Hooiser Huddle Staff
Way back in August the Hoosier Huddle staff (Nick Holmes, T.J. Inman, and Sammy Jacobs) made their picks for the Big Ten's sleeper and bust teams for the 2015 season. Admittedly, some of these picks look great through two-thirds of the season, while others were, well...not so good. So here is how our picks are doing through nine weeks of the 2015 season.
TJ’s Preseason “Bust” – Northwestern
I wrote that the Wildcats returned only 42% of their offensive production and that they would be replacing their top two linebackers. Plus, their schedule featured games against Stanford, Duke, Michigan and Penn State. They shot down my “bust” pick in the first week when they physically manhandled Stanford (the Cardinal have since obliterated everyone they’ve played). They went on to knock off Duke along with their other two non-conference opponents and then drubbed Minnesota to roll into Michigan unbeaten. Michigan blasted them and they were hammered by Iowa but they righted the ship with a huge victory at Nebraska. I didn’t think they’d get to a bowl game and they already have six wins. I was kind of right about their offense but Clayton Thorson has been able to make some plays with his legs and the defense has been far better than I expected (although they appear to be fading). Needless to say, I was wrong about the Wildcats and they’ve made me look like quite an idiot.
TJ’s Preseason “Sleeper”- Minnesota
This pick was mainly based on me loving the mentality and identity of Jerry Kill’s program. I expected them to exceed expectations by getting to 7 victories despite having to replace most of the key cogs of their offense. The Golden Gophers are only 4-3 and the best team they have a win over is probably Ohio (ranked 73rd in S&P+). Their offense has been mostly horrendous and they’ve surprised me by not really being able to run the ball. They still have games against Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Illinois and Iowa and they’ll be underdogs in all of those contests. The Gophers have been hit by significant injuries throughout the season and in addition, head coach Jerry Kill just retired (effective immediately) due to ongoing health concerns.
To recap, these two preseason picks did not go well!
Nick's Preseason Sleeper and Bust Picks
When deciding which team in the Big Ten I thought could be a bust this fall, I took multiple things into consideration, but the factors I weighed most heavily were coaching, scheduling and the loss of impact players. I stated before the season that, “Anytime a team experiences a coaching change (Mike Riley), there's a relatively good chance they will take step back. Factor in that said team loses both its leading rusher (Ameer Abdullah) and receiver (Kenny Bell), that transition becomes infinitely more difficult. ” I also warned that, “Early season losses would be a bad way to get started under their new head coach and could have a profound effect on how the rest of the year goes.” Now with a three and six record, with early season last second losses to BYU, Miami, and Illinois, the Cornhuskers find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Entering the month of November with six losses for the first time ever in program history, Mike Riley’s first season in Lincoln has been pretty close to disastrous. Their season hit a particularly low point on Saturday after losing to Big Ten West opponent Purdue on the road this past weekend, a team that hadn’t won a conference game since 2012. Additionally the team’s only notable victory was against a middling Minnesota squad. Any chance of making it to a bowl game hinges on this team’s ability to win out, and with matchups against Michigan State and Iowa remaining on the docket, seems very unlikely to happen. However, of the team’s six losses, five have been by five points or less, so they aren’t far away from being a solid-to-good team. But based on record alone, this has been one of the more disappointing teams in the conference so far in 2015.
Like my bust pick, when selecting my sleeper pick I heavily considered the amount of returning talent a team had. Penn State entered the 2015 campaign with plenty of experienced play makers on both defense and offense. Specifically, I pointed out during the summer that if this team were to improve, junior quarterback Christian Hackenberg would need to increase his touchdown-to-interception ratio. So far the quarterback has thrown 13 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions, not too shabby. Additionally, James Franklin, who was returning for his second year as the Nittany Lions head coach, was just another reason why I felt that they were poised to make a jump. Teams, like I mentioned in my bust piece, generally underwhelm with a new coach at the helm, but frequently make notable progress during their second season. With a record of seven and two, their only losses coming against the undefeated Buckeyes and a one-loss Temple squad, Penn State still is within striking distance of playing in a prominent bowl game this winter. Granted, none of their victories have come over particularly difficult competition. For instance, their four Big Ten wins have come against teams with a combined 2-15 conference record. The final month of the season we will get a better feel for how good this team truly is, as they face Northwestern, Michigan, and Michigan State. Still plenty to learn about this team, so the jury is still out on the Nittany Lions.
Sammy's Preseason Sleeper and Bust Picks
For me, the preseason "bust" pick was pretty obvious. I had to pick Minnesota. They lost almost all of their offensive production and probably could not duplicate the magic they had in 2014. Right now the Gophers sit at 4-4 after nearly defeating Michigan in the battle for the Little Brown Jug. The Gophers gave TCU a run for their money in the opener, but has not been able to sustain their success. To further muddy the waters, head coach Jerry Kill was forced to retire due to ongoing health issues (we wish him the best). Minnesota has a tough road to get back to a bowl game. They need two wins with games at Ohio State and at Iowa before closing the season with two home games against Illinois and Wisconsin. That is a tough final four games.
For my "sleeper" pick I chose to take a flier on the Hoosiers, and boy did I look smart when the Hoosiers, who were 4-0, had the Buckeyes on the ropes in the Big Ten opener. Now, Indiana can still be a successful pick if they can manage to split their final four games. The Hoosiers can wreck Iowa's season when the Hawkeyes bring an unblemished record into Bloomington on Saturday. After Iowa, the Hoosiers finish the season with Michigan at home and then travel to Maryland, who already fired their coach, and to Purdue, who have just two wins through nine weeks. Indiana can get to six wins and if that happens, I believe they succeeded as a sleeper.