Can Gophers Keep it Going in 2020? Can Penn State Spoil Ohio State's Fun?
As we transition from football to basketball, some thoughts on what will linger from last fall’s Big Ten football campaign. And what will be hot topics when fall training camps open.
The emergence of Minnesota was the surprise story of 2019. While we were waiting for Nebraska to reassert itself under Scott Frost, the Gophers came roaring out of the West under P.J. ``Row-Row Rah-Rah'' Fleck. They capped a magical 11-2 season with an upset of Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
The question this fall will be: Can Minnesota keep it going?
If so, that will make things tougher not only for Nebraska, but also for Northwestern and Purdue, which are all coming off of disappointing 2019 campaigns.
That will be especially true if Illinois, which had a promising 2019 that was overshadowed by the splashy Minnesota revival, continues its road back to respectability.
I still see Wisconsin, though, as the best in the West. Like Ohio State (J.K. Dobbins), the Badgers (Jonathan Taylor) must replace their stud running back. But replacing your running back tends to be a less perilous proposition than finding a new QB.
That said, Iowa, which stacks up as the Badgers’ chief threat, has so many returnees that it has a chance to keep rolling despite losing QB Nate Stanley.
The Badgers started 2019 with an amazing defensive stretch in which they posted four shutouts in their first six games. The 24-23 upset loss at Illinois in their seventh game was devastating at the time, but Wisconsin’s ability to still reach the Rose Bowl made it a stellar season for Paul Chryst’s squad.
In 2020, the Badgers’ meeting with Notre Dame at Lambeau Field on Oct. 3 will be one of this year’s most anticipated non-conference matchups. Assuming, that is, that Wisconsin weathers its season opener against much-improved Indiana and a trip to Michigan the week before the Notre Dame game.
In the East, I was most impressed with the way Ryan Day seamlessly took the reins from Urban Meyer at Ohio State. Lincoln Riley did the same thing when he succeeded Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, raising the question of who will be the next young assistant with no head-coaching experience to take over and perennial power and win big.
Even though Joe Brady has left LSU for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, I wonder if his destiny is to return to a college power sooner than later.
The big East question I have this off-season: Can Penn State put some serious heat on Ohio State this fall? The Nittany Lions return so much, while the Buckeyes will need to do some reloading. But that’s something schools like Ohio State tend to do really well.
Both teams shape up as candidates to not only reach the College Football Playoff, but maybe even win a game. Or two.
The other question: What about the Wolverines and the Spartans? This is a serious winter of discontent in the Great Lakes State.
Barring a shocking development, Jim Harbaugh and Mark Dantonio are set to return. Will they still be in their jobs a year from now? Time will tell. It appears that third place in the East is the best-case scenario for them. Another after-thought autumn would be a tough deal for two programs that are used to a lot more than that.
Elsewhere around the East, can Indiana keep it going? That was a very good year for Tom Allen and the Hoosiers. But we tend not to take Indiana football very seriously. Because seriously, football is not what IU has ever done.
And then I’ll watch with curiosity to see how things go at Maryland and Rutgers. After a fast start, the bottom fell out for Mike Locksley at Maryland last fall. There’s always less patience the second year. And while Greg Schiano looks like the perfect hire at Rutgers, we’ll find out if he can go home again. Even if this fall seems a lock to be messy, a few baby steps would be nice.
Meanwhile, Big Ten basketball is looking very sharp. By every measure, it is the best basketball league in the nation, with 12 potential NCAA teams.
That’s not going to happen, not with the bumps and bruises that will occur in conference play. And whether the Big Ten has a team that can end its national-championship drought is another large question.
In that regard, football and basketball aren’t all that different.