Predictions 101 — Week 12

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Last week, we went 5-2 straight (you can probably guess what one of the losses was) and 3-2-1 versus “the number.”

This week’s slate is probably the worst we’ve ever examined this close to the end of a season. But what are you going to do? The SEC’s scheduling practices and the Big Ten’s irrelevance are what they are.

Here we go.

TOP 5 GAMES OF THE WEEK (Thurs., Nov. 15, thru Sat., Nov. 17)

1) No. 14 Stanford at No. 1 Oregon
Sat., Nov. 17 — 8 p.m. ET, ABC

We’ve got total respect for what the Cardinal have done, proving that their relevancy wasn’t tied to Andrew Luck. In fact, it wasn’t even tied to Josh Nunes. With redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan looking like he’s the real deal, Stanford will easily continue to be a primetime player in the Pac-12 North.

The only problem with that is the presence of Oregon in the division. The Cardinal are just not geared to deal with the Ducks … as if any team really is.

Since Luck led a 51-42 victory over Oregon in 2009, the Cardinal have lost their last two games to the Ducks by a total of 44 points.

Taking into account the known factors, there isn’t any indication that the results will be different this time. Chip Kelly’s bunch will pull away in the second half to win this showdown for the North title.

Despite holding an advantage over Oregon in several departments, Stanford doesn’t have the ability to adjust on the fly to accentuate its strengths and minimize those of its opponents. That, of course, is the domain of the Ducks and the secret to their success, particularly on offense.

If limited to playing the game within the box and at a normal pace, the Cardinal, who lead the nation in run defense (58.6 yards per game), sacks (4.2) and tackles for loss (9.1), would win. Oregon, however, doesn’t let you breathe and expertly gets the ball out into space where it’s hard to tackle lightning bolts.

Stanford has the ability to control the pace and shorten the game when it has the ball, utilizing sledgehammer running back Stepfan Taylor and the athleticism of Hogan, but getting something out of every drive is a requirement if you’re going to upset the Ducks. We don’t see them putting together a perfect performance at the fortress that is Auzten Stadium.

Opening point spread: Oregon by 24

The pick: Oregon 45-27

2) No. 2 Kansas State at Baylor
Sat., Nov. 17 — 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

No team in the country allows more yards per game than the Bears … 519.8 to be exact. Of course, yards don’t determine who wins. Points do.

Baylor is really generous with those, as well, allowing 39.4 per game. Only five of the 120 FBS teams are worse in that department. Unfortunately for the Bears, they aren’t playing any of those schools.

They’re hosting Kansas State, which leads the Big 12 in scoring defense (17.7) and is in position to play for the BCS title if it can avoid banana peels and/or magazine cover jinxes.

The difference defensively is the key as both teams average more than 42 points per game.

The Bears hung tough on the road last week, dropping a 42-34 decision at Oklahoma. Some of that had to do with winning the takeaway battle, 2-0.

That won’t happen versus the Wildcats, who lead the nation in turnover margin with a sparkling +20.

Opening point spread: Kansas State by 10

The pick: Kansas State 49-31

3) Wake Forest at No. 3 Notre Dame
Sat., Nov. 17 — 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC

The Demon Deacons have the Fighting Irish right where they want them.

Slow down … we aren’t saying Wake Forest is gonna pull the massive upset. But if you are hoping for such a thing, South Bend would be the location for it.

Notre Dame hasn’t been particularly impressive in defending its home field this season. The Irish needed three overtimes to beat Pittsburgh, edged BYU by three points, got the calls to squeak past Stanford in OT, held off Michigan 13-6 and defeated Purdue by three.

This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise though. Notre Dame is attempting to go undefeated at home for the first time in 14 years. Until now, playing in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus wasn’t what it used to be.

But Deacon fans can’t like their chances against an Irish defense that hasn’t allowed an offensive touchdown in five games this season.

In last week’s 37-6 loss at North Carolina State, Wake Forest needed standout wideout Michael Campanaro to THROW a touchdown pass to avoid a shutout.

Brian Kelly will turn up the heat and do his best to build a case for the BCS title game, but there are the usual limitations.

Opening point spread: Notre Dame by 22

The pick: Notre Dame 29-10

4) No. 22 Rutgers at Cincinnati
Sat., Nov. 17 — Noon ET, Big East Network

For whatever it’s worth, this game will go a long way toward determining who wins the Big East and gets to spend New Year’s Day losing to Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Last year, the Scarlet Knights broke a five-game losing streak to the Bearcats. Running back Jawan Jamison rushed for 200 yards and a pair of scores in that 20-3 victory in Piscataway.

Jamison is a bit of a question mark in this one as he was knocked out of last week’s 28-7 win over Army, but did return to the game and finished with 90 rushing yards and threw a halfback pass for a touchdown.

In any case, Rutgers’ advantage in this game is on the defensive side. The Knights are allowing only 13.4 points and 309.4 yards per game.

Bearcat quarterback Brendon Kay, who made his first career start last week at Temple, will have trouble. We smell turnovers.

Opening point spread: Cincinnati by 6 1/2

The pick: Rutgers 24-23

5) Mississippi at No. 8 LSU
Sat., Nov. 17 — 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS

Could we possibly get out of here without an SEC game? Nope. And in terms of which one, we didn’t have much choice.

Even more incredible than seeing Alabama, Georgia, Florida, LSU, Texas A&M and South Carolina all listed in a row from Nos. 4 through 9 in the BCS Standings was the fact that five of their opponents this week are Western Carolina, Georgia Southern, Jacksonville State, Sam Houston State and Wofford. And then you have Mississippi’s trip to LSU, of course.

The Tigers did allow Mississippi State to pass for 304 yards in last Saturday’s 37-17 victory in Baton Rouge. But when the Bulldogs were forced to become one dimensional late in the game, the LSU pass rush was devastating.

Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace can sling the ball around the yard, but we wonder how the Rebels will keep ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo from crashing down on him if they fall behind early.

In a way, Ole Miss is OK with being on the road. In contrast to last year’s 52-3 loss to LSU at home, the Rebels hung tough in Death Valley in 2010 (coming from ahead to lose, 43-36) and won there in 2008 (31-13).

Opening point spread: LSU by 20

The pick: LSU 35-19

UPSET SPECIAL OF THE WEEK

Ohio State at Wisconsin
Sat., Nov. 17 — 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2

Once again, the USOTW prediction comes courtesy of Marc Doche (@MDoche) from the P101 satellite office in Burbank, Calif.

We can add Michigan’s miraculous “Hail Mary” pass, which led to an overtime defeat for last week’s underdog, to the pair of one-point losses suffered earlier in the season thanks to placekicking miscues. That being said, we’ve nabbed some outright victories in between and have been within the “number” in most instances.

There’s not much margin for that to happen this week, as we get a field goal while backing the undefeated Buckeyes in their Big Ten Leaders Division match-up with the Badgers.

This setup is reminiscent of last year’s edition of P101’s current “Rivalry Game of the Week” (see below), when UCLA limped into the Pac-12 title game after getting embarrassed by on-probation USC, 50-0. For Wisconsin, it’s the beneficiary of having already clinched a spot in the Big Ten title game despite two losses, thanks to a pair of teams in the NCAA’s naughty corner.

Urban Meyer deserves loads of praise for what he’s accomplished in Columbus with The Vest’s players and the mess he left behind. The potent backfield combo of quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde have accounted for 41 touchdowns and their playmaking will prove to be the difference against a stout Wisconsin stop unit.

The four Badger wins that have them in line for a Big Ten title three-peat have come against squads that are a combined 5-19 in conference play. With starting quarterback Joel Stave out for the season, Curt Phillips filled in last week going 4-for-7 for 41 yards against Indiana.

Wisconsin was able to light up the Hoosiers for 62 points by rushing 64 times for 564 yards with senior running back Montee Ball finding the end zone three times.

That kind of one-dimensional attack won’t work against a Buckeye defense ranked 16th in the nation, allowing 107.9 yards per game on the ground.

Opening point spread: Wisconsin by 1

The pick: Ohio State 23-13

RIVALRY GAME OF THE WEEK

No. 21 USC at No. 17 UCLA
Sat., Nov. 17 — 3:05 p.m. ET, FOX

The winner of this matchup gets the Victory Bell. Not the bootleg ones that go to the North Carolina-Duke or Miami (Ohio)-Cincinnati winners, we’re talking THE Victory Bell, a 295-pound bell from a Southern Pacific freight locomotive.

A couple years after the bell was given to UCLA by its alumni association in 1939, USC students stole it … and even used the Bruins’ own truck to do it!

The bell was then hidden in various parts of the Southland, spurring a rash of pranks on both sides of town, which caused USC president Dr. Rufus B. von KleinSmid to threaten to cancel the football game between the archrivals.

Following that warning, the student body presidents of both schools met at the “Tommy Trojan” statue and signed an agreement that made the bell a rivalry trophy.

For the first time in a while, more than just the Victory Bell is on the line for both teams. Each has the opportunity to lock up the Pac-12 South with a win. It could be said that each squad is trying to repeat. USC “won” the division on the field last season, but UCLA took the probation-saddled Trojans’ place and embarrassed itself in Eugene at the inaugural Pac-12 title game.

UCLA has enjoyed possession of the Victory Bell for only a single year since 1999. In the last five meetings, all Trojan victories, the Bruins have been eviscerated by an aggregate score of 158-35, including last year’s 50-0 waste of time.

Despite all this, UCLA and its supporters are feeling frisky. But, really, how much has changed?

Ask yourself this question: “Would you be looking at this game differently if UCLA had played Stanford yet or had Oregon on its schedule?”

That’s what we thought.

Opening point spread: USC by 3

The pick: USC 34-27

Details emerge in starting Colorado corner’s second arrest

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Not surprisingly, we now know a little bit more to the rest of what’s yet another not-so-flattering off-field story involving an FBS player.

Over the weekend, Colorado cornerback Anthony Julmisse was arrested on charges of robbery, first-degree criminal trespass of a vehicle, criminal mischief and careless driving. The first two charges listed are felonies.

While no details were available at the time, the Boulder Daily Camera is now reporting that the arrest and charges are related to an incident in which Julmisse, who was driving a friend’s car because the friend was too drunk to drive, rear-ended another vehicle. The driver of the other vehicle, after Julmisse offered him money, took pictures of the damage and then returned to his car. It was at that point it’s alleged that the robbery came into play.

From the Daily Camera:

The driver of the Corolla said Julmisse suddenly reached through the open window of the cars and snatched the phone from him before the SUV drove off. The driver of the Corolla began to follow the SUV and said that Julmisse then threw the phone out of the window a few blocks away, damaging it.

Police interviewed a different witness who also said he saw Julmisse reach into the other car and take something from the driver before leaving the scene.

While the phone was damaged, police were able to pull images off the phone and find the SUV’s owner, who identified Julmisse as the driver.

After initially denying taking the cell phone, Julmisse admitted to police that he took the phone in an attempt to keep his friend out of trouble.

This was Julmisse’s second brush with the law in less than a month.

In late July, Julmisse was arrested on multiple charges related to a domestic incident, including one count each of third-degree assault and domestic violence and two counts of physical harassment. According to an arrest affidavit, it’s alleged that the cornerback dragged a woman down a hallway and attempted to push her down a flight of stairs.

Julmisse was suspended after that initial arrest; he remains that way after the second, although his tenure with the team is certainly tenuous at best.

Last season, Julmisse played in all 14 games. Exiting spring practice, he was one of the Buffaloes’ starters at cornerback.

WATCH: Dan Patrick discusses ESPN decision to take Robert Lee off Virginia game

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Robert E. Lee was a Confederate general whose statue in Charlottesville, and the decision to take it down, served as the flashpoint for violence earlier this month as white supremacists clashed with counter-protesters.

Robert Lee (not pictured) is an up-and-coming ESPN broadcaster who was scheduled to do play-by-play on the William & Mary-Virginia opener a week from Saturday in Charlottesville.  The key word there is “was” as, as first noted by Outkick the Coverage, the network decided to move Lee off that game because of the site of the game and similarities in name to the leader of the Confederate forces 150 years ago.  Specifically, Dan Wolken of USA Today wrote, “ESPN asked Lee if he would be more comfortable calling another game but gave him the option to stay. Lee chose to switch assignments, and ESPN accommodated him.”

Lee, the broadcaster, will now open with the Youngstown-Pittsburgh game.

The outing of the decision by Clay Travis, though, subsequently created a firestorm of criticism that the network never would’ve faced if they had just left Lee on the game, and forced them to issue a statement defending the move.

We collectively made the decision with Robert to switch games as the tragic events in Charlottesville were unfolding, simply because of the coincidence of his name. In that moment it felt right to all parties. It’s a shame that this is even a topic of conversation and we regret that who calls play-by-play for a football game has become an issue.

On his show Wednesday morning, Dan Patrick broached the topic, saying that his former network may have had good intentions in pulling Lee but they didn’t necessarily need to make the change.

CFT 2017 Preseason Previews: The Pac-12

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While the Pac-12 has not gotten over the hump and won a national title in over a decade, last season was in many respects a banner year for the league. Washington went toe-to-toe with Alabama in the College Football Playoff and USC capped off an incredible run to finish in the top three of the final polls. Add in some incredible depth (four teams with double-digit wins) and plenty of national recognition and there was plenty for commissioner Larry Scott to be excited about.

Things will be much the same again in 2017 for the conference. The Huskies and Trojans will start off the year in the top 10 of just about every poll and have their sights on being in the final four at the end of the year. USC signal-caller Sam Darnold is the overwhelming favorite to win the Heisman Trophy and the so-called ‘Conference of Champions’ might have to change its name to ‘Conference of Quarterbacks’ given how many great players there are at the position this year.

How will things shape up out West? Here’s a look at the Pac-12 heading into the 2017 campaign and how things should shake out:

NORTH
1. Washington (12-2 overall, 8-1 in Pac-12 last season)
Everybody kept saying it was only a matter of time before Chris Petersen would turn the Huskies into a monster and that prophecy came true last season. The team returns the bulk of their offensive production from 2016 and are headlined by their terrific backfield of Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin. The defense looses plenty of NFL talent but is still pretty stocked with guys like Vita Vea holding down the fort along the defensive line. Add in a very easy schedule and it’s hard not to see UW coast to the conference title game once again.

2. Stanford (10-3, 6-3 last season)
Head coach David Shaw said last year was a disappointment for the Cardinal despite winning 10 games. That’s a pretty clear sign of how things have changed on the Farm the past few seasons but there’s plenty of optimism at returning to the top of the North division in 2017 with a stout defense and strong offensive line play once again. It will be tough to replace all-everything superstar Christian McCaffrey but Stanford will once again be a tough team to get past on a weekly basis.

3. Washington State (8-5, 7-2 last season)
Don’t discount the Cougars from making a run to win the division. The offense is loaded as you would expect for a Mike Leach coached team and have a star in QB Luke Falk. What is really the difference on the Palouse this time around is a quality defense that will be tough to run on.

4. Oregon (4-8, 2-7 last season)
Just about everything that could go wrong for the Ducks last year, did. Hence a coaching change and the arrival of a new era under Willie Taggart. The defense has nowhere to go but up and the offense has enough pieces to spark a turnaround and sneak into a bowl game when all is said and done.

5. Oregon State (4-8, 3-6 last season)
If you’re looking for a team to emulate Colorado’s turnaround from 2016, look no further than the Beavers after they put together a nice surge down the stretch heading into the offseason. Ryan Nall remains a load to tackle at running back and OSU’s defense has enough experience to help the team get back to .500.

6. California (5-7, 3-6 last season)
It’s going to be a long rebuild in Berkeley for new coach Justin Wilcox. The offense may not be worth tuning in for and the same certainly can be said of the Bears’ lackluster defense.

SOUTH

1. USC (10-3 overall, 7-1 in Pac-12 last season)
Expectations are always high around Troy but things are through the roof in Los Angeles this year. Darnold’s return under center has a lot to do with things but there’s NFL talent across the board in the program and plenty of momentum from last year’s run to the Roses. The South is a mess behind Clay Helton’s squad so go ahead and pencil in the Trojans for a trip to Santa Clara (and possibly beyond).

2. Utah (9-4, 5-4 last season)
Like other teams in the division, there’s a number of question marks about the Utes heading into the year. Despite that, Kyle Whittingham has developed a remarkably consistent program that is a tough out each week in conference play and a new look offense could finally be the answer for a team that will always field a strong defense.
3. UCLA (4-8, 2-7 last season)
Jim Mora enters the year firmly on the hot seat in Los Angeles after a program that was trending downward finally bottomed out with a disastrous 2016 campaign. A healthy Josh Rosen returning to action is worth several wins alone but we’ll have to see just how well the Bruins will come together in order to turn things around at the Rose Bowl.

4. Colorado (10-4, 8-1 last season)
The Buffs wild run to the conference title game was the talk of college football in November and December. Now comes the hard part in following up that success with a ton of seniors no longer in Boulder. QB Steven Montez showed enough potential as a freshman to indicate that life will be okay for CU but a slight step back is expected in 2017.

5. Arizona State (5-7, 2-7 last season)
There’s enough talent returning in Tempe that this could be the surprise team in the South that could make things a little interesting when the end of the year rolls around. Either way, the pressure is on Todd Graham, who is undoubtedly coaching for his job this season.

6. Arizona (3-9, 1-8 last season)
Few teams had worse injury luck than the Wildcats have had the past few years. The offense should be a lot more fun to watch if tailback J.J. Taylor remains healthy but the defense has miles to go before it’s helping the team move up in the standings.

CFT 2017 Preseason Previews: The Big Ten

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After hearing calls about how great the Big Ten was becoming, the conference fell flat on its face during the postseason. Ohio State was blanked in the College Football Playoff by eventual national champion Clemson. Michigan couldn’t hold on to beat Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Penn State blew a double-digit fourth-quarter lead in the Rose Bowl against USC. The rest of the conference went 3-4.

Now, entering the 2017 season, the Big Ten is once again looking to prove itself among its power conference peers, and it just may have some teams able to help wave the Big Ten banner. The Big Ten may even have a chance to place not one, but two teams in the College Football Playoff if things go down in their favor in the Pac-12 and Big 12 (or, of course, in the ACC and SEC).

BIG TEN EAST

1. Ohio State (11-2 in 2016, lost Fiesta Bowl vs. Clemson in College Football Playoff semifinal)
What is not to like about the Buckeyes this season? The Big Ten’s deepest team across the board thanks to multiple years of bringing in the top recruiting classes in the Big Ten seems to only be getting stronger. In 2017, the Buckeyes will have a tremendous defensive front led by Sam Hubbard and a strong linebacking unit with Chris Worley. If there is one concern, it might be in the secondary. On offense, J.T. Barrett is back once again and has the luxury of handing off to sophomore running back Mike Weber. The expectations are high for the Ohio State offense with new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson but we’ll see how quickly that offense gels. The Bucks also get some of the toughest games at home — Oklahoma and Penn State — although road trips to Nebraska, Iowa, and Michigan are not to be taken lightly. Not only is Ohio State a favorite in the Big Ten, but they might prove to be a favorite to win the national championship for the second time in the College Football Playoff era.

2. Penn State (11-3, Big Ten champion, lost Rose Bowl vs. USC)
The Nittany Lions surged last year and will be out to prove the 2016 season’s Big Ten championship was not a fluke. The Big Ten’s best offense will shine in Happy Valley with RB Saquon Barkley, QB Trace McSorley, TE Mike Gesicki and more led by offensive coordinator Joe Moorehead, but the defense will have to show a little more development and improvement this season to avoid some slips along the way. If Penn State wins every game they are favored in, they could be making a legitimate playoff case at 11-1 without a Big Ten conference or division championship. Road games at Iowa, Northwestern, and Michigan State will be dangerous.

3. Michigan (10-3, lost Orange Bowl vs. Florida State)
Jim Harbaugh will have the Wolverines looking pretty good once again this season even after replacing a good number of starters from last season. Michigan has started to catch up on the recruiting trail and Harbaugh has proven more than capable of developing the players to reach their full potential. And after slumping to the finish line last season, the motivation will be to finish what was started a season ago. The Wolverines return just one starter on defense (but they do have Rashan Gary) but have a good chance to get past that initial hurdle while everyone finds a role. The offense must figure out its quarterback situation, but can rely on running back Chris Evans to have a breakout season. Michigan will be a slight work in progress this season, but could still potentially be undefeated when they make the trip to Penn State in mid-October. Tread carefully with Michigan in 2017.

4. Michigan State (3-9)
This season could not possibly go worse for Mark Dantonio and the Spartans, could it? Of course it could, with just a small handful of returning starter from a woeful 2016 season. Despite all of the trends seemingly going against the Spartans, Dantonio should not be counted out just yet. A new season will offer Michigan State a chance to start from scratch without the preseason expectations of competing for a Big Ten title weighing on their shoulders. LJ Scott is still there to run the ball and he will have to be the main guy until the rest of the offense figures things out, including at quarterback. The Spartans defense has traditionally been the strong suit, but they will also have to forget about what happened last year and get back to fundamentals. The Spartans can still be tough, but they may lack enough playmakers to do any serious damage in the division. A return to the bowl season, however, is not that far out of reach.

5. Maryland (6-7, lost Quick Lane Bowl vs. Boston College)
Maryland is a program that should be watched closely because head coach DJ Durkin is starting to get the blueprint off the ground in College Park. For 2017, the season will be more about continued growth within the program and develop a young roster to be able to physically go toe-to-toe with their division rivals. Maryland may be capable of scoring an upset (Nov. 11 vs. Michigan, Nov. 25 vs. Penn State?), but they are still at least a minimum of a couple of more years away from having the kind of size, durability, and depth needed to make a run at the division crown. Instead, the goal of getting to and winning a bowl game will be seen as a step in the right direction, and that is well within reason.

6. Indiana
Tom Allen takes over as the head coach of the Hoosiers on a full-time basis, and he has a good amount of work to do. For starters, Indiana has to reshape its offensive approach, and it is expected the offense will downshift gears in the post-Kevin Wilson era.The Hoosiers also have big shoes to fill on offense. Richard Lagow will provide some stability as the starting quarterback but he must cut down on mistakes. Nick Westbrook will remain the top target after 995 receiving yards and six touchdowns a season ago. Indiana is not typically known for its defense, but Allen’s squad returns almost an entire defense with starting experience, and that defense can do enough to keep some games within reach if the offense gets on track.

7. Rutgers (2-10)
Year one under head coach Chris Ash revealed that the Rutgers rebuild is going to take some time and patience. Fortunately for Rutgers, Ash appears to have the right mindset for the challenges that lay ahead. Rather than immediately set the bar as high as winning the Big Ten, Rutgers simply needs to focus on the little things that build a program. As bad as things were for Rutgers a year ago, there are some reasons to be at least a bit more optimistic this season. Having a healthy Janarion Grant is among them. Grant is arguably the most electric player in the Big Ten and he looks to come back for a strong season in the offense and special teams after having his 2016 season cut short due to injury. The defense also returns a good amount of starting experience, which could potentially pay off in the growing and maturing process with the program. reaching a bowl game will be a reach for Rutgers, but improving on last year’s win total should absolutely be expected.

BIG TEN WEST

1. Wisconsin (11-3, Big Ten West champion, won Cotton Bowl vs. Western Michigan)
The Badgers took an unfortunate blow this summer with the loss of linebacker Jack Cichy, but the Badgers have plenty of returning talent on offense and defense to keep things running smoothly in Madison. The Badgers running game will always be in good form behind an offensive line returning just about everybody, and tight end Troy Fumagalli will be a big target to trust. Plus, the schedule is as favorable as possible with no Ohio State or Penn State, but a home game against Michigan late in the season. The Badgers also get Northwestern and Iowa at home, but must go to Nebraska. The Badgers appear to be in a great spot to get back to Indy.

2. Nebraska (9-4, lost Music City Bowl vs. Tennessee)
The Cornhuskers stumbled their way to the finish last season. After starting the season 7-0, Nebraska’s season went off the rails with an overtime loss at Wisconsin and a 59-point beating at Ohio State as Nebraska dropped four of the final six games, including the bowl game. If Nebraska is going to improve their chances of competing for the Big Ten West, getting stronger up front will be the key. If the offensive line doesn’t improve, the signature running game will not be a factor, and the passing game will not be a consistent threat despite a pair of talented receivers like De’Mornay Pierson-El and Stanley Morgan.

3. Northwestern (7-6, won Pinstripe Bowl vs. Pittsburgh)
Those pesky Wildcats will again be a thorn in the sides for a handful of teams this season. Pat Fitzgerald continues to keep the Wildcats playing well and that should continue in 2017 with one of the top[ running backs in the Big Ten; Justin Jackson. Jackson will rack up big rushing numbers once again this season, but there may not be a tremendous amount of support from the rest of the offense, and that could ultimately keep Northwestern from making a serious push for the division. But Northwestern is going to score an upset somewhere this season, and a home game against Penn State (a week after facing Wisconsin) should not be overlooked.

4. Iowa (8-5, lost Outback Bowl vs. Florida)
There are two strengths for Iowa this season, and neither one of them will help make the Hawkeyes a legitimate Big Ten title contender. The offensive line should be dominant enough to give Akrum Wadley plenty of opportunities to grind out yardage. The linebackers should be steady enough to hold down the fort in the middle of the field as well. Other than that, there are some questions about Iowa this season. One drastic change could come on the offense, where offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz is expected to open things up with the offense. We’ll see how quickly that changes Iowa’s outlook. Until then, Iowa will be a stingy team (just ask Michigan) lacking much firepower.

5. Minnesota (9-4, won Holiday Bowl vs. Washington State)
Expect good things to come at Minnesota, where P.J. Fleck is already kicking up dust and getting the engines going on the recruiting trail. Fleck is going to provide a spark with the Gophers, but it may be another year or so before things really get going in the Big Ten West. The schedule is more difficult than it was a season ago with a pretty brutal November slate. The Gophers do have Rodney Smith to run the ball, and he can do damage catching the ball as well. A lack of depth will be addressed over time, but for now, it remains a serious concern for Fleck and his staff.

6. Purdue (3-9)
Fleck stole the show when it came to new coaching hires, but Purdue came away with a solid hire that should start paying off rather quickly. Jeff Brohm may have a complete rebuild on his hands in front of a challenging schedule, one should expect Purdue’s offense to start improving immediately. Success in 2017 should not be judged by the win total, because Purdue simply does not have the talent to win much more than they did last year, but having David Blough back to lead an offense in transition will be a benefit while receivers find themselves and the offense continues to build using a new offensive philosophy. Better days are coming, but they will be few and far between in 2017.

7. Illinois (3-9)
Hiring Lovie Smith was supposed to have a positive impact on the Illini. Instead, the program took steps backward and now Illinois is in serious danger of falling to the bottom of the conference while others improve. Recruiting has not gone well with Smith as the head coach, and this year’s team has few options to replace whatever key players are moving on. This is a young team that will need time to grow and develop, but any serious signs of progress will be more likely to show up in 2018 if you are being optimistic.

BIG TEN CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION

Ohio State over Wisconsin