Last week we took a look at the East division, now it is time to go West my friends. While a lot of the questions out East revolve around offense, will the same hold true in the West division?
With a new head coach in at Nebraska, new coordinators in other places and plenty of high-level recruiting happening, there is no shortage of intrigue in the
Let’s take a look at the 5 biggest storylines we’ll watch this spring in the Big Ten West division.
Frost’s First Spring
As if there is any storyline bigger in the West division than prodigal son returning to bring the
Let’s just consider it the West division’s version of Jim Harbaugh, shall we.
Nebraska fans are hoping that the results are at least as good if not better than what Harbaugh has brought to Michigan to date, and sadly getting to the 10-win mark would be a huge win for the Huskers of today.
Frost will have a big challenge on his hand, needing to rebuild the run game, strengthen a porous defense and bring the pride back to the Huskers program.
Oh, and he’ll have to break in a new quarterback to go with all of the rest of the tweaks needed in the program. 4-star dual threat quarterback Adrian Martinez singed early and is on campus already, and there will be competition with much-touted sophomore Patrick O’Brien in the mix as well as redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and sophomore Andrew Bunch.
O’Brien, Gebbia and Bunch are more the classic West Coast style of QB, and that may make Frost’s first season an interesting one in Lincoln.
Northwestern’s Life Without Thorson and Jackson
Northwestern knew that 2018 would be a challenge, especially with the graduation of easily the greatest running back in school history. With Justin Jackson graduated, where would the Wildcats turn to get the production needed.
Then the 2018 season was dealt a brutal blow as quarterback Clayton Thorson tore up his knee on a trick play in the Music City Bowl. He’ll likely be back for fall camp, but in what shape and condition will that be? A torn ACL for a mobile quarterback can be a game changer and in any case this upcoming season is going to be his last in a Wildcats uniform.
So, as Northwestern heads in to spring practice, it will get a big glimpse of its future life without its two biggest names. We’ll see plenty of reps for junior T.J. Green, redshirt freshman Andrew Marty, and sophomore Aidan Smith this spring. Northwestern opens with Purdue on Aug. 30 and should Thorson not be ready to go, spring could go a long way to deciding who gets the nod.
Leonhard’s Big Test at Wisconsin
Rumors circulated throughout much of December and in to January that Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was a candidate for the Florida State defensive coordinator position. That’s what happens when year one of you as UW’s DC ends with the Badgers having one of the best defenses in the country.
Year two will be a different story though, as Leonhard faces a secondary that loses 3 starters, a defensive line that loses both starting ends and both starting outside linebackers. Wisconsin has proven to be a plug-and-play program at outside linebacker and that shouldn’t be an issue with the likes of Andrew Van Ginkle and Tyler Johnson having gained plenty of experience last season. There’s also intrigue in names like Christian Bell and redshirt freshman Noah Burks.
However, things are dicey in the secondary as only one player with any real game experience is back at cornerback and that is Donyte Carrier-Williams. So, this is where Leonhard would be earning a salary increase this spring. He’ll have to mold a really young group of cornerbacks in to a quality group of players given all the spread offenses that will be in place across the West division — with all but Iowa running some version of the spread attack.
Can names like Madison Cone, Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks show enough for the coaching staff to be confident in them going in to the season or will their need to be a lean on the newcomers in the fall? There certainly won’t be a shortage of reps and opportunity for playing time in this spring.
Lovie’s Last-Ditch Offensive Overhaul
There isn’t a bigger trainwreck in the Big Ten than Illinois Fighting Illini athletics (not just football) at the moment. So, this spring is all about finding some hope for the football program. To that end, head coach Lovie Smith enters his second full offseason in a position to overhaul his offense.
It started as quarterbacks Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. decided to leave the program and continued with the hire of Arizona offensive coordinator Rod Smith. The Wildcats offense has been amongst the most prolific and high-scoring in the country, but this is Big Ten land where defense reigns supreme. Can Smith translate his Wildcats offense to something that works in Champaign?
Cam Thomas is the lone scholarship quarterback and proved a much better rushing threat than anything in the pass game last season. So, Smith’s first task is to see if Thomas has what it takes to really lead a spread offense like his. If not, this could be a long spring spent trying to find answers to a whole lot of questions.
I love getting Smith away from Arizona, it was a master stroke by Smith, but will it be enough, soon enough to keep his job? Athletic director Mike Thomas seems to have a long-term plan in place and the patience to see it out with Smith, but real progress needs to shown this spring and in the fall for that patience to be warranted.
Let’s see if this last-ditch effort pays off.
Brohm’s Encore Performance
What Jeff Brohm did in one season at the helm of the Purdue Boilermakers football program was nothing short of remarkable. He took a program left for dead and not only gave it life, but a bowl game appearance in his first season. It’s no wonder his name came up for the Tennessee job this offseason.
But, this season there are actual expectations following that 7-6 finish last season and this spring will see some big changes to the program. That’s not a bad thing, because Purdue got to a bowl game with a lot of smoke and mirrors while it awaited more talent to come aboard in West Lafayette, Ind.
There was also a reliance on a pretty good defense last season, one that featured talented linebackers T.J. McCollum and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Both are gone now and replacing their production and leadership will be key this spring. Luckily, the returning starter is Markus Bailey, who could be poised for a national breakout year now that the spotlight is all to his own. Beyond that, this is a position that will be a microcosm of the team, as they see what kind of talent is coming in and how fast they can contribute.
3 names Nebraska Cornhuskers should consider in replacing Mike Riley
Does the Huskers coaching search really begin and end with Scott Frost?
Most of the time, head coaching searches and the media equal a whole lot of names and not a lot of facts to back them up. Thankfully, with Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos being so candid in his press conference yesterday, we know exactly what Moos is looking for and don’t have to speculate.
What you won’t see here is a list of hot assistant coaches or lower-level names looking to make a big jump into FBS football. Moos let us all know it’s a pool of six names and that he’s looking for someone with previous head coaching experience.
Knowing there are six names in the top drawer of Moos’ desk, we’re here to let you know the three names we hope will be on the list and the names we’d be considering if we were in his shoes.
Of course, this list isn’t to say others aren’t on it, but again this is our opinion on who should be there for the Huskers.
Scott Frost, UCF Head Coach
This is the obvious name that will be on every list, and he should be. He’s got the Nebraska pedigree, he’s got the high-powered offense everyone wants to see and he’s got the UCF Knights in a position to pull off an undefeated season. All that stands in the way of that is the AAC title game and a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Should Frost’s team win the title game next weekend, it begs the question of timing. Would Frost really bolt with a perfect season and a New Year’s Six bowl game on the line? Would Nebraska be willing to wait it out and hope the recruiting class can stay intact until Frost can get to Lincoln in January?
All of those questions are valid, but about the biggest question to be answered is if Frost wants to leave UCF after just two seasons or not. While the money and temptation of “going home” is certainly a big pull, so is building something special at a program like UCF. Is jumping ship so quickly what Frost really wants? Or does he want to build something and wait for the job he really wants?
Money certainly doesn’t seem to be too big an obstacle and with Florida apparently set to hire Dan Mullen, the door seems wide open for Frost if he so chooses.
Craig Bohl, Wyoming Head Coach
This is a name I thought the Huskers should’ve looked at the last time they made a move for a head coach. Hindsight is always 20-20, but the good news is that Bohl has only gone on to do himself a lot of favors in his time as the head coach at Wyoming. The Cowboys have gone from a doormat to a very good Mountain West team in his short time in Laramie.
Oh, and if you need roots in Nebraska, Bohl has them. I mean, he was the linebackers coach while the Huskers were winning national championships in the 1990’s and left after three years as the defensive coordinator (2000-2002) to take over the NDSU program. If you want to bring the blackshirts back, Bohl knows what that is all about.
But, what about recruiting with a “non-sexy” hire like Bohl?
If ever there’s proof that a good coach can recruit to difficult situations and develop talent, it is Bohl at Wyoming. He’s turned a program that is sub .500 in its history in to a program that went 8-6 and 7-5 over the last two seasons. Additionally, the program has finished first or second in the Mountain division each of the past two years.
Then there’s the fact that he turned North Dakota State in to the ultimate power team in the FCS division as well.
Let’s just say, for Midwest coaches it is hard to find a more impressive resume than what Bohl has already put together. His ability to reach recruits and run a fun offense to watch along with quality defense should fit the mold well for the Huskers. The question some may ask if this hire moves the needle enough for the outside world to get on board.
Having been around the game long enough, internally, few coaches are more respected than Bohl, and that can make a lot of difference when you are trying to get everyone pushing in the same direction — from the administration to the boosters and regular fans. Bohl has a lot of what Moos would like to see in a head coach.
Matt Campbell, Iowa State Head Coach
We know this is a name that Moos has high interest in to say the least. Campbell was a big winner at Toledo and he’s gotten the Iowa State Cyclones back to winning football in just two seasons. Wins over both Oklahoma (on the road) and TCU (at home) showcased just what kind of coaching job Campbell is capable of.
But, like Frost, he’s in the middle of rebuilding and building something special right where he is at. Campbell also has one hefty buyout in his contract. While, money again doesn’t seem to be an object, Campbell’s reported $9 million buyout is certainly a hefty price to pay.
Personally, I love what Campbell has been able to do for the Iowa State program and what we’ve seen on the field from the Cyclones would be a great fit for the Huskers too. Campbell’s team played easily the best defense of anyone in the defense-absent Big 12 conference and his offenses showcased speed and power at the same time.
That’s the combination that can win games in Lincoln. But, again there is one big question that only one person can answer and that person is Matt Campbell.
Does Campbell see Nebraska as a step up or a lateral move? We could argue the merits of that all day, but in the end it really depends on if Campbell believes Ames is a place where winning football can become the norm instead of the special season. If he believes in what he’s building there, prying him away from the Cyclones may be hard. As hard as apparently winning conference championships has been for the Huskers.
Analysis of What Will Actually Happen:
In the end, this search begins and ends with Scott Frost. With Florida being reportedly rebuffed by Frost and hiring Dan Mullen away from Mississippi State it seems as if the writing is on the wall.
That said, I also subscribe to the “sometimes the simplest answer is the right answer” philosophy. When it comes to Nebraska’s coaching search that simple answer is Frost.
But, should something crazy happen and the Nebraska alum not want to take the job, it wouldn’t hurt to have Craig Bohl as your backup plan. All the dude does is win football games and win a lot of them. His championship pedigree with Nebraska and North Dakota State should be all that Moos would need to go in his direction should Frost say no.
I’m fully expecting Moos to be able to get his man though. The stars are just aligning too well for it not to happen. Let’s see if the Huskers can get the man they probably should’ve hired the last time, this time around.
As for the timing, I fully expect this deal to be done this time tomorrow (Monday). It also will come with the stipulation that Frost coaches out the season for UCF should they move on to the New Years Six bowl game many expect to happen. That part will be the tricky part of the negotiations if you ask me, especially because of the early signing period that is in place for the first time.
New Huskers AD Bill Moos has visionary past that is badly needed in Lincoln
Hiring a 66-year-old as your new athletics director certainly turned a few heads around the college athletics world. Fans and media have wondered just how much newly minted Nebraska Cornhuskers athletics director Bill Moos has in the tank.
Rightfully so, given the track record this school has had in making hires not normally associated with Nebraska athletics.
For the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, age is just a number though, and they clearly saw a past full of visionary work in Moos.
That work is badly needed for a football program and athletic department trying to hang on to 1990’s glory and failing miserably at it.
While the Huskers seem stuck in the past, Moos’ past shows plenty of forward thinking. It is his vision of Oregon as a national brand in the late 1990’s that made the Ducks exactly who they are today.
Phil Knight’s play-thing didn’t become Phil Knight’s play-thing until Moos decided to get serious about branding Oregon athletics. It’s now iconic simple ‘O’ symbol and the coolness of Oregon doesn’t happen without Moos recognizing the gold mine that could be in a relationship with Oregon alumni like Knight.
Now look at where the Ducks are. They are easily in the top 10 of most recognizable college athletics brands. He made one of the most undesirable jobs and athletics programs in to one of the best brands West of the Mississippi at the very least.
Moos also showed that Washington State could be a powerhouse in football once again. He had the vision to know that the ostracized Mike Leach could flourish in the environment in Pullman, Washington. He’s also hired some guy by the name of Mike Belloti at Oregon, who hired some guy by the name of Chip Kelly, who took a growing program in to a national title contender on a nearly annual basis.
It’s that vision that should be and likely was most attractive to Huskers brass this time around. This is a program that doesn’t need massive monetary rebuilds. Rather, the Huskers need a refresh from the bottom up, and Moos is a guy who gets that.
“Once you do find success, it’s important that there’s a reinvestment in that success, because it’s far different being the hunted than it is being the hunter,” Moos said. “And Nebraska for years, and I’m talking about the sport of football, was the hunted, and we’re not right now.
“We need to get back into that position where everybody’s circling Nebraska on the schedule and [saying] ‘That’s going to be one tough game, whether we’re going to Lincoln or they’re going to our place,’ and I believe that’s the Huskers’ rightful place and we’re going to see what we can do to get back there.”
Moos is also someone who is fully aware of the today’s college athletics landscape, not to say that Shaw Eichorst wasn’t, but for someone who is having his age questioned, he’s clearly got his ear to the ground of today and what needs to be done for the future success of wherever he is at.
“The landscape of college football has changed,” Moss said. “It’s evolved through the years, and there’s a couple reasons for that.
“One is scholarship limitations back decades ago, a couple decades, which really started to level the playing field. The other one was equal television revenue distributions. So, the so-called ‘have-nots’ of the old days now can compete a little more with the ‘haves.’”
His biggest strength is in knowing what the school he is at needs and going out and changing what needs to be changed. Obstacles are more like excuses and he doesn’t deal in that realm all that often. He also has set clear and early expectations for the coaches on staff at Nebraska today.
“So, I told the coaches earlier and the staff that my expectation in first brush, is that we should be in a position in every sport to compete for championships,” said Moos. “Certainly, that will be our goal and that will be a big part of the blueprint that I referred to.”
One look at the Huskers football program and it is hard to see how this is a team in a position to compete for a West division title, let alone a Big Ten or national championship. Sure, all of the intangibles like the training tables, locker room amenities and all the support staff needed are all in place. But, on the field this is a team failing downward when it should be on the rise.
Naturally, the big question was about evaluating Mike Riley’s future. To that end, Moos was smart in allowing this season to play out, get himself a firm grasp of where things stand internally as well as on the W-L columns and look at everything after the season.
“I really haven’t talked much to Mike since he made that move (from Oregon to Washington State, via retirement),” said Moos. “But, as we speak right now, he’s my football coach, and I’m going to support him. I certainly hope for some victories here towards the latter part of the season. I’m eager to sit down and have a chance to visit with him.”
There will be time to figure this stuff out in the coming weeks.
How will Moos go about hiring a coach? He’s had plenty of experience doing it at both Oregon and Washington State. Again, it was more plain-speech from Moos in answering that question.
“I’ve hired 11 head coaches at Washington State, and did that in the first five years,” Moos said on Sunday. “What I replaced them with were quality, proven winners. Most of them at this level who saw Washington State as a destination and not a stepping stone.”
He went even deeper, but continued to speak plainly as to what he expects in any coach.
“First and foremost, when I’m looking for a coach, are they a good teacher?” said Moos. “Are they a good individual? Ethically, are they above board and clean? What are their records and what are their ambitions, where they want to go? And do they fit in the community? Not every community is the same. A head coach at USC may not work at Oregon State, so that’s a big part of it, too.”
There has also been some damage done to the image externally, and part of Moos’ gameplan is to get those fans back. It’s also a genuine effort and something he’s always done since his days at Oregon.
“Well, with the fans, and may I point out the media as well, I like to make myself accessible,” he said on Monday. “I think the fans and the media, and the fans through the media, need to fully understand what our blueprint is, what our mission is, how we’re gauging our process. That needs to get out, and I’m always eager to do that.”
Will Moos’s plain-speech equal the long-awaited success on the football field? Only time will tell, but judging by Moos’ previous stops, success seems to follow. After all, just look at where Washington State is today.
Now, let the Mike Leach to Nebraska rumors begin to fly. It should be a fun next couple of months.
Huskers show promise in 28-6 win over Illinois
Tanner Lee, Huskers defense show promise in victory over Illini in Champaign, Ill.
Nebraska came in to Friday night’s game with plenty of questions to be answered. Those answers were more positive than negative in a 28-6 victory over the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Top of the list was just how would Tanner Lee respond to a few bad games. His play was nearly perfect on the night, completing 70 percent of his passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns.
Lee’s hot night started early as he hooked up with De’Mornay Pierson-El for a 45-yard strike midway through the first quarter for a 7-0 lead.
The return of senior wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. was also a key help, as he picked up a game-high eight receptions for 96 yards and one touchdown. None of his eight catches was bigger than the 23-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter that put the game at 28-6 in favor of the Huskers.
Next on the list for the Huskers was finding some consistency along the offensive line. That got better as the game went on, with the Huskers putting up 165 yards on the ground and Tanner Lee being able to get a cleaner pocket as the night went on.
Illinois came out with a power-run attack with Chayce Crouch behind center. The Illini gameplan seemed obvious and it was working to a degree early on in the game. In fact, the first quarter featured just two passes for Illinois and they were down just 7-3 after the first 15 minutes of action.
Illini in the 1st quarter…
Gee…I wonder what the gameplan is w/ Chayce Crouch at QB?
— talking Big Ten (@talkingB1G) September 30, 2017
It looked like Nebraska’s defense could have been in trouble too, as Illinois was able to march down the field early on in the game. However, it didn’t result in points and eventually Nebraska adjusted and put the clamps down on the Illini offense.
Crouch eventually had to become a passing quarterback, which did not go well. While he completed 9 of 15 passes, Crouch managed just 99 yards and was sacked five times while also throwing an interception.
The Huskers also bottled up the Illini’s biggest hope, freshman running back Mike Epstein, to the tune of 46 yards. Following an impressive opening quarter, Illinois finished the game with just 93 yards on the ground.
It was perhaps the best Nebraska’s defense has looked all season and a continued sign of improvement when put together with last weekend’s stats against Rutgers.
While it may be tempting to say there were big steps forward, Illinois is clearly in a full re-build so putting too much on this victory may be a bit much and Rutgers has a long way to go offensively as well.
After all, four fumbles (only one lost) and five penalties show there is plenty still to work on in Lincoln.
At least Nebraska has confidence heading in to its date with the Wisconsin Badgers next Saturday. It will need all the confidence it can get judging by the trajectory of the teams so far this season.
Nebraska Cornhuskers at Illinois Fighting Illini: Preview, predictions and prognostications
Illinois and Nebraska meet under the lights on Friday night for the first time ever. Let’s preview the action.
When: Fri. Sept. 29; 8pm ET
Where: Champaign, Ill.; Memorial Stadium (60,670)
All-Time Series: Nebraska leads 10-3-1
Last Meeting: Nebraska win 31-16 (2016)
Line: Nebraska (-6)
Desperate may be a harsh word to use when describing the situations of the Illini and Huskers. However, it seems appropriate given the crumbling nature of both programs this season.
Illinois has decided that a youth movement is worth the growing pains in Lovie Smith’s second season at the helm. It’s resulted in not-so-shocking uneven start to the season, including a 47-23 blowout loss at the hands of USF two weeks ago.
Both of these programs being in a state of flux makes for an interesting proposition, but what about the game itself? Let us take an in-depth look at Friday night’s festivities in Champaign, Ill.
1 Burning Question: Can Nebraska Count on QB Tanner Lee?
There’s no secret to Mike Riley’s offensive gameplan — it requires the quarterback to be accurate and smart with the football. So far this season, off-season sensation Tanner Lee has failed in those two key areas.
Lee comes in to this game having thrown a nation-high nine interceptions to just seven touchdowns. He’s also only completing 52.1 percent of his passes. For a guy everyone hyped as the next coming of Joe Montana, Lee hasn’t delivered to say the least. His play is part of the reason the groans have gotten louder in Lincoln.
Illinois defense could be exactly what the doctor ordered though, as they are 83rd nationally in passing defense (248.7 yards per game) and have three interceptions so far. While the INT total could be scary, this could be the perfect game for Lee to find a rhythm and unleash all the potential people saw this offseason.
Should Lee struggle again, Nebraska might be in some big trouble in this one.
2 Key Stats:
184.3: That is the number of rushing yards per game given up by the Illini so far this season.
Illinois is 96th in the country against the run this season, not exactly great numbers. But, their could be a worse rushing offense to see this week than Nebraska, who is 11th in rushing offense in the Big Ten. However, Illinois should be worried a bit, as the Huskers racked up 197 yards on the ground against a much more stout Rutgers defense last weekend. Can Illinois button up some of the big plays given up or will the Huskers continue to build on last weekend’s positive rushing performance?
194: That is the total yards put up by Rutgers offense last weekend.
Nebraska’s defense gave up the fewest total yards to an opponent in the last 46 games last weekend. The question is was it all about Rutgers’ offensive ineptitude or an improving Nebraska defense under Bob Diaco? Nebraska gave up a ton of points to Arkansas State and Oregon to open the season, but were much saltier the last two games, giving up just 21 and 17 points respectively. Those numbers, plus the ability to hold a team under 200 total yards are good signs, especially when you have an equally struggling offense to go up against. Something is going to give in this matchup, and it could come down to how the Huskers defense holds up.
3 Key Players:
Bobby Roundtree, DE (Illinois): A sure-fire way to win this game is to get in the head of Huskers QB Tanner Lee. The guy who has shown a propensity to get after the quarterback a lot so far this season has been freshman defensive end Bobby Roundtree. His three sacks leads the team so far. Let’s see if Nebraska’s shuffling offensive line plus Roundtree’s growing knowledge of the college game can equal getting Lee off his game. If so, Illinois is in business in this one.
Chayce Crouch, QB (Illinois): Personally, I’m shocked to see Crouch back behind center after being pulled at halftime of the Illini’s brutal loss to USF. He was an awful 8 of 18 for 76 yards and an interception. Yet, Smith has shown more faith in him than I would’ve, giving him the starting nod after the bye week. It’ll be interesting to see if he responds to the challenge thrown down by the coaching staff or if he will wilt under the pressure.
De’Mornay Pierson-El, WR (Nebraska): Pierson-El has become much more than a dynamic punt and kick returner for the Huskers. He’s got 17 receptions for 210 yards and is tied at the top of the TD list with three so far this season. Illinois has had some struggles in the pass game defensively, and this would be a perfect time to showcase the speed and leadership to get the Huskers over the finish line.
While the Huskers have been underwhelming to say the least this season, Illinois has been downright brutal while it tries to see what it has with some young players on both sides of the ball. That experiment didn’t work out against USF very well and it won’t again tonight. For all the struggles of the Huskers, they have a massive talent and experience advantage and I expect Tanner Lee to wake up in this one. Illinois offense also struggles as Bob Diaco’s tutelage continues to pay off.
Nebraska 31, Illinois 17