The Big Ten is shaping up be a highly competitive conference this year. Although much of the conference’s top talent left for the NFL Draft last season, new faces enter will soon be household names. Jeff Feyerer‘s 2016 Big Ten Preview (Read Part 1 here) focuses on those players and teams, and the schemes and strategies coaches will utilize to attempt to take home the conference title.
Nebraska Cornhuskers: The Reversal of Luck
In 2015, the Nebraska Cornhuskers and head coach Mike Riley fell victim to some of the worst luck ever seen in the history of college football – and it happened right from the beginning. In the first game, up by one with time left for one play, BYU connected on a 42-yard hail mary to defeat Nebraska in Lincoln and set into motion an unfortunate two months of football for Nebraska. Following an overtime loss at Miami, last second field goals by Illinois and Wisconsin, and a failed two-point conversion against Northwestern, Nebraska had five losses by a total of fifteen points by Halloween. While they did benefit from a mistake by referees that handed Michigan State their only loss of the season, there was far more on the negative side of the ledger throughout the season.
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Will the football gods give Nebraska a reprieve from the turmoil suffered in 2015? Many signs say yes. They return strong personnel, 12 starters (six on each side of the ball) including All-Big Ten candidates quarterback Tommy Armstrong, wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp, and linebacker Josh Banderas. From a momentum standpoint, the Huskers showed resiliency by finishing their year with a victory against UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl despite entering the postseason with a losing record. But most importantly, the numbers say yes. Based on pythagorean wins, which measures how many games a team should have been expected to win based on points scored and points allowed, Nebraska should have won 7.6 games, or 1.6 more than they actually did. Since 2011, 42 of 52 (81%) teams with at least 1.5 wins less than their pythagorean wins improved the following year. Put these factors together with a conference schedule that avoids both Michigan and Michigan State, and Nebraska could be in for a much better season than 2015.
Northwestern Wildcats Fitz’s First Star
Junior linebacker Anthony Walker is in the preseason conversation for every major accolade that could be bestowed upon a collegiate at his position including the Butkus Award, given to the top linebacker. The last Northwestern Wildcat to do that? His head coach, Pat Fitzgerald.
In Fitzgerald, Walker has one of the best head coaches to play linebacker for as his mentor. Fitzgerald still stands as the only two-time winner of both the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Chuck Bednarik Award for Collegiate Defensive Player of the Year and was the captain of the ‘95 and ‘96 Northwestern teams that resurrected a lifeless program. At 41 years old and entering his 11th season as head coach in Evanston, Fitzgerald is already the winningest football coach in program history, but he has yet to have a player selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Enter Walker, who is already being talked about as having first round potential for next April. The video below offers just a taste of what he brings to the table as he reads a screen pass from Kevin Hogan to Christian McCaffrey and stops the Stanford star in his tracks.
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In Walker, Fitzgerald has an athletic freak to deploy against Big Ten offenses with elite speed, instincts, and all the makings of a collegiate and future NFL star. While there are aspects to his game Walker needs to work on, like relying less on his athleticism and developing strength, what better teacher than Fitzgerald, a guy who never saw a down in the NFL and relied instead on guile, toughness, and intelligence to succeed. If they continue to learn and develop together, Walker will be Fitzgerald’s first 1st round pick, Fitzgerald will have a transcendent player to point to as an example of NFL success during recruiting, and Northwestern could have a very successful 2016.
Ohio State Buckeyes: The Little Things
No team lost more talent to the NFL Draft this offseason than the Ohio State Buckeyes. A total of 12 players were nabbed by NFL teams, including five in the first round, leaving the Buckeyes with a number of large holes to fill. Urban Meyer’s team returns only six starters from the 2015 version of the Buckeyes, but they are not lacking talent. According to 247Sports recruiting rankings, Ohio State has had the 3rd, 7th, and 4th classes, respectively, of incoming freshman during the last three years, meaning the aforementioned voids will most likely be filled by players well-equipped for the rigors of the Big Ten. But it’s not a lack of talent in question for Ohio State: The devil is in the details.
Maintaining roster continuity isn’t just about keeping talent, it’s about developing as a team and having the little nuances of on-field execution become second nature. As former Steelers head coach Chuck Noll once said, “Champions do the ordinary things better than everyone else.” This sentiment isn’t lost on teams coached by Urban Meyer, who have won at least 12 games in each of his four years at the helm in Columbus, but could get lost in such a drastic turnover of the roster. One of those ordinary things is protecting the quarterback.
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The Buckeyes only allowed 19 sacks last year, but the level of protection that was afforded to both J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones last season is gone. The obvious key cog to subduing the pass rush was Taylor Decker. The All-Big 10 left tackle will be replaced by the largely unproven Jamarco Jones. The not-so obvious key was right next to Barrett in the Buckeye backfield last season in running back Ezekiel Elliott. Whereas most young running backs are focused on hitting the hole and hanging onto the ball, Elliott solidified himself as an adept pass blocker who took pride in carrying out his secondary duties to help the team. This is just one example of the little things that need to be replaced with all of the veteran departures. Freshman tailback Mike Weber has been named the starter and big things will be expected of the prized recruit, but success will hinge on how quickly he and the rest of his teammates pick up on the little things to help the Buckeyes.
Penn State Nittany Lions: A Better Fit at Quarterback
Whether it was pass rushers or scrutiny, Christian Hackenberg was always dodging something during his final two seasons as quarterback for Penn State. After an outstanding freshman year under the direction of current Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, “experts” were predicting Heisman Trophies and NFL riches for the young signal-caller. But Hackenberg never seemed to mesh with current head coach James Franklin as he struggled to perform up to expectations in 2014 and 2015. The Nittany Lions received a brief glimpse of life after Hackenberg during the second half of the Taxslayer Bowl against Georgia. With Penn State down 17-3, Trace McSorley stepped in at quarterback and led them back to within one touchdown of tying the game with the ball in their hands as time ran out. While a victory wasn’t achieved, McSorley’s dual-threat ability, a welcome departure from Hackenberg’s statuesque presence, was on display as he registered 160 yards of total offense and two touchdowns.
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More than any other position on the field, finding the right quarterback is about fit. Between the pressure of being the only recruit to maintain his commitment following the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the coaching change, and the amount of hits he had to withstand due to a porous offensive line, combined with his own struggles with decision making, it was no longer about Hackenberg’s talent: It was no longer the right fit. In McSorley, Penn State has a mobile quarterback who can start anew with none of the same obstacles Hackenberg had to face. A change to a more up-tempo offensive system with new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead seems to be an even better fit for McSorley. With Hackenberg gone and the ball in McSorley’s hands, the pressure to win is firmly on Franklin’s shoulders.
Purdue Boilermakers: Does Experience Matter On A Bad Team?
Coming off a 3-9 season, Purdue returns 16 starters, the most of any team in the Big Ten. For a team that performed so poorly, should it matter? While one large factor in preseason prognostications is returning starters, that number in and of itself doesn’t mean a thing without context. Purdue has struggled to gain any momentum since head coach Darrell Hazell came aboard prior to the 2013 season. They’ve gone 6-30 overall and 2-22 in conference, making Hazell’s seat one of the hottest in the nation. Based on ProFootballReference.com’s SRS measurement, which is margin of victory statistic adjusted for opponent strength, Purdue has improved in each of Hazell’s seasons at the helm. The problem: They still rank last in the conference.
This offseason, Hazell made changes at both coordinator spots in an effort to get more out of the returning talent available. Former tight ends coach Terry Malone takes the reins of the offense and has tossed aside many of the complex schemes favored by previous coordinator John Shoop in favor of a simplified approach of spreading the field and getting their athletes in space. The bigger problem is on defense, where the Boilermakers allowed 36.5 points per game (only Indiana was worse). New defensive coordinator Ross Els was coaching in the high school ranks last year, but previously was linebackers coach at Nebraska. He’ll be employing a 4-3 scheme that is simple enough for Purdue’s young core to be aggressive while staying within their assignments, but also flexible enough to easily adjust to opponents.
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Purdue is not devoid of talent. Defensive end Jake Replogle, wide receiver DeAngelo Yancy, and linebacker Danny Ezechukwu all have the potential for all-conference recognition. The sophomore backfield of quarterback David Blough and tailback Markell Jones showed glimpses in 2015 of what they could be as the figureheads of a high-powered offense. What matters though is whether or not the coaching staff at Purdue can harness the young talent that has acquired extensive game experience and turn into a team that can compete in the Big Ten. Was it self-awareness or desperation that caused Hazell to change coordinators? In the end, it doesn’t matter: What matters is whether more progress is made in 2016 by the 16 starters coming back.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights: If You Can’t Beat Em’, Join ‘Em
With all the question marks surrounding Rutgers’s inclusion in Big Ten expansion in 2014 and the off-field problems in 2015 under the regime of former head coach Kyle Flood, the next step for the Scarlet Knights needed to be, well, big. What better place to look for the next leader of your program than Ohio State? Enter Chris Ash. The former Buckeye defensive coordinator has taken over the Rutgers program and instantly given credibility to a program sorely in need of it. While the budget may not be the largest (Rutgers currently has the smallest football budget in the Big Ten), Ash has great experience on the recruiting trail that they hope lend itself to recruiting from the shadow of New York City to the plains of Ash’s home state of Iowa. Defensive coordinator Jay Niemann will direct that side of the ball, but expect plenty of input from Ash who led a vaunted defense at Ohio State.
Schematically, Rutgers will also be changing their offensive scheme by adopting the spread offense, with ties again to Ohio State under Urban Meyer. New 28-year-old offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer is a Tom Herman protege who worked with the now Cougars head coach while in Columbus and Houston. Mehringer plans on employing spread concepts similar to those at his previous stops, predicated on running the ball and getting playmakers into space. Recently named starting quarterback, junior Chris Laviano, will not be asked to put the entire offense on his shoulders but must instead be a field general, distributing the ball to teammates in the best position to make plays. The below clips from the Rutgers spring game illustrate exactly what they’re trying to do: Get matchups on the perimeter, use the speed of their skill players, and have Laviano manage the game.
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Rutgers certainly needed a change and, this offseason, they made a pair of big ones. What we’ll be watching this season is whether the leadership of Ash and the switch to the spread offense revitalizes a program coming off a tough 2015.
Wisconsin Badgers: Behind Enemy Lines
Dave Aranda only served as the defensive coordinator in Madison for three seasons, but his departure to LSU to serve in the same role could be the biggest loss any Big Ten team experienced this past offseason. Aranda’s defensive units were 1st or 2nd in the Big Ten in points allowed during each season with Wisconsin, culminating last year when they led the nation in that category with 13.7 points per game. His schemes were predicated on using multiple looks out of a base 3-4 and blitzes to create confusion, often using as few as two defensive linemen to occupy blocks while the linebackers wreaked havoc on opposing backfields. Below is a play from last year’s Holiday Bowl.
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USC comes out in shotgun trips right far with 10 personnel. Wisconsin counters with a nickel package with four linebackers and only two down lineman. The Badgers are playing man coverage and their plan of attack up front is to put pressure on the field side tackle (#73 Zach Banner) by stacking two linebackers (#47 Vince Biegel and #53 TJ Edwards) and rushing the same spot. This strategy forces Banner to pass off the first player to the unsuspecting tailback (#22 Justin Davis), a matchup they’ll take every time. The problem for USC is that Davis steps outside to pick up Edwards, leaving Biegel free to get after USC quarterback Cody Kessler. It’s this type of confusion that Aranda loves to create by playing the numbers game with matchups.
New Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, formerly in the same role at USC, is familiar with Aranda’s style, having seen it up close and personal in last year’s Holiday Bowl. They will remain in a 3-4, but the intricacies of his plans have yet to be revealed. Wisconsin will miss OLB Joe Schobert and S Michael Caputo, but given the depth at linebacker returning, including Biegel, Chris Orr, Jack Cichy, and T.J. Watt, and the fact they’ve recruited for this defense, it may be best if Wilcox doesn’t stray too far from last year’s successful strategy. Their inexperience in the defensive backfield makes Wisconsin’s ability to attack the quarterback even more important. While Wilcox will have the chance to leave his own imprint, the foundation is in place for a terrific defense at Wisconsin. When the Badgers square off in the first game of the season against Aranda and his LSU Tigers, the Wisconsin defense and their new coach will be tested. Chances are that Aranda has given his troops a pretty accurate scouting report.
Check out Part 1 of this Big Ten Preview here.
Follow Jeff on Twitter @jfey5 and see his explanation for his new player-team evaluation system here and its application to the AFC East here.
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