We’re deep in the heart of college football’s offseason, which means it’s time for lookahead pieces, which means it’s time for dumb debates. My favorite. Sunday saw the whole Hail Varsity staff kick off what’s looking like a week of season preview-like coverage of Nebraska, the Big Ten and this upcoming college football season with a roundtable about some conference-wide topics.
We’ll keep it rolling with four Big Ten storylines to buy or sell. Feel free to sound off on the forum below with your thoughts.
Buy or Sell: The West is now better than the East
Just looking at projected S&P+ rankings, the East is home to teams ranked Nos. 7, 9, 14, 23, 46, 67 and 108. The West has Nos. 11, 25, 33, 45, 57, 58 and 91. The East has the two best teams (Ohio State and Michigan) but it also has the worst (Rutgers). Of the five best recruiters over the last four years, four of the schools reside in the East (Nebraska is the fifth). The West, though, boasts four of the six Big Ten programs with the most returning production from last season (Indiana and Michigan are the two East teams).
So those are the numbers. Now for some observations.
There’s an interesting thing happening this offseason. Wisconsin — projected No. 11 by S&P+, mind you — is perceived to be trending down. The Badgers have to find five new starters on defense and six new starters on offense, including four on the offensive line and kinda-sorta-not-really at quarterback. Graham Mertz ran Alex Hornibrook out of town, though the freshman’s dynamic ability might be an upgrade over the veteran. The expectation is that group takes a step back, but Wisconsin has been in rebuilding years before and never really taken a major step back. It still has maybe the best running back in the country.
But, back to perception. Because Wisconsin has won the West three of the five years since this current format was created but is perceived to be on the decline, and because last year’s Northwestern team winning the West is still largely viewed as a rather fluky occurrence, and because the West appears wide open this upcoming season, there’s a notion all the teams that have a shot are strong teams simply because they might be able to win the division.
Minnesota has a shot. Does that mean it is a Big Ten championship-contending team? I don’t think so. Northwestern has a shot. It ain’t beating Ohio State or Michigan State. Iowa has a shot. Meh. Luke-warm is the feeling I get when thinking about the Hawkeyes; could put together a nice season, could be another 7-5 year. Nebraska has a shot. The Huskers still feel a year or so away from being title threats.
The distinction here is that the West can, at the end of the season, be better than the East. All those aforementioned teams could take leaps.
But as it stands right now, the top three teams in the East — Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State — would all be clear favorites over any of the top three teams in the West. We could see the power dynamic flip throughout the season, but it hasn’t flipped yet.
Buy or Sell: The East is still Ohio State’s to lose
Buy this. Throw all your money at this. Be Fry from the Futurama GIF where he’s throwing money in the camera’s face.
Michigan is trendy. This is the time of the year where trendy means everything. Josh Gattis, the Alabama-export and the team’s new offensive coordinator, inspires a lot of optimism. The defense has to replace six starters, but the offense is now better positioned to anchor the team, you say?
This is Michigan’s year, you say?
That’s what I said last year. When Michigan had four future NFL Draft picks terrorizing opposing offensives — two of whom were top-12 picks (Rashan Gary and Devin Bush) — and Shea Patterson and senior runner Karan Higdon and a tried-and-true tight end and an explosive wide receiver running the offense, I thought it was Michigan’s year.
And then Ohio State took the Wolverines and crushed every last hope and dream they had.
The Buckeyes have won 14 of the last 15 games against Michigan, and those wins have come by an average of two touchdowns per. Urban Meyer might not be on the sideline for the Buckeyes anymore, but Ryan Day was a perceived rising star before he took over for Meyer, so now questioning his ability and labeling him as an unproven first-year coach seems a little strange.
Ohio State, over the last four years, has the fifth-best weighted recruiting ranking average in the country. All that talent is still Day’s to work with. Michigan’s four-year average is 12th, which isn’t bad, but it’s also behind Penn State.
(Plus, Michigan goes at Wisconsin in Week 3, then plays Iowa, at Penn State, and Notre Dame in a span of four weeks in the middle of the season. That’s rough.)
Someone’s going to have to come and take it from the Buckeyes.
Buy or Sell: Nebraska is a legitimate threat to win the West
Two questions to pose before answering this.
- Who is the best quarterback in the Big Ten next season?
- Who is the coach you would most want on your team’s sideline with the ball, down three in the final few minutes of a game?
The answer to the first question should be Adrian Martinez, the Huskers’ sophomore signal-caller. The answer to the second is probably a little more up for debate, but if you polled people across the country and asked them that question, while limiting the answers to Big Ten coaches, you’d get “Scott Frost” as the response pretty often.
A great offensive mind and an elite quarterback gives any team a chance to win in college football. So, yes, betting men and women should be buying the Huskers as legit threats to win their division crown this season.
Nebraska plays its toughest games at home. Ohio State comes in Week 5 for a rematch of a game Nebraska players felt they should have won last year. The Huskers could very well be (and probably should be) 4-0 entering that one. Northwestern comes a week later. Wisconsin travels to Lincoln on Nov. 16 and Iowa has to come to town on Nov. 29. The road schedule includes Illinois, Minnesota, Purdue and Maryland.
This is the kind of season athletic directors circle and say, “This is our shot.”
The offense returns seven starters while the defense returns six. Though the guys who exited were key pieces on their respective sides of the ball (Stanley Morgan Jr., Tre Neal and Luke Gifford), Frost has put together two top-25 recruiting classes since taking over and has the kind of enticing talent you look for at the spots you want.
Martinez set 11 school records as a freshman, and five of them were records for any player in school history. His dual-threat ability has comparisons to Oregon’s Marcus Mariota looking completely justified. Wideout JD Spielman has earned All-Big Ten honors in each of his first two seasons as a second option. Wideout/runner Wan’Dale Robinson evokes Rondale Moore. Linebacker Mohamed Barry put up 112 tackles last year, to rank sixth in the Big Ten.
Believe in this team.
Buy or Sell: Wisconsin is going to take a step back
We sort of got into this above, but Wisconsin is going to be the subject of plenty of offseason think pieces.
In three years for the Badgers, Alex Hornibrook threw 47 touchdowns and 33 interceptions. An all-around strong sophomore campaign — 2,644 yards, 62.3% completion rate, 25 touchdowns, 15 picks — made way for a very real disappointment in 2018. His completion percentage dipped under 60 percent for the second time in his three starting years, his touchdowns were cut in half but the mistakes remained. Injuries played a factor, sure, but Hornibrook shoulders a lot of blame for Wisconsin’s 8-5 season.
Whether that was the main motivating factor for him leaving town and electing to spend his senior season at Florida State or it was
Graham Mertz something else, the fact that Wisconsin will turn to a true freshman quarterback in 2019 is at least some cause for pause.
Add to that the offensive line needing to replace both sets of starting guards and both sets of tackles and the Badger offense faces plenty of question marks.
On defense, three starting linebackers are gone and Olive Sagapolu, the big man in the middle of the defense, has graduated. For a second year in a row, there’s inexperience there at key spots. The results last season yielded slippage across the board and it was enough to derail a year that had lofty expectations.
This is a hard question to answer either way, given the sheer volume of uncertainty, but there are two pieces that provide reason for Badger optimism: Mertz and running back Jonathan Taylor.
At quarterback, Wisconsin has a guy who absolutely lit up the adidas All-American Bowl in January, earning MVP honors. Wisconsin has a guy who was a consensus 4-star prospect, a top-100 recruit nationally by 247 and the third-rated pocket passer in the 2019 class. Wisconsin has a guy who threw 96 touchdowns in his last two years at the high school level and earned Gatorade Player of the Year honors in Kansas.
In the past, Wisconsin’s offense has been stymied when it has been forced into passing situations. Mertz could very well be slow to acclimate to the speed of the Big Ten, or he could prove the perfect answer to what has ailed the Badgers.
Because Taylor is the best running back in the country. He ran for 1,977 yards as a freshman in 2017 and followed that up with a Doak Walker Award-winning sophomore campaign in which he led the nation with 2,194 yards. For his career, he’s averaging 6.9 yards a carry.
A backfield partnership of Mertz and Taylor should, theoretically, give Wisconsin the ability to work through everything else. It might not be the 13-1 of 2017, but it also probably won’t look as bad as it did last year.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.