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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

Big Ten pulls plug on fall football amid COVID-19 concerns

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The Big Ten won’t play football this fall because of concerns about COVID-19, becoming the first of college sports’ power conferences to yield to the pandemic.

The move announced Tuesday comes six day after the conference that includes historic programs such as Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State had released a revised conference-only schedule that it hoped would help it navigate a fall season with potential COVID-19 disruptions.

But it was not a surprise. Speculation has run rampant for several days that the Big Ten was moving toward this decision. On Monday, coaches throughout the conference tried to push back the tide, publicly pleading for more time and threatening to look elsewhere for games this fall.

“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”

The Big Ten touts itself as the oldest college athletic conference in the country, dating back to 1896 when it was called the Western Conference, and its schools have been playing football ever since. It became the Big Ten in 1918 and grew into a football powerhouse.

The 14 Big Ten schools span from Maryland and Rutgers on the East Coast to Iowa and Nebraska out west. Not only has it been one of the most successful conferences on the field but off the field it has become one of the wealthiest.

The Big Ten, with its lucrative television network, distributes about $50 million per year to its members.

Trump, coaches push for college football as cracks emerge

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President Donald Trump joined a U.S. senator and a number of coaches Monday in the push to save the college football season from a pandemic-forced shutdown.

There was speculation that two of the five most powerful conferences — the Big Ten and the Pac-12 — might call off their seasons. Farther east, Old Dominion canceled fall sports and became the first school in the Bowl Subdivison to break from its league in doing so; the rest of Conference USA was going forward with plans to play.

A Big Ten spokesman said no votes had been taken by its presidents and chancellors on fall sports as of Monday afternoon and the powerful Southeastern Conference made clear it was not yet ready to shutter its fall season.

“Best advice I’ve received since COVID-19: ‘Be patient. Take time when making decisions. This is all new & you’ll gain better information each day,’” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey posted on Twitter. ”Can we play? I don’t know. We haven’t stopped trying.”

A growing number of athletes have spoken out about saving the season with Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence among the group posting their thoughts on Twitter with the hashtag #WeWantToPla. Trump threw his support behind them Monday.

“The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled,” he tweeted.

Old Dominion has stopped trying. The Virginia school canceled football and other fall sports less than a week after Conference USA set out a plan to play a football season.

“We concluded that the season – including travel and competition – posed too great a risk for our student-athletes,” ODU President Broderick said.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh took a different stand, saying the Wolverines have shown players can be safe after they return to school.

“I’m not advocating for football this fall because of my passion or our players desire to play but because of the facts accumulated over the last eight weeks since our players returned to campus on June 13,” he wrote. “I am advocating on August 10 that this virus can be controlled and handled because of these facts.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, picked up on the safer-with-football theme in a letter to the presidents and chancellors of the Big Ten.

“Life is about tradeoffs. There are no guarantees that college football will be completely safe — that’s absolutely true; it’s always true,” he wrote. “But the structure and discipline of football programs is very likely safer than what the lived experience of 18- to 22-year-olds will be if there isn’t a season.”

“Here’s the reality: Many of you think that football is safer than no football, but you also know that you will be blamed if there is football, whereas you can duck any blame if you cancel football,” added Sasse, a former college president. “This is a moment for leadership. These young men need a season. Please don’t cancel college football.”

Players unite in push to save college season, create union

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Michigan defensive back Hunter Reynolds saw the tweets from Trevor Lawrence and other college football players pushing for the opportunity to play this season despite the pandemic.

Reynolds, one of the organizers behind a players’ rights movement in the Big Ten, didn’t like the way some on social media seemed to be pitting Lawrence’s message against the efforts of #BigTenUnited and #WeAreUnited.

“There was a lot of division,” Reynolds told AP early Monday morning.

Reynolds got on a call with Lawrence and the star quarterback’s Clemson teammate, Darien Rencher, and within a matter of hours the summer of athlete empowerment found another gear.

College football players from across the country united Sunday in an attempt to save their season and ensure they will no longer be left out of the sport’s biggest decisions.

Lawrence, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, Oklahoma State All-America running back Chuba Hubbard, Alabama running back Najee Harris and numerous other players from Florida State to Oregon posted a graphic on social media with #WeWantToPlay and #WeAreUnited.

“We came to the conclusion, We Want to Play, their message might have been conveyed differently but at the end of the day the message wasn’t too far off from what Big Ten United wanted to promote,” Reynolds said. “Which is we all want to play sports this fall. Every athlete, I’m pretty sure, wants to play their sports. They just want to do so safely.”

The #WeAreUnited hashtag was used a week ago by a group of Pac-12 players in announcing a movement they say has the support of hundreds of peers within their conference. They have threatened mass opt-outs by players if concerns about COVID-19 protocols, racial injustice in college sports and economic rights for athletes are not addressed.

#BigTenUnited arrived on the scene a couple days later, a movement that claimed the backing off 1,000 Big Ten football players. Their demands were more targeted, strictly related to health and safety in dealing with COVID-19.

Sunday night, the call with Reynolds, Rencher and Lawrence led to a Zoom meeting — of course — with some of the Pac-12 players involved in “WeAreUnited.”

Washington State defensive lineman Dallas Hobbs got to work on a graphic and now the movement is officially nationwide.

“Just started bouncing ideas off each others’ heads and kind of discussing where we go from here and we ended up coming up with that statement,” said Reynolds, a senior from South Orange, New Jersey.

Under the logos of each Power Five conference — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — the players pronounced their platform:

— We all want to play football this season.

— Establish universal mandated health & safety procedures and protocols to protect college athletes against COVID-19 among all conferences throughout the NCAA.

— Give players the opportunity to opt out and respect their decision.

— Guarantee eligibility whether a player chooses to play the season or not.

— Use our voices to establish open communication and trust between players and officials: Ultimately create a College Football Players Association.

All of this capped a weekend during which the adults who run college sports seemed to be moving toward shutting it all down because of the pandemic.

A day after the Mid-American Conference became the first of the major college football leagues to cancel the fall season, Power Five conference commissioners met Sunday. They discussed mounting concerns about whether a season can be safely conducted with the pandemic still not under control in the United States.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said no decisions on the season have been made, but conceded the outlook has not improved.

“Are we in a better place today than two weeks, ago? No, we’re not,” he said.

Bowlsby cited “growing evidence and the growing pool of data around myocarditis.”

Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart and it has been found in some COVID-19 patients. There is concern it could be a long-term complication of contracting the virus even in young, healthy people, a group that has usually avoided severe cardiovascular symptoms.

Also Sunday night, the Big Ten’s university presidents and chancellors held a previously unscheduled meeting, a person with knowledge of the meeting told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was not announced by the conference.

Another person with direct knowledge of the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no votes were taken or decisions made about the college football season.

The final call on whether major college football will played this season rests in the hands of the university presidents who oversee the largest conferences.

With doom and gloom hanging over college football, Lawrence, who has become the face of the sport in a summer of strife, tried to push back the tide with a series of tweets.

“People are at just as much, if not more risk, if we don’t play,” Lawrence posted. “Players will all be sent home to their own communities where social distancing is highly unlikely and medical care and expenses will be placed on the families if they were to contract covid19.”

Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth had a similar message, and the parents of Ohio State football players weighed in, too.

Reynolds wants athletes to have a say in the meetings that are deciding the fate of their sports — starting now.

”All college athletes through unifying and not being afraid to speak our minds and having social media to kind of mobilize, I think that box on a Zoom call is something that is pretty attainable,” he said. “Especially, in the near future.”

After MAC surrenders to pandemic, will other leagues follow?

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In many ways, the Mid-American Conference has little in common with Power Five leagues that first come to mind when fans think of major college football.

There are no 75,000-seat stadiums in the MAC. Million-dollar per year coaches are rare. In a typical season, NFL scouts might find one or two potential first-round draft picks playing at the 12 MAC schools that dot the Midwest. The MAC’s biggest games — #MACtion, if you will — are often played on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Its television deal with ESPN pays per year only a few million more than the $9 million Clemson pays coach Dabo Swinney.

Still, the MAC is one of 10 conferences that competes in the NCAA’s highest level of football, and Saturday it became the first of those to surrender to the coronavirus pandemic and cancel the fall sports season.

So is the MAC an anomaly, done in by its small budgets or is this a dire sign of things to come in college football?

“I won’t try to judge what other folks are doing,” MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “I know we’re all in the same place. They all have their advisers. They’re going to make judgments based on the information they are receiving.”

Not long after the MAC announced it would explore second-semester seasons for all fall sports, including soccer and volleyball, the Big Ten made its own announcement that seemed ominous given the timing.

Tapping the brakes on football’s preseason, the Big Ten told its schools that until further notice full contact practices cannot begin. All teams will remain in the first two days of what is known as the “acclimatization period,” working out in just helmets. The first Big Ten games of the season are scheduled for Sept. 5.

“As we have consistently stated, we will continue to evaluate daily, while relying on our medical experts, to make the best decisions possible for the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes,” the Big Ten said in a statement.

The MAC’s schools were facing a significant financial burden by trying to maintain costly COVID-19 protocols, while also dealing with the uncertainty that campuses can be opened safely.

A move to the spring, however, could also be budget-buster if it means less revenue from the ESPN deal, which pays each school about $1 million per year, and football ticket sales. The MAC also shares about $90 million per year in College Football Playoff money with four other conferences.

“It would be naive to say that you don’t give thought and consideration to what the financial ramifications of any decision are, but this was a health and well-being decision first and foremost,” Steinbrecher said. “As we sit here today we don’t know what this will mean financially and how the rest of the fall plays out.”

Steinbrecher said the decision effects only fall sports, not basketball or others that begin in the second semester such as baseball, softball and lacrosse.

He added the decision was unanimous among the membership. Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier, supported by NIU President Lisa Freeman, has been a vocal advocate of delaying the season.

“No one wants to have football or sports more than me,” said Frazier, who played football at Alabama in the late 1980s. “Football gave me all the opportunities I have today, but I can’t do it at the expense of people’s lives.”

Eastern Michigan athletic director Scott Wetherbee said he has been feeling a sense of inevitability for two weeks about the MAC canceling fall football, but can’t predict whether this decision trickles up to other conferences.

“Could it? Certainly. There’s certainly a narrative out there that could happen,” Wetherbee said. “No, it wouldn’t shock me if some followed suit. In fact, it would shock me if some didn’t.”

NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline made clear that even though plans for the football season have been adjusted to accommodate potential COVID-19 disruptions like the ones Major League Baseball has had, they are all still aspirational.

“Almost everything would have to be perfectly aligned to continue moving forward,” Hainline said Friday during the NCAA’s weekly video chat on social media.

As the Power Five conferences re-worked their schedules to play exclusively or mostly within their conferences, another of the MAC’s revenue streams dried up.

MAC schools, with athletic budgets in the $30 million range, rely heavily on payouts from road games against power conference teams. Kent State alone had more than $5 million in so-called guarantee games canceled. Whether they can be recouped and when is still to be determined. Without that revenue, the strain became too great of trying to keep players and staff safe during a pandemic.

“Certainly there was a cost attached to it,” Wetherbee said. “But as a league we were prepared to do it.”

The move to try spring football has already been going on in the second tier of Division I.

Nine of 13 conferences that play in the Championship Subdivision, have postponed fall football seasons. The first was the Ivy League in early July.

Now it’s the MAC, which was among the first conferences to limit fan access to its basketball tournament in March as concerns for the virus began to soar across the country. On March 12, the MAC was among many conferences to call off their tournaments hours before the NCAA canceled all of March Madness.

“If you told me in March we’d be here today,” Steinbrecher said, “I’d never have believed it”