CFT 2015 Preseason Preview: Big Ten Predictions

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As the 2015 season draws near, we peek into our crystal ball and guess project how each of the five major conferences will play out. Today, we will be examining the home of the defending national champion, the Big Ten. 

And while we’re at it, check out some of our other Power Five conference predictions HERE (ACC) and HERE (Big 12) as the CFT team continues to take its month-long glimpse of the upcoming season.

BIG TEN EAST

1. Ohio State (14-1 in 2014; beat Oregon in College Football Playoff title game)
For the forseeable future, you can pencil in Urban Meyer‘s Buckeyes as the class of the both the division and conference, as well as an annual contender for a playoff spot thanks to the one-two combination of the coaching staff and its recruiting prowess.  Last year, Meyer thought his Buckeyes were a year away from contention… and all they did was run through Wisconsin, No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Oregon in the postseason to claim the inaugural CFP championship.  What can OSU do for an encore?  Given the returning talent, they could very well be the eighth team since the Poll Era began (1936) to go back-to-back — provided they can get past, among others, the very stout, tremendously talented and extremely motivated team directly below this blurb.

2. Michigan State (11-2; beat Baylor in Cotton Bowl)
The Spartans have several positives going for them entering the 2015 season, from one of the best offensive and defensive lines in the conference to one of the best quarterbacks in the entire country in senior Connor Cook to one of the most underrated head coaches in Mark Dantonio.  There’s every reason to think that the Spartans, ranked fifth in the preseason, will remain in that neighborhood for a sizable chunk of the season.  Losing defensive mastermind Pat Narduzzi, now the head coach at Pittsburgh, could negatively impact the season, as could the schedule: three of MSU’s toughest games are on the road (Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan) while they also play host to a Top Ten in Week 2 in Oregon.

3. Michigan (5-7)
Yes, I’m drinking the Jim Harbaugh-flavored Kool-Aid already, and there are two good reasons as to why.  One, and look no further than what he did at Stanford, he is one of the best coaches at any level of football.  In the five years prior to his arrival on The Farm, the Cardinal won just 16 games; in Harbaugh’s four years heading the program, and taking over a one-win squad, the win total jumped to 29.  Secondly, he and his staff aren’t exactly coming into the kitchen with a bare cupboard.  In 2013 and 2012, UM’s recruiting classes were ranked fifth and seventh nationally and second in the Big Ten, respectively, according to Rivals.com. Even in 2014, amidst much speculation that Brady Hoke was as good as done, he still pulled in a class that ranked 31st in the country and fourth in the conference.  The talent is there, the coaching there, so there’s no reason to think that an immediate improvement won’t be there as well.

4. Penn State (7-6; beat Boston College in Pinstripe Bowl)
The biggest thing the Nittany Lions have going for them this season, the thing that could have them too low in this East prediction?  Their schedule.  They will be heavily favored in all six games — three conference, three non-conference — before traveling to Ohio State in mid-October, plus the scheduling gods gave them Illinois and Northwestern as their cross-divisional games this season.  Should the defense, as expected, remain one of the best in the conference, and Christian Hackenberg can overcome any crisis of confidence caused by a subpar offensive line — he was sacked 44 times in 2014, a season in which he tossed more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (12) — the Nittany Lions could very well increase their win total from a year ago.

5. Maryland (7-6; lost to Stanford in Foster Farms Bowl)
Relatively speaking, and compared to much of Randy Edsall‘s first four seasons in College Park, the Terps got off to a rousing start in 2014, winning five of their first seven games.  They then limped home with a 2-4 finish, punctuated by a 24-point loss to Stanford in the Foster Farms Bowl.  Like it or not, The Terps could very well be back in rebuilding mode, what with just 10 returning starters on both sides of the ball and a schedule that includes road trips to West Virginia, Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State as well as a home game against West power Wisconsin.  Given that combination, getting back to a bowl game would serve as a huge plus for Edsall’s program.

6. Indiana (4-8)
It’s very simple for the Hoosiers: either win and make a bowl game, or the program will be looking for a new head coach following the upcoming season.  In four years thus far, the Kevin Wilson experiment has netted just 14 wins, with seven of those coming against Power Five teams and six against conference members.  For IU to get back to a bowl game for the first time since 2007 — and just the second time since 1993 — they’ll need to take advantage of a slate that includes five very winnable games; if they can squeeze out an upset along the way, they could very well go bowling — and save Wilson’s job in the process.

7. Rutgers (8-5; beat North Carolina in Quick Lane Bowl)
If this particular prediction were to ultimately come to fruition, Rutgers would be the next Big Ten school looking for a new head coach.  Normally a coach that went 8-5 in the program’s first season in a Power Five conference wouldn’t even be remotely close to the hot seat, but Kyle Flood‘s recent off-field issue will place even more pressure on the fourth-year coach to win and win bigger than last season’s surprise total.  That, though, could prove to be an impossible row to hoe.  Not only do the Scarlet Knights return just 10 starters, they also lost 28 lettermen with varied amounts of experience and playing time, further exposing a glaring lack of depth compared to just one season ago.  Adding to the potential 2015 angst is that, in addition to the East heavyweights, RU also drew West stalwarts Nebraska and Wisconsin.  In fact, it’s conceivable and not even remotely out of the question that the Scarlet Knights could go winless in conference play.

BIG TEN WEST

1. Nebraska (9-4; lost to USC in Holiday Bowl)
The first season post-Bo Pelini in Lincoln is expected to be a breath of fresh air both on and off the field.  Mike Riley is a big reason for that, although how quickly the Cornhuskers adapt to his style of offense will likely determine whether or not this first-year prediction of success is overly optimistic.  NU was on the cusp of grabbing a divisional talent last season before dropping back-to-back November games against Wisconsin and Minnesota.  This season, the ‘Huskers get the Badgers at home, although they’ll have to make a mid-October trip to the Gophers.  One other question mark?  Replacing a handful of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball.

2. Wisconsin (11-3; beat Auburn in Outback Bowl)
Whether it was Barry Alvarez or Bret Bielema or Gary Andersen, the Badgers merely locked and reloaded at running back, along the offensive line and on defense from year to year to year with great success.  Can they do the same under first-year head coach and former UW offensive coordinator Paul Chryst?  The Badgers should again have one of the best defenses in the conference as well as one of the top running games in college football, although, again, the team will likely struggle to make gains through the air.  If they flip the script on the latter, though, they could be one of the most dangerous teams in the country and very well make it back to yet another conference championship game.  Another plus?  They avoid both Ohio State and Michigan State in the regular season, although they do have to travel to both Lincoln and Minneapolis.

3. Minnesota (8-5; lost to Missouri in Citrus Bowl)
How close were the Gophers to an absolutely epic 2014 season?  They held a four-point third-quarter lead in the regular-season finale against Wisconsin in a game that, with a win, would’ve meant a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship.  They lost that lead, then proceeded to lose both their bowl game (by double digits to Mizzou) and 12 starters, including leading rusher David Cobb, leading receiver Maxx Williams and their two most productive players on the defensive side of the ball.  Perhaps the best news?  They get both Nebraska and Wisconsin at home.

4. Northwestern (5-7)
Call this slotting a hunch.  Or a significant reach.  One of the two.  After going bowling for five straight seasons from 2008-12, the Wildcats have back-to-back postseason-less years from which they’re attempting to bounce back.  Returning 14 starters is a good start to the rebound; the schedule makers didn’t do the Evanston bunch many favors, though, as they’ll tackle Stanford in the opener, Duke and Michigan on the road as well as a home date against Penn State — and that’s in addition to the divisional games against Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.  While it won’t be easy, look for the Wildcats to get back to at least six wins and into a bowl game.

5. Iowa (7-6; lost to Tennessee in Taxslayer Bowl)
From 2002 through 2009, the Hawkeyes averaged nearly nine wins per season; in the five years since, they’ve averaged less than seven, and finished fourth or worse in the Big Ten in four of those seasons.  Last year, they didn’t beat a single FBS program that ended the year with a winning record.  Entering his 17th season at the school, and despite the lack of recent success, Kirk Ferentz has the benefit of a very loyal athletic department — and a hefty buyout that, in essence, handcuffs said department.  The 2015 season should serve up more of the same style of play on the field: running game-centric offense, brutish defense and just hanging around in games long enough and often enough to qualify for another third-tier bowl game.  How long the fair-to-middlin’ results will continue to be acceptable to the Hawkeye faithful — and boosters — remains to be seen.

6. Illinois (6-7; lost to Louisiana Tech in Heart of Dallas Bowl)
A two-game winning streak at the end of last season put the Illini into a bowl game and saved Tim Beckman‘s job; his alleged treatment of players, though, forced the athletic department’s hand and resulted in Beckman being dismissed exactly one week before the season opener.  Enter offensive coordinator Bill Cubit as the interim coach, although, from a projection standpoint, not much should really change. The Illini actually returns 15 starters — that’s in the top third of the Big Ten — including a starting quarterback in Wes Lunt who has the talent to be productive and thrive in this offensive system if he can only stay healthy.  Looking at the schedule, though, four wins seem to be a reasonable projection while five wins appears to be the best to which the Illini can aspire.  Should they get to 6-8 wins?  There may be no need to conduct a coaching search after all.

7. Purdue (3-9)
Let’s just get straight to the point.  Darrell Hazell has won a mere four games in his first two seasons in West Lafayette, including one lone win in Big Ten play.  His non-conference schedule this season includes Virginia Tech and a road trip to defending Conference USA champion Marshall, while there’s a better-than-average chance he will go winless in conference play for the second time in three years.  If the 15 returning starters can improve enough, there’s a chance the Boilermakers could, akin to a fat man shimmying into a pair of skinny jeans, squeeze its way into a postseason bid, which is likely the only way this branch of the Jim Tressel coaching tree gets another season.

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION
Ohio State over Nebraska

Conference USA releases 2018 schedule

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Conference USA released its 2018 schedule on Tuesday, confirming that once again the league will play football this fall.

The league slate kicks off Sept. 8 with FIU’s visit to Old Dominion, while the first game involving a C-USA team is set for Aug. 25, when Rice hosts Prairie View A&M. Conference games are scattered throughout the month of September, with the first full Saturday slate coming on Oct. 6 with Old Dominion at Florida Atlantic, UAB at Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee at Marshall, North Texas at UTEP and UTSA at Rice.

While the MAC has opted for a full embrace of midweek football, Conference USA has gone in the exact opposite direction. Not one C-USA game is scheduled as of today for a weeknight — Thursday or Friday included — and only one game will be played on a day other than Saturday, a Friday, Aug. 31 visit to Wisconsin by Western Kentucky.

The most-anticipated non-conference games involving C-USA teams are Florida Atlantic’s opener at Oklahoma and on Sept. 1 and the Owls’ Sept. 22 visit to reigning American and Peach Bowl champion UCF. North Texas also has two shots to win nationwide respect for the league in its opener against SMU on Sept. 1 in Denton and a Sept. 15 visit to retooling Arkansas.

The highlight of the league schedule comes on Nov. 17 with a rematch of the 2017 title game when Florida Atlantic visits North Texas. The Owls won both meetings last season by a combined score of 110-48.

The 14th C-USA Championship will be held on Dec. 1 at the home of the division winner with the best conference record. FAU will look to become the second straight back-to-back C-USA champion, joining Western Kentucky in 2015-16.

Former LSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada reportedly lands at Maryland

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It’s good to be Matt Canada.

He parachuted into Baton Rouge for a year, got paid a bunch of money, then got paid even more money to leave. And now he’s set to get paid from another school.

According to ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg, Canada is set to join the Maryland staff as offensive coordinator. Rittenberg notes that Canada signed a multi-year agreement with the Terps, though salary terms were not revealed. Walt Bell, who left to become the offensive coordinator at Florida State, made $500,000 in 2017, according to USA Today.

Maryland will be Canada’s seventh school to call plays for in this decade alone. He spent 2010 (and three years before that) at Indiana, then moved to Northern Illinois in 2011. He parlayed that into one season at Wisconsin, three at NC State, and then one season stints at Pittsburgh, LSU and now Maryland.

Report: Oklahoma State signs 27-year-old Australian punter

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Australian punters are the hot new commodity in college football, and word has made it back to the Land Down Under: punt the ball far and high enough and you, too, can receive a full scholarship to an American university.

According to the Latrobe Valley Express — which you now is legit, because its header as of press time already reads Wednesday, January 24 — 27-year-old Australian punter Tom Hutton has signed with Oklahoma State. Hutton hails from Newborough, Australia, about a two hour ride from Melbourne, and in December attended a training session at Prokick Australia.

“I was told about [American football] a few years ago so I thought ‘I’ll probably be too old for it now’, thinking that it was like Aussie Rules and that if you were over 21 then you had no chance,” Hutton told the paper. “But then I saw a few older blokes getting scholarships so I thought I may as well give it a go.”

Prokick Australia claims the last five Ray Guy Award winners as alums, including 2017 victor Michael Dickson of Texas. Oklahoma State saw his ability up close, as Dickson punted 11 times for a 50.9-yard average in October, nearly booting his way to victory in a 13-10 Cowboys overtime victory. “Their punter is — did he win the Ray Guy Award last year?” Mike Gundy said after that game. “He should have won it. He changed the field on us. I don’t know what the yardage is, I just know that every time we go a little bit of field position, he changed the field … he was fantastic for them.”

The story of how Hutton was approved for an Oklahoma State offer doesn’t go into details, but Hutton’s recollection of how Hutton, who works overnights at a paper mill in addition to playing Aussie rules football in the Mid Gippsland Football League, received the offer is perfect.

“I woke up after night shift on two hours sleep and this person said ‘we know where you’re going, you’re going to Oklahoma State and we’ve got the coach on the phone,'” he said. “I thought ‘Jesus Christ, can you give me half an hour? I need to have a shower and actually wake up and make sure this is not a dream.'”

According to the Oklahoma State blog Pistols Firing, Hutton will arrive in Stillwater in July and have four years of eligibility.

Arkansas adds TCU signee who signed with New York Yankees

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Austin Aune‘s circuitous sports journey, one which Chris Weinke and Brandon Weeden would approve, has taken its next stop in Fayetteville.

According to 247Sports.com, Aune has joined the Arkansas football program and is enrolled in classes at the university.  At least initially, the quarterback will be a part of the Razorbacks as a walk-on; it’s expected he’ll take the field with the rest of his new teammates when spring practice kicks off month after next.

According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Aune had also considered TCU and North Texas before the SEC’s mystique proved to be too much.

“The allure of the SEC and the SEC West and Chad [Morris] and Coach [Joe] Craddock, and everybody being on the same page up there as far as the opportunity goes,” the player’s father, Greg Aune, told the Democrat-Gazette. “He likes their system. It’s a fast-paced system, wide-open system. That’s what he played in high school. It’s a pass-oriented offense. He’s a read-run oriented guy, so that’s a lot of what those guys do.”

The fact that Aune considered TCU as a potential landing spot before settling on Morris and UA shouldn’t come as a surprise as he actually signed with the Horned Frogs back in 2012.  However, he was drafted by the New York Yankees that same year and, after signing a contract that included a $1 million signing bonus, embarked on what turned out to be a six-year career in the minor leagues.  Despite that financial commitment, Aune never made it past Single-A ball.