All posts by mtews

J.T. Barrett and Ohio State Are Downright Scary

Coming into the 2017 season, the Ohio State Buckeyes were ranked No. 2 in the polls, which garnered both negative and positive reactions. Some eyebrows were raised due to the fact the Buckeyes had been obliterated 31-0 in the 2016 College Football Playoff and were seemingly rewarded based on their namesake alone, while fans argued that despite their embarrassing loss, they lost to the eventual national champion Clemson. Not even almighty Alabama could defeat them. Also, if it wasn’t for a few fortunate opportunities that went Penn State’s way, they would’ve won that game and advanced to the Big Ten Championship game as the presumed favorites versus Wisconsin. Whatever your position was, it was a fortuitous spot to be ranked ahead of the reigning Big Ten champs Penn State and put the pressure on Ohio State to prove their worth.

In their first battle or “test” of the season against Oklahoma, the Buckeyes, seven-point favorites in Columbus, suffered their biggest loss at home since 1999 (46-20 loss to Illinois) and were mocked as overrated. J.T. Barrett was just 19 of 35 for 183 yards as the passing game was wildly inconsistent and below average. It appeared the naysayers were right and much to their delight, the Nittany Lions leapfrogged the Buckeyes in the rankings.

Since that time heading into last Saturday, Ohio State had been playing very good, fundamentally sound football. Yes, the opposition wasn’t exactly challenging but their offense had looked like a well-oiled machine and the defense hadn’t surrendered many points. Sometimes all you need is a few solid games to build momentum and confidence and regain your swagger.

Last weekend before the epic showdown, I was asked the question several times who was the best team in conference and I said Ohio State. Some gave me interesting looks while others laughed and said good luck versus Penn State. Others said I was a traitor for not saying my alma mater, Wisconsin. However, as hard as it is to support Ohio State, I had predicted much earlier this year, Wisconsin would meet Ohio State in the title game and I had to stay true to my word.

Also, I just had this premonition the Buckeyes would get the job done. The game was in Columbus and it’s not the easiest place to play. It’s like meeting a rabid animal in its very own den – its possible to survive but its no simple task either. Second, these teams were only separated by four spots in the rankings. It seemed everyone was already writing the Silver Bullets off much too soon and media outlets criticized Barrett for failing to show up in big games but you can never count out a Buckeye squad that has been written off too early.

We’ve seen this story before in 2014 when Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech only to come back and win the national title. Just when they appear dead to rights, they come back and shock you. To me, it’s simple: Hell hath no fury like a scorned Urban Meyer. Besides Nick Saban, no one plans, prepares, adjusts and responds in the face of adversity better than Meyer.

Things didn’t look great early on for the Buckeyes as Penn State raced out to a 21-3 advantage and although they closed the gap 28-17 by halftime, the Nittany Lions were in control as they built a 35-20 lead in the fourth quarter and appeared they would knock Ohio State out of playoff contention.

Yet, in spite of the big lead, turnovers, poor special teams, and questionable calls, Barrett rose to the occasion. All the qualities people said he didn’t have, he displayed: leadership, poise, resolve and a strong, accurate arm capable of leading his team to victory. The sign of a great leader is how he reacts and responds to adversity and all Barrett did was calmly throw 13 for 13 in the final quarter for 170 yards and three touchdowns including the game-sealing pass to Marcus Baugh with 1:48 left. It was the most impressive performance of his collegiate career in a classic game and showed once again the power of never giving up.

Yes, the jury is still out on Barrett and the Buckeyes as they are far from the being the top contender but the critics have been silenced, at least for moment. The takeaway here is really quite simple: Barrett vaulted himself back into the Heisman race as a front-runner and cemented Ohio State’s spot in the middle of the playoffs, though the initial rankings surprisingly did not place them in the top four. The Buckeyes are peaking at the right time and Barrett is a dangerous man. If they can fix their special team problems, it could be 2014 all over again and that is downright scary.

E-mail Mike at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @MDeuces2051

Image courtesy of flickr

Big Ten Power Rankings Week 2

When I initially did the power rankings, I didn’t expect too much movement to happen but since then, things have been stirred up especially after the four losses in Week 2 particularly Ohio State’s.

  1. Penn State (previous ranking: 2): The 2016 Big Ten champions are back in the driver’s seat after a 33-14 victory over in-state rival Pittsburgh. Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley accumulated 183 yards and two scores while Trace McSorley totaled 164 yards and three touchdowns despite missing several wide open receivers, mostly in the first half. Other than that, it was a solid victory and the Nittany Lions look like the team to beat in the Big Ten.
  2. Wisconsin (3): A classic, 31-14 Badger win as Jonathan Taylor ran for 223 yards and three touchdowns, joining Zach Brown, Ron Dayne and Alan Ameche as the only true freshman in program history to rush for over 200 yards. Ameche and Dayne were Heiman trophy winners. In addition, the defense looked stout against Lane Kiffin’s Owls, holding them to under 250 yards in total offense.
  3. Ohio State (1): Oklahoma avenged last year’s loss to Ohio State in Norman with a 31-16 win. Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield torched the secondary for 386 yards and three scores while J.T. Barrett was just 19 of 35 for 183 yards as the passing game was wildly inconsistent and below average. Buckeyes need a playmaker to emerge on offense. The loss is hard to swallow but it really doesn’t affect their chances as a contender.
  4. Michigan (4): A week after a 33-17 victory over Florida in which the Gators were held to 192 total yards, the defense looked very stout in a 36-14 win over Cincinnati. The Wolverines D kept the Bearcats at 200 total yards and had two pick-sixes. However, quarterback Wilton Speight, who threw two pick-sixes versus Florida, continued to struggle with accuracy and consistency. He needs to improve if Michigan wants to contend.
  5. Maryland (11): Fresh off a 51-41 upset over a then-ranked Texas team, the Terrapins continued where they left off and put on quite encore in a 63-17 rout of Towson. They gashed the Tigers for 367 rushing yards with D.J. Moore scoring three times and freshman under center Kasim Hill looking good in his debut.
  6. Iowa (6): The Hawkeyes defense looked strong in their 24-3 win over Wyoming, holding potential NFL draft hopeful Josh Allen to 174 yards but was consistently getting beat against Iowa State. Fortunately, first-year signal-caller Nathan Stanley passed for 333 and five touchdowns and tailback Akrum Wadley had 190 total yards as Iowa came back from a 10-point deficit to escape 44-41 in overtime. Defense needs to play better.
  7. Michigan State (9): After last season’s 3-9 debacle, the Spartans are off to a promising 2-0 start following a 28-14 win over Western Michigan as the defense has not allowed an offensive touchdown in eight consecutive quarters. Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke threw for 161 yards but showed he’s also a dual-threat as he rushed for 81 yards including a 61-yard touchdown run. The Spartans have off this week before hosting Notre Dame.
  1. Indiana (10): It will be interesting to see what Indiana does at quarterback as it has two capable throwers. Senior Richard Lagow, who threw for 420 yards versus Ohio State, is still the starter but after struggling early against Virginia, redshirt freshman Peyton Ramsey replaced him, completing 16 of 20 passes for 173 yards and two scores as the Hoosiers won 34-17.
  2. Nebraska (7): The Cornhuskers are a tough read. Nebraska allowed the Oregon Ducks to go up 42-14 at halftime but held the Ducks scoreless in the second half and scored three unanswered touchdowns, nearly rallying from a 28-point deficit before falling 42-35. Yet, quarterback Tanner Lee threw the last of his four interceptions with two minutes remaining and Bob Diaco’s new 3-4 defense has allowed 1,063 yards this year.
  3. Minnesota (8) Good things are happening for new head coach P.J. Fleck. Minnesota trounced Oregon State 48-14 on the road as the defense forced three turnovers and running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks combined for 253 yards and four touchdowns. In addition, two areas of weakness were addressed as quarterback Conor Rhoda cemented himself as the outright leader of this team and Tyler Johnson has emerged as a go-to receiver.
  4. Purdue (12): Purdue has impressed me so far. They put up a valiant fight versus Louisville in a 35-28 loss and put on an offensive clinic (558 yards) in a 44-21 victory over MAC contender Ohio. Head coach Jeff Brohm promised an up-tempo, high-scoring offense and the Boilermakers haven’t disappointed. Watch out for quarterback David Blough as he led Purdue on a 24-0 first half run.
  5. Northwestern (5): I picked Northwestern to be a contender in the West this year but its play so far has concerned me. The Wildcats escaped against Nevada in Week 1 and were decimated by Duke 41-17 on Saturday as quarterback Daniel Jones accounted for 413 total yards and four touchdowns. Northwestern signal-caller Clayton Thorson was picked off twice and Justin Jackson rushed for 18 measly yards on seven carries.
  6. Illinois (14): Yes, the Fighting Illini came into Champaign as underdogs to Western Kentucky, a Conference USA team that averaged 45.5 points per contest in 2016, best in the country. However, none of that mattered as the young defense of Illinois held the Hilltoppers to one score and 244 yards while also getting 111 rushing yards from freshman Mike Epstein in a 20-7 win.
  7. Rutgers (13): Following a 16-13 loss to lowly Eastern Michigan on Saturday, Rutgers showed how incredibly far behind the other Big Ten programs it is. The game was the Eagles’ first victory over a Power Five opponent in 59 tries and I fear this is just the tip of the iceberg for how ugly things will get for the Scarlet Knights this season. A long, treacherous road lies ahead.

Image: flickr user morebyless

Are We Spending Too Much On College Football?

Earlier this year, Clemson opened a new $55 million, 142,000 square foot complex for the Tigers football team complete with a slide in the main lobby, a barbershop, a nap room, a players lounge with a bowling lane and an outdoor village that has mini-golf and a sand volleyball pit. It was just another building constructed as part of the endless facilities arms race in college football that is continually getting more expensive and outrageous as time goes on.

When I first read about this, I scoffed and said what a ridiculous waste of money. Throwing it all away on a silly funhouse just to entice top-notch recruits to commit to Clemson and entertain a football team while there are so many other more important things to spend money on. What about the main purpose of higher learning at colleges? What about the academics and the intellectual stimulation and growth of students and athletes? Are we spending too much on college football?

It’s no secret college sports departments are making more money than ever with endorsements, licensing deals, massive television contracts and donors willing to spend a lot and outdo other universities. Those with fewer resources must get money elsewhere through state government or mandatory student fees. Yet, no matter how they get the money, it’s a safe bet it’s going towards athletics, mainly in the form of facilities.

The prevailing thought is that better facilities lead to an advantage in the endless recruiting contest by appealing to young men and are a vital component if you want to win. However, even when upgrades are completed, it’s only a matter of time before another school makes an even grander palace and you’re left in the dust.

I have yet to find a study to show if there is a correlation between better facilities and better recruits. I assume it would be positive for traditional powerhouses but not for your average program because the top dogs have more resources to construct state-of-the-art complexes and hire top-level coaches, who I think are bigger recruiting tools than the buildings anyways. You put Nick Saban in an antiquated barn and he’d still probably win it all.

Facilities spending is one of the biggest reasons otherwise profitable or self-sufficient athletic departments run deficits. In 2016, “HBO’s Real Sports” reported only 24 Division 1 schools are making money through sports which means over 300 are losing money at a combined $2 billion per year.

In 2014, according to a Washington Post review of financial records from athletic departments at 48 schools in the five wealthiest conferences, these 48 spent $772 million combined on athletic facilities, an 89-percent increase from $408 million spent in 2004, adjusted for inflation. Those figures include annual debt payments, capital expenses and maintenance costs. USA Today estimates about $100 billion has been spent in the span of 11 years on college sports.

In my heart, I feel something isn’t right spending it on purely entertainment and that there needs to be a cap or limit of some sort but the more I think about spending on college sports, the less offended I get.

It would be hypocritical for me as a football fan to say there is too much spending when I enjoy attending games in nice facilities and understand winning isn’t free. Plus, I feel there is nothing that can be done about it anyways no matter how out of hand it gets. In a free market society, institutions can and will spend money how they see fit. If donors don’t like it, they can stop donating. If students don’t like it, they can spend their tuition money at a school that focuses more on academics.

Here’s the cold hard truth: Yes, the spending is absurd especially for fun and games but absurdity wins (just ask Dabo Swinney, Nick Saban) and college sports are the gateway to recognition, fame, and public appeal for universities. Plus, college sports benefit society in priceless ways that can’t be measured.

Also, I believe that sports are oftentimes a scapegoat for wasteful spending when it happens in so many other areas of life. Should we stop buying cars over $25,000, buying houses over $200,000 and spending over $300 at a fancy restaurant? What about the government spending billions for questionable reasons? We complain about how money is being used when we ourselves spend so much on mindless self-indulgence. We say the wealthy should help the poor and yet would you sacrifice everything? See…it’s not that simple.

Spending will continue to rise and more complaints will come but in the end, sports are needed just as much as academics. Yes, academics are the main purpose of college, but left alone, the experience would be a very boring one.

E-mail Mike at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @MDeuces2051.

Photo Credit: 401K 2012 on Flickr

2017 Big Ten Power Rankings

Only nine days until college football Week 1 officially starts, though as my fellow writer Mitch Gatzke wrote, it leaves much to be desired.  Stanford versus Rice from Australia is your headliner. Yay. Can you sense the sarcasm? For me, it kicks off on Thursday August 31st when Ohio State takes on Indiana. Speaking of the Buckeyes, based on how 2016 unfolded in the Big Ten, here are the unofficial power rankings for 2017 with that team from Ohio sitting on top. Enjoy.

  1. Ohio State Buckeyes

The Ohio State Buckeyes are completely stacked for another playoff run and poised to win a conference title. With 15 starters returning, arguably the best front defensive coordinator Greg Schiano has coached, an offensive line that features two potential first-round draft picks (Jamarco Jones and Billy Price) and the hiring of Kevin Wilson as offensive coordinator to help J.T. Barrett return to freshman form, this is by far the best team in the Big Ten.

  1. Penn State Nittany Lions

Nipping at the Buckeye’s heels will be the Nittany Lions, who went from conference afterthought to Big Ten champions after reeling off nine consecutive wins in 2016. The dynamic duo of quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley fit seamlessly into Joe Moorhead’s up-tempo, spread attack and will have four returning starters on offensive line to protect them. Yet, the luck they had last season against Ohio State will be long gone in this year’s rematch.

  1. Wisconsin Badgers

Coming into this season, Wisconsin already had a void at outside linebacker with T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel departing and then inside linebacker Jack Cichy suffered another season-ending injury. Fortunately, there is a lot of depth and experience on the defense for first-year coordinator Jim Leonhard to work with. Plus, the offensive line returns all five starters and with a more feasible schedule, the Badgers will be the favorite in the Big Ten West and a top-ten team.

  1. Michigan Wolverines

So close, yet so far away defined the 2016 Michigan Wolverines as two late season losses by four measly points cost them conference glory. Now, only four offensive starters and one defensive starter return and even more pressure will be on Wilton Speight to deliver with a new receiving corps. Jim Harbaugh has recruited some good raw talent, but I feel the Wolverines will take a small step backwards before reaching their full potential.

  1. Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern has a solid chance to make some noise this season with a speedy, explosive defense that features a disruptive front seven and an offense with the strong arm of Clayton Thorson and the tireless workhorse Justin Jackson. Unfortunately, they’ll be without the leading receiver from the Big Ten last year in Austin Carr and need a reliable target to emerge. Also, they ranked 108th in pass defense and face their biggest divisional opponent Wisconsin in Madison.

  1. Iowa Hawkeyes

While the Hawkeyes have limited experience at quarterback with presumed first-time starter Nathan Stanley and few receiving options besides Matt VandeBerg, they possess one of college’s best offensive lines and a home-run threat in senior running back Akrum Wadley. On defense, they also are raw and young at most of the skill positions. Yes, they’re anchored by linebacker and leading tackler Josey Jewell but one man can’t do it all. Nonetheless, their ceiling is still 7-9 victories.

  1. Nebraska Huskers

Though the Nebraska Huskers started 7-0 and had a great opportunity for a championship game invite in 2016, they lost four of their final six. Now, they are in a state of transition with pro-style quarterback Tanner Lee under center trying to resuscitate an offense that averaged 211.7 passing yards a game (86th). On defense, they still have a very stout secondary in their new 3-4 scheme but with all the changes, I see more growing pains than success.

  1. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Even with P.J. Fleck’s infectious positive energy, that only goes so far. The Gophers have essentially no experience at quarterback and wide receiver besides leading wideout Rashad Still (18 catches). They’ll have to rely heavily on running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, both of whom averaged over 4.7 yards per carry and combined for 1,808 yards but the offensive line is thin and lacks depth. The defensive line is lean as well. Expect a middle-of-the-pack finish.

  1. Michigan State Spartans

Jekyll and Hyde perfectly describes the Spartans last two seasons, plunging from a conference champion to a basement dweller, and it remains to be seen if they can rebound after a rough off-season. I believe with their three-headed monster in the backfield (L.J. Scott, Gerald Holmes, Madre London; 3,300 combined rush yards)and the return of quarterback Brian Lewerke, who played well versus Michigan before breaking his leg, the Spartans will compete for a bowl bid. Anything more is wishful thinking.

  1. Indiana Hoosiers

The defense, which improved from 121st to 45th in passing yards allowed in 2016, has nine returning starters and should be the strength especially in the linebacking corps with Tegray Scales (23.5 tackles for loss in 2016) and secondary with Rashard Fant (48 passes defended). Richard Lagow has a canon for an arm but needs to work on his accuracy (17 interceptions). If the offense can cut down mistakes and the defense rises up like last season, this is a scary, dangerous team. I forecast a definite bowl game.

  1. Maryland Terrapins

A 2014 four-star recruit by 247sports, there is a lot of hype surrounding North Carolina transfer quarterback Caleb Henderson. He has good size and can run and pass as he commands Maryland’s spread offense and tries to improve an offense that averaged just 178.2 yards a game (106th). The defense is experienced with their senior-laden front seven led by middle linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. but allowed over 28 points seven times. Sadly, I see them drastically receding.

  1. Purdue Biolermakers

David Blough can air it out with the best of them but he led the league with 21 interceptions and losses his top four pass catchers from 2016. To make things even trickier, Purdue is young on offense with just one returning starter on the line so protection is a concern. Depth on the defensive line and secondary is also a weakness.  New head coach Jeff Brohm maybe an offensive whiz but he has a lot of work to do.

  1. Illinois Illini

Lovie Smith will have a tough time this season as the teams top five pass rushers including standouts Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot as well as leading tackler Hardy Nickerson Jr. are gone. In fact, the defense will be very young and untested and will have one senior starter in corner Jaylen Dunlap. On offense, quarterback Chayce Crouch is healed after attempting just 32 passes and gets two formidable receivers in Mike Dudek and Malik Turner. Other than that, nothing is sound here.

  1. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Four quarterbacks are competing for the starting job and electrifying return man Janarion Grant returns. Other than that, not much to say besides good luck not losing any games by a significant margin. Every year I think they will stop getting killed, but it always seems it gets worse. Is it even possible to be embarrassed more than being shutout 78-0? I hope it doesn’t for the sake of the conference’s reputation.

E-mail Mike at mike [dot] tews [at] campuspressbox [dot] com or follow him on Twitter @MDeuces2051.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

It’s Time to Play the College Football Version of Would You Rather?

Summer is officially here which means only a few more months until football games so what better way to celebrate this than to have a couple of Would You Rather? questions to ponder regarding college football.

Would you rather lose in a blowout or in the final seconds?

For me, I would rather lose in a blowout than lose a very evenly matched game in the final seconds. When you’re down by a significant margin, the sting of defeat is much easier to come to terms with and accept because you have no shot at winning. Yes, it’s completely embarrassing for any program to lose by over 30 points and the level of respect your opponents and onlookers have for you drops but in the grand scheme of everything, people often forget about those blowouts. The games are often forgettable letdowns as there is little to no drama, competition or excitement. For example, in the 2014 Big Ten championship, Wisconsin, who was favored by 4.5 points and I predicted would win, was dismantled by Ohio State 59-0. Yes, the painful memory still lingers but to be honest, I often forget about that loss since it was over before it even started. I was able to get over it much easier than one particular game that took place in 2011 for my beloved Badgers.

Wisconsin (No. 6 BCS, No. 4 AP) invaded East Lansing to take on the Michigan State Spartans (No. 16, No. 15) for a Saturday primetime matchup on October 22nd and it was a tense, back-and-forth contest with multiple lead changes. In the fourth quarter, Michigan State’s lead ballooned to 31-17 but with 1:26 remaining, Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson tied the game 31-31 with a two-yard touchdown pass to running back Montee Ball. It appeared the game would head to overtime but on a last-second Hail Mary pass, Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousin’s desperation heave deflected off receiver B.J. Cunningham’s helmet and into the hands of Keith Nichol, who lunged forward, fighting off two defenders just enough to cross the goal-line for the game-winning score. The reason this one was so painful was the fact that Wisconsin was ranked so high and whispers of a national championship run were being floated around. Now, the game was tied and was headed into overtime so we still could’ve lost but to have those title aspirations erased that suddenly was mind-numbing.

The problem with losing in the final seconds is there is this tremendous amount of hope that your team can pull it out and the agony of having that hope ripped away in such a dramatic, mind-blowing matter is much more devastating. Just the thought of these athletes putting everything on the line and getting all the way to the finish line only to fall just short is the epitome of heartbreak and these losses are much harder to forget.

Would you rather attend a college or NFL football game?

It’s the age-old question that nearly every football fan must answer at some point in their lifetime but for me, I would rather attend a college football game than an NFL game. The first reason is that nothing can replace the lore, pageantry, and tradition that so many college programs have that distinguish them from their competitors. Tailgating at The Grove at Ole Miss, the Ohio State marching band forming its famous “Script Ohio” formation, the War Eagle taking flight at Auburn, the Sooner Schooner at Oklahoma or Clemson players touching Howard’s Rock as they enter. These are things you don’t see happen anywhere else. In addition to the special traditions, think about all the unique and historic venues these programs play in from the Big House, the Swamp, the Horseshoe, the two Death Valleys and the Coliseum. Most of the NFL stadiums are rather bland, corporate, and ordinary. Also, I can’t think of any NFL rivalry that can compare with how passionate and emotional college football’s premier rivalries are such as Michigan-Ohio State, Alabama-Auburn, Texas-Oklahoma.

Second, there’s something for everyone. You can see dozens of different offenses and formations like the triple option, spread, pro-style, wishbones, and flexbones whereas the NFL mostly runs variations of the West Coast offense. You can also witness players being utilized like Swiss Army knives, playing multiple positions.

College football has better rules such as players needing only one foot down inbounds to complete a catch and having pass interference be a consistent 15-yard penalty. My favorite is overtime actually gives each team an equal opportunity to possess the ball whereas the team that wins the coin toss in the NFL has a huge advantage and usually wins the game as we saw in this past year’s Super Bowl with the Patriots.

Finally, the NFL boasts that it has more parity than college and any team can win on any given Sunday, adding an element of unpredictability but a balanced league means a dearth of underdogs and few epic David overcoming Goliath storylines. It also means there is no chance for the elation that comes with an odds-defying win, the type of thrill that leads thousands to storm the field and celebrate together. When a team scores a game-winning touchdown on a Hail Mary, it’s even more exciting than when the same thing happens in the pros because there are fewer games in college, four times as many teams and losing even one game can completely ruin a season. That means that every play carries more weight than they do in the pros.

These are just a few reasons why I prefer college over pros and I’m sure you can definitely think of more. Summer is great but Saturdays aren’t the same without football.

E-mail Mike at  or follow him on Twitter @MDeuces2051.

Image courtesy of flickr user Virtual Eyesee

For Illinois, Moral Victories Exist

When it comes to college football, success is primarily measured by the amount of games won as well as the number of conference titles and national championships a program has accumulated. The more victories a team has, the easier it is to hire top-notch coaching staffs, lure in gifted athletes, build state-of-the-art facilities and keep fans interested. Yet, winning games is much easier said than done especially for schools that don’t have the same financial resources, talent, experience and championship-rich pedigree as the top dogs. A conference bottom-feeder like Illinois just can’t keep up with the likes of Alabama even if they play a perfect game. 9 out of 10 times, the Fighting Illini get crushed by the Crimson Tide and even in the rare event that its close, the more talented team usually always comes out on top. So if your program rarely wins, has fallen drastically behind other teams and is in the middle of rebuilding, what does success look like?

Initially, it doesn’t look like anything tangible and won’t show in the win column so you need to find satisfaction in the small victories. These victories can be getting a highly-rated recruit and seeing him blossom into a consistent play-maker or putting up a competitive, valiant fight against a superior, highly-ranked foe. They say moral victories don’t exist but for a fledgling operation, you need to find the silver lining and take away positives in order to build confidence and a solid foundation for the future. Other than that you can’t have too many lofty expectations because if you do, chances are they will never be fulfilled and you’ll always be miserable and unsatisfied.

Since 1951, when Illinois last won a national championship according to the Boand selecting body, the Fighting Illini have 23 winning season records, finished in the top three of the Big Ten 16 times, have four conference titles, and six bowl victories. It’s not anything incredible but certainly not the worst ever and shows that Illinois could make an occasional run at a conference title (2001)or a Rose Bowl berth.

Remember in 2005, former Florida head coach Ron Zook was hired and Illinois went 2-9, 0-8 and 2-10, 1-7 in his first two seasons but went 9-3, 6-2 in 2007 including a victory over No. 1-ranked Ohio State and a trip to Pasadena . Then again, it must be stated that the Illini did get mighty fortunate in recruiting in 2006, when one of the Midwest’s top quarterbacks, Isiah “Juice” Williams of Chicago Vocational High School was right in their backyard and had a top-25 class in 2007 highlighted by one of the country’s top receivers in Arrelious Benn.

However, unless the Fighting Illini hit the jackpot again in recruiting soon, it’s going to take some time to turn things around. It’s been 16 years since the Illini won a conference title and I think it be mighty unfair to criticize Lovie Smith if he doesn’t win more games next season especially with what he has to work with. Plus, Smith has had only one true season of recruiting and it will be three more years until Smith actually has a team entirely of players he and his staff recruited.

Now, the one thing Illinois has going for them is they just need four wins to make an official improvement from 2016 and could conceivably win three to six games from a schedule-standpoint. But with the enormous amount of talent leaving an offense and defense that both ranked near the bottom of the conference, I predict things will get worse for the Illini before any improvements, whether measurable or not, will show.

The offense was 109th in total passing yards per game and loses its starting quarterback Wes Lunt, two wide receivers, three linemen and two tight ends. On defense, which ranked 11th in conference for yards allowed per game, it loses its entire starting defensive line, starting middle linebacker and leading tackler, Hardy Nickerson Jr. and two defensive backs.

I hope the Illini faithful have come to terms with reality and accepted this won’t be fixed overnight. The only thing you can hope for is that the team plays competitively and maybe pulls off a couple victories.

Winning games will always be the definition of success and some programs will always have an uphill climb to the top. My advice is to keep expectations low and embrace the drought so that when that turnaround happens, you will feel incredibly satisfied. Cherish those small victories to maintain hope and your sanity and keep up the faith. Sooner or later, those moral victories will translate into real wins and no one will see it coming except those who patiently waited.

E-mail Mike at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @MDeuces2051.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Over/Under: Big Ten East

Last time I wrote, I did over/under projected victories for the Big Ten West this upcoming season based on what we know as of now and as promised, I have the Big Ten East this time around.

Indiana 6-7, 4-5 = Over 7-5, 4-5

Defensive coordinator Tom Allen takes over at head coach and the Hoosiers are eager to continue to build upon their success from 2016 when they made back-to-back bowl trips for the first time since 1990. In Allen’s first year, the Hoosiers defense made vast improvements, improving from 121st in yards allowed per game (509.5) in 2015 to 45th (380) in 2016. Linebacker Tegray Scales led the FBS with 23.5 tackles for loss and Rashard Fant led the conference with 17 pass breakups. Yet, despite the defensive success, Indiana struggled mightily on offense with 29 turnovers (123rd) and a 71.4 red zone score percentage (127th). If the Hoosiers can improve in these areas, getting several more wins shouldn’t be hard.

Maryland 6-7, 3-6 = Under 4-8, 1-8

In head coach DJ Durkin’s first season, Maryland improved from a 3-9 record to finish 6-7 and nabbed a bowl bid after drastically reducing their interceptions from an FBS-leading 29 to nine and also brought in the 17th-ranked recruiting class for 2017 in the off-season. There’s a lot of optimism and the future looks bright for the Terrapins but there are some huge obstacles including inexperience at quarterback with Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe moving on, suspect pass protection (49 sacks, 127th) a bad turnover margin (minus seven, 107th), not to mention a tough Big Ten East division. Remember Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan outscored Maryland 159-20. I see the Terrapins taking a step back before they go forward.

Michigan 10-3, 7-2 = Over 11-1, 8-1

With the departure of 17 starters and finishing 1-3, it is going to be a fascinating season for Michigan as they look to improve upon a 10-3 record in Jim Harbaugh’s third season. For most teams, losing that many starters would certainly be a devastating blow but with three loaded recruiting classes and continuity at quarterback with Wilton Speight returning, the Wolverines should remain a top contender for a conference championship. Plus, defensive coordinator Don Brown, who helped Michigan finish No. 2 in total defense and produced similar results at Boston College in 2015 with much less talent, returns. Yet, even if these underclassmen can deliver, I still think that the more experienced Buckeyes have the edge.

Michigan State 3-9, 1-8 = Over 5-7, 3-6

Coming off a disappointing 3-9 season and with a sexual assault investigation against several Spartans underway, things are not exactly sunny in East Lansing. Plus, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding this team such as if projected starting quarterback Brian Lewerke, who had shown some flashes of potential in his limited experience before breaking his leg against Michigan, can be a reliable playmaker. He will need to deliver for an offense that was minus 58 in fourth quarter point differential. Also, can the Spartans improve upon a weak pass rush that yielded a measly 11 sacks? A lot of improvement will be needed to contend again but getting to a bowl is still within reach.

Ohio State 11-2, 8-1 = Over 13-0 (Big Ten champion), 9-0

In 2016, Ohio State appeared poised for another title run but J.T. Barrett had problems getting the ball downfield as the Buckeyes averaged 6.8 yards per pass attempt (88th in FBS) so new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day were hired to fix that. I and my fellow writer, Mark Silverman feel this could be a deadly offense with Wilson calling shots. On defense, only one team was more effective in the red zone, with the Buckeyes giving up touchdowns just 37.5 percent last season (15-40). With the exception of Raekwon McMillan, starters return at every spot in the front seven. If Barrett returns to 2014 form and the defense delivers, this is a legitimate national title contender.

Penn State 11-3, 8-1 = Under 10-2, 7-2

Despite starting 1-2, the Nittany Lions won nine straight to take the Big Ten due in large part to an explosive offense led by Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley. Averaging a conference-best 9.3 yards per pass attempt, McSorley made tremendous strides in his second season, totaling 29 touchdowns, eight interceptions and 3,614 yards (No. 1 in Big Ten), while Barkley led the conference with 18 rushing touchdowns. On defense, there are holes up front with both starting defensive ends gone but an experienced secondary with Marcus Allen and Grant Haley. There’s a lot to like here and while I don’t see them beating Ohio State in magical fashion again, I see them securing another 10-win season.

Rutgers 2-10, 0-9 = Neutral 2-10, 0-9

The gap between Rutgers and the league’s elite is already massive as the Scarlet Knights were outscored an insane 224-0 against Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State. Unfortunately, at the rate the elite teams are growing and recruiting, I see the gap becoming larger before it gets smaller. Even with the hiring of Jerry Kill as offensive coordinator and the return of Janarion Grant, who is tied for the most kick and punt return touchdowns in history with eight, there’s only so much a few men can do here. Plus, it’s still a mystery if presumed starter Giovanni Rescigno is the answer at quarterback. It’s going to be another long year as Rutgers remains the conference’s doormat.

E-mail Mike at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @MDeuces2051.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Bilal Kamoon

Over/Under: Big Ten West

Yes, I know a lot can happen during spring practice and the summer months so it may seem premature to be doing an article where I’m doing over/under for the upcoming year but with March Madness upon us, I feel like a gambling man and figured to take a risk. This week I’m doing the Big Ten West and the East next time around.

Illinois 3-9, 2-7 = Under 3-9, 1-8

Illinois loses its entire starting defensive line including first-team, all-Big Ten pass-rushing end Carroll Phillips (20 TFL’s, nine sacks) as well as spots at middle linebacker and secondary for a defense that already ranked near the bottom of the conference In almost every statistical category.  Its offense loses quarterback Wes Lunt and, while running backs Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin, who combined for 1243 yards and nine touchdowns, are back, as well as receiver Malik Turner (48 catches, 712 yards, 6 tds), backup quarterbacks Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. were subpar as they appeared in nine games. Lovie Smith’s second year will be even worse.

Iowa 8-5, 6-3 = Under 8-4, 5-4

The biggest question for the Hawkeyes is can sophomore Nathan Stanley, who is slated to be the starting quarterback heading into spring practice, be a reliable leader like his predecessor C.J. Beathard despite his limited experience? Other first-year starters like Beathard and Ricky Stanzi did pretty well and Stanley will have some resources like a seasoned offensive line and tailback Akrum Wadley but few options at receiver even with Matt VandeBerg returning. The other concern is at corner, where they lose the dominant Desmond King and Greg Mabin and have to use raw prospects Michael Ojemudia (five tackles) and Manny Rugamba (19 tackles, two interceptions). I say Iowa takes a step back because of its harder schedule.

Minnesota 9-4, 5-4 = Under 7-5, 4-5

With the departure of Mitch Leidner, Minnesota has very limited quarterback experience. Fifth-year senior Conor Rhoda has just one career start and a host of others are fighting for time including Demry Croft, junior college transfer Neil McLaurin, and redshirt freshman Seth Green and Mark Williams. Yes, starting halfback Rodney Smith was fourth in conference with 1,158 yards and second with 16 touchdowns while backup Shannon Brooks finished with 650 yards and five touchdowns but I see growing pains for a team that went through a very tumultuous season. Plus, they have a new system to get acclimated to with P.J. Fleck and an entirely different staff.

Nebraska 9-4, 6-3 = Under 8-4, 5-4

It’s hard to replace a starting quarterback especially one like Tommy Armstrong Jr., who holds most of the passing and touchdown records for Nebraska, but there is some upside and potential on the roster with Tanner Lee, Patrick O’Brien and Tristan Gebbia. Lee played two seasons at Tulane while O’Brien is a redshirt freshman and Gebbia is an early enrollee who has the second most yards in California high school history (13,109). On defense, Nebraska’s secondary looks strong as starting corners Chris Jones and Josh Kalu (103 tackles, 21 passes defended, four ints) return as well as safety Kieran Williams (five ints) and Aaron Williams.

Northwestern 7-6, 5-4 = Over 9-3, 6-3

Quarterback Clayton Thorson was fourth in the league in passing yards per game (244.8) and tossed 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Running back Justin Jackson had career highs for rushing yards (1,524), touchdowns (15) and yards per carry (5.1). If another receiver can emerge as a reliable target as Big Ten receiver of the year Austin Carr is gone, this offense could be a handful for opponents. On defense, the ultra-talented Anthony Walker is gone but they only have two starters to replace and leading tackler Godwin Igwebuike returns. If Northwestern can improve on pass defense, which ranked 109th nationally, I can see them an upset or two away from division glory.

Purdue (3-9, 1-8) = Over (4-8, 2-7)

There seems to be a lot of optimism surrounding Purdue’s new head coach Jeff Brohm, who led Western Kentucky for three seasons. The Hilltoppers ranked fifth nationally in passing offense and first in scoring offense last year, averaging 44.6 points per game. Yes, the Boilermaker’s lose their top three receivers (DeAngelo Yancey, Bilal Marshall, Cameron Posey) as well as Domonique Young, all of whom combined to haul in 157 passes for 2,122 yards and 17 touchdowns but David Blough has a lot of talent and Brohm’s system could greatly benefit him. Winning one more conference game isn’t much but it’s a step forward for a program that has won two Big Ten games in the past three years.

Wisconsin 11-3, 7-2 = Over 12-2, 8-1

It remains to be seen if quarterback Alex Hornibrook is the answer and can build upon a solid freshman season but the Badger faithful are crossing their fingers he is because if he can deliver, this team could be very dangerous. Yes, they lose both outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel but still should be a disruptive front seven especially at inside linebacker as T.J. Edwards led the team in tackles for a second consecutive season and Chris Orr and Jack Cichy return after suffering season-ending injuries. Secondary, which was second in FBS with 22 interceptions, will also be strong. With all this in mind and a softer schedule, I predict another 10-plus win season.

E-mail Mike at mike [dot] tews [at] campuspressbox [dot] com or follow him on Twitter @MDeuces2051.

Image courtesy of flickr user usdagov

Way Too Early Predictions For Wisconsin Badgers 2017

With spring practice underway, it’s time to make my way-too-early predictions for the 2017 Wisconsin Badgers. A lot could certainly change between now and the season kickoff, so these predictions should be taken with a grain of salt but the Badgers already look poised for another memorable season.

9/1 Utah State

Unlike the past few seasons when Wisconsin opened against SEC flagship programs LSU and Alabama, the Badgers will play their easiest game first against a Utah State team that finished 3-9 overall, 1-7 in the Mountain West. I’m not a fan of blowouts but if that’s your cup of tea, this will be a football clinic as the Badgers will cruise to a 56-10 victory.

Wisconsin 56, Utah State 10

9/9 Florida Atlantic 

Even though Florida Atlantic finished sixth in C-USA (3-9, 2-6) in 2016, I believe this contest will be close in the first half. New head coach Lane Kiffin has a good chunk of football experience, is a savvy play-caller, and will get a good effort from his players. Still, the Badgers are simply too talented to let this one slip away and outmatch the Owls in every facet of the game. Wisconsin pulls away to win.

Wisconsin 35, FAU 17

9/16 at BYU

If there is a game that highly concerns me, this is it as the Badgers face their first road test against a strong, competitive BYU squad. At 9-4, the Cougars finished first among the FBS independents with signature wins against Michigan State and Wyoming in the Poinsettia Bowl and lost four games by just eight total points. Sure, they lose starting quarterback Taysom Hill but they still have junior signal-caller Tanner Mangum, who set BYU freshman records for passing yards (3,377) and touchdown passes (23) in 2015. The Badgers will just be content coming out with the victory as the Cougars scare Wisconsin in a close shootout.

Wisconsin 26, BYU 20

9/30 Northwestern 

Last season, the Northwestern Wildcats came out of nowhere to become one of the conference’s offensive juggernauts with QB Clayton Thorson, running back Justin Jackson and receiver Austin Carr (90 catches, 12 touchdowns). Even so, the Badgers won convincingly 21-7 in Evanston and this season, the Wildcats will be without Carr. It’s one less man to worry about and with the Badgers keeping Jackson in check, it will come down to Thorson versus a stingy pass defense. Wisconsin’s secondary shines in a 24-13 victory.

Wisconsin 24, Northwestern 13

10/7 at Nebraska 

After coming up short in a 23-17 overtime loss to Bucky last season, which Nebraska desperately needed for a title run, the Cornhuskers will be looking for payback and Lincoln is never an easy place for opponents to play. It will show as the Badgers struggles to run the ball and develop any consistency in the passing attack throughout the game but a few late defensive stops put the ball back in Wisconsin’s hands as they kick the game-winning field goal. Badgers escape unscathed.

Wisconsin 24, Nebraska 21

10/14 Purdue 

Quarterback David Blough no doubt has a strong arm as he led the Big Ten with 279.3 passing yards per game and was third in the league with 3,352 yards through the air. At the same time, he threw a conference-leading 21 interceptions and losses his top three receivers. That, along with a defense that was ranked near the bottom in every major category, make this a one-sided affair and the Badgers take care of business.

Wisconsin 35, Purdue 14

10/21 Maryland 

Though the pass-rushing duo of T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel is gone, the Badgers still have workable replacements in Garret Dooley, Zack Baun and incoming junior-college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel and should be a perennial threat every game. Maryland gave up 49 sacks in 13 games last year and I see Wisconsin aggressively exploiting that weakness, racking up a few sacks.

Wisconsin 38, Maryland 13

10/28 at Illinois 

The rushing defense of Illinois struggled mightily last year, allowing over 219 yards a game and giving up 35 touchdowns. The Illini also lose their entire starting defensive line. It will look like vintage Wisconsin as Bradrick Shaw gashes the defense for over 200 yards and several touchdowns.

Wisconsin 42, Illinois 7

11/4 at Indiana

Even though Indiana ranked third in Big Ten in yards gained (426 per game) and were competitive with the top teams, they never could close the deal due to 29 turnovers (123rd) and ranking 121st nationally in scoring touchdowns inside the red zone. The Badgers defense thrived on forcing turnovers (22 interceptions, 2nd in FBS) and limiting scores (13 touchdowns allowed, tied for 12th in FBS) in 2016, and I expect more of the same this year.

Wisconsin 31, Indiana 21

11/11 Iowa 

As is the usual case, the Hawkeyes will play the Badgers down to the wire in a close game that could be a showdown for the Big Ten West crown but the young Alex Hornibook shows poise in crunch time and delivers just enough under pressure to keep Wisconsin in front for good.

Wisconsin 17, Iowa 13

11/18 Michigan 

The stakes will be high in the most anticipated matchup of the season as the 10-0 Michigan Wolverines invade a raucous Camp Randall Stadium to take on the 10-0 Badgers. It will be a classic Big Ten showdown and a defensive chess-match as both off offenses struggle to gain any traction but in the end of a nail-bitter, the Badgers will fall just short just like 2016 in a close loss. It will sting as a College Football Playoff spot is in jeopardy but the Big Ten West will be won by that time.

Michigan 14, Wisconsin 10

11/25 Minnesota 

Minnesota nearly pulled off a huge upset over Wisconsin last year and will surely be hungry for Paul Bunyan’s axe after a long season. The Badgers will look lethargic at first but their talent will eventually take over in a game that is closer than it should be.

Wisconsin 28, Minnesota 20

Wisconsin will be heading to their second consecutive Big Ten championship against Ohio State and will be stuck in a hard-fought, back-and-forth affair but in the end, the Badgers offense will not be able to keep pace with J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes. Hornibrook’s youth shows and as in typical Badgers fashion, they get so close only to fall short of being the undisputed top dog, 35-27. Wisconsin once again wins ten games and gets a quality New Year’s bowl game but falls short of the CFP.

E-mail Mike at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @MDeuces2051.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

 

Is Alex Hornibrook The Answer For Wisconsin?

When it comes to the game of college football, there is no question that teams want a solid, reliable quarterback to lead them but as Mick Jagger once sang, you can’t always get what you want. Sometimes you have to deal with the cards you’ve been given and hope for the best. Sure, your cards can improve for the better over time but that’s not a given. In football, the window of opportunity is often limited as players come and go. Rarely, do the stars align but when they do, you better have a quality quarterback so you can seize the moment before it fades away.

I bring this up because the Wisconsin Badgers have been dealt a questionable card regarding quarterback and it remains to be seen if it will improve. You see the man currently under center is sophomore Alex Hornibrook.

At first, the three-star recruit from Malvern, Pennsylvania showed flashes of great potential when he made an appearance in last year’s spring game as he threw for 138 yards and two touchdowns and outperformed fifth-year senior Bart Houston (7-of-13, 73 yards). Still, the latter was named the season starter and led the team to its first two victories. Houston started the third game but after he struggled through the first three quarters, Hornibrook was sent in. He made an immediate impact, leading the Badgers to three scores in the second half and finishing 8-of-12 for 122 yards with a touchdown as the Badgers narrowly defeated Georgia State, 23-17.

From that point on, Hornibrook was named the starter and shined in a convincing win over Michigan State before playing decent in two heartbreaking losses to Michigan and Ohio State. From then on, things started trending downward as he saw less and less reps as a starter as he played more subpar and split more time with Houston.

Then, things went from bad to worse when Hornibrook left the Minnesota game with a head injury and watched from the sidelines as Wisconsin faltered in the Big Ten title game to Penn State, 38-31. In the Cotton Bowl Classic, he got just two snaps, though one was a touchdown.

If Hornibrook can’t step up and take a leap forward, there could be tumultuous times on offense next season. His stats aren’t mind blowing (1262 yards, 9 touchdowns, 7 interceptions) and there’s definitely some room for improvement but unless redshirt freshman Kare Lyles or incoming freshman Jack Coan really outperform in the spring game, I’d be surprised to see anyone else start since he’s the only one who has game experience. Now, given his strong arm and physical makeup, the solid offensive line and the tutelage of Paul Chryst, I have faith he will be a solid playmaker. He doesn’t have to the re-incarnation of Russell Wilson, but even if he’s like Scott Tolzein, I’d say watch out for the Badgers.

If Hornibrook gets injured or struggles mightily, Coan provides an interesting option given that he’s one of the highest-rated QB prospect to sign with the Badgers but let’s hope for long-term success of the program with stability at the quarterback spot, whoever is leading the way.

Obviously, stability at quarterback is always crucial but now more than ever because many feel including me that with another presumably strong defense and promising ground game, the Badgers are poised to defend their Big Ten West title, win 10-plus games and get another shot at the Big Ten championship.

As of now, the Badgers have been dealt a wildcard and it’s difficult to say if Hornibrook has hit his ceiling or if he has only scratched the surface. Only time will tell but the Badger faithful are hoping it’s sooner rather than later.

E-mail Mike at mike [dot] tews [at] campuspressbox [dot] com or follow him on Twitter @MDeuces2051.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Phil Roeder