Three B1G teams that will see win totals rise in 2017
Some teams can’t wait to get the taste of 2016 out of their mouth.
There weren’t many, but a handful of teams from the B1G endured disappointing seasons last year. Rutgers, Michigan State, Purdue and Illinois were the only four teams to end the regular season with a losing record and failing to reach bowl eligibility.
A few other squads – Iowa and Northwestern – had good years, but felt like something was left on the table.
Fortunately, 2016 is in the rear view mirror and the focus is on the season ahead. While all of these teams are looking to make a splash next fall, a select few have the chance to dramatically improve their record over the course of 12 months.
Here are the three B1G teams most likely to see a significant increase in their win total in 2017:
Aside from Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley at Penn State, Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson might be the best QB-RB combination in the B1G. And that, alone, is reason to believe the Wildcats won’t just improve their win total in 2017, but potentially compete for a B1G West title.
Once Thorson finally got into a rhythm, the offense was extremely effective and opened things up for Jackson out of the backfield. Considering what Northwestern did to Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl, there’s a good chance that the duo could lead one of the conference’s top scoring offenses next season, even without Austin Carr.
Defensively, the Wildcats have to replace Anthony Walker, Jr. and Ifaedi Odenigbo, but that type of issue has rarely been a problem for Pat Fitzgerald.
The biggest challenge for Northwestern will come in the first two weeks of B1G play, opening against Wisconsin and Penn State in back-to-back weeks. Still, with a lighter non-conference schedule and one of the top offenses in the conference, the Wildcats could toy with a nine or 10-win year.
Northwestern always seems to find itself in the dark horse conversation, but this time it seems the argument has more substance. This has the potential to be one of the best teams Fitzgerald has coached in Evanston.
We don’t really know what to expect from the Illini 2016.
The starting quarterback, the team’s top tackler, an entire defensive line and a few other pieces all need to be replaced. Then again, Illinois did finish 3-9, so is it really losing that much?
Lovie Smith did lock up the B1G’s ninth-ranked recruiting class with several guys who should step in and play right away. And running backs Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin could make up a pretty formidable backfield. So the Illini do have some weapons that could help this team climb out of the cellar.
But what really benefits Illinois is its schedule.
Illinois will play Ball State, Western Kentucky and USF in the non-conference schedule, and will have the benefit of playing weaker cross-divisional opponents Rutgers and Indiana. A West division class with Purdue should also be a winnable game.
The Illini should be better than they were a season ago, but how much better is still a question that’s up in the air. Still, Smith is going to have a great opportunity to get to that all-important six-win mark in just his second season in Champaign.
Every time Michigan State has endured a disappointing year in the Mark Dantonio era, the program has rebounded nicely.
Michigan State led in every game in 2016 and played Michigan and Ohio State tough. But injuries, issues at quarterback and a few defensive hiccups cost the dearly. So with several talented players returning for the Spartans, particularly on offense, it’s hard to imagine they won’t have a bounce-back year in 2017.
There are too many weapons offensively for the Spartans to be kept off the scoreboard next season. L.J. Scott will be the focal point of the offense, but receiver Donnie Corley is going to be a huge weapon for quarterback Brian Lewerke after a breakthrough freshman campaign.
Real questions come on the defensive side of the ball. The Spartans gave up 27.8 points per game last season, the highest average in a decade. And with several members of the secondary leaving, there’s some concern whether or not Michigan State will be able to stop teams from throwing all over the field.
But even with the question marks swirling this offseason, it’s hard to imagine the Spartans don’t respond from a 3-9 campaign. Even if it’s not in the mix for a B1G title, Michigan State should at least clinch bowl eligibility with relative ease.