CHICAGO — Northwestern lost three of its first four games last season. Then the Wildcats absolutely blitzed the Big Ten, winning their final seven conference games.
Their Big Ten West title was clinched with two games left on the schedule — wins against Minnesota and Illinois to just pad their record.
Northwestern enters the 2019 season picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten West in the preseason poll voted on by 34 Big Ten writers. The ESPN Football Power Index gives the Wildcats a 0.6 percent chance to win the Big Ten — behind Michigan, Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Pat Fitzgerald isn’t overly concerned.
“We’re not great clickbait, I guess, so picking us first isn’t real sexy,” the Northwestern coach quipped Friday at Big Ten media days at the Chicago Hilton. “We’ll just earn it. That’s what’s so great about football. The West gets knocked. I enjoy it. That’s what I tell our players — enjoy it — and you’ve got to go out and earn it on the field. That’s what makes our game so great.”
“It’s always fun to read this time of year how we stink. I should actually get better at golf because I don’t know why I coach. I should just golf. Haven’t experienced August since 1984. So maybe I should start doing that. Maybe a better study from one of the students that cover us would be how we’ve exceeded expectations in the preseason would be a better metric. But you know how I feel — stats are for losers.”
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Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh made some headlines before he even got to the podium at Big Ten media days Friday with a comment Thursday about former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.
“Urban Meyer’s had a winning record — really phenomenal record everywhere he’s been,” Harbaugh said on The Athletic’s “The TK Show” podcast. “But also, controversy follows everywhere he’s been.”
Meyer was the story of last year’s Big Ten media days when he was questioned about how he handled former wide receivers coach Zach Smith, who was fired by Ohio State last summer after his wife levied a string of domestic abuse allegations against him.
Meyer was ultimately suspended the first three games of the 2018 season after an independent investigation commissioned by Ohio State into how those allegations were handled. The now-retired coach also had trouble at Florida, where 31 players were arrested during his tenure from 2005-10.
Harbaugh didn’t see it necessary to clarify his comments Friday.
“No context you should know about,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t think it was anything that was anything new or anything of a bombshell. It’s things that many of you all understand and have written about.”
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Of note Friday during Harbaugh’s time at the podium was his take on transfers in college football. The Michigan leader expressed an opinion not common among coaches.
“My opinion is that every student-athlete should have a one-time ability to transfer and not have to sit out a year,” Harbaugh said. “Then if they were to transfer a second time, then the previous rule that we had where you had to sit out a year of eligibility (would apply). I would also keep the graduate transfer rule that we have in place right now, where you can graduate and transfer and become immediately eligible.”
Several coaches both days in Chicago discussed the rise in transfers and the advent of the transfer portal this past season. Like Illinois coach Lovie Smith noted Thursday, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is looking for clarity.
“I understand how the portal works,” Ferentz said. “That’s pretty clear, pretty decisive. What is confusing is who gets a pass to the field and who doesn’t, and that didn’t just start this past 12 months, either. It’s been a little confusing to figure out who can get a waiver and who can’t — what are the actual criteria. I’d like to see that get cleaned up a little bit.”
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Ferentz is the dean of Big Ten coaches. The 2019 season will be his 21st with the Hawkeyes, which stands as the longest tenure in FBS, too. Only TCU’s Gary Patterson is close, having gotten his start with the Horned Frogs in 2000.
“Someone earlier this week told me the first time I came to these meetings Sammy Sosa was playing right field for the Cubs and there were 11 teams back then (in the Big Ten),” Ferentz said. “So it just kind of highlights the kind of change I think that we’ve all seen in the world over the last couple decades.”
When it comes to change, Ferentz would like to see a big one made to the timing of recruiting, if he had the power.
“Just the speed of recruiting right now to me is really concerning,” he said. “In a logical world, you would wait for everybody to finish their careers, evaluate them and then go about the recruiting process. Kind of like the NFL does it.
“You know, they still make a lot of mistakes. I heard Bill Polian on the radio this past year talking about their study was somewhere roughly around 50 percent of the first-rounders hit. Think about the time and money they invest to evaluate those players, college players, and just how thorough and in-depth that is, and we’re recruiting 10th-graders.”
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Rondale Moore racked up the awards following the 2018 season — his first — at Purdue. The Boilermakers’ wide receiver and kick returner won the Paul Hornung Award (given to the most versatile player in college football) and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a consensus All-American.
Moore finished the 2018 season with 114 receptions for 1,258 yards and 12 touchdowns. He rushed for 213 yards and two more scores and also averaged 20.1 yards per return as a kick returner.
Purdue coach Jeff Brohm’s goal for 2019? Keep getting the 5-foot-9 dynamo the ball.
“He’s exceeded our expectations, and our expectations were high from the get-go,” Brohm said. “He’s somebody when the lights come on, it doesn’t faze him one bit. He’s a special talent.
“I know teams are going to key on him. So will he put up the numbers he had last year? I’m not for sure, but we are going to try to get it done for him.”
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Wisconsin returns the best running back in the country this season. Jonathan Taylor was last season’s Doak Walker Award recipient after rushing for 2,194 yards and 16 touchdowns. The Badgers will run the ball — and run it often.
Wisconsin is, however, hitting the reset button at quarterback. Alex Hornibrook made 32 starts for the Badgers from 2016-18, but transferred to Florida State this offseason where he’s currently the backup to James Blackman.
Paul Chryst’s response when asked about his quarterback situation Friday in Chicago?
“We’re going to have one,” the Wisconsin coach deadpanned. “We’re going to have four.”
Jack Coan has the most experience. The junior out of Sayville, N.Y., has played in 11 games with four starts in his career. Sophomore Danny Vanden Boom played in three games in a minimal reserve role in 2018. The other two — Graham Mertz and Chase Wolf — are true freshmen.
Mertz, though, might be the guy. The Overland Park, Kan., native was a consensus four-star recruit and was the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the 2019 class per Rivals. Mertz got a jumpstart on his Wisconsin career by enrolling early.
“There’s a lot of buzz and talk about him, and I think he’s handled it well and I think the team has handled it as well,” Chryst said. “I’ve been impressed with how Graham has handled himself, and I think he, again, cares a lot about teammates and is a good teammate himself — a good person. And I think that’s a great place to start.”