These 3 Big Ten teams could have a Northwestern-like fall in 2020
Northwestern was a program on the rise heading into this season, with three seasons of nine wins or more in the last four years. And with a 5-star quarterback taking over, the arrow seemed to be pointing up.
But as the kids say (or used to say, at least): Life comes at you fast. Northwestern football was a punchline in 2019, with the worst offense in the country. The Wildcats, who went 8-1 in Big Ten play in 2018 on their way to a berth in the Big Ten Championship game, went 1-8 this season and finished last in the Big Ten West. They were easily the most disappointing team in the Big Ten.
There were some clues that this regression was coming, even with prized transfer entering the fold. For one, Northwestern lost its all-time leading passer, Clayton Thorson, and returned just 12 starters — tied for the second-fewest in the conference.
So, who could regress in 2020 like Northwestern? Here are three candidates:
Iowa epitomizes consistency. It has made a bowl game in 17 of the last 19 seasons. There is an infrastructure in place with head coach Kirk Ferentz, and he has had that program winning in a way that a whole lot of programs would love. But after going 9-3 this season, I would understand if the Hawkeyes had a bit of a rebuilding year in 2020.
All of these underclassmen declaring early for the NFL Draft has to catch up with the Hawkeyes at some point, right? One would think. The Hawkeyes will likely have four first-round picks in the last two years, assuming juniors A.J. Epenesa and Tristan Wirfs leave for the NFL. And that could be five, as redshirt junior Alaric Jackson would also be an early-round pick at tackle. That’s on the heels of T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant both going in the top 20 last year. That’s a lot of talent leaving school early.
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The Hawkeyes were ninth in 247Sports’ College Team Talent, which measures the high school recruiting rating of the current roster. Iowa will likely lose its only 5-star player in Epenesa and one of its six 4-star recruits in Wirfs. This metric, of course, doesn’t take into account player development, an area Iowa excels in. But still, talent means something.
The Hawkeyes will have a new quarterback, with three-year starter Nathan Stanley out of eligibility. That would presumably be current redshirt freshman Spencer Petras, who was the No. 19 pro-style quarterback in the Class of 2018. Of note, he was ahead of Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. (No. 21) and Iowa State’s Brock Purdy (No. 36) — two players who have shown a ton of promise. That doesn’t mean Petras will too, but it is encouraging.
That said, we’ve seen what can happen to a program when its longtime quarterback, like Thorson, graduates. There were a ton of growing pains for Northwestern this season, and that would apply to Purdue too after losing David Blough and then Elijah Sindelar early in the season. When you add in that the Hawkeyes will also lose their starting tight end and fullback, that offense will look way different. The defense will probably lose five seniors, too.
2. Michigan State
The pieces were in place for Michigan State to contend in 2019, but it just never came to fruition. The unsettling part if you’re a Spartan fan has to be the possibility that this could get a lot worse. At just 6-6 with a ton of talent graduating on a very good defense, plus a three-year starter at quarterback and limited depth in the running back room, you have to wonder what Michigan State will look like next season.
The East is so tough with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan entrenched at the top right now, plus upstart Indiana making strides. The Spartans have crossovers with Iowa, Minnesota and Northwestern, plus non-conference games with Miami (FL) and at BYU.
This is just a program with no momentum right now. Only two Big Ten teams don’t have a 4-star commit for the 2020 class: Rutgers and Michigan State. That is not the company the Spartans want to keep. (Also, it’s probably not long before Greg Schiano lands one.)
Redshirt senior Brian Lewerke (16 TD, 12 INT) never took that next step forward, and it’ll likely be up to Rocky Lombardi next year. The defense is going to have heavy turnover, with Kenny Willekes, Joe Bachie, Raequan Williams, Tyriq Thompson and more graduating.
The arrow is pointing down right now for Michigan State, and it’s going to take a major overhaul from Mark Dantonio to get this turned around.
The Golden Gophers are still going to be loaded again on offense, losing only running back Rodney Smith and wideout Tyler Johnson. The latter is a stud, but Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell give quarterback Tanner Morgan the weapons he needs.
What worries me is their defense. They are going to lose a ton, with eight senior starters. Then you add in that redshirt sophomore Antoine Winfield has balled out this season and positioned himself as a legit NFL Draft prospect, so he may be leaving school early. (In a story this week, The Athletic ranked Winfield as its No. 6 safety prospect.)
The Golden Gophers had no problem scoring this season, failing to top 30 points in just two games. For as good as Morgan was at quarterback, ranking fourth nationally in pass efficiency, this was a run-first team. Minnesota was 31st in rushing attempts and 116th in pass attempts. What happens if it is forced to play in some more shootouts? That would force the offense to play differently in 2020.
Minnesota’s non-conference schedule is once again easy, as it hosts Florida Atlantic, Tennessee Tech and BYU. While it seemed like Minnesota’s biggest division games were at home this season, next year it will go to Wisconsin, Nebraska and Illinois. It does get Michigan in a crossover this year, too. It’s a favorable slate, but there are some opportunities for some slip-ups.
I’m not necessarily predicting a big drop in 2020 for Minnesota, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it took a step back.