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You’re Nuts: ‘Behind Enemy Lines’ - Dark horse Big Ten contenders

Which non-Ohio State/Michigan team could compete for a B1G title in 2023?


From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about checking in on Ohio State’s opponents. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”Behind Enemy Line” articles here.

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: Which Big Ten team is a dark horse to compete in 2023?

Josh’s Take

This week’s content theme on LGHL is Behind Enemy Lines, where the staff pays homage to the 2001 action movie in which Owen Wilson plays a naval flight officer who is shot down over Bosnia and helps put an end to various war crimes... Wait, Gene, that can’t be right. I think I got my wires crossed.

Now I’ve got it. This is actually the week during which our staff takes a look at non-TUN teams on Ohio State’s 2023 football schedule. But if you are taking suggestions for next July, I would definitely keep that Owen Wilson one in mind. I have a lot of Drillbit Taylor material I believe people would find riveting.

In all seriousness, it feels like we are really (finally!) starting to turn our attention toward the upcoming football season. It has been a long six months since the 2022 season ended, and I am at the point where Sept. 2 can't come soon enough. I am more than ready to start breaking down the Buckeyes’ opponents, starting with Indiana. But for the purposes of this You’re Nuts piece, I think that Gene and I are both going to leave IU out of it.

At least I certainly hope Gene does, otherwise I’m not sure I’m working with a stable partner.

My former co-host and I decided to go behind enemy lines by picking and quickly previewing a darkhorse Big Ten contender. And we’re not talking TTUN or Penn State. No, Gene and I are looking at deep, deep sleepers that could potentially put an end to the dominance of OSU and TTUN.

To get things started, I am actually going to go off the board. Shocking, I know. Technically speaking, we should be talking about Ohio State’s 2023 regular season opponents — teams that we know the Scarlet and Gray will face. But I am choosing to take advantage of a loophole. Which is: The existence of a Big Ten Championship Game. A game that will, for one more season, feature a winner from (both) the East and West divisions.

So OSU could absolutely play the team that I have chosen in Indianapolis on Dec. 2, even though they are not currently listed on the Buckeyes’ schedule. For that reason, I feel that I am well within my right to pick them.

The team I am referring to is the Iowa Hawkeyes. Which is funny, because for nearly three years now, I have trashed Iowa football. I have said that their coach is essentially a complacent college professor with tenure, that his son’s role or status is the definition of blatant, unfair nepotism, and that fans of the team should protest each and every day the two of them carpool to work together. But ya know what? The Hawkeyes might not suck in 2023!

I actually believe in Iowa to make a run this season, primarily because of their defense, which returns several studs. Yes, Lukas Van Ness and Riley Moss are gone, but the Hawkeyes get a million guys back on the defensive line, they added a perennial 100-tackle linebacker from the transfer portal in Nick Jackson (Virginia), and Mr. Pick Six himself, Cooper DeJean will be locking down one side of the field.

Not only that, but I think safety and former five-star recruit Xavier Nwankpa could develop into an All-Big Ten defender. Oh, and I am just always going to be bullish on a Phil Parker-coached defense. One should expect another strong from performance from his group in 2023.

On the other side of the ball, Iowa might have an actual, living, breathing, functioning quarterback this season. How about that!? No offense to Spencer Petras, because B-Ri Ferentz did him no favors, but the Hawkeyes stood no real chance with him taking snaps. And while he is technically still in the picture for a sixth season (why??), former TUN QB Cade McNamara is expected to start in Iowa City. The latter lost his job to J.J. McCarthy last season but is still a considerable upgrade over Petras.

Behind McNamara will be two solid running backs in Kaleb Johnson and Leshon Williams. Iowa also returns their leading ‘receiver’ Nico Ragaini, as well as tight end Luke Lachey, who is of course the son of former Ohio State legend Jim Lachey. The Hawkeyes’ weapons might not be on par with those in Columbus, however, they did steal one from the Scarlet and Gray in WR Kaleb Brown. He and with Charleston Southern transfer Seth Anderson will give McNamara a few more explosive options in the passing game.

If Iowa finds a way to score 24-28 points per game, watch out. Because that defense is going to be nasty, and they will (likely) not be required to win a bunch of shootouts. The Hawkeyes avoid both OSU and TTUN during the regular season, arguably putting them in the driver’s seat of the B1G West. And Gene, that last little nugget is actually a very big deal. So do not be surprised if the Fighting Ferentzes are already making reservations for Indy.

Gene’s Take

It’s hard to pick a dark horse contender in the Big Ten with the way the conference is currently constructed. It’s no secret that the East is the significantly stronger of the two soon-to-be-defunct divisions, and so while there are some good teams in the middle of the pack on that side of the league, nobody is quite powerful enough to overcome the Ohio State/Michigan/Penn State triumvirate.

Could a team like Maryland surprise some folks and win a few games they shouldn’t? Sure. Will it be enough for them to legitimately compete for a B1G title if they can't beat any of the other three? Not really.

So, for my dark horse I’ll be taking my talents to the West. Wisconsin can hardly be considered a ‘sleeper’, as Luke Fickell’s Badgers have the best odds to win the Big Ten outside of the big three and are the favorites to win the West. The Hawkeyes’ have the next best odds in the division behind them, so since Josh is — somewhat surprisingly — putting his long shot faith in the Ferentz Boyz™️, I will have to dig a bit deeper.

Illinois might be a bit of a trendy pick in the West because of what they were able to do last year under Bret Bielema, but the Illinis are now without Chase Brown, Tommy DeVito, and Devon Witherspoon in addition to defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, so I’m out. Instead, I think I’m going to find myself a little bit more north with P.J. Fleck and the gang at Minnesota.

I think the Golden Gophers are a worthy dark horse if no other reason than they will finally have a new look to them. 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.

The defense was solid last year, ranking No. 4 in the nation in scoring defense at 13.8 points per game. However, they lose a lot of that production, so as is the case on offense, they will need some fresh faces to make things happen. They’ve got some good young pieces seemingly ready to do just that, as safety Darius Green and cornerback Justin Walley have both shown flashes. Cody Lindenberg will be one of the mainstays in the middle as well, as the senior linebacker finished second on the team with 71 tackles a year ago.

One last added bonus for Minnesota is that it gets to face off head-to-head against Wisconsin in the final game of the regular season, where they will be the home team in a potential Big Ten Championship play-in game if everything else breaks well for the Gophers. I’m not ready to place a futures bet on Fleck’s gang just yet, but they could be a sneaky team to look out for in the B1G.