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

Longtime Wake Forest assistant completes Charlotte’s coaching staff

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 12:  Head coach David Bailiff of the Rice Owls and head coach Brad Lambert of the Charlotte 49ers meet to shake hands following Rice's victory over Charlotte at McColl-Richardson Field at Jerry Richardson Stadium on November 12, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)
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Earlier this week, Brad Lambert added a longtime Power Five assistant to his Charlotte coaching staff.  Not long after, he has added another.

The 49ers announced in a release that Keith Henry has been hired by Lambert as his running backs coach.  The 49ers’ coach at that position last season, Damien Gary, will shift to wide receivers.

Henry and Lambert (pictured, left) were on the same staff at Wake Forest, so they have a previous working relationship.

“Keith brings a lot of experience to our program,” said Lambert in a statement. “Having coached on both sides of the ball, he brings an added dimension of a defensive perspective to our offense. We’re really glad he’s coming on board with us. He’s a North Carolina native who’s played in North Carolina and has recruited for many, many years in North and South Carolina. That will be a huge benefit to our program with the relationships he’s built over the years.

“He’s been very successful and been a part of winning football at Ohio, Wake Forest and Catawba.”

Henry spent 11 seasons with the Demon Deacons (2001-11). He coached on the defensive side of the ball for the first 10 years before spending his final season with the ACC school as special teams coordinator.  His last job on the offensive side of the ball came as wide receivers coach at Ohio in 1996.

ECU won’t be hiring ex-Purdue interim HC charged with drunk driving

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Interim coach Gerad Parker of the Purdue Boilermakers looks on against the Wisconsin Badgers in the second quarter of the game at Ross-Ade Stadium on November 19, 2016 in West Lafayette, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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An off-field incident involving alcohol has unofficially cost an assistant coach a job.

It had been reported that Gerad Parker, who served as Purdue’s interim head coach last season, decided to leave his new job at Cincinnati to take another at East Carolina. That reported move was complicated after reports surfaced that, following a going-away party in West Lafayette early Tuesday morning, the coach was pulled over and charged with operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated.

Parker had been expected to take over the wide receivers coach job at ECU; Wednesday, multiple reports indicated that the Pirates are moving on from the coach in light of the recent development.

In a tweet that has since been deleted from his Twitter account, Parker apologized. “I’m sorry to all my friends and family,” the coach wrote. “Thanks to all that have reached out and shown support.”

Parker would’ve replaced Phil McGeoghan, who left ECU in late January for a job with the Buffalo Bills. ECU’s search for a replacement will continue.

Kentucky OC Eddie Gran gets contract extension and raise

LEXINGTON, KY - AUGUST 30:  The Kentucky Wildcats take the field before the game against the Tennessee- Martin Skyhawks at Commonwealth Stadium on August 30, 2014 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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After making some changes to the coaching staff this offseason, Kentucky is locking in offensive coordinator Eddie Gran for the next few seasons. Kentucky has signed Gran to a contract extension good through the 2019 season, according to The Courier-Journal.

According to the reported contract extension, Gran will be paid $825,000 in the 2017 season and will be given a $25,000 raise each of the next two seasons. A buyout cost of $150,000 per years is also added to the contract should he leave for another job during that span. Gran was originally under contract through the 2018 season, so his new deal tacks on an extra year in Lexington. The extended contract also bumps Gran’s pay by $175,000 compared to his previous contract.

Kentucky may have finished the 2017 season ranked 9th in the SEC in total scoring, but the Wildcats bumped up their average points per game by roughly six points in 2016 compared to the 2015 season. Kentucky also had the SEC’s third-most productive rushing attack with an average of 234.15 rushing yards per game and 30 rushing touchdowns. Only Auburn and Alabama had better averages and touchdown totals (and Alabama had two more games to pad the stats).

Kentucky has room to improve in the passing game after finishing the 2016 season ranked 13th in passing offense in the 14-team SEC. Kentucky also had an SEC-high 28 turnovers lost in 2016, with 16 fumbles and 12 interceptions thrown.

Gran joined the Kentucky program last year after a three-year stint at Cincinnati as offensive coordinator. Gran has previously been an assistant at Florida State, Tennessee, Auburn, and Ole Miss as well.

Nebraska WR coach Keith Williams sentenced to 30 days in jail for August DUI

LINCOLN, NE - SEPTEMBER 22: A cheerleader waves a flag after the Nebraska Cornhuskers score against the Idaho State Bengals during their game at Memorial Stadium on September 22, 2012 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nebraska won 73-7. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
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Nebraska wide receivers coach Keith Williams pled no contest to charges from a DUI incident last August. On Wednesday, he received his sentence from a county judge and learned he would be sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years of probation.

According to The Lincoln Journal-Star, Williams was also fined $1,000 for his latest DUI charge. Williams has until March 3 to apply for house arrest, although prosecutors made a push for Williams to serve his time behind bars after not being locked up for two prior DUI charges.

Nebraska opens spring football practices on March 4. If he is ruled eligible for house arrest, that would allow Williams to continue coaching in the spring. Otherwise, he could have to miss at least some of Nebraska’s spring practices depending on when his jail sentence would begin.

Williams was pulled over for driving under the influence last August with a BAC above .15. Further complicating things was the fact Williams also had two previous convictions for DUI. Nebraska head coach Mike Riley suspended Williams without pay through the end of August and was prohibited from coaching in Nebraska’s first four games of the 2016 season.