In the upheaval at Nebraska it’s easy to forget the Big Ten, in general, spun on its axis this offseason. It’s been a hectic time of coaching changes and roster shuffling. And, with the seemingly constant barrage of news out of Lincoln, a fan could be forgiven for not keeping up.
With National Signing Day just a week away, things have largely settled. This gives a great opportunity to check in with the rest of the Big Ten at a turbulent time. Of course, change is inevitable and more is likely to occur between now and fall camp. But this provides a break in the surface to scan the ocean and gain bearings. So let’s check in on the Big Ten teams Nebraska plays in 2023 and see what changes have been made.
The Matt Rhule era at Nebraska opens in Minneapolis against a program that’s growing into a rival. Nebraska hasn’t beaten Minnesota since 2018—that was Scott Frost’s first win as Nebraska’s head coach. Frustration stemming from closes losses in recent years adds to Nebraska fans’ motivations for the August opener.
Philip John Fleck returns for a seventh season as head coach at Minnesota. His coaching staff, however, has shuffled. Greg Harbaugh Jr. was promoted to co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from his spot as tight ends coach. Matt Simon, the team’s wide receivers coach, retains his additional role as co-offensive coordinator. Andrew Sowder, former Kent State offensive coordinator, was hired to fill the vacant tight end coach position. Fleck also hired Kent State running backs coach Kenni Burns for the same position at Minnesota and former Syracuse staffer Nick Monroe as the new cornerbacks coach and co-defensive coordinator.
The roster was, relatively, quiet. The Gophers lost nine players to the transfer portal but brought six in. Half of those portal acquisitions came from Western Michigan, Fleck’s old job, including running back Sean Tyler. As of now, Minnesota’s 2023 recruiting class ranks No. 43 in the composite, No. 8 in the Big Ten.
Nebraska hosts the reigning two-time Big Ten Champions at the end of September. It appears Jim Harbaugh will return as head coach again, after flirting with an NFL return . . . again. There were internal staff shakeups with associate to the head coach Biff Poggi going to Charlotte to be the head coach. Co-offensive coordinator Matt Weiss was fired amid an investigation into alleged “computer access crimes.” Offensive line coach Sherrone Moore, already co-offensive coordinator, is being pushed for the sole offensive coordinator position by Michigan alumni. Michigan has not named a new quarterbacks coach in the week since Weiss was fired.
Nineteen Wolverines entered the transfer portal, most of them saw the field in limited capacity. Michigan added seven through the portal, including former Husker linebacker Ernest Hausmann. That’s on top of 23 high school signings. Michigan’s 2023 recruiting class, at this point, is No. 17 in the composite rankings and No. 3 in the Big Ten. Make no mistake, Michigan is still among the favorites to win the Big Ten.
Don’t look now but Brett Bielema’s got something cooking in Champaign. The Illini earned a top-20 ranking last year, are on the cusp of putting someone into the first day of the NFL Draft and retain considerable talent in 2023. The most notable shift in the coaching staff was the loss of defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, who moved a little east to coach Purdue. In response, Bielema promoted Illinois secondary coach Aaron Henry to defensive coordinator. Antonio Fenelus, who played for Bielema at Wisconsin and was most recently a defensive analyst at LSU, fills that vacant secondary coach position.
The program’s 2023 recruiting class doesn’t pop on paper. It’s ranked No. 40 nationally, No. 10 in the Big Ten. But just six players entered the transfer portal. The Illini gained five through the portal, including former Ole Miss quarterback Luke Altmyer.
Changes were necessary after the Wildcats’ one-win season. The defensive coordinator, wide receivers coach and defensive line coach were all fired. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald hired former North Dakota State defensive coordinator David Braun for the same spot in Evansville. Christian Smith, the South Dakota State defensive line coach, is reported to fill that same position at Northwestern. The university recently announced Armon Binns, most recently at Youngstown State, is the Wildcats’ new wide receivers coach.
This game typically involves lunacy, an unhinged rivalry made all the more boggling by last year’s game in Ireland and how both teams’ seasons played out after. It’s likely the late October game in Evanston will continue tradition. The Wildcats shutout Nebraska in the second half to win 21-13 the last time the two played in Evanston.
Seven Wildcats entered the transfer portal so far. Last week, the Wildcats gained receiver Cam Johnson (formerly Arizona State) as their only portal arrival thus far. The team’s conventional recruiting class ranked No. 42 in the composite and No. 11 in the Big Ten. That one transfer puts them beyond No. 100 in the portal rankings.
Nebraska’s first conference clash against a new head coach comes on Homecoming, just shy of Halloween. Former Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters inherits the Boilermakers after Jeff Brohm left for Louisville. Kevin Kane, former Illinois defensive line coach, is his defensive coordinator. Graham Herrell, the record-shattering Texas Tech quarterback, is the new offensive coordinator after serving in the same role at West Virginia. His other assistants, announced on Wednesday by the school, come from Missouri, Illinois or smaller schools with experience working alongside Herrell.
The (somehow) returning Big Ten Championship Game participants enter this season with questions among the coaching staff. The Boilermakers graduated talent at key skill positions and the new coaching staff has to establish its own culture in West Lafayette, Indiana. They’ll have to do that, however, with a non-stellar recruiting class.
Purdue’s 2023 recruiting class ranks last in the Big Ten, No. 69 in the composite. The Boilermakers lost seven to the transfer portal, about half of which played significant downs in 2022. Five portal arrivals bring excitement, including former Texas quarterback Hudson Card.
Head coach Mel Tucker said he would evaluate his coaching staff following a disappointing 2022 season. No changes were made following Sparty’s 5-7 season. To make matters worse, some of those losses were blowouts to Washington, Ohio State, Penn State and rival Michigan.
Tucker was criticized for mining the transfer portal ahead of last season. Some of them contributed right away in last year’s losing season. Michigan State withstood the portal once again this winter. Fourteen total Spartans, with varying degrees of experience, transferred out. In response, Tucker got 12 portal arrivals, considerably fewer than before, to right the ship.
Last season’s disappointment did little to damper the Michigan State recruiting efforts. The Spartans are No. 4 in the Big Ten, No. 26 in the composite rankings.
Last year was bittersweet for the Terrapins. Head coach Mike Locksley led the team to an 8-5 season but pre-season aspirations and close losses gave the impression Maryland fell short. In the end, they posted a losing conference record and won the Mayo Bowl.
Locksley’s staff, so far, has Maryland middle of the road in the Big Ten at No. 7 in the 2023 recruiting class rankings and No. 37 nationally. The Terrapins lost 16 entrees into the transfer portal and gained nine. Additions include bench players from Miami, Tennessee and LSU, while departures include key defensive lineman Mosiah Nasili-Kite (Auburn).
Now, this gets interesting. Luke Fickell, formerly of Cincinnati and former interim Ohio State head coach, takes over in Madison. Former North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo is joining the staff in the same capacity while Mike Tressell follows Fickell to Wisconsin from Cincinnati as defensive coordinator. Three additional position coaches also came from Cincinnati.
This change makes forecasting the Badgers’ on-field look difficult. It’ll likely skew more to the finesse passing game than in the past, at least slightly.
This new staff put together the No. 6 2023 recruiting class in the Big Ten so far. A dozen Badgers left through the portal but Fickell’s arrival class is one of the strongest in the country. Four of 13 arrivals followed Fickell from Cincinnati while the Badgers also added former USC receiver C.J. Williams, former SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai and former Oklahoma quarterback Nick Evers.
The Hawkeyes haven’t made any coaching staff moves yet. But that could still change. Following, statistically, the worst offensive season in the country, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz remains in charge of that unit. His father, head coach Kirk Ferentz, downplayed staff changes at the end of the season. His hand may be forced as reports indicate NFL teams are interested in the offensive play caller for various positions. Time will tell.
Iowa’s 2023 recruiting class ranks No. 38 in the composite and No. 9 in the Big Ten. The biggest acquisitions, however, came from the portal. Former Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara transferred to Iowa shortly after the season ended. Four-star tight end Erick All, also formerly of Michigan, joined McNamara in a move to Iowa City.
That’s not to say anything about the annual Black Friday game, which is always interesting. Nebraska breaking the losing streak in Iowa City last season, a day before Matt Rhule was announced as head coach, added another level of intrigue to the rivalry.