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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

Baker Mayfield, what derailed Sooners’ 2014 season? ‘I blame Katy Perry’

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Well, that explains it.

Oklahoma began the 2014 season a perfect 4-0 and was ranked fourth in the country before heading into Fort Worth for a showdown with No. 25 TCU. ESPN‘s College GameDay was in Oxford for the huge Alabama-Ole Miss matchup, with Katy Perry serving as that weekend’s epic guest picker.

At one point during the show, the pop singer famously — or infamously if you’re an OU fan — very seductively hit on Trevor Knight, telling the Sooners’ starting quarterback to “call her.”

Knight waited four months before publicly acknowledging the offer. Coincidentally or not, OU, including the 37-33 loss to TCU, went on to finish out the 2014 season on a 4-5 skid, including a 40-6 pasting at the hands of Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Knight missed three of those nine games because of injury, throwing nine interceptions in the six games he did play in after throwing three in his first four pre-Perry flirtation.

Monday, Baker Mayfield, the Sooners’ current starting quarterback who was a transfer from Texas Tech during that 2014 season, was asked what OU’s downfall that year was.

I blame Katy Perry,” the 2017 Heisman front-runner said.

Way to go Katy. Or Trevor, for not immediately following up with a call and triggering the jinx that killed OU’s season.

That said, I’m fairly certain neither the call for action or the inaction to the call for a call had anything to do with the Sooners’ collapse that season.  A defense that gave up more than 30 points in each of the losses, as well as once in one of the wins, though, is certainly a prime and more realistic suspect when it comes to laying blame for the collapse.

One final note: Katy Perry is easily Top 3 when it comes to all-time GameDay guest pickers.  And that’s not up for debate.

Nation’s No. 1 recruit in 2015 granted release from Auburn

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One of the top players in the Class of 2015 will reportedly ply his football wares elsewhere.

As reported by 247Sports.com‘s Brandon Marcello and subsequently confirmed by al.com, Byron Cowart requested a release from his Auburn scholarship at some point Monday.  Tuesday morning, the former reported, that release was granted.

There’s no word yet on what stipulations were attached to the release, or the reasons behind the original request.

Regardless of the why, there’s little doubt the defensive lineman’s on-field play failed to live up to his recruiting pedigree.

A consensus five-star signee, Cowart was rated by Rivals.com as the No. 1 player in the Class of 2014 while 247Sports.com had Florida product as the No. 3 player overall on its composite board.  In 26 career games, Cowart was credited with 15 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss.  He was one of four Tigers arrested for marijuana possession in May of last year.

This past spring, Cowart was moved from end to tackle in an attempt to jumpstart his career.  In three games at his new position this season, he had three tackles and half a tackle for loss in three games.

‘Highly questionable’ Florida CB Duke Dawson plays vs. Kentucky

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Duke Dawson suffered a head injury in Florida’s wild win over Tennessee in Week 3.  On his personal Twitter account, the Gators’ most veteran cornerback indicated that he will play in Week 4 against Kentucky despite the injury.

Dawson’s head coach, though, tapped the brakes on that notion.

Jim McElwain has, at least for now, labeled the fifth-year senior as “highly questionable” for the matchup against the unbeaten Wildcats in Lexington. The door, though, is not completely closed.

We’ll see where that is as we go throughout the week,” the head coach said.

Dawson started seven of the 12 games in which he played last season. He returned an interception for a touchdown in the season-opening loss to Michigan, then had a key interception in the win over rival Florida.

Lamar Jackson leapfrogged by Baker Mayfield as Bovada’s Heisman favorite

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So much for that wagering momentum, I guess.

Entering the 2017 season as not only the reigning winner but also as seemingly an afterthought, a pair of scintillating performances to open the year pushed Lamar Jackson to the head of Bovada.lv‘s Heisman Trophy pack.  Coming off a 26-point Week 3 loss to now-No. 2 Clemson in which he totaled nearly 400 yards of offense and three touchdowns, the Louisville quarterback has seen his odds lengthen a bit from 7/4 a week ago to 11/2 in Bovada‘s latest Heisman release.

Bovada’s new betting front-runner?  Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, who went from 4/1 to 7/4.  Sam Darnold, 6/1, also saw his odds shorten slightly to a Jackson-match 11/2.

Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph, 10/1 in the previous odds release, is now at 9/1, same as the holding-steady-from-a-week-ago Penn State running back Saquon Barkley.

There’s also, interestingly, one true freshman on the board: J.K. Dobbins.  The Ohio State running back went from off the board to 40/1 odds.  His starting quarterback, J.T. Barrett, saw his odds go from 25/1 to 33/1.

Below is the latest set of 2017 Heisman Trophy odds, again courtesy of Bovada.lv.