength of the defense is still at the linebacker level with TJ Neal, Mason Monheim, and Earnest Thomas. Some new faces along the defensive line include JUCO transfer Jihad Ward and a potential true freshman starter in Paul James.
From 2 wins in ’12 to 4 wins in ’13, it will be tough to continue the upward trend. The out-of-conference slate should produce 3 wins, but the return trip to Washington will be a physical test. The Illini draw Ohio State and Penn State out of the East, creating a very strong Big Ten slate. 6 wins is the absolute best-case scenario, with 4 or 5 wins more likely.
Purdue has always been known for displaying the “World’s Largest Drum” on fall Saturdays, but in his 2nd season, coach Darrell Hazell may be facing the “World’s Largest Rebuilding Project.” He has been a part of successful teams at Ohio State with Jim Tressel (2005-2010) and even turned around Kent State in just two years. But last season was one to forget in West Lafayette; the 1-11 campaign featured complete ineptitude on both sides of the ball. The offense failed to form an identity, while the defense finished near the bottom of Division 1 in nearly every statistical category. It is hard to identify a rock bottom in a season that featured weekly blowout losses, a near-loss to FCS Indiana State, and discouraging play in front of a half-empty Ross-Ade Stadium. The worst may have occurred in the final game of the season against rival Indiana when PU trailed 49-9 in the second half. However, from that low point, freshman quarterback Danny Etling’s Old Oaken Bucket performance (485 yards and 4 touchdowns) was enough to raise optimism heading into 2014. For how historically bad the ’13 Boilermakers were, history has shown that rough first seasons can lead to successful tenures. Rick Ferentz (1-10 in 1999), Barry Alvarez (1-10 in 1990), and Frank Beamer (2-9 in 1987) are all testimonials to the rebuilding ups and downs. While it is easy to quickly jump on Hazell after his opening season, there is room for cautious optimism – the guy clearly has a vision and a plan.
At the first offseason workout in February, the team was issued t-shirts featuring the phrase “FORWARD,” representing the mindset that Hazell wants to instill from Day 1. The 2013 season is done; together the 80+ Boilers must unite together one step forward at a time. It’s this culture of accountability, commitment, and enthusiasm that Hazell and his staff are tirelessly working to instill.
OFFENSE Coach Hazell wants the offense to have a run-based identity, but the power running attack failed in 2013, as the Boilers finished 122nd (of 123) in the nation. The passing game wasn’t much better, finishing 96th nationally, but offensive coordinator John Shoop has some key playmakers back. It all starts under center with sophomore QB Danny Etling who took over as starter against Northern Illinois in the 5th game. He took the typical true freshman growing pains, but showed brilliance at times. This offseason, Shoop has given Etling the opportunity to design plays for the offense, a sign of trust with the young signal-caller. Etling will benefit from a full offseason as the #1 quarterback, and already got his on-the-job training out of the way last fall.
Etling took an incredible amount of hits last season thanks to an inept offensive line, a unit that needs major improvement. The middle of the line returns – Robert Kugler (Center), Jordan Roos and Justin King (Guards) – but Shoop must replace both tackles. JUCO-transfer Corey Clements should provide some depth and perhaps start at one of the tackle spots. Kirk Barron, who enrolled early for spring practices, is another new lineman to keep an eye on. Based off of the winter and spring practices, it seems as though the line is progressing, both physically in the weight room and mentally in the film room.
If Etling is given more time this year, look for drastic improvements to the offense’s production, because he is surrounded by potential playmakers. Feature running back Akeem Hunt returns, and is joined by the speedy Raheem Mostert, who recently won the 60-meter and 200-meter races at the Big Ten Championships. The receiving core has great potential; leading wide receiver DeAngelo Yancey returns, and is complemented by Cameron Posey and Danny Anthrop. Look for an impact from BJ Knauf, a playmaker that was hurt and suspended but could return to his old level. Tight End Justin Sinz caught 41 balls last season and should be a prime target for Etling.
DEFENSE The 2013 Purdue defense was historically bad, and finished as one of the worst units in 126 seasons of football in West Lafayette. The 23.1 (points) average margin of defeat is the 2nd worst in the Big Ten over the last 15 years. The good news is that finally the defense has some unity from one season to the next, staff-wise. Defensive coordinator Greg Hudson returns, marking the first time these football seniors have the same DC as the season before. Hudson is limiting the playbook and focusing on the basics: fundamentals, communication, and pursuit. The staff hopes to limit the over-thinking to simply let them play.
The defensive line loses its leader, Bruce Gaston, a hopeful late-round pick in the NFL Draft. Defensive End Ryan Russell must take over as the senior leader on the line. Two tackles return with solid experience: Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III. Further, Kentucky-transfer Langston Newton will push for playing time at the end spot.
The defense loses Will Lucas, its top tackler, and will see a lot of competition at the linebacker spots. Guys like Joe Gilliam and Sean Robinson bring experience, while several redshirt freshmen and incoming recruits will add to the mix. Look out for highly touted Gelen Robinson, son of Purdue basketball legend Glenn Robinson, to make an immediate splash.
The biggest change is in the secondary with the new hire of Taver Johnson from Arkansas. Johnson coached alongside Hazell at Ohio State for 4 seasons and coached several NFL prospects such as Malcolm Jenkins. He brings Big Ten familiarity and perhaps most importantly, a significant impact to recruiting (Purdue finished last in the Big Ten). Besides losing star Ricardo Allen, Johnson inherits a lot of experience in the secondary with essentially the full rotation returning. CB Frankie Williams has two seasons under his belt as starter, and will be joined by returning safety starters Taylor Richards and Anthony Brown. Look for senior safety Landon Feichter to bounce back from his broken leg injury that sidelined him last season.
2014 SEASON OUTLOOK Hazell has his players focused on moving FORWARD; no job is safe, and competition is pushing the overall talent level higher. His team is buying into his vision to bring Purdue to the top of the Big Ten. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. Purdue is in the middle of quite a rebuilding project, and expectations should be adjusted to reflect that. With that in mind, there should be significant progress on both sides of the ball. Last season, 19 freshmen got playing time; those growing pains will surely pay dividends this fall. After a whole additional year of implementing Hazell’s system and values, look for a more competent and cohesive squad in 2014.
Purdue has an easier out-of-conference schedule this fall, with Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Southern Illinois all looking like potential victories. Further, the Big Ten slate is more manageable, as PU trades Ohio State and Penn State for Minnesota and Northwestern. Purdue will certainly top last season’s win total; best-case scenario is that they take care of business out-of-conference and steal some road games (Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana) to find themselves in pursuit of bowl eligibility in November. Worst-case scenario is that after beating the three early-season cupcakes, the Boilers struggle in Big Ten play and again finish winless in the conference (3-9 overall). More than just wins and losses, it is imperative for Purdue to be competitive in every game, start to form an identity on offense, and clean up the defensive mess of 2013. Hazell promised fans that he will make Purdue a “shining star,” let’s see if he inches one step closer to his vision this fall.