Big Ten Football Media Day has come and gone, and preseason camp begins in less than two weeks.
You know you want some Big Ten West predictions until the pads start poppin’. Let’s roll…
Nate Stanley will break Chuck Long’s career passing touchdowns record
I’ll begin with a less-than-bold prediction for Iowa’s three-year starter at quarterback.
Nate Stanley sits at 52 passing touchdowns after back-to-back 26-score seasons. That puts him just 22 touchdowns from Chuck Long, who passed for the all-time Iowa record of 74 during his Hall-of-Fame career.
I know the Hawkeyes coaching staff would like a balanced attack and an improved run game in 2019, especially without Noah Fant and T.J Hockenson as weapons in the pass game. Brian Ferentz, however, has basically turned this offense into a pass-first scheme in his first two years as the offensive coordinator.
That’s obviously working in Stanley’s favor.
While it remains to be seen who will be catching the senior quarterback’s darts, he’s going to throw for at least 23 touchdowns barring injury. It might not be until the regular-season finale or bowl game, however.
Minnesota will win more games than Nebraska
If you look at last year on a basic level, the two most similar teams in the West division were the Gophers and Cornhuskers.
Both teams finished 3-6 in Big Ten play. Both teams finished the season playing their best football, too. Minnesota won three of its final four games, with the only loss coming to Northwestern. Nebraska went 4-3 in its final seven games, with the three losses by a combined 11 points.
The Gophers return 16 starters from last year’s team. The Huskers return 13 (I’m not counting “split-time starters”). Minnesota does not play Ohio State or Michigan in crossover games with the East, while Scott Frost’s team hosts the Buckeyes on September 28.
I know the hype train has departed the station in Lincoln for 2019, but I believe the Huskers are still a year away from winning the division. Their defense would have to improve by at least a touchdown per game from last year’s porous effort to even sniff Indianapolis.
I also believe Frost coming to the Big Ten was the best thing that happened to P.J. Fleck, because it took him and his program out of the spotlight. He’ll get back into it this season when the Gophers are looking down at the Huskers in the West standings.
Northwestern will lose four of its first five Big Ten games
Pat Fitzgerald didn’t hide his disdain at Big Ten Media Days after being picked to finish in fourth place in the West by media members, one year after the same Cleveland.com preseason poll pegged them third.
Here’s what Fitzgerald had to say about the slights:
“We’re not great clickbait, I guess, so picking us first isn’t real sexy. But we’ll just earn it. We’ll just earn it. That’s what’s so great about football. The West gets knocked. I enjoy it. That’s what I tell our players, enjoy it, and you’ve got to go out and earn it on the field, and that’s what makes our game so great. We’ll just continue to do that and control what we can control, but yeah, it’s always fun to read this time of year how we stink.”
Contrary to what Fitz said, I don’t think Northwestern stinks. I’d venture to guess a lot of media members feel the same way.
But, man, just look at those first five Big Ten games. Michigan State at home, on the road at Wisconsin and Nebraska, home against Ohio State and Iowa.
That as treacherous as an early-season conference slate can get. That’s why the Wildcats will only win one of their first five conference games.
And yes, I know Northwestern has not lost to a West opponent since the Big Ten opener at Wisconsin in 2017. The Wildcats have had a winning conference record in four-straight years too, but to me, they’re going to have to make a late-season run to extend that streak to five.
A.J. Epenesa will be the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year
A.J. Epenesa had 15 sacks, 22 tackles-for-loss, and five forced fumbles in his first two seasons in Iowa City.
His production came while averaging about 30 plays per game. There should be a significant uptick in Epenesa’s snap count as a junior for two reasons.
One, he’s an excellent football player. Two, the Hawkeyes aren’t as deep at defensive line as they were last season.
I’ll say Epenesa averages 45 plays per game this fall.
If you know A.J., then you know there’s no reason to think his production would suffer with an added workload. With that many opportunities, he should eclipse last year’s sack (10.5) and TFL (16.5) totals, which would likely put him near the top of the Big Ten once again.
It will also earn him the 2019 Nagurski-Woodson Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award.