Bret Bielema

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

TCU’s leading rusher arrested for public intoxication

MEMPHIS, TN - DECEMBER 30: Running back Kyle Hicks #21 of the TCU Horned Frogs looks to maneuver by linebacker Roquan Smith #3 of the Georgia Bulldogs at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on December 30, 2016 in Memphis, Tennessee. The Georgia Bulldogs defeated the TCU Horned Frogs 31-23. (Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images)
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As the 2017 offseason kicks into high gear, so have the annual and ever-present off-field issues.

According to multiple media outlets, TCU running back Kyle Hicks was arrested over the weekend on a misdemeanor charge of public intoxication.  The 22-year-old Hicks and two former Horned Frog football players, Bryson Henderson and George Baltimore, were charged after police responded to reports of a fight at a Whataburger near campus very early Saturday morning.

No further details of what led to the police being called have been released.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram writes that “[t]he TCU athletics department said in a statement Monday night that officials are aware of the incident and looking into it.”

As a junior this past season, Hicks led TCU with 1,042 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns.  He also led the team in receptions with 47, becoming the first Horned Frog player to lead the team in both rushing and receiving since Basil Mitchell in 1996.

Hicks is expected to again be the focal point of TCU’s offense in 2017.

P.J. Fleck officially turns to familiar face to be his Minnesota OC

CAMBRIDGE, MA - OCTOBER 23:  A detail of an oar during Day 2 of The 52nd Head of the Charles Regatta on October 23, 2016 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Not surprisingly, P.J. Fleck will have a familiar offensive face on which to lean as his oars hit the Power Five waters for the first time.

Coming off a couple of weeks worth of reports, Minnesota officially confirmed Monday that Fleck has named Kirk Ciarrocca as his new offensive coordinator.  Ciarrocca had spent the past four seasons in the same position at Western Michigan, coinciding with Fleck’s tenure at the MAC school.

The school’s release stated that Ciarrocca “was instrumental in the development of Super Bowl winning quarterback Joe Flacco during his six seasons (2002-07) at the University of Delaware,” which presumably gave him a front-row seat in the “is he or isn’t he elite” argument.

With Fleck and the Gophers, and like his boss, Ciarrocca will be embarking on his first job with a Power Five program.

A&M transfer WR Frank Iheanacho moves on to FCS level

COLLEGE STATION, TX - SEPTEMBER 13:  Reveille VIII rests on the sidelines as the Texas A&M Aggies play the Rice Owls at Kyle Field on September 13, 2014 in College Station, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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After leaving a Power Five program, Frank Iheanacho has decided that a lower rung on the college football ladder is more his speed at this point in time.

Stephen F. Austin announced Monday that Iheanacho has been added to the football program’s roster and will continue his playing career with the Lumberjacks.  Iheanacho had opted to transfer from Texas A&M shortly after the end of the 2016 season.

As SFA plays at the FCS level, the wide receiver will be eligible to play immediately in 2017.

“We’re excited to be able to add Frank to the Lumberjack family and get him going with our football program,” Lumberjacks head coach Clint Conque said in a statement. “Frank obviously brings some big game experience, playing in an SEC program and competing against some of the nation’s best teams. He brings height and speed and will add some key depth at the wide receiver position.”

Iheanacho was a four-star 2014 signee, rated as the No. 13 receiver in the country and the No. 13 player at any position in the state of Texas. Only four players in the Aggies’ class that year, including potential No. 1 NFL overall draft pick Myles Garrett, Speedy Noil and Kyle Allen, were rated higher than Iheanacho.

In 18 games the past two seasons, Iheanacho caught eight passes for 71 yards.

Wyoming loses assistant to FCS head-coaching job

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 12:  Safety Andrew Wingard #28 of the Wyoming Cowboys tackles quarterback Kurt Palandech #14 of the UNLV Rebels during their game at Sam Boyd Stadium on November 12, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. UNLV won 69-66 in triple overtime.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Craig Bohl has an opening on his Wyoming coaching staff, although the reason for the attrition is certainly understandable.

Monday, Indiana State officially announced that Curt Mallory has been hired as the Sycamores head football coach. As ISU plays at the FCS level, Mallory will be eligible to coach immediately in 2017.

“We want to congratulate Curt and his wife Lori as they open a new chapter in their lives and in Curt’s coaching career as he becomes the head coach at Indiana State,” said the Cowboys head coach in a statement. “Curt’s efforts in his two years at Wyoming were greatly appreciated and had a significant impact on our program as we benefitted both from his coaching and his recruiting abilities.

“Curt is a well-experienced coach, who has a great understanding of players from the Midwest. He’ll be a great fit at Indiana State, and he will make them competitive in the Missouri Valley Conference.”

Mallory, the son of former Indiana head coach Bill Mallory, spent the past two seasons as the Cowboys’ defensive pass-game coordinator and secondary coach. A former Michigan linebacker, Mallory came to Laramie after spending four seasons in Ann Arbor as the Wolverines’ secondary coach.