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NORTHWESTERN (SUR 5-7, PSR 3-9)…Northwestern had an extremely promising 4-0 SU start in 2013, but then proceeded to open its conference season with 7...

CBB BANNERNORTHWESTERN (SUR 5-7, PSR 3-9)…Northwestern had an extremely promising 4-0 SU start in 2013, but then proceeded to open its conference season with 7 straight losses. Last season’s 5-7 record was just the second losing regular season for the Wildcats under the guidance of well-regarded HC Pat Fitzgerald, so expect Northwestern to “regress to the mean” after going 1-9 against the points in its final 10 of 2013.

QB Trevor Siemian has shared the duties the last few seasons with graduated QB/union organizer Kain Colter. Have to believe Siemian’s passing numbers will take a major jump this season, as the team counts its top 3 pass catchers among 9 offensive starters returning. Senior wideouts Tony and Christian Jones (no relation) combined for 109 catches last season, and 6-5 ex-USC WR Kyle Prater looked ready to make a leap to primetime playmaker status during spring. Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler is eligible after redshirting 2013, and he looked like a serious deep threat in spring work. Northwestern will also regain the services of star RB/KR Venric Mark, who played in just 3 games before being declared out last season. The speedy Mark gained 1416 YR and scored 12 TDs on the ground while catching 20 passes and igniting the team with his returns in 2012. Mark will have plenty of help from fellow sr. Treyvon Green, who stepped in to run for 736 YR (5.4 ypc) and score 9 times in Mark’s absence. Mark and Green run behind an OL returning all 5 starters and owning a combined 100 starts, including all-league (3rd team) C Brandon Vitabile.

With nine returning starters on defense, d.c. Mike Hankwitz has high hopes of improving on last season’s 27 ppg allowance and 99th-ranked pass defense (256 ypg). Opposing QBs burned the Wildcats for the most passing yards yielded since 2005. Two-time all-Big Ten honorable mention LB Chi Chi Ariguzo has been a mainstay, recording 197 tackles over the last two seasons, and he’s quite a playmaker (6 ints., 5 fumble recoveries). Sr. MLB Collin Ellis ranked third on the team with 78 stops and had a splashy opening game against Cal last year with a pair of interception-return TDs. Jr. FS Traveon Henry heads a 2ndary that returns intact after getting some on-the-job training LY when a frosh and two sophs were regulars. DEs Dean Lowry and third down pass-rush specialist Ifeadi Odenigbo combined for 10 sacks, and that’s an area the defense must work on after managing just 27 sacks LY.

Fitzgerald must rebuild the kicking game, but the staff recruited in anticipation of that two seasons ago, signing record-breaking Ohio product Hunter Niswander, who’s now a RS frosh, so there is little concern. What the Wildcats do need to do is to stay healthy. Some players (most notably Mark) were held out of spring contact to that end. It’s evident private school Northwestern can recruit enough quality to compete in this league, winning three Big Ten titles around the turn of the century and going to five straight bowls before stubbing their toes last season. The Wildcats blew a 21-10 lead at home to Michigan and a 21-7 advantage at Nebraska when winning either game would’ve sent them to a sixth straight bowl. Northwestern has plenty of experience and quality, but the ranks are a bit thin. Some luck with injuries, and the Wildcats will be on our “go-with” list in the fall.

NEBRASKA (SUR 9-4, PSR 7-6)…Often caustic NU HC Bo Pelini has come under criticism for his emotional outbursts and short-tempered tirades in exchanges with the media, but he seems to have the full confidence of athletic director Shawn Eichorst. The Cornhuskers have won 9 or 10 games in each of Pelini’s six seasons in charge, and they snapped a three-game bowl losing streak with an upset of Georgia in the Gator Bowl Jan. 1. Nebraska might win nine games again in 2014, but it will be a challenge.

The offense has high-quality skill players, but is rebuilding its offensive line. RB Ameer Abdullah was all-Big Ten and 3rd team all-America after gaining 1690 yds. and scoring 9 TDs, and the Huskers have solid depth at the position. Imani Cross, who had a 100-yd. rush game in spring subbing for Abdullah, and Terrell Newby combined for 745 YR and 12 scores in 2013. Abdullah gained 6.0 ypc, while Cross & Newby were at a productive 5.4 ypc. Sr. WR Kenny Bell, an explosive player who has led the Huskers in receptions each of the past three seasons and is one of the most dangerous kick returners in the country, is back, as is soph Jordan Westerkamp (20 catches LY).

Soph QB Tommy Armstrong made 8 starts, and while his 919 YP, 52% completion percentage, 9-8 TDP-interception mark were pedestrian statistics at best, his 7-1 SU mark as a starter was impressive. Injuries last year to graduated vet all-conference QB Taylor Martinez forced Armstrong and graduated Ron Kellogg into action. Now the job is Armstrong’s alone. Armstrong will line up behind an inexperienced OL that had a total of just 16 starts LY, with 11 of those coming from sr. G Jake Cotton. The hope for this unit is that jr. Alex Lewis, a transfer who made 15 starts at Colorado in 2011 & 2012, will develop into a cornerstone up front. That is, after Lewis completes his 45-day jail sentence for pleading guilty to assault charges stemming from a bar fight in May of 2013.

Pelini, a defensive specialist, hit the jackpot in recruiting juco DE Randy Gregory last year. Gregory was first-team all-Big Ten after a 66-tackle, 101/2-sack performance in the 2013 season. The former juco transfer led the league in sacks and tied for second in TFL. Gregory spearheads a stop unit returning 8 starters, including its top 5 defenders, who combined for 362 tackles. The NU defense ranked a respectable 40th in the country a year ago, and likely would’ve been higher on the ladder if the offense hadn’t turned sloppy after Martinez was injured. The Huskers were -18 in turnover ratio in the last 7 games after starting the season +5 in the first five games. LB Zaire Anderson made just 5 starts LY after sitting out 2012 with an ACL injury, but he made 52 tackles, and coaches are counting on improved contributions from the former juco.

Pelini and d.c. John Papuchis pushed the pieces around the chessboard in the spring, moving soph Nathan Gerry from LB to FS in hope of softening the loss of all-Big Ten CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste (second round of the NFL draft by New Orleans). However, SS Corey Cooper led the team in tackles, and CB Josh Mitchell has 15 career starts. The LB corps is veteran and deep, and the DL has a tough set of soph DTs in returning starter Vince Valentine (320-lbs.) and Maliek Collins (300; made 1 start LY as a true frosh). Gregory has given the Huskers a presence on the DL they haven’t had since Ndamukong Suh keyed a unit that allowed just 10 ppg in 2009. And a significant improvement in defensive efficiency from 2013’s performance should be in the cards.

Pelini has gotten the oft-dreaded “vote of confidence” from the athletic department in Lincoln, but the ice is no doubt thinning under his feet. The player dismissals and legal issues surrounding his teams aren’t appreciably more numerous than one would expect at a large program, but Pelini’s inability to deal smoothly with the media, and his undisciplined outbursts, appear destined to get him fired somewhere down the road.

IOWA (SUR 8-5, PSR 8-5)… Iowa made one of the biggest reversals in the college game last season, bouncing back from a 4-8 2012 (only the Hawkeyes’ 2nd losing mark since 2000) to go 8-4 in the regular season and earn a berth in the Outback bowl against LSU. Kirk Ferentz now enters his 16th season in Iowa City, heading one of the most stable, consistent programs in the nation. Occasionally reaching for the heights (ranking 9th & 7th in 2008 and 2009; 8th in 2002 & 2004), and very rarely falling out of the bowl picture.

The main reason for Ferentz and Hawkeye fans to be upbeat for 2014 is the fact they return 8 offensive starters, including the top three rushers in 240-lb. bulldozer sr. Mark Weisman, shifty jr. Jordan Canzeri, and sr. Damon Bullock, who combined for 1490 YR. Jr. QB Jake Ruddock sat and watched his first two seasons at Iowa, but he showed his capability in passing for 2383 yds. with 18 scores last season while running for 5 more TDs. Although his 13 interceptions were vexing, with 4 of his top 5 receivers returning, the passing game should be more efficient, especially if sr. WRs Kevonte Martin-Manley (all-Big Ten return man) and Damond Powell (24.3 ypc LY) can continue to stretch defenses. The offensive line has always been a Ferentz specialty, and Iowa has plenty of talent available up front. Three starters return, led by sr. second team All-American LT Brandon Scherff, the best offensive lineman in the conference. The OL has a combined 62 career starts, plus a bunch of former blue chippers waiting in the wings.

Defensively the team is in transition. Five starters return, but the Hawkeyes have to replace a trio of LBs who combined for 322 tackles last season (each had at least 104), two of whom (Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens) went as 3rd and 4th round draftees. The overall speed of last season’s LB trio will be missed, as sr. Quinton Alston (1 career start; 12 tackles LY) is the “grizzled vet” of the new group. Iowa held foes to just 3.6 ypc LY, nothing new for the Hawkeyes, who have yielded 4.0 ypc or more just once in the past 13 seasons. Obviously, Ferentz has a history of forming good defenses and stopping the run. Interestingly, Iowa has held opponents to just 18.9 ppg over the past 13 seasons and has been remarkably consistent. Have to have faith that Ferentz will once again fill in with an effective group.

The defensive line has 3 starters back, led by second-team all-Big Ten DT Carl Davis, a 6-5, 315-lb. run stuffer who stepped out of relative obscurity to become a star after appearing in just 17 games in his first three seasons in the program. Fellow sr. DT Louis Trinca-Pasat was an honorable mention all-conference last season who has 25 starts and 79 tackles the past two years. The secondary returns two starters, CB Desmond King and sr. SS John Lowdermilk, who combined for 147 stops LY, but it must replace two decorated vets who were tied for 2nd in team interceptions.

Ferentz has one of the most stable programs in the country, and there are plenty of pieces returning that can continue to play the type of rock ’em, sock ’em football he prefers. Last year’s improvement should be sustained as the Hawkeyes repeat their mean of 8-10 wins and a bowl bid.

MINNESOTA (SUR 8-5, PSR 9-4)…Jerry Kill is making definite progress on several fronts. His health, threatened by seizures over the last few years, has improved, as he went symptom-free long enough to regain his driver’s license in the offseason. On the professional level, he has taken a Gopher side that was 17-33 SU the 4 seasons before he arrived and transformed it into a team that went 8-4 and played in its second consecutive bowl in 2013. For what it’s worth, Kill says of his 2014 Gophers, “We’ll be better.”

We would have to agree with the inspirational Kill. Offensively, there’s reason to believe Minnesota will improve on its 26 ppg (best production since 2007) and 195 ypg rushing (best since Glen Mason’s 2005 edition). The RB corps is deep, experienced and good. Injuries to Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams thrust David Cobb into the starting role last season, and he gained 1202 yds. (5.1 ypc) and scored 7 times. Williams gained 332 YR (5.5 ypc) LY, and Kirkwood was very effective in rushing for 926 yds. in 2012, but both were hampered by injuries and took a back seat after Cobb scored 5 rushing TDs and gained 6.3 ypc in the first 4 games LY. Even with those three reliable vets returning, the talk in spring camp was about RS frosh Berkley Edwards, a state 100 and 200-meter sprint champ as a prep in Michigan. Edwards was redshirted last season, but he flashed his speed in the spring and could be a major contributor to the attack in the fall.

Although 2013 starter Philip Nelson has transferred to Rutgers, the Gophers still have an experienced signal caller in soph Mitch Leidner, who had 7 rush TDs and 407 YR and played fairly error-free in the passing game (619 YP, 3-1 TD-ints. in 78 attempts). The offensive line will be ready for action, as it appears o.c./OL coach Matt Limegrover’s only problem is how to keep his deep, talented set of “hogs” satisfied with sufficient playing time. Sr. Zac Epping and jr. Josh Campion have been named to several preseason all-conference teams, soph LT Ben Lauer was a frosh A-A, while 6-9, 325-lb. soph Jonah Pirsig bulldozed his way to a starting spot in the spring. The running game will be very successful, and it sets up a TE-oriented pass attack keyed by preseason all-B1G selection Maxx Williams (25 catches, 16.7 ypc, 5 scores LY).

The defense lost a couple of high NFL draft picks in DT Ra’Shede Hageman (2nd round to the Falcons) and CB/S Brock Vereen (4th to Chicago Bears), but it returns 7 starters and plenty of experience from a team that ranked 25th in the country in allowing just 22 ppg (only once in the past 14 seasons have the Gophers allowed fewer points). Safety Cedric Thompson and MLB Damien Wilson were 1-2 in tackling last season with 79 and 78, respectively, while S Antonio Johnson was 4th with 69 stops. With foes keying on Hageman last year, DE Theiren Cockran found himself one-on-one enough to lead the team in sacks with 71/2, and ranked 3rd in that category in the Big Ten. The LB corps took a blow when soph Cody Poock injured his ACL during spring practice, but Poock’s absence opens a spot for RS soph Jack Lynn, who has been backing up Wilson in the middle while proving himself capable as a star of the scout team the last two seasons.

Kill has built and rebuilt programs at all five stops in his career as a head coach. His teams have started a bit slowly (combined 21-36 SU in the first season in his tenure), but have progressed in the third season to a composite 35-13, including Minny’s 8-5 mark LY. In the fourth season of his past stops, his teams have gone 19-4. The schedule-maker wasn’t kind to the Gophers, as they draw Ohio State and Michigan out of the Big Ten East, and Minny visits Big Ten heavyweights Wisconsin and Nebraska in the last two games this fall. Kill’s squad could well be improved, but getting to the 8 or 9-win level might not happen.

PURDUE (SUR 1-11, PSR 4-8)… In some football programs, “The Future is Now” is the motto. In Darrell Hazell’s second season at Purdue, the future is most definitely not now. Hazell thought he had something going during spring of 2013, as the Boilermakers were coming off a 6-6 regular season and a bowl appearance. Hazell is an accomplished recruiter and immediately brought in a number of highly-touted youngsters, most notably QB Danny Etling. The team returned 13 starters (8 on defense) from the 2012 bowl team and appeared much-improved in spring drills. But it turned out that perceived improvement was a mirage created by the fact that the Boilermakers were competing against their own mediocre teammates. Once the live ammo started flying in 2013, it quickly became apparent Purdue was in trouble. The Boilers suffered through a 1-11 season, with their only win coming in a 20-14 nailbiter against FCS Indiana State, which itself finished 1-11 LY and had given up 73 points to Indiana the week before visiting West Lafayette. Hazell most definitely has his work cut out for him.

There are a few rays of light at the end of the tunnel for the Boilers (but only a few). One of Hazell’s recruits was the aforementioned Etling, who took over in the fifth game last season after incumbent Rob Henry proved ineffective. Etling threw for 211 ypg and ended the season throwing for 485 yds. and 4 TDs in a 56-36 loss at Indiana in the 2013 finale. However, the Boilers ranked 122nd in rushing yards, netting an anemic 67 ypg on the ground (2.5 ypc). Normally one might point to the 38 sacks allowed as reason for the poor production, but the top 3 RBs combined to gain just 3.7 ypc. Last season’s leading rusher was Akeem Hunt (464 YR; 3.8 ypc), and while he’s not a lead, 25-carry-a-game back at just 5-9, 184, he was a serviceable receiver out of the backfield (38 catches). Hunt might be replaced as the starter by track star Raheem Mostert (Big Ten indoor 60 & 200-meter champ), who’s one of the few Boilermakers with true home run speed. Offensive coordinator John Shoop is hoping WRs DeAngelo Yancey (32 recs.; 17.1 ypc), soph jr. Danny Anthrop (17 & 18.4), and soph Dan Monteroso (won newcomer award in spring) can help provide Etling with some outs in the passing game. The offensive line is a problem, as only C Robert Kugler (19 straight starts; converted former TE) can be considered a solid player. The spring depth chart showed 7 frosh, sophs, or juco transfers in the OL 2-deep, and the competition for playing time is wide open heading into the fall.

Although the Boiler stop unit was marginally ahead of the offense in 2013, ranking 111th in scoring and 104th in total defense, Purdue gave up the most points in its history last season (38 per game). The six returning starters shouldn’t feel too comfortable about their status with Hazell’s youth movement in full swing. Soph Langston Newton and true frosh Gelen Robinson (best prep in Indiana) will likely be starting before too long at LB, replacing some of the senior “dead wood” in the lineup. The DL also features youth, with spring award winners DE Jake Replogle (most improved defensive player) and NG/DT RaZahn Howard (best defensive newcomer). They are joined by sr. DE Ryan Russell, who was a disappointment last season. The defensive backfield will definitely miss CB Ricardo Allen, a cover guy who had 6 ints. LY. Allen was chosen on the 5th round by the Atlanta Falcons. Four players with significant starting experience return in the 2ndary, including cover corner Frankie Williams (61 stops; 2 ints.), from a unit that ranked a respectable 55th against the pass. But the fact is, when a team gives up 5.3 ypc, foes don’t throw until they are stopped on the ground. The Boilermakers couldn’t do that.

Purdue was a fixture in the bowl mix under Joe Tiller, making 10 postseason appearances in 11 years from 1997 to 2007. Hazell will eventually lead the Boilermakers back to that level, but not until he’s able to put together a few more recruiting coups and have the team settle into his system. But that’s in the future.

ILLINOIS (SUR 4-8, PSR 6-6)… Head coach Tim Beckman is definitely under pressure in Champaign after losing 15 of 16 Big Ten games in his first two seasons in charge of the Illini. Beckman has a real challenge, as he has to replace QB Nathan Scheelhaase, who led the Big Ten LY and holds the school career record in total offense. The team’s top defender, LB Jonathan Brown (119 stops), also ran out of eligibility. After a promising 3-1 SU start, including an upset of Cincinnati, Illinois finished in a tailspin by losing 7 of its last 8 in 2013.

Although Scheelhaase is gone, some important pieces remain. The biggest piece offensively for the Illini might well be offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. Cubit arrived on campus for the 2013 season after serving at Western Michigan, and he helped transform the attack and played a major role in Scheelhaase generating the most productive all-around QB performance in Illinois history. Under Cubit’s guidance, the team jumped from 16.7 ppg in 2012 to 29.7 ppg last season. Although Scheelhaase won’t be pulling the trigger, Cubit still has a couple of good options at QB. Wes Lunt, an Illinois native, enrolled early at Oklahoma State in the spring of 2012, won the starting job for the Cowboys, and made 5 starts before injuries ended his season. Miffed at being bumped as the starter, he transferred to Champaign in the summer of 2013 and sat out last season. Although Lunt is the presumed starter for the next three seasons, Cubit hasn’t committed, and sr. Reilly O’Toole, who has completed 69% of his 170 passes for 975 yds. in three seasons backing up Scheelhaase, will compete for the job, as will athletic soph Aaron Bailey. The Illini feel they have a top-drawer RB candidate in jr. Josh Ferguson, who combined with sr. Donovonn Young to gain 1155 yards in ’13. Ferguson averaged 5.5 ypc, scored 7 rushing TDs, and caught 50 passes, with 4 of those going for scoring receptions last season. Cubit and OL coach A.J. Ricker transformed the offensive line last season, and that unit has four starters returning, plus both TEs Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse, who shared time.

The Illinois defense has 8 starters back, but that’s a double-edged sword with a team that ranked 104th in scoring defense (35 ppg) and 116th against the run (239 ypg; 5.6 ypc). The team couldn’t generate much pressure (only 15 sacks) and didn’t force enough turnovers (just 3 ints.; 11 total takeaways all season). The defensive line showed some improvement in the spring, especially in the pass rush. Five of the top six tacklers are back, led by sr. LB Earnest Thomas III, who ranked second with 101 stops in 2013. Although Brown is gone, the next 6 tacklers return for d.c. Tim Banks’ stop unit. The only way that Illinois will change its 1-15 conference mark is if Banks can find a way to shave a couple of TDs off of the 41 ppg allowed vs. Big Ten foes in 2013.

Lunt played in 6 games at Oklahoma St., completing 62% of his passes for 1108 yds., and threw for 6 TDs as a true freshmanin 2012. However, he also threw 7 ints., which in part explains why Cowboy HC Mike Gundy went in a different direction. Lunt is no sure thing, O’Toole is a career backup, and Bailey is inexperienced…none is Scheelhaase. The defense could cut 7 ppg off its allowance and it might might not make a difference this season. The Illini have made some inroads in recruiting, but the question is whether those younger players can emerge and support the framework that remains in time to save Beckman’s job.

Vincent Rizzo

College Football / College Basketball Handicapper. 2011 won 74%, 2012 won 72% 2015 SPECIAL. CALL, 877.WIN.ATS9 EMAIL,V@VincentRizzoSports.com

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