Big Ten West breakdown: It’s a successful season if…
Success is an elusive term in college football. A seven-win season might be cause for celebration at Rutgers or Purdue, but it would stir some uneasy feelings at Ohio State or Michigan. All programs are in different stages of building, rebuilding or trying to remain on top, and the 2016 season presents a crucial test for all of them.
So what will determine a successful season for each team? Let’s take a look at the Big Ten West …
It’s a successful season if: The Hawkeyes win the division and return to both the Big Ten championship game and a New Year’s Day-caliber bowl. Fans are hankering to see the good work of last fall pushed to the next level with a win in the title game and a berth in the College Football Playoff, but that’s probably the ceiling. And yet it’s also tantalizingly within reach, right here, right now.
Why it should happen: The returning talent fits. The quarterback fits. The defense fits. The schedule fits. Silverware isn’t won on paper, but the Hawkeyes are setting up at least as sexy as they were a year ago. Naysayers — that is, everyone outside the state — will probably again dog the Hawkeyes as a beneficiary of good fortune and circumstances, label them a paper tiger, but history doesn’t give a damn about how the trophy got in the case to begin with.
And if it doesn’t: It’s back to talking — and talking and talking and talking and talking and talking — about the highest point in Iowa, otherwise known as coach Kirk Ferentz’s buyout. Both the coach and university are reportedly discussing an extension again, and the last time things got serious, after an Orange Bowl victory in 2010, Iowa re-upped with Ferentz through 2020 — a gambit many fans regretted mightily in 2011-14 as the Hawkeyes slid down the league pecking order. Ferentz’s teams really do seem to run in cycles, and fortunately for the locals, the current core doesn’t look as if it’ll turn back into a pumpkin anytime soon.
It’s a successful season if: The Cornhuskers look remotely, well, Cornhuskery again. Running over people at will. Pounding down the opposition’s throats on 3rd-and-4 instead of dropping back to pass. Oh, and winning. Given the agonizing array of close losses last fall in a 6-7 debut — to say nothing of a bowl bid that probably wouldn’t have happened in 98 years out of 100 — the minimum expected of coach Mike Riley in Year 2 is a winning season. And a winning season that includes at least a share of the division title is absolutely, unequivocally within reach.
Why it should happen: We’ll lean on two numbers: 13, as in returning starters, and minus-12, as in turnover ratio. The former keeps the Riley train moving forward again, and it seems inconceivable that the latter number would be close or worse this fall. Nobody runs with that kind of bad luck chasing them all the time, unless you’re Charlie Brown.
And if it doesn’t: Ask Bill Callahan how quickly a state of ordinarily very nice people can turn on you in absolute rage. If Riley dances with mediocrity — or worse — his seat in Lincoln becomes white-hot immediately. And it’ll be even hotter for the man who hired him, athletic director Shawn Eichorst, whose style was napalmed about 18 times over by former coach Bo Pelini during — and especially after — the latter’s tenure.
It’s a successful season if: The Wildcats stay more or less on course, bowl for consecutive years for the first time since 2011-12, and quarterback Clayton Thorson hits the next level — consistency — as a passer.
Why it should happen: One of the highest-rated prep signal-callers ever to commit to Northwestern, Thorson has the kind of raw tools, and size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) that portend progress. The Wildcats have made hay with dink-and-dunk masters at quarterback for more than a decade, and if Thorson adds that to his already impressive ground game, this offense goes from one-dimensional and non-risk-taking to scary-good and this team goes from salty to a bona fide West division contender. And with this kind of defense and this kind of depth — both the best they’ve ever been under Pat Fitzgerald — it might just be that kind of contender anyway, regardless of who’s under center.
And if it doesn’t: Old grumbles about Fitzgerald’s game-day conservatism and the future of offensive coordinator Mick McCall are back on the table. Although let’s be real here: unless the beefs come hard and fast from the desk of athletic director Jim Phillips or from a prominent alum — Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, etc. — old No. 51 pretty much has carte blanche to run the show as he likes. Fitzgerald does many things well as a coach, but kowtowing to change for the sake of change is not one of them.
It’s a successful season if: See Nebraska. Only replace “Cornhuskery” with “Badgery.”
Why it should happen: Because if the Badgers run the ball the way they did last fall — just 150 yards per game and just 3.8 yards per carry — again, athletic director Barry Alvarez may strangle a small mammal. But unlike Nebraska and Iowa (and Minnesota, too), the schedule does Wisconsin zero favors and leaves Paul Chryst with precious little margin for error. If tailback Corey Clement has his head and health together and the offensive line builds off that Holiday Bowl mojo, Bucky ought to pretty much look like Bucky again.
And if it doesn’t: The gauntlet of a dance card, one that opens with nine straight teams that bowled in 2015, lowers expectations among the more reasonable sectors of the kingdom. But if the bar is 10 wins or more, that bar figures to be an absolute bear to reach this time around. Still, the honeymoon isn’t over quite yet for Chryst, and how close the final victory ledger gets to double digits will determine just how loud the cries are for change — or even tweaks — in Madison.
It’s a successful season if: The Gophers win at least seven games, beat Iowa and beat Wisconsin. Or some combination of two of the three.
Why it should happen: Mitch Leidner might be the best quarterback in the division that nobody talks much about, and his size (6-4, 237) and run-pass skill-set fits the kind of up-tempo, zone-read approach that coach Tracy Claeys prefers. Unlike their rivals in Madison, the first nine games are all winnable, assuming an upset can be wrung out of a trip to Happy Valley or against the Hawkeyes at home. With a few breaks, it’s not crazy talk to float the Gophers as the West team with the best shot of surprising the way Iowa did in 2015.
And if it doesn’t: Get ready for many, many, many, many, many conversations about Jerry Kill. Pro and con.
It’s a successful season if: The Illini bowl. Or at least have enough of a pulse that fans walk away forgetting that the Tim Beckman years ever happened.
Why it should happen: New coach Lovie Smith knows defense, even if he doesn’t necessarily know the Big Ten. Quarterback Wes Lunt has a few nice toys to play with, most notably sophomore tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn. You can never have too many Hardy Nickersons in a pinch, and Illinois finds itself with two in Senior (the defensive coordinator) and Junior (the middle linebacker).
And if it doesn’t: At least Lovie has time on his side. And goodwill. And, most importantly, the fact that he isn’t Beckman. Athletic director Josh Whitman is conducting an interesting experiment, at the least, with Smith’s hiring. Whether that experiment also makes Illini football actually relevant again, time will tell.
It’s a successful season if: Boilermakers fans can talk about a bowl bid without rolling their eyes or reaching for sharp objects. If all the stars lined up right, the schedule could set up for a decent start — maybe even a 4-1 record or 5-0 going into a homecoming date with Iowa on Oct. 15, depending on how quickly the regimes at Maryland and Illinois have their respective acts together. Falling short of a bowl, bringing back the Old Oaken Bucket — Indiana is 3-0 versus Hazell in the series, and the Hoosiers haven’t taken four straight from the Boilers since 1944-47 — would be a nice thing to stick on the front of the media guide, if nothing else.
Why it should happen: It’s not that some pieces aren’t there. We love high-motor defensive tackles, and Jake Replogle revs like an Oldsmobile 442. Linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley is a hammer, and tailback Markell Jones (10 TDs last fall) is classic workhorse material. The core physical pieces are there to be a credible Big Ten-caliber squad. But if the quarterback slot — at “The Cradle of Quarterbacks” no less — continues to resemble a small dumpster fire and the new cornerbacks can’t hold up their end of the bargain, Purdue ain’t going anywhere.
And if it doesn’t: Mass gnashing of teeth. No. Very, very very loud gnashing of teeth. Already off to the worst winning percentage of any Purdue coach (6-30, or .167) with three or more seasons under their respective belts, Hazell’s political capital ran out ages ago. But he also has the coach’s best friend and an impatient fan base’s worst nightmare: A hefty buyout. According to the Indianapolis Star, the embattled Hazell will be due $4.45 million if let go after this season and $2.25 million if it’s after 2017. Hazell probably won’t be on the to-do list for outgoing athletic director Morgan Burke, who retires next July. But you better believe that if things don’t change, and quickly, it’ll be item No. 1 at the top of the list of Burke’s eventual successor.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler