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You’re Nuts: Who is the biggest surprise in the Big Ten thus far?

Which teams have surprised to this point — for better or worse?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Louisiana at Minnesota Photo by Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.

In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.

This week’s topic: Who is the biggest surprise in the Big Ten thus far?

Josh’s Take

We are roughly one month into the 2023 college football season, and I think it is fair to say that the lack of major surprises has been rather... surprising? I mean, sure, Alabama playing 1930’s-style football and LSU and Clemson losing two games (each) might not have been on your September BINGO card, but for the most part, we as fans have not been entirely caught off guard by what is going on around the country. The biggest ‘shocker’ thus far is or probably has been Colorado, but thankfully, that hype train seems to be slowing down significantly.

And yes, I said thankfully. Both Colorado football and the Taylor Swift-Travis Kelce romance could disappear from the general zeitgeist for a long, long time, and I would not be remotely upset. Seriously, I see ‘Coach Prime’ and Kelce’s mustache more than I see my family. It’s exhausting. Maybe I’ll come around if Colorado beats a decent team. Or Kelce dates a real popstar.

**Shake it off, Swifties. I’m just kidding. I don’t want any bad blood.

Anyway, let’s get back to what we’re here for: You’re Nuts. My intro turned into a venting session before I could bring up or point out that, yes, there have been a few mildly surprising developments throughout the world of CFB. Specifically in a conference that is near and dear to Gene and I’s hearts: The 14-team, but soon-to-be 18-team Big Ten. The giants (Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State) are still standing, but the rest of the conference’s teams have achieved mixed results. Some good, some bad, some fairly surprising. Which is the topic of the day. So without further ado...

My biggest Big Ten surprise thus far is the two B1G teams in Illinois having identical records through five games — and the possibility that Northwestern might be the better of the two! The Wildcats and the Fighting Illini are both 2-3, with NW boasting a conference victory (to Illinois’ zero). Not only that, but the program many left for dead due to a hazing scandal also has better wins and arguably less-embarrassing losses. What world are we living in!?

Oh, that’s right, a world in which Bert (Bret) Bielema coaches college football. Maybe we should have seen this coming, though, because Ol’ Bert has a sub-.500 record since his days at Wisconsin. He lost what made these Fighting Illini special in 2022, which was the combination of Ryan Walters and a tremendous secondary. Left to his own devices, Bielema was going to struggle to replicate last season’s success. But Illinois should still be better than Northwestern!

Instead, Illinois’ only two victories have come over Toledo and Florida Atlantic, by a combined eight points. And Walters, the team’s former defensive coordinator, just dogwalked his former boss and squad by 25 (points). Which means the Fighting Illini are now 0-2 in conference play, after having been outscored by a total of 74-32... Gross.

Northwestern, on the other hand, has a pulse! I honestly expected the Wildcats to go 2-10. And they still might. But with Howard coming up this weekend, I now fully expect this team to triple their win total from a year ago. Embarrassing as that might seem or sound to us outsiders, I actually think that this 2023 season has already been a huge, huge win for the NW program. Credit to David Braun and company, no jokes or sarcasm from me.

In all likelihood, Illinois will cobble a season together — primarily due to a weak schedule —and Northwestern will struggle to win a handful of games. But for now, it is surprising to watch one program (U of I) fumble momentum, while the other (NW) makes lemonade out of rotten, wretched lemons. I can’t say that I never saw this coming in my wildest dreams, but I am quite taken aback by Bielema playing the anti-hero, while Braun motivates his guys after a cruel summer.

That’ll do it for me, Gene. I am interested to see how you fill your blank space.

Gene’s Take

While I do not under any circumstances condone my counterpart’s use of Taylor Swift puns, I echo in his sentiments that Northwestern is one of the surprises of the early season in the Big Ten. The Wildcats aren’t going to compete for a division title by any means, but that is a program that some believed could actually go winless on the year if things broke wrong. Those players deserve better than the raw hand they’ve been given, and it’s good to see them able to get some form of enjoyment out of this season — even if it’ll be short-lived.

Unfortunately for me, my biggest surprise comes at my own expense, as the team that, in my opinion, has been perhaps the most disappointing in the conference based on its potential is none other than Minnesota, whom I picked as a dark horse Big Ten contender in a preseason edition of ‘You’re Nuts’.

At the time, I had said the following about the Golden Gophers’ offense in 2023:

“For seemingly a decade we watched an offense built around Mo Ibrahim and Tanner Morgan, and while Ibrahim was one heck of a running back, I’m interested what that offense can do with former four-star prospect Athan Kaliakmanis at the helm. The big-armed QB will have a strong group of wide receivers at his disposal as well, with Chris Autman-Bell returning alongside last year’s leading pass-catcher Daniel Jackson and Western Michigan transfer Corey Crooms Jr.”

It turns out Tanner Morgan and Mo Ibrahim were pretty damn important to anything P.J. Fleck’s group wants to do, as the current group currently ranks 97th in FBS in scoring offense at 24 points per game. Kaliakmanis has not lived up to the hype, tossing only five touchdowns with four picks through five games, while Jackson and Crooms Jr. are the only players with more than 100 receiving yards on the team. Jackson also has four of the team’s five TDs through the air. Running back Darius Taylor has been the lone bright spot of the unit, rushing for 532 yards on 6.1 yards per carry and four scores, but he isn’t enough alone to keep the boat rowing.

I did, however, mention then that Minnesota had a lot to replace from a defense that ranked No. 4 nationally in 2022, allowing only 13.8 points per game. That concern has come to fruition, as the Gophers rank 45th thus far, allowing 21.6 points per game. Last year’s leading tackler Cody Lindenberg was expected to lead this unit, but the linebacker has missed each of the first five games with an injury suffered in preseason camp. Guys like Maverick Baranowski, Jack Henderson and Darius Green have all risen to the occasion, but the group as a whole has taken a big step back.

As a result, Minnesota has struggled. They managed to barely knock off a Nebraska team that was dominated by Colorado, and after cobbling together a win against Eastern Michigan, the Gophers lost 31-13 to UNC. They followed up that performance by blowing a 31-10 fourth quarter lead against Northwestern, losing to the Wildcats 37-34 in overtime. They bounced back with an 11-point win at home over Louisiana, but things have not come easy for Minnesota even against overmatched teams, and it won’t get any easier this coming weekend against Michigan.

I thought the Gophers’ season finale against Wisconsin could prove to be a de facto play-in game for the Big Ten Championship, but with a conference loss already on the ledger, they could very well add four more before they face the Badgers, with Michigan, Iowa, Purdue and Ohio State all on the schedule — the latter three all being road games. This offense doesn’t have enough juice to stay competitive against the better teams on the docket, especially with wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell still sidelined with an injury, and the defense isn’t at the same caliber as the 2022 team that finished 9-4 on the strength of that side of the ball.

There is still time to turn it around, but with injuries abound, an underperforming quarterback and an unfavorable schedule, I’m not feeling very good about my Big Ten dark horse candidate.