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Big Ten Football: 5 Biggest Storylines for Week 1

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College football season is officially back, with North Dakota State and Charleston Southern kicking things off in FCS action on Saturday. However, the biggest of the big boys get things going over Labor Day weekend (and a few days earlier).

It means the return of insane tailgating set ups, brutal Group of 5 opponents looking for a paycheck and the first FBS football game in the history of legendary Lambeau Field. With the season about to start everyone seems excited (sorry, everyone but Purdue fans) about the season ahead and hopeful that goals are achieved.

With Week 1 finally upon us, let’s take a look at the biggest storylines to watch for Big Ten football.

 

Can Wisconsin Handle Its Crazy Schedule?

Few topics surrounding the 2016 Wisconsin Badgers were as talked about this offseason as much as UW’s insane schedule. It all kicks off on Saturday afternoon against the LSU Tigers at Lambeau Field. It also is clearly the most difficult non-conference game on the slate for the Badgers, and how it goes could be a sign of things to come for UW this season.

With Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska all in a row to open Big Ten play, confidence is going to be key. Get crushed by LSU and what happens to a team with a lot of moving parts and young players filling up the two deep?

Shock most of the college football world and win? Does that signal a Badgers team that is vastly underrated in 2016?

A lot may depend on the play of newly minted starting quarterback Bart Houston, and the team’s confidence in competing against the best of the best is likely going to come from its confidence that its starting QB can get the job done when called upon in difficult situations.

There are a lot of questions that will be answered about the Badgers on Saturday, but perhaps the most important answer will be how this team looks against the top of the college football heap out of the gate.

 

Are Young Bucks Ready to Step Up?

Ohio State’s biggest question to answer this offseason has been how it replaces all those draft picks, especially the nine players who left for the NFL before their eligibility was up in Columbus.

Few believe that Urban Meyer’s team is going to fall off the face of the earth given its insane run on the recruiting trail and having one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the country still around. Yet, change abounds around J.T. Barrett and even if the hype is there for just about every player stepping on to the field on Saturday, this is still the first go-round for a lot of starters.

There is a new starter at running back who has never played a college football game (Mike Weber) and a backup who is a true freshman (Antonio Williams). OSU also has to deal with its No. 1 wide receiver, Noah Brown, coming off a broken leg last season.

Are there enough proven and capable weapons to not allow teams to just shut down Barrett and call it a day?

Even last season’s sack leader, TyQuan Lewis, has question marks surrounding him after the departure of the uber-talented and offensive line attention grabbing Joey Bosa. Can he really keep that pace up now that he is likely the focus of way more attention from opposing offensive lines?

Bowling Green may not be Michigan or Wisconsin, but they aren’t a pushover team and should this team show a lot of rust from its veterans or shaky play from the newcomers questions will start to become concerns quickly.

 

Is Northwestern’s Offense Back?

The long-standing hope of Northwestern fans was seeing its team finally put together a good defense to go with a scoring machine on offense. Said fans saw the defense come together and be one of the most dominant in the Big Ten last season…they also saw an offense that struggled mightily.

A lot of that had to do with a brand new starting QB in Clayton Thorson.

This season, the hope is that Thorson is ready to have the handcuffs taken off of him and for the offense to blossom while the defense continues to be very good. Should that happen it could be an interesting season in Evanston, Ill.

Reports from spring and fall camp show that Thorson has been much improved and the offense has been more dynamic. Let’s see it happen on the field against a team that is pretty darn good in Western Michigan.

Should the offense sputter against the Broncos, it might be time to worry that Northwestern is in store for a disappointing season ahead.

 

Can Big Ten Avoid Embarrassing Upsets?

Week 1 of the 2016 season isn’t exactly full of awesome matchups, as we struggled to find six meaningful games being played in the opening week for Big Ten teams. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some tricky games to be watching.

Kent State isn’t the pushover it has been in the past, and Penn State certainly has a lot to prove with a brand new looking offense and a brand new quarterback behind center. Western Michigan has been one of the best programs the MAC has to offer and certainly its best team on the recruiting trail. Northwestern isn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut after last season, so if the Broncos can score points it could be an interesting opener in Evanston.

Indiana has an interesting trip to Florida International in the offing, and it certainly has questions to answer on defense. Let’s just say it is a game to keep an eye on given IU’s history of playing down to its competition.

Then there is Purdue facing Eastern Kentucky, and lord knows nothing is safe when it comes to the Boilermakers football program.

Many see the Big Ten as the second-best conference in the country — going through the first week of the season without being laughed at for a major upset would be helpful to say the least.

 

The New Coaches in New Places

Illinois, Maryland and Rutgers all have new head coaches and all three turned to defensive-minded coaches to try to turn around the fortunes of their struggling programs. All three also need to make a statement in Week 1 of play.

Rutgers clearly has the toughest go of it in the opening week, with a trip to one of the Pac-12’s preseason favorites — the Washington Huskies. While a win may not be in the offing, being competitive and showing some defensive pride would be a welcome sight to the coaching staff and fans alike.

Maryland and Illinois take on FCS foes, so a win is likely in the offing. However, it will be important to see the tone that has been set on the heels of camp. Falling flat or struggling for victory would not be a good sign for a quick turnaround.

These changing programs have to show that it is positive change, and what better week to establish that strong base for future success than in Week 1, right?

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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5 biggest Big Ten West division Spring Football storylines

What are the biggest storylines to follow as teams across the Big Ten West division begin spring football?

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Last week we took a look at the East division, now it is time to go West my friends. While a lot of the questions out East revolve around offense, will the same hold true in the West division?

With a new head coach in at Nebraska, new coordinators in other places and plenty of high-level recruiting happening, there is no shortage of intrigue in the

Let’s take a look at the 5 biggest storylines we’ll watch this spring in the Big Ten West division.

Frost’s First Spring

As if there is any storyline bigger in the West division than prodigal son returning to bring the

Let’s just consider it the West division’s version of Jim Harbaugh, shall we.

Nebraska fans are hoping that the results are at least as good if not better than what Harbaugh has brought to Michigan to date, and sadly getting to the 10-win mark would be a huge win for the Huskers of today.

Frost will have a big challenge on his hand, needing to rebuild the run game, strengthen a porous defense and bring the pride back to the Huskers program.

Oh, and he’ll have to break in a new quarterback to go with all of the rest of the tweaks needed in the program. 4-star dual threat quarterback Adrian Martinez singed early and is on campus already, and there will be competition with much-touted sophomore Patrick O’Brien in the mix as well as redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and sophomore Andrew Bunch.

O’Brien, Gebbia and Bunch are more the classic West Coast style of QB, and that may make Frost’s first season an interesting one in Lincoln.

Northwestern’s Life Without Thorson and Jackson

Northwestern knew that 2018 would be a challenge, especially with the graduation of easily the greatest running back in school history. With Justin Jackson graduated, where would the Wildcats turn to get the production needed.

Then the 2018 season was dealt a brutal blow as quarterback Clayton Thorson tore up his knee on a trick play in the Music City Bowl. He’ll likely be back for fall camp, but in what shape and condition will that be? A torn ACL for a mobile quarterback can be a game changer and in any case this upcoming season is going to be his last in a Wildcats uniform.

So, as Northwestern heads in to spring practice, it will get a big glimpse of its future life without its two biggest names. We’ll see plenty of reps for junior T.J. Green, redshirt freshman Andrew Marty, and sophomore Aidan Smith this spring. Northwestern opens with Purdue on Aug. 30 and should Thorson not be ready to go, spring could go a long way to deciding who gets the nod.

Leonhard’s Big Test at Wisconsin

Rumors circulated throughout much of December and in to January that Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was a candidate for the Florida State defensive coordinator position. That’s what happens when year one of you as UW’s DC ends with the Badgers having one of the best defenses in the country.

Year two will be a different story though, as Leonhard faces a secondary that loses 3 starters, a defensive line that loses both starting ends and both starting outside linebackers. Wisconsin has proven to be a plug-and-play program at outside linebacker and that shouldn’t be an issue with the likes of Andrew Van Ginkle and Tyler Johnson having gained plenty of experience last season. There’s also intrigue in names like Christian Bell and redshirt freshman Noah Burks.

However, things are dicey in the secondary as only one player with any real game experience is back at cornerback and that is Donyte Carrier-Williams. So, this is where Leonhard would be earning a salary increase this spring. He’ll have to mold a really young group of cornerbacks in to a quality group of players given all the spread offenses that will be in place across the West division — with all but Iowa running some version of the spread attack.

Can names like Madison Cone, Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks show enough for the coaching staff to be confident in them going in to the season or will their need to be a lean on the newcomers in the fall? There certainly won’t be a shortage of reps and opportunity for playing time in this spring.

Lovie’s Last-Ditch Offensive Overhaul

There isn’t a bigger trainwreck in the Big Ten than Illinois Fighting Illini athletics (not just football) at the moment. So, this spring is all about finding some hope for the football program. To that end, head coach Lovie Smith enters his second full offseason in a position to overhaul his offense.

It started as quarterbacks Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. decided to leave the program and continued with the hire of Arizona offensive coordinator Rod Smith. The Wildcats offense has been amongst the most prolific and high-scoring in the country, but this is Big Ten land where defense reigns supreme. Can Smith translate his Wildcats offense to something that works in Champaign?

Cam Thomas is the lone scholarship quarterback and proved a much better rushing threat than anything in the pass game last season. So, Smith’s first task is to see if Thomas has what it takes to really lead a spread offense like his. If not, this could be a long spring spent trying to find answers to a whole lot of questions.

I love getting Smith away from Arizona, it was a master stroke by Smith, but will it be enough, soon enough to keep his job? Athletic director Mike Thomas seems to have a long-term plan in place and the patience to see it out with Smith, but real progress needs to shown this spring and in the fall for that patience to be warranted.

Let’s see if this last-ditch effort pays off.

Brohm’s Encore Performance

What Jeff Brohm did in one season at the helm of the Purdue Boilermakers football program was nothing short of remarkable. He took a program left for dead and not only gave it life, but a bowl game appearance in his first season. It’s no wonder his name came up for the Tennessee job this offseason.

But, this season there are actual expectations following that 7-6 finish last season and this spring will see some big changes to the program. That’s not a bad thing, because Purdue got to a bowl game with a lot of smoke and mirrors while it awaited more talent to come aboard in West Lafayette, Ind.

There was also a reliance on a pretty good defense last season, one that featured talented linebackers T.J. McCollum and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Both are gone now and replacing their production and leadership will be key this spring. Luckily, the returning starter is Markus Bailey, who could be poised for a national breakout year now that the spotlight is all to his own. Beyond that, this is a position that will be a microcosm of the team, as they see what kind of talent is coming in and how fast they can contribute.

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5 reasons to watch Northwestern Wildcats vs. Kentucky Wildcats in the Music City Bowl

The Northwestern Wildcats look to keep their hot streak going as they go up against the Kentucky Wildcats in the Music City Bowl.

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The Northwestern Wildcats entered the season with big expectations. With senior running back Justin Jackson and junior quarterback Clayton Thorson, it felt like a perfect storm for the Wildcats. A chance to compete for a Big Ten title in a weakened West Division.

Things never turn out easy. A slow start and losses to Wisconsin and Penn State quickly ended those dreams.

Then the win streak started. Seven straight wins, including three straight overtime victories for the first time in NCAA history, later and Northwestern put together a pretty successful season. The Wildcats have one of the longest win streaks in the country and ended up with the nine-win season so many projected them to get.

Yet, the disappointment is real. The Wildcats thought they might be playing for a title this year . . . and probably playing a January bowl game at least. The Music City Bowl has a bit of a letdown feel to it.

It should not. Despite increased expectations from Pat Fitzgerald’s superb coaching, Northwestern still values every bowl experience. And this will be their first Music City Bowl.

The chance to beat a SEC team, even one that has struggled as much as Kentucky, will still be a treat. Northwestern knows not to take these appearances for granted.

The same as their Wildcat counterparts for this game. Kentucky is not exactly a football power either. They are a team with just eight bowl wins in 16 appearances. Kentucky is excited for the opportunity to score an upset.

Running back Benny Snell is already guaranteeing victory:

Kentucky started the year 5-2 and 6-3 before finishing the year with three losses in the last four games. That included crushing losses to rival Louisville and Georgia.

Kentucky’s statistical profile is nothing impressive. But the team still has some strong, opportunistic players.

This game appears to have a little more juice than the team’s poor histories might suggest. And this is really a matchup of two programs looking for their place in the national landscape. It should make for an intriguing matchup. One that may not be as lopsided as the records might suggest.

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Justin Jackson, ball carrier

The Music City Bowl will mark the last time Justin Jackson dons a Northwestern uniform. In four years, Jackson has set all kinds of records and is a standard of excellence for running backs in Northwestern history.

After a slow start to the season, Jackson rushed for 1,154 yards for his fourth straight 1,000-yard rushing year. He 96.2 rushing yards per game and nine touchdowns. Some of those numbers are somewhat modest. But that is also who Jackson is.

Jackson is a workhorse. A humble guy who simply shows up and falls forward. He earned the nickname the “Ballcarrier” based on the Ryan Field public address call “Justin Jackson, the ball carrier.” That is the best description for him.

Jackson had a big game at last year’s Pinstripe Bowl and is looking for a repeat performance in his final game at Northwestern.

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Running back battle

This game will be a more traditional Big Ten, ground and pound game. Both teams want to run the ball and have great running backs to do so.

Benny Snell Jr. is not merely offering a guarantee. That is motivation for himself. He has the power to change the game.

Snell rushed for 1,318 yards this year and 18 touchdowns. He averaged 109.8 yards per game. He is a tough player to contain as the sophomore rushed for more than 150 yards in three of his last five games. That included 200-plus yards against Louisville.

He faces a stout run defense. Northwestern’s run defense helped hold Saquon Barkley in check and is one of the best rushing defenses in the country, giving up 111.3 rushing yards per game.

Kentucky knows it must establish the run to win this game. The Wildcats will rely heavily on their sophomore back.

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Clayton Thorson on display

Clayton Thorson made some minor (but expected) news this week when he announced he would return for his senior year. After an up-and-down season for the junior quarterback, the NFL was kind of an afterthought. There was some early draft buzz for him and he clearly has the talent. But the consistency was never there.

This game could be another chance to showcase himself and rebuild some NFL credibility heading into his senior year. And his last chance to play with Justin Jackson will serve as an unofficial passing of the torch. Next year, Northwestern will rely heavily on Thorson.

Kentucky’s pass defense has had its struggles. The Wildcats gave up 263.5 passing yards per game. And they recorded only five interceptions. This was not an opportunistic defense. And everyone should remember Kentucky giving up two touchdowns in the team’s attempt to end a 30-year losing streak to Florida when cornerbacks failed to get in position to cover wide receivers.

Yes, it actually happened twice.

Turnovers have been Thorson’s weakness this year. He threw 12 interceptions against 15 touchdowns this year. But Thorson is capable of having big throwing games still. When he limits his mistakes — as he has done during the win streak, averaging 215.1 passing yards per game and just five interceptions — he is a dangerous quarterback.

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Under Pressure

It goes without saying that the team that protects the quarterback will have the best chance to win the game. Both Kentucky and Northwestern have had their struggles along the offensive line. And that will be a point to watch throughout this game.

Kentucky and Northwestern each gave up 29 sacks. That is quite a lot and suggests some holes in the defense. With the Northwestern’s strong run defense and Kentucky’s poor passing offense, it could be a field day in the backfield if Kentucky is forced to pass. Kentucky does not ask quarterback Stephen Johnson to do a whole lot.

Northwestern and Kentucky can both get after the quarterback. Kentucky posted 28 sacks this year and Northwestern had 30.

Josh Allen and Denzil Ware were great getting into the backfield. Allen recorded seven sacks and Ware had 6.5. They could be terrors in the backfield when Northwestern passes. And that has always been something that slows the Wildcats’ offense down.

For Northwestern, Joe Gaziano has eight sacks and has been a great rusher off the edge. Freshman Samdup Miller came on strong to end the year, creating a strong pair of edge rushers.

Northwestern’s defense is really disciplined and playing extraordinarily well to end the season.

Travel Distance

What is interesting about the Music City Bowl is its location in Nashville.

Kentucky fans will surely make the relatively short drive from Lexington to Nashville — as they do for the SEC basketball tournament. But for Northwestern fans in Chicago, this is probably the ideal bowl location.

Sure, everyone would have enjoyed a vacation to Florida. And California Wildcats would have loved to drive from Los Angeles to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl or to stay at home in Northern California for the Foster Farms Bowl. But Nashville is a unique trip for Chicagoland Wildcats near the home base.

Nashville is a roughly seven-hour drive straight down I-65. That is relatively close for a bowl game. It seems like several Northwestern fans will take Pat Fitzgerald up on that offer and make the short trip.

Game Info

American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Who:
 Northwestern (9-3) vs. Kentucky (7-5)
When: Dec. 29, 4:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. CT (ESPN)
Where: Nissan Stadium, Nashville, Tenn.

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talking10 Power Poll: Surprises galore in Week 1 poll

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We’re back…after a long offseason, the staff is finally back to watching football, crunching numbers and giving you our opinions on all things Big Ten football.

It also means our weekly staff Power Poll is back as well.

This season we’ve got five staff members voting every week. That includes the following names:

Andy Coppens@AndyOnFootball

Phil Harrison@PhilHarrisonCFB

Philip Rossmann-Reich – @RiseNU

Dave Fitzgerald@BuckeyeFitzy

Zach Worthington@Worthyton

Normally the opening week of the season provides little in the way of knowledge, but that certainly wasn’t the case in 2017. Dare we say the first week of action for the Big Ten was highly entertaining?

You can say that, and we did over at the #B1GRewind Show.

But, how did all of that excitement shake out when it came time to vote? Let’s take a look at the official poll for Week 1:

Let’s just say things were a bit wackier than usual, huh?

Takeaways:

  • Only three teams lost this week, yet it was a winner, Illinois, coming up dead last and it wasn’t even close. The Illini’s unimpressive three-point win was also our winner for “Disappointment of the Week” on the #B1GRewind show…so perhaps their last place finish in the power poll this week was really warranted. It also appears that hanging tough with ranked teams meant a lot to our voters.
  • While the rest of the college football world is in love with Ohio State…our staff is much more in love with the Nittany Lions…well not “much more” but they won out with three first place votes and OSU falling outside the top two in one voters mind.
  • It appears there is going to be an interesting battle for the middle of the pack over the next few weeks. Michigan State was No. 7 in this poll, but had just a three-point lead on No. 10 Nebraska. Let’s just say the next few weeks should shake out the middle a bit more.
  • Speaking of close fights…the battle between Michigan and Wisconsin for the third spot should be an interesting one indeed. Can Wisconsin’s offense keep up the high-scoring and keep UW ahead or will Michigan’s exciting youth movement grow up fast enough to challenge for the top of the East division and thus our poll as well?
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talking10 Pick’Em league has arrived!

Join our staff in a season-long Big Ten predictions challenge! Come on…you know you want to know our picks and beat up on us for bad plays!

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We’ve had fun on the talking10 podcast giving you previews and predictions over the last few seasons. This year we’re turning that up a notch around here.

Yes, you can now play along with us each and every week! Welcome to the talking10 Pick’Em league brought you by Yahoo! Sports.

Each week you’ll hear us make our picks on Wednesday night and filling out our sheets live on the Podcast. You can play alongside all of our staff and shame us as you win or we get to laugh at you as we rise to the top.

This Pick’Em league is free of charge and is for more than just bragging rights. The winner at the end of the season gets a special prize package from us here at talking10. So join up with the following information:

League ID: 3991

Password: Delany17

Finally, please make sure to make your team name your Twitter handle or your first & last name so we have a way to reach out to you once the season is over….if you win!

We dare you to beat us! We double dog dare you!

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