The college football season is nearly upon us and with it comes an Indiana football squad that we aren’t quite sure what to make of just yet.
Crimson Quarry is unable to attend fall camp this year (we will have some in-person coverage though, so stay tuned) so we really don’t have a better view than we did, say, a few weeks ago.
For that, you should follow the Twitter and work of the Herald-Times’ Dustin Dopirak, who’s been attending practices and speaking with coaches afterward.
Instead, let’s talk about how the rest of the conference is shaping up. Not necessarily in relation to Indiana, just in general.
Big Ten West
Ah, the west, no doubt the easier of the two divisions. You know as much because there are real, serious people out there who give Purdue a shot to win it. That’s not a slight on Purdue necessarily, they could(!), but this same Purdue squad would be fighting for its life in the East.
This season will still be a part of Bret Bielema’s rebuilding of the program. There are programs that can turn around in a year with the right coach in charge (Hey there, Mel Tucker) but Illinois just isn’t one of them.
So what does success look like for year two of the Bielema era? Probably six wins and a bowl berth would be good enough. Bielema got the Illini to be competitive against a trending-down but still talented Penn State squad in a slugfest last season, so that’s definitely worth something.
They won’t compete for a Big Ten West title, but they could cause those who will more trouble than you may expect.
Look, man, Kirk Ferentz can complain about Ohio State keeping the West from winning the conference all he wants. But until he makes some real change to his offense, he isn’t winning anything but that half of the conference.
Ferentz’s defenses and offensive lines have helped him compete in the West for years, and that was enough to win the conference... in like 2008.
Now you need a ~quarterback~ and some really reliable pass-catchers. Iowa has had the latter with a revolving door of NFL-bound tight ends and some really solid receivers. Now they just need an offensive coach that can get the Hawkeyes moving and they could make some actual noise.
That noise will not happen this year. I’d expect them to compete in the West, but they won’t stand a chance against whoever the East sends to the title game, if they can get there to begin with.
P.J. Fleck had an, erm, interesting offseason.
Aside from the outside noise, Fleck’s Golden Gophers should be fine but probably won’t compete to win the West. Minnesota always has a vaunted offensive line that’s able to bully and beat on any given defense to create opportunities in the running game, but seemingly-eternal starter Tanner Morgan wasn’t always consistent as a passer.
Minnesota also lost multiple members of its RBs room, which may create some trouble, but they’ll still find ways to pick up yards.
Anyway, Nebraska has a new quarterback in Texas transfer Casey Thompson and Scott Frost is absolutely coaching for his job. You can say “the best 3-9 team of all-time” but at the end of the day, that’s still a losing team.
Don’t expect them to compete. Teams have always found ways to beat Scott Frost no matter what and there’s no clear reason for that to change anytime soon.
Northwestern is the weirdest team in the Big Ten, no question.
They went through that recent stretch of being really good champions of the West one year before getting mercilessly dunked on the next. The Wildcats weren’t good last year, but it doesn’t feel like they’ll come up swinging this time.
There’s enough talent on the roster to remain competitive, yeah, but that’s only going to get them so far.
You’ll notice that every other team is represented here with its head coach. The image above this text is obviously Aidan O’Connell.
That’s on purpose.
O’Connell enters this season almost unquestioned as the best quarterback in the Big Ten West. He’s slayed the giants and always seems to find an open man on dropbacks, he has nothing left to prove
...except for a Big Ten West title.
That could very well be in Purdue’s reach. If the Boilermakers still had David Bell and George Karlaftis, you could make a decent argument that they’re the absolute favorite. I don’t see a defense in the West that O’Connell can’t tear to shreds if he has the pass catchers.
Without Milton Wright, that’s become more of an issue.
With Purdue’s status on NIL looking shaky at best and disastrous at worst, I’d enjoy last season and the upcoming one as much as I can if I were wearing black and gold.
Wisconsin always has the talent and coaching, particularly on defense, to compete for a Big Ten West title. They’re also probably the only team in the West who consistently has enough juice to give the East trouble in the title game.
You’ve heard this a ton and you’ll hear it again: Wisconsin lives and dies by Graham Mertz.
If he’s finally able to put it together and maximize his talent, Wisconsin has no reason not to be the favorite. If he’s still inconsistent? Well, they’ll still contend but it’ll be on much shakier ground.
Big Ten East
lol, let’s get started.
Mike Locksley does not get nearly enough credit for what he’s doing at Maryland. The Big Ten’s most underrated head coach has not only turned the Terrapins into a bowl contender, he’s already led them to a win after absolutely dominating Virginia Tech.
He’s done so by revitalizing Maryland’s offense after serving as offensive coordinator under Nick Saban at Alabama. Taulia Tagovailoa is one of the best quarterbacks not only in the conference, but the country and he’s only gotten better each season.
The kryptonite? Well, Maryland’s defense needs some work. Indiana almost beat Maryland in Donaven McCulley’s (who now plays wide receiver) first career start as a quarterback.
They should compete for 6-8 wins and threaten to win a bowl depending on the competition they face.
At long last, Jim Harbaugh finally got his win over Ohio State last season.
Not only that, but the Wolverines steamrolled the offensively-inept Hawkeyes in the Big Ten Championship before getting pummeled themselves by an all-time Georgia defense in the College Football Playoff.
Michigan will, in all likelihood, not be returning to either game. Harbaugh had to replace both his coordinators after Mike Macdonald returned to the NFL ranks and Mario Cristobal lured Josh Gattis to Miami.
The former was expected, the league tends to want its coaches back, but the latter was a bit of a surprise and definitely an unwelcome one. Now Harbaugh has to juggle a new offensive coordinator and maybe a new quarterback if J.J. McCarthy plays too well in camp.
The Wolverines just lost too much to compete and this season feels more like a time of transition than anything.
With other programs seemingly circling overhead, Michigan State handed The Bag to Mel Tucker this offseason.
It was a lot of money, but you’ve kinda gotta pay your head coach for breathing new life into a program that seemed to be trending downward and plucking a Heisman contender out of thin air.
Still, Ohio State is the team to beat in the East and Michigan State just isn’t there yet. They’ll get to a bowl and be fine, but this isn’t some vaunted team that’ll compete to unseat the king.
I wouldn’t be shocked (and it’d also be tremendous content) if Tucker beats Michigan again for a 3-0 record against Harbaugh, but that could be where Michigan State peaks this season.
They’re winning the East.
Yeah, big bold take there, but it’s just gonna happen. Ohio State looked too good in the Rose Bowl and may have a real chip on its shoulder after getting embarrassed at the Big House.
If you think Michigan fans aren’t letting Ohio State forget it lost, think about the bulletin board material in the Buckeyes’ locker room. Last time a second year quarterback led a Ryan Day offense loaded with receiving talent, the Buckeyes went to the national championship.
Nationally, with new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles in the house, they’re a real threat to Alabama. A matchup between C.J. Stroud and Bryce Young would be must-see TV, especially if either wins the Heisman.
Much like Tucker in East Lansing, James Franklin secured a big money extension from Penn State. The big difference between the two is that Franklin’s program seems to be trending down if anything.
Sure, Penn State always has some marvel on one side of the ball who makes national headlines as an NFL Draft prospect, but that just hasn’t been enough in recent seasons. The past two just weren’t up to the Nittany Lions’ standard, they’re in need of a Michigan 2021-esque season, soon.
That probably won’t happen this year, but they could compete with the likes of MSU and Michigan while also maybe losing to Maryland. It’s gonna get weird.
The Greg Schiano Scarlet Knights had a fine season in 2021, one of their best in recent memory.
But... is that the ceiling in New Jersey?
Schiano was able to succeed with what felt a bit like the island of misfit toys and also Bo Melton. Transfers from other schools improved at Rutgers and lead them to a bowl appearance despite only winning five games.
The only one who’s been able to do anything like that at Rutgers is Schiano, and they might have it in them to surpass those six wins, but I don’t see them doing much after that.
The program just can’t compete with top flights in traditional Big Ten powers and their games against other bubble squads like Maryland, Indiana and [insert Big Ten West program here] are always toss-ups or losing efforts.
It’ll be interesting to see how they operate, that’s all we really know for sure.