New expectations for new coaches
There was only one guarantee that a Big Ten coach was on his way out last year. Brady Hoke’s final year at Michigan was one of turmoil, and arguably the most disappointing in the history of the storied program. To predict a new Michigan man was not bold at all.
Predicting the firing of Bo Pelini wasn’t quite as bold. Even though he had seven straight nine-plus win seasons, he was 4-11 against ranked foes after the Huskers joined the Big Ten. Those two stats were at the forefront of every argument for or against Pelini, which is likely the benchmark for the new coaching staff.
Then there’s Wisconsin, which had its second stunning coaching departure in a three-year stretch. For a program that’s been as consistent as they come over the last 10 years, that’s hard to believe. Gary Andersen’s move to Oregon State was one of the more bizarre Power Five coaching switches in recent memory. Now, it’s Paul Chryst’s turn to keep the Badger train rolling.
Chryst, Jim Harbaugh and Mike Riley all enter the Big Ten with varying expectations. Each fan base has grown accustomed to competing for conference titles, which is a different standard than for most first-year coaches. What’s realistic for each of them?
Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
The Badgers couldn’t have made a better hire in the wake of an odd departure. Chryst is actually beginning his fourth stint in Madison. The former Badger quarterback previously worked as the tight ends coach and offensive coordinator. When the Badgers were establishing one of the nation’s top rushing attacks, Chryst was at the center of it. That’s why many expect him to pick the Badger offense up right where it left off. Corey Clement will likely follow in the footsteps of the great Wisconsin backs and become the focal point of the offense. However, the Badgers won’t be quite as ground-heavy under Chryst. A reunion with a more confident Joel Stave will provide the Badgers with more balance than they’ve had in years past. That’ll pay dividends for Wisconsin in the wide-open West. First year or not, Chryst’s standard will be the same as it always is for the Badgers — get to a Big Ten Championship.
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Now why would expectations run amuck in Ann Arbor? It’s not like the Wolverines made their splashiest hire in program history. Oh wait. They did. Just in case you haven’t heard. After the disaster that was 2014, Michigan has a new set of expectations under their new general. And after the rebuilding job Harbaugh did at Stanford — he turned a one-win group into a BCS bowl winner in four years — conventional wisdom says he’ll do the same with the maize and blue. But it won’t be flipping a switch. Harbaugh’s first two years at Stanford were bowl-less seasons. It wasn’t until he got Andrew Luck under center that his offense became one of the nation’s best. Right now, Harbaugh doesn’t have the talent to compete with Michigan State and Ohio State for an East Division crown. But Harbaugh is the perfect remedy for Michigan’s offensive woes, which is why an eight-win season should be the bar in his first year in Ann Arbor.
Mike Riley, Nebraska
The new Nebraska coach came into Lincoln with about as clear of a benchmark as one can have. Nine wins is not good enough. Winning the headliner game means everything. Quantity without quality means nothing. Down the road, Riley’s performance will be evaluated using those same metrics. In his first year in Lincoln, the nine-win standard might be a bit too high, even with a favorable schedule. Nebraska lost its three top playmakers in Ameer Abdullah, Kenny Bell and Randy Gregory. It might take a few games for the offense to establish a new identity. The defense could still struggle against mobile quarterbacks and play closer with inferior teams than it should. That, of course, is on Riley to correct. It would be surprising if with a new coaching staff, both units clicked instantly. As painful as it is for Nebraska fans to hear, expectations might have to take a step back before they can move forward. An eight-win regular season would be a fair place for Riley to start.