The Illinois Fighting Illini officially hired Lovie Smith on Monday after firing Bill Cubit on Saturday. Cubit’s short tenure ended as bizarrely as it began when he took over for Tim Beckman just days before the start of the season. Now, it ends a month after signing day and his son Ryan was also part of the fallout as he was fired too.
The hiring of Lovie Smith is no doubt a surprise at this point in the off-season, but there are good things that he brings to the Illini. We take a look at the good and bad sides of his hiring.
Lovie Smith is a big name coach – New Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman wanted a big name hire and he got it with Lovie Smith. It is good for the program to be able to bring in a recognizable coach, but as always, how it ends up depends what is produced on the field.
Smith brings stability – The contract for Smith calls for $21 million over 6 years, with his base salary increasing by $1 million per year in 2018, 2019, and 2020. No buyout figures have been released, but it is not hard to imagine they would be pretty hefty early in the contract. More importantly though is that Illinois has a coach they will probably keep around for longer than a few years. Tim Beckman stayed three years after going 12-25 and would have been there at least for a fourth season if not for worrisome allegations against him. It is hard to see Smith not getting at least four season as well in Champaign.
Smith knows the state of Illinois – Smith coached the Chicago Bears from 2004-2012 finishing his tenure with an 81-63 record as well as a 3-3 playoff record. He coached the Bears to Super 41, a game they lost to Indianapolis 29-17. That NFL head coaching experience will resonate with college players…
Smith knows NFL talent – Smith’s ability to recruit NFL talent is not he main priority for Illinois. They will want to see how he does on the field, as well as off the field given their previous coach’s issues. Still, with Smith knowing what it takes to make a roster in the NFL, that will be enough for some recruits to head to Champaign.
Smith has previous college and Big Ten coaching experience – Smith has never been a head coach at the collegiate level, but he did spend over a decade in the college ranks on the defensive side from 1983 through 1995. He even had a stop at Wisconsin in 1987 as the linebackers coach and in 1995 at Ohio State as the defensive backs coach.
Lack of collegiate head coaching experience – This is a concern because being a college coach involves recruiting. Some coaches love it and others do not care for it. Except for the NCAA mandated quiet and dark periods, recruiting is a near non-stop process. In addition, there are limits on how many hours per week the coaches can spend with the players, something that is not present in the NFL.
The College versus NFL playing styles – For the most part, the NFL does not have a ton of variation in the amount of offensive schemes to defend against. Yes, there are spread offenses in the NFL, but not nearly to the extent in the college game where talent discrepancies can accentuate defensive breakdowns. Smith may find that some of his defensive schemes work well on the collegiate level while others may need to be scrapped.
He does not have his players in place – This one is not on Smith at all, but it is still a major negative for him in his first year. He will not have his preferred type of players for offense and defense thanks to this change occurring a month after signing day. He will, however, have spring practice to help put his schemes in place going into the summer months.
Being a big name coach does not mean success – Lovie Smith may be a popular name among the football ranks, but that does not mean he will be a great or even good college head coach. How well and quickly he adapts to the college game will dictate the amount of success he has. This is an unknown because some coaches have been successful going from the NFL to college (i.e. Pete Carroll from New England to USC) while others have not been as successful (i.e. Bill Callahan from Oakland to Nebraska.
Smith’s recruiting base – Smith is from Texas, but does that mean anything in the way of recruiting at this point? Smith has never recruited, but that does not mean he cannot do so. He does have the NFL background to help with some recruits, but what about the others who may see something beyond the NFL? It is a mixed bag at this point for Smith in the recruiting department.
Lovie Smith’s hire is a peculiar one by the Illini at this point in the year, but that does not mean it is a bad hire. The good, bad, and unknown of his hiring will not be fully seen by the end of the first year or even the second year, but it is worth seeing how the above points play out over the next few seasons.
The Big Ten went 8-6 in the opening week of the college football season, but overall it was not a good weekend for them. Week two was a good chance for the Big Ten to redeem themselves. A closer look at each of the Big Ten’s teams is below.
Oregon State Beavers at Michigan Wolverines
Result: Michigan Win 35-7 (Saturday, September 12)
Jim Harbaugh’s first game in the Big House did not get off to a good start. The Beavers took the opening drive and marched right down the field to take a 7-0 lead. It got worse when quarterback Jake Rudock lost a fumble on the Wolverines’ first possession and put Oregon State in position to add to their lead. The Michigan defense stepped up to force and recover a fumble two plays later while the offense turned it into a field goal.
Michigan looked more like Michigan after that first drive by not allowing another point the rest of the game. De’Veon Smith was effective at rushing the ball and was more decisive as well. He finished with 126 yards and 3 touchdowns on 23 carries. Rudock went 18 of 26 for 180 yards, but did not have a touchdown pass and threw an interception.
The Michigan defense allowed a total of 138 yards the entire game and 79 of those yards came on Oregon State’s opening drive. They were disruptive and all over the field for nearly all of the game. The defense gave up only one third down conversion to the Oregon State offense out of 11 attempts.
The Wolverines face UNLV next week at home with a chance to continue improving on both sides of the ball.
Western Illinois Leathernecks at Illinois Fighting Illini
Result: Illinois Win 44-0 (Saturday, September 12)
The departure of Tim Beckman had no effect in week two as the offense continued to shine. Wes Lunt went 33 of 46 for 316 yards with a touchdown and an interception. His top target was Geronimo Allison who had 8 receptions for 124 yards. Marchie Murdock had a solid game with 6 catches for 51 yards and a touchdown.
One area that the offense struggled in was holding on to the ball. They had four turnovers in total with three of those coming on lost fumbles. Obviously it did not hurt this week, but a similar performance against better competition will have disastrous consequences. The Illini also had 147 yards rushing and 2 touchdowns on 40 carries as a team, which does not even average to 4 yards a carry. That will also need to improve.
The defense pitched a shut out and gave up only 141 yards of offense to Western Illinois. They allowed just 43 yards through the air and intercepted two passes. It was a suffocating performance that bodes well for them.
Illinois looked good for two weeks, but the waters get very deep next week on the road at North Carolina. That will be a great test for Illinois on both sides of the ball against their highest quality opponent to date.
Bowling Green Falcons at Maryland Terrapins
Result: Bowling Green Win 48-27 (Saturday, September 12)
Maryland had a second half surge to beat Richmond last week and it looked like they were going to do well against Bowling Green this week. The Terps led 13-6 at halftime, but struggled mightily in the final 30 minutes.
The defense for Maryland was the biggest culprit as they gave up 42 second half points. They allowed 491 yards and 6 touchdowns through the air while giving up another 201 yards on the ground. They managed just one turnover and allowed 10 of 22 on third and fourth down conversions.
Perry Hills did not have a good game going 15 of 30 with 168 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air. He threw three interceptions, but did run for 94 yards on 8 carries. William Likely was a bright spot again with an 85 yard touchdown return on a punt.
Maryland has a third home game in a row next week against South Florida, but that will not be easy if they continue to struggle.
Buffalo Bulls at Penn State Nittany Lions
Result: Penn State Win 27-14 (Saturday, September 12)
Penn State was atrocious in week one against Temple, but rebounded to beat Buffalo at home this week. However, it was not always pretty as they continued to struggle on offense.
Christian Hackenberg went 14 of 27 with 128 yards and a touchdown. He and the offense would not score until midway through the second quarter, but built a familiar 10-0 score. Buffalo made it 10-7 on their second drive of the second half, but the offense was able to do enough to put the game out of reach. Hackenberg was not sacked at all against Buffalo after being sacked 10 times in week one.
Saquon Barkley had a good game with 115 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries while Akeel Lynch was stifled at times gaining only 46 yards on 19 carries. This duo was able to move the ball at times while the passing game was ineffective under Hackenberg.
The Nittany Lions’ defense was solid allowing only 274 yards of offense to Buffalo and only 69 yards on the ground. They did not force a turnover, but were solid for most of the game.
Penn State kicks off their Big Ten schedule with a home game against Rutgers next week.
Miami (OH) Redhawks at Wisconsin Badgers
Result: Wisconsin Win 58-0 (Saturday, September 12)
Wisconsin was in fine form in week two after their tough opening week game against Alabama. Week two provided Miami (OH), which was a welcome relief as the Badgers crushed them.
Corey Clement did not play this week due to a lingering injury, but it did not matter with Joel Stave slinging the ball around. The running game struggled early on, but eventually got on track as the Redhawks wore down. Dare Ogunbowale ran for 112 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries while Taiwan Deal had 45 yards and 2 touchdowns on 14 carries.
Stave looked sharp again this week going 19 of 30 for 236 yards with 3 touchdown and an interception. His best target was surprising with Robert Wheelwright leading the team. He had 6 catches for 79 yards and 2 touchdowns with the bulk of the catches coming late in the second quarter. Alex Erickson had 5 catches for 73 yards, but was also effective on punt returns with 72 yards on 4 returns.
The defense, as expected, was dominant. They held Miami to -3 yards rushing and a total of 157 yards. They forced four turnovers including two picks Leo Musso and one interception by Tanner McEvoy. McEvoy got snaps at wide receiver as well in this game catching 3 passes for 29 yards.
It was a much better performance, but the run game will need to find its feet quicker and not rely on Stave too much to get the offense going. The Badgers will have Troy in town next week.
Hawaii Rainbow Warriors at #1 Ohio State Buckeyes
Result: Ohio State Win 38-0 (Saturday, September 12)
Ohio State had a quick turnaround from Monday night’s win over Virginia Tech and it may have played a part in their lackadaisical effort at times.
Cardale Jones started the game, but struggled for the first quarter and a half. He was pulled in the second quarter with J.T. Barrett taking over. Neither quarterback was overly impressive with Jones going 12 of 18 for 111 yards and Barrett going 8 of 15 for 70 yards. Neither threw a touchdown or interception.
Ezekiel Elliott was relied on more heavily this game going for 101 yards and 3 touchdowns on 27 carries. Braxton Miller, to no surprise, was used as well with 8 carries for 57 yards, but was held to 2 catches for 16 yards. Curtis Samuel finished as the leading receiver with 7 catches for 53 yards and Michael Thomas had 52 yards on 5 catches.
The defense was very good by allowing only 165 total yards with 85 of those coming through the air and 80 on the ground. They forced four turnovers (2 interceptions and 2 fumbles) and returned one of those fumbles to the house courtesy of Vonn Bell from 14 yards out.
The Buckeyes will certainly be looking to get more a rhythm next week at home against Northern Illinois.
Washington State Cougars at Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Result: Washington State Win 37-34 (Saturday, September 12)
It looked like Rutgers was going to pull one out for the Big Ten, but a wild fourth quarter saw these two teams combine for 39 points including touchdowns from each team in the final 1:31.
Kyle Flood opted to play Chris Laviano against the Cougars and he was decent. He finished 23 of 29 for 204 yards with a touchdown, but threw an interception that led to a field goal. He was able to spread the ball around finding 10 different receivers with Janarion Grant leading the way with 5 catches for 65 yards. Josh Hicks led the team in rushing with 91 yards on 16 carries while Robert Martin ran for 61 yards and a touchdown on 9 carries.
The obvious weakness this week was the defense that was shredded by Washington State’s air raid offense. Luke Falk went 47 of 66 for 478 yards with 4 touchdowns. Gabe Marks caught 14 passes for 146 yards and a touchdown while River Cracraft had 8 catches for 121 yards and a score. The Rutgers defense was not able to force a turnover and the critical drive that led to the loss. The defense will need to improve if Rutgers wants to make a bowl game this year.
The Scarlet Knights face Penn State on the road next week.
Minnesota Golden Gophers at Colorado State Rams
Result: Minnesota Win 23-20 in 1 Overtime (Saturday, September 12)
Minnesota played well in week one and did so again in week two on the road at Colorado State. The Gophers needed overtime to get the win, but they were able to force an interception and then kick a field goal to give them the three point victory.
Mitch Leidner’s stats are not overwhelming, but he played well when he had to for the most part. He went 23 of 45 for 233 yards with 2 touchdowns, but no interceptions. He did lose two fumbles with the first one occurring inside the Rams’ 20 yard line on fourth and one. The other happened inside his own red zone that led to a field goal. Still, his ability to lead the offense down the field late in the fourth quarter for a go ahead touchdown was impressive.
Rodney Smith ran for 108 yards on 21 carries while Leidner was the second leading rusher with 47 yards on 11 carries. Drew Wolitarsky was a big target for Leidner with 9 catches for 114 yards and a touchdown. KJ Maye made the biggest catch in the fourth quarter for a touchdown and finished with 6 catches for 54 yards.
The defense played well, especially when it counted the most in overtime. They finished with four turnovers forced and also held the Colorado State offense to 314 yards. The defense got lucky that Colorado State’s Rashard Higgins was out, but still did well overall.
Minnesota’s strong start will look to be continued next week back at home against Kent State.
Eastern Illinois Panthers at Northwestern Wildcats
Result: Northwestern Win 41-0 (Saturday, September 12)
If there was any worry that Northwestern would be too full of themselves after last week’s win over Stanford, it was not apparent in week two.
The offense was far from overwhelming, but was efficient led by Clayton Thorson who went 11 of 16 for 152 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for a touchdown and only attempted two runs. Justin Jackson had 22 carries for 78 yards and a touchdown while WarrenLong saw action and finished with 12 rushers for 72 yards and a score.
Austin Carr had 2 catches for 61 yards and a long touchdown of 44 yards. Dan Vitale had 4 catches for 40 yards. The offense was not spectacular, but the defense was even if it was versus a FCS team.
Matthew Harris had a big game this week with two interceptions including one returned 71 yards for a touchdown. The defense allowed only 138 yards of offense to Eastern Illinois and did not allow a third down conversion (0 for 11). It was another dominant performance that bodes incredibly well for the Wildcats.
Northwestern will take on Duke next week on the road in another early season test for the Wildcats.
Iowa Hawkeyes at Iowa State Cyclones
Result: Iowa Win 31-17 (Saturday, September 12)
Iowa had to battle against their in-state rival Iowa State, but they got the job done thanks to a balanced offense. Quarterback C.J. Beathard threw for 215 yards and 3 touchdowns on 15 of 25 passing. He also showed some wheels by running for 77 yards on 10 carries including long runs of 44 yards and 57 yards.
Jordan Canzeri pounded the ball 24 times for 124 yards and a touchdown, but did lose a fumble inside the Iowa State red zone with the game tied at 17. Matt VandeBerg was a safety blanket catching 9 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown.
The defense was not great in the first half allowing all 17 points, but they played well in the final two quarters. With the game still in the balance and Iowa leading 24-17, Desmond King intercepted a pass at the Iowa State 36 and put the offense in great position to salt the game away.
One drive worth noting was Iowa’s final drive of the first half. They started from their own 2, moved the ball down to the Iowa State 22, and were in a great spot to kick a field goal. The game was a 17-10 Iowa State lead at the time, but Kirk Ferentz decided to try a trick play and let Marshall Koehn run the ball on a fake field goal, but he was stopped at the five. It was a bizarre play call that had no effect in the end, but the timing was very curious.
Iowa has another good game next week with Pittsburgh going to Iowa City.
#7 Oregon Ducks at #5 Michigan State Wolverines
Result: Michigan State Win 31-28 (Saturday, September 12)
The Big Ten’s biggest game of the week turned out to be a good one that went their way with a nice performance out of the Michigan State Spartans.
Connor Cook had a decent game going 20 of 32 for 192 yards with 2 touchdowns and an interception. Madre London had a good game running the ball with 103 yards on 18 carries while LJ Scott pounded the ball in for two touchdowns and 76 yards on 11 carries. Aaron Burbridge had a great game catching 8 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown.
The Michigan State defense was not great, but they played well considering their opponent. They forced two interceptions in the first half with the first one leading to a touchdown for the offense. They also had a huge goal line stop in the second quarter.
In the fourth quarter, they allowed a touchdown with a 31-21 lead, but were able to force a turnover on downs on the following drive (thanks in large part to a sack by Chris Frey and Lawrence Thomas).
Michigan State will be back at home next week with Air Force coming to town.
South Alabama Jaguars at Nebraska Cornhuskers
Result: Nebraska Win 48-9 (Saturday, September 12)
Nebraska rebounded from week one’s crushing Hail Mary loss to decimate South Alabama. TommyArmstrong went 21 of 30 for 270 yards and 2 touchdowns to lead the Huskers. Terrell Newby had a monster game rushing for 198 yards and 2 touchdowns on 28 carries. Newby also had 2 catches for 38 yards and a score while Brandon Reilly caught 5 passes for 71 yards to lead the team.
The defense was clearly angered by last week’s performance and did well with the starters in. They did not allow a point in the first half and when the Jaguars did get into scoring position, they stopped them both times.
Nebraska faces the Miami Hurricanes next week on the road in another big game for them.
Florida International Panthers at Indiana Hoosiers
Result: Indiana Win 36-22 (Saturday, September 12)
Indiana escaped an upset last week against FCS Southern Illinois while this week’s game was not as dramatic at the end. However, Indiana did struggle early on with FIU. The Hoosiers trailed 22-19 early in the fourth quarter before putting up the final 17 points to make the finish comfortable.
Jordan Howard had another very good game with 27 carries for 159 yards. The defense struggled at times, but sealed the game with a pick six for 96 yards by Jameel Cook. That happened to be on fourth and goal with just over 4 minutes left.
Indiana’s defense will be tested again next week with the high-powered Western Kentucky offense going into Bloomington.
That concludes a look at the second week of the Big Ten football roundup. Look out for the week three edition next week.
Part fourteen of Sports Enthusiasts’ 2015 College Football Preview delves into the Big 10’s West Division. There are only three conferences left in the preview series with the Pac-12 and SEC still a few weeks down the road. Below is the schedule of conference previews completed and those still to come.
Bret Bielema bolted Wisconsin after the 2012 season to go to Arkansas while Gary Andersen came in for the 2013 and 2014 seasons. He led the Badgers to a 9-4 record in 2013 before a double digit win season in 2014 including a 59-0 destruction at the hands of Ohio State in the Big 10 Championship. He too bolted Madison and went West to Oregon State. Paul Chryst returns to his alma mater where he played quarterback from 1986 to 1988 and was the offensive coordinator from 2005 through 2011. He was also the head coach at Pittsburgh from 2012 t0 2014.
The offense was very good under Andersen where they had nearly identical output over his two years. In 2013, they put up 34.8 points and 481 yards per game and it was 34.6 points and 469 yards in 2014. The offense has five starters back with Joel Stave not having to worry about another QB. Stave threw for 1,350 yards with 9 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Melvin Gordon is gone after his monstrous season with 2,587 yards with 29 touchdowns, but Corey Clement is willing to try and fill the void. Clement had 949 yards and 9 touchdowns rushing while Dare Ogunbowale had 193 yards and a touchdown on only 34 carries. The go to guy last year, Alex Erickson, is back after recording 55 catches for 772 yards and 3 touchdowns. Troy Fumagalli caught 14 passes for 187 yards last year and a second wide receiver will need to develop in 2015. The offensive line also has only two starters returning, but the quarterback numbers should be better with Chryst in charge. The loss of Gordon will hurt, but the offense should be solid even with Chryst coming in.
The defense for Wisconsin is constantly solid. Between 2009 and 2014, the defense has not yielded more than 22 points and 325 yards per game. The defense had only 3 starters back in 2014 and allowed 20.8 points and 294 yards per game. There are six starters back including most of the secondary. Chikwe Obasih had 21 tackles and 1.5 sacks in seven starts. The depth is also better after plaguing them the past two seasons. The linebacker unit has the two outside ‘backers returning in Vince Biegel (56 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 9 tackles for loss) and Joe Schobert (69 tackles, 3 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss, and 7 pass breakups). The secondary has three starters back led by Michael Caputo. Caputo was the top tackler last year with 106 stops while also recording 1 sack, 5 tackles for loss, 6 pass breakups, and an interception. Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton will be at the cornerback spots, but need to interception more passes after those two failed to record any in 2014. Tanner McEvoy has also moved to safety after splitting time at quarterback and safety in 2014.
Wisconsin opens with a daunting game in Arlington, Texas against Alabama that will surely test them to their highest capability. After that, it is much easier with the trio of Miami (OH), Troy, and Hawaii all coming to Madison. In conference, Wisconsin faces Iowa, Purdue, and Northwestern at home while playing Nebraska, Illinois, and Minnesota on the road. From the East division, the Badgers take on Rutgers (home) and Maryland (road). The Badgers will surely make a bowl game in 2015 and can expect to be the team to beat for the West, but they have their question marks.
2. Northwestern Wildcats
Pat Fitzgerald did something that only Bob Voigts was able to do: win a bowl game. Voigts won the 1949 Rose Bowl while Fitzgerald won the 2012 Gator Bowl after losing the previous four bowl games. Since that 2012 season, Northwestern has not been back to a bowl game after back-to-back 5-7 seasons that have been filled with injuries. 2015 must result in a bowl game for the Wildcats and Fitzgerald.
The offense sputtered last year after putting up 23 points and 353 yards per game despite eight starters back. This year, the offense will have six starters back, but one of them will not be at quarterback. That may not be a bad thing as Trevor Siemian only threw for 2,214 yards with 7 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Zack Oliver threw for 367 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, but he will be battling with ClaytonThorson and Matt Alviti for the starting job. Justin Jackson is back after a stellar freshman season. Despite only starting five games, Jackson ran for 1,187 yards with 10 touchdowns while also catching 22 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown. There is plenty of talent back at wide receiver with Dan Vitale leading the way. He had 40 catches for 402 yards and 2 touchdowns. Cameron Dickerson (24 catches for 318 yards and a touchdown) and Miles Shuler (23 catches for 190 yards) back as well. The biggest returner is Christian Jones, who had a solid 2013 season with 668 yards, but missed all of 2014. The offensive line has three starters back and the entire offense should be able to perform better this year.
The defense was decent in 2014 with seven starters back, giving up 25.2 points and 384 yards per game. Eight starters are back in 2015, the most for Fitzgerald since 2009 (gave up 24.5 points and 350 yards per game). The entire defensive line is back led by Dean Lowry, who had 41 tackles, 4 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and 8 pass breakups. The linebacking unit is the worry for Northwestern with only Anthony Walker returning (51 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions). The secondary is another strength with three starters back. Traveon Henry had 73 tackles (#2 on team) and 2.5 tackles for loss while MatthewHarris had 70 tackles (#3 on team), 3.5 tackles for loss, 7 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. The defense should be solid once again for Northwestern and should improve on the numbers the allowed last season.
Northwestern does not have an easy start to the season with Stanford coming to town followed by Eastern Illinois. A road trip against Duke comes before their final non-conference game against Ball State at home. In conference, the Wildcats will face Minnesota, Iowa, and Purdue at home while taking on Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road. They also face Illinois in Chicago on the final weekend in November. From the East, they will have the pleasure of facing Michigan (road) and Penn State (home) in two tough games. All around, Northwestern should be better in 2015 and could have a chance to take the division with a win over Wisconsin (Nov. 21).
3. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Nebraska was led by Bo Pelini starting in 2008 and going through 2014. During that time, Pelini led Nebraska to at least 9 wins each year including three 10 win seasons. Pelini, however, did not make a BCS or Group of Five bowl in that time and was let go after the 2014 season. Mike Riley comes over from Oregon State after 15 years there and only once led the Beavers to at least 10 wins (2006).
The offense has six starters back from a group that put up 37.8 points and 452 yards of offense per game. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong threw for 2,695 yards with 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while also rushing for 705 yards and 6 touchdowns as the teams second leading rusher. Ameer Abdullah will not be back, which leaves Imani Cross (384 yards and 5 touchdowns) and Terrell Newby (297 yards and 5 touchdowns) as the top returning running backs. Nearly all of the receivers return led by JordanWesterkamp (44 catches for 747 yards and 5 touchdowns) and De’Mornay Pierson-El (23 catches for 321 yards and 4 touchdowns). The offensive line has two starters back at the tackles. The offense will probably not put up the same numbers as they did last year with a new coach and new schemes.
The defense has six starters back from a unit that allowed 26.4 points and 384 yards per game. Three starters are back on the defensive line that gave up 178 yards and 4.7 yards per carry last year. GregMcMullen (4 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, and 4 pass breakups), Maliek Collins (45 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 9.5 tackles for loss), and Vincent Valentine (45 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and 2 pass breakups) are the returners. David Santos is the lone returning linebacker after recording 50 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and 1 interception. The secondary has two starters back led by Nathan Gerry (#1 tackler), who had 88 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, 4 pass breakups, and 5 interceptions en route to making the 2nd Team Big 10 squad. There may be some growing pains in 2015, but the numbers should not fluctuate too much.
Nebraska opens with BYU and South Alabama at home before traveling to face Miami (FL) on the road and getting Southern Miss at home. The Cornhuskers face Illinois, Minnesota, and Purdue on the road while playing Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Iowa at home. From the East, Nebraska will take on Michigan State (home) and Rutgers (road). Nebraska should be in a bowl game in 2015 and could even make the Big 10 Championship Game with a few stumbles and surprises.
4. Illinois Fighting Illini
Ron Zook was in charge of Illinois from 2005 through 2011 and led the Illini to three bowl games including the 2007 Rose Bowl. Zook was let go before the 2011 bowl game that Illinois won 20-14 over UCLA. Tim Beckman came in starting with the 2012 season and went 2-10 followed by a 4-8 record in 2013. The Illini had to make a bowl game in 2014 for Beckman to keep his job and they did, but lost to Louisiana Tech 35-18. 2015 is another chance for Illinois to make a bowl game.
The offense put up 25.9 points and 367 yards per game in 2014 with Wes Lunt taking over at quarterback. Lunt had injury issues throughout the season while finishing with 1,763 with 14 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Josh Ferguson is returning at running back after a sub par year with only 735 yards and 8 touchdowns. Ferguson also was the team’s third leading receiver with 50 catches for 427 yards and 2 touchdowns. Mike Dudek led the team in receiving as a freshman in 2014 with 76 catches for 1,038 yards and 6 touchdowns, but tore his ACL in April. He status for 2015 is still up in the air. Geronimo Allison (41 catches for 598 yards and 5 touchdowns), Malik Turner (25 catches for 256 yards and a touchdown), and Justin Hardee (19 catches for 240 yards and a touchdown) all return in case Dudek is unable to go. Three starters are back on the offensive line to bring the total up to eight for the offense. A healthy Lunt will mean higher numbers for the Illini offense even if Dudek is out for the year.
Defense has been an issue for Illinois under Beckman, as the unit has not allowed less than 32 points per game in his tenure. Last year, the defense gave up 34 points and 456 yards per game with seven starters back. That same number is back this year with Jihad Ward and Rob Bain back on the line. Ward had 51 tackles, 3 sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss last year. Two linebackers return in Mason Monheim and TJNeal, which is good news for Illinois. Monheim had 111 tackles (#1 on team), 1 sack, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions while Neal had 98 tackles (#4 on team) and 6.5 tackles for loss. The secondary has three starters back including Taylor Barton, who had 100 tackles (#3 on team). V’Angelo Bentley is back in the secondary as well, but he will also be utilized in the return game. The defense should improve in 2015 with seven starters back.
Illinois opens with home games against Kent State and Western Illinois before traveling to face North Carolina on the road. They close out the non-conference portion of their schedule against Middle Tennessee at home. Within their division, Illinois will play Nebraska and Wisconsin at home while facing Northwestern in Chicago. They also play Iowa, Purdue, and Minnesota on the road. From the East, the Illini play Penn State (road) and Ohio State (home), which is a tough draw. There is enough offense and defense on this Illinois squad to make a second straight bowl game under Beckman.
5. Iowa Hawkeyes
Kirk Ferentz is entering his 17th season at Iowa. In that time, Iowa has 11 winning season and four season with at least 10 wins. Since going 11-2 in 2009, however, Iowa has not reached that success with their best recording being 8-5 in both 2010 and 2013. The pressure may be on Ferentz to get Iowa back to double digit wins sooner rather than later.
The offense will return five starters from a group that put up 28.2 points and 400 yards per game. CJBeathard is taking over at quarterback for the now transferred Jake Rudock (went to Michigan). Beathard threw for 645 yards with 5 touchdowns and 2 interceptions while also not having Mark Weisman (812 yards and 16 touchdowns). Jordan Canzeri (494 yards), Akrum Wadley (186 yards and a touchdown), Jonathan Parker (141 yards and a touchdown), LeShun Daniels (49 yards and a touchdown), and CJ Hilliard will all see some looks at the running back spot. Tevaun Smith (43 catches for 596 yards and 3 touchdowns), Jake Duzey (36 catches for 392 yards and 3 touchdowns), and MattVandeBerg (14 catches for 256 yards and 1 touchdown) are back. The line has three starters back while the offense could put up similar numbers in 2015 as they did last year.
Last year’s defense was not as effective as an Iowa defense usually is. They gave up 25.6 points and 344 yards per game with only five starters back. The number of starters returning increases by two, to seven, which is good news. Drew Ott (57 tackles, 8 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and an interception) and Nate Meier (57 tackles, 2 sacks, and 4 tackles for loss) are back to anchor the defensive end positions. Bo Bower and Josey Jewell are the two starters returning at linebacker while the secondary has three starters back. Jordan Lomax will be at one of the safety spots after recording 92 tackles, 6 pass breakups, and an interception last year. 2015 should see Iowa’s defense improve.
Iowa opens the season against Illinois State at home before facing in-state rival Iowa State on the road. The non-conference schedule ends with Pittsburgh and North Texas both coming to Iowa City. Iowa will face Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Nebraska on the road while playing Illinois, Minnesota, and Purdue at home. From the East, Iowa has Maryland (home) and Indiana (road) in two winnable games. Iowa should be back in a bowl game this year, but will that be enough to keep Ferentz around another year?
6. Purdue Boilermakers
Darrell Hazell came in from Kent State in 2013 and had a rough first year. The Boilermakers went 1-11 with their lone win against FCS Indiana State in a game they only won 20-14. The offense (14.9 points and 345 yards per game) and defense (38 points and 460 yards allowed per game) were dreadful. 2014 was a very good step in the right direction with a 3-9 record and 2015 should continue that trend.
The offense in 2014 had 8 starters back and shot up to 23.8 points and 345 yards per game. There are eight starters back again in 2015 with the quarterback position in the air between freshmen David Blough and Elijah Sindelar and Austin Appleby (1,449 yards with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions). Running back is not settled with DJ Knox, Keyante Green (199 yards), David Yancey, and Markell Jones all having a chance to win the top duties. Danny Anthrop is back as the top wide receiver after grabbing 38 passes for 616 yards and 4 touchdowns. The offensive line has all the starters back, which is great news for whoever wins the quarterback and running back battles. The offense should be better in 2015 with even better numbers than last year.
The defense was awful in 2013 by giving up 38 points and 460 yards per game. Year two was better with the defense allowing 31.7 points and 416 yards per game. Seven starters return in 2015 including the second through fifth top tacklers from last year. Ryan Watson (17 tackles, 4 sacks, 1.5 tackes for loss) and Jake Replogle (40 tackles, 3 sacks, and 7.5 tackles for loss) return on the line that improved from 235 rushing yards allowed per game in 2013 to 192 yards per game in 2014. That number should drop in 2015. The strength of the defense is at linebacker with the top three starters back. Ja’Whaun Bentley (76 tackles; #2 on team), Jimmy Herman (56 tackles, #4 on team), and Danny Ezechukwu (43 tackles; #8 on team) all back after starting last year. The secondary has three starters back led by Anthony Brown and Frankie Williams at the corner spots. Like the offense, the defense should improve in year three of Hazell’s tenure.
Purdue opens the season on the road at Marshall in a tough game before facing Indiana State, Virginia Tech, and Bowling Green at home. In their division, Purdue will play Minnesota, Nebraska, and Illinois at home while facing Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Iowa on the road. From the East, they will have to play Michigan State (road) and Indiana (home). Purdue is going in the right direction and will probably need two upsets to reach a bowl game.
7. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Jerry Kill has been at Minnesota since 2011 and has made them into a gritty team that is not easy to defeat. After going 3-9 in his first year, the team improved to 6-7 in 2012 and lost by a field goal, 34-31, to Texas Tech in the bowl game. 2013 saw them finish 8-5 and they did the same in 2014 as they had a chance to win the Big 10 West in the final week against Wisconsin. 2015 will be an interesting test for Minnesota and Kill.
The offense for Minnesota is run-based and will have five starters back in 2015. Mitch Leidner threw for 1,798 yards with 11 touchdowns and 8 interceptions while rushing for 452 yards and 10 touchdowns. Backup Chris Streveler ran for 235 yards and 1 touchdown as well. David Cobb has exited after rushing for 1,626 yards and 13 touchdowns leaving a big void at running back. Berkley Edwards (140 yards and 2 touchdowns) and Rodrick Williams (114 yards and 3 touchdowns) will be vying to start at running back. Top target Maxx Williams (36 catches for 569 yards and 8 touchdowns) is gone as well, leaving KJ Maye as the top wide receiver. Maye had 16 catches for 298 yards and a touchdown as the #2 receiver. The offensive line has three starters back, but it will probably be tough for the Gophers to match last year’s production of 28.4 points and 357 yards per game with Cobb and Williams gone.
The defense has been solid for Minnesota the last three years. In 2014, the defense gave up 24.2 points and 368 yards per game and returns seven starters from that group. Theiren Cockran (23 tackles, 4 sacks, and 3 tackles for loss) and Steven Richardson (23 tackles, 2 sacks, and 4 tackles for loss) will be teaming up with the Ekpe brothers of Scott and Hendrick. De’Vondre Campbell (75 tackles, 2.5sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and an interception) and Jack Lynn (57 tackles, 1 sack, and 6 tackles for loss) will be the returning linebackers. In the secondary, three starters are back led by Eric Murray at corner. Murray had 69 tackles, 7 pass breakups, and an interception last year. The defense should be solid once again for Minnesota.
Minnesota opens with TCU at home before facing Colorado State on the road. Kent State and Ohio both travel to Minneapolis to close out the non-conference slate. In division, Minnesota will play Northwestern, Purdue, and Iowa on the road while taking on Nebraska, Illinois, and Wisconsin at home. From the East, Minnesota draws Michigan (home) and Ohio State (road). It will be a challenging year for Minnesota if the offense sputters and will need a couple of upsets to make a bowl game, but they are more than capable of getting those upsets.
The Big 10’s West division is quite the conundrum with every team having questions. Wisconsin has a new coach and lost a star in Melvin Gordon while Northwestern has some offensive worries. Nebraska is in the same boat as Wisconsin with a new coach and lost Ameer Abdullah. Illinois has worries on defense while Iowa is constantly underachieving. Purdue is still learning Hazell’s system and Minnesota lost a lot of offensive production in David Cobb and Maxx Williams.
We will go with Wisconsin to win the division, but Northwestern or Nebraska could also finish on top. Illinois is likely to make noise with a more veteran team along with Iowa. Purdue and Minnesota will both be close to bowl eligibility and could easily finish higher than predicted, especially the Gophers. Below is the predicted order of finish.
Check back on Friday for a preview of the Big 10 East Division as well as a look at the Big 10 Championship Game prediction.
“This is very disappointing for Mikey, his family and our football program,” head coach Tim Beckman said. “He’ll have the knee surgically repaired as soon as possible and the doctors feel like he could return to the field in October. Knowing how hard Mikey works, our biggest challenge will be to keep him on pace and not let him push it too hard and too fast.”
Dudek was the top receiver by far for the Illini. He had 76 catches for 1,038 yards and 6 touchdowns. The next closest receiver was Geronimo Allison with 41 catches for 598 yards and 5 touchdowns. Dudek was named a freshman All-American in 2014 as well as a second team All-Big Ten selection.
Dudek will still miss at least half the season, which means the Illini will be without him for Kent State (9/4), Western Illinois (9/12), at North Carolina (9/19), Middle Tennessee State (9/26), Nebraska (10/3), and at Iowa (10/10).
Illinois returns their top three receivers after Dudek, including running back Josh Ferguson. Ferguson led the Illini in rushing with 735 yards and 8 touchdowns, but also had 50 catches for 427 yards and 2 touchdowns. The other two receivers are the aforementioned Geronimo Allison and Malik Turner. Turner had 25 catches for 256 yards and 1 touchdown last season.