With the Fourth Of July holiday in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to buckle down and invoke a detailed look at VegasInsider.com’s seasonal projections for every Big Ten club.
First up, the over/under odds for the West division (via The Daily Gopher), covering only the 12-game regular season (excluding conference championship and bowl action).
This piece promises to be an interesting exercise, given how Vegas Insider has neither regional nor emotional ties to any conference program. Looking at the overall estimates – citing both divisions – it’s fair to wonder if the popular Web site has supreme confidence in the Big Ten during non-league competition.
Namely, there are several crucial ‘swing’ games like Ohio State at Oklahoma, Michigan State at Notre Dame, Oregon at Nebraska, Penn State at Pittsburgh, North Carolina at Illinois and even Cincinnati at Purdue that could tip the scales one way or another.
There isn’t much room for hedging on Vegas Insider’s picks, either, given the “half-win” element to certain projections (for example, Iowa and Nebraska are both slated for 8.5 victories). As everyone knows, college football waved bye-bye to ties a long time ago.
IOWA (8.5 WINS)
Presumptive victories: vs. Miami of Ohio (Sept. 3), vs. Iowa State (Sept. 10), vs. North Dakota State (Sept. 17), at Rutgers (Sept. 24), at Minnesota (Oct. 8), at Purdue (Oct. 15), vs. Wisconsin (Oct. 22)
Reasonably confident: vs. Northwestern (Oct. 1), at Illinois (Nov. 19)
50/50 games: at Penn State (Nov. 5), vs. Michigan (Nov. 12), vs. Nebraska (Nov. 26)
Underdog status: None
The skinny: The Vegas Insider experts were too conservative with the Iowa projection, perhaps thinking last year’s season-ending losses to Michigan State (Big Ten championship) and Stanford (Rose Bowl) would have a desultory effect heading into the fall.
But let’s have perspective here: Things are subject to change, of course, but the Hawkeyes should be Vegas favorites for every regular-season outing – or at least a pick ’em candidate when hosting Michigan in mid-November.
It’s a happy byproduct of having one of the Big Ten’s best quarterbacks (C.J. Beathard), an underrated 1-2 rushing punch (LeShun Daniels Jr., and Akrum Wadley), and experienced offensive line (three returning starters) and a wealth of returning defenders back in the mix (including all-everything cornerback Desmond King).
Bottom line: With no Michigan State or Ohio State on the docket and a viable chance to sweep all five road games, Iowa should be the quickest Big Ten team to 10 victories. As such, the Hawkeyes might also be the last conference squad to fall in 2016 … maybe losing to Penn State or Michigan in the final month.
THE PICK: Over.
NEBRASKA (8.5 WINS)
Presumptive victories: vs. Fresno State (Sept. 3), Wyoming (Sept. 10), vs. Purdue (Oct. 22), vs. Minnesota (Nov. 12), vs. Maryland (Nov. 19)
Reasonably confident: vs. Illinois (Oct. 1), at Indiana (Oct. 15)
50/50 games: vs. Oregon (Sept. 17), at Northwestern (Sept. 24), at Wisconsin (Oct. 29), at Ohio State (Nov. 5), at Iowa (Nov. 25)
Underdog status: None
The skinny: There’s not much middle ground when it comes to evaluating Nebraska’s schedule.
The presumptive victories and “reasonably confident” wins (listed above) are rather elementary at this stage. Plus, the five 50/50 games are difficult to project, with three coming in the season’s final five weeks.
Put it all together, and it’s hard to believe Nebraska (6-7 last year) and Iowa share the same over/under here. Especially since the Hawkeyes host the Huskers in the season-ending showdown. (Strange but true: The road team has won the last four Iowa-Nebraska meetings.)
The key to success? Nebraska must take of two of the three ‘swing’ games to arrive at nine victories. Nebraska hosts Oregon, and 2016 is a good year to face the retooling Ducks). Traveling to Northwestern a week later and then playing at Wisconsin during Halloween weekend are two other opportunities that the Huskers can’t let slip by.
If that can be accomplished, the Cornhuskers have enough offensive pop – featuring QB Tommy Armstrong Jr., tailback Terrell Newby, senior wideouts Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly, Alonzo Moore – to be viewed as default picks for 9-3, with an outside chance at claiming the Big Ten West crown.
WISCONSIN (7 WINS)
Presumptive victories: vs. Akron (Sept. 10), vs. Georgia State (Sept. 17)
Reasonably confident: at Purdue (Nov. 19)
50/50 games: vs. Nebraska (Oct. 29), vs. Illinois (Nov. 12), vs. Minnesota (Nov. 26)
Underdog status: vs. LSU at Lambeau Field (Sept. 3), at Michigan State (Sept. 24), at Michigan (Oct. 1) vs. Ohio State (Oct. 15), at Iowa (Oct. 22), at Northwestern (Nov. 5)
The skinny: With all due respect to the Wisconsin faithful, this stands as the easiest ‘under’ pick among West teams.
The reasoning is that no other Big Ten team can match the Badgers’ gauntlet from late September to early November, which features consecutive outings against Michigan State (road), Michigan (road), Ohio State, Iowa (road), Nebraska and Northwestern (road).
Simply put, Wisconsin might be Vegas underdogs for all six games, greatly hindering the program’s chances of becoming bowl-eligible. Heck, even the Illinois clash on Nov. 12 (at Camp Randall Stadium) won’t be a lock for the Badgers, assuming Fighting Illini quarterback Wes Lunt evolves into one of the conference’s most prolific passers.
Even the Lambeau Field opener against LSU (my pick to win the SEC title) has some foreboding charm to it.
As such, it’s improbable to find seven victories for the year – even if tailbacks Corey Clement (threat for 1,300 yards) and Dare Ogunbowale (1,118 total yards, 8 TDs last year) are running at full capacity.
NORTHWESTERN (6.5 WINS)
Presumptive victories: vs. Western Michigan (Sept. 3), vs. Illinois State (Sept. 10), vs. Indiana (Oct. 22), vs. Wisconsin (Nov. 5), at Purdue (Nov. 12), vs. Illinois (Nov. 26)
Reasonably confident: vs. Duke (Sept. 17), at Minnesota (Nov. 19)
50/50 games: vs. Nebraska (Sept. 24)
Underdog status: at Iowa (Oct. 1), at Michigan State (Oct. 15), at Ohio State (Oct. 29)
The skinny: At first blush, I can empathize with the rationale for underselling Northwestern relative to last year’s 10-win campaign.
The three October roadies against Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State are collectively untenable; and the Big Ten opener against Nebraska comes at an awkward time (immediately before consecutive trips to Iowa City and East Lansing).
Throw in the sneaky-tough meetings with Duke (seeking revenge from last year) and Minnesota (potential for detrimental weather in Minneapolis), and the Wildcats shouldn’t be promised anything above six victories.
On the plus side, however, Northwestern could end up with a perfect record for September and November. If that’s the case, the Wildcats – featuring 1,700-yard rushing candidate Justin Jackson and all-everything linebacker Anthony Walker– would finish well above the threshold of 6.5 victories.
That’s the cool part of having few swing games on the docket: If Northwestern takes care of business, when it’s expected to flourish, the Wildcats would be viable contenders for 10 wins and the Big Ten West crown.
MINNESOTA (6 WINS)
Presumptive victories: vs. Indiana State (Sept. 10), vs. Rutgers (Oct. 22), vs. Purdue (Nov. 5)
Reasonably confident: vs. Oregon State (Sept. 1), at Maryland (Oct. 15)
50/50 games: vs. Colorado State (Sept. 24), at Illinois (Oct. 29), at Wisconsin (Nov. 26)
Underdog status: at Penn State (Oct. 1), vs. Iowa (Oct. 8), at Nebraska (Nov. 12), vs. Northwestern (Nov. 19)
The skinny: Vegas Insider still has time to reconfigure this prediction (one-half point either way); otherwise, we’re staring at the West division’s only ‘push’ pick.
Here’s the rationale for 6-6: We’re presuming defeats against Penn State (road), Nebraska (road), Northwestern and Iowa. We’re also comfortable with projecting wins against Indiana State, Rutgers, Purdue, Maryland and Oregon State.
That leaves three swing games to lament, with two coming at Illinois (Oct. 29) and at Wisconsin (Nov. 26).
The one caveat: I already have Colorado State tabbed as Minnesota’s first loss of the year … meaning a split would have to occur when encountering the Fighting Illini and Badgers on the road.
ILLINOIS (4.5 WINS)
Presumptive victories: vs. Murray State (Sept. 3), vs. Western Michigan (Sept. 17), vs. Purdue (Oct. 8), vs. Minnesota (Oct. 29)
Reasonably confident: at Rutgers (Oct. 15)
50/50 games: vs. North Carolina (Sept. 10), at Wisconsin (Nov. 12)
Underdog status: at Nebraska (Oct. 1), at Michigan (Oct. 22), vs. Michigan State (Nov. 5), vs. Iowa (Nov. 19), at Northwestern (Nov. 26)
The skinny: Longtime NFL coach Lovie Smith might have been a later-than-usual hire in college football circles, not coming about until March, well after National Signing Day. Still, that’s no reason for Vegas Insider to lump Illinois in with Purdue, over/under-wise.
The Fighting Illini have five top-shelf talents in QB Wes Lunt, RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn, DE Dawuane Smoot, DT ‘Chunky’ Clements and LB Hardy Nickerson Jr., and seven viable chances at victory (including 50/50 outings with North Carolina and Wisconsin).
As such, it wouldn’t be shocking if Illinois had already cleared the “4.5” threshold before Halloween Night, with a relaxed chance at becoming bowl-eligible during the final month.
A 6-6 campaign stands as a realistic goal in Year 1 of the Smith era.
PURDUE (4.5 WINS)
Presumptive victories: vs. Eastern Kentucky (Sept. 3), vs. Nevada (Sept. 24)
Reasonably confident: None
50/50 games: vs. Cincinnati (Sept. 10), at Maryland (Oct. 1), at Illinois (Oct. 8), vs. Wisconsin (Nov. 19)
Underdog status: vs. Iowa (Oct. 15), at Nebraska (Oct. 22), vs. Penn State (Oct. 29), at Minnesota (Nov. 5), vs. Northwestern (Nov. 12), at Indiana (Nov. 26)
The skinny: The over/under numbers likely won’t add up for Purdue this season, even if the Boilermakers sweep their non-conference slate, home tilts against Eastern Kentucky, Cincinnati and Nevada.
The problem: There aren’t any “presumptive victories” or “reasonably confident” wins in conference action, and five of the six “underdog” games could be of the blowout variety.
As such, Purdue’s best hope involves four up-for-grabs meetings with Cincinnati, Maryland, Wisconsin and Illinois. If the Boilermakers can prevail three different times, they’d be well positioned for five wins.
And in the Darrell Hazell era, which has wrought painful averages of two wins over the first three years, five victories would be cause for celebration.
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.