LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Indiana University has stood at the top of the class in the Big Ten Universities Conference for the last several years, while Ohio State and Wisconsin have been nipping at the Hoosiers’ heels.
The outlook for the 2016 Big Ten season appears relatively similar, as Indiana is the hands-down favorite to win a second consecutive BTU title and the Badgers and Buckeyes look like the teams best equipped to challenge the reigning conference champions.
The best of the rest of the Big Ten is Michigan, and then it’s anybody’s guess. Both Minnesota and Iowa have been near the top of the conference in recent seasons, but finished in the basement of the 2015 standings.
Illinois, Michigan State and Purdue showed glimpses of brilliance last fall and finished in the middle of the BTU pack. Those clubs will have to make additional positive strides in 2016 to contend with the top-third in the conference.
Michigan State University Spartans
Michigan State made great strides as a club in 2015. The Spartans beat every team they were supposed to and did so convincingly. Their wins over Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue had an average of 45 points per contest scored, but they weren’t able to pull off an upset against the Big Ten’s top half.
Last season’s first-year head coach, Ben Mateialona, played a big part in Michigan State’s success, but unfortunately for the Spartans Mateialona is no longer with the program. Also departed from the program are 2016 graduates and All-Conference players Todd Else and Elias Zimmer.
What Michigan State does have going for itself is the return of its second- and third-leading point-scorers in Ryan Britain and Anthony Shiguango. Those two, and the rest of the Spartan roster, will need steady improvement if it wants to finish in the middle of the Big Ten standings as it did a season ago. The team fell to a good Western Michigan side, 16-15, recently and its road gets much tougher as Michigan State plays No. 6 Indiana and Wisconsin later this month.
University of Minnesota Gophers
A slow decline in performance for Minnesota hit rock bottom last year when the Gophers were on the verge of a winless season before pulling off a 32-24 victory over Iowa to end their conference schedule. The less-than-decorated season spurred the hiring of Minnesota Rugby alum Jimmy Hanson.
“Over the last 10 years I’ve worked with a few teams and the transitions seem to be difficult for a number of reasons, but for this club it has felt like a pretty natural conversion,” Hanson said of his new role with the Gophers. “Usually the biggest challenge has been establishing a cultural fit and the trust that comes out of it. This transition has actually been one of the easier ones in that regard, and it helps that I’m familiar with the landscape having played here myself from ’04 to ’08.”
Hanson’s transition has also been made smoother than anticipated with the help of a few Gophers that should turn heads on Saturdays. Shad Anderson and Charlie Shaw will be the team’s primary ball handlers at the half back positions, while Troy Gotch and Darin Richardson will be expected to carry the ball over the end line.
Up front, eight man Gabe Cesarini and Quinn Williams, who moves from prop to lock, will bring toughness and a defensive mindset to this year’s Minnesota squad.
Given the Gophers’ recent woes, Hanson understands his team won’t contend for a conference championship overnight necessarily.
“The scores from last year were ugly, enough so that we could have made tons of progress across all fronts and still see some struggles,” Hanson said.
Still, the young team has been buying into the culture and structures implemented by the new head coach, and positive returns should follow shortly. If anything is known about the Minnesota team it’s that it will likely play quicker than it did a season ago and wouldn’t mind flexing its muscles every so often.
“First and foremost, we emphasize being competent and in control of the contact situation, whether it be offensively or defensively,” explained Hanson. “We think of every situation in terms of pressure and attack. We want to attack our opponents and challenge them to match our physicality.”
Ohio State University Buckeyes
The Buckeyes have played in the Big Ten Championship game the past two seasons but failed to bring hardware back to Columbus. Although a few top-notch players have graduated from last year’s second-place team, a core of excellent athletes will still be in grey and scarlet in 2016.
Six of Ohio State’s starting forwards from last year must be replaced, but the biggest loss comes in the form of its 2015 captain and All-Conference eight man, Santino Cua. Matt Stauder will move over from open side flanker to No. 8 in order to replace Cua, and All-Conference lock Jack Bengel returns to Ohio State’s engine room for some much-needed push in the forward pack.
Holes will still need to be plugged, but the Buckeyes coaching staff is confident it has the reinforcements to piece together a capable group of forwards.
“We have a couple of freshman vying for time, and a few B-side guys stepping up,” explained Ohio State Head Coach Tom Rooney. “We’ve also moved a couple guys into new positions, so the forwards are a work in progress – but that’s okay.”
The Buckeye back line, on the other hand, is far more shored up. The squad does take a hit with the loss the dependable fly half Ian Hildebrandt, but Mike Matthews should be ready to take over as first receiver after playing well in the centers last season.
A couple of faces that weren’t present in Ohio State’s back line last year should make positive impacts this fall. Columbus native and Wheeling Jesuit transfer Jamie Barlow has been inserted into the centers. He’ll line up next to Aaron Thomas, who missed all of last fall due to an injury. Thomas not only returns to a spot in the first 15, but will captain the side, as well.
The true strength of the Ohio State team lies in the back three. Led by the conference’s try-scoring leader from a season ago, Jojo Eramo is electric on the outside. The former high school football running back is joined by Jack Walsh on the other wing and 2015 All-Conference performer Ronan Forrestal at full back.
The talent is in place for the Buckeyes to get back to the Big Ten title game, but the team understands it won’t be an easy road to maneuver.
“Our biggest challenge will come later in the year with three consecutive road trips to Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan State,” Rooney said. “The road is hard in the Big Ten. And then there’s a game against Michigan at the end of the October.”
Purdue University Boilermakers
The Boilermakers had some nice moments in 2015, including a two-match winning streak in October. However, like the rest of the bottom half of the conference, they struggled mightily against the Big Ten’s elite.
Those struggles weren’t taken lightly by Purdue’s best players, and fueled their offseason preparation. The hungry Boilermakers are led up front by Phil Spagnolo. The tight head prop was Purdue’s lone All-Conference selection in 2015 and packs a mighty punch in the scrum and go-forward ball in the loose. Mark O’Brien also returns to West Lafayette, Ind. He’s a speedy winger whose 59 points were the sixth-most scored in the Big Ten a year ago.
It’s unfortunate that Purdue’s Sept. 3 nonconference match against Western Michigan was cancelled because the Boilermakers open the Big Ten season with three consecutive matches against the conference’s very best: Indiana, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
University of Wisconsin Badgers
After winning the 2014 Big Ten Conference Championship, Wisconsin’s one-loss season a year ago wasn’t quite good enough to get the Badgers back into the title game. Ten months later, with a ton of talent back in the fold and a chip on its shoulder, Wisconsin’s goal for the season is simple.
“Our plan is to be back in the Big Ten Championship game,” Head Coach Nic Tyson said.
Tyson welcomes back half a dozen seniors that are now four-year starters at Wisconsin, and it all starts with Hunter and Tyler Crass. The Badger brothers were both All-Conference standouts a season ago, and with Hunter’s move from eight man to joining Tyler in the backs as the team’s inside center could make them even more dangerous this fall.
“Hunter played eight man the last two seasons, but due to depth in the loose forwards we are moving Hunter to the middle of the back line,” explained Tyson. “Hunter played center in high school and has all the ball skills you want from an inside back.”
One reason Tyson has the luxury of moving Hunter Crass out of the back three is the enormous productivity of flanker Gabe Kinzer. Another one of Wisconsin’s four-year starters, describing Kinzer as a nuisance around the breakdown would be an understatement. While Kinzer is the ballhawk in the forwards, Ben Lehrmann is the leader of the forwards. The hooker was an All-Conference selection a year ago and is expected to raise his game to another lever this fall.
Wisconsin does lose Sam Enerson and Jacob Syndergaard from its back line. The now-Wisconsin alumni combined for 14 tries last season, but the team feels like their production can be replaced. Kyle Pedraza, like Hunter Crass, moves from the loose trio to the centers. Matoko Noudehou, who led the team in points in 2015, shifts from the centers to wing, and Dan Pettay will captain the team in the No. 15 jumper.
Even though the Badgers have only dropped two conference matches in the past two seasons, the program has been busy installing new structures on both sides of the ball.
“We are instituting a new offense and defense this fall and we’re excited to see how they pan out,” Tyson said. “There will definitely be some growing pains as we didn’t get the preparation we hoped for, but we expect to improve every game. Our systems should take advantage of our strengths: intelligence, creativity, mobility and fitness.”
The Big Ten Universities Conference season begins Saturday, Sept. 17, when Michigan State takes on Indiana, Wisconsin hosts Purdue, Minnesota travels to Michigan and Illinois battles Iowa. Ohio State, which is celebrating the club’s 50th-year anniversary this weekend and has over a few hundred alumni in town for the festivities, will kick off its conference schedule at home Sept. 24 versus Purdue.