Clarke: Keys to Climbing Out From the Bottom of the Big Ten

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Photo: Chris Faytok/NJ Advance Media

The ACC, SEC and Big Ten have been vying for best football conference this offseason with a swirl of media attention surrounding the debate while we wait for games to be played. ACC fans pride themselves on Clemson’s National Championship victory and a slew of mid-level teams on the rise. SEC fans point to the toughness, talent and balance throughout the conference. Big Ten fans can show four top 10 teams from last season’s final AP poll and call it a day … until you look at the bottom of the conference.

Buried behind the several middle-of-the-pack Big Ten teams are Illinois, Rutgers and Purdue sitting in the doldrums of the conference. This trio of teams went a combined 8-28 in 2016, the worst of any three teams combined in a power conference.

In order for the Big Ten to solidify its argument as the top conference in all of college football, these three teams must rise from the ashes. Here’s how each program can do that:

Illinois

In the last 30 or so years, Illinois has been a mediocre program with a couple of breakout seasons and more than a couple of terrible ones. For example, Ron Turner coached two 11-loss Illinois teams in his eight years in Champaign. However, he took the Illini to the Sugar Bowl in 2001 after finishing the regular season 10-1. His successor, Ron Zook, followed up a pair of two-win seasons with a Rose Bowl birth.

The Illini have to go back nearly a century to find consistent success in the Big Ten, which is what they are trying to achieve with Lovie Smith and a new coaching staff. Without a doubt, Smith has a vision for the program.

“It’s a journey as much as anything. You start something from scratch and get to see when you develop it,” Smith told internsbigten.com. “And for the players who get there on the ground floor, you know, to know, when you look back on these days, that I was a part of building this up … getting the University of Illinois to a position where we’re competing for championships. So to be a part of that ground floor is pretty rewarding.”

First, the Illini have to build that ground floor. They’re doing so by laying the foundation on a new football training facility attached to its indoor practice facility. The original project planned to include renovations to Memorial Stadium as well, but Illinois changed its plans earlier this summer.

This plan follows up on Northwestern’s $260 million lakefront facility scheduled to open in 2018. Right now, the Wildcats are Illinois’ biggest competition for in-state recruiting targets. In 2016, the fallout of Tim Beckman still cascaded over the Illini’s recruiting position, 13th in the Big Ten according to 247Sports. Illinois’ 2017 class, however, ranked 10th, ahead of Northwestern, which followed at 11th.

Taking back the state is the first step in rising from the cellar in the Big Ten West. In 2017, the Illini reeled in nine recruits from Illinois and eight from Florida, where Smith last coached in the NFL. A presence in the Sunshine State will definitely boost Illinois’ talent pool. Smith highlighted the Chicago-St.Louis-Indianapolis recruiting triangle at Big Ten Media Days, but also said he’d go out and recruit Florida along with those three metropolitan areas.

If Smith is at Illinois long-term, it’s hard to picture failure in Champaign. The Illini are in good hands recruiting-wise and they don’t have to make the steep divisional climbs Big Ten East teams are forced to make with a trio of powerhouse programs motoring along.

Purdue

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Photo: Journal and Courier

The last four years under Darrell Hazell were some of the worst years in Purdue football history. The Boilermakers never totaled more than three wins in a season during Hazell’s tenure in West Lafayette, which began with a 1-11 campaign in 2013.

But similarly to Illinois, Purdue is building a foundation. The Boilermakers have dedicated a website to their master plan on rebuilding the program and its facilities. But unlike Illinois, they have not hopped over teams in recruiting. The Boilermakers still rank last in the Big Ten, per 247Sports, as they did in 2016.

With new head coach Jeff Brohm at the helm and junior David Blough leading the way at quarterback, the Boilermakers have potential to build on a strong QB legacy (see Drew Brees, Kyle Orton, Bob Griese, Len Dawson).

Blough and Brohm are a killer combination to kickstart a new era of QB dominance at Purdue. Brohm was the successor of both Willie Taggart and Bobby Petrino over at Western Kentucky and produced more success than his pair of predecessors. Brohm finished 30-10 at WKU and sparked an offensive attack that finished fifth in the FBS averaging 523.1 yards per game in 2016. The Hilltoppers also finished fifth in passing offense.

Brohm seemed like the perfect match to live out Purdue’s QBU past, and Blough is a solid counterpart. He ranked in the top 25 last year in passing yards with 3352. Blough was quite susceptible to the interception, but he emerged as the clear captain of that offense.

Purdue may not be good in 2017, but their offense will definitely be fun to watch at times. Slight improvements across the board and a solid QB down the road could make Purdue a scary Big Ten team again.

Rutgers

The case for the Scarlet Knights is a bit more difficult, considering their division counterparts include teams led by Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, Mark Dantonio and James Franklin. Plus, they can’t easily hop over an Illinois or Purdue in division play. This battle was uphill enough for Michael, Chris Hummer and me to pose the question “Over/under 29.5 years until Rutgers finishes near the top of the Big Ten East” … and I’m pretty sure we all took the over.

Rutgers went 2-10 last year and landed on the receiving side of some of the most lopsided blowouts in college football history. The good news, however, is that Rutgers is also already on the path to rebuilding their program. In talking with head coach Chris Ash and Rutgers players at Big Ten Media Days, the Scarlet Knights are feeling much better a year into Ash’s tenure.

“Guys are just settling in,” said Rutgers offensive lineman Dorian Miller. “I think everybody is more comfortable, more comfortable with (Ash) as a person, how he’s gonna run the program.”

The Scarlet Knights don’t lack talent in their on-field product. Kyle Bolin, a graduate transfer quarterback from Louisville, joins the team for 2017 along with a slew of other grad transfers. Their secondary, led by junior Blessuan Austin, could impress against lower-level and mid-teir Big Ten teams. Rutgers plays Eastern Michigan and Morgan State at home in non-conference play, which should be two wins. They also have both Illinois and Purdue in cross-division matchups. The Scarlet Knights have enough winnable games in their schedule to significantly improve their record.

The sight of Michigan’s 78-0 trampling of Rutgers in Piscataway didn’t do enough to stop Rutgers from a solid recruiting spike. The Scarlet Knights leapfrogged Northwestern, Indiana and Minnesota in the 247Sports recruiting composite rankings for 2017. If I had to guess, Rutgers’ rebuild will mimic its realignment buddy Maryland’s, which has also seen a jolt in recruiting power. Like Maryland, the Scarlet Knights are running with a new head coach, who looks to stay in New Jersey long-term. Both schools are in proximity to a major metropolitan area. Maryland has recruited the hell out of the D.C. area. If Rutgers can gain more traction in the NYC region, perhaps the Scarlet Knights can start making some noise in the Big Ten East.

 

 

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