Michigan has arrived back in Ann Arbor, meaning spring football is finally and officially done across the Big Ten. College football’s annual rite of passage is also done, and there is plenty of curiosity to go around.
That means it is time to take stock of where things sit heading in to the summer workout sessions and the season ahead. It is also the perfect time to really dive deep in to what we did and didn’t see this spring.
Let’s start with the Big Ten West division, which had two new head coaches and another head coach with his first real spring camp in the books. Minnesota got the P.J. Fleck era under way and Purdue welcomed Jeff Brohm’s high-flying offensive attack to the division. Meanwhile, Illinois’ Love Smith finally got to run a full spring practice without rushing things.
Which teams answered questions, which ones have big-time questions to answer this fall? Let us take a look at every Big Ten West division teams’ biggest question post-spring football.
Top 25 Players in the Big Ten for 2017: No’s. 5-1
Our preseason Top 25 players in the Big Ten list comes to its conclusion. Who took the top spot and did anyone surprise inside the top 5?
It is almost time for pads to start popping and helmets to start cracking together…and that means football season is right around the corner. Here at talking10 it also means the release of our annual Big Ten Preseason Top 25 Players list.
We’ve reached the end of the road here and that means some of the best players we’re likely to see in the Big Ten for 2017. Consider these the ones to watch and the ones that will likely have a major impact on what happens to the Big Ten title race.
So who are those players? Let’s find out together.
No. 5. — Troy Fumagalli, TE (Wisconsin)
2016 Season Stats: 47 receptions, 580 yards, 2 TD’s
Best Game: Cotton Bowl vs. Western Michigan – 6 receptions, 83 yards, 1 TD
Fumagalli came in to 2016 as a complete unknown. He opened eyes with a 7-reception, 100-yard day in the opener against LSU. In between he managed to become one of the key components to Wisconsin’s passing game and was easily the favorite target of freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook.
His monster start was bookended with a huge effort to help the Badgers win the Cotton Bowl over Western Michigan. There are few tight ends with as sure of hands and as important to keeping drives alive as Fumagalli. Perhaps most impressive? Everyone knew to cover him and he’d still make the big play.
No. 4. — Josey Jewell, LB (Iowa)
2016 Season Stats: 124 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 9 pass breakups, 5 QB hurries
Best Game: vs. Northwestern – 16 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sack
Perhaps no player on this list better embodies the spirit and mentality of his team than Iowa middle linebacker Josey Jewell. He’s a tough customer and a no-frills player who does his job to a very high level. After racking up 126 tackles his sophomore season, Jewell repeated the effort with 124 last season.
Let’s just say he wasn’t a one-hit wonder, and plenty of opposing running backs found that out the hard way in 2016. In a conference loaded with quality linebackers, Jewell may be the most stable and least talked about of the bunch. He’s also the most productive, and that gets him top billing amongst all defensive players in the B1G.
No. 3. — Trace McSorley, QB (Penn State)
2016 Season Stats: 57.9 comp. %, 3,614 yards, 29 TD’s, 8 INT’s; 365 yards, 7 TD’s rushing
Best Game: vs. Wisconsin (B1G Championship) – 71 comp %, 384 yards, 4 TD’s
One of Penn State’s biggest question marks last season was how the QB situation would unfold with a new coordinator and a QB who had never taken a collegiate snap starting. The answer was that Trace McSorley and coordinator Joe Moorhead were a match made in heaven.
He’s the perfect blend of arm talent, mental toughness and athleticism to run Moorhead’s scheme. Few question if McSorley can lead this team back to a Big Ten title after a surprising title run last season. I mean, he did throw for 3,600 yards and a cool 29 touchdowns to eight interceptions.
No. 2. — Justin Jackson, RB (Northwestern)
2016 Season Stats: 298 carries, 1,524 yards, 5.1 avg., 11 TD’s; 35 receptions, 219 yards
Best Game: vs. Pitt (Pinstripe Bowl) – 32 carries, 224 yards, 3 TD’s
Jackson drew 2 of the 4 first place votes available and the internal debate was a big one between the obvious top choices on this list. Jackson topped the rushing list in the Big Ten last year in both total yards and yards per game.
He’s also rushed for 1,000 yards for three-straight seasons and could be in line to break all sorts of school and conference records this season. All of it while not really having the hype machine turned on much. He’s just not a flashy back, but will kill you with speed and power along with patience.
Picking between Jackson and our No. 1 player on the list may just be a preference on style over production and you can’t go wrong either way.
No. 1. — Saquon Barkley, RB (Penn State)
2016 Season Stats: 272 carries, 1,496 yards, 18 TD’s; 28 receptions, 402 yards, 4 TD’s
Best Game: @ Purdue – 18 carries, 207 yards, 2 TD’s; 3 receptions, 70 yards
It is only fitting that the conference everyone associates with running backs has a running back at the top of the list. Saquon Barkley may not only be the best running back in the B1G, he is likely the best running back in the country.
Again, like Jackson, he received two first place votes in our polling, but received second place nods from the other voters to race out to the lead. Few backs in college football area as difficult to bring down as Barkley is due to his shiftiness and his ability to hurdle defenders on a dime.
He’s as close to a human highlight reel at running back as we have in the modern game, and don’t be surprised to see him in the mix for the Heisman Trophy at the end of the season if he can replicate what happened last season.
Wisconsin Badgers at Iowa Hawkeyes: Preview, Predictions and Prognostications
When: Sat. Oct. 22; noon ET
Where: Iowa City, Iowa; Kinnick Stadium (70,5851)
All-Time Series: Wisconsin leads 44-43-2
Last Meeting: Iowa Win; 10-6 (2015)
Line: Wisconsin (-3.5)
High-flying offense meet one of the toughest defenses in the Big Ten. It may feel like deja vu as the Wisconsin Badgers and Iowa Hawkeyes clash for the 11th time over the Heartland Trophy and for the 90th time in a series that dates all the way back to 1894.
Let’s just say crazy things can happen when these two teams get together. Last season was certainly no different as both defenses created turnovers and harassed the opposing offenses like crazy. Yet, it all ended in a 10-6 victory for the eventual Big Ten West division champions known as the Iowa Hawkeyes.
It’s safe to say these two teams don’t care much for each other, and outside of the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe there may not be a more important or heated rivalry in the Big Ten West division.
So, strap yourselves up for a likely entertaining and crazy matchup between the last two West division winners.
1 Burning Question: Can Wisconsin Build Off Impressive Rushing Performance Against Ohio State?
Badgers fans have been waiting long and (im)patiently to see a solid and capable running game to return to Camp Randall. It just so happened that the return of a healthy Corey Clement and the hyped nature of the matchup with Ohio State allowed that to happen last weekend.
Clement tied a career high with 164 yards rushing, but was held out of the end zone in the overtime loss to Ohio State. As a team, the Badgers put up 236 yards on the ground against a defense that came in allowing an average of just 96 yards per game.
The 236 yards were also the most by a Badgers team in Big Ten play since putting up 256 yards on Minnesota to end the season last year and the second-most of the 2016 season after an explosion against a really bad Akron defense in Week 2 of the season.
Can the Badgers sustain or build on the level of success it had on the ground against Ohio State in this road test? If Wisconsin wants chances to win games with a still-learning quarterback like Alex Hornibrook, it needs to be a threat on the ground.
Teams can’t pin their ears back and attack the passing game if they are getting gashed on the ground. Let’s see if the Badgers can continue to find a solid running game this week.
2 Key Stats:
— 5. That is the number of wins for both Iowa and Wisconsin since the introduction of the Heartland Trophy to this series. So, that means this is the rubber match, and after an Iowa win in Camp Randall last season, you can bet the Badgers want some revenge at Kinnick. However, that may be easier said than done, as Wisconsin owns just an 18-24-1 record in games played at Kinnick in this series.
— 11. Wisconsin has won 11 of the last 12 trophy games against West division rivals. That one loss? It came last season to the Iowa Hawkeyes of course. So, expect this game to mean a lot to both teams. After all, the Badgers clearly aren’t used to not having a full trophy case at Camp Randall. Luckily for the Badgers, they also own a three-game winning streak at Kinnick Stadium, part of that 11 wins in 12 games streak.
3 Key Players:
Vince Biegel, Wisconsin LB: It may seem strange to have Biegel on this list given the performances of players like Garret Dooley and Zack Baun while he was out, but Biegel is the leader of the 2016 Badgers defense. Having him back on the field for this game is huge, and you can bet his will and determination will rub off on the rest of the team. Oh, and he happens to be a pretty electric weapon for Justin Wilcox to have on the field. Look for him to be a tell-tale sign of how things go in this game.
Akrum Wadley, Iowa RB: Wisconsin’s defense has been one of the hardest to gain yards on in the Big Ten, especially on the ground. However, they have been susceptible to the big play and that is where Wadley comes in to play. He is third in the Big Ten with 592 yards rushing, but most importantly he is a game-buster. Wadley averages over 7.4 yards per carry on the season and has busted five runs of 20-plus yards to go with 18 of 10 or more yards. He needs to give the Badgers a reason to back off defensively, and busting loose a few times early on would be good.
Beau Benzschawel, Wisconsin RG: There wasn’t a single player on the Badgers offensive line that had as bad of a game as Benzschawel did. He made Nick Bosa look like Joey Bosa and he also couldn’t handle Sam Hubbard. The lack of strong play made UW a one-dimensional run game almost exclusively running up the middle or left of the line. Simply put, he has to play better if the Badgers want to continue to open up the playbook and make teams deal with multiple play locations out of the same looks. If UW can’t trust him to block well, it could be another long day for the Badgers offense.
4 Staff Predictions:
Andy: Wisconsin 35-14
Dave: Wisconsin 24-17
Phil H.: Wisconsin 24-20
Philip R-R: Wisconsin 24-21
Will Iowa-Wisconsin be a transition of the guard at top of B1G?
Although it was hard to see following a 7-6 season and a blowout bowl loss to Tennessee, Iowa may be on the verge of a third wave of big success under longtime coach Kirk Ferentz. Heading to Madison at 4-0 this weekend, the Hawkeyes are likely playing for a national ranking as well as the inside track for the Big Ten West title this season.
To be the best in a conference or division, eventually you have to beat the best. Since divisional play began in 2011, Wisconsin is simply the best in their division (Leaders previously, West now), having won two division titles and having made three conference championship games in four seasons. Thus, the target is on the Badgers as the de facto favorite until proven otherwise.
This could be the opportunity to knock the defending champion off the top perch right away, and Iowa could be the major beneficiary of such a changing of the guard.
One good analogy for the ongoing struggle for relevance in the Big Ten has been provided a few times by Scott Dochterman of the On Iowa Live podcast and Cedar Rapids Gazette: Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Iowa are like three polar bears fighting and scrapping to stay on top a small piece of ice.
Given the style of play these teams usually employ, the analogy is not much of a stretch.
Right now, Wisconsin and Michigan State have taken a long hold on that patch of ice at the top of the conference (alongside blue bloods like Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State, who generally don’t have to scrap and claw as much to stay at the top over time). Minnesota and Nebraska have tried the past couple seasons to knock these teams off, but the Badgers and Spartans keep pushing those teams back into the proverbial cold water.
For programs like Iowa, sometimes this leads to an extended period where the football team is fighting over a smaller patch of ice with lesser programs like Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern, etc. After all, proud programs like Iowa don’t want to go back to the end of the line with the usual likes of Purdue, Indiana, and Rutgers.
But the place these programs really want to be is at the top, fighting with the best of the blue-bloods every season for conference championships and big bowl game stakes. Since 2010, the only two “outsiders” able to compete have been Wisconsin and Michigan State.
In those past five years, Wisconsin has 30 conference wins and MSU has 32 (Ohio State is the only program with more at 34 wins). Not surprisingly, these are the only three teams with a conference championship in this span.
No other team has more than 22 wins in the past five seasons, which means Iowa’s 19-21 mark puts it firmly in the mix with lesser teams like Northwestern and Minnesota (15 wins apiece). But go back to 2008 and 2009, and you’ll see Iowa right in the mix with 9-4 and 11-2 seasons. And a few years before that in 2002, only a loss to Iowa State kept an 11-1 Iowa team from possibly claiming a spot in the BCS Championship instead of Ohio State.
So Kirk Ferentz has been at the pinnacle, twice. He’s had to change some members of his staff and revitalize his coaching strategy to become more aggressive, but these changes are working. Iowa is scoring nearly 38 points per game against decent competition, not counting the North Texas team played last weekend.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin lost a head coach for the second time in three years following a 59-0 drubbing at the hands of Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship. Although Paul Chryst returns from the staff of Bret Bielema three seasons ago, the continuity loss is significant. Add to that some injuries to key players like Corey Clement, and the Badgers don’t look anything like the team that normally pummels lesser competition and midrange Big Ten foes with running game and defensive toughness.
Iowa nearly stopped Wisconsin a season ago, falling just short 26-24. That type of competitive play has been more typical than not in this rivalry, and Iowa is very motivated to go win that Heartland Trophy for the first time since 2009.
Iowa also appears to be a program back on the rise, thanks to those changes in Kirk Ferentz and the best quarterback play this program has seen since Ricky Stanzi. Iowa runs into this game with a ton of momentum, ramping up the good results over the month of September. Wisconsin, on the other hand, has not looked dominant in the past couple weeks against lesser competition.
Add it all together, and this looks like the perfect opportunity for Wisconsin to possibly be knocked off that small patch of ice for the first time in the past half decade. Even with the game in the friendly home confines of Camp Randall Stadium.
It could be a changing of the guard this weekend in the West Division. That would be a huge change, and certainly a welcome one in Iowa City.
Every Big Ten West team’s biggest recruiting battle before national signing day
It seems like only yesterday that a Big Ten team was hoisting the national championship trophy, but we’re actually inching closer to the biggest day of the offseason — national signing day.
That means recruits are taking last-minute visits, coaches are crisscrossing the country to visit players and offers are going out on a nearly daily basis. To say these next few weeks will be crazy is a bit of an understatement, however the Big Ten is in on some major battles nationally and regionally as we head down the homestretch of the 205 recruiting cycle.
That means every team is putting out maximum effort to get the guys they want to sign to actually sign and fax in national letter of intent on the first Wednesday in February.
It also means that battles are heating up all over the country. Which battles are the Big Ten involved in? Let’s start by looking at the biggest battles for the Big Ten West.