Thoughts and Prayers: The Big Ten Season Is Here
Thoughts, prayers, and rambling musings about college football and the Big Ten season going into a big 2022, starting with …
EVEN BONAPARTE HAD A RESPECTABLE DEFENSIVE FRONT
The Nebraska onside kick in the third quarter against Northwestern made as much sense as Napoleon’s decision in June of 1812 to invade Russia.
And Scott Frost’s decision played a role in the 31-28 loss in a game the Huskers badly needed.
But the things that nobody considers are:
Northwestern – 214 rushing yards on 47 carries.
Northwestern dominated time of possession – 34:14 to Nebraska’s 25:46.
Northwestern’s Ryan Hilinski – 314 yards on 27 of 38 passing.
And Nebraska rushed for 110 yards on 31 carries.
Nebraska, once again, found a way to lose a game it was in the process of winning.
Toughness in the trenches used to be one of the definitive elements of Nebraska Football.
However, the real takeaway from this game was the way Northwestern manhandled a team that used to manhandle teams to epic degrees.
Nebraska and Scott Frost have a lot of work to do – and not a lot of time to get that work done.
WEEK ZERO MOSTEL
I’m sorry – it simply defies logic.
That means, by definition, that the week doesn’t exist, and I watched college football games on several of my televisions this weekend.
The games counted.
If we’re going to try to treat the initial slate of games as something other than a part of the actual season, it’s time to re-brand the first weekend of games.
Suggestions that would make equal or more sense than “Week 0”:
Day Scrambled Eggs.
Late Summer Applesauce.
CAUGHT IN A RUNDOWN BETWEEN THIRD AND HOME
I’m going to say it this way –
There’s absolutely no excuse for Ohio State to not win the national championship. Ryan Day has the program on third base, and now he has to get it home.
This team seemingly has 219 First Round draft picks on its roster.
There are eleven student athletes who will compete against each other for the Walter Camp Award – and the other award, the Heisman Trophy.
The quarterback could probably start for a dozen NFL teams.
Number 11 is almost too good to be allowed to compete due to his freakishly dominant skills.
And, apparently, defensive coordinator Jim Knowles will unleash Buddy Ryan’s 1985 Junkyard Dogs.
Does every behemoth need to be on high alert in order to avoid letdowns?
But Columbus should blast every team on its schedule, steamroll its way to the College Football Playoff, and pound the SEC opponent to claim the title.
It’s national championship or bust. It’s win it all or nothing. It’s Day’s time to get the team home – he’s been able to get to the national title game, but that’s not enough this time around.
Columbus – even though we’ve only just completed Week Nothing, the clock is ticking and you’re up.
BOILERS, ROSS-ADE, AND SOME REALITIES RELATED TO FOOTBALL IN WEST LAFAYETTE
The idea that the West Lafayette team doesn’t register on the “Relevance Meter” took a blow when the Boilermakers handed Tennessee a bowl defeat at a stadium that was, basically, a reconfigured General Neyland Stadium.
Purdue went 9-4 last season with impressive wins.
Taking down a red-hot Michigan State at Ross-Ade counted.
Taking down a good Hawkeye team counted.
And taking down the Vols in the bowl game really, really counted.
Typical Purdue reality – quarterback Aidan O’Connell led the nation’s fifth-best passing attack with an average of 440 yards through the air last year. He’s back for his sixth year and will play like the veteran that he is.
Jeff Brohm will need O’Connell’s experience since explosive receiver David Bell is off to the NFL – but there are standard Boiler pass catchers ready to step in.
Brohm needs his beefeaters up front ready to pave the way for a rushing attack that needs to be more than serviceable – even though the offense will be all about O’Connell.
Am I suggesting Purdue is ready to take on Columbus for Big Ten supremacy?
Will Purdue compete for the Big Ten West title and give everyone fits?
It’s going to be a problem for the rest of the Big Ten.
WHEN A ROWBOAT IS A CANOE IN NEED OF AN OUTBOARD MOTOR
My podcasting partner and lifelong prognosticator, JStone, is more bullish on the Gophers than he is on the lamb chops at Chicago’s decadent nightclub, Fame.
PJ Fleck is entering his sixth season in Minneapolis, and he has done good things.
Does anyone know that Minnesota won nine games last season?
Losses to Bowling Green and Illinois are more representative of this program than the close-but-no-cigar effort against Columbus.
Fleck’s Gophers are a trendy pick to win the West.
Last year, this team finished third in the country in time of possession, third in the conference in rushing, and had a passing attack that was serviceable enough.
Like Purdue, Minnesota has a veteran quarterback in Tanner Morgan who can throw and run – he’s entering his fifth year.
Morgan connected for 30 touchdowns in 2019 – he can whip the ball around.
What should give Jerry Lundegaard reason to be excited, though, is the Gopher ground game.
The line is strong and the running back room is loaded with guys who can pound the ball.
My man JStone isn’t urinating into the wind with his position on the Gophers.
Enough of the stout defense is back.
When it comes to a program like Minnesota, I take a cautionary position.
Show me more.
Now is the moment for this coach and program and there isn’t the luxury of six or eight bye weeks.
Fleck has rowed the boat very, very well. Now he has to bring it ashore and get to the Big Ten Championship.
DEFENDING A CHAMPIONSHIP WHILE BATTLING FOR IN-STATE SUPREMACY
Michigan is the defending Big Ten Champion for the first time since the 2004 title the program won.
Jim Harbaugh slayed the dragon and reached the College Football Playoff.
Michigan has players – this is the case every single year.
Michigan has two talented quarterbacks – but there’s the old axiom says when you have two quarterbacks, you might not have a quarterback.
That might be a bit harsh since both Cade McNamara and JJ McCarthy are truly talented field generals and maybe the two-quarterback system can work under the tutelage of The Quarterback Whisperer.
The losses on defense – Aidan Hutchinson, Daxton Hill, and David Ojaba – will be hard to replace but this is Michigan and that’s what this program is supposed to be able to do.
Lost in all of the talk about how Michigan finally found a way to beat Columbus is the fact that it lost – again – to the program that has a 10-5 edge in the in-state rivalry over the last 15 seasons.
Mel Tucker has the engine revving in East Lansing and he’s 2-0 against Michigan, continuing the way Michigan State has dominated this rivalry dating back to the start of the Mark Dantonio Era.
These two programs will wage war again this season and the dynamics don’t seem to be on the verge of changing.
In last season’s battle in East Lansing, State ran for 197 yards, executed an epic comeback from 16 points down that featured huge plays, huge fourth down conversions, two separate two-point conversions, and an all-timer of a performance from Kenneth Walker III that included five touchdowns.
Payton Thorne is back this season after an underrated sophomore year when he threw for 27 touchdowns and 3,233 yards.
His lifelong best pal, Jayden Reed, hauled in just over 1,000 yards with ten touchdowns and is the Big Ten’s best receiver not wearing #11.
The experts will point to Kenneth Walker III’s departure for the NFL – and that’s fair.
But the additions of transfers Jalen Berger (Wisconsin) and Jarek Broussard (Colorado) combined with a stable of ball carriers should fill the void if the offensive line can continue to evolve.
Tucker’s mission since last season – improve the nation’s worst (“dead ass last”) pass defense.
When a team has the nation’s worst pass defense and finishes 11-2, defeats its rival, wins its New Year’s Six bowl game, and finishes in the Top 10, what does that say about the foundation, the talent and depth, the schemes, and the possibilities if the pass defense improves to, say, 56th in the nation?
Michigan, meanwhile, en route to last season’s conference title led the conference in rushing, allowed the fewest sacks in the Big Ten, and racked up 443 yards of offense per game.
After missing last season, Michigan’s Ronnie Bell should be a big factor at wide receiver for either quarterback and Erik All is a beast at tight end.
Cornelius Johnson and Andrell Anthony round out a talented batch of skill players and Blake Corum’s 952 yards of rushing last season showed that he’s posed for more.
October 29th is a massive day not just for football in the state of Michigan – it’s a massive day for the Big Ten and college football, in general.
If State stampedes into Ann Arbor where it’s 5-2 dating back to Dantonio’s first trip there and does what it’s done in this rivalry consistently, will people begin to recognize what’s been happening here?
Jim Harbaugh and Mel Tucker might not be firing off heavies in the way Harbaugh and Dantonio did – but these two aren’t exchanging Christmas cards and Tucker has let the facts speak for themselves.
Yes, Michigan is the defending Big Ten Champion – but when it comes to this rivalry, one school seems to have a far more intense approach that has worked now for a long time.
The Columbus – Michigan thing always has been and always will be epic.
But the thing that exists between Michigan and Michigan State has a whole lot of drama and storylines and intensity and, yes, fun baked into it and it’s a much more important element related to Big Ten supremacy than most people realize.
IF WINNING IS BORING, COLOR IOWA BORING
Why will Iowa be very good in 2022?
Because that’s what Iowa does.
Michigan was on a magic carpet ride and stomped on the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten Championship last season.
But Iowa, once again, played for the Big Ten Championship.
Critics of Iowa say the program is boring.
If winning is boring, call me a fan of boring.
The Hawkeyes didn’t light the world in fire offensively – this is Iowa, the team that won its division and reached the conference championship game – but it does have to be better than horrible.
Think of it this way – Iowa got to the Big Ten Championship with no offense.
But the defense was its standard stout brick wall.
The Hawkeyes finished the season ninth in the country in yards allowed and surrendered only 20 points per game.
Cornerback Riley Moss is back after missing last season due to injury and he’s going to be a major impact on an already strong overall defensive unit.
Jack Campbell and Seth Benson are the two best linebackers in all of college football that nobody has heard of and they’ll wreak havoc on opponents all season.
The big question for Kirk Ferentz is whether one of his two veteran quarterbacks can step up and be a difference making type of playmaker.
Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla both have experience and can manage a game.
Can they elevate the offense with electricity and explosiveness? Will it REALLY matter if they don’t?
If winning the Big Ten West is boring … okay.
TIME TO SWITCH UP THE MUSTARD ON THE BRATWURST?
Wisconsin has people conditioned to unconditionally respect it because of how the Badgers “make the most out of what they have” and all of that stuff.
Wisconsin hasn’t won the Big Ten Championship since 2012.
The Badgers last victory in the Rose Bowl came on January 1st, 2000.
This feels like an important Autumn for Wisconsin.
Paul Chryst is a hell of a good football coach.
Can Graham Mertz take the next step and become a difference-maker?
The running game should be typically strong with an amazing combo of Braelon Allen and Mellusi ready to pick up where they left off last year when they combined for over 2,000 yards.
But will that ground game dominate in ways that past Wisconsin teams have been able to “Wisconsin” defenses all season long?
Jim Leonhard is among the best defensive coordinators in college football and it’s a credit to the program that he hasn’t left for a head coaching job.
He’ll have another punishing, disciplined, and fearsome defense, anchored by a tremendous front that will make it nearly impossible for teams to rush for anything meaningful.
It’s a cliché to refer to “magic” and “intangibles” and stuff that doesn’t necessarily refer to the players and coaches and football things when trying to assess a program’s status.
But it feels like Wisconsin needs some of that stuff to avoid becoming what Kansas State had become at the peak of the Bill Snyder Era (Google it, folks).
Huge opportunity for the Badgers – an October 15th trip to East Lansing to take on the Spartans.
Beating Columbus in Columbus is too tall of an order for this team.
But if the Badgers were to find a way to get a win at State in what will be a massive game for both programs, that might be a springboard that this team – and this program – needs.
WHEN PAPER IS WET, IT’S EASIER TO RIP
James Franklin – the clock is ticking.
It’s not ticking in the way it’s ticking for Ryan Day, who needs to win the national championship NOW.
It’s ticking in the way it’s ticking for Chip Kelly or David Shaw or Mike Norvell.
You aren’t in Scott Frost territory.
And I know the folks just ponied up a pile of loot for an extension.
But those pieces of paper easily become wet if things don’t go according to plan.
Ross-Ade Stadium can be a nightmare and when it pops up as Game #1, that makes for a dangerous start to what is an under-the-radar important season for Franklin and Penn State.
If this Penn State team wasn’t named Penn State and, instead, was, for instance, named “Purdue,” nobody would be paying any attention to this team right now.
FORMER UMAA ATHLETIC DIRECTOR DAVE BRANDON WAS GREAT WITH BRANDING – PERHAPS HE CAN PROVIDE A CONSULTANCY
Week Begin The Begin by R.E.M.
Day of Games Before More Games Are Played Next Week.
WEEK WONDERFUL OVER, WEEK 1 IS HERE, LFG!!!!
Now that we’ve climbed over Week Zilch, it’s time to look at the schedule in a normal way.
Week 1 is here.
Penn State at Purdue – beware of the weirdness and unexpected occurrences at Ross-Ade, Penn State. Seasons go to die here and when you’re kicking things off at that snake pit, it can set a queasy tone for the entire slate.
Notre Dame at Columbus – time for Ryan Day and his troops to show that this season will feature game by game, possession by possession dominance en route to the Promised Land.
What a great opportunity to show that this is the beginning of a statement type of season for a program that still has steam coming out of its ears from the loss to The Team Up North and is anxious to climb over the recent steps on the ladder and close it out with the whole shebang in hand.
The rest of the Big Ten is off and running and the entire conference is riding high after what has been a transformational summer led by the commissioner’s magic wand – and we’ll take a good, hard look at that in the days ahead.
For now – bring it on.
Gorgeous campuses teeming with excitement, color, traditions, intensity, passion, pride, and gratitude for yet another Autumn spent living and dying with the teams that represent those golden years when the most important considerations were whether the tailgate would feature Budweiser or Pabst Blue Ribbon – at least for many of us those were the most important considerations – and whether or not we’d be celebrating on Saturday nights or looking ahead to the next chance at greatness.
Big Ten Football has been happening on campuses around the Midwest – and now beyond – for longer than any other conference.
For those of us attached to the conference, it’s the true page-turner of the calendar.
It’s the arrival of our chances to reconnect with everything that made that time so special.
And it’s here, once again.
Time to dig in and soak up every bit of it.
Crowley Sullivan is a 25+ year sports media veteran who spent ten years as a producer and suit-wearer at ESPN before becoming a digital media person. He built, grew, and led a college sports digital platform called “Campus Insiders” as its EVP/GM just as sports fans were beginning to engage with computers and phones. In addition to being a longtime contributor to CollegeFootballNews, he has written for USA Today Digital Sports, Rivals properties, and the St Bede The Venerable Monthly Parish Newsletter, the St Bede Beat. He now serves as the VP/GM of UFC Fight Pass even though the last time he got into a fight was in 2nd grade when he fought David Koller to a draw.