Every Tuesday, Matt Hayes tackles the 10 hottest topics in the Big Ten …

1. The B1G Story

He’s not changing who and what he is. Not for something called the transfer portal, and sure as the day is long, not for immediate satisfaction over long-term gain.

And most certainly not at the expense of his university’s soul.

“A pretty drama-free day for us,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said of another national signing day come and gone.

Only this one was different. After rock bottom in 3 of the last 4 seasons — after 18 losses in the last 21 Big Ten games — Fitzgerald signed the best recruiting class in his 17 seasons in Evanston (46th in the country, 10th in the B1G).

He didn’t have to address 11th hour flips or $13 million NIL deals gone awry. Just the 19 players who, for the most part, had been committed to Northwestern for more than a year and held on despite one of the worst seasons in school history.

“They know its about building relationships,” Fitzgerald said. “And building something collectively.”

If you think that’s a veiled shot at the state of today’s college football, well, you’re damn right it is.

He’s not building through the portal, and he sure isn’t going to start using NIL money to pay high school players who haven’t even stepped on campus.

“We’re not going to be a part of that,” Fitzgerald said. “I understand what is being said out there. We’re going to follow the rules and do the things that fit Northwestern and the expectations we have as a university. Those other things don’t have anything to do with us.”

It’s here where the cynic declares that’s why Northwestern finished 1-11 in 2022. Why the Wildcats finished 1-8 in the Big Ten in 3 of the last 4 years.

Why they were last in college football in scoring offense, and scored more points in a Week 1 win vs. Nebraska (31) than they did in the entire month of November (22).

Why they lost at home to FCS Southern Illinois and Group of 5 Miami (OH), the gimme putts teed up to help reach the postseason. Why they lost at home to rival Illinois by 38.

Only Rice had more turnovers than Northwestern (30), which gave up 28.3 ppg and was 117th in the nation in tackles for loss.

Essentially, the very recipe that Fitzgerald has used over nearly 2 decades to build the overachieving program — protect the football and force turnovers, play stout defense and force negative plays — was in tatters for the 3rd time in the past 4 years.

Yet there was Fitzgerald, ever the optimist, ever the beacon of positivity, proclaiming that this recruiting class will one day do great things for Northwestern. Great families, great young men, he stressed.

They could’ve walked after the 1-11 season in 2022, but they doubled down and never wavered. Who knows how many will play this season, but they’ll be the foundation of something big one day.

It better be sooner than later. Because this losing — and the way Northwestern is losing by veering from everything that has built the program — makes Fitzgerald want to puke.

2. How it changes

There’s no secret in Northwestern’s struggles. Check out the quarterback position in the 3 years of rock bottom.

In 2019, 2021 and 2022, Northwestern’s quarterbacks combined for a TD/INT ratio of 29/46. They completed 56 percent of their passes and averaged a paltry 5.4 yards per attempt.

By comparison, Ohio State’s CJ Stroud led the nation in 2022 at 9.5 yards per attempt.

Fitzgerald has tried quarterbacks he recruited and graduate transfers, and nothing — other than Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey in 2020 — has worked. And even Ramsey was the benefactor of terrific defense and special teams during a quirky, odd Covid season.

After the first transfer portal period came and went, Northwestern didn’t add a quarterback. Fitzgerald said the program will add from the portal when needed, but that, “We’re going to start with high school players. We’re not going to build this any other way.”

That means Brendan Sullivan, a 3rd-year sophomore who played well in the last month of the season despite the losses in 2023, is first up in spring practice. Maybe Ryan Hilinski, who transferred from South Carolina 2 years ago, puts it all together.

Maybe true freshman Aidan Gray, a 3-star who committed to Fitzgerald a year ago and stuck with Northwestern despite the worst season in 33 years, arrives at fall camp and blows away the competition.

Or maybe Fitzgerald finds a transfer quarterback in the spring transfer portal.

“We will win games, I’m not worried about that,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s more about the right fit.”

3. Building the right way, The Epilogue

It’s not like Northwestern has completely abandoned everything that makes today’s programs unique.

There’s a magnificent football facility on the beach of Lake Michigan, a $260 million impeccable shrine more suited to the Georgias and Alabamas of the college football world.

Plans are under way to completely renovate Ryan Field, the quaint stadium plopped delicately in the middle of swanky North Evanston that hasn’t exactly been a house of horrors for visiting teams. They’ll eliminate 12,000 seats and add a sound refracting roof — think Baylor’s McLane Stadium — with the idea of creating a more intimidating environment.

It’s the infrastructure of Georgia and Alabama, with the philosophy of Vanderbilt.

There’s turnover on the roster, turnover on the coaching staff, and many more Ls than Ws. But Fitzgerald isn’t panicking.

He has seen this before, worked through it, and made it to the other side. In fact, the best recruiting class in his time at Northwestern is a byproduct of it.

It Northwestern weren’t built the way he wanted it, it’s not landing the best recruiting class after the worst record since long before this class was born.

“Sometimes change happens, and (recruits) see the high level of consistency on the field and we’re thankful for that trust,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s not the record we wanted, but we haven’t changed our character and what we do, and how we do it. We’re committed to get it fixed.”

Because puking every week is no longer an option.

4. The permanent choice

The Big Ten, like the SEC, is set to change its scheduling format for the 2024 season when it expands to 16 teams.

The format: 3 permanent rivals, and 6 rotating games, allowing each player to play each Big Ten team home and away in 4 seasons.

No one is going to be happy, but understand this: USC and UCLA each must get at least 1 of the 2 closest (geographically) rivals to alleviate travel issues. And that could strain some historic rivalries.

Again, not everyone is going to be happy.

Illinois: Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue

Indiana: Purdue, Maryland, USC

Iowa: Minnesota, Wisconsin, UCLA

Maryland: Indiana, Rutgers, Penn State

Michigan: Michigan State, Ohio State, Rutgers

Michigan State: Michigan, Northwestern, Penn State

Minnesota: Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin

Nebraska: Illinois, Minnesota, USC

Northwestern: Illinois, Michigan State, Wisconsin

Ohio State: Michigan, Penn State, Rutgers

Penn State: Maryland, Michigan State, Ohio State

Purdue: Illinois, Indiana, UCLA

Rutgers: Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State

UCLA: Iowa, Purdue, USC

USC: Indiana, Nebraska, UCLA

Wisconsin: Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern

5. The Weekly 5

Minnesota’s national championship odds and 5 things the Gophers need to reach the Playoff:

1. RB Sean Tyler was a Group of 5 star at Western Michigan. Can he stay healthy — and get 20-25 carries a game — against B1G competition?

2. If Minnesota truly is expanding the pass game, transfer WRs Elijah Spencer (Charlotte) and Corey Crooms (Western Michigan) need to combine for at least 70-80 catches.

3. After 3 years of uneven play at the most important position on the field, Minnesota coach PJ Fleck thinks Athan Kaliakmanis, a 3rd-year sophomore, and the transfer receivers can extend the pass game more vertically.

4. Gophers lose 3 starters on the offense line, and are thin inside with experience. But OTs Aireontae Ersery and Quinn Carroll return, which is critical for Kaliakmanis and the offense extending the pass game.

5. DC Joe Rossi’s unit has been terrific over the last 3 seasons, and the Gophers will need another top 20 effort behind a potentially nasty front 7 with rising stars LB Cody Lindenberg and DE Danny Striggow.

6. Your tape is your resume

An NFL scout analyzes a draft eligible Big Ten player. This week: Iowa DE Lukas Van Ness.

“He’s a big guy. You look at him, and he’s a mountain of a man. His nickname is Hercules. He didn’t start 1 game at Iowa, and was more of a situational specialist, a pure edge rusher. He’s long, he has nice bend for a guy his size, and his hands are terrific. He’s a lot like (Aidan) Hutchinson, one of those powerful yet athletic, rangy guys that you’re going to have to deal with no matter how you play it.”

7. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing: biggest riser at the NFL Combine.

1. Michigan: DT Mazi Smith. Interviews at the Combine (and workouts) will be critical.

2. Ohio State: OT Dawand Jones. Massive projected right tackle wants to show at Combine that he can play the left side.

3. Penn State: WR Parker Washington. Smooth talent could’ve had much greater impact with elite QB in college.

4. Wisconsin: DT Keeanu Benton. Sturdy and strong 1 technique could be Day 2 pick.

5. Minnesota: C John Michael Schmitz. Most scouts convinced he has moved into the 1st round.

6. Illinois: CB Devon Witherspoon. Might be 1st corner chosen in the draft.

7. Maryland: OT Jaelyn Duncan. Middle round grade at the end of the season. A big Combine will continue his rise.

8. Iowa: TE Sam LaPorta. Speed is an issue — until he runs well at the Combine. If/when he does, everything changes.

9. Purdue: QB Aidan O’Connell. Arm talent will show at Combine. Could be enough to move him into early Day 3.

10. Michigan State: WR Jayden Reed. Had fastest speed at Senior Bowl practices (20.03 mph), and showed strong route running (which was a criticism at MSU).

11. Nebraska: WR Trey Palmer. One scout I spoke to about Palmer: “Watch how he runs at the Combine. It will shock you.”

12. Indiana: LB Cam Jones. Made a big move by showing coverage ability during the Senior Bowl. Round 2 is the Combine.

13. Rutgers: P Adam Korsak. 1 of 5 punters invited to the Combine.

14. Northwestern: OT Peter Skoronski. Scouts have him all over the board: from 1st OT selected to late first round.

8. Ask and you shall receive

Matt: Do you really think Tayven Jackson is going to make Indiana better? He couldn’t get on the field at Tennessee. — Paul Silverman, Nashville.


The Vols have a backlog at quarterback with Joe Milton III staying after a big Orange Bowl performance and incoming 5-star Nico Iamaleava competing for the job. Jackson made the right move, if for no other reason, to get a chance to play.

There’s only 1 quarterback on every roster who plays. Think about that, and then consider these bluechip (4- and 5-star guys) numbers from the 247Sports composite over the last 4 recurring classes:

2020: 19.

2021: 30.

2022: 18.

2023: 26.

Many of those bluechips are being recruited over the previous year’s bluechip recruits. They all can’t play at 1 school.

Jackson is a native of Indiana, and probably should’ve signed with the Hoosiers out of high school. He didn’t, and now he has moved on. The IU staff loves his arm talent, and he’s going to be problematic for defenses in the run game, too.

9. Numbers

7.4. Michigan RB Blake Corum will miss spring practice while rehabbing his injured left knee but is expected to be full-go for the start of summer workouts in June.

That’s 7-8 months of rehab. Translation: it was a significant injury. Even if Corum isn’t ready in September — there’s nothing that says he won’t — the emergence of Donovan Edwards at the end of last season has Michigan set at the position no matter when Corum returns.

Edwards got better when he was the only option in the backfield, improving his average yards per carry from 6.7 to 7.4. He ran for more yards in the in the final 3 games of the season (520) while subbing for Corum than he did over the first 11 games (471).

10. Quote to note

Purdue coach Ryan Walters: “I should be the hardest working recruiter in the building. I got to maintain a relationship with everybody on both sides of the ball. At every position, I gotta get to know.”