Big Ten West: 10 bold predictions for the 2016 season
It’s always fun to walk the plank of potential embarrassment in this digital age of archival documentation.
But then again, we wouldn’t have it any other way. There is no fear of failure here.
Land Of 10 offers a whimsical look at 10 bold predictions for the Big Ten football season (in relative chronological order), with today’s batch covering the West division. We’ll tackle the East later this week.
1. Minnesota tailback Rodney Smith will eclipse 100 rushing yards in his first two games
There are only three certainties in life: Death, taxes and deflating injuries on the football field.
In Minnesota’s case, the Golden Gophers might have to endure the entire non-conference slate of Oregon State (Sept. 1), Indiana State (Sept. 10) and Colorado State (Sept. 24) without sophomore tailback Shannon Brooks, who stealthily rushed for 709 yards and seven touchdowns last year, while logging only 119 carries.
Brooks (foot injury; possibly out until mid-to-late September) represents the Big Ten’s only returning rusher to post a 2015 yards-per-carry average of 6.0 or higher (minimum: 90 rushes). Within that success, Brooks held supreme averages of 125.2 rushing yards and 1.5 touchdowns when collecting 14 or more carries in games.
The injury absence subsequently opens the door for Smith (670 rushing yards, 2 TDs last year) to forge a blazing start in Big Ten circles.
With Oregon State, Minnesota will encounter the nation’s 114th-ranked rush defense last season (226 yards per outing). It wasn’t any prettier from a scoring perspective: Of their nine Pac-12 games in 2015, the Beavers allowed 40 or more points seven times.
Things look similarly rosy for Smith the following week. Against primarily FCS competition last year, Indiana State gave up 27 or more points eight times; and from a ground-oriented perspective, Purdue shredded the Sycamores for 251 rushing yards … without any Boilermakers ball carrier crossing the 100-yard threshold.
What’s more, Smith should be ready for the early workload. Citing the four September games from last year, he averaged 18 carries and 91 rushing yards.
2. Illinois’ Wes Lunt will be the first Big Ten QB to 350 yards passing in a single game
Most monster passing days are the byproduct of passing volume (attempts and completions) and the track record of the opposing defense; and Lunt has the bases covered in four of his first six games this fall.
For starters, in 2015, Lunt (2,761 yards passing, 15 total TDs) was the Big Ten leader in completions (270) and passing attempts (481).
Regarding opponents, FCS program Murray State (the Illini’s Sept. 3 opener) allowed the following per-game averages to the starting quarterbacks for Northern Illinois and Western Michigan last season: 27 of 34 for 357 yards and four touchdowns.
Among the Big Ten defenses on Illinois’ immediate docket, Nebraska (121st nationally in passing yards allowed), Rutgers (118th) and Purdue (89th) all finished in the bottom third against the pass last season.
Here are more stats to suggest a next-level Lunt breakout:
- Lunt has tossed four touchdowns in each season opener with Illinois (2014, 2015).
- He averaged 42 pass attempts in his final 11 games last year.
- The Illini offense amassed 595 total yards and 29 first downs against the Boilermakers last season, while collecting a robust 7.5 yards per play.
- Rutgers surrendered 30-plus points nine times last season — including seven of the final eight weeks.
- In 2015, Illinois averaged 37 points in its five victories.
3. Nebraska tailback Terrell Newby will score three touchdowns against Oregon (Sept. 17)
This represents the least likely bold prediction … only because Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. (57 total touchdowns for 2014/15) has a similarly stellar chance at three or four TDs against Oregon, which ranked 73rd against the run (179 yards per game), 115th in scoring defense and 125th in pass defense last year.
What’s more, citing three full seasons with the Cornhuskers, Newby has collected 20 or more carries just once.
That aside, we’re happy to ride this hunch, in what promises to be the most entertaining (read: highest-scoring) Big Ten game of September. Bar none.
Newby posted only two dominant outings last year, racking up 236 total yards (198 rushing) and three touchdowns against South Alabama and 136 total yards/two TDs against Minnesota (above video). All told, though, the tailback has four career games of multiple touchdowns.
4. Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker will collect 20 tackles in a game
Walker took a major step forward last season, registering four sacks and 120 tackles. He also claimed the Big Ten crown in tackles for loss (20.5 — citing NCAA.com), toppling the elite-level likes of Penn State’s Carl Nassib, Wisconsin’s Joe Schobert, Ohio State’s Joey Bosa and, on a national scale, Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett, who could be the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NFL draft.
So, what’s in store for Walker’s junior year with the Wildcats?
For starters, he’ll be leading a Northwestern defense that posted top-25 rankings last year in five vital categories — scoring defense (12th nationally), total defense (12th), fewest first downs allowed (19th), rushing defense (21st) and passing defense (23rd).
Actually, carrying might be the more applicable term, considering how the Wildcats lost three defensive studs to graduation (Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson, Drew Smith). This could result in Walker getting special attention from opposing blockers — a move that would either free the Wildcats’ other playmakers for positive results or expose the defensive unit as a hollowed-out remnant of better days.
In 2015, Walker posted six games of double-digit tackles, a healthy figure that’s likely to be replicated this fall. However, he only came close to the magical ’20’ mark once last season — 19 tackles against Duke.
Luckily, the Blue Devils can be found on the Wildcats’ schedule once more; and it’ll be interesting to see how Duke’s cadre of playmakers adjust to the speed of Northwestern’s linebackers … and relative slowness of the traditionally thick Ryan Field turf.
5. Iowa shall remain undefeated heading into the first Saturday of November
Hawkeye fans couldn’t have asked for a more favorable start to the 2016 campaign:
- Iowa’s toughest September opponent might be North Dakota State, the defending national champs at the FCS level (no more Carson Wentz).
- The most daunting October opponent will likely be Northwestern. Last season, the Hawkeyes walloped the Wildcats on the road, 40-10.
- Iowa could be prohibitive Vegas favorites for all five road games — at Rutgers (Sept. 24), at Minnesota (Oct. 8), at Purdue (Oct. 15), at Penn State (Nov. 5) and at Illinois (Nov. 19).
- The Hawkeyes have only one seasonal date with the Big Ten’s three East powers (Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan), hosting the Wolverines on Nov. 12.
Iowa and Michigan deserve to be mentioned in the same breath: The programs have reasonable schedules in the first two months, acknowledging the possibility of dueling 9-0 records leading into the mid-November showdown.
With this unblemished occurrence, the Big Ten could be looking at a No. 1 versus No. 2 scenario (national rankings), evoking powerful memories of the 1985 season, when top-ranked Iowa edged No. 2 Michigan in a low-scoring classic.
6. Badgers tailback Corey Clement clears 175 yards rushing against Georgia State and Nebraska
Clement has the size, speed and explosive upside to approach 200 yards against a handful of opponents this season, namely Georgia State (76th in rushing last year) and Purdue (108th nationally).
As for Nebraska … we’re simply playing a high-risk hunch against one of the nation’s strongest rushing units last year.
Clement (11 total TDs in 2014) has an impressive rate of 6.6 yards per carry, off just 262 collegiate rushes. When collecting 13 or more carries (12 career games of this occurrence), he averages 103 yards rushing and one TD.
Against Rutgers last season, Clement required only 11 touches for 115 yards and three scores.
7. Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel will lead the conference in sacks
Defensive linemen typically represent the best candidates for conference sack titles, such as Penn State’s Carl Nassib (2015 national sack champion), Ohio State’s Joey Bosa, Indiana’s Nick Mangieri or Northwestern’s Deonte Gibson from last season.
But we’re thinking outside the box in 2016. Instead of targeting front-liners like Michigan State’s Malik McDowell, Ohio State’s Tyquan Lewis, Michigan’s Chris Wormley, Illinois’ Dawuane Smoot or Iowa’s Jaleel Johnson, this could be the Year Of The Linebacker in Big Ten action — a list which favors Northwestern’s Anthony Walker, Penn State’s Brandon Bell, MSU’s Riley Bullough and the aforementioned Biegel.
Citing the last two seasons (16 games total), the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Biegel boasts cumulative tallies of 10 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss. That works out to 0.63 sacks and 1.34 tackles for loss per game … or eight sacks and 17 tackles for loss if Biegel plays a full season.
Is that enough to win the Big Ten sacks crown in 2016? In this year of transition in the trenches, a shade under double digits might do the trick.
8. Iowa claims the Big Ten title with turnover margin
This could be an interesting four-way battle among Iowa, Michigan State (fourth nationally in turnover margin last year), Northwestern and Illinois — depending on how quickly new head coach Lovie Smith can right the Illini’s defensive ship.
But in the end, it makes sense to ride the Hawkeyes, who possess an All-American cornerback (Jim Thorpe Award winner Desmond King), a proficient defense (22nd in total defense last season) and a stacked secondary (three returning starters, plus high-upside safety Brandon Snyder).
For good measure, Iowa ranked 10th nationally in passes intercepted last year (tops in the Big Ten).
9. Purdue knocks off Wisconsin in mid-November, a last-ditch effort to keep Darrell Hazell’s job
The Boilermakers have never been a bowl consideration in the Hazell era (2013 through 2015), tallying just six wins over three seasons; and truth be told, they probably won’t be a postseason factor in 2016, either.
But rest assured, better days are ahead.
Last year’s crazy upset of Nebraska (55-45), where Purdue quarterback David Blough accounted for 356 total yards (274 passing) and five touchdowns, might have been the first tent-pole accomplishment in the Boilermakers’ eventual return to prominence.
For its next momentous step, Purdue must handle the non-conference slate (Eastern Kentucky, Cincinnati, Nevada) and then upend at least one prominent school in Big Ten action — preferably a team with a strong defense.
Enter Wisconsin, the nation’s top-ranked scoring defense in 2015.
The Badgers lost a number of strong assets from last season’s group (including defensive coordinator Dave Aranda) and could be ripe for an upset come mid-November, the dispiriting effect of weathering perhaps the nation’s toughest schedule in 2016 (LSU, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern).
10. The Big Ten West will have two top-15 teams in the final College Football Playoff poll
As the predictive Big Ten West champion, Iowa will enter the postseason with an 11-2 or 10-3 record. After that, the Hawkeyes shall prevail in either the Rose, Citrus or Outback bowls.
Next up, we’re looking to the Nebraska-Northwestern winner (Sept. 24) to own second place in the West division and subsequently prevail in the Outback or TaxSlayer bowls.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.