The college football season is now officially underway, although the Big Ten season does not begin for another few days. In order to tide you over the final stretch, WCBN Sports is going to be releasing its preseason B1G Football Power Rankings in three parts. Today, part 1, looks at the cellar dwellers of the conference, #14-10. Let's dive right in:
Last season: 1-11, (0-9)
Weaknesses: Offense, rush D
Big Question: Does the offense have a pulse?
Outlook: Chris Ash enters year 4 at Rutgers and after signing a deal worth $11 M when he was named head coach in 2015, he has earned just under $1 M per win that he has gotten for the Scarlet Knights ($6.6 M per year through three seasons, 7 total wins). Not good. While I don’t really fault Ash (who is going to do better at Rutgers?), the lack of any progress has to be disheartening to all 8 Rutgers football fans. They went just 1-11 a year ago, the worst of any of Ash’s three seasons and it’s hard to think of a worse offensive season by a B1G team in recent memory than Rutgers in 2018. Rutgers was 123rd offensively in S&P+, including 130th in success rate, 121st in explosiveness, and 130th in passing offense. That last number is because Artur Sitkowski, Rutgers QB, had 4 TD and 18 INT (!!!!) with a 49.1% completion percentage. Sitkowski was a true freshman last year and so the expectation is that he will improve with a year of starting under his belt, especially since he wasn’t a bad recruit at all (#395 nationally). Sitkowski is armed with a decent running game at least, with Raheem Blackshear and Isiah Pacheco both having >500 yards on the ground last season. There are 8 overall returning starters including 3/5 on the offensive line. This group has to get better, right? Right?
Defensively, Rutgers wasn’t that bad last season, finishing a respectable 67th in S&P+ last season, led by a 66th ranked pass defense. There are only 5 defensive returning starters and for a unit that was quite bad against the run (94th), there is certainly room for considerable improvement. Rutgers does add Michigan transfer Drew Singleton at LB who should see significant playing time, but otherwise there’s not much here to point out. Rutgers should be able to win home games against UMass and Hugh Freeze’s Liberty Flames, but they will be underdogs against Boston College and every B1G opponent, and it’s hard to believe that this is more than a 2 win team until it happens.
Last season: 4-8, (2-7)
Strengths: Running game (RB + OL)
Weaknesses: Entire defense, passing game
Big Question: How will QB Brandon Peters fit in the spread running scheme?
Outlook: Illinois, unlike Rutger, is an actually interesting football team and program with tangible strengths and weaknesses. It’s year 4 for Lovie Smith at Illinois (yes, he’s still coaching there) and they’ve only won 9 games in 3 seasons, but the Illini are coming off the best season yet, finishing 4-8 and actually winning 2 B1G games. While the university seems to be in for the long haul with Lovie’s rebuilding project, it does feel like there needs to be some results sooner rather than later. The strength of the team is the run game, after they installed a new offensive coordinator last season who implemented a spread option, Rich Rod scheme. This resulted in a respectable offense that ranked 9th best in college football on the ground and 38th in explosiveness, thanks to a strong offensive line, a mobile QB (AJ Bush), and their first 1,000 yard running back since 2010, Reggie Corbin. The bad news is that their passing game was largely nonexistent, limiting the overall offensive S&P+ to 70th nationally, and their defense was an atrocity (115th nationally). With Illinois returning most of its OL and Corbin, this will remain a strength but two questions loom in order for Illinois to reach a bowl:
1.) How will new QB Brandon Peters fit into the existing offensive scheme?
2.) Can the defense become mediocre instead of godawful?
Starting with #1, the new QB is Michigan transfer Brandon Peters, who is by far more talented (he was a borderline top 100 recruit in 2016) than Bush, but seems to be an odd fit for the scheme. So much of Illinois' offensive success last year (when it happened) rested on Bush's mobility to give teeth to the spread option offense. But with the largely immobile Peters at the helm, it begs the question of how the offense will change. Peters gives Illinois a decently experienced starter who will improve the passing game no doubt, but will it come at the expense of the success of the ground game? As for #2, Illinois has a ton of returning starters (they’re the #31 most experienced team nationally according to Phil Steele) and plug in some highly talented transfers from USC and Washington. The defense will get better, if only because it can’t possibly be worse. With an easy non-conference schedule and drawing Rutger from the east at home, Illinois should be able to get back to 4 wins, but they’ll need two upsets to get to a bowl and maybe convince Lovie to quit his audition for Duck Dynasty and shave the damn beard.
Last season: 5-7, (3-6)
Strengths: Skill positions, DB’s
Weaknesses: Defense, youth in general
Big Question: Can Mike Locksley be a real head coach in college football?
Outlook: There’s a new coach in College Park, as Mike Locksley finally returns home to the DMV (DC/Maryland/Virginia) and takes over the Terps, a match made in heaven for the DC native. At face value, it would seem to be a home run hire for Maryland: Locksley is under 50 years old, can recruit like it’s nobody’s business, and has an impressive track record of previous stops … except for that one time he was a head coach. That was 2009-2011 in Albuquerque, New Mexico where Locksley was not running a meth lab, but instead coaching the UNM Lobos and he proceeded to take a stable but slightly underachieving program and nuked it. New Mexico went from a consistent bowl team under Rocky Long to winning just 2 games in 28 tries before the Lobos finally put Locksley out of his misery. However, if you look past that catastrophe in the desert, Locksley is a guy with an otherwise great track record, being a catalyst for the bonkers Juice Williams year under Ron Zook at Illinois (that earned him the UNM job) and since then being the co-OC (with Michigan’s Josh Gattis) at Alabama, as the Tide have transitioned to being a dynamic spread offense.
So what is Locksley being handed at Maryland? It’s a team that went 5-7 a year ago, despite all the craziness in the offseason that led to coach DJ Durkin being fired for killing a player. Under interim coach Matt Canada, the Terps were one misfire from QB Tyrell Pigrome to a wide open receiver from upsetting Ohio St. (sorry for bringing that up, Michigan fans) and playing in a bowl game. This year’s team will likely see a new QB in the building: VT transfer and Saline, Michigan HS star Josh Jackson, who was solid for the Hokies, though injuries led him to be Wally Pipp’d and with it came the transfer to Maryland. With 2nd team All-B1G RB Anthony McFarland and most top receivers back, as well as the addition of Buffalo transfer and star MAC TE Tyler Mabry, the skill position pieces are there to have a compelling offense in Locksley’s spread system. The problem is that they have a leaky OL that is replacing three starters and Jackson’s career has been littered with injuries. The Terps were #2 in the country in explosiveness on offense last year, but can they keep Jackson healthy? Defensively Maryland needs to replace 6 starters, including star safety Darnell Savage who was a first round pick of the Green Bay Packers. All-B1G 2nd team SS Antoine Brooks is back and they add an OSU transfer at LB, as well as mixing in true freshman CB Nick Cross, the best recruit Maryland has ever had. That said, there are serious issues on the DL and it is likely to be a rebuilding season. Maryland has the 2nd toughest schedule in the B1G and the 11th toughest nationally by Phil Steele’s metric and while they could be an exciting team to watch if Jackson stays healthy, I don’t think they’ll get to a bowl this season. If Locksley can just not do whatever the heck it was he did to poison the well in New Mexico, he could be a great hire as a program builder, but it’s going to take some time for this young team.
Last season: 5-7, (2-7)
Strengths: Skill positions, experience
Weaknesses: Defense, OL
Big Question: Who the heck is playing QB?
Outlook: It feels like bowl or bust in Bloomington in 2019, after Tom Allen’s Hoosiers have fallen just short of a bowl two straight years. With 7 offensive and defensive starters returning, Indiana is #26 on Steele’s experience chart, giving them the battle tested readiness to face the daunting B1G East. They made some shake-ups in the offseason, with Kalen DeBoer replacing Mike DeBord at OC, which was a necessary move after DeBord’s stale offense was 55th in S&P+ despite quite a bit of talent, a far cry from former coach Kevin Wilson's dynamic offenses of yesteryear. DeBoer seems to be a genuinely smart hire by Allen, a dominant NAIA coach who has posted a good track record as an OC at Eastern Michigan and Fresno State, and is only in his mid-40s, as opposed to the retread types you normally see on the Coordinator Carousel. He’s being given some nice toys to play with, as 1,000 yard rusher Stevie Scott returns and both of the top 2 receivers, Donovan Hale and Nick Westbrook are also back. The big question that looms over all of this though is similar to Illinois: who in the world is going to be the QB? Peyton Ramsey is a serviceable (and returning) B1G starter, just one who seems to be fatally flawed on deep balls. It appeared that Michael Penix Jr. (what a terrible last name) might jump Ramsey on the depth chart last season before a devastating injury, and he’s back and ready to compete. Indiana also added Utah transfer Jack Tuttle, who was a solid 4* recruit and is immediately eligible. Whoever emerges will either be uninspiring but veteran (Ramsey) or inexperienced but more talented than almost any other Indiana QB in recent memory (Penix or Tuttle). The OL is replacing three starters though, which is the biggest question mark on what could be a quite good offense if DeBoer’s system takes off and they can find the right QB.
Defensively, they are much more experienced than in 2018. Marcellino Ball plays their version of Michigan’s VIPER position, and he’s a Dude. 3 of 4 DB starters return, but there are some talented underclassmen who could fight for playing time. It’s not a unit with a ton of surefire playmakers, and it’s going to need to get better after finishing 75th in S&P+ nationally a year ago. In particular, their pass defense was 104th and so Tom Allen’s going to have to do real coaching to make this team better. Overall, they should be on the cusp of bowl eligibility again and it’s going to come down to close games. Indiana has an easy schedule for a B1G East team, as the three non-conference + Rutger games should give them 4 wins easy and then it’s not hard to see them winning at least one more. However, it’ll come down to the ability of Indiana to win on the road in College Park or West Lafayette, or pull an upset at home against Ohio St., Michigan, or Northwestern to get to 6 wins. I’m not sure they get it done, but for Tom Allen’s sake, they need to.
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