A Scout’s Take on the Football Teams to Watch in the B1G Conference in 2017

Paul Chryst

The B1G football conference had a pretty good year in 2016. Yes, no team from the conference played in or won the national championship game, but overall from a record standpoint, it was a very solid year for the Big 10.

That being said, teams from the Big 10 did not do very well in the bowl games.

The Ohio State Buckeyes made the four-team playoff to determine the national champion, even though the 8-1/11-2 Bucks didn’t even win the East Division, as the 8-1/11-3 Penn State Nittany Lions won the tiebreaker.

Maybe that was an omen, as the Buckeyes were spanked 31-0 by the eventual national champion Clemson Tigers in a semifinal game in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.

Meanwhile, Penn State, after beating the 7-2/11-3 Wisconsin Badgers in the B1G title game, played in the Rose Bowl, but were beaten by the USC Trojans 52-49 in a thrilling contest.

The Badgers played in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl against then undefeated Western Michigan, as the Badgers beat the Broncos 24-16. That victory was the third consecutive bowl win for the Badgers and the second under head coach Paul Chryst.

The 7-2/10-3 Michigan Wolverines, who narrowly lost out to Ohio State and Penn State in the East, played in the Orange Bowl, but lost 33-32 to Florida State in another exciting game.

In terms of other B1G teams playing in bowls, two teams from the B1G West didn’t fare well in their games, as the 6-3/8-5 Iowa Hawkeyes were throttled 30-3 by the Florida Gators in the Outback Bowl, while the 6-3/9-4 Nebraska Cornhuskers were beaten 38-24 by the Tennessee Volunteers.

Two other teams from the West fared better in bowl games, as the 5-4/9-4 Minnesota Golden Gophers beat the Washington State Cougars 17-12 in the National Funding Holiday Bowl, while the 5-4/7-6 Northwestern Wildcats beat the Pittsburgh Panthers 31-24 in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

Two other B1G  teams from the East played in bowls, but neither came away with a win. The 4-5/6-7 Indiana Hoosiers lost 26-24 to the Utah Utes in the Foster Farms Bowl, while the 3-6/6-7 Maryland Terrapins were beaten 36-30 by the Boston College Eagles in the Quick Lane Bowl.

When it was all said and done, the Big 10 conference was only 3-7 in bowl games, with only Wisconsin, Minnesota and Northwestern coming away with victories.

Going into the 2017 season, I wanted to get a take from NFL scout Chris Landry as to how he sees the conference shaping up this year in football.

I had an opportunity to speak with Landry last week on 620 WDAE’s Steve Duemig Show.

I asked Landry how he thought the Badgers would do this year in the West, after being 21-6 in two years under Chryst, plus having a favorable schedule this upcoming season.

“I like them,” Landry said. “They are the favorite in the West for me because of their schedule. They’ve got a good team.

“I think there is, in my view, four really good teams in the Big 10 conference. Wisconsin is one of them and the other three are in the East. Ohio State is really good. Penn State is really good. Michigan is getting better and better. So, there are four teams who are really good.

“I think Wisconsin, because of what you mentioned with the schedule, and the fact that they have some good players, probably wins the West, although I think Northwestern and Nebraska will be pretty good. I’m curious to see how Minnesota does this year with P.J. Fleck, who is going to be an outstanding coach.

“But it’s still really strong in the East and not nearly as strong in the West. Ohio State is loaded. Penn State team took a big step last year. Saquon Barkley, if you haven’t seen him folks, he’s one of the best running backs I’ve seen come out in years. Juwan Johnson is an outstanding receiver. The quarterback Trace McSorley is outstanding, so they’ve got two Heisman Trophy candidates [Barkley and McSorley].”

Talking about the Badgers and their schedule, the non-conference schedule sees Wisconsin playing Utah State and Florida Atlantic at Camp Randall Stadium, and then playing on the road at Provo to take on BYU.

The conference schedule does not have either Ohio State or Penn State as opponents, while the Badgers will play Michigan at home.

The Badgers will be bringing back most of the starters on offense from last year, with the biggest change being at running back, where Bradrick Shaw (457 yards and five touchdowns), Chris James (transfer from Pitt) and Taiwan Deal (503 yards and six touchdowns) will battle each other for carries.

James played in 23 games at Pitt and rushed for 690 yards and four touchdowns in two seasons there.

Expect a lot of carries, as Wisconsin will always be a physical, pound the rock, type of football team behind their always massive offensive line.

<> at AT&T Stadium on January 2, 2017 in Arlington, Texas.

Alex Hornibrook and Jazz Peavy of the Wisconsin Badgers hold up the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Trophy.

Plus with Chryst running the offense, the passing game can be dangerous as well. Alex Hornibrook will be the quarterback in 2017, as he got plenty of experience last season as he threw for 1,262 yards with nine touchdowns versus seven interceptions, as he split time with Bart Houston.

Hornibrook will look to connect with wide receiver Jazz Peavy (43-635-5) often, as well as tight end Troy Fumagalli (47-580-2), who had a monster game in the Cotton Bowl.

The Wisconsin defense was just outstanding in 2016, as they were ranked fourth in the FBS in scoring defense (15.6 points) and seventh in total defense (301.4 yards). But in 2017, there will be a number of key changes. For one, the Badgers have a new defensive coordinator, as Jim Leonhard takes over for Justin Wilcox, who now is the head coach at Cal.

The Badgers also lost talented bookend outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel to the NFL, as well as safety Leo Musso and cornerback Sojourn Shelton.

But the Badgers should still be very good this year on defense. On the defensive line, Alec James, Chikwe Obasih, Conor Sheehy and Olive Sagapolu all return.

Wisconsin also will bring back a talented group of linebackers, even with the losses of Watt and Biegel. The group will include Garret Dooley, T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly, Jack Cichy and Chris Orr.

The secondary will also bring back some talent, led by cornerback Derrick Tindal and safety D’Cota Dixon.

All in all, the Badgers will return seven defensive starters in 2017 and should be among the best in the FBS ranks.

Time will tell how the Badgers will fare in 2017, but Landry certainly likes their chances to be successful. Winning the West will be goal No. 1 for the Badgers versus solid competition like Nebraska, Northwestern and Minnesota.

But beating whoever wins the Big Ten East in the B1G title game will be a much tougher task.

If that happens, there will most likely be a place in the four-team playoff with a chance to win a national championship.

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