It’s time to get back to football.
We, as Big Ten fans, were cursed with yet another offseason in which the game of football itself took a back seat to the noise that surrounds the game. Some programs made the noise by pursuing great coaches. Other schools were forced to pursue new coaches. One school, in the Big Ten West particularly, is holding onto theirs for reasons that only they know.
Even the conference’s best teams and coaches can’t seem to stay out of headlines.
The bright side is that we’re in store for an electrifying season, regardless of the noise. New coaches will begin their reigns. New superstars will look to make their names. Wisconsin might play more than two receivers. Anything is possible.
It’s never more fun to make predictions than when nobody knows anything. Here are my strongest (and totally correct) predictions for this upcoming season of Big Ten football.
The Wolverines won’t lose until the national championship.
The Wolverines are coming off the two best years of head coach Jim Harbaugh’s tenure. They finally beat Ohio State in 2021 and made the playoffs, both firsts for the Harbaugh era.
2022’s campaign didn’t get off to the smoothest start, as quarterback J.J. McCarthy was forced to compete in a bogus quarterback battle against current Iowa play caller Cade McNamara. They were also plagued by star running back Blake Corum’s sudden knee injury, including a torn meniscus and sprained MCL against Illinois, just one week before the Ohio State matchup. Still, Michigan finished 13-1 and came within a touchdown of beating TCU to reach the national championship.
And, after all of that, the 2023 Wolverines may be Harbaugh’s best team yet.
The only true weakness is the wide receiver room led by Cornelius Johnson, who’s caught 13 touchdowns in four years. The Wolverines will also have to deal with the loss of key pieces like defensive linemen Mazi Smith and Mike Morris, longtime kicker Jake Moody and multiple starting offensive linemen.
Yet this roster as a whole has the best combination of talent and experience of any Harbaugh-led Wolverine squad. No team in the country has a more dynamic backfield, led by McCarthy and the two-headed running back duo of Corum and Donovan Edwards.
Not even Harbaugh’s relentless desire to make noise in the offseason is enough to deter the Wolverines. The head coach’s name has repeatedly surfaced for his apparent interest in returning to the NFL. The NCAA nearly suspended Harbaugh for four games to start the season because of a recruiting violation, which led to the Wolverines self-imposing a three-game suspension of their own.
Like last year, the Wolverines begin with a laughably easy non-conference schedule while playing a handful of mediocre Big Ten teams. A Nov. 11 morning away game against Penn State is the only truly concerning matchup prior to Ohio State.
Any loss in the regular season would be considered an upset. But I’m not yet confident the Wolverines can beat the absolute best in the country. They’ll breeze through the regular season, win a playoff game, then lose to a more dynamic southern team in the championship.
Rhule, Fickell will instantly improve new programs.
Throughout the course of the offseason, four Big Ten schools hired new head coaches.
Northwestern promoted David Braun after firing longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald amidst hazing allegations. Purdue hired Ryan Walters after Jeff Brohm left for Louisville. But two historically conservative programs fired their coaches in the middle of the season before going all in to pursue established program builders.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers finally ditched Lincoln-native Scott Frost in favor of Matt Rhule.
Rhule first made his name in Temple, where he took the Owls from 2-10 to 10-3 within four years. He repeated himself at Baylor, going from 1-11 to 11-3 in three years. Rhule’s work didn’t go unnoticed, resulting in a promotion to the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
But Rhule’s NFL tenure was sloppy and forgettable. He could only win five games in each of his first two five seasons. A 1-4 start to his third year resulted in an early firing.
On the bright side, Rhule can join the prestigious list of great college coaches who couldn’t stick in the NFL — Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier and Bobby Petrino, to name a few. The point is, nobody should second guess a great college coach because of professional shortcomings.
In Frost’s four-and-a-half seasons in Lincoln, he was never able to surpass five wins. Rhule will improve the Cornhuskers instantly and win at least six or seven games in his first year.
Chryst was halfway through his seventh season as head coach. Since he made and lost the Rose Bowl in the 2019 season, Chryst’s Badgers went 15-10 in his remaining two-and-a-half years.
The Badgers needed a jolt. And the effects won’t take long.
Wisconsin’s most significant offseason departures were DT Keeanu Benton and LB Nick Herbig, two longtime Badgers and leaders on defense who both already made a splash for the Pittsburgh Steelers. On the other hand, Fickell and his staff worked tirelessly to recruit proven players via the transfer portal —amely, quarterback Tanner Mordecai and wide receiver C.J. Williams will lead the offense while linemen Darian Varner and Jeff Pietrowski headline the defensive additions.
New offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s balanced system should bring the best out of both star running back Braelon Allen and Mordecai.
Wisconsin could and should become the final winners of the Big Ten West before the road to the Big Ten Championship gets much harder next year.
Tanner Mordecai will outperform all other Big Ten quarterbacks.
In 2011, the Big Ten began handing out the Griese-Brees Quarterback of the Year award, given to the conference’s most outstanding quarterback. Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson won the inaugural trophy. Twelve years later, he’s still the only Badger to ever win.
That drought could be attributed to the dominance of Ohio State, whose quarterbacks have won 10 of the 12 awards.
A more realistic factor is the lack of quality quarterbacks Wisconsin has seen since Wilson. Some thought Graham Mertz would be the next great Wisconsin quarterback. He wasn’t.
Tanner Mordecai is.
A four-star recruit from Texas, Mordecai spent his first three years on the Oklahoma bench, never starting and only ever appearing for a few plays in games. He then transferred to SMU, where he led the Mustangs for two years, throwing for 7,148 yards and 72 touchdowns, according to SportsReference.com.
Big Ten defenses are far better than AAC defenses, and Mordecai likely won’t throw over 35 passes per game. But he’s physically capable at 6 '2”, 215 pounds, and he has a better arm than any recent Badger quarterback. Mordecai can even run when he needs to.
It’s rare for Wisconsin to have a quarterback this good. What’s more, it’s the first time in recent memory that a Badger quarterback will have all the tools to succeed.
It starts with coaching. Fickell brought in former Ole Miss and North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo, who will introduce his version of the Air Raid offense to Wisconsin. The run game is still a major part of Longo’s system — he’s produced multiple 1,000 yard rushers and coached quarterbacks like Sam Howell and Drake Maye.
Take a look at the rest of the Big Ten.
Ohio State’s Kyle McCord will benefit from Ohio State’s infrastructure and the best receiver in the sport in Marvin Harrison Jr., but he’s nowhere near as good as other recent Buckeye talent at quarterback.
J.J. McCarthy is talented and now more experienced, but is stuck with Michigan’s mediocre receiver room.
And while Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa is the other strongest competitor for the conference’s best at quarterback, Maryland may have too many issues for him to overcome.
When considering the current state of Big Ten quarterbacks, it’s not a stretch to say Mordecai will outshine all of his peers.
Donnie Slusher is the sports editor for the Daily Cardinal. He has written multiple breaking news stories, sports columns and an in-depth examination of race in Wisconsin football. Follow Donnie on Twitter at @DonnieSlusher_