There is an air of inevitability in many B1G seasons. That Saturday afternoon game in late November between Ohio State and Michigan will have conference title implications. And either Penn State or Michigan State (or both) will be right there too.
But here’s what we don’t know quite yet. The Big Ten West Division has the potential to be absolutely wild this year, and as The Athletic noted, it could be the most wide-open division in college football.
Nebraska is the favorite, but five of the seven teams received at least one first-place vote in the preseason media poll.
With that in mind, here are the two B1G teams I’m most excited to watch this season, with the two qualifiers being potential to break through and pure entertainment value. Both of these teams have coaches on the rise and offenses that will be electric:
The Scott Frost era got off to a rough start with six losses to open 2018, but a strong finish has everyone in Lincoln excited for Year 2. That 4-8 season in 2018 will be a distant memory, if it isn’t already. The Cornhuskers are a popular pick to be one of the most improved teams in the country, and for good reason.
Frost went 13-0 in his second season at UCF, and while that is a little ambitious at this point, it’s not hard to see Nebraska in position to play in the Rose Bowl — even after back-to-back bowl-less seasons. The schedule is favorable as the Cornhuskers don’t face Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State. Arguably their four toughest games (Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa) are all at home.
And then there’s that quarterback.
Adrian Martinez will make the Huskers a must-watch. He has a little Russell Wilson in him in that he can hang back and buy his receivers time to get open, or he can take off when the pocket breaks down. He also has a little Frost in him, and maybe that’s why this duo has worked so well together.
Martinez got off to a bit of a rough start in his true freshman season, but he fits in well with Frost’s spread option attack. Nebraska averaged 23.3 points in the first six games last season but put up 36.6 per game in the last six — and that includes a nine-point showing against Michigan State. Martinez’s TD-INT ratio went from 6-5 in the first half of the season to 11-3 in the second half. Martinez will have some weapons too, with JD Spielman (a potential 1,000-yard receiver) and graduate transfer Kanawai Noa (who was productive when healthy at Cal).
The argument against Nebraska is that it really isn’t great in any other area. Frost needs time to build up this roster, as the Huskers aren’t nearly as talented across the board as Michigan and Ohio State. But on paper, not many teams are, so we’ll forgive them for that.
The bottom line, though, is that quarterback is the most important position in all of sports, and Nebraska has a stud. If Martinez makes another leap this year and Nebraska continues the late-season momentum from 2018, the Huskers will be in the national conversation in November.
What’s intriguing about Jeff Brohm is that he had the same chance that Frost did, to go back to his alma mater as the savior and restore the program to its former glory. And yet Brohm turned down Louisville to stay in West Lafayette.
Brohm must really see the potential to win at Purdue. And that’s telling, because the Boilermakers haven’t been ranked to finish a season since 2003, which is the fourth-longest drought among Power Five teams. It’s why I can’t wait to see what Brohm does in Year 3.
It’s also going to be interesting to see what P.J. Fleck accomplishes in his third season with Minnesota, and the Golden Gophers may finish ahead of Purdue, given that they are one of the more-experienced teams in the country with their 16 returning starters. But if I can watch one or the other, I’m going with Purdue.
If Elijah Sindelar can stay healthy, the Boilermakers will put up the points, and the wins too. It helps that they don’t face Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State. Even if they don’t challenge for the West title, though, Purdue is still going to be extremely compelling, and here’s why.
Rondale Moore is Purdue’s best player since Ryan Kerrigan, and he may end up going higher in the 2021 draft than Kerrigan, who was taken 16th overall in 2011. Remember what Moore did against Ohio State? Of course you do. He went for 170 yards and two touchdowns to ruin the Buckeyes’ chance at the CFP. He was an All-American last year, and he probably will be the next two years too.
But it’s more than just Moore. There’s a wave of talent coming at Purdue, and to me, that trumps the Boilermakers being one of the most inexperienced teams in the country (just three returning starters on offense). Brohm’s 2019 recruiting class was ranked fifth in the Big Ten, according to 247Sports. That’s significant, given that it’s just two years removed from a run of being ranked dead last from 2015-17.
I got a chuckle out of the recent Ohio State text dump. That situation is obviously no laughing matter, but the part about Purdue freshman David Bell was fascinating. The Buckeyes wanted Bell badly, but he apparently had no interest.
My feeling is that Bell, who like Moore comes from a storied high school program, will become a household name very soon. The 4-star wide receiver is going to form one of the most dynamic pass-catching duos in the country the next two years with Moore, who by the way shunned Texas in favor of Purdue. Remember? That isn’t supposed to happen at Purdue, but it’s starting to become more common with Brohm.
So yeah, there is something going on at Purdue. The Boilermakers are going to be a player in the Big Ten soon enough, and I can’t wait to watch.