One of my weaknesses as a columnist is that I live in a world of gray. Few topics are ever black-and-white to me and columns work better when Thing A can be terrible/great/outrageous with no qualifiers.
But my mind rarely works that way, so, instead of waiting for it to fall in line, I thought maybe we could try to examine a few quick Big Ten topics I’m not even convinced I believe yet. But I’m getting close.
1. Maryland could finish third in the Big Ten East this year.
I’m sort of obsessed with whatever magic it is offensive coordinator Walt Bell worked last year in College Park. The Terrapins started three different quarterbacks last year, none of them great, and ranked 13th in the Big Ten in (sack-adjusted) passing yards per play, so how the hell did Maryland average 6.05 yards per carry (also sack-adjusted) with little threat of the pass? I don’t know, but I like what it says about Bell, an up-and-comer in the profession. Running back Ty Johnson became just the second FBS back since 2008 to average at least 9 yards per carry with a minimum of 100 carries. Lorenzo Harrison II averaged 7.19 on 88 carries. That’s impressive for any backfield, but particularly so for a backfield that had a giant question mark at quarterback for most of 2016. I’m very interested in what this offense is capable of with some stability at QB, which North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson, a former U.S. Army All-American, could provide in 2017.
The Terps also have to do some growing on defense, but that’s head coach D.J. Durkin’s stock and trade. Maryland returns eight starters on that side of the ball, so the bounce potential here is pretty high given it will be the second year in Durkin’s system. To finish fourth in the East Division Maryland would, in all likelihood, have to jump Indiana and outlast whatever Michigan State will be this year. If it can do that, climbing one more spot might be a matter of springing one upset along the way. If you like Ohio State as the top team in the conference — and there’s little reason not to — second/third comes down to Penn State and Michigan. The bookmakers like Michigan a little better, but I’ll give an edge to the Nittany Lions’ experience and Maryland does get the Wolverines at home in November. Given all that Michigan has to replace — and that the Wolverines have to play at Penn State, at Wisconsin and at Maryland — it’s not unthinkable that the Terrapins could jump up a spot if that run game continues to be as explosive as it was in 2016.
2. Jeff Brohm-to-Purdue will be viewed as a better hire than P.J. Fleck-to-Minnesota.
First, let’s start by trying to determine the ceiling for both programs. I think both programs, if they’re firing on all cylinders, can realistically hope to contend for division titles. Minnesota was almost there under Jerry Kill/Tracy Claeys, and, given Fleck’s recent success, the Gophers will expect to get there sooner. Purdue starts out at a lower level because, man, the Darrell Hazell era was bad. In terms of upside, the Boilermakers’ is higher and that changes how you view a hire.
The differences really emerge when you start to dig into program history. Brohm’s explosive passing attack mirrors what Purdue was able to do under Joe Tiller (10 bowls, one Rose Bowl). West Lafayette has been no stranger to high-profile quarterbacks and that’s helpful. Purdue should be able to find good quarterbacks based on its history, receivers are a dime-a-dozen and I like the defensive prospects under coordinator Nick Holt (formerly of USC and Washington). There’s an identity there as a passing powerhouse and it’s something of a curveball in the Big Ten, not unlike Kevin Wilson’s Indiana (the Hoosiers eventually started going to bowl games, which is a start).
The identity at Minnesota is . . . what? I don’t really know how to answer that question without going back to Bronco Nagurski. If you forced me to stop at former coach Glen Mason, maybe it’s hard-nosed defense and a solid running game. Problem there is Fleck, a former wide receivers coach, is more of a downfield passing guy. Doesn’t mean he can’t bring that old identity to Minneapolis with some time — I think he’ll recruit pretty well there — but it’s just an offense that’s pretty familiar in the Big Ten.
That said, Fleck’s a big “culture” guy and that matters a lot. It was a good hire, I just think I think Brohm’s a little bit more of a natural fit. It might lead me to take Purdue to finish fifth in the West Division. The Boilermakers will likely lose to Louisville in the opener, but the next two games — Ohio and Missouri — are interesting tests. Come out of that 2-1 — and I forgot to mention Brohm has a pretty good triggerman in year one in quarterback David Blough — and Purdue could be a pretty annoying team in the Big Ten right away.
3. Nebraska will maximize its potential in 2017 with defense.
I think Tanner Lee will have a good season passing and that will make a big difference in how this offense looks overall, but the Huskers’ real gains will be made on defense. I’ve gone back and forth on what I’m projecting for Nebraska in 2017. Every tangible measure points to about seven wins in my mind, but one big intangible is Bob Diaco. Can he have Nebraska playing top-25 defense by the end of the year?
Maybe. Jim Leavitt, now at Oregon, took Colorado from 70th in scoring defense, the defensive measure that matters most, to 20th in a year. In many ways, this returning Nebraska defense, devoid of any real stars outside of possibly the secondary, is a good fit for the team-defense approach Diaco has had so much success with over the years. You don’t point to one guy and say, “here’s why Nebraska will be better this year,” which means it has to be a sum-of-the-parts proposition.
I also believe that Diaco cares the most about the one thing defenses today need to make a priority — preventing the big play. You don’t do that, at least not reliably, with individual talent. “A sound defense is one that has every player on defense carrying out his assignment,” Bear Bryant wrote in his 1960 book, Building a Championship Football Team. “Then it is impossible for the offense to score.”
Fifty-six years later, that same team-first approach was apparent from Diaco’s first press conference at Nebraska. If the Huskers are to far exceed their projected win total — about six wins depending upon where you look — it starts on that side of the ball.