Dating to the Rose Bowl success on Jan. 1, 1994, Wisconsin’s Badgers have passed a quarter century of persistent football success, displaying uncommon leadership continuity as they enter the 2019 campaign with five straight bowl wins and a relentless ground attack featuring All-American running back in Jonathan Taylor (2,194 yards in 2018).
But the Badgers, having represented the Big Ten’s West Division three times since 2014, won’t win it in 2019.
Why? Whether they’re the Best in the West, the schedule won’t permit it. They must face three superior teams from the East: Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. That’s not fair, but that’s the way it breaks. And whatever emanated from the Big Ten meetings in Chicago, this was the most overlooked factor.
Another example: Northwestern has gone 15-3 in conference games the last two years, and is being overlooked by the media. Which is appropriate because — you guessed right — the schedule will put a limit on NU success. Counting the opener at Stanford, Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats cross over against Michigan State and Ohio State early, and facing difficult trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska, may find themselves underdogs (however slight) in six of their first seven games.
Meanwhile, Nebraska is rated the preseason Best in the West, because of (1) the Cornhuskers’ blueblood history, (2) expectations linked to second-year coach Scott Frost’s previous success at Central Florida, (3) flashy sophomore QB Adrian Martinez and (4) a schedule that includes Maryland and Indiana from the East and winnable road games against the West’s bottom trio of Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue.
Remember the Spartans
Michigan State deserves the nod over Penn State as “most overlooked” in Chicago’s Big Ten preview.
Consider: It’s our nature to rate Michigan over MSU — surely appropriate this year — even though the Spartans have won 7 of 10 in the series, were 36-5 overall in 2013 through ‘15, went 10-3 as recently as 2017 and have overcome Michigan’s recruiting advantage by managing redshirts better than almost anyone.
The Spartans, who host Illinois Nov. 9, have been quietly building for this. They were top 10 in the country in five defensive categories last year. They have six fifth-year returnees among eight senior starters on defense, including 2018 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Kenny Willekes at end. You couldn’t blame the defense for late losses to Nebraska 9-6 and Oregon 7-6, so it’s up to a healthy fifth-year QB Brian Lewerke and coach Mark Dantonio’s reshuffled offensive staff to pick it up.
Enough already about scheduling! But it must be noted the Spartans figure to start fast against Tulsa and Western Michigan, and will face Wisconsin, Northwestern and Illinois from the West.
Excuse me, over here
The Illini weren’t simply overlooked in Chicago, they were invisible.
You know, like the movie, “Chicago,” which featured John C. Reilly singing “Mister Cellophane” — “You can look right through me, walk right by me, and never know I’m there ... Never even KNOWWW I’m there.”
Which caused Lovie Smith to say: “We plan on being the team that came from nowhere.”
Last-place dismissal. No projected all-conference first-teamers, not even 1,000-yard rusher Reggie Corbin. No one, as of yet, to match guard Nick Allegretti’s status as a seventh-round NFL draft pick.
That said, with transfer help, Illinois will be better. The junior class is overachieving. And Smith is putting himself squarely under the gun by taking on-field responsibility for a 2018 defense that permitted three 63-point bursts and others of 54, 49 and 46.
Trouble is, the West is growing even faster than Smith’s Illini. Who can they surpass? How about nearby Purdue, caught in a similar quagmire back in 2016?
You mean the Purdue unit that whacked three Top 25 teams last year, including Ohio State (the 49-20 shocker knocked the Buckeyes out of the College Playoff) ... you mean the program that fought off Louisville with a seven-year, $36.8 million contract for inventive play-caller Jeff Brohm ... you mean the team that added Indiana Gatorade Player of the Year David Bell to operate alongside pass-catching wizard Rondale Moore?
Point is: Unlike the Illini basketball team, which figures to move up the Big Ten ladder in part because so many conference teams are rebuilding, Smith’s Illini face not only Michigan and Michigan State but a lineup of the Westerners who mostly figure to be better than they were in 2018.
But as the late Ray Eliot often noted, the ball is oblong and it takes strange bounces.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.