Welcome to part 2 of our preseason Big Ten football power rankings. Today we will be looking at teams 10 through 6, with part 1 posted yesterday here. Let's dive right in:
Last season: 6-7, (5-4)
Strengths: WR, LB
Weaknesses: inexperience, RB, OL, DB’s
Big Question: Can Elijah Sindelar stay healthy?
Outlook: Right now it’s a battle between Purdue’s Jeff Brohm and Nebraska’s Scott Frost over who is building the biggest rising powerhouse in the B1G West. Brohm’s first two years have been a stunning success in West Lafayette, getting the Boilers to bowls in back to back seasons for the first time since 2011-2012 (only the third and fourth bowls period since 2008) and he just reeled in the nation’s 25th best recruiting class (5th best in the conference) at PURDUE. For a program that has wandered through the wilderness since Joe Tiller’s retirement, Brohm seems to finally be the savior that will helicopter them out of the woods and to safety again. All that said, it’s probably another year away from true liftoff for Purdue, since this is a very, very young team in 2019. They rank #126 (out of 130) on Phil Steele’s experience chart, returning just 3 starters on offense for a unit that was top 20 nationally. The good news is that one of those 3 is Rondale Moore, the electrifying slot jitterbug who toppled our conception of what it means to be a freshman receiver in college football en route to being named a consensus All-American as a true freshman(!!!). However, Purdue loses All-B1G QB David Blough, both notable running backs, and both starting offensive tackles. Elijah Sindelar slides in at QB and his talent level is similar to Blough’s, it’s just been health that has hindered Sindelar’s development. Purdue adds the Gatorade HS PoY for the state of Indiana in David Bell and between Bell and Moore, this should be a pretty good offense again if Sindelar can stay healthy. But that’s a huge “if” on a team with a rickety offensive line.
Defensively, Purdue dropped off big time compared to 2017, when it was that side of the ball that got Purdue to 6 wins. They got lit up for 30+ points by Northwestern and allowed 24 points to Rocky Lombardi and Michigan St., which was arguably the most laughably hapless offense in college football by late October last season. The Boilermakers return 9 starters on defense and add 5* DE George Karlaftis, as well as LB Ben Holt, a grad transfer from Western Kentucky who will play next to 2nd team All-B1G LB Markus Bailey. The linebackers should be the best unit on this defense and overall, it will no doubt take a step forward. But similar to Illinois, the question is how much, as they were 88th in defensive S&P+ in 2018. With the offense likely to slide back slightly, how much better can the defense be? That’s the question that will likely determine if Purdue gets back to 6 wins. With Steele’s 5th toughest schedule in the B1G, it won’t be easy, but I think there’s enough raw talent on the team to get there. If Brohm can simply get Purdue to 6 wins for a third straight year, that will be a huge victory, continuing to boost the hype and recruiting momentum. While 2019 might not be the year yet for Brohm’s crew, it feels like the train is rolling down the right tracks in West Lafayette.
Last year: 9-5 (8-1)
Strengths: DL, LB
Weaknesses: Offense overall
Big Question: Can Hunter Johnson revitalize the offense?
Outlook: The Northwestern Wildcats won their first division title under Pat Fitzgerald in 2018, in what was one of the most surprising rides of the season. After the ‘Cats went winless in non-conference play, they went 8-1 in the B1G, with the only regular season loss being a game against Michigan that they led by multiple touchdowns at one point in time. While NW got run out of Indy by Ohio St., they were able to win their bowl game and finish at 9 wins in another spectacular coaching effort by Fitzgerald, especially since they weren’t good statistically. Northwestern was 68th in S&P+, with the #94 offense, yet managed to come close to double digit wins. Few coaches are better at getting more out of less than Fitzgerald but that underlying statistical analysis, as well as their 2 net close wins and #101 experience rank (as calculated by Steele) point to regression in 2019. All the questions lay on the offensive side of the ball, where the Wildcats were just plain bad last season. The good news is that Northwestern returns Isaiah Bowser, who had a fine 2018 season after returning from injury and they add a potential difference maker: Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson. Johnson is a former 5* QB recruit, which means he is the best recruit Northwestern has ever had. With just 1 of their top 3 receivers back and only 2 offensive linemen returning, any hope for offensive improvement rests on Johnson’s shoulders. Can he turn the ship around?
Defensively, despite returning only 6 starters, the ‘Cats get 5 of their top 6 tacklers back, including three stars: DE Joe Gaziano, LB Paddy Fisher, and LB Blake Gallagher. With a lot of injuries in the secondary last season, there are a number of guys who have started some games back for Northwestern, but still plenty of overall questions. They finished 30th in S&P+ on this side of the ball last year and I think they should be roughly in that ballpark again, though perhaps maybe a tiny bit worse. Overall, Northwestern seems like a team that should be about where they were a year ago. That is, last year they were a 6-6 team who managed to get to 8-4 in the regular season. I expect some of that good luck to wear off and with a tough schedule (@Stanford in week 1, drawing both MSU and OSU out of the east) I see Northwestern around the .500 mark overall, unless Johnson works some magic.
Last year: 7-6 (3-6)
Strengths: DE’s, skill positions
Weaknesses: Defensive consistency, turnovers
Big Question: Can Minnesota get improved QB play?
Outlook: Which team is the real team? The Minnesota that was a defensive sieve and 4-5 on the season? Or the Minnesota that closed the year 3-1 and was dominant defensively? The big change happened after the canning of DC Robb Smith following a blowout at the hands of Illinois (yes, Illinois), which seemed like it was likely to cost the Gophers a bowl game in PJ Fleck’s second season in Minneapolis. Instead, they allowed just 14.8 points per game after Robb was fired and Joe Rossi was installed at the defense’s helm and won 3 of their last 4, including finally beating rival Wisconsin in Madison to get to 6 wins and then a thrashing of Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl to finish with a winning record. Now the Gophers return 16 starters, ranking #27 on Steele’s experience chart, and it feels like it’s time for Fleck’s program to take flight, especially in a B1G West increasingly populated by hot young coaches (Scott Frost, Jeff Brohm, etc). The biggest question on offense is about the quarterback position, which saw both a walk-on true freshman start (!?!) in Zach Annexstad, as well as RS Fr. Tanner Morgan. Morgan seemed to be slightly better and with Annexstad suffering an injury in early August, I think Morgan is the guy entering the season. He is armed with some real weapons, including RB Mohamed Ibrahim, and his top 3 receivers last year led by 1,000 yard WR Tyler Johnson. 3.5 starters return on the offensive line and for a team that was very young a year ago (8 freshmen started the Quick Lane Bowl), there is finally some experience for Minnesota and that should mean real improvement for an offense that was just 75th a year ago in S&P+.
Minnesota was stronger defensively in 2018, finishing 39th in that category, but were particularly weak against big plays (110th in explosiveness), so there is room to grow. They bring back both DE’s, most notably 2nd team All-B1G DE Carter Coughlin, as well as 2 LB’s, and 3 starters in the secondary, and they add NT Micah Dew-Treadway from Notre Dame. I would expect slightly modest improvement from the offense, but they need offensive improvement to be the main catalyst. The Gophers got some luck last season, with 2 net close wins, but they were also incredibly young and with more experience plus a very easy schedule (2nd easiest in the B1G), this should be a year of optimism and success for Fleck. With the B1G West being wide open, there’s no reason that Minnesota can’t be in that conversation. They get both Nebraska and Wisconsin at home, and draw both Maryland and Rutgers out of the east. The baseline for this team should be what they accomplished last year (7 wins). Anything less than that and I think Fleck starts to move onto the hot seat.
Last year: 8-5 (5-4)
Strengths: Running game
Weaknesses: DB’s, passing game
Big Question: Is the Wisconsin OL factory still functional?
Outlook: Wisconsin won less than 9 games for the first time since 2012 in 2018, a tremendous disappointment for a team that was preseason top 5. They dealt with considerable injuries defensively and despite the usual punishing ground game to help play-action, the offense sputtered in the passing game. Then in the offseason Wisconsin lost 4 of their 5 offensive linemen from 2018 and saw starting QB Alex Hornibrook transfer, leaving huge questions on that side of the ball and burying the Badgers at 95th on Phil Steele’s experience chart. The rushing game should not be questioned, after Wisconsin finished 3rd in efficiency last season, and with 2,000 yard RB Jonathan Taylor back, it should be cruise control as usual on the ground. That is the strength of the team. But what about the passing attack? That starts and ends with QB play, where Jr. Jack Coan was named the starter over Tr. Fr. Graham Mertz. Mertz has gotten all the fan buzz and will likely be a star in Madison down the line, but in year 1, it seems like Coan will be the guy. Starting at QB as a true freshman is not easy, even if you are a top recruit. Coan got into a few games last year when Hornibrook was hurt and didn’t exactly instil confidence that he can be a legitimate, B1G champion QB. The other huge question is whether the Badgers OL can protect their QB. Wisconsin has been the best factory for churning out offensive linemen in college football, but that will be put to the test with 4 new starters. All B1G center Tyler Biadasz returns but it will be a lot of question marks around him.
Perhaps the most surprising part of last year’s Wisconsin squad was how poor the defense was, cratering to 29th in S&P+. The Badgers sustained significant injuries, especially on the DL. The hope is that things are more stable in 2019, getting DT Garret Rand back from injury and a hopefully healthy season from DE Isaiahh Loudermilk. They lose 3 of their 4 LB’s (including stars Ryan Connelly and TJ Edwards) and while they have talent and Wisconsin is known for pumping out linebackers, there are important questions there. The secondary was very shaky last season and they lose their steady safety D’Cota Dixon, meaning they will need some guys to step forward. With better health, the defense should improve but there’s also a chance the offense could regress if they can’t figure out OL and QB. Wisconsin absolutely has the talent to win the B1G West, but their brutal schedule could get in the way. Wisconsin draws Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State out of the east (yowza) and has to go on the road to Nebraska and Minnesota. There should be some improvement in Madison in 2019, even if the tough schedule might not end up showing it.
Last year: 4-8 (3-6)
Strengths: QB, WR, OT, DL
Weaknesses: RB, LB
Big Question: Who will emerge at RB?
Outlook: Earlier in this article, I noted that #9 Northwestern was a far worse team statistically than their 9-5 record indicated. Nebraska is the flip side of that coin: a team far better than their dismal 4-8 record. They finished 49th in S&P+ last season, which was similar to Purdue and Minnesota (45th and 44th, respectively), two teams that each reached 6 wins in the regular season. Everything about Nebraska’s 2018 season indicates that they’re going to return to the mean this season, and that mean is far better than their 2018 record indicated. They had 4 net close losses, which led the nation and is a classic indicator of a team that will improve significantly on its prior record. Additionally, they had remarkably bad turnover luck, another indicator of a team whose record is likely to significantly improve. Furthermore, once the team adjusted to the Scott Frost system, things turned around, and they finished 4-2 after starting 0-6, and those two losses were one possession defeats on the road against New Year’s Day bowl teams (Iowa and Ohio St.). All of this has myself and many others riding the Husker wagon heading into the 2019 season, as they face the easiest schedule in the B1G according to Phil Steele.
As for the personnel, it starts and ends with Adrian Martinez, whose strong freshman campaign has him in a position where he could be the best QB in the conference in 2019. The dual-threat youngster is the perfect fit for Frost’s spread system and Martinez was behind a rickety OL in 2018. With 7 returning offensive starters, including star slot WR JD Spielman and both tackles, this is an offense that should be dynamic. But, it needs an answer at RB, with the Huskers losing RB Devine Ozigbo and the backup Maurice Washington being in legal issues. With the interior of the line also losing pieces, the running game is the one question offensively. On the flip side, the Huskers have valuable experience on the DL and add a NT transfer from Oklahoma State. While they lose 3 of the top 4 tacklers, they return 3rd team All-B1G LB Mohamed Barry and also get 3rd team All-B1G CB (and man with a tremendous name) DiCaprio Bootle back. The defense was a dismal 112th against the rush last season, but with Barry manning the second level and depth and experience on the DL, that aspect should improve. Overall, it’s a team that isn’t super experienced, but they are in the second year of the Frost system, which is when UCF made the jump. With a returning QB who is a budding star and a very favorable schedule, Nebraska is my co-B1G West favorite (with Iowa), but any one of Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota could take home that division.
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