Tag Archives: Illinois Fighting Illini

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

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

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 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

The Group of 5 Does Not Need its Own College Football Playoff

The debate that has been raging since the inception of the College Football Playoff is whether or not four teams are enough. Some say that four teams are enough. Others say, “not so fast,” we need more than four participants. And there is yet a third opinionated group of voices that tells us that a playoff isn’t needed regardless of the number of teams participating.

And now there is a fourth voice in the argument and its proposal would be the most disruptive of all. Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier is leading the charge for the Group of 5 to have its own college football playoff.

Schools that compete in the American, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, and Sun Belt conferences feel like they’re living on the Island of Misfit Toys. The reason that these conferences feel this way is justified, but it’s also not unfair.

Even when schools like Houston and Western Michigan have magical years, they don’t get into the playoff. Houston proved with its 2015 Peach Bowl victory over Florida State that it could not only compete with but beat a Power 5 school. The Cougars followed that up with a 2016 victory over the Oklahoma Sooners. Then, as the season progressed, things went down hill for Houston.

As Tom Herman led the Cougars into the October 8 game against Navy, Houston was sitting at 5-0. That unblemished record was highlighted with the win over the Sooners. The team had positioned itself well for playoff consideration. And then Houston lost to Navy. But that wasn’t Houston’s only loss. The Cougars then lost to SMU and Memphis. Game over. Playoff consideration was off the table and rightfully so.

But being shunned by the playoff committee was not the fault of the playoff committee. It was Houston’s fault. Houston took care of Oklahoma but then couldn’t take care of its AAC business. Too bad. Go back to the Island of Misfit Toys.

Having a separate playoff for the Group of 5 will not solve this problem because there isn’t a problem to be solved. All that this proposed second tier playoff will do is create a larger divide between the Group of 5 and Power 5 schools. The perceived difference in quality will grow at an exponential rate.

Frazier believes that the current playoff system is designed to crown a Power 5 champion. He believes that the Group of 5 is being held down and left out at a systemic level. Frazier wants us all to ignore the fact that the highest-ranked Group of 5 team is guaranteed a spot in one of the New Year’s 6 bowls. That isn’t the definition of being left out. That isn’t being confined to the Island of Misfit toys no matter what your teams do.

Western Michigan is the 2016 version of the 2015 Houston program. P.J. Fleck and his Broncos rowed the boat all the way to a 13-0 season. The reward is a trip to the Cotton Bowl where the opponent will be the Wisconsin Badgers. Western Michigan had a great season, but don’t be fooled, all 13-0 seasons are not created equal. The Broncos, much to Frazier’s assumed chagrin, do not belong in the playoff. Western Michigan didn’t have its “rightful” spot in the playoff stolen.

P.J. Fleck did go undefeated against the Big Ten this season, but those wins came against a 7-6 Northwestern team and a 3-9 Illinois team. Nope. Sorry/not sorry. The Broncos don’t belong in the playoff. And to be honest, the Broncos are lucky to be in the Cotton Bowl. Thank goodness for negotiated contractual clauses.

2017 has the potential to be an interesting year in terms of playoff consideration if, and only if, Western Michigan can upset Wisconsin. If Western Michigan can manage to do that, it will surely start 2017 off with a high preseason ranking. Package that potential ranking with road games against Southern Cal and Michigan State and the Broncos could be in consideration for the 2017 playoff. But even if the Broncos knock-off Wisconsin, Southern Cal and Michigan State, Fleck will still have to go undefeated in the Mid-American Conference. Sound easy? Just ask Houston about beating schools from the Power 5 only to screw it all up by struggling against its Group of 5 competition.

The Group of 5 is what it is. It’s a collection of good, but not great football programs. There are teams like Houston and Western Michigan that have the potential to be in the same conversation as the Power 5 schools, but teams like the Cougars and Broncos have to build up to a playoff run over the course of multiple seasons. Unlike a Power 5 school, it can’t be done during a single season. Creating a Group of 5 playoff won’t solve this non-problem. If anything, it will be perceived as the Group of 5 creating its own participation trophy.

E-mail Seth at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @SethMerenbloom.

Photo: Pixabay

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An Open Letter to Kirby Hocutt (on Behalf of the #MACtion)

Dear College Football Playoff Committee Chairman Kirby Hocutt,

Sup Kirby? How you been?

I’ve been pretty good myself. As you know, the season’s first College Football Playoff rankings are about to be unveiled, the Big 12 is in shambles, and, if you haven’t noticed, the state of the #MACtion is STRONG. Like, Frank Solich-wrestling-a-bear caliber STRONG. Like, Charlie Strong-when-he-was-still-at-Louisville STRONG.

And that’s kind of what I wanted to talk to you about Kirby. You see, I love Alabama just as much as the next guy. I’ll concede that they’re a fairly decent football team. Between the two of us, we both know they’re going to be the leader in your rankings.

Then, you’ll fill your rankings with three more undefeated powerhouses. You’ll likely have Clemson second, Michigan third, and you’ll obviously leave that coveted fourth spot to…

…the Western Michigan Broncos.

Now, Kirby, I know what you’re thinking: this is so obvious, why would I even bother saying it? Well, unfortunately, there are those among us who seek to undermine the integrity of the country’s greatest conference.

There is an alarmingly large contingent of college football fans this week that believe the fourth and final spot in the College Football Playoff should go to the Washington Huskies. That’s right. Washington.

Now, Kirby, I know what you’re thinking (again): is Washington even a state? The answer is no, Kirby, it’s not a state – it’s part of Canada. But that’s beside the point. Regardless of their questionable statehood, they aren’t nearly as ELITE as Western Michigan.

Who has five consecutive victories scoring over 40 points? Western Michigan. Who has not one, but TWO road victories over Big 10 teams? Western Michigan. Who is averaging over 500 yards of offense per game? Western Michigan. Who has one of the best head coaches in college football (and also a candidate for the Dodd Trophy come season end)? Western Michigan.

How is Western Michigan not the clear choice? To be honest Kirby, I’m not sure. Some naysayers cite “strength of schedule” as an excuse to exclude the Broncos, but their vision must be blinded from that Canadian mountain fog.

Sure, the Huskies notched a non-conference win over a Big 10 school, except the win came at home and against Rutgers, so it really doesn’t count. Besides that, they played Idaho and an FCS team. Where’s the strength in that?

Western Michigan scheduled their season to be as challenging as possible. They arranged two series with two Power 5 teams in Northwestern and Illinois. Another one of their opponents, Georgia Southern, swept the Sun Belt last season and another opponent, North Carolina Central, hasn’t lost a game since they lost to WMU. It seems to me Western Michigan played a markedly tougher non-conference schedule, and that’s all a program can really control.

Both teams are eviscerating their respective conferences and both teams can play in conference championship games, so I see no advantage there. If anything, one could argue that Western Michigan has it tougher – they’re placed in quite possibly the most lopsided conference division in all of college football.

Plus, just WATCH awesome skill players like Jarvion Franklin, who’s averaging 5.8 yards per carry, or Keion Adams, who has registered 6 sacks, or Corey Davis, who has 11 touchdown catches on the season, or Zach Terrell, who boasts a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 20:1. How can you deny a team this dominant?

Spoiler alert: you can’t.

I know we’re on the same page Kirby – Alabama, Clemson, Michigan, then Western Michigan. Unless you wanted to switch Michigan with Western Michigan. I could understand that too.

I suppose Washington will have to wait its turn. Don’t worry, Washington is more than proficient at waiting to be good. They’ve had like a decade of practice.

Of course, I guess there’s a tiny, microscopic chance your committee opts for the Huskies. I won’t be mad if that happens Kirby, just disappointed. The College Football Playoff is supposed to be viable for every FBS program. That’s the beauty: anybody can win.

If you don’t think Western Michigan has what it takes to compete in this year’s playoff…I don’t know what you’re waiting for. The #MACtion can only get so strong. If even this team isn’t good enough, maybe you should rename it to be the “College Football PAYoff” to reflect the fact that only teams that PAY absurd amounts of money for new athletic facilities can get in. Or you can just kick the MAC out of the FBS. That too.

But I know you won’t do that Kirby. I have faith in you. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the MAC, and as William Shakespeare once wrote, “you can’t stop the #MACtion, baby.”

             With kind regards,

              Cole Hankins | Spokesman for the #MakeTheMACGreatAgain Movement

NOTE: If you would have interest in purchasing a “Make the MAC Great Again” Trump-styled trucker hat, please email me at the email address below.

Email Cole Hankins at [email protected]or follow him on Twitter @Cole_Hankins.

Photo courtesy of pickleat – Pixabay

The Big Ten West is Nebraska’s Mess To Win

Well, well, well. Big Ten West. This is quite a mess you’ve created for yourself.

Iowa was supposed to waltz its way to the finish after winning the division last season and just barely being edged out by Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game. It’s hard to look too unfavorably at a loss to the five-time defending champions of the FCS, North Dakota State, but to follow up with a loss against Northwestern? Yeah, you’re done.

Wisconsin was the next obvious choice and really made people believe in them after a win over LSU. Well… that LSU team wasn’t actually that good and benched its quarterback and fired its coach. LSU isn’t even ranked anymore. A struggle against Georgia State and then a loss to Michigan that, if the Wolverines could kick, wouldn’t have even been as close as it was, and now there are doubters. Personally, I was doubting them before then, but whatever.

Minnesota was the dark horse, but the Golden Gophers went ahead and lost to Penn State. Penn State might actually be a decent team, but they play in a brutal division so their record isn’t going to reflect it. That’s neither here nor there, though.

All that leads up to this: people believing that Nebraska can be a College Football Playoff contender. I’m not kidding here people, there are multiple sources.

Nebraska does have an undefeated record so far, so they have that going for them. But are they a legit contender?

Well, that 5-0 record doesn’t look as good when you look at the teams that Nebraska has beaten.

So far, the closest thing that the Cornhuskers have to a marquee win is over Oregon in Week 3 when the Ducks were ranked 22nd in the nation. That was the start of Oregon’s three game losing streak, including losses to Colorado and an absolute thrashing by Washington State. The Oregon defense is also allowing 36.2 points a game, which are good for 109th in the nation. There are only 128 teams in the FBS so that’s pretty bad.

The other non-conference wins are against 1-4 Fresno State and 3-2 Wyoming who, might I note, lost to my Eastern Michigan Eagles. Maybe Wyoming is good… but I’m thinking not.

The only Big Ten team that Nebraska has played is Illinois. The Illini haven’t been good since those weird Ron Zook years. Illinois lost to Western Michigan, which might not be as bad as it sounds since the #MakeTheMACGreatAgain movement has started. Any way you slice it, though, Illinois is 1-4.

The record might be a false positive then. So might Nebraska’s No. 12 ranking. Teams have been known to prematurely shoot up the polls *cough*Wisconsin*cough*. The offensive and defensive numbers aren’t anything outstanding, just inside the top 20 in points against and tied for 40th in points scored. Those probably are more reflective of the teams Nebraska has played than how good it might or might not be.

Personally, I don’t think Nebraska is a great team. A good team, sure. But not great. I think the Cornhuskers have what it takes to get to through what might be a cluster of a division. Mike Riley and his team won’t arrive unscathed but I think they’ll arrive in Indianapolis to face the winner of the East.

That championship game, though… that’s the great equalizer.

Is Nebraska a National Championship type team? No, but it might not matter. If Ohio State or Michigan predictably come out of the East, those two are going to be ranked in the top 5 without a doubt. It only takes one bad game or one stupid mistake and suddenly we could find Nebraska as the Big Ten Champion. Beating a top-ranked team automatically makes you a top ranked team as we’ve seen over and over.

So do I believe that Nebraska is a Playoff contender? No, but the Huskers might end up there anyway.

E-mail Tim at .

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The best chances for Summit League teams to upset the Power 5

Other than winning a conference tournament, and then knocking off a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament, there is really nothing better for smaller schools than beating a Power 5 school on the road in the non-conference schedule.

South Dakota State, South Dakota, and Western Illinois were all able to pick up wins last season against Power 5 schools, and others game close.  Will any Summit League teams be able to pick up the upset this season in November or December?  Here is a look at some of the Summit League’s best chances of picking up an upset this season.

Fort Wayne at Arkansas – November 11th

This may seem like a bit of a trap game for the Razorbacks.  Some Arkansas fans may be thinking that the Summit League favorite, Fort Wayne, is nothing to really worry about as a low major team.  The Razorbacks will be an experienced team with three seniors and six juniors on the roster, but the Mastodons have experience as well with three scholarship seniors and four juniors.

With no true point guard on the Razorbacks’ roster, Arkansas will be trying to figure themselves out in the first game of the year.  Having a problem of trying to figure out ball movement and rotations is not exactly a problem you want to have when you’re introducing three junior college players and a transfer from Colorado.

The Mastodons may also be spending a little time trying to figure themselves out in this game, but they will have a senior point guard leading the charge, Mo Evans, who averaged 17 points and 5 assists per game.  Usually when a Power 5 team faces up against a mid-major team, they have the advantage of size of depth.  Even though the Mastodons prefer to play a smaller style of play, which could be an advantage against the Razorbacks, they do have some size to match up with the Razorbacks.

Mike Anderson’s team did lose to three mid-major teams last season, including their second home game of the year against Akron.

South Dakota at Nebraska – December 3rd

South Dakota may or may not have problems this season with ten newcomers on the roster.  Okay, they are more than likely going to have problems with that.  The Coyote roster is an upgrade in talent with what they had last year on the court.  Luckily for the Coyotes, Craig Smith will be facing up against his old boss, Tim Miles, when the Coyotes go up against the Huskers in Lincoln.

Smith knows what to expect from Tim Miles and he knows what to expect in the atmosphere in Lincoln.  Like usual, there are not many people with high expectations for the Huskers this season.  The Huskers graduated Shavon Shields, who 16.6 points and 6 rebounds per game last season, and their leading scorer, Andrew White, transferred to Syracuse.  The Huskers have a young and unproven team, and they do not have a well-known leader on the team.

South Dakota also has four Nebraska-native players on the roster that will be wanting that win in their home state.  The Huskers have also lost to four non-Power 5 schools in the last two seasons, so they are not exactly invincible in games like this.  South Dakota was able to pick up a win at Minnesota last season, who was dealing with as much turnover as Nebraska will be dealing with this season.

IUPUI at Illinois – December 6th

Is Illinois still a Power 5 school?  The Fighting Illini do have some scorers on the team, but against a scrappy IUPUI defense, the team could have problems getting those scorers the ball without a true point guard on the team.  Their one real point guard, Tracy Abrams, has sat out the last two seasons with injuries. Illinois had two other players who only played in eight games last season because of injuries.  Wait, I said that wrong.  Their 6’11” center, Michael Thorne, only played in eight games due to injuries.  The other player only played in eight games because he was too busy trying to make a deal to avoid a felony charge.

With injuries and court cases, there is no telling what the Fighting Illini could be.  IUPUI’s Jason Gardner has recruited transfers and actually mature upperclassmen that can help his team right away.  Their transfers got to use last season to gel and get seasoned together, and this season they will be a serious contender for the Summit League title.

This game may actually be a mock interview for Jason Gardner at Illinois.

Western Illinois and Omaha at Kansas State

No, no, they’re not combining Omaha and Western Illinois to take on the Wildcats in Manhattan.  Kansas State will take on two Summit League in the first few days of the basketball season, and each team could give the Wildcats issues.  One should keep in mind, that while the Wildcats look like they could be in for a long season, Kansas State has not lost a home game to a non-Power 5 school since 2014.

While Bo Ryan’s autopilot was broken and set with a final destination for the bottom of the ocean, Western Illinois was able to pull off an upset at Wisconsin on the first night of college basketball in the 2015-2016.  The Leathernecks will try their luck to knock off the Wildcats on the opening night of this season.

Bruce Weber’s defense likes to create chaos and confusion to their opponents.  The Leathernecks, who placed in last in the Summit League in 2016, may be adjusted to this as they play most of their possessions as if they are being led by chaos of The Joker.  Really, it is hard to gauge how seriously to take the Leathernecks in this game.  Many people are still trying to figure out how they were able to upset Wisconsin last year.  There are a team of analysts working in 14 hour shifts, 6 days a week still trying to figure it out.

The Wildcats’ like to play a slower paced game, which could be a problem for them if they cannot control the tempo against one of the highest paced teams in college basketball, the Omaha Mavericks.  Kansas State will be playing their young back court against two starting senior guards of Omaha. The Mavericks may be able to control the pace of the game with Tra-Deon Hollins in the back court.  Hollins lead the nation in steals in 2015-2016, and will be responsible for leading the offense this season.

Email Andrew at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @AndrewInTheO.

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How Many Games Would Western Michigan Win with a Big Ten Schedule?

Row, row, row your boat ladies and gentlemen- the Western Michigan Broncos are for real.  After convincing victories at Illinois and Northwestern, the Broncos finished 4-0 in regular season non-conference play. Thus far, they’ve amassed just under 2,000 yards of total offense and they’ve possessed the ball over a quarter longer than their opponents. They’re limiting opposing rushers to 3.4 yards per carry and they’re already +7 in turnover margin.

There’s absolutely no reason the Broncos can’t run the table. With Northern Illinois, supposedly Western Michigan’s strongest intradivisional competitor, off to an abysmal 0-4 start, the ceiling is shattered for P.J. Fleck’s squad to gROW h16her.

Why stop there? Sure, Western Michigan is a popular pick in the MAC West. But how about the Big Ten West? After all, they’ve already vanquished two teams in college football’s strongest conference.

Now, I know exactly what you’re thinking: should Illinois count as an FBS football team? Probably not, but last time I checked, they’re still considered one and Western Michigan beat them. Similarly, the best thing to happen to Northwestern football in the last month is a guy named Trevor Semen Siemian. Maybe it isn’t so unrealistic to imagine the Broncos battling with the Big Ten brass week in and week out.

That’s the burning question no other mediocre sports writer has the courage to answer: how many games would Western Michigan win with a Big Ten schedule?

First, we need to provide the Broncos with a Big Ten schedule. Seeing as Western Michigan literally has the word “western” in it, the Big Ten West seems to be a natural fit. Yet, in order to include the Broncos in the West, another team has to be excluded from the West.

In what’s probably the least shocking news you’ve heard all day, we’re excluding Purdue from the Big Ten West. They’re a disgrace to the game of football at the moment. Given that their colors are nearly identical, you could replace the Boilermakers with the Broncos on any given Saturday and the only way their fans would know the difference is that they’d actually be winning a meaningful game for once.

With that, let’s examine just how well Western Michigan would fare playing Purdue’s Big Ten opponents this season. As for how Purdue would fare in the MAC…we’ll save that for a later date.

Home vs. Maryland Terrapins – W

What’s that? A home tilt against a team that won three games last year? Sign me up. Yeah they’re 3-0, but Maryland’s non-conference schedule was downright criminal. I mean, who doesn’t respect premier programs like Howard, FIU, and UCF? Maryland benefitted from both an easy schedule and sheer luck in the turnover department. A turnover hasn’t been allowed by either of these teams this season. The difference is, it makes sense with WMU- they actually have a good coach.

Away @ Illinois Fighting Illini – W

Western Michigan already won this contest in Week 3 of their actual schedule, so chalk this one up as a W.

Home vs. Iowa Hawkeyes – L

To speak in terms fellow MACtion lovers will appreciate, the Iowa Hawkeyes are simply a better version of the Ohio Bobcats. They’re stout, they’re gritty, they’re conservative, and both have coaches older than the ground they walk on. After Iowa’s blunder against North Dakota State, it’s clear the Hawkeyes aren’t the 12-2 world-beaters that earned Kirk Ferentz an eighty bajillion-year contract. They are, however, experienced. With experience up front and on both sides of the ball, the Hawkeyes wouldn’t allow themselves to falter a second time against a mid-major.

Away @ Nebraska Cornhuskers – L

The way they’re playing at the moment, I’m wary of picking against the Cornhuskers. This hypothetical matchup hinges on a battle within the trenches. Nebraska rushes for 5.1 yards a carry. Western Michigan allows only 3.4 a carry. Nebraska showed enough capability in defending against a spread Oregon attack that I doubt Western Michigan could out-possess or outscore Nebraska.

Home vs. Penn State Nittany Lions – L

I think this is James Franklin’s last season in State College. I’ll give you one good guess as to who I think replaces him. For the purposes of this matchup, I expect Trace McSorley to be a difference maker by the middle of the season. Not like anybody has ever overhyped a Penn State quarterback before…

Away @ Minnesota Golden Gophers – W

I expect P.J. Fleck to revitalize his team after a three-game skid and defeat a ho-hum Minnesota team. Besides that, I’m just going to leave this here:

Home vs. Northwestern Wildcats – W

Western Michigan defeated Northwestern narrowly in Evanston by a 22-21 margin. I’m going to assume a change of scenery to Kalamazoo wouldn’t alter the decision. This is another win for Western Michigan.

Home vs. Wisconsin Badgers – L

This is the only team on this schedule that Western Michigan has no chance of beating. With how swiftly Wisconsin punished Mike D’Antoni Mark Dantonio and Michigan State, even the flashiest of MAC talent simply can’t compete.

Away @ Indiana Hoosiers – W

Indiana just lost to Wake Forest, which is less than ideal. A week before, they only managed a 10-point cushion against Ball State- another MAC member. Once again, it appears all Indiana can do is throw the football. To stop Zach Terrell and Corey Davis, you need to do more than just throw the ball.

Final Record: 9-4 (5-4)

According to my predictions, Western Michigan easily secures a bowl game in the best conference in football. Take that, Purdue.

Am I high on the Broncos? You bet I am. Regardless of my feelings about them, regardless of whether they run the table, regardless of whether they reduce the MAC West to rubble (like Northern Illinois has for years), they’ll never get serious looks as a legitimate contender. That’s a shame for a team as talented as WMU and a coach as talented as Fleck, as well as all other underdogs like them.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, [the Big Ten] is but a dream.

Email Cole Hankins at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Cole_Hankins.

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North Carolina Lost to Georgia and will Unsurprisingly Lose to Illinois

Normally when talking smack, one tends to leave their most compelling argument for near the end, or at least saves it for somewhere in the middle when they might need to sway the argument back into their favor. Not me, though, I’m coming out firing with all guns blazing.

Dude. North Carolina.

You lost to Georgia.

Yes, the Georgia Bulldogs. The biggest perennial underachievers in college football this side of Tennessee. You had a lead and you blew it to Georgia. How do you look at yourselves in the morning?

Their quarterback literally only threw the ball 12 times. You and everyone else in America and any other country that follows college football knew they were just going to hand the ball off to Nick Chubb. Georgia may underachieve a lot but damn are they good at handing the ball off. Chubb carried the ball 32 times. You’d think after the first 15 or so carries you might have figured this one out.

Aren’t you guys supposed to be a defensive team? You know, the two-three zone or whatnot?

Oh right, that’s basketball, the sport you’re actually good at.

Look, there’s no debating the fact that you guys are good at hoops. You might even have the best coach in college basketball so stick with that. Stop trying to pretend that you’re a football school. You’re not. Just stop it. Just be good at basketball and be happy with that.

Look at your stats from the Georgia game for further proof.

You’ve got two backs that combined for 152 yards on 16 carries. No, you didn’t read that wrong and I didn’t write it wrong. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 9.5 yards per carry on average. That’s almost first down distance. Nope, let’s not run the ball.

I get it, you fell behind so you had to throw. You know what? You don’t have to throw every down. That’s what Georgia expected you to do. Why not run the ball every now and then? It’s not rocket science. The last three drives comprised 21 plays and out of those, there were only three running plays. And how’d that work out for you?

Maybe I’m being too hard on North Carolina. I mean they are known for their academics.

Oh, oh wait. That’s the bad kind of academic recognition.

And this isn’t even the first time they’ve been investigated for academic issues. I mean, how dumb do you have to be? You got caught cheating once so you do it again? Are the coaches North Carolina graduates too? That might explain some of the play-calling. Maybe instead of pushing athletes to take easier classes, North Carolina should’ve worked to hire some better coaches. Perhaps some that could build a program up a program without the whole fraud thing, perhaps?

Your coach is named after a cool hat. Larry Fedora’s last name is all you’ve got going for you.

The Illinois head coach doesn’t know a lot about cheating, unfortunately. He does know about this little thing called coaching in the Super Bowl. I’m just saying.

Let’s also take a moment to appreciate that Lovie Smith got a Chicago Bears team to the Super Bowl when his quarterback was Rex Grossman. His quarterback this year is Wes Lunt who wasn’t half bad in previous years and has a name like he should be part of the Hunger Games. They also have Cal’s leading tackler from last year as a transfer with Hardy Nickerson who has to moonlight as a professional wrestler with that name.

So come on North Carolina. You lost to Georgia. You can’t read. You’re facing a guy named Hardy Nickerson. Just quit while you’re… well, just quit.

E-mail Tim at [email protected].

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