We are back for the third and final round of our Big Ten college football roundtable. Earlier we discussed two quarterbacks who will be filling big shoes and then we discussed some under the radar players. Now it’s time to take a look at some sleeper teams around the league. Joining us in this series of roundtables we have Ross from Black Heart Gold Pants, Andrew from Madtown Badgers and Mike from The Little Brother Blog. Also joining us is college football writer Kevin McGuire. Kevin writes for a ton of sites including The Nittany Lions Den, No 2 Minute Warning, Crystal Ball Run and the College Football Examiner. Let’s talk college football….
The Sleeper Team of the Big Ten?
QUESTION: Who do you see as a sleeper team in each division at this point in Spring football?
Andrew: I see Purdue as a sleeper team in the Leaders division because they showed last season they could play with some of the best teams out there, taking down Ohio State and all. Plus they should finally have a healthy situation at QB and whoever wins out should provide the offense with the stability it needs to win.
Over on the Legends side of things I really think Northwestern may be a team people are sleeping on a bit too much. I thought about Iowa but not having a healthy running back with any experience nixed them. Northwestern was again an inconsistent team last year and Kain Colter should be a lot better now that he’s strictly a QB and not a QB/RRB/WR anymore. Add in a lot more experience on the defensive side of the ball and one of Fitzgerald’s best recruiting classes as well as possibly getting WR Kyle Prater right away on transfer and you have a dangerous team.
Kevin McGuire: In the Leaders Division I think Purdue has sleeper pick written all over them. Last year the Boilermakers were young, and battled through some injuries, but showed thy were capable of playing with some of the top programs in the division, beating Ohio State and pushing Penn State to the limit (although they did lose in blowout fashion to Wisconsin and Michigan. This year Purdue gets the Wolverines, Nittany Lions and Badgers at home.
In the Legends Division is it it fair to say Michigan State should be considered a sleeper pick? The Spartans lose some significant players, such as QB Kirk Cousins, receiver B.J. Cunninghham and running back Edwin Baker on offense and defensive tackle Jerel Worthy on defense. At this point the Michigan Wolverines hype machine is working up right now, and Nebraska is always going to be considered a potential favorite. So why, after a few successful years, does it seem like the Spartans are being overlooked yet again? I look for a solid season from Le’veon Bell and the Spartans have eight starters back on defense.
Mike: Leaders: Penn State. Rarely can Penn State be called a sleeper, especially after a 6-2 Big Ten record last year. Yet with huge question mark at quarterback, the coaching changes and the culture around Penn State still in flux, the label fits. The Nittany Lions schedule is favorable for a run at the division title as well, with arguably the two best teams in the conference in Michigan and Michigan State not on it. Throw in Ohio State’s postseason ban, and Penn State could make its way to Indy.
Legends: You can label any team outside of Michigan or Michigan State a sleeper really, but I think it’s gotta be Iowa. Nebraska might be the only team capable of making it a three-team race, but the Huskers are too good to be a sleeper. The Hawkeyes have a lot of players out injured for part of spring ball, giving guys like Darian Cooper a chance to compete heavily — this could bode well come fall for Iowa. If they can find a running back and a solid receiver along with Keenan Davis, they will be in good shape. The Hawkeyes do travel to Ann Arbor and East Lansing, but will have a bye week to prepare for the Spartans.
Ross: This sounds crazy, but I actually like Purdue as a sleeper in the Leaders division. They return 16 starters, including 8 on offense. Their biggest problem in recent years has been injuries: it’s tough to win games when you’re trotting out your fourth-string backfield. They could also benefit from continuity: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Illinois will all be breaking in several new coaches and/or schemes, which could create problems for them. Purdue knows exactly what they want to do and how they want to do it — they just need to keep their best players fit. They also have a reasonable schedule: going to Ohio State is never fun, but Michigan, Wisconsin, and Penn State all come to Ross-Ade Stadium.
In the Legends division, I like Michigan State as a sleeper. Granted, that’s a bit of a cheat since they’re the reigning Legends division champions, but they seem to be getting picked behind Michigan and Nebraska on a consistent basis so far. Admittedly, they have some big holes to replace — virtually their entire passing game has graduated and Jerel Worthy, a match-up nightmare at DT, opted to enter the NFL Draft — but they return 8 starters on defense and should still be pretty stout there. If they can replace QB Kirk Cousins and the rest of the passing game well enough, they could make some noise in the Legends division.
Kevin: I’m going to say Illinois in the Leaders division. They won’t come close to winning their division but they will be a lot better down the stretch then they were this year. Toledo’s Tim Beckman inherits Ron Zook’s toys and I would bank on him being able to do more with them than Zook did. Illinois lost it’s last six regular season games so just about anything will be an upgrade. They also have a very manageable schedule down the stretch. They will start 0-3 in the Big Ten but after that it’s all uphill and they will have a better in-conference record then they did last year.
I bought into Northwestern as a darkhorse conference title contender last year and they just didn’t pan out. This year I’m putting my chips in Iowa’s corner. Iowa had a lot issues last year and also had to break in a new quarterback. This year they are in better position to compete from day one of the season. If they simply would have beaten Iowa State and Minnesota they would have finished the regular season at 9-3. They aren’t that far away and if they win all the games they should then they have a chance to challenge for their half of the conference.