Dot Commentary: Who is the dark horse contender in the Big Ten?
College football season is here, which means there will be no shortage of discussion topics anytime soon. BTN.com writers Tom Dienhart and Alex Roux will banter regularly throughout the season while trying their best to keep their takes more mild than hot and backed up with evidence.
First Dot Commentary topic: Which team is the dark horse Big Ten title contender in 2017?
Keep an eye on Nebraska. The Cornhuskers are flying under everyone’s radar. As pundits fawn over Wisconsin and Northwestern as favorites in the Big Ten West, Nebraska is sitting back and ready to strike. The 2017 Cornhuskers are new and improved, a team with altered looks on both sides of the ball in Mike Riley’s third season in Lincoln. The offense finally will look like what Riley wants it to, as Tulane transfer Tanner Lee takes over at quarterback. The days of quarterback runs are basically over. This will be a West Coast-type of offense built around a strong rushing attack and the short-passing game. And there is no shortage of playmakers in WRs De’Mornay Pierson-El, Tyjon Lindsey and a trio of nice running backs including Tre Bryant. The key: development of the offensive line. The defense has been revamped by new coordinator Bob Diaco, who has scrapped Nebraska’s traditional 4-3 and installed a 3-4. And the Huskers look to have the personnel to make it work, including a nice set of linebackers. Add it all up, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see Nebraska win the West and get to the Big Ten title game, as NU seeks its first league title since 1999.
Everyone is rightfully dubbing the Big Red Machine as Big Ten West favorites in 2017, and I’m not referring to the Huskers. I’m talking about the machine in Madison, as Wisconsin has the skill and the schedule to march to their fifth Big Ten title game appearance. The remaining West teams will have to earn contender status. I actually agree with Tom that Nebraska has a chance to de-throne the Badgers, but my dark horse team is the other NU: Northwestern . The reason? Consistency. Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska are all going through some degree of turnover at different levels, from coordinator changes to new QBs to a complete program overhaul in the Twin Cities. No such uncertainty exists in Evanston, and the Wildcats have the weapons under Pat Fitzgerald to match up with anyone on their schedule.
Running back Justin Jackson doesn’t get talked about enough, especially considering he could vault into the Big Ten’s top three rushing leaders of all time with a strong season. QB Clayton Thorson is back after a solid season, and Godwin Igwebuike is a defensive anchor and preseason All-American at safety. Other West teams have star players, too, but college football is hard enough without having to learn new systems and adjust to new QBs. Both of Northwestern’s coordinators are in their tenth seasons with the Wildcats, so their personnel know what’s expected. Things will have to fall in place, but don’t count Northwestern out to reach their first Big Ten title game in search of their first conference championship since 2000.