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head coach PJ Fleck walks down the sideline listening to headset during game
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Who’s Rising, Who’s Fading Around the Big Ten as Football Approaches

October 04, 2020

Way back in the early days of 2020, when football talk was dominated by hype-management and quarterback battles and not testing protocols and fan attendance, the prevailing sentiment surrounding this Nebraska team seemed to be pretty simple: show me, don’t tell me.

After a 2019 offseason that saw Nebraska garner national acclaim a little ahead of schedule, most folks were taking a cautiously optimistic—if not almost skeptical—approach to the upcoming season.

Has that changed over the course of this drawn-out offseason, even ever so slightly?

Nebraska has said the right things and presumably done the right things to prepare for football even when it didn’t seem like football was going to happen. The Huskers will begin their season on the road against the sixth-ranked Buckeyes, opening an eight-game Big Ten-only schedule that features eight straight meetings with teams currently inside ESPN’s FPI Top 50.

Does Nebraska’s preparedness inspire more confidence? Does the additional time to perhaps pour over what was already an exhaustive self-scout inspire more confidence? Or does the schedule knock down the W-L projections a peg or two? It’s a curious thing, and it’s certainly not happening at just Nebraska.

Last week, I asked for help from colleagues around the Big Ten to shed a little insight into what was going on with each of those eight Husker opponents. You can read their responses here.

I also asked a second question: has your opinion on the team you cover changed in any way over this bumpy offseason?

Here’s what those same folks said. (Again, minus Purdue.)

Ohio State Buckeyes (Oct. 24) — Caroline Rice, The OZone

“My opinion of the team has not changed at all. I think we are going to see a very angry Ohio State team on the field this season. After ending the season the way they did last year with the loss to Clemson, they can’t wait to get back out there and play another game. When the season was canceled one thing that Ryan Day said was that it’s painful to not know what this team could have been because he thinks they could have been something very special. Now we do have the opportunity to see this team. Justin Fields has another year under his belt and that’s huge, the receiving unit has so much talent, DB’s are reloaded there’s a lot of talent there that we haven’t seen much of yet and Shaun Wade is leading that group, so much experience at the linebacker position, and I could go on and on.  The biggest thing is leadership and another year of those leaders developing in the program. This team has waited for their opportunity to come back from last season and they never lost sight of that even through the bumpy offseason.”

Wisconsin Badgers (Oct. 31) — Jake Kocorowski, Wisconsin insider

“It really has not, in my mind. Not having safety Reggie Pearson on the fall roster at the moment is a blow to the secondary with his unique skillset, but there is considerable depth at safety with at least two (potentially three) starting-capable players to step up.

“Wisconsin still returns a solid defense with many starters on the line and backfield. However, it will need to find answers to replace the dynamic duo of linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr, who combined for 24 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss in 2019.

“Its offense still needs to answer who will replace the production of not just running back Jonathan Taylor, who gave Nebraska fits for three straight seasons, but wide receiver Quintez Cephus and center Tyler Biadasz. There are potential options on the outside and on the line for the latter two positions, but those are key areas to watch heading into October.”

Northwestern Wildcats (Nov. 7) — Lia Assimakopoulos, Inside NU

“I think my opinion of the team has definitely changed this offseason in terms of what I value as a problem and important. At the beginning of the offseason, the biggest questions were ‘Can the offense improve?’ and ‘Will we have another 3-9 season?’ or ‘Will we have a good quarterback?’ But now it seems that those concerns have taken a backseat in my mind. Maybe it’s just because the concern of COVID ending the season altogether is just overpowering, but I have a lot more confidence in what our team can do, as long as they stay healthy and can click early on this season. I think the only other way that my opinion has changed — maybe for the worse—is regarding one crucial opt-out that we had. Northwestern O-Lineman Rashawn Slater opted out of the season about a month ago and declared for the NFL Draft. He is obviously a huge loss for us as he is a projected first or second-round pick in the draft this year, but the remainder of our strong O-Line will have to protect whoever is under center this year, and I think they can get it done.”

Penn State Nittany Lions (Nov. 14) — Audrey Snyder, The Athletic

“With linebacker Micah Parsons opting out there’s no doubt that the trajectory of this Penn State team has taken a hit. Losing your best player—who to date while openly flirting with the idea of maybe returning is still training in California and still hanging out on a private jet so who knows—creates a void that no player on that defense can fill. Penn State can still have a great season, but not seeing Parsons’ junior season is a tough pill for Penn State and football fans to swallow. There’s a reason why Parsons is the reigning Big Ten linebacker of the year and why he’ll potentially be a top-5 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and while Penn State does have another former 5-star linebacker in Brandon Smith who will be a full-time starter, there’s no game wrecker quite like Parsons waiting in the wings here or anywhere else. Penn State could’ve been in a much worse situation with opt-outs but with tight end Pat Freiremuth committed to playing it certainly is a boost to an offense that even throughout this crazy offseason still needs a No. 2 wide receiver behind Jahan Dotson.”

Illinois Fighting Illini (Nov. 21) — Bob Asmussen, the Champaign News-Gazette

“The original Illinois schedule was built for success. It was supposed to open at home against Illinois State, UConn and Bowling Green, then play at Rutgers before the fifth at game at Nebraska. Worst case for Illinois it would have been a 4-1 start (Illinois last won in Lincoln when Red Grange was the star in 1924). The new schedule is difficult at the start, with a trip to Wisconsin. Lovie Smith’s biggest win at Illinois came in 2019 against the Badgers. Wisconsin figures to be fired up. So will the Week 2 opponent Purdue, which wants payback for 2019. But … Smith thinks this is best team in his five years at charge and the players seem to believe it. Illinois hasn’t had a winning season since 2011 and I know that is a top goal. The players honestly think they are capable of contending in the Big Ten West. The Illini are getting all sorts of off-the-field motivation. They were picked at the bottom of the West in preseason magazines and I sensed that bothered them. In my 31 years covering the team, some of the best seasons came when there were low expectations.”

Iowa Hawkeyes (Nov. 27/28) — Scott Dochterman, The Athletic

“I had plenty of questions about this program and its direction earlier this summer. We all knew strength coach Chris Doyle was not subtle in his methods, but for the roughly 100 Black former players to share their negative experiences was a pivotal moment in Iowa football history. In seeking answers, I found the majority of former players who lobbed allegations and current players’ parents supported Kirk Ferentz and wanted the program to change, not the head coach. That told me not only does he have a chance to keep his job, but he actually could turn the situation into a positive. Thus far, it seems Iowa has a more open, inclusive and together environment. We’ll see if that continues into camp and into the season. If so, Iowa will be a much better place for going through such an ordeal.”

Minnesota Golden Gophers (Dec. 12) — Megan Ryan, the Minneapolis Star Tribune

“I don’t think my opinion of the team has changed that much, probably because I don’t have a lot of information in the first place. To me, the Gophers are still a team that surprised everyone last year with great success but still dropped rivalry games when it mattered, ultimately keeping the Big Ten championship out of reach. So this year is kind of a prove-it year, as cliché as that sounds. Fans and pundits want proof last season wasn’t a fluke, that Fleck will continue to build in his fourth year as he has previously. But all of that comes with a bit of a caveat that this is going to be a weird season for everyone. Shorter, less preparation, all the COVID-19 precautions. So in some ways, every team gets a pass. But the teams that can thrive might earn special cred for navigating an incredibly unusual situation.”

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