With the 2019 Hail Varsity Yearbook nearing release and with everyone’s minds here firmly on football, it seemed a good time to take stock of some offseason Big Ten storylines. Brandon Vogel, Erin Sorensen, Greg Smith, Jacob Padilla, Derek Peterson and Mike Babcock are all on hand to offer thoughts on five questions.
Q: This offseason, Jeff Brohm elected to turn down what would have likely been a lucrative offer to return to Louisville — his alma mater — in order to remain with Purdue. Did he make the right move?
BV: Yes. When I look at Purdue and Louisville, I don’t think the Cardinals’ program ceiling is higher than Purdue’s. In fact, it might be slightly lower. When you factor in the recent turmoil with that athletic department you get another mark in the “Cons” column for Louisville. I’m sure this was a tough choice for Brohm. Louisville isn’t just his alma mater but his hometown as well. But when I look at it, there isn’t anything he could’ve done at Louisville that he can’t also do at Purdue. And the Boilermakers’ brass was willing to pay handsomely to keep him, which was big for the Big Ten as a whole.
ES: I imagine it was difficult for Brohm to turn down Louisville, but it was the right move. As Brandon said, the ceiling feels like it might be just a little higher for the Boilermakers right now and you don’t have the drama to deal with in the athletic department. I’ve been impressed with the job Brohm has done at Purdue and I think he saw the potential he has to make a big impact there. It might have been a tough decision not to go “home” but hey, West Lafayette isn’t a bad place to call home either.
GS: It’s hard to say someone made the wrong choice when they signed a $36 million contract but I don’t agree that the ceiling at Purdue and Louisville are the same or all that close, so I think he made a bad choice long term. To me, the path to winning big consistently at Purdue is very difficult given the other power schools in the conference that will always be in the mix. I’d much rather have to consistently go through essentially just Clemson versus trying to build a program to consistently be better than the teams in the Big Ten. He’s doing a fine job at Purdue but fine will likely get them a ceiling of 8 wins in the Big Ten.
JP: “Right” is subjective, so this is a difficult question to answer. It’s impossible for us to know what is important to Brohm. How does the pull of his alma mater compare to his connection to his current group of players? Does Brohm have his sights set on somewhere more high-profile than Louisville in the somewhat near future? I do think Louisville would have been a step up from Purdue for him, but if he’s able to continue resurrecting the Purdue program in an exciting fashion, his name is likely to show up on short lists when programs with more prestige than Louisvile start looking for new coaches. Brohm got a nice little raise to cotninue what he started at Purdue, and I think sticking with that is a fine decision – if he’s as good as a lot of people think he is.
DP: My tune on this has sort of changed. When Brohm said he was sticking with Purdue, I thought it was a big win for Purdue, a big win for the Big Ten and a smart move for Brohm. But now I keep thinking about one question: which conference is easier to win right now and in the immediate future, the Big Ten or the ACC? Ohio State is the same old Ohio State until proven otherwise. I thought the Wolverines were one of the four best teams in football last year until Urban Meyer broke them. Michigan State has been to a College Football Playoff. Wisconsin is still Wisconsin until proven otherwise. Iowa is still Iowa. Nebraska appears set to once again be Nebraska. Northwestern just won the West. Which non-Clemson team in the ACC scares you? Miami? Manny Diaz has to prove himself before we get to that point. Florida State is in shambles. Georgia Tech is restarting after Paul Johnson. Syracuse had one good year. Playing in the ACC essentially puts you one win away from being taken seriously. At Purdue, Brohm has at least three other teams with equal or greater odds of winning his own division to contend with.
MB: Don’t think there’s anything I could add to what’s already been said here, both ways. I think the turmoil observation is most significant. That’s not something even an alum and hometown guy necessarily wants to walk into. I’m on the he-made-a-good-choice–staying-put side, in large part because of that and because I think he’s found a home in West Lafayette.
Q: Which Big Ten program has the highest ceiling in 2019?
BV: Nebraska. If that seems strange, I think it’s because the Huskers are being predicted to finish closer to their Year 2 ceiling than most would’ve expected at this point. But that doesn’t change what its 2019 ceiling is, and I think that’s winning the division. Do that and anything can happen in the title game (so, effectively, winning the conference is the ceiling). Team that currently has the greatest distance between its preseason consensus and its ceiling? Wisconsin.
ES: I, too, will take Nebraska. You have people (that aren’t even Nebraska fans!) saying the Huskers could get to the Big Ten title game. Vegas also thinks Adrian Martinez has a shot at the Heisman. That’s quite the ceiling, no? It’ll be interesting to see if Nebraska can reach it or better yet, surpass it.
GS: I will say that it’s very hard to pick against Nebraska here. A big Year 2 under Frost is brewing. However, I’ll go with Minnesota. The Gophers have a deep backfield and a lot of returning starters. Typically that counts for something, right? If they can get consistent QB play, it could get interesting in Minneapolis.
JP: Ohio State may not have Urban Meyer at the helm any longer, but it’s still stocked with the 4- and 5-star talent he hoarded during his time in Columbus. Michigan isn’t too far behind the Buckeyes and the Wolverines have one of the best returning quarterbacks in the Big Ten in Shea Patterson. At this point, I think you have to give Ohio State the benefit of the doubt until Ryan Day proves he can’t keep it rolling on his own.
DP: We’re talking about ceiling, right? Well the highest ceiling you can have is the pinnacle of the sport: the playoff. Which team has the best chance of making the playoff in 2019? It’s still Ohio State. Michigan could have the better team and I’d still pick Ohio State to beat the Wolverines. Ohio State has the psychological edge in the matchup and the Buckeyes are still recruiting at a level only a handful of teams in college football can match. We don’t know what Justin Fields is actually going to be like, or Ryan Day for that matter, but the Buckeyes have lost nine games in the last seven years. Day still has Urban Meyer’s talent. Nebraska isn’t making the CFP this season, neither is Wisconsin. Michigan is the closest to Ohio State at this current moment.
MB: We’re reading like a bunch of “homers” here. I think Nebraska has the potential, and I’m going along with Nebraska—but I’d temper the enthusiasm just a bit. The offensive line still has some developing to do. Adrian Martinez is an extraordinary talent, and the Heisman talk is cool. But his “candidacy” is for discussion purposes only. Barring injury, it’ll be Tua or Trevor. Plus, Adrian will depend on that line. Also, some receivers will have to step up, right? I’m picking Nebraska, with an asterisk.
Q: What will be the best Big Ten matchup on the 2019 calendar?
BV: Ohio State-Michigan is the boring pick, but usually the right pick. It’s particularly interesting this year given the view that the Wolverines have a window here as the Buckeyes tradition to a new (Ryan) Day. My college football hipster pick, however, is Army-Michigan in Week 3. I can’t wait to watch that game.
ES: For Nebraska specifically, that Ohio State matchup has a lot of potential to be one of the best. If the Huskers are 4-0 at that point, you might have ESPN’s College GameDay and a lot of national media in town to see if this is the big turning point for Scott Frost and Nebraska. Outside of Nebraska specifically, it’s probably Ohio State at Michigan at the end of November. It’s a rivalry game and there’s potential for the Wolverines to finally get a win over the Buckeyes. Ohio State has won every meeting between the two since 2011. It’s about time for Michigan (and Jim Harbaugh), right?
GS: Michigan versus Ohio State is always the answer here. I’m going to go ahead and predict now that no matter the records, the Buckeyes will win once again because Harbaugh just can’t get over that hump. Nebraska specific, the game against the Buckeyes is a huge one and will likely determine Nebraska ceiling in 2019 but I’ll go with the Iowa game. There is a chance that one decides who goes to Indy from the West and it’s about time for the Huskers to beat them.
JP: Ohio State-Michigan may be boring, but I’m going to pick it anyway. For the first time since Urban Meyer took over at Ohio State, top dog in the Big Ten East is truly up for grabs (I’m not just talking about one good season here, but rather about becoming the most consistent force in the division and the conference year to year). If Michigan can knock Ohio State off its pedestal, it could signal a significant shift in the balance of power moving forward.
DP: Ohio State has won 14 of the last 15 games against Michigan by an average of 14 points per game. Last year’s game wasn’t a game, it was a clinic on how to tear something apart. Meanwhile, the last three Penn State-Ohio State games have been decided by exactly one point total. The Buckeyes will host Penn State one week before traveling to Ann Arbor. That’s going to be the best conference game of the season. Nebraska-Ohio State also has potential here, based on entertainment factor.
MB: I’m already weary of talk that GameDay might come to Lincoln for the Ohio State game, as if there’s some meaningful certification having those folks in town. Of course, Michigan-Ohio State, from a national point of view. More focused, I’m going with Greg, Nebraska-Iowa. Everything potentially good the Huskers can accomplish can be undone with a poor performance in that game. So IF there’s sufficient success, there could be lots of build-up there. Let GameDay wait until then.
Q: Which Big Ten team will pull the biggest upset of 2019?
BV: Illinois. The Illini still have a lot of ground to make up in a rapidly improving West Division, but this is an experienced group that was dangerous on the ground last season. Illinois must find a quarterback—maybe 4-star athlete Isaiah Williams is the answer—but they have some great upset opportunities with Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin at home. Any of those would qualify as “big.”
ES: I was trying to find another team that’s not Illinois so I wasn’t just copying Brandon, but it's the best bet. The Illini get Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin at home. They also get Michigan State and Iowa on the road. I’m not sure if Iowa is an upset necessarily, but it’s late in the season and depending on how the Hawkeyes are doing, it could wreak some havoc on their post-season hopes and dreams. Otherwise, one win over Nebraska, Michigan, Wisconsin or Michigan State would be big. So, yeah, I’ll take Illinois on this one too.
GS: I’ll go with Northwestern. The way they play keeps them in every game. Perhaps there will be a game where transfer quarterback Hunter Johnson is red-hot and they get someone. They have a brutal stretch of Michigan State at home, Wisconsin on the road, Nebraska in Lincoln, home for Ohio State then home for Iowa. For their sake, it needs to be one of those games.
JP: I was thinking of taking Purdue, but Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin are probably the toughest teams on their schedule and I’m not sure if any of those will be top-20 teams by the time the Boilermakers play them. With that in mind, unlike Erin, I’ll gladly just copy Brandon because he’s pretty smart and Lovie Smith’s beard is glorious. Give me Illinois.
DP: You’ve heard Minnesota is a dark horse to win the Big Ten West division, right? The Gophers have as much returning production as any program in college football, a fantastic running back, a fantastic wideout, young talent all over the defense and a creative coach. And they close the season at Iowa, at Northwestern and home against Wisconsin. If the West is truly wide open, any one of those teams could very well be a win away from clinching the division by the time they play Minnesota. The Gophers are going to pull a major upset this season.
MB: Having been an Illini season-ticket holder in another life . . . naw, the Illini aren’t going to surprise anyone. Northwestern will again, just as it did last season by winning the West Division. Pat Fitzgerald will have the Wildcats ready. On the other hand, maybe Northwestern has had enough success that nothing it does can be considered a surprise. So my pick is Nebraska, when/if it beats Ohio State—with GameDay in town, remember.
Q: What’s it going to take to get the Big Ten into the College Football Playoff after being left out for the second straight season last year?
BV: Have a one-loss conference champion. That wasn’t quite enough to get it done last year, but Oklahoma making it over Ohio State was something of an upset. I’ll call it an anomaly. Most years a one-loss Big Ten champ is safely in. It was easier to leave the Buckeyes out in 2017 as they had two losses, and harder to argue for one-loss Wisconsin because it had just lost to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. We treat the Big Ten’s two-year absence as if it’s some sort of trend, but I don’t think it is. Rather, it was just two sets of somewhat unique circumstances that happened to happen back-to-back.
ES: I’ll add to what Brandon said about having a one-loss conference champion. The Big Ten also has to beat the teams that matter in nonconference play so the teams aren’t trying to make up ground in conference play. Michigan? Beat Notre Dame. Michigan State? Beat Arizona State. Nebraska? Beat Colorado. Northwestern? You guessed it, beat Stanford. Obviously not every team is going to win every nonconference game but the more that can win over those bigger nonconference matchups the better. It strengthens the conference resume when it comes time to determine who should be in and who should be out in the playoffs.
GS: I agree with all that’s been said so I’ll just add that it sure would be good for everyone else in the country if Alabama and Clemson have two losses this year.
JP: The only way to guarantee a spot in the CFP is for the Big Ten champ to go undefeated; an undefeated Power 5 team isn’t getting left out. That’s tough to pull off, though. I’ll agree with Brandon that the Big Ten being left out the last two years is more anomaly than a trend. That being said, perception is a big part of this equation and the conference has to earn the committee’s respect. The CFP contenders from the Big Ten can’t give any reason for doubt (multiple narrow escapes, a loss to a bad team), and the league as a whole has to take care of business in nonconference play like Erin said. The CFP is made up of strong teams with strong resumes, and that’s what the Big Ten needs to produce to get back in the mix.
DP: It’s been two straight seasons. I might feel like the Big Ten is the best football conference in America, top to bottom, but the committee doesn’t. The Big Ten needs an unbeaten champion to make the CFP. Alabama and Clemson are going to be in unless a meteor strikes Tuscaloosa or Clemson between now and December, which means he Big 12 champ, the Big Ten champ, the SEC runner-up and Notre Dame are all fighting for two spots. That’s just the painful reality right now for everyone else living in the shadow of two of the sport’s greatest dynasties.
MB: I’m hoping Greg can find a couple of losses each for Alabama and Clemson. Otherwise the Big Ten is competing for one of two spots, not one of four. Also, the B1G needs something of a meaningful matchup in the conference championship game to solidify its claim to one of those two spots.