2017 Big Ten Preview
June 19, 2017
By Marc Lawrence
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2017 BIG TEN PREVIEW
The 2017 campaign will feature 33 All-Big Ten players (seven first-team, 12 second-team, 14 third-team) and 46 honorable mention selections from last season.
The Big Ten had 35 draft choices. That total ranked fourth among the Power Five conferences, as the SEC led the way with 54, followed by the ACC 43 and the Pac-12 with 36. Michigan led the nation with 11 players selected in the draft, while Ohio State had seven players heard their name called in Philadelphia.
And once again the Big Ten has not had a QB taken in the 1st round since Penn State’s Kerry Collins in 1995.
Just like last year, the Big Ten welcomes three new head coaches in Indiana’s Tom Allen, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck and Purdue’s Jeff Brohm.
Allen joined the Indiana staff as an associate coach last season. He’s a 25-year coaching veteran who led a dramatic defensive turnaround for the Hoosiers, just as the he done at Ole Miss and South Florida... Fleck’s was 1-11 in his first year with Western Michigan before going 13-1 last season... Brohm comes from Western Kentucky where his Hilltoppers went 30-10, including 19-5 in conference games.
Five current Big Ten mentors have been college head coaches for 10 years or more – Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz (20 seasons), Nebraska’s Mike Riley (15), Ohio State’s Urban Meyer (14), Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio (12) and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald (10).
Eleven Big Ten teams will square off against at least one non-conference team that played in a bowl game last season, with 17 total games against squads coming off bowl trips. Indiana is the only school to not make the list. Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue and Rutgers will each face two non-conference bowl teams in 2017.
Note: The numbers following each team name represents the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.
INDIANA (Offense – *7/3, Defense – 9/3, 62 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: A COMFORTABLE PAIR OF NEW SHOES
Indiana engineered one of the top defensive turnarounds in the country last year when, despite taking on four Top 10 opponents, the Hoosiers managed to improve 11 PPG and 130 YPG. It was good enough to land defensive associate coach Tom Allen his first college head coaching position. The good news is, thanks to former coach Kevin Wilson, Allen inherits the highest-rated recruiting classes in school history over the past five seasons. Mike DeBord, OC at Tennessee the past two seasons, joins Allen’s staff. Back in the day, DeBord tutored Tom Brady at Michigan, and will work with talented 6’ 6” SR QB Richard Lagow, who aired it out for 3,362 yards and 19 TDs for IU last year.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Over the last 22 years, the teams for which Allen has been a member of the coaching staff have posted a combined 222-69 record (.763).
PLAY ON: at Penn State (9/30)
MARYLAND (Offense – 6/3, Defense – 8/2, 53 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: SPINNING A NEW TUNE
Regarded as one of the brightest young coaching minds in college football, DJ Durkin quickly changed the culture and brought instant energy to the Maryland program last season when the Terps doubled their win total and earned a bowl bid in his first year on the sidelines. Durkin also showed his recruiting prowess by signing a consensus Top 20 class in 2017. The class, which included eleven 4-star signees, and five members of the ESPN 300, ranked among the best in program history. A former star LB at Bowling Green where he captained the team and led it in tackles, this DJ is a star in the making. And the Terps are on the rise.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Terps are 0-8 SUATS following a win from Game Seven out the last four years.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. UCF (9/23)
MICHIGAN (Offense – *5/2, Defense – 1/0, 55 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, THE SON AND…
A team that started the season 8-0 last year before closing out 1-3, UM could be in a world of hurt in 2017. That’s because Wolverine seniors accounted for the highest percentage of starts of all FBS teams last season (76.6%). It’s a wickedly high number and it means that Jim Harbaugh will need to rely on a bevy of underclassmen to compensate this season. Gone are 138 receptions, more than 1,900 yards and 13 touchdowns just between two senior WRs and TE Jake Butt. That said, Harbaugh has now brought in consecutive Top-10 recruiting classes. Remember, we saw this same pattern last season when Ohio State returned barefoot with only 6 total starters returning – and all they did was land a spot in the College Football Playoffs. And don’t forget, the SU winner ‘In The Stats’ is 24-2 in UM games with Harbaugh as its head coach. After an offseason trip to visit the Pope in Roma, they'll lean on any sanctification they can get.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The 11 UM players selected in this year's NFL Draft were the most in school history, and the most of any team in the Draft.
MICHIGAN STATE (Offense – 4/1, Defense – 4/1, 43 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: WHO’S GONNA FILL THEIR SHOES?
As we outlined on this page last season, a fortuitous band of Spartans won 7 one-possession games in 2015 – the best in the nation. They went 0-3 in those same games last season. It came back to bite them when Mark Dantonio suffered his first losing season with MSU, falling from 12 wins to 3 in 2016. The epitome of a ‘Mission Team’ this season, Sparty should be in a nasty mood. The bad news is over 50% of the starts made for the Spartans last season were by seniors. Thus, improvement from a defense that had just 11 quarterback sacks and 13 forced turnovers last year (as opposed to 37 and 28 respectively in 2015) is mandatory. Beware: with an impending NCAA investigation swirling over sexual abuse by players (including 10 four-star recruits) this program might suddenly have “Baylor” written all over it.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Spartans dropped from fourth in the nation in turnover margin in 2015 to 101st – at -0.42 – in 2016.
PLAY ON: vs. Notre Dame (9/23) - *KEY as a dog
OHIO STATE (Offense – *8/4, Defense – 7/4, 48 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: URBAN’S NEW MODERN DEVELOPMENT
That the Buckeyes again returned to the CFB Playoffs last year despite a staggering lack of experience was truly remarkable. 1,000-yard RB Mike Weber was one of two first-team, two second-team and one honorable mention Freshman All-American starters on Urban Meyer’s squad last season, one that played 29 freshmen. Not so shockingly, only 5.6% of the starts made by the baby Buckeyes last season were by seniors – the fewest in the land (compare that to 76.6% for Michigan – the most). With that, this season finds 40 upper classmen dotting the roster for new OC Kevin Wilson, the former Indiana head coach and offensive guru, led by All-American QB J.T. Barrett. Beware of this ready-for-prime-time group.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Buckeyes will play no back-to-back road games in 2017.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Michigan State (11/11)
PENN STATE (Offense – *9/3, Defense – 7/2, 45 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: WINNING BIG
Penn State earned eight Big Ten wins in 2016 for just the second time in program history, and the Lions celebrated their first Big Ten title since 2008. A whopping 31 school records were eclipsed or tied during the Big Ten Championship season, one being four double-digit comebacks – which included rallying from a 21-point deficit in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin. Both QB Trace McSorley and/or RB Saquon Barkley set a majority of the aforementioned records, and both return in 2017. Also back is PK Tyler ‘Automatic’ Davis who has nailed 30-of-32 career field goals, with both misses being blocks. He's also made all 73 of his PAT attempts.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Penn State and Wisconsin are the only Big Ten teams that have posted winning seasons the last 12 consecutive years.
PLAY AGAINST: at Ohio State (10/28) - *KEY
RUTGERS (Offense – *6/3, Defense – 8/2, 44 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: BURNT BEYOND RECOGNITION
It’s hard to imagine there was an offense worse than Boston College’s popgun attack last season, but Rutgers actually ranked dead last in the NCAA in total offense (including red zone offense). And it’s difficult envisaging a worse effort than what the Knights delivered in 2015 when they lost by 20.5 points and 167 yards per game in Big Ten play. But, hey, when you’re outclassed from head to toe by every team in your conference, there's always room for more. Rutgers was so pitiful in Chris Ash’s first season in New Brunswick they were actually dismantled by 30.5 PPG and 230 YPG while losing all nine Big Ten battles. Talk about being charred.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Rutgers suffered the worst two-game scoring span last year (to Michigan and Ohio State) by an FBS school since 1939.
PLAY ON: at Illinois (10/14)
ILLINOIS (Offense – 5/3, Defense – 4/0, 32 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: LOVE, THE SECOND TIME AROUND
There was little love in the air at the conclusion of the 2016 Illinois football season, Lovie Smith’s 1st year with the program. Because of his decision to start the second-most amount of freshmen in the country last year (29.2 percent of players that started games for the Illini), his troops were ranked No. 127 (2nd last) in the nation in first down offense, and also No. 127 in 3rd down conversion percentage. Five players with significant experience return up front. If star WR Mike Dudek, former Big Ten Freshman POY, can fight his way back from a gruesome knee injury suffered in 2015, the underclassmen just might come to Lovie’s rescue in 2017.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Illinois is 3-31 SU and 11-23 ATS in its last 34 Big Ten games versus .500 or greater opponents.
PLAY ON: at Purdue (11/4)
IOWA (Offense – 7/4, Defense – 8/3, 48 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: LET’S GO BOWLING
After just missing a berth in the 2015 College Football Playoffs, the Hawkeyes ‘regressed’ to 8-5 last season. It marked the 14th bowl appearance in 18 seasons for the Hawkeyes under Kirk Ferentz. Unfortunately, Captain Kirk loses star QB C.J. Beathard – 20-5 SU as a starter during the regular season – to the NFL. However, SR RB Akrum Wadley, Iowa’s leading rusher with 1,081 yards and 10 TDs a year ago, returns. The best news, though, is that four starters from an offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award – given to the best OL in the nation – are back. With eight starters back on defense, Ferentz is well positioned to land another bowl berth in 2017.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Kirk Ferentz shares the distinction of being the longest-tenured head coach in the nation.
PLAY ON: at Northwestern (10/21)
MINNESOTA (Offense – 7/2, Defense – 6/1, 43 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: ROWING A NEW BOAT
Minnesota is located in the land of lakes and captaining one of the new boats in the Big Ten football waters this season will be P.J. Fleck, named as the new skipper of the Gophers. The former Western Michigan head coach makes the transition from the MAC to the Big Ten with a core team that won nine games last season. Fleck went 1-11 in his first year with the Broncos, and 13-1 in his final season. The biggest loss, though, is the Ekpe brothers from the defensive line. Thankfully, the first seven games on the schedule include only one winning team from last season. The remaining five contests are all against bowl teams from 2016. Hopefully by then, the Gophers will have learned how to row the boat.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Golden Gophers are 17-2-1 ATS as conference underdogs since 2012.
PLAY AGAINST: at Northwestern (11/18)
NEBRASKA (Offense – 7/5, Defense – 7/2, 49 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: COACH ME UP
With Nebraska owning 385 victories over the past 40 seasons (tops in the land), HC Mike Riley is always feeling the heat. As a result, he made key hires in the offseason, bringing in Bob Diaco from UConn as his defensive coordinator, and Bob Elliott from Notre Dame as his secondary coach. They served together on the 2012 Fighting Irish defense that was 12-0 and played in the BCS Title Game. Diaco won the 2012 Broyles Award and is recognized as one of the college game's top defensive minds. Meanwhile, Riley owns 16 wins over ranked foes in 16 seasons as a college head coach. It all makes Tulane transfer QB Tanner Lee’s job that much easier.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Mike Riley has 43 overall years of coaching experience, the second-most among any active FBS head coach.
PLAY AGAINST: at Oregon (9/9)
NORTHWESTERN (Offense – *9/4, Defense – 8/3, 50 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: IN GOOD HANDS
When Indianapolis selected LB Anthony Walker in this year’s NFL Draft, history was made: Walker became the first Wildcat drafted after leaving school early. The junior amassed 227 tackles, including 30.5 for a loss, at NU. The message is that Northwestern is an academically focused institution that is now getting top athletes. It’s not HC Pat Fitzgerald’s job to prepare players for the NFL. His job is to build the best football team he can to represent Northwestern. And because he’s exceeded expectations, Fitzgerald signed an extension to remain NU’s coach through 2026. With 17 starters returning from a bowl-winning team, the school is in good hands.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Pat Fitzgerald has not had a player selected in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft since taking over at NU 11 years ago.
PLAY AGAINST: at Illinois (11/25)
PURDUE (Offense – *5/2, Defense – 8/2, 51 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: LOVE POTION NO. 9
New head coach Jeff Brohm was needed in West Lafayette like a transfusion for a dying vampire. Purdue fell to 9-39 in four years behind Darrell Hazell. To which we wonder: how did he last four years? Check these rancid numbers: despite having the most returning starters in the Big Ten last year, Purdue won one conference game. They finished last in the nation in turnover margin (-17) and averaged 96.2 rushing YPG in conference play last season – dead last. Hence, it's no surprise to learn from Ralph Michaels of Cal Sports that the Boilermakers have played UNDER their season win total each of the last five years. Good luck, Jeff.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Purdue was 1-8 SU in one-possession games versus FBS foes under former head coach Darrell Hazell.
WISCONSIN (Offense – *8/4, Defense – 7/3, 52 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: NO PRESSURE HERE
To say Badgers head coach Paul Chryst was up against it when he replaced Gary Andersen in Madison two years ago would be an understatement. After all, Andersen won 20 games in two seasons. That was after Bret Bielema averaged nearly 10 wins a season in his seven years with the Badgers before Andersen’s arrival. So how has Chryst responded to the self-imposed pressure? By averaging more wins per season than both Andersen and Bielema. With no Ohio State sighting, and only six foes on this year’s itinerary with a winning record in 2016, it would be nothing short of disappointing should Chryst win less than his usual 10 games this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Badgers' 15 consecutive bowl appearances is tops in the Big Ten.
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