The East has the dough, but the West? The West has the show, baby.
P.J. Fleck, a walking fireball of want-to, growling on the sidelines, trying to out-enthuse every other adult in the building. Jeff Brohm rolling into Madison or Iowa City and chucking the ball 55-60 times, just for the hell of it, not because he has to — but because he wants to.
Welcome to the Big Ten West in 2017, where anything goes. And if you ain’t havin’ fun, you ain’t tryin’.
Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst? The laconic interviews are a smoke screen, a possum job. The man’s a play-calling savant. Jet sweep after jet sweep? Safeties playing wildcat quarterback? Fun.
Nebraska’s Mike Riley? Smiling when he’s up, smiling when he’s down. Shaking hands and building a pipeline from the West Coast to Nebraska. Fun.
Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald? ALL CAPS INTENSE GO CATS WOO. Fun.
Illinois’ Lovie Smith? Like your favorite uncle. If you behave, he’ll bring you candy. Fun.
Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz? Ummmmm…
— Hawks101 (@Hawks101101) January 2, 2017
OK, so four out of five ain’t bad.
But throw Fleck at Minnesota and Brohm at Purdue, and suddenly, every pit stop, up and down the map, has life to it.
The Twin Cities goes from the understated Tracy Claeys to Fleck, a man so intense that he’ll put on pads and knock heads with his own players:
No longer are the Boilermakers trying to be Ohio State Lite, or whatever Darrell Hazell’s master plan was.
They’re going to be Mike Leach East. Or Bobby Petrino North. Or somewhere in the middle. Regardless, it won’t be boring.
Or, to put it another way, it won’t be Rutgers.
As for how the division could shake out on the field …
2016 record/postseason: 11-3 (7-2 Big Ten); beat Western Michigan 24-16 in Cotton Bowl
Top losses: OLB J.J. Watt, OLB Vince Biegel, RB Corey Clement, S Leo Musso, CB Sojourn Shelton, QB Bart Houston, WR Robert Wheelwright
Early entry candidates: LT Ryan Ramczyk, Watt have already declared
Top 2017 games: at BYU, vs. Northwestern, at Nebraska, vs. Iowa, vs. Michigan
Outlook: Sunny. After getting zero favors from the 2016 dance card — and winning the West Division anyway — the 2017 slate looks far kinder, on paper. The Badgers’ crossover games are against Maryland, Indiana and Michigan, with the latter visiting Camp Randall Stadium on Nov. 18. Alex Hornibrook is, at worst, capable of holding down the quarterback slot and — lest we forget — as a redshirt freshman helped steer the Badgers through arguably the most difficult league slate in program history. We’re not sure where the ceiling is, but he probably hasn’t reached it yet. At tailback, Bradrick Shaw has home-run speed and all kind of upside, assuming he can take on a bigger workload. Hornibrook’s two best targets, wideout Jazz Peavy and tight end Troy Fumagalli, are slated to be back in the fold, as well more than two-thirds of the starters on the division’s best defense. Remember Jack Cichy? He’s back. Remember Chris Orr, who was basically M.I.A. in ’16? He’s slated to be back, too. Watt, Biegel, Musso and Sojourn will all be missed, and new edge-rushing stars are going to have to emerge from the back. One to keep an eye on: Incoming outside linebacker/defensive end and former FBS quarterback nightmare Andrew Van Ginkel, a potential Watt clone, could be to the Badgers’ defensive front in 2017 what Ramczyk was to the offensive line this past autumn.
2016 record/postseason: 8-5 (6-3 Big Ten); lost to Florida 30-3 in Outback Bowl
Top losses: CB Desmond King, QB C.J. Beathard, RB LeShun Daniels, TE George Kittle, DT Jaleel Johnson, CB Greg Mabin, OT Cole Croston, S Anthony Gair
Early entry candidates: LB Josey Jewell, RB Akrum Wadley, and both say they’re sticking around
Top 2017 games: vs. Penn State, at Michigan State, at Northwestern, vs. Ohio State, at Wisconsin, at Nebraska
Outlook: Mostly clear. The electric Wadley returns to anchor the offense and, with (mostly) new faces duking it out to replace Beathard at quarterback, that’s a fantastic safety blanket to have. Ditto Jewell, especially with an inconsistent secondary behind him losing one of the best boundary defenders ever to wear black and gold in King. Another bonus: senior wideout Matt VandeBerg, who was sorely missed after missing the final eight games with a fracture in his left foot and granted a medical hardship waiver for a fifth year of eligibility. And the more reliable pairs of hands they’ve got on deck, the better, because the crossover games — unlike 2016 — are brutal, with East contenders Penn State (Sept. 23) and Ohio State (Nov. 4) visiting Kinnick Stadium and a trip to Michigan State in the cards for Sept. 30. Plus, the Hawkeyes also have to visit every other West Division contender (at Northwestern on Oct. 21; at Wisconsin on Nov. 11; at Nebraska on Nov. 24), although they won on all three campuses during the magic carpet ride of 2015.
2016 record/postseason: 7-6 (5-4 Big Ten); beat Pittsburgh 31-24 in Pinstripe Bowl
Top losses: MLB Anthony Walker, WR Austin Carr, DE Ifeadi Odenigbo
Early entry candidates: RB Justin Jackson
Top 2017 games: at Wisconsin, vs. Penn State, vs. Iowa, vs. Michigan State, at Nebraska
Outlook: Sunny, but windy. Assuming he’s sticking around, Jackson is as reliable a bell cow as you’ll find in the Big Ten, this program’s rock. The X factor, still, is quarterback Clayton Thorson. Was his improvement in 2016 — 22 touchdown passes, a new single-season school record, and up from just seven as a freshman — a natural progression, or a product of Carr’s unexpected heroics? If the signal-caller’s development mirrors the growth of predecessors such as C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka and Brett Basanez, the Northwestern offense won’t miss a beat. The defense will miss the heck out of Walker, whose production dipped a bit after a jaw-dropping 2015, but at the same time, the Wildcats’ depth is as sound as it’s ever been under coach Pat Fitzgerald. The loss of two starting cornerbacks early in the season would’ve sunk your father’s Northwestern rosters — and it didn’t sink this one. The ‘Cats get crossovers Penn State and Michigan State at home, and as long as Fitzgerald keeps fist-pumping straw into gold, the bowl train should keep rolling on.
2016 record/postseason: 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten); lost to Tennessee 38-24 in Music City Bowl
Top losses: QB Tommy Armstrong Jr., WR Jordan Westerkamp, S Nathan Gerry, MLB Josh Banderas, WR Brandon Reilly, RB Terrell Newby, DT Kevin Maurice, DE Ross Dzuris.
Early entry candidates: CB Chris Jones, who says he plans to return
Top 2017 games: at Oregon, vs. Wisconsin, vs. Ohio State, vs. Northwestern, at Penn State, vs. Iowa
Outlook: Fair but hopeful. If Year 1 of the Mike Riley Era was a feeling-out process and Year 2 was vengeance and assurance, then Year 3 looks to be the official start of the reset button, with mainstays such as Armstrong, Westerkamp, Maurice, Banderas and Gerry out and Riley’s recruits forming more of the foundation. And the new blood won’t have much time to settle in, with a visit to Eugene, Ore., on the docket for Sept. 9 and visits from College Football Playoff contenders Wisconsin and Ohio State trekking to Lincoln on back-to-back weekends to open October. The wideout options are deep and both lines should progress, but the quarterback derby could be as wide open and wacky as it’s ever been. Tulane transfer Tanner Lee? Patrick O’Brien? Tristan Gebbia? Zack Darlington? The quicker the new signal-caller gets up to speed, the quicker the Huskers will, too.
2016 record/postseason: 9-4 (5-4 Big Ten); beat Washington State 17-12 in Holiday Bowl
Top losses: QB Mitch Leidner, CB Jalen Myrick, S Damarius Travis, DE Hendrick Ekpe, DT Scott Ekpe, WR Drew Wolitarsky, OT Jonah Pirsig
Early entry candidates: NT Steven Richardson
Top 2017 games: at Oregon State, vs. Michigan State, at Iowa, at Michigan, vs. Nebraska, vs. Wisconsin
Outlook: Wet. It’s Row the Boat time in the Land of 10,000 lakes, with new coach P.J. Fleck serving as an injection of fresh blood — and caffeine — to a program that’s scrambling to put out a public-relations dumpster fire. A group of 10 players face either suspension or expulsion for their role in an alleged sexual assault that took place off campus last September, and a player revolt after the university investigated the aforementioned incident ultimately cost coach Tracy Claeys his job. The fallout is still being felt — many former players, especially those who played under Claeys and Claeys’ mentor, Jerry Kill, are furious — and until the dust settles, the Gophers are the biggest wild cards in the division right now. It’s a solid roster, one that could either unify over the furor of Claeys’ dismissal — or completely scatter. Younger players could defect en masse, putting Fleck behind the 8-ball before he’s barely settled in. With quality skill guys on hand in tailbacks Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks and foundation pieces such as Richardson (presumably) to build around, the cupboard, on paper, is anything but bare. But if none of those players sticks around and Fleck inherits scorched earth, the rebuilding process in the Twin Cities is going to have to start all over again. The long way.
2016 record/postseason: 3-9 (2-7 Big Ten); no bowl
Top losses: QB Wes Lunt, DE Dawuane Smoot, DT Chunky Clements, DE Carroll Phillips, LB Hardy Nickerson, S Taylor Barton, C Joe Spencer, OT Austin Schmidt
Early entry candidates: None
Top 2017 games: at USF, vs. Nebraska, at Iowa, vs. Wisconsin, at Ohio State, vs. Northwestern
Outlook: Mostly cloudy. Digging out of the Tim Beckman ditch was never going to be an overnight deal, and some outsiders are starting to wonder if Lovie Smith realized just how deep the hole really was. With junior college studs Delshawn Phillips and Dwayne Lawson helping to headline the class of 2017 at linebacker and quarterback, respectively, immediate help is on the way — and more will be coming. During the short spell in which the athletic Chayce Crouch was under center, one got the feeling that this was closer to what Smith’s vision of the Illini is supposed to look like, at least offensively: fast, multi-faceted and dangerous. Unfortunately for Lovie, it’s going to take a few more recruiting classes to see that vision all the way through.
2016 record/postseason: 3-9 (1-8 Big Ten); no bowl
Top losses: DT Jake Replogle, WR DeAngelo Yancey, G Jordan Roos
Early entry candidates: None
Top 2017 games: vs. Louisville, at Missouri, vs. Michigan, at Wisconsin, vs. Nebraska, vs. Indiana
Outlook: Hazy, but only in the short-term. The Boilermakers’ schedule and roster are a combination made in purgatory, but we’ll bet you Jim Harbaugh’s lunch that Purdue next fall will provide a whole mess of something we haven’t seen out of West Lafayette in ages: entertainment. A program that prided itself as “The Cradle of Quarterbacks” has a quarterback whisperer again in new coach Jeff Brohm, which means basketball on grass is back: Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty threw for 48 touchdowns under Brohm in 2015; his successor, Mike White, threw for 37 scores in his first year as a starter this past fall. Think Mike Leach without the goofy, and you’ve got a pretty good idea where this narrative is going, at least offensively — the names will change, but the numbers shouldn’t. Now we have no clue if Brohm can put together a Big Ten-worthy offensive line or a defense that can complement a pass-first-ask-questions-later attack, but for the first time since Joe Tiller left town, Purdue football has an identity again, and has a good shot to beat someone it shouldn’t. Maybe two or three someones, now that you mention it.