CFT predicts: the Big Ten

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It’s an unsettling time for a conference steeped in tradition. It’s difficult if not downright impossible not to mention the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State — an institution regarded for so long as the epitome of excellence with integrity. Both the Nittany Lions and the Ohio State Buckeyes will be absent from this year’s postseason — and are ineligible for the conference title — because of NCAA sanctions. That’s not something anyone should be used to typing.

Who sits atop the league has shifted as well. Michigan State and Wisconsin are both coming off terrific seasons and should be ready to compete for another conference championship. Joining the favorites is Michigan after a brief trough during the Rich Rodriguez years.

Looking ahead to the 2012 season, here’s how the Big Ten should shake out:

(Let it be known that I reserve the right to change my mind at any time without notice.)

Leaders Division

1. Wisconsin (last season: 11-3; lost Rose Bowl) 
The Badgers had this division locked up before Ohio State and Penn State received postseason bans, so the Badgers are a big favorite to make a second straight Big Ten championship game appearance. Think about it: three programs, including the aforementioned two, are breaking in new coaches (Illinois is the other). Kevin Wilson is only entering his second year with Indiana and Danny Hope hasn’t done anything threatening at Purdue.

Heisman Trophy candidate Montee Ball — excuse me, Mon-tay Ball — is back and once again Bret Bielema went the free agent route at quarterback with Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien. When a program has a solid identity like Wisconsin, it’s more likely success isn’t a flash in the pan.

2. Ohio State (last season: 6-7; lost Gator Bowl) 
This will be Urban Meyer‘s inaugural season with the Buckeyes, but there’s no shortage of talent in Columbus. Part of the reason I have Ohio State at No. 2 is because the Leaders Division is a jumbled mess, but I actually like Meyer to win a big game or two this year — perhaps against Nebraska — and the Michigan game can almost always go either way. Meyer’s offense caters toward Braxton Miller‘s athletic ability and the defense still has Luke Fickell as defensive coordinator along with former interim UNC coach Everett Withers. Also, interesting scheduling note: the Buckeyes will play two other teams with postseason bans: Penn State, obviously, and Central Florida.

3. Illinois (last season: 6-6; won Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl) 
The Illini are also breaking in a new coach in Tim Beckman, who currently may or may not be in and around State College recruiting Penn State, but definitely not on campus. Anyway, Illinois does return some key guys on offense and a couple All-Big Ten defensive players from a year ago. But y’all know Illinois’ standard operating procedure by now: they’ll beat some heavily favored team by an obscure score, like 15-9, before turning around and losing to Purdue.

4. Penn State (last season: 9-4; lost TicketCity Bowl) 
The players deciding to stay at Penn State this season deserve a lot of credit; those who stick it out past the 2012 season should and will get more kudos, as there will be another round of departures next offseason. The immediate loss of running back Silas Redd hurts the Nittany Lions, though. Redd was Penn State’s offense last season. Now, he’s gone to USC, leaving Bill O’Brien with little to work with on that side of the ball. And things don’t start off easy for PSU, either. The non-conference slate is filled with winnable games, but it’s nothing to scoff at, either. Most of the conference games are a coin flip too. The nice part for O’Brien’s team is that it won’t have to face Michigan or Michigan State this year.

5. Purdue (last season: 7-6; won Little Caesers Bowl) 
If Danny Hope can’t improve on last year’s 7-5 regular season record, he’s likely out of West Lafayette. Hope has a sub-.500 record overall since taking over for Joe Tiller in 2009 and Purdue isn’t the quarterback factory it used to be. That said, there are options at QB with Caleb TerBush Robert Marve and Rob Henry. Heading into preseason practices, the depth chart at that position should be as listed, but injuries have shaken up that spot before.

6. Indiana (last season: 1-11)
Things aren’t going to turn around for Indiana any time soon. The Hoosiers didn’t have a single win against an FBS opponent last year and the schedule this season is tough. On top of it all, the wide receiver unit has been hit hard with suspensions and departures. The defense was one of the worst in college football in 2011 too. Overall, just way too much to tackle in one season for IU to even think about bowl eligibility.

Legends Division

1. Michigan (last season: 11-2; won Sugar Bowl) 
It took Brady Hoke one season and one BCS bowl victory to get the Wolverines back to where they’re accustomed to being: at the top of the Big Ten preseason standings (and even a couple preseason Top 25 lists). Denard Robinson will have a chance to finish out his career in style — sweet, ridiculously athletic, arm punting style.

2. Michigan State (last season: 11-3; won Outback Bowl) 
Mark Dantonio has done an outstanding job in East Lansing. If the Spartans didn’t have so much turnover at the quarterback and wide receiver units, I’d say they have just as good a chance of making it to the Big Ten championship game as Michigan. But that defense? It returns a bunch of starters from a group ranked 10th in scoring D last year. The two toughest games for Michigan State will be back-to-back in late October at Michigan and at Wisconsin.

3. Nebraska (last season: 9-4; lost Capital One Bowl) 
Bo Pelini might set the record for consecutive 9-4/10-4 seasons. That’s not a bad thing, but Nebraska also needs to take the next step under Pelini and win a conference championship. The Cornhuskers tried (and tried again), but couldn’t bring home the hardware in the Big 12. The longer Nebraska goes without a conference championship, the more restless the fans in Lincoln will become. I don’t see it happening this year, but keep an eye on running back Rex Burkhead. He’s the ultimate workhorse for Nebraska and embodies everything that program and the Big Ten stand for on the field.

4. Iowa (last season: 7-6; lost Insight Bowl) 
Kirk Ferentz is trending down a bit. The Hawkeyes should have a good defense as usual and James Vandenberg is an underrated, bear-killing quarterback. But I’ll be damned if there isn’t an Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God, and He is unforgiving. Every once in a while, Iowa ends up surpassing expectations. I don’t think it happens this year.

5. Northwestern (last season: 6-7; lost Meineke Car Care Bowl) 
Yes, quarterback Dan Persa is gone, but he was so banged up for his final year that Kain Colter takes over without a problem. The bigger loss for Northwestern’s offense is leading receiver Jeremy Ebert, now with the NFL’s Patriots. The good news for the Wildcats is they don’t have to face Wisconsin or Ohio State, but the final five games could take a toll on this team.

6. Minnesota (last season: 3-9)
Jerry Kill is going to get things turned around at Minnesota eventually and there were signs of improvement last year for the Gophers. Getting Marqueis Gray back is huge as the quarterback accounted for most of the team’s offense last year. The team returns 13 starters. Minnesota should be able to get some early momentum with a soft non-conference schedule, but the Big Ten slate is a different beast.

CFT’s Big Ten champion: Wisconsin

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Interested in our other 10 conference projections along with Division 1-A (FBS) Independents? View ’em all below by clicking the individual links or our projections landing page HERE. And don’t forget to check out CFT’s preseason Top 25.

ACC
Big East
Big 12
Conference USA
MAC
Mountain West
Pac-12
SEC
Sun Belt
WAC
Independents

Colorado AD says Denver won’t be option for future CU-CSU games after 2020

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Colorado and Colorado State are scheduled to wrap up their current scheduling agreement in 2020, and the future of the in-state rivalry remains in question beyond that. Both schools are in talks to continue the series beyond 2020 once scheduling vacancies are available, but there is no target date currently in sight. What is known, however, is any such scheduling arrangement will not include games being played in Denver if Colorado’s athletics director has his say.

We won’t have any future games in Denver with CSU in any kind of new relationship,” Colorado athletic director Rick George said in a story published by The Daily Camera.  George did state he and his counterpart at Colorado State, Joe Parker, share an interest in keeping the series going on in the years beyond the current deal in place.

As it stands right now, Colorado State will host the final game in the current arrangement in 2020. No games will be possible in 2021 and 2022 because Colorado’s non-conference schedule is currently booked. The Buffs will face UMass, Texas A&M, and Minnesota in 2021 and TCU, Air Force, and Minnesota in 2022. Colorado currently has scheduling vacancies in 2023 and beyond, making 2023 the earliest possible year the series could be rekindled. The concern, at least for Colorado, will be overexerting the strength of schedule with games against TCU and Nebraska already lined up in 2023.

“With this College Football Playoff game now, there’s a lot of discussion on strength of schedules,” George said. “We certainly don’t want to over-schedule ourselves, but at the same time, we want to be in a position as we continue to compete on a yearly basis for championships, we want to be in the conversation. We don’t want the schedule to be a deterrent to us longer term.”

Geroge has previously expressed his interest in continuing the series if it could be agreed to play the games on campus sites instead of neutral fields. George has said it is not in Colorado’s best interest to continue the series. His latest statements about the strength of schedule keep in line with that logic. Having a potentially very good Group of Five program on top of previously announced games against power conference opponents in addition to a nine-game Pac-12 schedule becomes quite challenging. Having a less threatening opponent from the FCS provides a better chance to keep making money on a home game and increasing the chances for a win to rely on.

Colorado and Colorado State have faced off 88 times since 1893, with the Buffs holding a 64-22-2 edge in the all-time series. Colorado won last year’s meeting in Denver by a score of 44-7 for its most lopsided victory in the series since a 47-7 victory in Boulder in 1956. Colorado and Colorado State have played annually since 1995.

Mark Richt tweets his best wishes to Georgia

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A new college football season is just about here (there will be actual college football played this week), and Miami head coach Mark Richt has plenty to look forward to with the Hurricanes. A show at coaching Miami to its first appearance in the ACC Championship Game is right in front of him, but Richt spent a quick moment on Twitter to extended his best wishes to his former program; the Georgia Bulldogs.

Richt recruited the majority of the players currently on Georgia’s roster, and by all accounts, Richt had as healthy a relationship with Georgia’s players than any coach could hope to have. With that in mind, there is no shock in seeing a coach of one program offer this kind of warm and fuzzy feeling to his former program. This is also not the first time Richt has wished Georgia well under new head coach Kirby Smart. In May 2016, Richt was praised for his classiness toward Smart and Georgia for the upcoming season just months after being fired.

Georgia parted ways with Richt following the 2015 season despite a long and successful tenure as head coach (although without as many SEC titles as some would have liked, and a lack of national title appearances during a run that saw the SEC dominate the BCS era). Richt was quickly hired by Miami, and this season Richt is expected to help lead the Hurricanes forward another step toward national prominence.

If there is a college football god watching from the skies above, then we will be blessed with a bowl matchup between Miami and Georgia. Richt said in December 2015 that he believes the two programs are on a collision course for a national championship.

There is a solar eclipse tomorrow, but Nick Saban has work to do

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Stores may be sold out of special solar eclipse glasses for what some are dubbing the Great American Eclipse on Monday, but Alabama head coach Nick Saban may be more likely to be found in his office preparing for a mega matchup to open the season next week.

Besides, Saban has seen how an eclipse works already because he is a devoted fan of The Weather Channel.

“I watch the Weather Channel every day,” Saban said Saturday, according to AL.com. “They’re already saying what it’s going to look like in every city in America. So, what’s going to be significant? Watch the Weather Channel and you’ll see what it’s going to be like in Portland, Oregon.”

That Saban sure is a curmudgeon, isn’t he? But that’s part of the legacy of Saban. Unless the eclipse can help Alabama win a game against Florida State in Atlanta next week, Saban has little time to worry about such nonsense. Otherwise, it is business as usual for Saban and Alabama. However, Saban will allow his players to take advantage of what is, for some, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“We’ll set it up so if the players want to go out there and get some sunglasses, I guess they can,” Saban said.

The eclipse is having a slight impact on some football practices around the country, including in the NFL. The Tennessee Titans, for example, have modified their practice schedule for Monday due to the eclipse and will organize a team party around the event.

“I thought what a cool thing to do, but then I thought I’d like them to finish practice and give them time to put the glasses on and really enjoy the experience,” Titans head coach Mike Mularkey said (per ESPN.com). “I wanted to be on the field when it happened, as a team, I thought it’d be a neat memory for these guys.”

Clearly, Mularkey is not watching the Weather Channel on a daily basis.

Kansas surprised four walk-ons with scholarships at Royals-Indians game

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There has been no shortage of videos and stories about walk-ons at various college football programs receiving scholarships by surprise. It is an annual tradition around college football during the offseason, and the fun and pure joy of the moment never gets old.

The Kansas Jayhawks took the game to a whole new level, and a whole new playing field this weekend.

Kansas took its football team out on Friday night to enjoy a Major League Baseball game between the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians. During the course of the game, four walk-on players — defensive end Mazin Aqi, offensive lineman Beau Lawrence, punter Cole Moos, and running back Reese Randall — were shown sitting next to each other on the video screen in Kauffman Stadium. As they were shown on the screen, a message popped up congratulating them on being awarded a scholarship.

Video of the players soaking in the moment and realizing they had just had their lives changed was captured by the Royals.

It sure beats the heck out of a stadium proposal.