Wisconsin Basketball

Wisconsin Basketball is a Force to be Reckoned With

It is no question that the Wisconsin basketball program has been one of the most successful programs in college basketball over the past decade. Their upset victory over the number one overall seed Villanova on Saturday has the Badgers looking for another long run into the NCAA tournament.

Wisconsin Basketball

Wisconsin senior forward Nigel Hayes, makes a game-winning layup against Villanova on Saturday. (Photo/ M.P King, State Journal)

Wisconsin basketball is not one of the marquee programs when you mention the top college basketball programs, but it should be. The Badgers have by no means been as historically successful as the other top tier franchises like Duke and Kansas. However, they have been at the top of college basketball along with the rest since 2000.

They had only two NCAA tournament appearances before 1994 with one of those being a national championship in 1941. Since 2000 they have made every single tournament and have appeared in eleven sweet sixteen’s, four elite eights and three final fours. They were runner-up to Duke in 2015.

They have also won three Big Ten conference tournaments since 2000 and four regular season championships.

The Badgers finished second in the regular season this year in what was a rather strange season for the Big Ten. The Badgers then lost in the Big Ten tournament championship to a surging and emotional Michigan squad, which resulted in an eight seed in the NCAA tournament.

It was a rather controversial eight seed considering Wisconsin’s Big Ten foe Minnesota drew a five seed even though Wisconsin beat Minnesota twice during the season. The Badgers didn’t let it faze them after a solid ten-point first round victory over Virginia Tech. They definitely didn’t it let them faze them after a three-point win over tournament-favorite Villanova.

All four senior starters played a part in the 2015 runner-up experience. The Badgers are riding their experience into their sweet sixteen matchup against the Florida Gators. The Gators, who are coming off of dominating 65-39 victory over Virginia, look to make their eighth elite eight since 2000.

The Gators come in as a four seed. Many think they are the favorite against the Wisconsin team, who many thought would not be here. But Wisconsin is here, and they’re a force to be reckoned with.

Wisconsin

Sophomore forward Ethan Happ looks for a shot in a game against Michigan in January. (Photo/ Amber Arnold)

Led by seniors Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, the Badgers look to compete again this year for their first NCAA championship since 1941.  With the help of key sophomore Ethan Happ, the Badgers have one of the most dangerous rosters in the NCAA.

The one and done era is evidently upon us, but Wisconsin is one of the few teams to be led with this much experience.

The bottom line is that this team knows how to win. In late game situations, they know what to do and they know how to do it without panicking. That’s a talent that you can’t teach. It’s talent that the Badgers have. It’s a talent that can win you a national championship.

Anyone who draws the Wisconsin Badgers in this upcoming tournament shouldn’t judge them by their seed, and consider themselves lucky because the Badgers are here to win.

 

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Big Ten Basketball

The Big Ten’s Unusual, Unorthodox Season

Big Ten basketball has undoubtedly been the most up and down conference this year in college basketball. With the bulk of the Big Ten tournament starting today, the potential for a March Madness like tournament is high.

The Big Ten has offered us constant entertainment. It has deceived us through the entire year and given us headline after headline.

Big Ten Basketball

Kansas guard Frank Mason III drives against Indiana Forward OG Anunoby during their game in Hawaii on November, 11. Indiana would go onto win 103-99, Image courtesy of Nick Krug.

Earlier in the year when Indiana knocked off Kansas, many picked the Hoosiers to win the Big Ten. Some even had them competing for a national championship. That obviously didn’t pan out. Unless the Hoosiers win the Big Ten tournament, it is unlikely they will make an appearance in the NCAA tournament.

The Michigan State Spartans and highly-recruited freshman Miles Bridges were also expected to compete for a Big Ten Championship. At this point in the season, the Spartan’s are now fighting for a chance to just play in the NCAA tournament. They will need to have a few good wins in the Big Ten tournament in order to make an impression on the selection committee.

Wisconsin was also a favorite to win the Big Ten regular season and tournament. They are still the favorite to win the tournament to some. After a 10-1 start in Big Ten play, the Wisconsin has fallen off the wagon a little bit, losing five out of its next six games.

All these struggles have opened up a path for the Purdue Boilermakers to take the regular season championship and grab the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament.

Purdue’s success hasn’t been surprising, but it hasn’t been expected. The team is lead by dominant sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan, who is probably the best forward in college basketball. The Boilermakers have put themselves in a position to win the Big Ten tournament and compete in the NCAA tournament.

Big Ten Basketball

Northwestern guard Bryant McIntosh drives against Iowa forward Nicholas Baer (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

What stands out the most when looking at the Big Ten’s season is Northwestern. Northwestern has never made the NCAA tournament and is the only college in a power five conference to never do so. With a 21-10 regular season record, the Wildcats are looking like they are in no matter what happens in the Big Ten tournament. However, a few wins wouldn’t hurt in terms of seeding.
What is also intriguing about the Big Ten is that they don’t hold a number of powerhouses like they normally do. The Big Ten did finish out the year with three teams in the AP top 25. Purdue finished at No. 13, and Wisconsin and Maryland rounded out the top 25 at No. 24 and 25. For the most part, they look to play spoiler in the upcoming NCAA tournament.

Along with Northwestern, the Big Ten has had other teams take advantage of the lack of dominance at the top of the conference. Minnesota finished the season with an overall record of 23-8, with an 11-7 record in conference play. That was good for fourth best in the conference. With the NCAA tournament soon approaching, the Golden Gophers have many experts picking them as a potential dark horse.

Many would say this past season was a disappointing and underwhelming season for the Big Ten. In Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket, he has the Big Ten’s highest ranking team, Purdue, at a four seed.

Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and almost every school down the line besides Northwestern and Minnesota didn’t have the season that they’re accustomed to having. Was it really a disappointing season for the Big Ten?

While the Big Ten doesn’t have the top 25 teams they normally have, the competition is still there. At any point in time, the team at the bottom of the conference can beat the team at the top of the conference. That is very rare, especially for a power five conference.

These are division I athletes, some of the best in the world. While the conference isn’t as strong this year as it has been in the past years, it is still one of the best basketball conferences in America. Anyone who draws a Big Ten team in the NCAA tournament should not take them lightly. Big Ten basketball teams know how to compete no matter what their record shows.

 

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The Big Ten is No Longer “Big”

Week after week there is talk about the No. 1 team in the nation (Villanova this week), the Big East, the ACC, and Grayson Allen. No one is talking about the Big Ten. There is a reason for that.

Maryland leads the conference with a 4-1 record, ranked No. 25 in the country. The Terrapins might be 16-2 overall, but they haven’t played one ranked team this year. They also have yet to play Wisconsin, Purdue or Minnesota. One might remember that Maryland is relatively new to the Big Ten Conference along with Rutgers, who is 0-6 in conference play. Minnesota has recently dropped out of the top 25 ranking after losing to Michigan State this past week. Wisconsin is sitting at No. 17 and Purdue is ranked No. 21. Neither team holds the top spot in the conference.

(Photo courtesy of impact89fm.org)

The Big Ten simply is not the hard-hitting, nitty-gritty conference that it used to be. There is not a single team that dominates. Any team could lose on any given day, which sounds like March Madness. However, it isn’t the exhilarating type of March Madness where teams are upsetting high-ranked ball clubs. It is a lot of average teams beating and losing to mediocre teams, with respect to the rest of the nation.

For a girl who grew up watching Drew Neitzel shoot threes consistently with both hands, and heard about Isiah Thomas and his two years at Indiana, it is obvious that the Big Ten isn’t what it used to be. All of the teams have at least one loss in conference play and teams are struggling to get wins on the road.

The only true press that the Big Ten is receiving currently is from select standout players in the Midseason top 25 ranking for the Wooden Award this year. Those few are Melo Trimble (Maryland), Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin), and Caleb Swanigan (Purdue). Now this article is not to denounce the Big Ten but rather to breakdown the conference and its struggles this year.

What happened to the hoosiers?

Indiana is one of those teams that could make a great tournament run, but will the Hoosiers even make it to the tournament?

The Hoosiers started off the season with a four-point victory over Kansas. Then the team proceeded to lay an egg at IPFW in its fourth game of the season. They also beat North Carolina, but lost to Butler.

If their season continues at this pace, it will be the season that “missed it by that much.” Losing has been more of a theme this year than Tom Crean ever thought possible. The Hoosiers lost to Butler by five, Nebraska by four, Wisconsin by seven and Maryland by three. They are that close.

Indiana is typically a team that gets by. The past two years they have made it to the tournament and last year they made it to the Sweet 16. They have scorers and they have a great coach. They just need to finish.

Sparty on or Sparty off?

The Spartans are sitting near the top of the conference despite losing key players Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Deyonta Davis to the draft last year.

Freshman Miles Bridges (ncaabasketball.com)

The freshmen are clicking at the perfect time. Miles Bridges is coming off an ankle injury that sidelined him for the end of the preseason and beginning of conference play. Nick Ward is contributing 6.5 rebounds per game and has been named Big Ten freshman of the week twice. Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston are maturing into great role players for the Spartans, which will be key in March.

This might sound like a lot of positive conversation, but let’s not forget some key losses this season. The Spartans lost to Northeastern, Baylor, Duke, Penn State, Kentucky and Arizona. More recently, Michigan State got the job done against No. 24 ranked Minnesota, but lost to Ohio State on Sunday. This puts them at 4-2 in conference play with a tough week ahead.

Wisconsin is now the consistent leader

Wisconsin is just about the only team that has been consistently competing over the last few years. This year itself has not been stellar, yet the Badgers find themselves on a 16-game home winning streak.

The Badgers are similar to West Virginia in the way that they have multiple players averaging good numbers and are balanced in their scoring. Sophomore Ethan Happ is a 6’10” forward pulling down 9.2 rebounds per game and shooting 62.3 percent from the field. Everyone else on the team is shooting good percentages, but nothing stellar for Division I basketball.

They also only allow 60.2 points per game (ninth in the country). It is the Badgers’ defense that keeps them in games. The seniors also demand an intensity from each other and their standout sophomore Happ. Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Zak Showalter know what it means to get wins and make a run in the tournament. They made it to the Sweet 16 last year before losing to Notre Dame and the National Championship in 2015 (but lost to Duke). They are a good ball club, but to compare them to UCLA, Oregon, or Villanova is another story.

Purdue

The Boilermakers got a win over Wisconsin, but have losses to Iowa and Minnesota. Sophomore Caleb Swanigan is ranked first in the country in rebounds per game, pulling down 12.6 on average. This was key against Wisconsin when Swanigan had 18 points and 13 rebounds to secure the win. The let down is they turned around and took a five point loss to Iowa soon after, despite being ahead by nine at the half.

Caleb Swanigan of Purdue (News-Sentential.com)

This has been the trend for all of conference play thus far in the Big Ten. A team might come out and get a key win, but then come out flat the next game. There is no domination and as a fan, it’s been a tough year to watch so far.

The Boilermakers do have a couple things going for them. They start mostly juniors with the exception of Swanigan. Next year they will be a year smarter and more experienced, which can’t hurt. Purdue also lost to Villanova by only three points at the beginning of the season. They have hope.

 

What does this mean?

Some people might chalk it up to rebuilding years. Others might say some coaches need to make an exit. As someone who has grown up respecting Thad Matta, Matt Painter, Tom Izzo and Tom Crean, I hope the latter is not the truth.

The Big Ten will bounce back. For all my fellow Big Ten fans, there is hope and March isn’t here quite yet. The tournament will see fewer Big Ten teams this year, but no one can predict what they might do.

 

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The Need for an Eight Team Playoff

(USA Today)

(USA Today)

There must be an eight team playoff in college football. This college football season has been the best of any in recent history. There is constant rhetoric on who should have been in the playoffs and who shouldn’t.  There is constant questions on who is capable of challenging the unbeatable Alabama Crimson Tide.

Alabama has clearly looked like the best team in the country, but games are not won on paper and anything can happen once the ball is kicked off. There are upsets every week and Week 11 showed it more than ever. For the first time since 1985, the second, third and fourth ranked teams all lost on the same day. It was madness and chaotic and we all loved it! College football still has a little guy, Western Michigan, that went undefeated and gets absolutely no love at all. Their schedule is blamed for their low rankings at the end and throughout the year. There is an issue with the current format of a four team playoff.

College football is exciting and a four team playoff system was a great start, but we want, no, we need more. There needs to be an eight team college playoff. Part of the reason the college game went to a playoff system was because the BCS system didn’t allow the nation to see a true champion. There was rarely a year in which the third ranked team in the BCS didn’t have a case to be in the national championship. This year is no different. As mentioned previously, Western Michigan went undefeated and has to settle for playing in the Cotton Bowl. This isn’t the first time a small school had been disrespected by the polls.

The Little Guy

(Photo: Steve Grayson/WireImage)

(Photo: Steve Grayson/WireImage)

Why can’t the little guy get a chance to upset Goliath? There are plenty examples of teams who did not have a snowball’s chance in Hell to win against a college football giant, but somehow found a way. In 2006, Boise State won one of the greatest games in college football history.

The 2006 Boise State team was a member of the Western Athletic Conference, which is now extinct in football. It was a conference that was considered one of the worst in the country.  Boise State had two big non-conference wins that season. The Broncos beat Oregon State 42-12 and they also won at Utah 36-3. Boise finished the season undefeated, but the BCS only ranked Boise at eighth. Boise State was never considered for the national championship because of their weak conference. They had to settle for playing number 10 ranked Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl which became an instant classic.

To sum up the game, with a 1:02 left in a 28-28 tie, Boise State quarterback Jared Zabransky threw an interception to Marcus Walker who ran the interception back 34 yards for a touchdown to give Oklahoma a 35-28 lead. Fast forward to Boise State’s next possession with 18 seconds remaining. It was fourth and 18. Boise State ran the famous hook and lateral that worked for a touchdown. The game was tied at 35 with just seven seconds remaining.

Oklahoma got the ball first in overtime and Adrian Peterson ran it in for a 25 yard touchdown to give Oklahoma a 42-35 lead. Boise was able to answer with a touchdown and head coach Chris Petersen decided to go for two. Boise State ran the statue of liberty in for the two-point conversion and the win, 43-42. The Broncos finished the season with a perfect 13-0 record and the only team left undefeated that season.

Continuing with the theme of small conference schools being snubbed, the next example is the 2008 Utah Utes who were in the Mountain West. Utah won at (24) Michigan, then beat (11) TCU and (14) BYU at home. They finished ranked sixth in the final BCS rankings and had to settle for playing in the Sugar Bowl against (4) Alabama. Utah easily won the Sugar Bowl 31-17 even though they were 10 point underdogs. They finished the year as the only undefeated team in the country, but were not the national champions.

(ESPN/The Associated Press)

(ESPN/The Associated Press)

That same year Boise State finished the regular season undefeated as well, and was ranked ninth in the BCS. The Broncos only had one impressive win that season in which they won at Oregon 37-32. It was the famous LeGarrette Blount punch game. That year Boise didn’t even get to play in a BCS Bowl game. They played TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl and lost 17-16.

2009 left the BCS in chaos at the end of the year as there were five undefeated teams: Alabama, Texas, Cincinnati, TCU and Boise State. The national championship game ended up being Alabama versus Texas. The other three undefeated teams were not given the chance to play for a national championship.

Texas had gone 3-0 against the top 25 with only one of those wins coming on the road. Cincinnati had gone 4-0 against the top 25 with three of those wins coming on the road. Texas was chosen because of their name. The small schools always get the short end of the stick when being listed with the best of the best.

(https://www.reddit.com/r/CFB/comments/3ucxld/week_13_trash_talk_thursday_trashgiving/)

(https://www.reddit.com/r/CFB/comments/3ucxld/week_13_trash_talk_thursday_trashgiving/)

The last example of small schools from small conferences comes from 2010 from TCU. TCU won at (24) Oregon State to open the season. The Horned Frogs only had one other ranked game which came on the road against (6) Utah. TCU demolished the Utes 47-7. In the end their wins weren’t impressive enough as they finished the season in the BCS ranked third. The two teams that finished ahead of them, Auburn and Oregon, were both undefeated as well. TCU ended up in the Rose Bowl against (4) Wisconsin and won 21-19 to finish the season undefeated.

They Can’t Beat The Big Boys. Or Can They?

(http://www.bendbulletin.com/slideShows?layout=2&storyId=1430295)

(http://www.bendbulletin.com/slideShows?layout=2&storyId=1430295)

There is a common theme with all these undefeated small schools. Utah, TCU and Boise State were almost always involved. Utah has had two undefeated seasons in the past 13 seasons and accomplished both of their undefeated seasons in the Mountain West Conference. The Utes ended up leaving for the Pac-12 because it is a power five conference. TCU finished with their only undefeated season in the Mountain West as well, but left for the Big 12, a power five conference. They left because of the disrespect year in and year out towards the Mountain West Conference. The last of these three teams, Boise State, has had three undefeated regular seasons in their last 11 seasons.

Typically a program this consistent would have played in a national championship, but Boise has yet to play for one. There is a bias against teams not in the power five and Western Michigan is the snub this season. The most common response from someone who argues that these teams don’t deserve the shot because of their small conferences has one of two responses.

The first is “let’s see if they do this again next year and next year if they are undefeated they should be in.” There are two problems with that reaction and the first is the team that is undefeated this year is a completely different team than they will be the next year. The second issue is that statement has proven to be false because Boise State had three undefeated regular seasons in four years and never got the chance.

(http://www.nobodywinsontheblue.com/2013/08/2013-boise-state-football-preview.html)

(http://www.nobodywinsontheblue.com/2013/08/2013-boise-state-football-preview.html)

Another common response is “Oh they would get blown out by Alabama and other big schools”. That statement is once again false as there are countless examples of smalls schools upsetting the goliath schools. Above there were examples listed, including Utah beating Alabama, and here are some more: In 2010 FCS member Jacksonville State beat Ole Miss 49-48, FCS James Madison won at (13) Virginia Tech 21-16 and perhaps the biggest upset of all time, 2007 Appalachian State beat (5) Michigan 34-32.

All these small schools pulled off what many believed to be impossible but the game is played on the field and not on paper, or by the amount of stars a recruiting class has. Western Michigan might be able to beat Alabama, Clemson, or Ohio State but everyone assumes they have no chance because of history. Yes, these programs have been national powers for decades but that doesn’t mean the little guy can’t hang, or win. An eight team playoff needs to be made with certain requirements similar to the ramifications in college basketball. These requirements are needed because of the mistakes made since the inception of the four team playoff.

Playoff Mistakes

The college football playoff started in 2014 and is only entering their third year. In 2014, college football fans were so happy to finally receive the playoff system that they had been so desperately asking for for almost a decade. Fans were so happy in fact, there was no chance it would be criticized in the first year, but they had set precedents in which would eventually make the committee look like hypocrites.

(http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaaf/2014/12/02/college-football-playoff-projection-alabama-oregon-florida-state-tcu/19748763/)

(www.reddit.com)

In 2014, heading into conference championship week the rankings were as follows: (1) Alabama 11-1, (2) Oregon 11-1, (3) TCU 11-1, (4) Florida State 12-0, (5) Ohio State 11-1, and (6) Baylor 11-1. All six teams had won their game on championship week by wide margins. The final college football rankings finished with TCU dropping to sixth and Ohio State finishing in fourth, thus knocking TCU out of the college football playoff. The reasoning given by the committee stated that TCU did not win their conference therefore Ohio State deserved to be in. TCU and Baylor were both 8-1 in conference play, but Baylor beat TCU head to head 61-58.

Fast forward to this year where the playoff committee selected Ohio State over Penn State. Ohio State had one loss on the year to Penn State. Penn State had two losses to Pittsburgh and Michigan. Two years earlier the playoff committee favored Ohio State because they won a conference championship and yet this year left Penn State out who won head to head versus Ohio State, won the division in the BIG 10 in which Ohio State is in, and won the BIG 10 Championship. The college football committee that said conference championships matter two years earlier ignored that Ohio State didn’t win their conference.

Essentially the committee is saying head to head wins mean nothing, nor do conference titles after this year’s playoff selection. Subliminally they are saying whoever can bring in the most revenue will make the playoffs if they have a good year. If revenue matters that much then push it to an eight team playoff to create even more dollars.

In the first year, the college football playoff paid out 500 billion dollars to schools which was the largest payout ever, which improved in areas of 200 million from the final BCS season. In total there was a 63 percent increase in postseason revenue. Doubling the amount of teams in the playoff could essentially double the amount of money to be made with extra games of importance.

 

What Should an 8 Team Playoff Look Like?

(AP Images)

(AP Images)

If and when college football goes to an eight team playoff, there needs to be a few rules on who can make the playoffs. In the current system a conference championship means nothing and part of what has made college football great for the past 100 years is the thrill of winning the conference. In basketball, winning your conference give you an automatic bid to the tournament. Football should follow that model to an extent. There are 10 conferences plus four independent schools so with a six team playoff not everyone can automatically get a bid. Here is how college football should handle the eight team playoff that would make everyone happy.

If you win the conference championship of a power five conference (BIG 10, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, ACC) you are guaranteed a spot in the eight team playoff. To accommodate for small schools and give them the chance they have earned, the sixth spot goes to the highest ranked team from the group of five conferences (AAC, Conference-USA, MAC, Sun-Belt, Mountain West). There would be two spots remaining and those spots should be At-Large bids given to the best two teams remaining in the country. This is what this year’s eight team playoff would look like in this format:

(1) SEC Champion: Alabama vs. (8) Group of 5: Western Michigan

(2) ACC Champion: Clemson vs. (7) Big 12 Champion: Oklahoma

(3) At-Large Bid: Ohio State vs. (6) At-Large Bid: Michigan

(4) Pac-12 Champion: Washington vs. (5) BIG 10 Champion: Penn State

(David Dermer / Associated Press)

(David Dermer / Associated Press)

This college football playoff would have the perfect amount of teams. Aside from the two At-Large bids, nobody can argue the selection of the other six teams. There will always be that argument of bubble teams and who is the most deserving bubble team. In this format some people would be mad that USC isn’t in because of how hot they were towards the end of the year. The simple solution is to tell USC, if you win your conference and you’ll be in.

 

This format doesn’t require a team to go undefeated. An early loss in the season would allow you a second chance to bounce back and win the conference. That can’t be said now. Penn State and Oklahoma won their conference and don’t get a shot to be the national champion. Western Michigan is told good job on going undefeated but your conference is weak, and so is you’re schedule so just take this Cotton Bowl bid. The four team format was a great start, but this eight team format would be the perfect way to crown a champion.

Five Lessons from Feast Week 2016

Thanksgiving week is a time for family, food, football and of course basketball! Over the past week, dozens of NCAA teams have made apparent their strengths and weaknesses. Here are the five most important insights that fans can pull from the plethora of Feast Week tournaments:

The Tar Heels are Elite

North Carolina won a not so climactic Maui Invitational and moved to 7-0. They won it with an average margin of victory of 30 points. Granted, one of those games was against Division II opponent Chaminade. Despite that, they obliterated the two Division I teams they faced, Oklahoma State and Wisconsin, by 32 and 15 points respectively.

These are not normal, run-of-the-mill teams. Wisconsin was on the preseason top ten list for many behind Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes. Jawun Evans leads the Oklahoma State Cowboys as an elite scorer at 24.7 points per game. Evans was one of only two Cowboys in double figures against the Tar Heels.

Freshman Tony Bradley (5) is an excellent back-up for Kennedy Meeks. (Photo courtesy of newsobserver.com)

Freshman Tony Bradley (5) is an excellent back-up for Kennedy Meeks. (Photo courtesy of newsobserver.com)

North Carolina currently has five players averaging over ten points per game. They can spread the ball well and do not rely on one player to stay above water. Returnees Kennedy Meeks, Joel Berry II, Justin Jackson and Isaiah Hicks have made it business as usual for Roy Williams. Five star recruit Tony Bradley is a nice addition at 10.7 points per contest and 6.3 rebounds.

This is a very long Tar Heel team that possesses the ability to frustrate defenses by tipping balls away. Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks dominate the boards, keeping teams from getting too many second chance points. Each also possesses the ability to protect the rim with good size and length. North Carolina is not one-dimensional.  They are a threat to the two-headed monster of Duke and Kentucky come Phoenix in April. Their next test is Wednesday against Indiana.

Oregon is a Work in Progress

Dana Altman’s team was elite last year, achieving a one seed in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. With the big three returning for the Ducks, fans and analysts expected much of the same. With the early pre-season injury to Dillon Brooks, that has not been the case.

At the Maui Invitational, the Ducks dropped their first game to the Georgetown Hoyas. Rodney Pryor had 26 points and 10 rebounds for a stellar offensive performance against the Ducks. Despite that, Oregon’s problem has been offense, not defense. With Brooks still not at 100 percent, the team has struggled to put up points while holding every opponent below 70. That is including an overtime game against Tennessee.

Chris Boucher (25) had 13 blocks in three games at tghe Maui Invitational. (Photo courtesy of fox5vegas.com)

Chris Boucher (25) had 13 blocks in three games at the Maui Invitational. (Photo courtesy of fox5vegas.com)

Chris Boucher is the face of Oregon’s defense. He averages a whopping 3.0 blocks per game so far after setting the school record in 2015-16 with 110. As a side note, Boucher also leads the team with 15.0 points per game. That should change as Brooks transitions back into the line-up. As of now, Brooks has only 18.7 minutes per game. The most he has played all year is 25 against Tennessee which included overtime.

The bright spot in all of this is the development for the Ducks players in Brooks’ absence. Freshman Payton Pritchard has amassed a mountain of minutes, getting used to the collegiate game speed. His 29.7% three point mark is not the best but this should rise. As Pritchard’s role decreases and Brooks gets back into the swing of things, the freshman will see better looks with less defensive attention.

Despite the Ducks dropping a game to Georgetown and struggling against the Volunteers they showed some promise during Feast Week. Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey are each looking like their old selves, Brooks is settling in, and the Ducks have proven the ability to gnash their way to a win in a physical game. As Altman’s boys continue to mesh, watch for them to climb back up in the rankings.

 

Virginia Maintaining Identity without Austin Nichols

Examples of things that are certain in life: death, taxes and the Virginia Cavaliers as a defensive based team. Tony Bennett coaches this team year after year to the same sort of style. This year he has the added stress of doing it without key transfer Austin Nichols. Nichols played in only one game before being released by the team. He had previously violated team rules in October.

Virginia took down Providence for the Emerald Coast Classic Championship. (Photo courtesy of washingtonpost.com)

Virginia took down Providence for the Emerald Coast Classic Championship. (Photo courtesy of washingtonpost.com)

Regardless of the reasons for his dismissal, Virginia still looks like the top tier team that they have been over the past few years. Since Nichol’s discharge, the Cavaliers have been nothing short of brilliant. The team’s Feast Week exploits consisted of a dominating performance at the Emerald Coast Classic. They held their opponents to 42.3 points over the three game span of the tournament. While Grambling State is lesser competition, Iowa and Providence do not operate in the same category.

Better yet for the Emerald Coast champs are the two contests they played outside of Feast Week show their consistency. Virginia held Yale and St. Francis (NY) to under 40 points. Their points allowed average since Nichol’s left is 39.4 points.

The one detriment to the Cavaliers is that they do not score. Their 72.8 points per game through six games ranks them 214th in the NCAA. The only game which holds that average above water is the 90 point showing against Grambling State. Additionally only one player averages double figures in scoring: Darius Thompson at exactly 10.0 points per game. Virginia does play ten players, but they need someone to step up. Balance is great but they have no go-to player at this point. London Parrentes should turn into that player at some point this season.

UCLA is an Offensive Juggernaut

Okay, so with the exception of Texas A&M, UCLA has not exactly played anyone yet. Still, the offensive accomplishments and efficiency the team has put together is daunting. Putting up the numbers they have against anyone is impressive.

Lonzo Ball (2) has been one of the most impressive freshman in the country. (Photo courtesy of usatoday.com)

Lonzo Ball (2) has been one of the most impressive freshman in the country. (Photo courtesy of usatoday.com)

Lonzo Ball is the major recruit of this class for Steve Alford and he has not disappointed. Nothing short of brilliant, he averages 16.0 points, 9.1 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game.  Nearly averaging a double-double as a freshman is impressive. What about having two freshman nearly averaging a double-double on the same team? T.J. Leaf was the other stellar recruit for the Bruins and he sits at  17.1 points (leading the team), 8.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists.

Additionally, four other players are averaging double-digit scoring figures totaling six for the team as a whole. Bryce Alford is second on the team with 17.0 points per game. He also is first in shots made from behind the arc with 19 and is shooting at 44.2%.

There is a laundry list of personal accomplishments, but the team’s overall statistics are the most astounding. Through six games the team is second in the nation in field goal percentage, sixth in three point percentage and first in total assists. They average 96.9 points per game. UCLA has 249 made field goals and 169 assists meaning they assist on 67.8% of their baskets. Not only are they extremely efficient, but they also share the ball well.  That should be more than apparent with the aforementioned six players in double figures.

NCAA Champions Points Per Game
Year Team Points Forced Points Allowed
2015-16 Villanova 78.0 63.6
2014-15 Duke 79.3 64.2
2013-14 UConn 71.8 63.2
2012-13 Louisville 74.5 58.8
2011-12 Kentucky 77.4 60.6
*UCLA 96.9 Forced, 75.3 Allowed

The one caveat would be the lack of defensive efficiency. Sure, the team does not rely on one player for its scoring. However, they currently allow 75.3 points per game. They may have a high powered offense, but their defense needs to improve when they do hit the tougher schedule. Generally, championship teams do not allow that many points.

The Bruins won a lackluster Wooden Legacy tournament during Feast Week. The only game that caused them any trouble was the grind-it-out match-up Texas A&M. The Aggies have some surprising new faces contributing, but are not of the same caliber as the Bruins. December 3rd they will face Kentucky in Lexington. This will be the first true test for Alford and company.

Michigan State is Still Difficult to Trust

Tom Izzo’s teams are the epitome of March basketball. Right now they are searching for a legitimate identity. Between a rough early schedule and some early individual struggles the Spartans they have yet to establish consistency.

Michigan State started off the year 0-2 after a last second loss to Arizona and a less than stellar performance against Kentucky. After a 100 point performance against Mississippi Valley State, the Spartans won a controversial game against Florida Gulf Coast 78-77.

Miles Bridges (22) is the most dynamic athlete for the Spartans. (Photo courtesy of zagsblog.com)

Miles Bridges (22) is the most dynamic athlete for the Spartans. (Photo courtesy of zagsblog.com)

Tom Izzo’s squad spent their Feast Week at the Battle 4 Atlantis. They took down St. John’s 73-62 to start. They were then dominated by Baylor 73-58. Miles Bridges was the only player in double figures for the Spartans with 15 points. Bridges is the highest rated member of a stellar Spartan recruiting class. Bridges has had some up and down games, including struggles against Kentucky and Florida Gulf Coast, but is still the team’s leading scorer at 17.4 points per game. His dynamic athleticism has him averaging 1.7 blocks per game and defensive win shares. Bridges decision making is still a point of weakness with 3.4 turnovers per contest, also leading the team.

Michigan State finished up with a 77-72 win against Wichita State, but the Shockers nearly willed their way to a win in this one. Bridges led the team with 21 points, but this time four other players also achieved double figures. Senior Eron Harris, a West Virginia transfer, has had the most inconsistent year. In the contests against Arizona, Kentucky and Baylor this year he averaged 4.0 points. On the flip side he had 31 against FGCU. The Spartans will need Harris this year to have a deep tournament run and find some sort of team identity.

Eliminate College Conferences

Change. It is a simply spelt and pronounced word, but becomes complex when people start to deal with change. People run away from change out of fear. People usually grimace at the thought of change. Change is often looked at as a bad thing, but change can also be viewed as a great thing. Change is needed for growth and knowledge. Society finds it hard to change things that are long standing traditions, even if they do not work, are outdated, or completely wrong.

(Photo: Daniel Gluskoter, AP)

(Photo: Daniel Gluskoter, AP)

Take a look at the national anthem controversy for instance. Rather than admit its flaws, people are back-lashing against Colin Kaepernick. Why can’t we admit our faults as people or as a society? Because people hate change, whether it’s for the betterment of society or not. It is so much easier to go with the flow rather than to adapt.

It is time for a change in college football by eliminating any and all conferences. They are unnecessary in this day and age. They serve no purpose other than to please tradition. This is a highly unpopular opinion but hear me out before you grab your pitchforks.

Sep 3, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Wisconsin Badgers players celebrate defeating the LSU Tigers by doing the Lambeau Leap following the game at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports ORG XMIT: USATSI-269730 ORIG FILE ID: 20160903_jla_sh5_731.jpg

(Sep 3, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Wisconsin Badgers players celebrate defeating the LSU Tigers by doing the Lambeau Leap following the game at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY)

The best teams need to play each other weekly regardless of their region or conference. Week one was one of the greatest weeks of college football ever. People are still glamorizing it because it was that epic. We saw great games all over such as (15) Houston defeating (3) Oklahoma. We saw Wisconsin upset (5) LSU. We saw unranked Texas A&M upset (16) UCLA. (18) Georgia beat (22) North Carolina. (2) Clemson had to sneak by unranked Auburn by six points. Fans saw Texas upset (10) Notre Dame in an overtime classic. On a Monday night game, (4) Florida State beat (11) Ole Miss.

Week two also saw some great programs matching up for exciting games. Arkansas was unranked and upset (15) TCU. (17) Tennessee beat Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway in the most attended game in college football history with 156,990 in attendance.

(http://www.usatoday.com/videos/sports/ncaaf/2016/11/18/houston-dashes-louisville's-playoff-hopes-upset/94060980/)

(http://www.usatoday.com)

Since the first two weeks there still have been great non-conference games even as teams have gotten into conference scheduling. In week six, Navy upset (6) Houston 46-40 in one of the most exciting back and forth games of the year. Most recently in week 12, the same Houston team that was upset by Navy, and was unranked, ended (5) Louisville’s shot at making the playoffs. They upset the Cardinals 36-10.

All these non conference match-ups with top programs facing off gave us excitement. Fans of football rejoiced over how fun it was to watch these teams play their hearts off to win these big time games. These games mean so much more with the rather new playoff system that determines a true champion in college football. Eliminating conferences would not eliminate rivalries because schools would be able to schedule 10-12 games completely how they want. The only thing each school would  have to do is make sure they schedule their rival schools annually.

(MARK ALMOND)

(MARK ALMOND)

These huge games are what the fans want to see. It doesn’t have to be just about the fans either. The college football playoff committee highly values a team’s strength of schedule. Nobody wants to see Alabama playing teams like Chattanooga or Kent State, teams in which they manhandled this year. Ohio State shouldn’t be playing teams like Rutgers, who happens to be in their conference, or Tulsa. Clemson games are boring when they play teams like South Carolina State or Syracuse. Imagine Clemson scheduling Alabama, Michigan, and Ohio State. If a team goes undefeated with a non-conference schedule as tough as this, there would be no question they deserve to be in the playoffs.

One of the biggest problems with the state of college football now is that great teams still get snubbed from making the playoffs. We need the best four teams in the country making the playoffs as long as it is a four team format. Maybe one day it will be a six or eight team format to eliminate more doubt, because there will always be a team or two on the bubble.

Currently the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Pac 12 and the Big 12 are known as the power five conferences. Most people can agree these are the top five conferences in the country, with each taking turns on where they rank within the power five.

In the current playoff system, one of the power five conferences will not be represented. A champion from one of these conferences will not have the chance to play in the playoffs and prove they are the best team in the country. This doesn’t account for a team without a conference, such as Notre Dame, who could go undefeated and cause two power five conferences to be left out of the playoffs. It also doesn’t account for a year like this one in which Ohio State and Michigan both look like teams capable of winning a national championship.

(http://www.sbnation.com/)

(http://www.sbnation.com/)

The first ever college football playoff left out TCU and/or Baylor in favor of Ohio State. The debate raged on about which of these teams should have gotten in. Ohio State then went on to win the National Championship as a four seed to quiet the debate, but how do we know, without a doubt, that TCU or Baylor would not have done the same? How do we know TCU or Baylor would’t have beat Ohio State? This is the problem with conferences. The Big Ten was assumed to be the better conference which is why the playoff committee chose to take Ohio State over one of the Big 12 teams. It was all because the Big 12 conference doesn’t have a conference championship game.

There is another issue at hand when it comes to conferences and the entire playoff format. There is always a talk of two teams getting into the playoffs from the same conference. If that were to happen, two conference champions from a power five conference would be left out. This was the problem with the BCS system that the playoffs were suppose to fix. The question that should be asked is how can you be a champion of the nation if you weren’t a champion of your conference? Essentially that is what happens if two SEC or two Big Ten teams get into a four team playoff. Eliminating conferences erases all the doubt. It makes teams schedule harder competition and creates more exciting games. If a school didn’t do it, they wouldn’t get into the playoffs.

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Conferences started mostly due to how difficult it was to travel when teams were still taking buses. Colleges can afford to fly their teams in today’s sports and traveling is not as hard as it use to be. What is the need for conferences then? The idea of no conferences at all is highly appealing in my eyes, but will not be popular to most. It would be revolutionary to eliminate conferences. The most remarkable changes in the world once were thought to be outlandish. Conferences are a tired idea that is outdated and the sport can become more exciting by eliminating them.

 

 

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NCAA Football Week One Picks

Rob Doerger and Joe DiTullio (Staff writers and personalities on the DiTullio and Doerger College Sports Show), pick every game in the week one slate for FBS.

Away Home Location Rob Joe
Presbyterian College Central Michigan Kelly/Shorts Stadium, Mount Pleasant, MI C. Mich CMU
Charlotte #19 Louisville Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, Louisville, KY Louisville Louisville
Tulane Wake Forest BB&T Field, Winston-salem, NC Wake Wake
Tennessee-Martin Cincinnati Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati, OH Cincy Cincy
Maine Connecticut Rentschler Field, East Hartford, CT Uconn Uconn
William & Mary NC State Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh, NC NC State NC State
Indiana Florida Intl FIU Stadium, Miami, FL Indiana IU
Appalachian State #9 Tennessee Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, TN Tennessee Tennessee
South Carolina Vanderbilt Vanderbilt Stadium, Nashville, TN Vandy Vanderbilt
Southern Utah Utah Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, UT Utah Utah
Weber State Utah State Romney Stadium, Logan, UT Utah St Utah State
Rice Western Kentucky L.T. Smith Stadium, Bowling Green, KY WKU Wku
Oregon State Minnesota TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, MN Minnesota Minnesota
South Dakota New Mexico University Stadium , Albuquerque, NM New Mexico UNM
Montana State Idaho Kibbie Dome, Moscow, ID Idaho Idaho
Jackson State UNLV Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas, NV UNLV UNLV
Mississippi Valley State Eastern Michigan Rynearson Stadium, Ypsilanti, MI E. Mich EMU
Ball State Georgia State Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA Georgia St Ga State
Albany Buffalo UB Stadium, Buffalo, NY Buffalo Buffalo
Colgate Syracuse Carrier Dome, Syracuse, NY Syracuse Syracuse
Army Temple Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PA Temple Temple
Furman #12 Michigan State Spartan Stadium , East Lansing, MI Sparty MSU
Northwestern State #23 Baylor McLane Stadium, Waco, TX Baylor Baylor
Colorado State Colorado Sports Authority Field, Denver, CO Colorado Colorado
Kansas State #8 Stanford Stanford Stadium, Stanford, CA Stanford Stanford
Toledo Arkansas State Centennial Bank Stadium, Jonesboro, AR Toledo Toledo
Cal Poly Nevada Mackay Stadium, Reno, NV Nevada Nevada
Georgia Tech Boston College Aviva Stadium, Dublin GT GT
#3 Oklahoma #15 Houston NRG Stadium, Houston, TX Oklahoma Oklahoma
Fordham Navy Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis, MD Navy Navy
Eastern Kentucky Purdue Ross-Ade Stadium, West Lafayette, IN Purdue Purdue
Bowling Green #6 Ohio State Ohio Stadium, Columbus, OH Ohio St OSU
Western Michigan Northwestern Ryan Field, Evanston, IL NW NW
Hawaii #7 Michigan Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI Michigan Mich
Margin of Victory 44 39
Boise State Louisiana Lafayette Cajun Field, Lafayette, LA Boise Boise
South Alabama Mississippi State Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, MS Miss St Miss St
Missouri West Virginia Milan Puskar Stadium, Morgantown, WV WVU WVU
Howard Maryland Maryland Stadium, College Park, MD Maryland Maryland
Liberty Virginia Tech Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, VA VT Va Tech
Villanova Pittsburgh Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA Pitt Pitt
Abilene Christian Air Force Falcon Stadium, Usaf Academy, CO Air Force AF
Rutgers #14 Washington Husky Stadium, Seattle, WA Washington Wash
#16 UCLA Texas A&M Kyle Field, College Station, TX UCLA TAMU
#5 LSU Wisconsin Lambeau Field, Green Bay, WI LSU LSU
Richmond Virginia Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, VA Virginia Virginia
Kent State Penn State Beaver Stadium, University Park, PA Ped St Penn State
Miami (OH) #17 Iowa Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, IA Iowa Iowa
Texas State Ohio Peden Stadium, Athens, OH Ohio Ohio
Murray State Illinois Memorial Stadium , Champaign, IL Illini Illinois
Southeastern Louisiana #21 Oklahoma State Boone Pickens Stadium, Stillwater, OK OK St OK St
Louisiana Tech Arkansas Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville, AR Arkansas Ark
UC Davis #24 Oregon Autzen Stadium, Eugene, OR Ducks Oregon
#18 Georgia #22 North Carolina Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA Georgia Georgia
Southern Illinois Florida Atlantic FAU Football Stadium, Boca Raton, FL Salukis FAU
Hampton Old Dominion S.B. Ballard Stadium, Norfolk, VA Old Dom ODU
North Carolina Central Duke Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham, NC Duke Duke
Western Carolina East Carolina Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Greenville, NC ECU ECU
Florida A&M Miami Hard Rock Stadium, Miami, FL Miami Miami
Savannah State Georgia Southern Allen E. Paulson Stadium, Statesboro, GA Geo South Geo South
Austin Peay Troy Veterans Memorial Stadium , Troy, AL Troy Troy
VMI Akron InfoCision Stadium, Akron, OH Akron Akron
Alabama A&M Middle Tennessee Floyd Stadium, Murfreesboro, TN MTSU MTSU
SMU North Texas Mean Green Stadium, Denton, TX SMU SMU
San José State Tulsa Chapman Stadium, Tulsa, OK Tulsa Tulsa
Towson South Florida Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, FL USF USF
South Carolina State UCF Bright House Networks Stadium, Orlando, FL UCF UCF
Rhode Island Kansas Memorial Stadium , Lawrence, KS Kansas Kansas
Southeast Missouri State Memphis Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis, TN Memphis Memphis
Alabama State Texas San Antonio Alamodome, San Antonio, TX UTSA UTSA
Southern Louisiana Monroe Malone Stadium, Monroe, LA ULM ULM
Southern Mississippi Kentucky Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, KY Kentucky UK
Massachusetts #25 Florida Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville, FL Gators Florida
#20 USC #1 Alabama AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX Tide Bama
Northern Iowa Iowa State Jack Trice Stadium, Ames, IA Iowa St Iowa State
Fresno State Nebraska Memorial Stadium , Lincoln, NE Nebraska Nebraska
Eastern Washington Washington State Martin Stadium, Pullman, WA Wash St Wash St
New Mexico State UTEP Sun Bowl, El Paso, TX UTEP Utep
South Dakota State #13 TCU Amon G. Carter Stadium, Fort Worth, TX TCU TCU
Stephen F Austin Texas Tech Jones AT&T Stadium, Lubbock, TX TT Ttu
New Hampshire San Diego State Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, CA SDSU SDSU
#2 Clemson Auburn Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, AL Clemson Clemson
BYU Arizona University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, AZ Arizona BYU
Northern Illinois Wyoming War Memorial Stadium , Laramie, WY NIU NIU
Northern Arizona Arizona State Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, AZ Arizona St ASU
#10 Notre Dame Texas Royal Texas Memorial Stadium, Austin, TX Irish ND
#11 Ole Miss #4 Florida State Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando, FL FSU Ole Miss
Gameday Guest Picker (Green Bay, WI) Aaron Rodgers Jared Abbrederis

It’s the Year of the Running Back in the Big Ten

Saquon Barkley hurdles Illinois defender V’angelo Bentley in a game in 2015. From CBS Sports.

Two Big Ten 1,200 yard rushers (Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard) have forgone their final year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft. Two more runners of at least 950 yards, Jordan Canzeri and Brandon Ross, have exhausted their eligibility in addition.

But for the reason of these eight rushers, 2016 will be the year of the running back in the Big Ten conference. Why eight you ask? Well, because it’s my second favorite number. No other significance. If you don’t like it you can shove it, because this is my article.

Joking aside, here are the eight backs in the Big Ten poised for a great season, in order of who I think will be the most productive.

  1. Markell Jones, Purdue Sophomore

Markell Jones in a game against Virginia Tech. Courtesy of Getty Images.

This home-town product for the Boilermakers came in his freshman year and earned the role of primary runner for Purdue by his second game against Illinois, when he picked up 84 yards on just 14 carries. Averaging a high total per attempt turned out to be a theme for Jones in fact, as he gained 5.2 yards per carry in his true freshman season to finish with a total of 875 yards with ten scores on the ground.

Hindering Jones’ efforts, however, may be a historically ineffective Purdue attack. The Boilermakers do have over 30 started games on their front line returning, but what good are starts for a squad that ranked 109th last season in rushing offense with only 131.3 yards per game, and 95th in total offense with 368.6 yards a game? There was a reason the Boilers went 2-10 last year and haven’t won more than three games in a season since 2012.

  1. De’Veon Smith, Michigan Senior

De’Veon Smith stiff-arms a defender. Courtesy of touch-the-banner.com

In his second year in Ann Arbor, Jim Harbaugh has the Wolverines revamped and poised for another 10+ win season.  It would be the first time they have had back-to-back double digits in the win column since 2002 and 2003.  

A big reason for the position they sit in is their returning rushing leader, De’Veon Smith. The fit of a downhill and through-contact runner like Smith in Harbaugh’s pro-style offense is glove-like, and while his production as a junior was gaining just 4.2 yards a carry to total 753 yards, he’s got the work ethic to break free this final season.

Mlive.com quoted Jim Harbaugh as saying, “De’Veon Smith is the clearcut starting tailback. But he’s the first one in there no matter what drill we’re doing. If it’s a live drill, he doesn’t shy away. If we’re tackling, he’s in there.”

  1. Devine Redding, Indiana Junior

Devine Redding tightropes a sideline against Ohio State. Provided by zimbio.com.

Indiana has had 1,200-yard rushers in back-to-back seasons now, a rare bright spot in the otherwise gloomy combined 12-15 past two years there. Devine Redding will look to continue that trend, coming off a season of over 1,000 yards and nine rushing touchdowns. The only thing that could subtract from Redding’s numbers is fellow junior Camion Patrick, who was described as the best player on the team by Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson. But after sitting in the shadow of Tevin Coleman and then Jordan Howard, I look for Redding to win the starting role for the Hoosiers and make it three straight years for Indiana with a 1,200 yard back.

  1. L.J. Scott, Michigan State Sophomore

lansingstatejournal.com’s photo of Scott breaking free on a run last season.

As a talented freshman from Ohio, L.J. Scott was a rare first-year contributor in a back-by-committee system last year for the Spartans that also included fellow freshman Madre London and sophomore Gerald Holmes. Those other two also return for 2016, but L.J. has the talent and heart to excel above to the featured back role on a team coming off three straight eleven win seasons and Big Ten titles in both 2013 and 2015. It’s not for nothing that Ohio State and Alabama also offered him coming out of high school.

I would not be surprised at all to see L.J. double the 699 yards he gained last year. From the things I’ve read, he’s that good.

  1. Corey Clement, Wisconsin Senior

Picture from badgerofhonor.com shows Clement hitting a whip following a touchdown.

Wisconsin is known for big offensive lines and top running backs in recent history; backs like Melvin Gordon III, Montee Ball and John Clay.

This year is no exception on the big offensive line part, as the average projected Badger in the trenches is 305 pounds, including two big men over 315. Clement, who ran for over 900 yards behind Melvin Gordon in 2014, was poised last year to take on the role as the next great Wisconsin running back. But an injury in 2015 left him only four games played, and Wisconsin’s converted cornerback Dare Ogunbowale would have to take over.  

Now back from surgery to repair a sports hernia, Clement is ready to enjoy the success he was supposed to have last year when he was a preseason Heisman trophy candidate.

  1. Justin Jackson, Northwestern Junior

Justin Jackson comes into 2016 off back-to-back 1,100 yard seasons. Photo from Big Ten Network.

Justin Jackson is the most productive Big Ten back returning from last year, with 1,418 yards

It’s not often that Northwestern reels in a four-star recruit. That’s probably why Jackson was a day one starter in 2014. Now in 2016, he will again be the featured back for a team that quietly went 10-3 and finished 23rd in the AP poll last year.

Of course, it took him 312 carries to get the yards he got (4.5 yards a carry) and with only five touchdowns, he wasn’t racking up many points. However, he’s a quick-footed runner who will look to improve on his totals from last year, which would mean 1,500 yards.

  1. Mike Weber, Ohio State Freshman (RS)

Mike Weber is poised for a break-out season. Courtesy of elevenwarriors.com.

This prediction is a little more bold, but I think the running back rumored to be Carlos Hyde 2.0 down in Columbus could bust out a huge season this year. He’s got a line composed of almost entirely former four stars in front of him, and the buckeyes have been a top 11 rushing offense each of Urban Meyer’s four years coaching.

Weber received rave reviews coming out of fall camp last year. In fact, the only thing that kept him from being Ezekiel Elliott’s back-up as a true freshman was a torn meniscus, and after the time he missed the coaching staff decided to redshirt him.

  1. Saquon Barkley, Penn State Sophomore

One hurdle already featured at the top of the page, here is another. Source: onwardstate.com.

Barkley defines the phrase “freak of nature.” Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell said he was better than Derrick Henry, and Nittany Lion head coach James Franklin said of him that “He’s pretty rare, pretty special. I haven’t been around too many guys like him.”

Coming off a season where he made the freshman All-american team with 1,076 yards rushing, Barkley will go as far this year as his offensive line will take him. An offensive line that has had problems staying healthy the past couple of seasons. New offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead will look to revamp the scheme and try to improve play up front, and a new detail-focused approach to a unit that allowed 3.0 sacks per game last year — tied for 111th worst in the country.