BIG TEN WEST DIVISION SEASON IN REVIEW 2018

 

 

 

My first post of the season was a look forward as I submitted my preseason predictions and comments. Now it’s time to take a look back as the results are in. I’ve listed the teams in reverse order of finish and included my preseason prediction. I was right about some of them and get to say “I told you so”, and was wrong about others and have to admit as much.  

 

 

 

BIG TEN WEST DIVISION

A bit of a surprise in the West as Wisconsin was dethroned. After a shaky start, Northwestern came out of nowhere to win the division, surprising the oddsmakers seemingly every week. Most of the teams otherwise finished close to where I predicted, although bottom level Minnesota and Nebraska seemed to be on the rise at season’s end while Purdue and Wisconsin faded in the stretch.

 

 

 

My preseason prediction:

 

6) – Illinois- (2-7) (5-7)

I’m not a big fan of the current overused cliché, “change the culture”. Not entirely sure what is meant by “culture”. But I’ll assume I’m applying the phrase correctly when I say Illinois has compiled a mountain of bad culture prior to HC Lovie Smith’s arrival two seasons ago. So a tall order for Smith to step right in and immediately turn things around, but, considering Smith’s resume, I think most expected more than the record produced so far. From the couch it appeared that the Illini were slightly improved on the field last season, if not so much on paper. The team was certainly more disciplined than in prior seasons. The bottom of the conference, i.e., teams like the Illini have gotten better. But so has the top of the conference. So I’d say it’s still premature to throw Smith under the bus, but this season should and probably will be pivotal to the Smith era. If things don’t improve significantly after three years, it’s probably time to re-evaluate, especially when the significant improvement at Purdue after similar “culture” issues is highly visible as a benchmark. The Illini have a good amount of experience returning, and I like QB Cam Thomas, although most say he’ll have to battle for a starting position. I predict the Illini take a baby step forward on paper and win two conference games and all of their nonconference games. Whether or not that will be enough to extend Smith’s tenure I’m not sure.

 

 

How it turned out:

 

7) – Illinois- (2-7) (4-8)

I got the conference record right but it wasn’t good enough to keep the Illini out of the cellar. In fact, the two games Illinois was able to win were the ones I had in mind, although the Minnesota win is a head scratcher in hindsight. It cost me ATS too, as it was the only Illinois game I bet on. I took Minnesota and lost. The Illini looked good at times- the running game in particular thanks to RB Reggie Corbin. But I wouldn’t say this season was a step forward. I see that AD Josh Whitman gave HC Lovie Smith a two year extension. Hiring Smith was Whitman’s big headliner when he won the job three years ago. He even teased fans during his first days on the job after he raised eyebrows by immediately firing interim coach Bill Cubit, who appeared to be in line for the HC job. His quotes leading up to the hiring of Smith were laced with a “boy have I got a big surprise for you” vibe. And now the idea doesn’t look so brilliant. So I expect Whitman is going to give Smith every chance he can in order to save face. And I’d agree that maybe college programs pull the trigger too soon on coaching hires, so ok, I guess. But there were some moments during the season that raise doubt. The loss to Iowa was the worst in Illinois history. The Illini were last in total defense. The DC quit in mid season. The QB I expected to see, Cam Thomas, transferred out of the program prior to the start of the season after senior transfer A.J. Bush won the starting job. Bush had transferred out of four other programs prior to landing at Illinois, which in itself could be considered a red flag. Bush is a good runner and played well in his last game against Northwestern, but for the most part wasn’t anything so special that he was worthy of running off a promising underclassman. Freshman M.J. Rivers looked just as capable when playing in relief when Bush was out with injury for a few games early in the season. Bush couldn’t throw that well, and at times was blatantly selfish in keeping the ball on read options, thus shutting out Corbin and a couple of other fine RBs on the Illini roster, all of which are better runners than Bush. I would think a coach whose team’s only real strength is its RBs would get this issue corrected right away, but the problem seemed to continue for longer than it should have. Using “youth” as an excuse is probably valid to some degree. But we’ve heard that one during all three of Smith’s seasons at the helm. If we’re hearing it again next season it can only mean Smith’s recruits aren’t working out. Smith certainly has the pedigree, the man has coached in the super bowl for crying out loud, but I’d say he’s lucky Whitman’s reputation is so dependent on his success. Otherwise, I’d figure Smith to be near the top of most “hot seat” lists in next summer’s preseason publications.

 

 

 

My preseason prediction:

 

7) – Minnesota- (1-8) (3-9)

Minnesota is another team that I don’t see performing as well as most are projecting. But I will admit this is based more on a gut feeling than the facts. I’m still unsure about HC P.J. Fleck. He’s known for his high energy, and positive attitude, yet is quoted as saying “I’m not worried one bit about any of the wins and losses. I’m worried about developing this football team”. I’m guessing there’s more context to consider when absorbing that statement, and there are probably several coaches who are in a rebuilding phase who feel the same way, but personally I find it a strange and somewhat selfish thing to say out loud to the media. I’m guessing the seniors on the team are concerned about wins and losses. We’ve seen successful MAC coaches completely bomb out in the Big Ten (see Tim Beckman and Darrell Hazell). And Minnesota has seen the high energy used car salesman schtick in Tim Brewster. Despite Fleck stating at the beginning of last season that he was going to/needed to “change the culture”, his predecessor, Jerry Kill, had the program in pretty good shape, at least by Minnesota standards. The “change in culture” resulted in going from 9-4 to 5-7 so…..

Minnesota has 13 starters returning from a team that was competitive against the middle tier teams, and posted a nice win against a waning Nebraska program, but didn’t finish well at all as they didn’t score a point in the last two games of the season. I thought QB Demry Croft showed promise and certainly could contribute to the development of the team, but he transferred right after the season ended, leaving the Gophers without a QB who has thrown a pass at the FBS level.

QB play is huge at the college level, so I don’t see many wins for the Gophers this season. Which apparently isn’t anything to be worried about.

 

 

How it turned out:

 

6) – Minnesota- (3-6) (6-6)

Ok, so this one easily lands in the “I was wrong” category. Not only about the team’s performance, but also about my take on HC P.J. Fleck. Most of my prediction write-up focuses on throwing Fleck under the bus, but I gotta admit, I’m starting to become a fan. Fleck is a bit quirky, but he is focused on a specific plan which requires building a foundation that seemed be taking hold toward the end of the season, culminating in a blowout win at Wisconsin. As this season’s luck would have it, I did manage to jump on the bandwagon at Minnesota’s lowest point in the season and lost my ATS bet on the Gophers at Illinois. The Minnesota defense was non-existent as the lowly Illini turned in one long TD run after another en route to a 55-31 thumping. Fleck fired the DC the next day and from then on the Gophers were a much improved team. Of course, I had no way of foreseeing such a turnaround at the time, and once again lost ATS as I bet against the Gophers the following week against a good Purdue team. Minnesota anihillateted Purdue, 41-10. Go figure. All in all, I was 2-1 ATS betting against Minnesota and 0-1 betting with the Gophers. Starting QB Zack Annexstad was injured mid-season and never got his job back as Tanner Morgan played well in in Annextad’s place. Both are freshman so they’ll be back next season. Minnesota loses a couple of key players but will have a lot returning next season. Fleck liked to point out often ad nauseum how young his team is. With my new-found appreciation for Fleck, I like the direction this team is going. It’s still a big mountain to climb for a program like Minnesota to become upper level in this conference. But judging by how the team finished and in listening to Fleck’s press conferences regarding his plan, and his decisiveness in making the tough decisions to execute the plan, I look for improvement next season.

 

 

 

My preseason prediction:

 

5)- Nebraska- (3-6) (5-7)

They’re making new HC Scott Frost out to be the second coming of Tom Osborne. I suppose any HC change could be cause for Huskers fans to celebrate after the Mike Riley era. One publication is ranking Frost as the best coaching hire of the season. I don’t stray too far from the Big Ten, so I can’t say I know much about Frost as a coach, although I do remember him as a player. But I am skeptical of his ability to meet what appears to be lofty expectations. Frost has been a HC for only two seasons. The “what have you done for me lately” idiom works both ways when it comes to college football coaches. Turn in one good season and suddenly you’re considered one of the best coaches in the country, worthy of being lured away for a hefty contract. Frost is coming off that kind of season at UCF where he led the Knights to an undefeated record in 2017. But I don’t see the likes of FIU, Austin Peay, and SMU on the Nebraska schedule this season. I do see Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan St. and Ohio St., though. And there’ll be something similar next season and all other seasons to follow. You get where I’m going. This is a big time conference with big time coaches. Again, I don’t know much about Frost as a coach, can’t say that I’ve even seen him speak during an interview, and he could be very successful. But I’ve seen this scene go the other way. Remember, Tim Beckman and Darrell Hazell were successful in the MAC before stepping up to the Big Ten. Nebraska will have to break in a new QB and only return five starters on offense. And despite his poor performance and eventual ousting, Riley was nowhere near as bad of a coach as the Hazell’s and Beckman’s of the world, at least from an X’s and O’s standpoint. About three to four games into last season it hit me that I need to get past the iconic Nebraska image and realize that this program has fallen to “mid-level” status when it comes to overall talent. Poor coaching can make good players look bad, but I don’t think that was entirely the case last season. From the couch it really didn’t look like Nebraska players were much better than the Northern Illinois players.  Frost will certainly get a mulligan this season if things don’t go so well, and since he’s a homegrown Husker, will probably get the benefit of the doubt in years to come. But I see tough sledding this season.

 

 

How it turned out:

 

5)- Nebraska- (3-6) (4-8)

My prediction for Nebraska was pretty much accurate. I knew Frost wasn’t going to just waltz into the conference and be immediately successful. I cashed in on that sentiment early in the season as I got a couple of ATS wins betting against Nebraska in the first two weeks of conference play. Then I got burned the following two weeks as Nebraska started to improve and covered the spread. The Huskers covered, but still weren’t winning at that point as they lost their first six games. They finished the season winning four of their last six games and have the Nebraska fan base starting every sentence concerning the Huskers future with “we’re gonna”. There was marked improvement on the offensive side to be sure. Maybe not so much on the defensive side of the ball. Frost runs a good offense and he has the key component covered in future seasons with freshman QB Adrian Martinez. Martinez is outstanding. I can’t say that I’m completely on board with the idea that Frost is well on his way to bringing Nebraska back to the glory days, though. I can understand the excitement – again, there was obvious improvement as the season progressed and the win-loss record was respectable during the last half of the season. And flashy offense always oversells a team’s strength in this day and age. But aside from a nice win against a struggling Michigan St. team, the victories weren’t against any teams of note. You could even throw out the one against Bethune Cookman. And then there’s that defense. I’m not saying Frost won’t be as successful as the fan base is projecting, but I am saying this was just his third season as a HC and that I’ll need to see more to be convinced. But I will agree that he did an outstanding job in putting a good offense in place, and I do like some of the comments he made regarding team discipline and dedication to winning.

 

 

 

My preseason prediction:

 

3)- Iowa- (6-3) (7-5)

Iowa has what many consider to be an easy schedule – I saw one publication suggest the Hawkeyes may be favored in 10 of their twelve games – but I don’t see Iowa as talented enough to win quite that many. But then, who knows with Iowa? HC Kirk Ferentz has a history of turning in an outstanding season every few years, usually when the grumbling over six to eight win seasons ramps up a bit. The grumbling never gets too bad though, if Iowa was the type of program that won’t stand for “slightly above average”,  Ferentz would have been let go by now. Despite the occasional standout season, I’m calling for typical Iowa this season, with the “before seen” early disappointing losses (Northern Illinois and Iowa St. is what I have in mind) that leave you thinking this is a team that may not win a game, followed by a surprising turnaround as Iowa works its way back to its above average status in the conference. The Hawkeyes are projected to be strong on the D-Line but otherwise lose a lot of starters on defense including all three linebackers. They also lost some key playmakers on offense, most notable to me is RB Akrum Wadley. Returning starting QB Nate Stanley put up some nice numbers last year and most publications are singing his praises and expect big things from Stanley. I like Stanley OK, but I’m not completely sold yet. I think a Hawkeye fan I know said it best when I asked him what he thought of Stanley… “I don’t think he’s going to lose any games for us, but I don’t think he’s going to win any for us, either.” 

 

 

How it turned out:

 

4)- Iowa- (5-4) (8-4)

My prediction was fairly accurate and could even fall in the “I told you so” category if you were among those who thought the Hawkeyes would win close to ten games this season. I was wrong about the slow start, though. Iowa won all of its nonconference games. But aside from that, Iowa won and lost all of the games I figured when making my preseason prediction except I had them beating Northwestern.  I was 1-1 ATS betting with Iowa this season and 1-0 betting against them. This team had an excellent defense, good enough to beat Penn St. but QB Nate Stanley played one of his worst games and burned me ATS. Stanley played much like I figured he would– very well at times, but prone to making poor decisions at crucial times. The comment I referred to in my preseason prediction –“I don’t thinks he’s going to lose any games for us, but I don’t think he’s going to win any for us, either.” – was inacurrate though. Stanley didn’t have a choice but to win and lose games for the Hawkeyes; the coaching staff demanded it as they most often put the game in Stanley’s hands. I always try to be careful in questioning coaching decisions/play calling- easy to criticize from the couch, but there were times when I was puzzled (and frustrated if I had a stake in the Hawkeyes) by the coaching staff this season. I guess it’s not just Iowa, I see it from many OC’s, but why throw on first down when you’re consistently picking up 5 to 10 yards on the ground? Anyway Stanley did lose a game for the Hawkeyes at Penn St. But he also won the game for his team against Nebraska, his best of the season in my opinion. Some questionable coaching decisions in that game almost allowed the Huskers to come back and win, but Stanley was able to bail them out. In the end, this was another typical season for Iowa; slightly above average. Whether that’s good or not depends on how you look at it. HC Kirk Ferentz is a class act who always puts a solid team on the field – rarely does he turn in a losing record. And every now and again the Hawkeyes get the breaks they need to turn in an outstanding season. They weren’t that far off this season, all of their losses were by less than a touchdown if you throw out a late garbage TD by Wisconsin.

 

 

 

My preseason prediction:

 

2)- Purdue- (6-3) (8-4)

I had a good feeling about Purdue last year and called for the significant improvement that surprised most others. I could see the Boilermakers had good players, but were just poorly coached. I didn’t know much about HC Jeff Brohm coming in, but had heard his name come up on occasion as being successful and knew that any decent coach could improve upon his predecessor. I’ve seen enough of Brohm now to say that I like him. He calls a few too many trick plays for my taste, but then, it’s easy to question play calling from the couch. The Boilermakers have a good amount of returning starters on offense, including two decent QBs who shared time last season. They lose a lot on defense, but again, this program has more talent than most think, and the fiery DC is as impressive as Brohm. The schedule is a bit tougher this season, so if the Boilermakers are to improve on last season’s record, they can’t afford a stumble like last season’s road loss to Rutgers. I don’t see the Boilermakers knocking off the big boys on the conference schedule, and I’m calling for a loss at East Lansing, but I do think they take care of business against the mid to lower level teams.

 

 

How it turned out:

 

3) – Purdue- (5-4) (6-6)

Purdue won most of the conference games I figured they would except I didn’t expect a loss to Minnesota or a win over Ohio St., but I can’t say the Boilermakers met my expectations over the course of the whole season. I didn’t bet against Purdue all season and was 1-1 ATS betting with the Boilermakers. This was a strange season as Purdue got off to a lousy 0-3 start that featured a head scratching loss to Eastern Michigan, then won five of their next six games starting with a win over ranked Boston College, featured the upset over Ohio St. and also included a nice win over a good Iowa team. And then, out of nowhere, the Boilermakers get blown out at lower tier Minnesota and split the last two games of the season. Inconsistency is the word that comes to mind here. My thought at the time of Purdue’s late season swoon was that Brohm was going to leave for the Louisville job, but it turns out that wasn’t the case. The defense was never that good all season, so that can always contribute to inconsistency, but the offense was clicking once Brohm inserted QB David Blough into the lineup. Blough was outstanding most of the season as was the running game. Why the clunker at Minnesota I have no idea. But I am having second thoughts about Brohm. I still think he’s a very good coach, but I’m not quite as impressed as I was after season one. I think Purdue had enough this season to match if not exceed my predicted win-loss record but that wasn’t the case. But I still believe in Brohm in terms of moving this program forward. The Boilermakers lose a lot on offense next season but it will be Brohm’s third season as the HC, which is generally when most successful coaches advance their team to the next level. I think the future is bright, but I also have a feeling the strange losses will always be a part of the Jeff Brohm era.

 

 

 

 

My preseason prediction:

 

1)- Wisconsin- (8-1) (11-1)

10 starters return on offense from a team that ran the table aside from the Big Ten championship game, which they almost won. And while there aren’t many starters returning on defense, there is a significant amount of experience returning and the DC returns for a second season, which has been rare at Wisconsin lately. So I’m calling for pretty much the same as last season although the crossover schedule is tougher so I’m seeing a loss at Ann Arbor and a road game at Penn St. will be quite a challenge as well. There are also a couple of other land mines on the schedule but with this offense and the fact that I feel HC Paul Chryst is an excellent play caller, I look for the Badgers to be a serious contender for “best in the conference”. Despite not having a big arm, QB Alex Hornibrook for the most part, is very good. But he has to be great in the big time games, namely the championship. Last season he wasn’t.

 

 

How it turned out:

 

2)- Wisconsin- (5-4) (7-5)

I was way off on this one, but I’d guess so were most others. Picking Wisconsin to win the west division made perfect sense until proven otherwise. This season the Badgers were proven otherwise. I only bet on Wisconsin twice this season. I was 1-0 betting against the Badgers and 0-1 betting with. The early loss to BYU was the indicator that this season’s team may not be up to previous standards, but a nice win the next week at Iowa made the BYU loss appear to be a mere bump in the road. QB Alex Hornibrook played well in the clutch against the Hawkeyes which, as I said in my prediction write-up, is something the Badgers would need to take the next step. But I don’t remember Hornibrook playing very well since the Iowa game and eventually Hornibrook was injured and replaced with Jack Coan in the mid/late season. Coan struggled badly in his first few games, and this played a part in the losses to Northwestern and Penn St. I don’t know if Wisconsin would have won either of those games with Hornibrook – as I said, Hornibrook wasn’t playing all that well before his injury -, but they would have had a much better chance, I’m sure of that. Eventually Hornibrook returned from his injury, played poorly for about a half and suffered a concussion and didn’t return for the rest of the season. Coan improved with each game to the point where he may be a legitimate contender to start over Hornibrook next season. All in all, this wasn’t a terrible season. RB Jonathan Taylor had some big games and there’s no shame in losing to Michigan or Penn St. And Northwestern turned out to be the division champion, so no shame there either. But I think it’s fair to say Wisconsin did not meet expectations, again, due in large part to QB play. Wisconsin struggled at times against weaker opponents and a blowout loss at home to Minnesota in the last conference game seemed encapsulating.

 

 

 

My preseason prediction:

 

4)- Northwestern- (4-5) (6-6)

Northwestern finished with a better record than I predicted last season, although many others figured the Wildcats would be good. Pat Fitzgerald is a good, but not great, coach in my opinion, so I have a hard time trusting this team. Seems like they always turn in a head-scratching loss at some point in the season (see Duke last season), and often times get off to a slow start early in the season. I’ve also had doubts about returning two year starting QB Clayton Thorson, but some of those doubts were tempered last season. Thorson is highly regarded by most, and rightfully so, the kid has talent, but my complaint is often times he fails in crucial situations. But again, he proved me wrong about that a couple of times last season, so maybe I’m too hard on the kid. Thorson suffered a serious injury in the bowl game last season, so his effectiveness early in the season is questionable, assuming he’s even cleared to play, which isn’t a slam dunk. The Wildcats have a good amount of starters coming back from last season’s ten win team (7-2 in the conference), but this season face two tuff cross-over opponents, play a couple of 50/50 games on the road, and I don’t see them beating Wisconsin, so there’s the five conference losses I’m calling for right there.

 

 

How it turned out:

 

1)- Northwestern- (8-1) (8-4)

I was wrong about this one but I was right about the slow start/head scratching losses. The slow start and some narrow victories against subpar competition lingered in the oddsmakers calculations (double digit dogs against Iowa and an underdog against lower tier Minnesota) so I was able to cash in on Northwestern ATS this season. I was 3-1 betting with Northwestern and didn’t bet against the Wildcats at all. “Solid” was the word I kept using throughout the season to describe Northwestern’s defense and offensive line. The running game struggled early and a lot was put on QB Clayton Thorson as there wasn’t much offensive firepower around Thorson. But the running game eventually improved and while the WRs weren’t game breakers, they were “solid”, particularly Flynn Nagel. Thorson obviously came through more often than not, although his numbers didn’t rank all that high. Thorson would turn in an occasional bad game (Rutgers), and was prone to throwing more than his share of interceptions, but given that Northwestern won the division while so dependent on Thorson, a case could be made to nominate Thorson as league MVP. He certainly was the MVP on this team. The Wildcats will lose Thorson and Nagel to graduation next season but should return several players on defense. Regardless, I think my preseason prediction next season will read pretty much like the first few sentences of this season’s prediction.

 

 

 

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