The B1G 10: Luke Fickell will change everything you know and love about Wisconsin football -- in a good way
Every Tuesday, Matt Hayes tackles the 10 hottest topics in the Big Ten …
1. The B1G Story
We’ve spoken often of late on paradigm changes in college football, things moving from what they were to what we couldn’t possibly imagine.
Welcome to the end of life as we know it in Madison, everyone.
The Wisconsin you once knew and loved and set your biological football clock by will be nothing like you could possibly imagine moving forward.
Welcome to the 21st century, Badgers. From Crawl Ball to the Air Raid, Wisconsin has gone all-in with the hiring of new coach Luke Fickell.
“It’s about to get crazy in that conference,” a Big 12 coach told me. “They have no idea what’s getting ready to roll in.”
Barely 2 weeks after his surprise hiring, Fickell changed everything at Wisconsin by hiring North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo, a disciple of the Mike Leach Air Raid philosophy. The tailback, everyone, is no longer the most important player on the field.
The quarterback is everything.
Now we know why Jim Leonhard, a son of Wisconsin and legendary Badger, wasn’t elevated from interim coach to head coach. Now we know the why and how Wisconsin athletic director Chris McIntosh decided to make an indelible mark on this program less than 18 months into his job.
Everything of what you embraced and knew for so long under Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen and Paul Chryst is done. Change is here, and it’s 180 degrees from what was so comfortable for so long.
First and foremost, don’t believe everything you’ve heard about the Air Raid. While the quarterback is the focus, Longo won’t abandon the run.
In the past 4 years at North Carolina, Longo mentored 2 of the most prolific passers in the nation (Sam Howell, Drake Maye). His offenses were also 38th, 11th, 18th and 63rd in the nation in rushing.
This season alone, the worst of the 4 years at UNC, the Tar Hells threw 494 passes — and had 474 rushes. It was the first time under Longo that the offense wasn’t close to 60–40 run first.
The misconception is the Air Raid as a pass-happy offense that stresses its own defense with quick 3-and-outs. But it’s a ball control system that, over the years with various mutations, uses more downhill running with zone blocking principles (hello, Bucky).
In 2020, North Carolina had 2 tailbacks who rushed for more than 1,000 yards — and Howell had 30 TD passes.
This is life now, Wisconsin. Embrace it.
It might just be enough to compete with — and beat — Michigan and Ohio State.
2. Change is good
When Fickell interviewed with McIntosh, he showed a detailed breakdown of how he’d lift Wisconsin from so close to winning it all in its BCS life to joining the Playoff elite.
Want to know why McIntosh veered from Leonhard and into the great unknown? It wasn’t so much that Leonhard failed in his unofficial dry run as interim coach as much as it was McIntosh’s desire to try something different — with a clear and defined link to the past.
Fickell is about as Big Ten as it gets. A star player at Ohio State, a member of 2 different coaching staffs who won national titles at Ohio State, and a dedicated and loyal son of all things Jim Tressel coaching tree.
So when Fickell met with McIntosh and showed his plan — one that included the drastic move from Crawl Ball to Air Raid — McIntosh had his chance to plant his mark on the university he loves. If anyone gets UW and what it means, it’s McIntosh.
A consensus first team All-American lineman, a team captain, a key member of the back-to-back Rose Bowl teams in 1999-2000, McIntosh is about as Alvarez as it gets. But he clearly saw something in Fickell — and his plan — to usher in paradigm change.
3. Everything is new, The Epilogue
It’s not like McIntosh went out on a limb with this unique move. Every administrator in the game has been trying to pull Fickell from Cincinnati.
USC tried last year before hiring Lincoln Riley.
It’s not a crazy stab in the dark to hire a guy who got his first head coaching job in 2017 at Cincinnati, and 5 years later had the Bearcats in the Playoff, where they promptly gave college football king Alabama all it wanted in a national semifinal.
That Playoff appearance was the first for a Group of 5 school, a statement so profound, it forced the Group of 5 schools into the conversation of an expanded Playoff — where they now will receive an automatic bid to the newly expanded 12-team Playoff beginning in 2024.
Now FIckell is at a program with all the advantages: a deep, passionate fan base, a strong geographical recruiting footprint, history and tradition, and as much as anything, financial health from new Big Ten media rights deal.
Now he’s at a blank canvas, desperate for some new, creative colors. Get ready, Madtown.
Fickell has arrived, and he’s bringing the Air Raid with him. It will be nothing like you could possibly image.
4. Another 180 …
Purdue hired Ryan Walters to replace Jeff Brohm, and much like what Wisconsin did with Fickell, the Boilermakers have moved far from what they’ve been for years.
A quarterback-heavy program under Brohm, Walters — one of the hot young defensive coordinators in the game — will no doubt put a greater emphasis on getting stops.
While he has been around both wide-open (Missouri, 2017, with Josh Heupel as OC) and conservative (Illinois) offenses as a defensive coordinator, Walters likely will build from the defense out.
But his first move as Purdue coach may well be who plays quarterback in 2023.
Elite recruit Brady Allen from the 2022 class is at the top of the list. So is 2023 commitment Ryan Browne — if Walters can keep him from following Brohm to Louisville.
5. The Weekly 5
A special expanded B1G bowl picks against the spread, brought to you by our friends at FanDuel.
- Michigan (-7.5) vs. TCU
- Ohio State vs. Georgia (-6.5)
- Wisconsin vs. Oklahoma State (-3)
- Syracuse vs. Minnesota (-7.5)
- Maryland (-1.5) vs. NC State
- Iowa vs. Kentucky (+2.5)
- Illinois (-2.5) vs. Mississippi State
- Purdue vs. LSU (-10.5)
- Penn State vs. Utah (-2.5)
6. Your tape is your resume
An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible Big Ten player. This week: Ohio State DE Zach Harrison.
“An unbelievable athlete. A rare type of athlete. He has everything you want from an edge. He has explosion, he’s long, strong hands, bend. But there’s a reason he’ll slip to the 2nd round. He’s gets lost in games, and too many times you can’t find him on the field. Don’t think it’s a character thing, so maybe it’s a motivation thing. But when he’s on, he’s a first rounder.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing: grading the regular season.
1. Michigan (A+): New quarterback, revamped defense — and the program continues to climb.
2. Ohio State (A-): Hard to argue with 11 wins and a Playoff spot, even though the game that mattered ended poorly.
3. Penn State (B+): They’re not as far from Michigan and Ohio State as you think, and they’ll get closer in the Drew Allar era.
4. Purdue (B): Strong finish, but now what happens without coach Jeff Brohm?
5. Illinois (A-): This program was a mess, period. What coach Bret Bielema has done in 2 seasons is impressive.
6. Minnesota (B-): This is who the Gophers are: Good enough, but never enough to get to the elite of the Big Ten.
7. Maryland (C+): Another step forward, but the program needs a statement win in 2023 (almost got it against Ohio State).
8. Iowa (C-): Alive with a chance to play in the Big Ten Championship Game in the last week of the season — despite the worst offense in Power 5.
9. Wisconsin (C+): Jim Leonhard held it together, but the season was lost long before he stepped into the fire.
10. Michigan State (C-): A clear step back, for the program and QB Payton Thorne.
11. Nebraska (D-): What did AD Trev Alberts think was going to happen with the odd setup he gave former coach Scott Frost?
12. Rutgers (D+): Playing hard (and they play really hard for coach Greg Schiano) doesn’t mean anything unless you have a QB who can win games.
13. Indiana (D): A make or break season in 2023 for coach Tom Allen. Hoosiers have completely fallen off from 2020 breakout season.
14. Northwestern (F): The worst season ever under coach Pat Fitzgerald. Watch him turn it around in 2023.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: When this Playoff is over I think we’re all going to be talking about how JJ McCarthy is the next big star in college football. Your thoughts? — Glenn Phillips, Chicago.
A great assessment — and you’re not that far off. Because if Michigan is going to win it all (and make no mistake, it can), it will be because of the play of McCarthy.
We’re 12 games (remember Cade McNamara started the opener) into his first season — his first season — as the Michigan starter, and he’s the most dangerous quarterback in the Playoff. What he can do with his arm talent and speed and athleticism in the run game, will stress the TCU defense and the Georgia/Ohio State defense.
More problematic for the other 3 teams in the Playoff: The Michigan offense is playing with supreme confidence because of McCarthy.
We could very easily look back at the last 4 games of the 2022 season for McCarthy (Ohio State, Big Ten Championship Game, Playoff games) and say McCarthy will be the most dominant player in the game in 2023.
7. The Ohio State defense face-planted in the Michigan game, giving up 7 plays of at least 19 yards — including touchdown plays of 85, 75, 75, 69 and 45 yards.
Meanwhile, Georgia QB Stetson Bennett has 34 throws this season of 25+ yards. If Ohio State can’t stop the Georgia run game, the Ohio State defense will give up more game-changing explosion plays.
10. Quote to note
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, on what he saw from his new transfer QB Cade McNamara last year at Michigan: “He impressed the hell out of me. The whole team did. He was a leader on that team, a captain on that team. Very, very impressive.”