Big Ten football could be said to have come back to Earth in week one, although there weren’t too many upsets around the league. If anyone was overly disappointed in the league’s weekend as a whole, their expectations were probably too high.
Only two teams unexpectedly won (Northwestern) or lost (Penn State), although it will be interesting to see what happens next for those teams (I’d say BYU-Nebraska was a tossup entering the day).
I knew Temple had a good defense, but I certainly did not think the Owls would beat up the Nittany Lions offensive line while winning by three scores. I’m still on Team Hackenberg as far as pro prospects, but it’s not a foregone conclusion he will be able to preserve his status as a potential top 10 pick if he is under fire for the next 11 games.
Although he might have been fooled on his lone interception, I thought he did a better job of avoiding mistakes than he did last season. That will be one to watch going forward as I do believe he’s got some nice weapons. As tough as things were in 2014, Hackenberg exacerbated his problems too often with bad decisions.
Expecting Penn State’s offensive line to improve significantly this year was always a dicy proposition. Age was a big issue last year, but so might be talent at at least a couple of those spots, and they lost by far their best player from 2014.
I’d say Nebraska got a bad break losing on a Hail Mary to BYU, but that play wasn’t exactly defended in textbook fashion. The change in cultures could take longer to sink in than Cornhuskers fans are hoping.
Minnesota gave a good indication it will still be tough defensively and able to run the ball, but the quarterback situation remains a major obstacle to the Golden Gophers taking the next step.
Michigan lost at Utah, but the Wolverines weren’t supposed to win. I’ve seen the results of that game spun any number of ways, I’d say expectations had to be pretty low to come out of Salt Lake City feeling more optimistic than one might have been upon arrival.
Jim Harbaugh defended Jake Rudock’s play even as he praised the freshman receiver who was in the middle of at least one of his interceptions. The famously (and apparently selectively) aloof coach also went fairly in-depth in discussing the first game’s result, talking about how leverage was an issue for the offensive line in terms of run blocking and saying the running back competition could grow to four players with the return of Drake Johnson, who was having a great game against Ohio State last season until he blew out his knee for a second time. The Michigan OL also looked a lot better that day than it did at Utah.
Michigan also leads us into the biggest topic of the week: Quarterbacks. It’s been interesting to see not only the winners of the various quarterback derbies around the league but also how they have been taken.
In Ann Arbor, it must be disconcerting for the perceived safe choice to have thrown three interceptions in his Wolverine debut, but it is fair to give Rudock some time to develop a rapport with his receivers. Considering the head start (and talent advantage) Shane Morris had on Rudock, it would be interesting to know if Rudock was the winner of the fall battle by default or he significantly out-performed Morris in preseason camp.
Based on reports out of Rutgers and Maryland from those who watched preseason practices, both Kyle Flood and Randy Edsall seem to have gone with the safest choices as well, although Chris Laviano had a much more impactful start for the Scarlet Knights than Perry Hills for the Terrapins despite Lavaiano’s being suspended for the first half of the opener. At both places there seem to be bigger arms on the bench, but of course there’s more to playing the position than physical talent.
And that brings us to Ohio State, where Urban Meyer kept everyone guessing until the last minute when Cardale Jones became the starter.
I wrote in my weekly column at BuckeyeSports.com I spent most of the offseason expecting Jones to win the job but relented at the last minute because of the narrative that emerged from a combination of Meyer’s public comments and Jones’ statements to the Big Ten Network. I’d be remiss not to acknowledge I was influenced by the overwhelming sentiment throughout CFB media that Barrett would be the guy, not so much from the general reporters and writers outside the OSU beat but even those national guys who occasionally get some inside access for various stories in the offseason.
What’s really been interesting is seeing the reaction to Meyer’s choosing Jones, who apparently had to play a perfect game to be accepted as the starter by some folks out there.
I thought it was fairly obvious early in Blacksburg why Jones was the choice. He made throws few could make, and he did a great Ben Roethlisberger impersonation as he avoided the rush and kept plays alive. He made a bad decision on the interception by trying to force a pass that wasn’t there, but overall I thought he was not loose with the ball. Jones could have been more efficient as a passer, but he was facing a defensive style that does not lend itself to pretty passing lines. The most important thing against a team like that is taking advantage of chances for big plays, and Jones did that. His 99 yards rushing would seem to work against the contrived narrative J.T. Barrett is a “better fit” for the offense, but I still saw that claim being made. That was fairly puzzling.
Don’t overthink this one, folks….
So what else is going on around the Big Ten as week two games get closer? Let’s take a look.
Meyer said the Ohio State quarterback situation is “delicate,” but I got the impression it’s pretty much Jones’ job as long as he continues to do what he’s supposed to do. Meanwhile, he wants to make sure Barrett is still part of the equation one way or another, but that is just my interpretation.
Meanwhile, Meyer lamented the challenges of having to prepare for Hawaii in only a couple of days, but he acknowledged Ohio State’s new starters mostly received outstanding grades for their play against Virginia Tech.
An Oregon assistant likened Connor Cook to Tom Brady, but not for the reasons the Michigan State quarterback guessed.
Michigan State will play host to Oregon with big questions in the secondary, a unit that already took a step back last season before losing a first-round pick and the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year.
Jabrill Peppers overcame a slow start against Utah to have a pretty solid game for Michigan, and he said that’s because he always has to fail on his own first before listening to advice of others.
Unsurprisingly, tight end Jake Butt looks like a perfect fit in Michigan’s new offense.
BONUS: I also cover Notre Dame for FOX Sports now, and it’s shaping up to be a fascinating year for the Fighting Irish.
I get the skepticism, but there is a lot of depth there and Southwest Ohio native Malik Zaire is a great wild card to have. However, the Irish are already seeing their depth tested at running back. You also likely saw the New York Times story in which the school president explained his take on what is going on in college athletics. While that was not well received by everyone, I thought he made a fair bit of sense when he said he can see athletes being able to individually profit off their likenesses but wondered if fewer fans would be interested if a full-blown pay-for-play open market came about. In general I am a free-market fan, but I think the current system benefits far more students and fans and communities and certainly coaches and administrators than it hurts. Allowing players to do endorsements, sell autographs, etc. would go a long way toward filling in whatever gaps there are in compensation without drastically changing the overall picture, which I do think requires the veneer of amateurism to maintain a significant percentage of fans.)
Games this week
In my preseason picks, I had the Big Ten going a perfect 14-0 in week two.
I’m not sure what to make of Michigan State-Oregon as both defenses gave up a bunch against lesser opponents in week one. Vernon Adams Jr. adds another huge wild card as the Ducks’ new quarterback. Just how good is he? We’re about to find out because MSU definitely has the weapons to put up a lot of points. Perhaps the different will be the Spartan defensive line. (Here’s a preview I did with FOX Sports Pac-12 colleague Jason Gold.)
Elsewhere Iowa takes on Iowa State while Minnesota has a trip to Colorado State and Michigan returns home to take on Oregon State. The Big Ten could use no slip-ups in those contests.
The rest of the schedule is pretty lame, although it could be interesting seeing Rutgers and Maryland against FBS opponents for the first time this season.