Welcome to the dying days of B1G 2018! As we count down to the start of Big Ten football, we’re previewing the Big Ten non-conference slate by conference affiliation. Stay tuned for all the G5 and P5 conference previews, along with our Closing Arguments prediction series for each Big Ten team.
In our last foray into the Big Ten’s non-conference schedule, I made the not-at-all-pointless claim that the FUNBELT moniker hyped by ESPN is nothing but a second-rate version of MACtion. That was unnecessary, but seemed like a good idea at the time.
It did help me realize, however, that I missed an opportunity when I began this series to highlight the wackiest, stupidest games between a Big Ten team and a member of that conference. Because, really, these only lead us down memory lane.
Take, for instance, wacky moments involving FCS teams that don’t involve me throwing three Miller High Lifes against the wall of a garage in Black River Falls. Like needing a blocked PAT to beat Cal Poly:
[actually, YouTube has no highlights that I can readily find of wisconsin-Cal Poly. You suck, BTN.]
Or blocking two FGs to beat your in-state rivals and kick off a not-at-all-fraudulent Iowa team reaching a Top 5 ranking [this is 2009, in case you were wondering, and not 2015, which was also a fraudulent Iowa team reaching a Top 5 ranking]:
Or one of those wacky games against BYU, which is amusing for all and in no way will involve members of our Nebraska commentariat retaliating in the comments and driving me to drink:
There’s something to be said, as well, for a 55-yard field goal from Mike Nugent to escape lowly Marshall at home, back before I even knew what Conference USA was or that Marshall was a state school in West Virginia, but they gave me Randy Moss and damnit, that was enough for me:
For the Sun Belt, I would redirect you to the last time Minnesota hosted New Mexico State, but that also requires me to make light of a game in which Jerry Kill had a legitimate and scary health situation on the sideline. Coach Kill has, by all accounts, gotten his health under control, in part thanks to leaving Rutgers, which is good for anyone’s health.
we’ll think back to Indiana’s 36-34 home win over Arkansas State in 2010, a game in which CHAOSTEAM both scored 17 points in the fourth quarter and yielded 20 fourth-quarter points to the Red Wolves just kidding you know we’re going to show this:
Anyways, all this is a really convoluted way of getting to the fact that I didn’t have a better lead-in for our preview of the Big Ten’s matchups in 2018 with the Mountain West Conference. When I looked at this slate of teams and thought to myself “I wonder what games I could feature?”, all I came up with was this:
Whatever, we’re 600 words into it, let’s do this.
Mountain West Six-Shooter
- It’s the Boise State Broncos and everyone else, with the Broncos a sexy pick to make the Fiesta Bowl as the G5 representative.
- That feels unfair because whichever of San Diego State and Fresno State makes the MWC Championship out of the West can go punch-for-punch with the Broncos.
- Craig Bohl is still at Wyoming, having quietly created a respectable program. Meanwhile, the rest of Air Force, Colorado State, and Utah State will chug along quietly, playing efficient football their way and occasionally popping a P5 team. Just pencil in a lot of 6-6 finishes here; we’ll come back to them later. (We won’t, though.)
- Gonna be a lot of offense in Nevada this year, as both the Nevada Wolf Pack and UNLV Rebels have high-flying attacks. Now, about the defenses—oh look at the time...
- The San Jose State Spartans are the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors without the fun 11:59pm start times.
- How the fuck is Bob Davie still employed at New Mexico?
Michigan State Spartans (10-3, 7-2 B1G) vs. Utah State Aggies (6-7, 4-4 MWC)
Friday, August 31 | 6:30pm CT | BTN
2018 S&P+ rating: 77th
2017 Sagarin rating: 128 (50th percentile)
B1G S&P+ Odds: 89% (+21.6 margin)
You’d be forgiven for looking at this and thinking, “Utah State won 6 games in 2017?!” The Aggies—who Bill Connelly reminds us have lost 8 straight one-score games—under Matt Wells have moved into a quiet respectability that hasn’t advanced the program beyond what Gary Andersen built, but...haven’t regressed either.
Utah State has carved out a nice little divot around .500 under Wells (34-32), and 2017 demonstrated what that looks like: A non-conference of extremes, with blowout losses to wisconsin (59-10) and Wake Forest (46-10) and blowout wins over FCS Idaho State and usually-competitive rival BYU, followed by a frustrating inability to crack into the tier of Wyoming, Colorado State, or Air Force above them. Add in a close bowl game, which in 2017 they lost to New Mexico State in Arizona, and you’ve got 6-7. Yawn. But a bowl game!
Early reports out of USU camp in Logan have QB Jordan Love finding a nice rhythm with WRs like Jordan Nathan and Ron’quavion Tarver. The Aggies operate out of a kind of spread that will throw the ball a little more than average while utilizing scatbacks like converted WR Gerold Bright and 5’8” JUCO transfer scatback Darwin Thompson. Love will need time against a hungry Spartan rush attack, but returning all starters across the offensive line could be a plus. Still, the Aggies were noncompetitive against a comparable Big Ten defense and came in 73rd in adjusted sack rate and a woeful 92nd on passing downs.
That means the Aggies’ defense will need to back up an already-average offense playing on the road against a Big Ten defense. And...um...about that. Grab Spartans running back LJ Scott for your fantasy team, because the USU run defense hovered around 100th in the nation in downs-adjusted yards per carry and didn’t exactly hold down the defensive line.
New DC Keith Patterson, who comes to Logan from stops at Pitt, West Virginia, and Arizona State, likely brings a front-six formation to the Aggies’ defense (3-3-5 or 4-2-5). That could help at some point...but I’m not betting on it Week 1 at East Lansing. On top of that, the Aggies lose 9 INTs worth of production in the secondary, though CBs Ja’Marcus Ingram and Cameron Haney should be frisky in pass defense. USU will rely on an experienced front six, then, along with transfers DT Fua Leilua and LB Tipa Galea’i, to get to Brian Lewerke and ruin the Spartans’ home opener.
But I wouldn’t count on it.
wisconsin badgers (13-1, 9-0) vs. New Mexico Lobos (3-9, 1-7)
Saturday, September 8 | 11am CT | BTN
2018 S&P+ rating: 111th
2017 Sagarin rating: 137 (46th percentile)
B1G S&P+ Odds: 96% (+30.4 margin)
Bob Davie, if you can believe this, is a bit of a shitbag. But he’s still the coach at New Mexico (for now, as Bill Connelly noted in February), and...well, things have taken a turn for the worse in Albuquerque [which, miraculously, I spelled correctly on the first try]. After a 3-2 start to the season, the bottom dropped out: the Lobos were outclassed in a 38-0 loss at Fresno State, and blowouts at the hands of Wyoming, Texas A&M, and San Diego State more than sealed their fate. OC Bob DeBesse took the fall, and Davie has turned to former Arizona RBs coach Calvin Magee (formerly RichRod’s OC at Michigan) to right the ship.
It’s not going to be easy, as the Lobos face a schedule in which they’re favored in 2 games...and not much else.
That “not much else” includes a completely-rebuilt offense challenging wisconsin’s top-ten defense. Formerly the go-to triple option RB, Tyrone Owens and his 5.5 ypc return, and he has the inside track to being the Lobos’ bellcow.
That is, in part, because Magee is reportedly leading a switch to a more balanced attack (also wtf, that sportscaster), leading to a QB competition between Coltin Gerhart and option specialist Tevaka Tuioti. Whether anything will come of this remains to be seen. WR Delane Hart-Johnson is a big target with questionable hands (45% catch rate), but speedster Jay Griffin IV could test the badger secondary. Of course, there’s also the question of the offensive line, which returns a total of 21 starts from 2017.
Other than all that...I’m not holding my breath. Coupled with games against Western Kentucky and BYU, wisconsin might allow under 30 points combined in the non-conference. Jesus, these teams.
I could lie to you and tell you the Lobos have a couple CBs who could really be disruptive, but let’s be honest: You don’t care, and against wisconsin, that doesn’t fucking matter.
The only potential saving grace for the New Mexico defense is that DC Kevin Cosgrove has some familiarity with the way things are done in madison, having served as the badgers’ defensive coordinator .
He’s also familiar with losing in madison, having been Tim Brewster’s defensive coordinator for a season.
None of this, we’ll remind you, accounts for what happened when Cosgrove was the defensive coordinator under Bill Callahan at Nebraska. But, by all accounts, Cosgrove has turned things around in Albuquerque! The Lobos jumped from 121st to 91st in defensive S&P+ in 2017, and their front six returns five of six starters, including NTs Jermane Conyers and Aaron Blackwell, who combined for 4.5 TFLs and 9 run stuffs.
As New Mexico has to replace the production of DEs Kene Okonkwo and Garrett Hughes, though, just over 9% of the Lobos’ defensive production, they’re going to need big years from players like JUCO transfers Trent Sellers and Erin Austin, along with getting Alex Hornibrook and the badger offense behind schedule.
That won’t happen, though, and Jonathan Taylor will run for, like, 200 yards and 4 TDs.
Minnesota Golden Gophers (5-7, 2-7) vs. Fresno State Bulldogs (10-4, 7-1)
Saturday, September 8 | 6:30pm CT | BTN
2018 S&P+ rating: 44th
2017 Sagarin rating: 38 (85th percentile)
B1G S&P+ Odds: 46% (-1.6 margin)
So, um, this game...yeah. New Mexico State could be a tricky home opener for the Gophers, but Fresno State is actually favored by S&P+.
The Bulldogs’ resurgence is in no small part thanks to the surprising re-entry into head coaching of Jeff Tedford. The former Cal man rode some turnover luck to an upset of San Diego State and an appearance in the Mountain West championship game, where they lost a squeaker in a turnaround rematch with Boise State. They followed that up with a surprising upset of Tom Herman’s Houston Cougars in the Hawaii Bowl for a 10-win season!
They did this, in large part, thanks to Oregon State transfer QB Marcus McMaryion. The scrambler found weapons in WR KeeSean Johnson (1013 yards, 8 TDs) and the now-graduated Da’Mari Scott, but he was aided in no small part by his legs and an offensive line, which turned in the 2nd-best sack rate in the country, including the best in passing downs. They add sixth-year senior Delvon Hardaway to replace Scott, along with returning their entire backfield of Jordan Mims, Josh Hokit, and Ronnie Rivers (1690 yards and 18 TDs among the three of them) along with Wazzu transfer Romello Harris. That backfield feels illegally loaded.
You’re thinking—that’s OK, right? Their offense might be good, but there’s no way the Bulldogs’ defense can stop the Gophers.
Bill Connelly’s S&P+ has the Bulldogs’ defense at 27th-best in 2018, but there’s a lot of production to replace, including 40 TFLs off the defensive line alone. That said, Washington DT transfer Ricky McCoy was just granted immediate eligibility, shoring up a relatively green front four, and the Bulldogs do return virtually their entire linebacking corps—including the starting trio of Jeffrey Allison, George Helmuth, and James Bailey, who alone were 34.3% of the Bulldogs’ team tackles and 9 sacks combined. They’re backed up by a secondary anchored by safeties Mike Bill and Juju Hughes that returns its four starters, who combined for 7 picks and 25 PBUs.
If the Fresno front four can hold off the Minnesota rushing attack, that flips this game over to McMaryion and the offense, and then...goddamn, I’ve talked myself into it. Fresno 27, Minnesota 20.
First, let’s get it out of the way: QB Brett Rypien will get some national award chatter, and Boise State should win the Mountain Division going away.
The Broncos’ toughest conference game—San Diego State—will be at home, though it’s the week after a trip up to War Memorial Stadium for a bruiser with Craig Bohl’s Wyoming Cowboys.
That’s basically the Mountain: Bohl and the Cowboys trying to topple Boise State. Utah State could make some noise, according to S&P+, but with a trip to the Smurf Turf and War Memorial in store for the Aggies, I’m not taking that bet. After that it’s Colorado State bidding for a fourth-straight 7-6 season, then the Lobos and Air Force, probably in some sort of 4-8/5-7 kind of mismash for the final spots. Yawn.
That level of predictability is mirrored by the West Division, where either Fresno State or San Diego State has won every division crown. It’ll be one of the two again,though both have to travel to Boise for a cross-divisional.
The Bulldogs are strong for, at the very least, all the reasons listed above, while Rocky Long’s Aztecs are reloading for their fourth straight 10-win season, with Juwan Washington set to be their third straight 2,000-yard rusher. Tune in to CBSSN on November 17 at 9:30pm CT for the Battle for the Oil Can—it’s a must-watch.
In the meantime, Tony Sanchez might be onto something in Vegas. The former Bishop Gorman High School head man has gone from 3 to 4 to 5 wins in each of his three seasons at UNLV—with Air Force and New Mexico at home on the crossovers, along with regular games with Hawaii and San Jose State, he should manage to get the Rebels bowling. But the season-ender with Nevada for the Fremont Cannon could be a do-or-die.
Like I said above, Hawaii and San Jose State will likely be bringing up the rear, but the Wahine at least have the explosive offense to make likes a little tougher in the Mountain West...uh, West Division.
Where to Watch the Mountain West
- When: At home, on your couch, with many kickoffs beginning at 8pm CT or later. Mostly Saturdays, with a few marquee games on Friday nights after about 9pm CT.
- TV: Mainly split between CBS Sports Network and ESPN, though some lower-level (read: potentially-fun Utah State games?) matchups will be on Stadium.
- As mentioned, New Mexico’s coordinators are likely not welcome at bars in Minneapolis, madison, Lincoln, and Ann Arbor.
- Speaking of, it’s Jay Norvell! The Iowa LB under Hayden Fry made a couple coaching stops in madison and Lincoln—I don’t think he’s held in as low regard as Cosgrove was, but really just want to keep bringing up the Bill Callahan Era. (Norvell’s leading Nevada now.)
- More defensive coordinators, apparently! Jeff Horton, he of one of the silliest Floyd of Rosedale upsets of Iowa, is helming Rocky Long’s defense in San Diego.
- Air Force DC Brian Knorr spent a year at Indiana. Me neither.
- I always con myself into thinking Colorado State head coach Mike Bobo will finally break through (3 years of 7-6) and move up into a Pac-12 job or back to the SEC (he was at Georgia for over a decade). But with the investment the Rams have made in their new stadium and program up in Fort Collins...could Bobo be in it for the long haul, especially if the Rams ever flirt with the smoking ruins of the Big XII or an expanding Pac-12?
- Something about Craig Bohl.
How They’ll Fare
Let’s be honest: There’s really only the Minnesota-Fresno State matchup that raises any questions, unless Michigan State is planning a 3-9 faceplant again. They haven’t been burned to the ground like they should have, so that game is like a cow’s opinion.
I picked Fresno over Minnesota up there, and I’m already regretting it, but I’ve typed it and we’re stuck with it now, since I don’t know of any way to get something off the editor once you’ve typed it. Give me 2-1 against the Mountain West, with Peejus’ rebuild looking a lot more uphill than we thought.
Blame Tracy Claeys.
How will the Big Ten fare against the Mountain West?
This poll is closed
2-1: Minnesota loses
2-1: Someone else loses
1-2 or worse, somehow