Big Ten Forecast: Wisconsin faces fearsome Fournette; MAC tests await Northwestern, Penn State
Each week, Land of Ten will check out some of the top storylines, matchups and players to watch in the Big Ten Forecast. Big games, potential upsets, important questions, this is the place for all of that looking ahead to the weekend in the Big Ten.
While the television networks have been hyping the opening weekend of the 2016 college football as one of the greatest in the sport’s history, the Big Ten is going to ease into the campaign a little more than some of the other power conferences.
Only one Big Ten team is taking part in the array of marquee matchups spread across the five-day weekend. There are a few interesting matchups though, and plenty of new quarterbacks, new coaches and intrigue to get the season started. There are also the only two Thursday night games of the season involving Big Team teams.
It is a weekend for new beginnings. Michigan will have to unveil a starting quarterback, and Hawaii will finally get to see what a Jim Harbaugh offense looks like since he wouldn’t share any game film with them.
Ohio State fans will start to figure out which 4- and 5-star prospects are going to replace all the ones that left for the NFL. Maryland, Rutgers and Illinois have new coaches. Minnesota sort of does, too.
Penn State has a new offensive coordinator and the Nittany Lions will be trying some new things when they have the football. Wisconsin has a new defensive coordinator, but the old one will be wearing the visiting colors at Lambeau Field when LSU and Wisconsin tangle.
Here we go:
The B1G one
No. 5 LSU vs. Wisconsin in Green Bay, Wis.
Former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda was an excellent hire for LSU, and his first chance to test out his scheme with SEC players comes against his former employer. The new leader of the Badgers defense, Justin Wilcox, has had all offseason to prepare for one of the nation’s top players, LSU running back Leonard Fournette.
Trying to corral Heisman Trophy candidate Leonard Fournette might not be the biggest problem. LSU’s defense has at least a half-dozen future NFL players, and Wisconsin has a first-time starter at quarterback, Bart Houston, and is missing its two best offensive linemen from last season.
The Tigers are a trendy national title pick. Maybe the Badgers can keep it close, collect first downs with a healthy group of running backs and frustrate LSU. When 21-year-old kids spend the offseason reading and hearing about how great they’re going to be, weird stuff can happen on opening weekend.
Western Michigan at Northwestern (-5)
This is the only Big Ten game with a single-digit line, though the spread in the Indiana game has certainly been interesting. The Broncos have a better quarterback, four-year starter Zach Terrell, the best wide receiver on either team (Corey Davis is an all-Big Ten level player) and two running backs who have reached 1,000 yards before.
Coach P.J. Fleck has also rowed his boat to the best recruiting class in the MAC three years running, including one that ranked ahead of three Big Ten teams in February, according to the 247Sports composite. The Broncos were within 10 points of Michigan State late in the season opener last season. This is a legitimate test for the Wildcats
Make or break
Western Michigan at Northwestern
It’s that game again. Northwestern’s schedule is … challenging. There are road games at Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Minnesota plus home games against Wisconsin and Nebraska and another toss-up type contest before conference play when Duke comes to town in two weeks.
The Wildcats are a fascinating team. They went 9-3 against FBS competition in 2015, kept Stanford out of the college football playoff and were outscored in those 12 games by 29 points. A loss to the Broncos could portend a descent back to the middle of the conference.
Best individual matchup
Kent State CB Demetrius Monday vs. Penn State WR Chris Godwin
Minnesota fans know a little about Monday. He had two interceptions and an 80-yard fumble return for a touchdown against the Gophers last season, a game Minnesota won 10-7. Monday also picked off a pass against Illinois.
Penn State is going to unveil its new up-tempo offense, but Kent State has a strong secondary. It’s not just Monday, but he’s the alpha. He has the only touchdown the Golden Flashes have scored against a Big Ten team in four games during the past three seasons.
Potential Players of the Week
Terrell Newby, Nebraska RB
Let’s leave the teams facing FBS opponents out of this, because the starters might not play enough to rack up award-worthy statistics. Newby led the Cornhuskers with 765 rushing yards last season, but he could really get rolling Saturday. Fresno State was one of the worst teams in the country against the run in 2015, yielding nearly 235 yards per game.
J.T. Barrett, Ohio State QB
Barrett could probably show up here every week. Ohio State is playing so many new guys, especially at the skill positions, and Barrett’s leadership will be critical. The Buckeyes’ young defense could also let the Falcons keep the game close for a while, allowing Barrett to end up with one of those 300-yard passing/125-yard rushing type of days.
Devine Redding, Indiana RB
Redding finished 2015 with 501 yards in the final three games against Purdue, Maryland and Duke after Jordan Howard was injured. Tevin Coleman reached 2,000 yards two years ago, and a healthy Howard would have had a chance. Redding could easily be on pace for 2,000 or more after facing Florida International, a team that’s struggled against the run (85th nationally, allowing 185.1 yards per game in 2015).
1. Will any coaches hit the reset button at quarterback?
Quarterback competitions were aplenty during fall camp. There are new starters at Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State, and old starters who held onto the job at Rutgers and Maryland. Maybe all seven of those situations are settled, but it’s also pretty likely that one or more of those coaches is still answering the, ‘So, who is your quarterback this week?’ question Tuesday during the Big Ten teleconference.
2. Which missing running back will be the biggest absence?
Minnesota’s Shannon Brooks is injured. Maryland’s Wes Brown is suspended. Ohio State’s Bri’onte Dunn is gone and not coming back.
The Terps are participating in a glorified scrimmage, but the other two are interesting. The Gophers have a couple of options with Rodney Smith and junior college transfer Kobe McCrary, but could miss Brooks’ big-play ability if Oregon State’s offense makes it a high-scoring contest. Mike Weber is expected to be the next great running back at Ohio State, but if he struggles in his college debut, it could force coach Urban Meyer to get creative. The two guys listed behind Weber on the depth chart at tailback, Curtis Samuel and Dontre Wilson, are typically slot receivers.
3. Who will play more on offense, Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers or Maryland’s Will Likely?
Two of the best defensive players in the conference are also expected to see plenty of time on offense as well. Michigan might use both Peppers and Jourdan Lewis on offense. It’s exciting and creative, but how much of that creativity will Harbaugh, or his disciple D.J. Durkin, really want to show against Hawaii and Howard?
4. Which true freshmen make an immediate impact?
There are only two listed as starters (sorry, specialists) in the entire conference, Ohio State left tackle Michael Jordan and Purdue safety Navon Mosley. Jordan could be the answer, but there should be plenty of other candidates as well, such as Michigan State wideout Donnie Corley, Michigan defensive lineman Rashan Gary (he could start, but the Wolverines haven’t released a depth chart yet) or Ohio State defensive lineman Nick Bosa.
5. Will any LSU players be hitchhiking back to Baton Rouge?
Les Miles seems like a fun guy, but he apparently doesn’t want his players doing the Lambeau Leap against Wisconsin. If the Tigers don’t start the season with a convincing victory against the Badgers, Miles might be the one who wouldn’t mind needing a few days to get back to Louisiana.