With a new college football season fast approaching it is time to dust off the old college football spreadsheet and see what THOR+ has to say about the upcoming Big Ten season.
For a brief refresher on what THOR+ actually is, it is a model based on schedule-adjusted points per play. A team's offense, defense, and special teams units are rated by how their points per play totals compare to the rest of college football. Each rating is adjusted for strength of schedule and has 100 as the baseline for the FBS average. That means a team with an Offense+ rating of 105 has an offense that would be expected to be 5 percentage points better in schedule-adjusted points per play than the average FBS team. The true talent of a team that has an Offense+ rating of 95 would be expected to be 5 percentage points worse than the national average in points per play. The same goes for defense and special teams ratings. And for special teams, I break them down into "units that score points" vs. "units that prevent points." You only see one special teams rating here though because I average the ratings of the two special teams units together. Based on the Offense+, Defense+, Special Teams+ ratings I calculate the expected points per game and points per game allowed each team would be expected to generate against an average team. Finally, those three ratings are combined to create the overall THOR+ rating for a team. And from there I estimate their expected winning percentage against an average schedule and calculate how many wins that would be based on a twelve-game schedule.
With that brief explainer out of the way, here are the preseason projected THOR+ ratings for the Western Division of the Big Ten Conference:
|National Rank||Team||Coach||Offense+||Defense+||Special Teams+||THOR+||PPG vs. Avg.||PPGA vs. Avg.||W% vs. Avg.||W vs. Avg.|
Now, these numbers don't tell us everything we want to know about the upcoming season. Having a general idea of how we think each team would perform against an average schedule is nice in order to compare each team on a talent level basis, but it doesn't necessarily tell us how they might do against their actual schedule this year. After all, most teams won't play an exactly average schedule.
As a result, I ran a thousand simulations of the 2015 Big Ten season based on these THOR+ projections in order to allow us to look at season expectations based on everyone's schedule. The season results are below.
|National Rank||B1G West Season Wins||1||2||3||4||5||6||7||8||9||10||11||12|
And here are the projected conference wins:
|National Rank||B1G West Conference Wins||0||1||2||3||4||5||6||7||8|
With those out of the way, I will go through each team one-by-one.
National Rank: 10
Average Simulated Wins: 9.3 Total, 6 Conference
Wisconsin is an odd team to project right now. Because for as much success as they have had lately, they have also had a lot of shakeup in the coaching department. And while it's not like the Badgers struggled all that much going from Bret Bielema to Gary Andersen, they are on their third coach in four years now and they are transitioning back to a more pro-style, power type of offense. Will this change in leadership and strategy cause any issues this year? Maybe. But, then again, maybe not.
What the Badgers do have going for them this year is a ridiculously favorable conference schedule. Sure, they face Bama in week one, but after that, they are currently favored by THOR+ in 10 of their final 11 games. They benefit from missing other preseason Big Ten Championship contenders Ohio State and Michigan State and they even miss Michigan, who could be tougher than some expect this year. That means, after the Crimson Tide, Nebraska is the only other team that Wisconsin faces that currently falls within the top 50 for THOR+. The Badgers will likely lose a game or two that they shouldn't (hence, why THOR+ projects 9-10 wins on the season), but this is the second year in a row where Wisconsin benefits from playing in a down Big Ten West and by missing Ohio State and Michigan State in the regular season. Just like last year, THOR+ expects them to capitalize on this and represent the West in the Big Ten Championship game.
Strengths: Defense, Running Back
- Defense- Paul Chryst may be returning Wisconsin football back to their power roots on offense, but the defense isn't changing this year. Gary Andersen left for Oregon State, but his defensive coordinator, Dave Aranda, stayed put in Madison and has a defense that is returning 8 starters this year. They only return two guys on the defensive line, but they have two linebackers in Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert who combined for over 100 tackles, 30 tackles for loss, and 10.5 sacks last year, and they return basically their entire secondary from a 2014 unit that THOR+ felt was 10 percentage points above average in defending the pass. Wisconsin is generally known for their offense, but their defense looks to be very good this year.
- Running Back- Yes, Melvin Gordon is gone, but may I remind you of Corey Clement? He's the guy who ran for almost a thousand yards behind a 2,000 yard rusher last season. He's pretty good.
Weaknesses: Offensive Line
- Passing Game- The quarterback situation was hilariously bad at times last season, but this year Tanner McEvoy has been moved to safety (probably for the best) and Joel Stave is the main man under center. Stave's numbers weren't impressive last year, but he did look solid as a sophomore two years ago, so there is definitely potential there. And aside from the quarterback situation last year, Wisconsin's lack of experience returning at the wide receiver position hurt their ability to throw the ball too. A year later, and outside of Alex Erickson, there are still a lot of unproven guys who have to step up when it comes to getting open and catching the ball. Could they? Certainly, but it's definitely not a given.
Biggest Question Mark: Passing Game
- Offensive Line- Wisconsin's big bruisers got younger and more inexperienced this offseason. With the departure of three starters on the line, the Badgers could see a dip in production from this unit this season. And injuries have been an issue for this unit in fall camp thus far, so I'm sure they are hoping that does not continue into the season. They usually tend to reload on the offensive line in Madison, but this unit is definitely a question mark going into 2015.
National Rank: 32
Average Simulated Wins: 7.9 Total, 4.9 Conference
Similar to Wisconsin, the Cornhuskers have a new coach and are currently favored by THOR+ in 10 of their 12 games. Unlike the Badgers, however, Nebraska has a slightly tougher conference schedule in that they have to play Michigan State, and they also have a lot more games that appear very close to coin flips, which is why simulations have their most likely result being something like 7-9 wins.
What they do have going for them with this schedule (outside of not playing Ohio State) is the fact that they get to play their toughest conference opponents in Memorial Stadium. Both Wisconsin and Michigan State have to travel to Lincoln in order to face the Huskers and that is why Nebraska is slightly favored in those games right now. But 52% and 57% win probabilities are definitely not guaranteed wins by any means. On the other hand, Nebraska's toughest away game looks to be at Minnesota. Other than visiting the Gophers, Nebraska doesn't go into many a hostile environment with road trips to Champaign, West Lafayette, and Piscataway.
Strengths: Passing Game, Punt Returner
- Passing Game- With an experienced (but also inconsistent) quarterback in Tommy Armstrong Jr. back for 2015 and receivers Jordan Westerkamp and De'Mornay Pierson-El catching the football this year, the passing game has the ability to really move the ball down the field. With that being said, they are learning a new offense this year and Pierson-El just went down to injury and will be out 6-8 weeks, so that definitely stings. On a more positive note, Nebraska does have other veteran receivers down the depth chart that should be able to step up and perform competently until Pierson-El returns. At least they are hoping that's the case.
- Punt Returner- Besides being an electric receiver, Pierson-El was also tied for the national lead with 3 punt returns that went for touchdowns last season. If he can return healthy and not have the injury bug linger, this should be a real strength for the Huskers again this season.
- Defense- The defense returns three guys from last year's defensive line that wasn't very good at stopping the run, and loses their best player in Randy Gregory. The linebackers are thin due to graduation, transfers, and dismissals. And the secondary has some guys returning, but have a new position coach and a new scheme to learn. Toss in a brand new defensive coordinator and new defensive philosophy and this could be an ugly year for the Blackshirts.
Biggest Question Mark: Run Game
- Run Game- This Nebraska offense has some talent, but there are still a lot of question marks, especially when it comes to running the ball. They have to replace Ameer Abdullah at running back, and while Imani Cross and Terrell Newby may be capable replacements, the offensive line replaces their entire interior in 2015, so that could be interesting.
National Rank: 54
Average Simulated Wins: 5.9 Total, 3.5 Conference
Minnesota fans are likely going to take issue with me after seeing this, but THOR+ does not buy the hype of Minnesota being a potential Big Ten West contender this season. That's not to say that they aren't a pretty good football team because THOR+ is actually expecting them to be 5 percentage points better than the FBS norm. The problem lies mainly with their schedule. The Gophers only get a break in their conference schedule by not having to play Michigan State this year, but they do have to play Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Nebraska. And their non-conference schedule is no cakewalk either, seeing as they play TCU in game number one and then hit the road to play a Colorado State team that should have a pretty good offense.
And I'm sure there are plenty of people reading this who are saying something like "There's no way Purdue should be favored against Minnesota." The home field adjustment is why the Boilermakers are currently a slight favorite. You may personally think that is giving Purdue way too much credit for their college football atmosphere and you may be correct. But no one expected Illinois to beat Minnesota last year either, but THOR+ was able to call that upset, again thanks to that home field adjustment.
Basically, THOR+ doesn't see a whole lot of games that you can look at Minnesota's schedule and say "Oh hey, that looks like a sure win." Instead, there looks like there could be a lot of nail-biters in the near future for Jerry Kill's band of rodents.
Strengths: Defense, Special Teams
- Defense- Minnesota's defense should be well above average again this year. If there is any potential for problems, they do lose two starters on the defensive line, but have plenty of guys with experience who should be able to step in with little drop off. But, moving beyond the defensive line, the back seven should be able to more than make up for losing two starters on the line. That's because the Gophers return two of their 3 starting linebackers and return a very experienced secondary. This side of the ball should help offset the fact that the offense could have some major issues.
- Special Teams- Minnesota's special teams were a big part of why they ended up being better than expected last year, but it should not come as a surprise this year. THOR+ saw Minnesota's special teams as being 16 percentage points better than the standard FBS special teams unit last season and the 2015 version returns basically everyone. Jalen Myrick is back looking to score on kickoffs, Peter Mortell is back and should be one of the best punters in the nation, and Ryan Santoso is now a sophomore and should continue to get more consistent from longer distance.
Weaknesses: Passing Game
- Passing Game- 2014 was the year of the running back in the Big Ten conference. Three of the best rushers in the conference were all on teams that had non-existent passing games and chose to run the ball much more than the regular college football team. Wisconsin was one of those teams, Indiana was another, and Minnesota also fit that description. Both of Jerry Kill's number one and number two signal callers are far more superior runners than they are deft with their passing abilities. Mitch Leidner proved to be competent at times last year off of play-action, but still showed that he was capable of shot putting the ball to a part of the field where his targeted receiver is not and the opposing defense may or may not be. Last year Maxxx Williams was a playmaking security blanket for him, but this year there aren't a whole lot of proven pass-catchers that look like they can fill that role. That means opposing defenses are likely going to stuff the box against this offense, and make Minnesota prove that they can beat them with the pass.
Biggest Question Mark: Run Game
- Run Game- The main question everyone is probably asking is can Minnesota adequately replace the production they got last year from David Cobb? Probably not, but who knows? Berkley Edwards was a nice complement to Cobb last year, and Mitch Leidner can be dangerous with his legs. Minnesota fans better hope those two can make up a decent rushing attack or someone who has yet to really play can step up this year, otherwise it could be a long year for this offense.
National Rank: 57
Average Simulated Wins: 6.8 Total, 3.9 Conference
For any Minnesota fans potentially still reading this for some reason, this is the type of schedule you wish your team had. For the second year in a row, just like Wisconsin, Iowa has a mercifully soft conference schedule. Last year the Hawkeyes didn't have enough talent to do much with that easy schedule and finished 7-5. This year, THOR+ doesn't actually see much of a change. On the bright side, the Hawkeyes are currently favored in 9 of their 12 games this season. On the down side, basically no team ever wins every game they are favored in and a lot of those win probabilities aren't exactly 70% and higher. And for more bad news, THOR+ doesn't rank FCS teams and counts them as guaranteed victories. In most cases that works just fine, but there have been numerous recent examples where that isn't the case. And the Hawkeyes shouldn't take last year's FCS Championship-runner up, Illinois State, lightly.
The takeaway? THOR+ isn't expecting big things from the Hawkeyes this year. /has a sad
Strengths: Pass Defense
- Pass Defense- Iowa's secondary is probably the only unit on the team that we can identify as an almost surefire strength this season. This is the same secondary that THOR+ graded as being 15 percentage points better than the average team against the pass last year. Future NFL player, Desmond King will anchor one side of the field at corner, while Greg Mabin will hopefully flash some more NFL potential with his above average size and great speed on the other side of the field. Meanwhile, at safety, Jordan Lomax returns after a stellar junior year and Miles Taylor has quite the hype train behind him right now coming into the season. On top of the secondary, I would also include Drew Ott under the umbrella term of "pass defense" because his ability to rush the passer will hopefully help the back seven create some turnovers this year.
- Offense- When isn't the offense a problem for Iowa? Seriously, when was the last time Iowa had an above average offense? Well, if you are inclined to believe THOR+, 2011 would be the answer to that last question. And Marvin McNutt was essentially the lone reason the Hawkeyes were the 48th best offense in the nation that season. Since 2011, though, here are Iowa's Offense+ rankings (starting with 2012): 119th, 78th, and 70th. I guess if I wanted to be positive I could say Iowa is trending in the right direction, but this offense does not make me feel positive. I've never been overly positive about Iowa's offense during Kirk Ferentz's tenure as head coach, but I'm especially negative as long as Greg Davis is Iowa's offensive coordinator. As much as I like C.J. Beathard's potential, I'm just not sure he and Tevaun Smith can break out of the schematic straight jacket that the coaches will likely put them in again this season.
Biggest Question Mark: Offensive Line, Linebackers
- Offensive Line- I don't think I need to rehash the offensive line situation in great detail. The tackle position looks like a mess right now and, outside of Austin Blythe, I'm not sure we know what this line is going to look like mid-season, let alone at the end of the year. If things go terribly bad, this offensive line could doom any chance the Iowa offense has at overcoming Greg Davis and Kirk Ferentz this season.
- Linebackers- The defense should at least be decent this season (THOR+ projects them at 43rd in the nation). But I put the linebackers as a question because I'm extremely curious to see just how improved they will be this year. They certainly have to be better than 2014, but that's not exactly saying a whole lot. If they end up being much improved, the defense could help carry this team above mediocre expectations. If they continue to look athletically limited and slow to react... well, then we likely have another 2014 on our hands.
NorthwesternNational Rank: 67
Average Simulated Wins: 5.7 Total, 3.3 Conference
- Running Back- Pat Fitzgerald found himself a running back last year when true freshman Justin Jackson emerged for 1187 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. He's back this year and the depth behind him gives most Northwestern fans the feeling that this is the team's strongest position going into 2015.
- Defense- Northwestern's defense was the probably only thing that kept them from not losing more than 7 games last year. Outside of Justin Jackson, that offense was horrible, but the defense was able to at least keep them in games and even helped them pull off the upset against Wisconsin. And from that unit the Wildcats are getting back 3 starters on the defensive line and 3 starters in the secondary. They only return 1 linebacker, however, so that position is a bit of a question mark.
- Passing Game- The passing game was horrible last year (37 percentage points below the FBS mean, according to THOR+), and Northwestern not only loses their starting quarterback, but two of their top three pass-catchers at the wideout spot, and three of their starting offensive linemen from last year. The lack of a proven quarterback, proven playmakers, and proven blockers makes THOR+ think this unit could be pretty bad once again. And Northwestern fans would likely agree with this projection.
- Quarterback- The main thing Northwestern prognosticators have been pondering all offseason is just how good will the quarterback play be this year? The competition is between senior Zack Oliver who didn't look particularly good in his limited time last season, sophomore Matt Alviti who can create plays with his legs but not so much with his arm, and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson who is apparently everyone outside of the program's favorite. Thorson's ability to run and throw the ball seem to make him the guy with the most upside, but he's also never played a down of college football. So who does Fitzgerald go with?
- Offensive Line- Besides the inexperienced quarterback play, the offensive line could make or break this offensive unit this season. The Wildcats lose 101 starts between three players on the line and return only 58 starts between the next five experienced players. That being said, there are a lot of juniors and seniors on the depth chart, so it's not like they are fresh out of high school. If this unit can maintain their blocks, the quarterback play may not be as terrible as it otherwise could be, and Justin Jackson could actually get above 5 yards per carry this season.
National Rank: 69
Average Simulated Wins: 5.2 Total, 2.5 Conference
Illinois is a leading contender for "start fast in the non-conference part of the schedule and fall on your face hard in the conference part of the schedule" award this year. Outside of a North Carolina team that THOR+ is projecting to have an otherworldly offense and not much of anything else, Tim Beckman and his band of orange-clad warriors are looking at a pretty nice non-conference schedule. Like with Eastern Illinois, I'm not going to pretend to know a damn thing about the Western part of the state, but Kent State and Middle Tennessee are just about as easy as any team could ask for when it comes to FBS out-of-conference games. I mean, assuming that Western Illinois is an automatic win (again, I'm assuming without doing my FCS homework) that means Illinois has a great chance of finishing the first four games 3-1.
But then we get to the Big Ten chunk of scheduling and... oof. THOR+ has Illinois as an underdog in all 8 of their Big Ten games this season. However, if you want a bit of optimism for Tim Beckman keeping his job, he does get to face Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Ohio State at home. On the other hand, that may not do much other than keep their whoopings just slightly less embarrassing, while making their games against more equal competition more difficult because they are being played away from home.
Strengths: Quarterback and Offensive Skill Players
- Quarterback and Offensive Skill Players- For as bad THOR+ expects Illinois to be this year, it at least has a little bit of confidence in them on the offensive side of the ball. Their preseason offensive projection is 1 percentage point below average, which I will just go ahead and call average. That's because Illinois' offense did show some potential last year when guys weren't getting hurt. If Wes Lunt can stay healthy this season, he's capable of having a pretty nice year, consistency issues be damned. Lunt gets to continue to toss the pigskin to a veteran proven target in Geronimo Allison and Josh Ferguson out of the backfield. And Ferguson is also a nice option when it comes to running the ball, considering he averaged 5.1 yards per carry last season behind an awful offensive line. The one thing that could keep this offense from being better than last year is the fact that sophomore stud wide receiver, Mike Dudek, is going to miss a large part of the season recovering from a torn ACL.
- Defense- Tim Beckman has never had an above average defense at Illinois. Somehow, according to THOR+, last year's terrible defense (8 percentage points below average) was actually better than his previous two years (27 and 28 percentage points worse than the average FBS defense). And if his track record wasn't enough, he just lost his best defensive player to injury for a month. The Defense+ projection of 91 that THOR+ is expecting for 2015 doesn't exactly look good for his job security, but the Illini do return 7 starters from last season's D. So maybe the defense can take another step forward toward respectability.
Biggest Question Mark: Offensive Line
- Offensive Line- The offensive line was absolutely putrid in 2014. Similar to Northwestern, Illinois loses three starters with a whole lot of starts between them, but return a bunch of guys who either have started some college football games or have been in the program for quite a few years. That experience alone would make it seem like they can't possibly be worse than last year's catastrophe, right?
National Rank: 75
Average Simulated Wins: 5.5 Total, 3.1 Conference
Purdue entered last year the laughing stock of the Big Ten and then went on to finish with an impressive 3 wins. Yes, you read that right, Purdue won all of three games last year and that was impressive for that team. Last offseason I had this to say about Purdue's 2014 campaign:
Purdue is a down program that has been terrible at football for a while now, and they don't exactly have top recruits lining up to come to West Lafayette. Not to kick Purdue when they are down, but it appears that Darrell Hazell has his work cut out for him. I would say a successful 2014 season is getting their THOR+ ranking to crack the top 100.
Well, Hazell's Boilers did exactly that, finishing the season at 80th in the nation with a defense that was only 4 percentage points below the FBS average. But 2015 is a new year and Hazell still has a daunting task in front of him.
Strengths: Offensive Line, Cornerbacks
- Offensive Line- The first thing you will probably read in any Purdue preview this offseason is the fact that they are bringing back all five starters from their 2014 offensive line. That kind of continuity on the offensive line is always a good thing, but it's even better when last year's unit was considered 6 percentage points better than the average FBS offensive line last season. THOR+ expects that unit to be above average again this year, which should give Austin Appleby time in the pocket to make some better decisions than he did last year (he had a 10 touchdown to 11 interception ratio), but Purdue is going to have to find a run game with the departure of the explosive duo of Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt. Austin Appleby showed some good wheels last season, but the running back depth chart this year is pretty green.
- Cornerbacks- Frankie Williams and Anthony Brown helped Purdue rate out above average in pass defense last season, and they are back this year as seniors to man the corners on defense. But for as good as the corner position looks, the pass defense could have some holes over the top as Purdue breaks in two new safeties this year.
- Quarterback- Austin Appleby showed flashes of talent last season. He was a better rusher and passer than Danny Etling and Purdue definitely played better when he was under center. That being said, Appleby had a bit of a turnover problem last year and simply saying he was better than Danny Etling really isn't much of a compliment. Purdue's passing game rated out 41 percentage points below the FBS average last season, according to THOR+. In a Big Ten conference lacking in good quarterback play last season, Purdue was only better than Michigan when it came to throwing the football. Again, that isn't much of a compliment. So will Austin Appleby improve behind a veteran offensive line? Or will he continue to have issues taking care of the football and be replaced midseason by redshirt freshman David Blough?
Biggest Question Mark: Offensive Skill Players
- Offensive Skill Players- There was no doubt that Purdue's three best offensive players last year were Akeem Hunt, Raheem Mostert, and Danny Anthrop. Hunt and Mostert are gone this year, and Anthrop is coming back from a torn ACL that caused him to miss the end of last season. How will Purdue replace the two aforementioned running backs, who were also valuable in the passing game? And how will Anthrop look in 2015 coming back from injury? The offensive skill players are probably the biggest unknown on this team right now.
Next time we will preview the Big Ten East Division.