The Big Ten football media days wrapped up last week.
Minnesota head coach PJ Fleck was his usual energetic self, preaching the gospel of rowing the boat and his program on the rise.
I tend to be dubious of his bloviated statements. He is full of charisma, but I’ve heard he can wear some assistants and players thin with his antics.
But the hype might be real in year 3 of the Fleck era.
“We’re really excited for the season, 17 returning starters. Went from the youngest team in America last year, now I think we’re the second youngest, so we moved up one spot possibly,” Fleck said last week in Chicago. “That doesn’t mean you can’t win. We’re just young. And close to 80 percent of our team is only freshman and sophomores, which is exciting. But our upperclassmen have truly done a great job of leading this football team, and a lot of them are here with us today, which we’ll talk about.”
Minnesota went 5-7 in year one and improved to 7-6. These are pretty solid results considering the way Fleck cleaned house from the previous Jerry Kill regime and went to war mostly with his own guys.
As he noted, this year’s squad is still very young. Rodney Smith looks to have a great senior year, but most of his pals at the skill positons and quarterback are underclassmen. The starting line is likely to be juniors and younger.
The defense is a little more experienced with senior Carter Coughlin leading at defensive end and good experience at linebacker. The return of redshirt sophomore Antoine Winfield will be a huge boost to the secondary.
That blowout win at Wisconsin to finally reclaim Paul Bunyan’s Ax was a huge, huge accomplishment for the program. So was demolishing Georgia Tech in a bowl game as well as throttling the same Purdue team that took it to Ohio State.
The Gophers’ only loss in their final four games was by 10 to eventual West champ, Northwestern.
I still think Minnesota is a year away from contending to go to the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis, but it’s not inconceivable for them to have a dream season.
The wide open West
Northwestern should be improved on offense where Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson steps in at quarterback with a lot of skill guys back. The defense also has weapons back. Pat Fitzgerald is one of the country’s top coaches and the school’s new athletic facilities make recruiting a lot easier. The Wildcats are my pick to defend the West but I think they do so with a 6-2 record.
On the ‘cats’ heels are Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue and Wisconsin. Sorry Illinois, but it’s not your year.
Iowa has a potential top-five NFL Draft pick in junior defensive end AJ Epenesa as well as a future NFL quarterback in Nate Stanley. The Hawkeyes have a grueling schedule, though, and may be eliminated from contention thanks to games at Michigan and Wisconsin.
Nebraska in my opinion is a year away from contending, but former Husker Scott Frost has the fans in Lincoln buzzing. The Cornhuskers won four of their last six games with the two losses coming at No. 8 Ohio State (36-31) and at nine-win Iowa (31-28). It made up for an 0-6 start to Frost’s first season at the helm. If the cards fall right, Adrian Martinez could be a Heisman candidate at quarterback for an offense that was already humming. Most of the defense is back from a young unit that allowed a lot of yards.
Purdue has another strong coach in Jeff Brohm. Rondale Moore is the smallest, yet perhaps strongest athlete pound for pound in the country. He can carry or catch the ball and gives the Boilermakers a fun safety valve that terrorized Ohio State. Purdue has a lot of talent to replace, but I expect them to be a tough out every week.
Wisconsin could be in for a down year by its standards. I think that’ll sit just fine with fans of the maroon and gold. The Badgers will refresh most of their vaunted offensive line, though that’s usually a reload scenario in Madison instead of rebuild. Fortunately for Wisconsin, Heisman candidate Jonathan Taylor is back as one of the country’s top running backs. UW will be new at quarterback, too. The defense had one of its worst showings in recent years, but is expected to improve. That’s especially so in the secondary that was made up of mostly underclassmen in 2018.
My projected order of finish in the Big Ten West: 1. Northwestern, 2. Iowa, 3. Minnesota, 4. Wisconsin, 5. Nebraska, 6. Purdue, 7. Illinois
And in the East: 1. Michigan, 2. Ohio State, 3. Penn State, 4. Michigan State, 5. Maryland, 6. Indiana, 7. Rutgers