Every Tuesday, Matt Hayes tackles the 10 hottest topics in the B1G.

1. The B1G story

I don’t want to be the guy to throw a wet blanket on the hot start at Minnesota, but this thing could get sideways quickly.

And it has nothing to do with what’s happening on the field — which could be more than enough to get the Gophers to their first Big Ten Championship Game.

It has everything to do with the future off the field. Specifically, coach PJ Fleck’s future.

There’s a reason Fleck began his weekly press conference Monday by calling out the Twin Cities. You want an elite program that can play for championships and compete with the blue-bloods of today’s Big Ten and the 2024 expanded version?

Then ante up to Dinkytown Athletes, the new Minnesota NIL kitty.

“I’m calling on all of our donors, our boosters, our fans, our alumni,” Fleck said, “anybody who supports our program, to really look at this collective. It’s a call to action to support our student-athletes. With the ever-changing landscape of college athletics, as I keep saying, it’s incredibly important as we get into the roster management, building a roster of the future.”

He’s not even hiding it anymore. But frankly, neither is any other coach in major college football.

If you don’t think NIL is priority No. 1 right now — at Minnesota and every other Power 5 program — you’re lost in the memory of those Goldy national championship teams of the mid-1930s and early ’40s.

Some coaches find a way to use the new rules to their advantage (see: Jimbo Fisher), others complain (see: Nick Saban). And Fleck?

He’s left nothing for the imagination with his support of Minnesota’s new collective.

You want to win games? You have to pay top dollar to get the best players.

And if you don’t, well, that’s where the wet blanket on the hot start to 2022 comes into the equation. Fleck has done about all he can with recruiting and Xs and Os and Rowing The Boat. He has Minnesota maxed out.

If he can’t get better players to Minneapolis, why wouldn’t he look elsewhere at programs with bigger budgets and boosters with deeper pockets?

Look, every coach has an ego. Every coach believes he can win at the highest level with all things being equal.

The problem is, all things most certainly aren’t equal with Minnesota and the elite of the Big Ten. Why bang your head against the Ohio State/Michigan/Penn State wall year after year, when you can make $9 million a year to preach the values of rowing — t-o-g-e-t-h-e-r — at Auburn? (Got that, Aubie? Together).

Auburn has won a national title in the past 12 years, not the last half century like Minnesota. Auburn has a fertile recruiting base and unlimited cash. And for the love of all things Toomer’s Corner, Saban has to retire at some point. If you’re lucky, before your first contract extension.

Be it Auburn, or any other job with better opportunity to reach the Playoff, Fleck won’t continue to be loyal to Minnesota no matter how much it pays him. At some point, coaches want to win big.

This is why we’ve arrived at the last step in “can it work at Minnesota?” Beg for NIL cash so you can compete with the heavyweights of the Big Ten.

2. The product, the price

Minnesota can take a strong step toward winning the Big Ten West Division this season with a win Saturday against Purdue. Only the Boilermakers in the West Division, with their balanced offense, can stress Minnesota into a fourth-quarter game.

But Fleck has his best defense in 6 years at Minnesota, the product of the most underrated defensive coordinator in college football, Joe Rossi.

Rossi took over the unit late in the 2018 season, and since 2019, his defenses have finished 36th, 69th and 6th. The outlier: The COVID season of 2020, when no one tackled because no one practiced tackling.

This season, the Gophers are No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense (No. 1 in total defense), giving up all of 6 points a game. Last week against Michigan State, the Gophers went on the road and held the Spartans to 7 points, 240 total yards (38 rushing yards), and 2-of-8 on 3rd down. A masterpiece.

“I love the way our guys work,” Rossi said. “I love the way they go about their business, and their process.”

The schedule is set up (no Ohio State or Michigan) and the defense is good enough to do exactly what Iowa — another program in a similar NIL or bust situation — did in the 2015: Go 12-0, and play in the Big Ten Championship Game. Then fight hard, play smart, and lose in the 4th quarter because Ohio State or Michigan simply have too many weapons.

If Minnesota can go to Happy Valley on Oct. 22 and beat Penn State, 12-0 is a distinct possibility. Even at 11-1 — again, the Gophers will be favored in every other game on the schedule — the reality will be staring Fleck in the face.

Sports Betting in Big Ten Country

There is big news coming to the upcoming 2022-23 Big Ten football season (and NFL season). Ohio online sports betting and Maryland sports betting are on the way.

How much farther can he go at Minnesota?

3. Players equal championships, The Epilogue

Want to know why Minnesota hasn’t had a legitimate shot to beat Ohio State since Fleck arrived in Minneapolis in 2017?

The disparity at the most important position on the field has been as wide as Lake Superior.

Since 2017, the Ohio State quarterbacks: JT Barrett, Dwayne Haskins, Justin Fields and CJ Stroud (2 first-rounders, and maybe the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft).

And the Minnesota quarterbacks: Conor Rhoda, Demry Croft, Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan.

The highest-rated quarterback Fleck has recruited to Minnesota is Athan Kaliakmanis, a 4-star player from the 2021 class who was the 319th ranked player in the 247Sports composite.

The other 4 Fleck QB recruits: 1 ranked 545th overall, 1 ranked 848th overall, and 2 — including Morgan — were not ranked at all. The only quarterback committed to the 2023 class is not ranked, either.

See why Fleck is begging for NIL cash?

You can’t win big games, games of significance, without being better than the other guy at the most important position on the field. Morgan got hot in 2019 (30 TDs, 7 INTs), and the defense played well and the schedule set up and the Gophers won 11 games.

Morgan tanked the following 2 seasons (17 TDs, 14 INTs) — with different offensive coordinators — but is efficient again this season with the return of OC Kirk Ciarrocca.

Maybe he stays hot, and the defense continues its stout play, and the Gophers get all the way to Indianapolis for their first Big Ten Championship Game. Then reality will hit: Ohio State will be better at nearly every position.

Players win games.

Ante up, Minneapolis.

4. Fitz and the future

Speaking of maxing out, it might be time to finally admit that Pat Fitzgerald has done all that’s possible at Northwestern.

That’s not to say Fitzgerald, the winningest coach in school history (by more than double the runner-up), should be fired. It’s more about the future of his coaching career.

If Fitz truly wants to win big, it’s not going to happen at his alma mater. If he ever had a selfish thought beyond his alma mater and his family’s life and love of all things Chicago — and he’s turned down plenty of opportunities in college football and the NFL — it might be time to feed it.

Three straight losses to Duke, FCS Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio) have underscored what 2 of the past 3 seasons ushered in: It’s brutally difficult to win consistently at Northwestern, and will get harder with Big Ten expansion, NIL and free player movement.

“From my vantage point, it looks like we lost some 1-on-1s,” Fitzgerald said after the loss to Miami (Ohio).

Translation: Dudes win games. And it’s getting more difficult for Fitz to land enough dudes to compete at the highest level.

Take away the outlier of a 7-2 finish in 2020 and a loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, and Northwestern’s record since 2019 is 7-21 overall and 3-16 in the conference. The rest of 2022 doesn’t look good.

If Fitzgerald wants to stretch his coaching legs and see if it can be more, he could likely have any open job he wants in college football — and maybe a couple in the NFL. All he has to do is inform his agent, Bryan Harlan, that he’s interested in trying something different and the suitors would line up.

Nebraska, Arizona State, Georgia Tech. You name the open job, he could have it. And any future open jobs, too.

“Winning cures a lot of ills,” Fitzgerald said. ‘We’ve beaten ourselves 3 straight games, and that’s ultimately my responsibility.”

5. The Weekly 5

Five picks against the spread, brought to you by our friends at FanDuel:

  • Michigan (-9.5) at Iowa
  • Illinois at Wisconsin (-8.5)
  • Purdue (+12.5) at Minnesota
  • Northwestern (+25.5) at Penn State
  • Michigan State (+7) at Maryland

Last week: 2-3.

Season: 10-10.

6. Your tape is your résumé

An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible Big Ten player. This week: Penn State CB Joey Porter Jr.

“Physical, fluid, long, can run. What else is there? He’s a tough guy who thrives in man, uses his body and his length as leverage and with 50-50 (balls). His instincts are terrific, and with those skills, I’d love to see more production. I don’t buy the idea that people don’t throw at him. Everyone gets thrown at. He has a powerful punch at the line, and can redirect. I expect him to go in the first 20 (picks), unless he runs even faster at the Combine or his pro day.”

7. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: The uncovered flaw after 1 month.

1. Ohio State: Pass rush. It’s not like Ohio State has played a brutal schedule, and still has only 9 sacks in 4 games.

2. Michigan: Still searching for a No. 1 receiver, a guy who can stress defenses.

3. Penn State: The ball is not going vertical in the passing game. QB Sean Clifford is averaging 7.6 yards per attempt.

4. Minnesota: Want to nitpick about the defense? Only 7 sacks in 4 games.

5. Wisconsin: QB Graham Mertz. He just hasn’t developed and reached his recruiting hype, and has been uneven at best in big games since he arrived on campus.

6. Maryland: If the Michigan game is an indicator (and that’s a tough bar), the Terps still aren’t physical enough in the front seven.

7. Iowa: I’m going to take a stab in the dark: quarterback play.

8. Michigan State: Defense can’t get off the field. Opponents are converting 43 percent of 3rd-down tries.

9. Purdue: A talented team, a wildly undisciplined team.

10. Indiana: Remember the 2020 pass defense and all those big plays? This season: 114th in the nation in pass defense.

11. Illinois: Only 5 Power 5 teams have more turnovers (9).

12. Rutgers: Rutgers, at 6.09 yards per attempt, somehow has a worse quarterback room than Iowa.

13. Northwestern: -5 turnover ratio. The most un-Fitz indicator of failure.

14. Nebraska: Huskers’ opponents are converting 52 percent of 3rd-down opportunities.

8. Ask and you shall receive

Matt: We’re not paying Mel Tucker $100 million to lose to Minnesota. This is disturbing. Do you see a step-back season for the Spartans? — Tim Wilbur, Detroit.

Tim:

You may not like the losses to Washington and Minnesota, but those are 2 teams that will likely be playing games that matter deep into November.

That said, it is disturbing that the offense has regressed in QB Payton Thorne’s 3rd year as a starter, and that the pass defense isn’t getting any better. If you thought the last 2 games were difficult — and that they exposed flaws — get a load of the next 4 games: at Maryland, Ohio State, Wisconsin, at Michigan.

Tucker is the right fit at MSU, and he will upgrade the roster through recruiting. They’re not there yet, and last year’s surprising season probably raised expectations to where they shouldn’t be.

The administration had to pay Tucker. You pay what the market dictates, and it’s the cost of doing business. That said, the Spartans need to look better over the next month against the elite of the Big Ten and show the toughness and attitude that fueled last year’s team.

9. Numbers

31. The Ohio State offense is 2nd in the nation in plays of 20 yards or more with 31, and leads the nation in plays of 30+ yards (18).

It should come as no surprise that Ohio State also leads the nation in average yards per play (8.25).

10. Quote to note

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst: “You can’t hide from what happened (against Ohio State). You’ve got to own it. And then you’ve also got to own your response.”