After releasing our Big 10 offensive player of the year predictions a day ago, myself and Chris Cimino have returned to offer up our predictions for the best defenses in the Big 10, along with DPOY picks. Our offensive previews were very similar, as we both agreed that Ohio State and Penn State are the offenses to watch, while the Tanner Morgan-led Minnesota squad is an intriguing third team to keep an eye on. Does the same story ring true on the defensive side of the ball? Let’s check it out.
Once again, both Cimino and I come up with extremely similar rankings when looking at Big 10 defenses. Ohio State is just a beast on the defensive side of the ball, and although I was a little hesitant about placing them over a Penn State defense that returns a lot more production, the recent opt-out of stud linebacker Micah Persons convinced me to slide the Nittany Lions to #2. Shaun Wade is the latest in a series of elite cornerbacks to come out of Ohio State, and he leads the Buckeyes into action in 2020.
Cimino agrees with me at 1-2, but we do differ with our third team. I initially slotted Wisconsin in here, and they are undoubtedly a solid pick. The Badgers boast a stout defense year-in and year-out, and they return a lot of production – headlined by Jack Sanborn, who recorded 5.5 sacks and 3 interceptions in 2019. I went with the Michigan Wolverines for my third best defense, but it was a really tight call. The ultimate deciding factor for me was Michigan’s starpower, as I believe they have two of the best players in the conference in defensive lineman Kwity Paye and cornerback Ambry Thomas. Michigan will be strong on defense, but it may not be enough for them to tip the scales in the Big 10.
Top Defensive Players
Thomas: Shaun Wade, CB, Ohio State Cimino: Shaun Wade, CB, Ohio State
Shaun Wade, CB, Ohio State
Shaun Wade, CB, Ohio State
Kwity Paye, DL, Michigan
Kwity Paye, DL, Michigan
Ambry Thomas, CB, Michigan
George Karlaftis, DL, Purdue
George Karlaftis, DL, Purdue
Paddy Fisher, LB, Northwestern
Jack Sanborn, LB, Wisconsin
Cam McGrone, LB, Michigan
This list has at least a little bit of variation after we appeared to agree on much of our initial sets of rankings. We both like Wade to take home DPOY honors. The Ohio State corner broke up eight passes and intercepted one last season, while playing in a secondary that had two first round picks. He also forced a fumble and had two sacks, and his numbers should explode as the star of Ohio State’s defense in 2020. Paye was the consensus #2 player, returning after a breakout 6.5 sack season. He also recorded 50 tackles and recovered a fumble, and he will be a key cog in Michigan’s defensive gameplan, responsible for causing disruption along the defensive line.
After our top-2, our lists vary slightly. Purdue defensive lineman finds his way into both of our top-5 rankings, sliding in at #3 in Cimino’s list and #4 in my own. I have Michigan cornerback Ambry Thomas checking in as the third best defensive player in the conference, while aforementioned Wisconsin linebacker Jack Sanborn rounds out my list. Cimino goes for a player that may be a slight surprise to some, ranking Paddy Fisher fourth. The Northwestern linebacker will be the anchor of a unit that doesn’t quite look ready for Big 10 contention after a 1-7 record in Big 10 play last season. Cimino also goes with a second Michigan player, opting for linebacker Cam McGrone to fill out his top 5.
Yesterday, we looked at the best and worst atmospheres in each Power 5 conference in college football, and today we’ll do the same on the court, checking in on the best college basketball atmospheres in the power-6 conferences (including the Big East).
Worst Atmosphere: DePaul A really bad team makes it hard to bring in fans, and the Blue Demons exemplify that, with easily the lowest per-game attendance in the Big East. They were just 3-15 in conference play this past season, have not made the NCAA Tournament since 2004, and they’ve had a share of last place in the Big East in ten of the past twelve seasons. Safe to say the student body isn’t exactly coming out in droves for most of their games.
Runner Up: Georgetown
Best Atmosphere: Creighton
It was a tough race at the top for the best atmosphere in the Big East, but the nod goes to the Blue Jays who are in the Big East, despite hailing from Nebraska. Nebraska loves their college sports teams – the Cornhuskers were ranked the top Big 10 football atmosphere yesterday – and Creighton is no exception. It didn’t hurt that Creighton was really good this past season, but as the Blue Jays rallied down the stretch to claim the Big East regular season title, CHI Health Center Arena was roaring in Omaha, led by the notorious “Creighton Blue Crew”.
Runner Up: Marquette
Worst Atmosphere: Washington State
The Cougars are much more of a football school – whether it was Anthony Gordon throwing a million touchdowns, or the iconic Gardner Minshew taking snaps under center, Washington State has had some studs on the gridiron. The same cannot be said on the court, where the Cougars haven’t placed in the NCAA Tournament since 2008. ‘08 was also the last year they posted a winning record in Pac-12 play. Coming of entertaining football seasons, basketball just isn’t much of a product to be watched in comparison.
Runner Up: USC
Best Atmosphere: Arizona The Wildcats have the second-biggest arena by capacity in the Pac-12, yet they were one of just two teams to produce a sellout in 2019, and the only team to record multiple, as Arizona home games saw capacity crowds flood through the gates four times last season. The Wildcats are traditionally a contender for Pac-12 glory, and they’re fans get hyped down there in Tucson. Easy call here.
Runner Up: Washington
Worst Atmosphere: TCU The Horned Frogs aren’t even a top-3 program in their own state, so it’s hard to generate a lot of excitement at their games. Their crowds are among the smallest in the Big 12, which has several teams that just pack crowds into their arenas night after night. It was a battle for the bottom between two Texas programs, and TCU loses out as the worst atmosphere in the Big 12.
Runner Up: Baylor
Best Atmosphere: Kansas
Was there any doubt? Kansas is one of the toughest places to play, and with a horrific football program, gamedays at Allen Fieldhouse is where it is at, if you’re part of Jayhawk nation, or just a fan of great college basketball. The long-time dominant force of the Big 12, Kansas has one of the best homecourt advantages in college sports, backed by a rocking and raucous crowd every night.
Runner Up: Iowa State
Worst Atmosphere: Rutgers We spat all over Rutgers in football, and unfortunately for the Scarlet Knights, we have to the same here. At least in football, they can be considered the best college team in the state (as sad a statement as that is for New Jersey), but they don’t have that notoriety in basketball, as Seton Hall is a far superior team most seasons. Rutgers was actually not horrible this past season, but years of struggles makes any athletic atmosphere less than electric at Rutgers.
Runner Up: Northwestern
Best Atmosphere: Wisconsin
Maybe a bold pick, but the Badgers actually in the Top-5 for average attendance per home game. The Badgers are a few years removed from their era of March magic, making a couple of Final Four runs and beating undefeated Kentucky in 2015, but Wisconsin still packs in fans for home games to cheer on a team that is often in Big 10 championship contention.
Runner Up: Nebraska
Worst Atmosphere: Wake Forest
In a basketball-crazed conference, the Demon Deacons’ consistent struggles on the court struggle to bring fans to their ACC contests, where they are oftentimes uncompetitive. Wake pulls an upset here and there, but they are not consistent enough in their success to entice too many fans to come through the gates.
Runner Up: Boston College
Best Atmosphere: Duke
This is an absolute no-brainer. With a 9,314 seat arena, the Duke Blue Devils pack in 9,314 fans to every home game, with the thundering cheers of the “Cameron Crazies” leading the way. No matter where you sit, you’re close to the action, and you really can’t beat the atmosphere in Durham on gameday, where they also host the biggest rivalry in college basketball once a year.
Runner Up: Virginia
Worst Atmosphere: Texas A&M When basketball season is sandwiched between football at Kyle Allen Field and baseball, where the Aggies have one of the most vocal fanbases, the action on the court tends to play second fiddle to their primary sports. The Aggies don’t have extremely small crowds, but the SEC has some of the best atmospheres in the country, and they simply don’t bring enough tradition to the table to rise out of the cellar.
Runner Up: Ole Miss
Best Atmosphere: Kentucky
The Wildcats have NBA draft lottery talent playing every single year, and fans are bunching together at the gates trying to get into Rupp Arena. One of the most historic programs in the nation, Kentucky is a must-see team on any die-hard college basketball fan’s to-do list.
ESPN updated their 2020 college football projections yesterday, and it raised some major questions. Certain teams slotted in way too high, and a few teams, based on their projections, seem like they would be a smart bet for this upcoming season. As we continue to wait for any announcements regarding this upcoming football season, here’s one take on who was underrated and overrated by ESPN’s FPI projections.
Overrated – Wisconsin I’ll start with the team that I think was the most out of place. In my mind, Wisconsin was a borderline Top-10 team. They lost four games last year, and they lost their most dynamic player in Jonathan Taylor. Yes, two of Wisconsin’s losses game against Ohio State, and another one against Oregon, but they haven’t finished in the Top 5 since 1999. I don’t understand this ranking at all. If you go by the projections, Wisconsin will make the College Football Playoff next year. After a light slate to start the year, Wisconsin embarks on a 3-weeks stretch at Michigan, Notre Dame, and versus Minnesota. No chance.
Underrated – Florida
Kyle Trask is a nice little sleeper Heisman pick, and he’s one of the few decent returning starting quarterbacks in the SEC, especially in the SEC East. If they get past Georgia, there’s no reason to think the Gators can’t win the SEC East. With no clear favorite in the conference, Trask could absolutely help lead Florida to an SEC title, which has been nearly synonymous with a College Football Playoff berth. Yet Florida is ranked 13th? Behind Texas and UCF? Absolute joke.
Overrated – Georgia
Nathaniel wrote about Georgia’s massive draft losses yesterday, but he has a little more optimism about the Bulldogs’ chances than I do. They lost fifteen players to the draft, as well as Jake Fromm. Say what you want about Fromm, but he’s been the only quarterback at the helm during Georgia’s relevance. I don’t like the odds of an ACC quarterback coming in and taking over the SEC. Don’t see it, and I don’t agree with the 5th-best odds that ESPN gifted Kirby Smart’s squad.
Underrated – Notre Dame I mean come on. Notre Dame has been a consistent Top-10 team for a few years now, and they haven’t lost at home in two years. Ian Book returns for his third year as a starter, defensive coordinator Clark Lea always leads an elite-level defense for the Irish, and Brian Kelly’s squad returns his entire starting offensive lineman. Throw in incoming recruit Chris Tyree, new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, and ranking the Irish #15, also behind UCF and Texas, is insane.
Overrated – USC Trojans At #14, Ranking USC anywhere near this list is horrible. Clay Helton has not proven to be an elite level coach, and USC lost some of their major weapons this year. With some controversy in the quarterback room, and a 13-12 record in the past two seasons, the Trojans have no business coming into the Top 15.
Underrated – Clemson
OK if I’m being honest, Florida and Notre Dame were my biggest complaints about the list, but I figured I’d use the final space to just mention Clemson. This team is going to be an absolute monster. With Justyn Ross, Trevor Lawrence, and Travis Etienne returning, Dabo Swinney still at the helm, and their traditionally dominant defense, along with playing in the ACC, Clemson is primed for another 12-0 regular season. And while obviously LSU came out of nowhere, it took one of the greatest college football teams of all time to take down Lawrence and the Tigers, and I don’t see it happening this year. They are ranked #1 with an 81% chance to make the Playoff. Seems like an understatement to me.
The Setup A year after upsetting Xavier in the Round of 32 as a 2-seed, Wisconsin entered this Sweet 16 match-up as an 8-seed, fresh off of stunning the #1 overall seed and defending champs, Villanova. The Badgers once again had put forth an underwhelming regular season effort, but their postseason pedigree was flexing its muscles again in March, as the Badgers looked to get back to the Elite Eight against Florida. Meanwhile, the Gators were making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014, but Florida was looking for yet another deep run. The Gators had marched to the Elite Eight in their prior four March Madness showings, and in six of their past seven, going back to 2006. They had no issues in their first two outings in the NCAA Tournament, dropping Eastern Tennessee State by 15 and Virginia by 26 to move on to the Sweet 16.
How it went down The latter portions of this game were so breathtakingly exciting that we won’t hover too much over the early portions of the contest. Wisconsin got the early jump and led comfortably for much of the first half, taking their largest lead of 11 points at 24-13 with 8:12 to play in the half. Florida closed the gap to 29-22 and then ended the half on a 12-3 run to claim a 34-32 halftime advantage. Florida jumped out in front to start the second half, but as was the theme of the game ,Wisconsin fought back, edging back in front at 53-52. However, the Gators ripped off a 16-3 run to seemingly seize control of the game, leading 68-56 with 5:24 to play. Although Florida couldn’t hit a shot for the rest of regulation, making only four free throws, the Badgers took a long time cutting into the Gators’ lead. With 1:44 to play, Florida still led 72-64. Bronson Koenig – hero of the Xavier game a year ago – knocked down a triple, and Ethan Happ made a layup to bring Wisconsin within three points with 44 seconds left. Wisconsin forced a turnover and got the ball back with 18 seconds to play, but they were forced to call a timeout with six ticks remaining on the clock. It worked out for the Badgers, who inbounded to Zak Showalter who banged home a game-tying three with 2.1 seconds left, forcing overtime. Florida’s offensive drought continued into overtime, where they made just one free throw in the first 3:26 seconds, making it 8 minutes and 50 seconds of game time between field goals. Eventually, down 80-75 with a minute to play, the Gators kicked it into high gear. Kevaughn Allen drove down the lane for an easy layup, and then after Wisconsin free throw, Canyon Barry drained a pair of shots from the charity stripe to bring Florida within two points. Barry raced back down the court and blocked a layup attempt, leading to Florida’s game-tying layup with 24 seconds to play. Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes drove and got fouled with four seconds left, sinking both free throws. Florida needed to go the full length of the court, but that’s what they did, inbounding to Chris Chiozza, who raced up the court and somehow got somewhat free for an off-balance three from the top of the key. The shot was money, as it swished cleanly through, handing Florida an absolutely thrilling 84-83 overtime victory, sending the Gators on to the Elite Eight.
The Aftermath Florida’s exhilarating buzzer-beater was the peak of their tournament, as the Gators could not trump two straight Cinderella squads. In the Elite Eight, they fell to SEC foe and seventh-seeded South Carolina by a final score of 77-70. Florida has been back in the tournament both years since this game, but they exited in the Round of 32 both times. This loss officially ended the glory years of Wisconsin. They made at least the Sweet 16 in four straight years and six of seven, including two runs to the Final Four. They had made two consecutive inspired underdog runs, but the Badgers’ magic ended in 2018, when they failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. They made in back in 2019, but they were served an unceremonious exit in the Round of 64.
The Setup Xavier entered the 2016 NCAA Tournament as a 2-seed, a well-deserved ranking after a 28-6 season and 2-place finish in the Big East. The Musketeers handled their business in the Round of 64, cruising past Weber State, 71-53. However, Xavier still had a lot of pressure on their shoulders, as they had struggled to reach the next level recently, not making an appearance in the Elite Eight since 2008 – despite three Sweet 16 appearances in that time. Gifted a 2-seed in this tournament, the pressure was on for Xavier to take the next step. Wisconsin meanwhile began the tournament as a very dangerous 7th seed. They had made consecutive Final Four runs, and they were just a year removed from ending Kentucky’s 38-0 season before falling short in the national championship. With plenty of tournament pedigree, their 7-seed was just a number that didn’t seem to accurately reflect the potency of the Badgers in 2016; rather it was a result of a relatively underwhelming 22-13 season, their worst regular season record since 2009.
How it went down Xavier did not score for the first 3 minutes and 53 seconds of game time, but Wisconsin could barely take advantage, clawing their way to just a 6-0 lead. When Myles Davis hit a three-pointer, Xavier was immediately back within one possession. Wisconsin led by as many as nine points, but they could not stave off Xavier’s offense, and a few cold spells left them vulnerable to a rally, as the Musketeers came back to take the lead with three minutes to go, maintaining a 33-30 edge into the locker room. The beginning of the second half was as even as it could be, with neither team leading by more than three points until Xavier began to slowly seize control with a little under nine minutes remaining. Davis knocked down a pair of free throws for a 53-49, and the Musketeers extended that advantage to 58-49, but Wisconsin’s game-ending surge then began. The comeback was a gradual one, but the Badgers slowly carved away at their deficit, shaving off a couple points here and there. With 2:09 left, Wisconsin got back within two points courtesy of an Ethan Happ layup. Down three with 13 seconds left, Bronson Koenig rose up and drilled a three-pointer to tie the game at 63 points apiece, leaving Xavier with a chance to win it. However, the Musketeers were whistled for an offensive foul, and Wisconsin called a timeout with two seconds remaining and the ball at midcourt. Happ found Koenig on the inbounds pass, and Koenig took a dribble towards the right corner before elevating for a contested triple. He buried the shot right in front of the Wisconsin bench, sending the Badgers into a frenzy and onto the Sweet 16.
The Aftermath Wisconsin’s dreams of a third straight Final Four died in the Sweet 16 at the hands of sixth-seeded Notre Dame, as the Irish got two steals and layups in the final seconds to pull ahead. The Badgers would return to the Sweet 16 next year, marking the sixth time they had advanced that four in seven years. Wisconsin has not won a tournament game since appearing in the 2017 Sweet 16, losing in the Round of 64 in their one appearance. Xavier finally got over some of their postseason demons in 2017 in extremely unlikely fashion. Xavier entered after a mediocre 9-9 Big East record, and they were given an 11-seed, which the Musketeers took and ran all the way to the Elite Eight before succumbing there. The year after, Xavier was a top seed and lost in the Round of 32, leading to the departure of coach Chris Mack.
The college football season just ended, and so while we will largely turn our attention to basketball and hockey, here’s our end of season Power Rankings of Non-CFP teams. We did it this way so as to avoid having a virtually unanimous top 3 teams. After combining our votes, here is our final non-CFP Top 10 football power rankings.
The Bears came up short in some of their biggest games, but never by much. They led Oklahoma 28-3 in one game before losing, and they took the Sooners to OT in the Big 12 championship. They were competitive against Georgia in their bowl game, but ultimately, their struggles to claim a signature win kept them out of the top 10.
#10 – Memphis
The Tigers fell in the Cotton Bowl to Penn State, don’t let that distract you from what they did to an elite defense. Memphis slapped 39 points on the board, eleven more than any other opponent scored against the Nittany Lions. Ohio State put up 28 points. Memphis scored 39. After a season-opening 15-10 win over Ole Miss, Memphis never put up less than 28 points all year, losing one regular season game by 2 points. They finished the year with consective wins over a ranked Cincinnati team to win their conference title and secure a berth in the Cotton Bowl. What a season for the Tigers.
#9 – Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish fell short of expectations in some regards, but also put together a strong season. Road games against Georgia and Michigan were regarded as their toughest games, and sure enough the Irish faltered in both, including a horrible blowout loss to the Wolverines. But after the Michigan game, the Irish looked like one of the best teams in the nation, winning their final five games by an average of 28 points, including a 32-point victory over a Navy team that finished in the top 20. Only two of their 11 wins were closer than 15 points, indicating that the Irish were finally beginning to dominate teams they should dominate, but their letdowns in their biggest games keep them from being higher on the list.
#8 – Minnesota
It was a razor-thin margin between the Gophers and their Outback Bowl victims in Auburn, but the Gophers fell a point shy of making that happen in our polls. Minnesota had an extremely impressive year, and neither their bowl win or their win over Penn State should be ignored. But the Gophers were also beaten handily by Iowa and smoked by Wisconsin. These blowout losses really knocked the Gophers out of the national picture after they gained respect by beating Penn State. A really impressive season from Minnesota, and they’ll definitely look to be contending for a Big 10 title in the near future.
#7 – Auburn
Ultimately, it seems Auburn just really doesn’t care about bowl games. They are 2-5 in postseason games under Gus Malzahn (including a BCS championship loss), a record that now includes losses to lower ranked opponents like Minnesota and UCF. However, everything else Auburn did was extremely impressive. They held Joe Burrow to 23 points, which is basically a better achievement than a shutout against any other offense. They played Georgia and Florida, and they beat Oregon and Alabama, and at College Station against Texas A&M. All in all, it was a very good season from the Tigers, but they’ll look to qualify for the Playoff next year – maybe then we’ll see the real Auburn Tigers show up in the postseason.
#6 – Wisconsin
Two four-loss teams make our Top-7, which may be surprising, but they’re both extremely good squads. Two of Wisconsin’s losses were to Ohio State – including the Big 10 championship, when they became the only team all year to lead the Buckeyes at halftime. While one loss was an inexplicable defeat to Illinois, their fourth was a 1-point bowl game loss to Oregon. They handled Iowa, throttled Michigan, and dominated Minnesota on the road to claim a spot in the Big 10 title game. Three very impressive victories and a strong finish to the regular season outweigh three really tough losses and one weird one, giving the Badgers the #6 spot her.
#5 – Florida
The Gators were the only team to lead LSU in the second half at any point this season. And considering LSU also played Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Alabama, and Auburn – that is a really impressive statistic. They took down Auburn, dominated Florida State for a second straight year, and earned a few other impressive victories, including at Kentucky and at Missouri. Kyle Trask stepped up as the team’s signal caller and was very strong under center for the Gators, who polished off their season with a second straight New Years’ 6 bowl win, albeit as a heavy favorite versus Virginia. The next step is overcoming Georgia in the SEC East and making the Playoff for the Gators, they’re running out other ways to impress us.
#4 – Penn State
The Nittany Lions were in a dead heat with the Gators for the fourth spot, so we took out their lowest ranking for each team in the poll to decide, and Penn State edged out Florida by one point. We mentioned some of Penn State’s defensive exploits in the Memphis excerpt, as the Nittany Lions held Ohio State to 28 points, their lowest total of the year prior to the Playoff. They showed their ability to win ugly (17-12 over Iowa) and in a shootout (53-39 over Memphis), which is key for any team with championship aspirations. The Nittany Lions may very well have been a playoff team without their slip up at Minnesota, and they’ll have their eyes on taking the next step in 2020.
#3 – Georgia
It feels difficult to laud the Bulldogs, as they haven’t really done anything unusual by their standards. They had a very impressive 11-1 regular season with statement wins over Auburn, Florida, and Notre Dame, but they also had an awful home loss to South Carolina, who finished 4-8. And ultimately, the Bulldogs fell short in the SEC again, and this time they weren’t even competitive, losing 37-10 to LSU. To be fair, LSU was a buzzsaw this year, but Georgia feels like they’ve been at the same level for 3-4 years now, and it’s time to take the next step. Finishing sixth or seventh in the country is not their goal, especially a couple of years removed from being three points shy of a national title.
#2 – Alabama (1 first place vote)
I don’t think anyone bought the fact that the Crimson Tide were only the 12th best team in the country heading into bowl season. They more or less proved that point by laying a 35-16 beatdown on Michigan in the Citrus Bowl, shutting out the Wolverines in the second half. It was hard to rank them higher than 8th in the AP Poll, as Alabama really didn’t beat any other very good teams. Their Texas A&M win was their next best victory, so it was hard to justify moving up past Georgia, Oregon, and even Oklahoma, who beat Baylor twice. However, the Crimson Tide have never gone three years without winning a championship under Nick Saban – is 2021 the year for ‘Bama?
#1 – Oregon
I think a lot of people really wanted Oregon in the Playoff simply because, outside of a befuddling loss to Arizona State, the Ducks just looked like one of the best teams in the country. After their season-opening loss to Auburn, Oregon gave up 25 points in their next five games. And when Pac-12 offenses began to challenge their defense, Justin Herbert rose to the occasion, averaging about 30 points per game in conference play. Herbert finished his year with a gutsy performance in the Rose Bowl, rushing for three touchdowns and proving his ability to win without his best game, taking down a very impressive Wisconsin team. Oregon may have been the fourth best team in the country outside the Big 3, but due to an unforgivingly rigid Playoff Structure, they had to settle for being #1 in the non-CFP teams rankings.