Big Ten: Illinois Fighting Illini
In case you missed it -- and you might have since the game ended around 1:30 a.m. -- Rutgers outlasted Washington State, 41-38, to win its first-ever game as a member of the Big Ten. It was a quality win for the conference and an even bigger one for the underdog Scarlet Knights.
Senior quarterback Gary Nova, who appeared to be wiping tears from his eyes on the sideline, addressed the TV cameras after the final whistle. When asked what this game meant to the program, he simply said: “I don’t know. It’s just a great win.”
He’ll have all of Friday to reflect on what it means. But, on the surface, it’s pretty clear: That win just earned Rutgers some much needed respect. And it showed that maybe the “pushover” tag was a bit premature.
Granted, the Cougars are just a mediocre Pac-12 team. Their scoring defense last season was among the worst in the nation, while their pass offense was among the best. Rutgers scored 41 points Thursday night but allowed 532 passing yards. So the game didn’t stray from the script all that much. Except, of course, where it counted -- the winning team.
No, this doesn’t mean the Knights will automatically hang tough against Ohio State or Michigan State. But it does show the Knights were underestimated. By how much? Ask us again after the Penn State game. But none of us five Big Ten bloggers picked Rutgers to win this game. And none of us picked RU to win more than four games on the season.
Kyle Flood's squad was impressive, especially on offense. The line absolutely dominated, and Paul James showed a nice blend of speed and power to the tune of 173 rushing yards and three TDs. Nova tossed a 78-yard TD on the first play, struggled the rest of the first half but then rebounded by going 11-of-17 for 174 yards in just the second half. Wideout Leonte Carroo could even be a popular waiver wire addition when it comes to our fantasy league.
The Knights received a lukewarm reception when they accepted an invitation to the conference. But they proved a lot of analysts and experts wrong with their performance against Washington State. Let’s see if they can keep doing that; there’s no better way to earn respect.
Welcome to the Big Ten, Rutgers.
- After beating Eastern Illinois, Mitch Leidner looks as if he can be a good quarterback for Minnesota -- but what kind of quarterback? Head coach Jerry Kill believes facility upgrades are critical to the Gophers' next step.
- Running back Paul James delivers in Rutgers' win. An overview of the RU-WSU game and what it means for the Scarlet Knights.
- The Buckeyes revamped their pass-defense this offseason, but obviously the focus will be a little different against run-happy Navy.
- Devin Gardner is "100 times better" as a leader this season, according to Michigan's Brady Hoke.
- Seven things to watch this season with Indiana. A roundtable complete with Hoosiers' previews and predictions.
- MSU linebacker Taiwan Jones never showed a "clear indication" he was ready to play middle linebacker this camp, but he also never really had a down day either.
- Breaking down and examining Penn State's possible redshirt candidates.
- A roundtable on Maryland's season, from predicting team MVPs to what game each blogger is most excited about.
- Illinois players and coaches say there's a renewed sense of hope around campus this season. Tim Beckman is hoping a more experienced roster means more success.
- Wisconsin still refuses to disclose its plans at quarterback Saturday, but offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig praised both Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy. A video on Ludwig addressing the quarterback situation.
- Everyone already knows about Ameer Abdullah, but what kind of role will the other Nebraska running backs play?
- Cameron Dickerson is a name to remember for Northwestern, as the wideout went from role player to key cog in one short offseason.
- Quarterback Jake Rudock is expected to have more input on this Iowa offense, so communication is especially important.
- Six Big Ten players made the cut on Mel Kiper's "Big Board," a list of the top 25 NFL prospects, with Nebraska DE Randy Gregory the top B1G player at No. 4 overall.
What were our strategies? And how do we think we fared? Check it all out below, and let us know who you think has the best lineup:
Adam Rittenberg (Trombone Shorties): I wanted a top-shelf running back and got one in Ameer Abdullah. He will produce yards, but I'd really like to see his touchdowns total increase. Both of my wide receivers are tight end types (Jesse James is still classified as one, Devin Funchess isn't) who create matchup problems for defenses and should have big seasons. You need at least one dual-threat quarterback because of the scoring system, and I like Tommy Armstrong's potential in his second year as the starter. Connor Cook doesn’t bring much as a runner, but if he builds on how he ended last season, he will put up plenty of points, too. Paul James is a dynamic player when healthy and should get plenty of carries as Rutgers' featured back. I wanted a defense I could keep for several weeks, and Minnesota's unit, which should once again be pretty stingy, should have little trouble shutting down Eastern Illinois and Middle Tennessee.
Can you hear that? It’s the sweet music of another Trombone Shorties championship, coming your way this fall.
Brian Bennett (Legendary Leaders): Quarterbacks can dominate this particular scoring system, so I was happy to grab Devin Gardner with the fourth overall pick. He put up more total fantasy points than any player in the Big Ten last season, by a pretty wide margin (if only he could play Indiana every week). Speaking of the Hoosiers, I was excited to see Tevin Coleman still around for my next pick, as he should be a fantasy stud this season. Not getting Wes Lunt was a bummer (and, guys, I should have dibs on him come waiver wire time, right?) but Maryland's C.J. Brown should be a fine option, racking up points every time he throws to Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. If Ezekiel Elliott becomes Ohio State's featured back as expected, that could be a gold mine. My receiver spots are a little shakier, but I think that was the one position to punt since there weren't great options after the top couple of guys. It wasn't worth spending an early-round pick on a position that is really hit or miss in this fantasy system. Iowa's defense should be strong all year long with that schedule. I'm feeling good about my team, though injuries and the double-bye weeks can always wreak havoc.
Mitch Sherman (Sherman Tanks): Yards matter, but touchdowns mean more. My first pick, Jeremy Langford, reached the end zone nearly as often as Melvin Gordon and Abdullah combined last season. With Michigan State’s improved offense and less reliance this fall on the defense, Langford’s opportunities figure only to increase. I’m banking heavily on the Penn State offense, with quarterback Christian Hackenberg after a 20-touchdown freshman season and running back Zach Zwinak, who is good in the red zone. Throw in the PSU kickers, too, for good measure, though I will have to make some roster adjustments in October as the Nittany Lions get two bye weeks. Deon Long, despite facing some criticism from Maryland coach Randy Edsall early in preseason camp, is ready for a big senior season as he returns from a broken leg. I’m expecting similar production from Iowa’s Kevonte Martin-Manley, who has shown his game-breaking skills in the return game. Trevor Siemian, with the job to himself at Northwestern, can accumulate numbers in the passing game. And the Nebraska defense is solid as the strength of Bo Pelini’s team.
Josh Moyer (Coal Crackers): I would have preferred to draft last so I could’ve picked up a blue-chip running back and a top quarterback. But you have to adapt, right? Gordon was an easy decision as the No. 1 overall pick. Since my initial strategy was basically busted right off the bat, I took an advantage as soon as I saw one -- when only one wideout was taken in the first nine spots. I drafted Shane Wynn and Stefon Diggs back-to-back, so I now have the best corps of receivers in our league. By far. I’d also argue I have the best defense and kickers by twice choosing Michigan State. Mark Weisman isn’t a bad RB2, either. What does that leave? Well, admittedly, that leaves my weakest spot: Quarterback. I took Jake Rudock late in the draft and Mitch Leidner as my last pick. I wasn’t getting good value, so I kept holding off. Hopefully those two can produce some running TDs for me, and if one of them can break out, then Adam can start waving good-bye to that championship trophy.
Austin Ward (Massive Attack): Indiana might not be anybody’s favorite to win the Big Ten this fall. But to compete in a Big Ten fantasy league, there had better be at least one player from that team on your roster, so there was no need to wait when the third pick came around. Though grabbing Nate Sudfeld there might seem a bit premature, with each team playing two quarterbacks, grabbing the guy most likely to lead the conference in passing while guiding such an explosive attack felt like the smartest play. Complementing him with J.T. Barrett in the later rounds was a bonus, because Braxton Miller's replacement at Ohio State is also going to be at the controls in a high-octane spread system with plenty of skill players around him. That should allow him to rack up decent passing numbers which he will supplement with his rushing ability. Leading with those two quarterbacks, this team should be poised to consistently put up big numbers.
While quarterbacks across the nation are putting up crazy numbers like pinball machines and spread offenses are letting wide receivers run wild and rack up yardage, that tradition-loving, old-school Big Ten appears downright antiquated with its continued emphasis on running backs carrying the load.
But look closer.
The evolution of offenses may not have done much to change the face of the most productive players in the conference. But when there are so many game-breakers in Big Ten backfields, there's really not much incentive to shift the focus away from them in the first place.
"This a running back-heavy league, and you need a good running back, an every-down back to get through the Big Ten," Minnesota senior David Cobb said. "And in this league, there's a good running back on every team."
The conference has never really been in short supply of rushers, but the ground game looks particularly fertile this season with so many talented tailbacks returning as the focal point on offense.
The conversation about the league's best typically revolves around Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, the top two returners in the league and the odds-on favorites to claim offensive player of the year honors while leading teams aiming for the conference title. They're also close friends who admit to some good-natured trash talk that comes from paying attention to the league's yardage leader board, but both know it might not be safe to just measure themselves against each other this fall.
Michigan State's Jeremy Langford somehow largely flew under the radar last season despite piling up more than 1,400 yards and leading the Big Ten in rushing touchdowns with 18.
Cobb will be getting no shortage of carries in Minnesota's power rushing attack, and indications out of training camp suggest he's even better than he was while gaining 1,202 yards as a junior.
Despite playing in a spread system, Indiana's Tevin Coleman offered a reminder of the importance of balancing out a passing attack with a productive rusher, with his explosiveness in averaging more than 7 yards per carry driving the point home. Josh Ferguson does the same for Illinois, complementing his 5.5 yards per carry with 50 receptions for 535 yards and 4 touchdowns as a target in the passing game. Iowa's Mark Weisman came up just short of the 1,000-yard milestone last year, but he's playing behind perhaps the best set of blockers in the conference this fall and should be poised to capitalize on those huge holes opened by left tackle Brandon Scherff and his buddies.
Even at schools with unsettled depth charts at the top there's little reason to panic. Carlos Hyde is gone at Ohio State, but it has a stable loaded with both veterans like Rod Smith and youngsters like presumptive starter Ezekiel Elliott poised to take over. Michigan struggled to move the football on the ground a year ago, but Derrick Green looks ready to live up to his billing as one of the top recruits in the 2013 class as he moves into a likely starting role.
And if all that depth makes winning the rushing crown a bit tougher this fall for Gordon or Abdullah, they certainly aren't worried about a little competition. In the Big Ten, that's long been a source of pride.
"Definitely, you can look at every team," Abdullah said. "You just go down the line, and the running back position in this league is really deep. It's going to be good competition for this year statistically. I feel like it gets overshadowed a little bit. You throw in T.J. Yeldon [at Alabama], [Georgia's Todd] Gurley, guys who play for those SEC teams or maybe the Pac-12 guys and we get overshadowed a little bit. But all we can do is show up to work every Saturday and prove our case."
Abdullah and Gordon are expected to build the strongest of them, and they may emerge as the Big Ten's best hopes for a Heisman Trophy now that Braxton Miller is out of the picture with a season-ending shoulder surgery.
But even if the Ohio State senior had been around this season, the quarterback might have had a hard time stealing some attention during what's shaping up as a callback to the league's tradition with one more Year of the Running Back.
"The Big Ten, we're known for running the ball, and when you can take pressure off the quarterback by giving the rock to the running back, that's a good feeling," Gordon said. "And we've got a lot of good running backs in the Big Ten -- it's not just me and Ameer.
"I think there are some other guys that need some praise as well. There are some good backs we have in this conference, and they'll be heard sooner or later."
There's still plenty of opportunities to make a little noise as a tailback in the Big Ten. And the league has a long list of guys ready to make some racket.
Game of the Week: Wisconsin vs. LSU
Our writers all picked LSU to beat Wisconsin, but some had a harder time with the pick than others.
Brian Bennett: Wisconsin has a real chance here at the upset. Week 1 is definitely the time to catch LSU this season, as the Tigers will be breaking in a slew of new players and have some major question marks at quarterback. Of course, you could say those same things about the Badgers, who will be counting on basically a brand-new defensive front seven, several unproven receivers and a new starting QB in Tanner McEvoy. Wisconsin's running game is the great equalizer, especially if that ground attack shortens the game and springs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement for big plays. Asking either side to play mistake-free is a bit much for an opener involving so many fresh faces. In the end, LSU has more explosiveness to overcome its errors and exploit Wisconsin's, so the Tigers win by a touchdown.
Austin Ward: Openers can be sloppy enough on their own, let alone debuts with uncertainty at quarterback and the expectation that two guys will be needed to fill that critical role. Both teams have some questions under center, but it seems much more dangerous to be unsettled and unproven when taking on a loaded defense such as LSU's. Wisconsin has running backs Gordon and Clement lining up behind a veteran offensive line to provide a rushing attack to lean on, but if it becomes a one-dimensional offense against the Tigers, aggressive defensive coordinator John Chavis will turn his athletic, physical unit loose and there will be no escape in Houston.
Majority opinion: Penn State over UCF
This was the only game our writers disagreed on. Austin Ward, Mitch Sherman and Adam Rittenberg liked the Nittany Lions, while Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer took the Knights.
Josh Moyer: The Nittany Lions have too many question marks -– and too much that still needs to improve -– to be favored right now. What’s Penn State’s main weakness? The offensive line. So what’s one thing it's going to count on to offset that? The passing game. Well, Central Florida’s secondary has a chance to be elite. And overall, UCF might boast the best defense in the AAC. On the other side of the ball, the Knights may be without quarterback Blake Bortles this season, but they still have a loaded receiving corps with J.J. Worton, Rannell Hall and Breshad Perriman. Penn State's secondary, especially the corner spot opposite Jordan Lucas, could struggle against this kind of offense. PSU hangs tough but falls in the end 28-20.
Adam Rittenberg: The oddities surrounding this game favor Penn State, which is tougher to prepare for with a new coaching staff. UCF's veteran defensive line and George O'Leary's play-calling prowess worry me, but I see PSU exploiting some matchup advantages (Jesse James vs. anybody) with a superior quarterback and hitting on some big plays. Expect improvement on Penn State's defense, which limits a UCF offense missing Bortles and Storm Johnson.
Our writers agreed on the following:
Minnesota over Eastern Illinois
Washington State over Rutgers
Michigan State over Jacksonville State
Indiana over Indiana State
Iowa over Northern Iowa
Michigan over Appalachian State
Purdue over Western Michigan
Ohio State over Navy
Illinois over Youngstown State
Maryland over James Madison
Northwestern over Cal
Nebraska over FAU
LSU over Wisconsin
Mitch Sherman: Not much else of great intrigue on the opening-week schedule, but Ohio State-Navy is worth a look, with the attention swirling around the debut of Buckeyes freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Midshipmen are no pushover, but the Buckeyes own enough of an edge in athleticism to take care of business. Because of its strange offseason, Northwestern is interesting, even against Cal, which was dismal last season. And for entertainment value, Rutgers’ Big Ten debut Thursday night against Washington State may rank high. The Scarlet Knights need to limit the Cougars' possessions and get off the field on third down -- or watch Wazzu quarterback Connor Halliday light them up with 65 to 70 pass attempts.
That generosity is greatly appreciated, and tearing into a pair of games tonight with Minnesota and Rutgers both opening the season two days before the weekend is a gift worth treasuring.
But what about during the season? Once football is finally back and the season is in full swing, suddenly making it through just one week without any action starts to feel like an interminable wait. Would it be so bad to mix in a few Thursday nights once league play starts?
“Our program, a lot of the notoriety we’ve achieved over the last decade has been on Thursday night,” Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood said. “We’ve had some really special evenings on Thursday nights here in Piscataway, and we’ve played some great games on the road.
“You know, I try not to get involved in decisions that really are going to be the same for everybody. I think for our program here at Rutgers, Thursday night has been a really good night. But going into the future here in the Big Ten, we’re looking forward to it and playing games on Saturday afternoons. I think there’s a lot of plusses to that as well.”
The broadcast exposure on an evening with less competition can be an invaluable plus, though, and Rutgers might know that better than anybody else given their experiences before moving into the Big Ten this season. Now even in a league with a much higher profile, the program might find that kind of spotlight much harder to come by on Saturday afternoons.
The Scarlet Knights aren’t alone in that regard. Indiana might not be a huge national draw on Saturdays, but its high-scoring offense could draw a few more viewers for a Thursday night matchup with say, Maryland, which may enjoy the chance to showcase its program in front of a broader audience dying to watch a game.
There are hurdles to be sure, starting with the Big Ten’s fondness for tradition and the resistance it would surely meet from powerhouse programs like Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State who have established brands and large stadiums that don’t need unique kickoff times to help draw a crowd. But aside from exceptions early in the year like tonight for the Big Ten, in some ways it seems like the league has simply conceded a potentially marquee marketing opportunity among the power conferences to the Pac-12 (Arizona at Oregon, UCLA at Arizona State), Big 12 (Texas Tech at Oklahoma State) and ACC (Florida State at Louisville).
Maybe the Big Ten simply doesn’t need it. Truthfully, as a league it probably doesn’t since it obviously isn’t hurting financially, there haven’t been any complaints about the television ratings and it’s already adjusted for a busier Saturday schedule that now includes two extra teams by allowing for more flexibility with night kickoffs.
But for individual programs, there’s almost certainly a benefit to scheduling on an off night every once in a while. Sometimes waiting a whole week is just too much time without football, and by Thursday night, fans are ready to watch just about anybody put on the pads.
Odds are, there are a few teams in the league that would be willing to sign up for that spot.
- The battle for field position will be critical for Rutgers when it opens tonight against Washington State. Quarterback Gary Nova will have more responsibilities at the line of scrimmage under offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen.
- Mitch Leidner wants to "win for the state of Minnesota," and the quarterback's first shot at it this season comes tonight against Eastern Illinois. The Gophers are trying to find ways to fill up the student section again.
- After four long years in reserve, linebacker Mylan Hicks finally finds himself in position to contribute for Michigan State and sits atop the depth chart, bracketed with Darien Harris.
- USC transfer Ty Isaac had his medical hardship waiver denied, but that decision will be appealed by Michigan, which is still trying to get him on the field this fall.
- Penn State was greeted with a little Irish weather on the practice field, but James Franklin had no complaints.
- Maryland has depth at nose tackle, and it will play both Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo against James Madison.
- The Ohio State depth chart has "or" all over it, but Steve Miller will definitely be starting in place of the suspended Noah Spence on Saturday.
- What kind of numbers is Shane Wynn capable of posting this season as he becomes the focal point of the Indiana offense?
- Derek Landisch returned to practice for Wisconsin on Wednesday, and the senior linebacker expects to be ready for the clash with LSU this weekend.
- Iowa has a loaded stable of tailbacks at its disposal, but that still doesn't mean Kirk Ferentz is comfortable with his running game.
- Junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell is helping to ease some of the minds that were worried when Nebraska lost nickelback Charles Jackson for the season during training camp.
- Should Northwestern be worried about Cal's offense? These numbers suggest the Wildcats should be fine.
- As the opener ahead of a season that could make or break Tim Beckman's career with Illinois draws near, the coach is exuding confidence his team can "take the next stride."
- Purdue is offering free tickets to students for the opener.
- Can't wait to get to Byrd Stadium and try this bad boy. Who's hungry?
There's so much to look forward to, including the return of stars like Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun and Penn State's Christian Hackenberg. Then again, we already know what those guys can do. I'm really curious to watch some players perform either for the first time or in new roles. Here are nine players I'll really be paying close attention to in Week 1:
Tanner McEvoy, QB, Wisconsin: We saw McEvoy make a switch to safety last year and end up doing very well then, so we know he's athletic with good instincts for the game. But we've never seen him at quarterback at this level. Will the 6-foot-6 signal-caller's quickness and mobility bring a new dimension to the Badgers' offense? And can he handle LSU's defense? Will we see some option? Can't wait to find out.
J.T. Barrett, QB, and Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State: Barrett will naturally be in a white-hot spotlight as he makes his first career start in place of the injured Braxton Miller. But don't forget the Buckeyes also have to replace the ultra-productive Carlos Hyde, and Elliott gets first crack at it. He broke his wrist during fall practice but is expected to be ready against Navy.
Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland: Diggs is not a new player by any means, but he's new to the Big Ten. And he hasn't seen the field since the middle of last year, when he broke his leg. By reputation and talent, he could be the league's best receiver.
Paul James, RB, Rutgers: Another new-to-you guy here, James led the nation in rushing after a month last season before getting hurt. He's back and could see a heavy workload Thursday night against Washington State.
Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State: The subject of one of the oddest recruiting sagas you'll ever see, McDowell could prove to be well worth the headache. He won't start Friday against Jacksonville State but figures to see a lot of playing time. "Malik's had a very good camp for a freshman," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday. "He's firm inside, he doesn't get knocked off the ball ... and uses his hands really well. I think he'll be an outstanding player for us."
Wes Lunt, QB, Illinois: Can Lunt be the savior not only for Illini football but also for coach Tim Beckman's job security? That's a lot to put on a player, particularly one who hasn't seen much meaningful action since the middle of 2012. But he has the talent to be a perfect fit in Illinois' spread offense. "Just being around Wes, he's calm and collected," Beckman said. "He's been there and had an opportunity to play as a freshman at Oklahoma State. You can see an air of confidence in him."
The toughest part of predicting the order of finish is figuring out the jumble atop the West. I think Nebraska has the most talent but the hardest schedule, while Wisconsin and Iowa are pretty equal. In the end, I see the Badgers as a team that will continue to improve throughout the course of the year and will benefit from its backloaded schedule. I think Gary Andersen's team beats Nebraska at home and Iowa on the road, making up for a pair of early conference losses and winning the division tiebreaker over the Hawkeyes to set up a rematch of the inaugural Big Ten championship game versus Michigan State.
With Braxton Miller's season-ending injury, the East basically explains itself. The Spartans are the new favorite … or, depending on your point of view, remain the easy favorite. A new defensive coordinator in Indiana gives me hope that the Hoosiers' offense marching downfield won't just be a futile exercise, and Rutgers? Well, maybe next year, kid. The West is much, much trickier -- and the three top teams all have their own question marks. What kind of passing offense and front seven will Wisconsin have? Can Iowa overcome three departed linebackers? How's Nebraska's secondary? I have more faith in Tommy Armstrong than Tanner McEvoy, and I'm picking Randy Gregory for the B1G defensive player of the year. So, while it's a toss-up, I'm still comfortable sticking with Nebraska.
It's never easy making the won-loss records match up and I'm sure I'll be wrong about a lot of this. I see the parity in the West Division playing out as Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin will beat up on one another. It's not easy to run the table in league play two years in a row, but Ohio State did it in 2012 and 2013 and Michigan State will repeat in 2013 and 2014. I see Indiana squeaking into a bowl game and Illinois falling just shy. Ohio State starts off strong but stumbles twice in league play, while new league members Maryland and Rutgers both go through some growing pains in their Big Ten debuts.
Injuries happen. But when they happen in August, injuries jumble predicted standings. Since we first ranked the Big Ten teams early this month, much has changed. The loss of Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller pushed Michigan State, for me, past the Buckeyes. And in the West Division, Nebraska's key defensive losses -- linebacker Michael Rose and nickel cornerback Charles Jackson are out for the year with injuries -- knocked the Huskers down a notch to third. The best candidate for team most likely to drive its fans crazy? How about Iowa. I've got the Hawkeyes with three Big Ten losses -- at Maryland, at Minnesota and to Northwestern -- with November wins over Wisconsin and the Nebraska. Look for Notre Dame to go 3-0 against the Big Ten. And curious about the lone wins for Rutgers and Purdue? I'm taking the Scarlet Knights over Penn State and the Boilermakers to beat Northwestern.
With just two horses to pick from and one now dealing with a significant injury at the game's most important position, handicapping the East was a relatively straightforward proposition. Good luck with the West, though, since that battle has the potential to go down to the final weekend with multiple teams fighting for a berth in the title game. With each potential candidate having some minor flaws to pick on, trying to figure out which might be most easily overcome is the biggest chore heading into the opener, but Wisconsin's dynamic combination of tailbacks should allow it to weather any growing pains at quarterback once the conference season begins. It won't, however, be enough to get past the Spartans for the league crown as Mark Dantonio's program is set to go back to back once it gets past a wounded Ohio State on Nov. 8 for the East title.
Yes, that Big Ten, often criticized for its conservative nature -- the league slow to stage night games late in the season or play on Thursday nights, the same Big Ten that’s reluctant to pit foes early in the fall when mismatches abound and the fans crave meaningful football.
That Big Ten is leading the way this year in playing neutral-site games. Starting with Rutgers-Washington State on Thursday in Seattle -- if that doesn’t scream Big Ten, nothing does -- league schools will play in five of eight neutral-site games nationally early this season.
On Saturday, you’ve got Penn State-Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland, Ohio State-Navy in Baltimore and Wisconsin-LSU in Houston. Notre Dame and Purdue play in Indianapolis on Sept. 13.
The Big Ten has officially embraced a college football trend popularized by the Southeastern Conference. Dare we say, the Big Ten is doing it better than any other league this year?
And even if not, Big Ten teams are trying hard to reach new audiences and tap fertile recruiting grounds. It counts for something.
Forget, for a moment, the financial ramifications. Yes, the neutral-site games can be profitable. Some offer payouts in excess of $5 million, which can equal the revenue lost from a home game, considering that the neutral-site pairings don’t require a road game in return.
But it’s about more than money.
Indirectly, everything about scheduling involves money. By playing games outside of their comfort zones, though, Big Ten programs illustrate that they want to grow their brands. They show that they’re not content with bundles of TV-generated cash and underachieving reputations.
“The kids should walk out of there with a big-time experience,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said of the Badgers’ showdown on Saturday night.
His program receives $2 million for the game.
Kickoff is set for 9 p.m. ET on ESPN, competing for viewers with Florida State-Oklahoma State at 8 p.m. ET on ABC from Arlington, Texas.
These are big-time draws, especially a week before the NFL regular season hogs attention.
Next year, the Badgers face Alabama in the Cowboys Classic. In two years, LSU visits Lambeau Field in Green Bay for the Wisconsin rematch.
Here’s to more neutral-site games in the Big Ten region. Illinois and Northwestern have tested pro stadiums in Chicago and figure to go back, but how about Nebraska or Michigan, Iowa or Michigan State at other venues easily accessible to their fans?
Keep thinking big, Big Ten.
One day before kickoff, let’s go around the league…
- Linebacker Jake Ryan, a Michigan captain in 2013, supports the decision of coach Brady Hoke to postpone an announcement this year until the end of the season. Derrick Green is the Wolverines’ top running back.
- Keep an eye on Rutgers tight end Tyler Croft. Washington State will be watching him.
- Michigan State’s first opponent, Jacksonville State, might provide a preview for the Spartans’ second foe.
- Braxton Miller had surgery. And it went well.
- Maryland features depth at running back.
- Expectations soar for Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld.
- Keys for Penn State in Ireland.
- How to measure progress at Purdue this fall.
- The long offseason is almost over for Northwestern.
- One night last season changed everything for David Cobb.
- Iowa running back Damon Bullock, bypassed last year, has worked his way back in line for carries.
- A key for Illinois? Develop a few dominant defensive linemen.
- Nebraska expects a big year from punter Sam Foltz.
- Wisconsin’s Derek Watt, younger brother of J.J., is set to help the Badgers at multiple spots.
"The farther from the ball you are, the better chance you have to get on the field early," Franklin said Tuesday. "That's where it really comes down to skill, speed and quickness."
Franklin is one of several Big Ten coaches who are banking on that adage being true right now. Because as Week 1 rapidly approaches, many league teams are hoping that some true freshmen and other very inexperienced players can make a major impact on their offenses.
That's a byproduct of the Big Ten losing its top seven and nine of its top 10 receivers from 2013. The youth movement is on at that position, and it's happening in earnest at some places.
Penn State is replacing record-breaking receiver Allen Robinson, who left for the NFL after his junior year. Franklin said true freshmen Saeed Blacknall and Chris Godwin will play this weekend against UCF in Ireland.
"They've done well," Franklin said. "We need those guys to have roles for us, and hopefully that grows as the season goes on. Both of them are big, physical guys, they're mature and they've handled it extremely well. And with our lack of depth at that position, we needed that."
The Nittany Lions are also hoping for contributions down the road from first-year players Daesean Hamilton and De'Andre Thompkins.
Few teams are as green at wideout as Illinois, which will break in several new receivers this weekend against Youngstown State. They include true freshmen Mike Dudek and Malik Turner and junior-college transfers Geronimo Allison and Tyrin Stone-Davis.
"I'm really happy with the guys we have now," head coach Tim Beckman said. "The game experience isn't there for them yet, but I'm really happy with the athleticism, and I'm happy with the way they have learned the game and the offensive system."
Beckman said Martize Barr, who was a junior-college transfer last season, and junior Justin Hardee have done "an outstanding job teaching [the newcomers] how to practice and play. Now, we'll see how that works on Saturday."
Wisconsin's receivers could get the biggest baptism by fire, as they take on LSU on Saturday. True freshman George Rushing will be in the mix, and head coach Gary Andersen said he "has picked up the scheme and consistently made big plays." Freshmen Krenwick Sanders and Natrell Jamerson are vying for playing time as well.
"We're going to be receiver-by-committee," Andersen said. "We're not going to be receiver-by-Jared-Abbrederis."
Hopes are high for the talent on the perimeter at Ohio State. Still, three guys who are expected to play a lot -- Jalin Marshall, Corey Smith and Michael Thomas -- have yet to see a down in the FBS. True freshman Freddy Canteen will play early and often for Michigan. Redshirt freshman Derrick Willies turned heads this spring at Iowa.
Indiana has one proven commodity in senior Shane Wynn. True freshmen Dominique Booth, J-Shun Harris and Simmie Cobbs have all worked their way into the rotation for Kevin Wilson, who's always been willing to play newbies. Ricky Jones, who barely played as a redshirt freshman last year, and former walk-on Damon Graham should also be in the Hoosiers' two deep vs. Indiana State.
"Oh, there's going to be some [mistakes]," Wilson said. "You're always concerned about it."
The time to find out if all these young receivers in the league are ready is almost here.
Brian Bennett: Minnesota wins back a long-lost trophy
The Gophers have won the Little Brown Jug game against Michigan only once (2005) since 1986 and have lost 10 straight Paul Bunyan's Axe games to Wisconsin. Jerry Kill's team reverses one of those trends this season, even though both games are on the road. Watch out for the Sept. 27 game at the Big House in particular.
This is predicated on equal parts opportunity and ability. Michigan's Devin Funchess appears to be sticking outside, so that means the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year Award will be heading elsewhere this season. Tyler Kroft (Rutgers) has tougher defenses to deal with this season, Maxx Williams (Minnesota) has a quarterback more geared toward the run and Jeff Heuerman (Ohio State) is dealing with a rookie signal-caller. But James? Well, he has one of the Big Ten's best in Christian Hackenberg, who just so happens to be looking to replace the 97 catches from Allen Robinson, who was last year's Big Ten receiver of the year before heading to the NFL. James stands 6-foot-7, runs in the 4.6s and has been lauded for his hands. Put simply, he's a freak.
Adam Rittenberg: Tevin Coleman leads the Big Ten in rushing
Coleman isn’t part of the national discussion like fellow Big Ten backs Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah, but people will know his name come November. The Indiana junior is explosive like Gordon, averaging 7.3 yards per carry last season and tying for the national lead with eight rushes of 40 yards or more, while playing in only nine games. If Coleman can stay healthy, he will put up monster numbers playing behind of the nation’s most underrated lines. He might not win Big Ten offensive player of the year honors, but he’ll be the first IU player to lead the league in rushing since Vaughn Dunbar in 1991.
Mitch Sherman: Indiana is going to make it back to a bowl game
It’s been too rare an occasion in Bloomington for football season to extend into December. The Hoosiers’ 2007 visit to the Insight Bowl marks the program’s lone postseason appearance in the past two decades. Kevin Wilson’s club possesses plenty of firepower -- led by the dynamic trio of Coleman, Nate Sudfeld and Shane Wynn -- and just enough defense to forge a .500 record. It’s no simple task to find six wins on this schedule, but Indiana will sweep the Big Ten’s new duo and beat Purdue on Nov. 29 to secure that elusive bowl bid.
Austin Ward: Half the league will have a 3,000-yard quarterback
The Big Ten might be better known for its running backs, and it certainly has had some well-documented issues recently at the game’s most important position. Even a year ago only one passer in the conference topped 3,000 yards, and Nathan Scheelhaase isn't even in the Big Ten anymore. But passing games leaguewide are poised to make a big jump, starting with Scheelhaase’s replacement at Illinois, Wes Lunt, and including Penn State’s Hackenberg, Michigan’s Devin Gardner, Indiana’s Sudfeld and Michigan State’s Connor Cook. If Iowa’s Jake Rudock continues his improvement and J.T. Barrett keeps the Ohio State attack rolling in place of Braxton Miller, at least half the Big Ten could have passers hitting that yardage milestone.
Don't ignore new quarterbacks like Wes Lunt and Tanner McEvoy, or newcomer defenders like Jabrill Peppers and Jihad Ward, but the real gauge for some teams will take place in the trenches. There are several revamped lines in the Big Ten that will be under the microscope in Week 1.
Let's take a look:
Wisconsin defensive line versus LSU (in Houston): The Badgers will start three new players up front -- ends Chikwe Obasih and Konrad Zagzebski, and tackle Warren Herring -- against talented Tigers running backs Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Leonard Fournette, the decorated incoming freshman. Herring and Zabzekbski have five combined career starts, while Obasih, a redshirt freshman, makes his debut on a huge stage.
"I really feel that in the pass rush aspect and in the containing the quarterback aspect, we are a little bit more athletic and we have a little bit more speed," defensive coordinator Dave Aranda told me last week.
Penn State offensive line versus UCF (in Dublin, Ireland): Only one healthy starter (tackle Donovan Smith) returns for PSU's line, which has heard all about its depth issues throughout the offseason. The group will be tested right away by a UCF defense that returns nine starters, including the entire line. You can bet Knights coach George O'Leary will put Penn State's line under duress from the onset.
Ohio State offensive line versus Navy (in Baltimore): Like Penn State, Ohio State brings back just one line starter (tackle Taylor Decker) from last year, and the unit's task became a lot tougher after the season-ending loss of quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes' new-look front must protect freshman signal caller J.T. Barrett and create some running room against a smaller Navy defensive line.
Northwestern defensive line versus Cal: Both Wildcat lines have question marks entering the season, but the defensive front enters the spotlight after dealing with injuries throughout the offseason. Veteran defensive tackle Sean McEvilly (foot) is out for the season, and tackles Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins will get an opportunity to assert themselves against a Cal offense that racked up 549 yards against Northwestern in last year's game.
Purdue offensive line versus Western Michigan: The Boilers simply weren't strong enough up front in 2013 and couldn't move the ball for much of the season. They should be better on the interior with center Robert Kugler leading the way. This is a great chance for Purdue to start strong against a Western Michigan defense that ranked 118th nationally against the run in 2013.
Michigan offensive line versus Appalachian State: This isn't the Appalachian State team that shocked Michigan in 2007, but the Wolverines need to gain cohesion and confidence up front and with their run game. After a lot of line shuffling in camp, Michigan tries to get backs Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith going in the opener before a Week 2 trip to Notre Dame.
To the links ...
- Some bad news for Iowa's defensive line, as tackle Darian Cooper posts that he had season-ending surgery.
- Prove-it time has arrived for Nebraska's supposedly improved defense.
- It's Mitch Leidner's show at Minnesota, and that's a very good thing, Chip Scoggins writes.
- Melvin Gordon spills the beans about Wisconsin's not-so secret starting quarterback. Coach Gary Andersen expects both signal callers to play this fall. A former Badgers recruit is sentenced to a year in jail for sexual assault.
- Illinois could use its two backup quarterbacks as wide receivers.
- After two pick-sixes last year against Cal, Northwestern linebacker Collin Ellis aims for an encore against the Bears.
- The Gold & Black staff weighs in on a simple but important question: Will Purdue be better?
- Michigan isn't electing captains until after the season. The Wolverines and Nebraska are on Jeremy Fowler's list of sneaky playoff contenders.
- Ohio State still has at least four starting spots up for grabs this week.
- Notes and nuggets from Penn State's coordinators before the team departs for Ireland.
- Indiana has implemented an NFL-style tackling system to help its defenders.
- Spartan Stadium gets a facelift.
- A closer look at Maryland's Week 1 depth chart.
- Dan Duggan lists 10 under-the-radar Rutgers players to watch this season.
@BennettESPN B1G lost lots of defensive star power (dennard, shazier, borland, hageman, bullough). What 4-5 guys step up to fill conf. void?— Keith Glaser (@keithcg) August 25, 2014
Brian Bennett: The strength on defense throughout the league right now is on the defensive line and at end in particular with Shilique Calhoun, Randy Gregory, Joey Bosa, Noah Spence, Andre Monroe, etc... The Big Ten definitely took a big hit at linebacker, with guys like Ryan Shazier, Chris Borland, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, and Iowa's senior trio all moving on after last season. I'm looking forward to seeing who steps up at that position and expect some new stars to emerge at places like Michigan State (Ed Davis, maybe Riley Bullough), Ohio State (Joshua Perry, Darron Lee, Raekwon McMillan), Iowa (Reggie Spearman, Travis Perry) and Wisconsin (Vince Biegel).
@BennettESPN is alleged choice of McEvoy as WIS QB have to do with the potential weakness at WR? No one open, make plays with feet?— Steve Moon (@moonraker717) August 25, 2014
Brian Bennett: I don't think it has too do much with the questions at receiver. Head coach Gary Andersen has made no secret of his preference for mobile quarterbacks, something we talked about before he ever coached a game at Wisconsin. I believe Andersen really wanted Tanner McEvoy to win the job because he has a far superior ability to make plays with his feet than incumbent starter Joel Stave. I just wonder if giving McEvoy his first FBS exposure as a quarterback against LSU is the best move, but there is also a good chance Andersen will play both guys on Saturday, anyway.
Brian Bennett: Michigan would likely have to climb over 7-to-10 teams to get into either major Top 25, so the Wolverines would need to win in impressive blowout fashion and benefit from some upsets. But this question is a good way to remind us all that we shouldn't really worry, or even pay much attention to, the polls. They mean nothing now, other than a possible subconscious influence on the College Football Playoff committee members. All that matters is what the selection committee thinks, and their first set of weekly rankings won't come out until late October. I still think the idea of a weekly Top 25 from a committee primarily charged with picking the four best teams is silly and unnecessary. But if you're going to fret over any set of rankings, make it those.
Sam from Colorado Springs, Colorado, writes: What has to happen for Illinois to be the darkhorse team in the West Division? Do you see any possible way it could happen?
Brian Bennett: It's probably a stretch to think Illinois can actually contend for a division title, even in the wide open, wild wild West. But stranger things have happened, and I do think the Illini can make a bowl game this season if things break right. Of course, it's all about that defense and whether coordinator Tim Banks can get the group to stop the run. The addition of some junior college players like Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu should help, and that side of the ball is more mature now. I expect the offense to remain very good, especially with strong-armed Wes Lunt at quarterback. This is a team that scored 32 points on Wisconsin and 35 against Ohio State last season, so even a return to mediocrity on defense could make Illinois a tough out.
KyleS from Columbia, South Carolina, writes: I'm surprised you picked Rutgers only winning 4 games for this upcoming season. I know you were a blogger that followed Rutgers when they played in the Big East. Luckily for me when Rutgers wins 6+ games, I will be able to send you another email to say... I told you so.
Brian Bennett: Now is the time for confidence and optimism. I'm not sure how having covered Rutgers previously is supposed to influence my prediction for this season, but if the Scarlet Knights do somehow manage to win six or more games against that schedule, by all means write me back and crow about it. Just know that I now have your e-mail address, too.
Rich from Omaha, Nebraska, writes: Brian: Nebraska will be 2014's Auburn. Their O-line is much better than people realize. They have the best backfield in the Big Ten, especially now, unfortunately. Their defensive line and linebackers will be the best rated units by the end of the season statistically. And they won't turn it over 5 times when the beat an overrated Michigan State in East Lansing. No one outside of Nebraska sees it coming. Last year, I thought they might win 9. This year, they can win them all. Save this post and you'll realize in November, this is was not some homer drinking the Kool-Aid.
Brian Bennett: Yes, people are feeling great about their teams. I'm looking forward to all the caterwauling from all 14 fan bases Saturday afternoon after their team's first failed third down. It's almost here. Enjoy all the ups and downs.
With the season about to begin, let's take at a few teams outside the top expected Big Ten contenders (Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska) who could get off to fast starts in 2014:
1. Michigan: Does Michigan have issues? Yes. Have the Wolverines underachieved for a while now? Check. But if things break right, the Wolverines could wind up building some early momentum, the way they did in opening 6-0 in the Sugar Bowl season of 2011.
The Notre Dame game on the road in Week 2 is challenging, but the Fighting Irish have some serious problems of their own right now. Michigan plays four of its first five games at home and then opens conference play at league newbie Rutgers. A 6-0 record when Penn State comes calling under the lights on Oct. 11 is certainly possible.
2. Penn State: Assuming the Icelandic volcano doesn't wreck the opener, the Nittany Lions will be in for a tussle against UCF in Ireland on Saturday. But if they get past that one, the path opens up a bit with games against Akron, at Rutgers, UMass and Northwestern. A 5-0 Penn State vs. a 6-0 Michigan? Dare to dream.
3. Minnesota: The Gophers have that key game at TCU in Week 3, but the rest of the nonconference schedule reads like this: Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee and San Jose State at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota opens Big Ten play at Michigan but then has Northwestern, Purdue and at Illinois. A second straight hot start might be in the cards for the Gophers, who went 4-0 and then 8-2 last season.
4. Purdue: OK, we're talking relativity here. With this week's opener against Western Michigan, a team that like the Boilermakers only won one game last season, Purdue could snap its 12-game losing streak against FBS opponents. Central Michigan and Southern Illinois give Darrell Hazell's team a chance to triple its 2013 win total before the end of September.
"It's huge," Hazell told me last month about the importance of getting off to a good start. "Because you can always ask one question: which comes first, the confidence or the success? Right now, our guys are walking around with some confidence, but I think it's really important for us to have some early success."
- Expectations have tumbled for Ohio State since Braxton Miller's injury.
- An unproven set of receivers is ready to step up for Rutgers.
- Indiana enters a crossroads season.
- Lawrence Thomas, a former can't-miss recruit, is still looking for his breakthrough at Michigan State. Ten predictions for the Spartans in 2014.
- Devin Gardner has matured and looks ready to lead Michigan this fall. Season predictions for the Wolverines.
- Some key questions for Penn State as the season approaches.
- A pair of Maryland regulars face assault charges.
- Ameer Abdullah is beyond ready for his final go-round with Nebraska. The 2014 season could be different for the Cornhuskers, but Tom Shatel says he'll believe it when he sees it.
- Wisconsin receiver Reggie Love has come on strong after an honest talk with head coach Gary Andersen this offseason. Year 2 of the Andersen era should look a lot different than last season, Tom Oates writes.
- Trevor Siemian has stepped forward as Northwestern's leader.
- Can the Iowa passing game make significant progress?
- A look back at Minnesota's upset of Nebraska last year and how it can help the Gophers going forward.
- Tim Beckman's seat is undeniably warm entering the 2014 season.
- Purdue looks for a fresh start.
"We got after 'em pretty good after we got back from the bowl game," Kill told ESPN.com. "I think it was a wake-up call."
One of the players who answered that call the loudest was senior safety Cedric Thompson, who felt those same hunger pains Kill talked about. What stuck out to him about 2013 wasn't the 8-2 start but the 0-3 finish. Minnesota was actually in the Legends Division title chase before losing back-to-back games to Wisconsin and at Michigan State.
"It was so sickening to see how close we were last year," Thompson said. "I'm tired of people saying the Gophers are this close or that close."
Thompson told Kill right after the bowl that he wanted to be a captain this year, and that he was going to "make sure nobody slacks off."
"I feel like we didn't hold each other accountable last year during the summer, spring and even in practice during the season," Thompson said. "We worked hard, but when somebody did something wrong, we didn’t hold them to the standard we wanted."
Thompson took that responsibility on himself this offseason. He was never afraid to chew out a teammate if he saw something he didn't like. Kill, in turn, says Thompson is "the best leader on the defensive side that we've had since we've been here."
That internal leadership -- with quarterback Mitch Leidner playing a key role on the offensive side -- is one of the reasons the Gophers' staff is so excited about its 2014 prospects.
"That's what happened for us at Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois," Kill said, referring to his staff's previous successful tenures. "When the players start holding themselves accountable, that's when you’ve got a chance."
We'll see how much that makes a difference for Minnesota very soon. The Gophers will be the first Big Ten team to take the field this season when they host Eastern Illinois -- and FCS quarterfinalist last year -- on Thursday night at 7 ET.
- An Indiana wide receiver was suspended after he got involved in an early-morning scuffle.
- Maryland kicker Brad Craddock is taking his game up a notch.
- Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner is doing more pre-snap reads now and, surprisingly, says he never read a "mike" (or middle linebacker) before Doug Nussmeier showed up.
- Michigan State has sympathy for Braxton Miller. The Spartans named their captains -- Kurtis Drummond, Travis Jackson and Shilique Calhoun -- as well as a pair of defensive starters.
- Ohio State believes it can still win the Big Ten championship without Miller.
- James Franklin was a hit at his first Penn State radio show.
- Rutgers got a commitment from Paul James' younger brother.
- The combo of Wes Lunt and Bill Cubit makes for an intriguing team at Illinois.
- Dallas Clark sizes up the latest crop of Iowa tight ends.
- Minnesota's left tackle and top returning wide receiver are ailing right now.
- A final camp stock report on Nebraska.
- Northwestern says it has better team unity, but will that lead to more wins?
- A Purdue season preview.
- Vonte Jackson's career is over, Wisconsin will go with a freshman kicker and more Badgers notes.
As a reminder, these aren't actual predictions or even projections of probable outcomes this fall. They are designed to show the potential high point and low point for a team, within reason. Also, we are trying to have some fun here, so don't take things too seriously.
Up next: the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Oskee wow-wow, indeed. Illinois is going bowling again and surprising the Big Ten along the way. The Illini ride the transfer train and the development of several young players to an extremely satisfying 2014 season.
Quarterback Wes Lunt shows immediately why he is the right man to lead Bill Cubit's offense, shredding Youngstown State and Western Illinois for a combined 750 passing yards and seven touchdowns. The Block I shouts "Geronimo!" as wide receiver Geronimo Allison hauls in two long scoring passes in his first game for the Orange and Blue.
Illinois heads to Seattle at 2-0 but still concerned about how its defense will hold up. Turns out, the D is the biggest reason for a huge "W" at Husky Stadium, as Illinois stuns Chris Petersen's Washington team. T.J. Neal and Jihad Ward force second-half fumbles and the Illini prevail 20-17.
After an easy win against Texas State, the Illini fall just short at Nebraska but rebound the next week with a 50-point performance against Purdue, as Josh Ferguson runs for 200 yards. Illinois pushes Wisconsin to overtime before falling in Madison, but the defense once again stands tall in a win against Minnesota. The Illini are bowl-eligible, and they are nowhere near finished.
Following a 3-point loss at Ohio State, Illinois wins its final three Big Ten contests, two against rivals (Iowa and Northwestern). Iowa's first game against Illinois since 2008 is a disaster, as the Hawkeyes lose by 14 at a packed Memorial Stadium and cameras catch coach Kirk Ferentz chewing tobacco on the sideline. In the Northwestern contest, freshman wideout Mikey Dudek has three touchdown catches and Ward levels Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald on the sideline. A mostly Illinois crowd cheers as offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic scores on a two-point conversion to seal a 50-17 win. The Chicago papers declare Illinois as the city's real Big Ten team, while Northwestern finishes 2-10.
Tim Beckman wins Big Ten Coach of the Year. Allison wins the Big Ten's Richter-Howard award as the top receiver, while "Geronimo!" T-shirts can be spotted all around campus. Illinois sells out its final three home games. Cubit turns down three higher-paying offensive coordinator jobs to stick with the Illini. The nation's top three junior-college players sign with Illinois, and the high school recruits roll in. The Illini advance to the Holiday Bowl and beat UCLA to finish 10-3.
Oskee ow-ow. It's another gloomy fall in Champaign, where Illinois fans quickly begin counting the days until basketball season. They don't show up in the stands and, most Saturdays, neither does the team. Cover your eyes, Illini Nation ...
After two unsatisfying wins to open the season, Illinois gets pummeled at Husky Stadium. Lunt throws three interceptions and Washington's running back committee racks up 250 yards. Beckman has to be separated from his defensive assistants in the second half.
Illinois improves to 3-1 against Texas State but suffers another road beating at Nebraska, as Ameer Abdullah runs for four touchdowns. The following week, Purdue records its first Big Ten win under Darrell Hazell as Illinois can't find the end zone in a 21-6 loss. Beckman announces a quarterback change two days later. Several starters come down with food poisoning after eating beans and weenies.
It gets uglier in Madison as Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement run wild on a defense that clearly hasn't improved from 2013. Wisconsin leads by 40 after three quarters, but cameras catch some Illini players smiling and doing the "Jump Around." They incur Beckman's wrath during practice the next week.
Only 26,000 fans show up the next week for the Minnesota game, and those in Illini colors wish they hadn't. Minnesota rushes for 330 yards and wins 28-3. Beckman draws a penalty for obstructing an official on the sideline -- again.
More blowouts follow against Ohio State and Penn State. Following the loss to Penn State, several Illini players ask Nittany Lions coach James Franklin if they can transfer to PSU.
The season ends with another lopsided loss at Northwestern, which clinches the West Division title before a sold-out Ryan Field. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel attends the game in a purple leotard. A smiling Dick Butkus poses for pictures afterward with Fitzgerald.
Ward finishes with no sacks and Allison fails to record a touchdown catch. Beckman seems done at Illinois but athletic director Mike Thomas, who hired him, says the coach will return in 2015. Cubit won't as he's off to the SEC. Attendance continues to nosedive. Northwestern wins the Big Ten. Iowa wins the Orange Bowl.