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Big Ten Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes for 2019

J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State Buckeyes Football

J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State Buckeyes Football

It's not easy getting college football coaches to honestly comment on another coach, player or team. Most coaches don't want to give opposing teams bulletin board material, which is why there is a lot of coach speak or overused cliches used during the year.

In order to get an accurate assessment of teams heading into 2019, Athlon asked coaches in the Big Ten to talk anonymously about their opponents.

Note: These scouting reports come directly from coaching staffs and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.

Big Ten Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes for 2019


"They've struggled a lot the last couple years, but there's a good chance they turn it around and put up a winning season soon. This isn't a Rutgers or Maryland type deal. You can watch their tape and see what they want to do. They've just been outmatched almost everywhere."

College Football Rankings: Illinois

"Offensively, you're going to get a lot of spread run game. They've shifted what they're doing. We were really impressed with how they run the football. They didn't have what you could consider to be a 'dynamic' back like you see in this league, but they have a really sound attack. And all of them are back this year. That's probably where they're the deepest. The line works very well together, good planning, good execution there."

"Defensively, they're fairly simple. Lovie (Smith) comes from an NFL background — it's a lot of man coverage or Cover-2. They'll switch it up a little bit, but it's been easy to figure them out. It's easy to figure out what you want to run against them, because they're not going to get exotic, and they don't have the personnel to challenge you one on one."

"For as bad as they've been, they've done a really good job recruiting too. The school is committed to a really long-term rebuild with Lovie; you don't really see that much at our level." 


"You hate playing this team. They're always competitive; they're always fighting back and staying in games even when they're down."

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"They've been decent offensively, and they can scare you with their tempo if your guys aren't locked in." 

"They've got some nice young backs and a quarterback (Peyton Ramsey) that can really give them a chance. They're changing OCs, and the guy from Fresno (Kalen DeBoer) should change some things up."

"They've had trouble finding the right QB to build a program around. A lot of us thought the other QB, Michael Penix Jr., could be that guy, but he tore his ACL. He was probably their best talent at the position."

"Defensively they're giving up too many points. They're bad against big plays; you can take the top off on them. The line loses a lot. It's going be a tough year for Tom Allen, but he's sort of a magician at finding good defenses with bad rosters."

"Being in the Big Ten East doesn't help them at all when you're trying to build from scratch. It's why they've been stuck right at five wins."

"Allen is highly respected and really well connected in the state. He's doing a great job recruiting in state, even against Purdue, who really has it going. And it's not an easy place to recruit top-level guys to. It's just not a program with an identity when you get outside of that state. It's a basketball school."


"One of the most consistent identities in college football under Kirk Ferentz. You know what you're getting. They've really got a great O-line pedigree, second only to Wisconsin, that doesn't get as much attention as some other schools."

College Football Rankings: Iowa Football

"They're old, old school on offense. They make the old NFL offense work because it's not something you see a lot — two backs, two tight ends."

"They're smart in that they're aware of what they can do best with the personnel. They'll run, run, run and then dump play actions to a tight end and kill you. The last few years, we've seen them run their offense through their tight ends."

"They're a slow pace team and want to wear you out. But if you get a lead on them, you can cut off a lot of their attack. They're not built to come back on you. Some of that is they've struggled to run as effectively as they used to against top-level teams. They've declined in that area recently."

"You can find mismatches against them defensively because of the talent. They're big up front; they had three guys over 6'5" on their line last year. They can get their hands up and block passing lanes. They're not overly athletic at linebacker or in the secondary. You can find mismatches there and hurt them."

"When they get you at their place and you turn the ball over a little bit, they'll eat you alive."

"They’re solid at Iowa. You don’t see the elite athletes there. They’re more consistent than Nebraska has been, but you never see that caliber athlete on their roster that Nebraska can recruit. They want to get creative in the way they lean on you."

Related: Big Ten Football Predictions for 2019


"Expect a lot of change and a lot of figuring it out as they go. With everything those kids have gone through as a program, there's more than a summer's worth of work to get the culture right."

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"When Matt Canada was there, they did a lot of his typical stuff running shifts and motions, and it worked pretty well because they have athletes. It's a more talented team than you would expect; they've just had horrible culture problems. You could see them playing with emotion last year, which is great when you're up, but they'd crash too."

"The QB position needs to be better. (Virginia Tech transfer) Josh Jackson might be the winner; he's built for what they want to do."

"Don't look at Alabama for a blueprint, that's not really a good comparison because the talent is so much different. When Mike Locksley was at Illinois with Juice Williams, that's closer to what you might see — spread out, lots of read plays, and that was really missing in Canada's offense, getting an athletic quarterback out in the run game."

"The defense needs a fresh start. The front is bad, they need a lot of work. The DC (Jon Hoke) is an NFL guy. It will be interesting to see how they come out early."

"They're not Rutgers. They can get in on kids. Even at their worst these last few years, they're getting guys to visit campus that other top schools want." 

Related: College Football's Breakout Running Backs for 2019


"Shea Patterson helped change the identity of the team. You can't oversell what his play style did for Michigan. But what will the changes really be on offense? Are they truly going to embrace the spread with (new OC) Josh Gattis? It's hard to see Jim Harbaugh doing that, but they have the right personnel to do it. Even with the changes last year they were still pretty close to that Stanford, 22 personnel stuff Harbaugh has always done."

College Football Top 25: Michigan

"A lot of coaches think they still want to grind you out and don't want to embrace the change. They've done a great job recruiting on offense; they can switch to a full on spread and score a lot this season. It's not even a major change — it was just that you had to scout and respect that the kid could pull it and run, or just the threat of it."

"Defensively, they're tough. Absolutely one of the best and meanest defenses in college football. There's enough skill and enough buy-in where they can do a lot of different things. If you don't have athleticism they're going to wear you out. They're high pressure, lots of blitz and play man coverage almost all the time."

"Ohio State has had their number, but that's because they're the only ones who have the talent to go one on one against that man coverage. Ohio State was athletic enough to pick and rub and beat them at their game."

"You have to look at the progress outside of those Ohio State games. They’ve built really well and they’re in position to keep it going."

Related: College Football Top 130 Team Rankings for 2019

Michigan State

"This is a program that's never as bad as their record. That being said, the change in the division is starting to show, and they can't dominate when the big three are clicking like they have been."

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Michigan State

"I think at their best MSU is similar to Iowa, but they have better athletes. They're going to work you and grind you like a lot of those West Division teams, and maybe that's the best identity when you're a have-not program in the East."

"They play physically on offense; they play mad. They go all in on the chip on your shoulder, from recruiting all the way to game day."

"Offensively they're a basic two-back run game, but they've been more creative about trick plays and throwing weird looks at you. But they haven't been as dominant running the football as they have in years past."

"There’s no dominant big guy at tailback. They’ve really underwhelmed at that position the last few years."

"They're a little more open offensively than some of the grinder teams, but that's because they pull a little bit better talent at skill positions. The best player on that team was Felton Davis. They've got real athletes at receiver, but he was special. When you take him out of that offense, I don't think they win nearly as many games last year."

"They're really good on their defensive line, really good with the defensive backs. Defensively is where they set the tone."

"They're still able to compete because they do a great job evaluating and developing."

"They want to beat you up right away in games. They want to get really physical, really press you on the line with their defensive backs. They play extremely hard out there, like a less talented team trying to compensate, but they have the speed and the length." 


"The culture looks like it's working. They were a very different team on the field from '17 to '18. In '17 you could see them, player by player, figuring out if they were all the way bought in on the systems and the attitudes."

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"You get the sense coaching against him that P.J. Fleck is more of the new CEO type of college head coach than a pure X's and O's, but if he's recruiting and motivating that talent there's a place for that. You saw that toward the end of last season — all of sudden those players saw success on the field and started really playing their ass off, playing above their ability."

"They're fairly simple offensively. They're very big up front. They're a big zone team, they want to cover you up and let the backs find their creases. But that O-line makes holes. They're stout dudes."

"I think defensively they're doing a good job, but they don't have the personnel."

"They need to settle on a starting QB right away and get consistency there. Is it going to be Tanner Morgan? He was better than we expected down the stretch last year."

"The change in defensive coordinators showed a lot. Once they switched, they played a lot harder, a lot more simple stuff after the change."

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"They're recruiting better than that program ever has. They need to find a way to put that on the field with their defense, especially with the cold-weather atmosphere."

"They return a lot of guys on both sides, the real question there is the new assistants. It’s a little strange when you have a big “culture” guy like PJ to rotate that many assistants early on at P5 job. That shows a sense of urgency to get it right."


"Still an ongoing project, but they're the conference's most talked-about team in recruiting."

Nebraska's college football logo

"Scott Frost is going to get it turned around. He's already set the tone, you can tell right away. That's a different team in terms of behavior and attitude on the sidelines. We noticed it immediately."

"Offensively, they're going to have more consistent playmakers this year. They're going to have more speed than you would expect from Nebraska in recent years."

"The QB (Adrian Martinez) is a hell of a player. He's going to improve a lot over a true freshman year of being thrown into bad situations. As long as that kid's at Nebraska, they're going to be a problem in the West. They're real thin behind him — they're thin at most positions, which is why they're still a work in progress."

"They love to use the spread run game as a base and get creative from there."

"It’s a great offense to counter the rest of that division. They take that natural team speed and start disguising their looks to get the ball in the best player’s hands. Lots of different positions and motions. When they’re able to get the right guy out in space, that’s what they do best and they’re dangerous."

"They struggled a lot on defense, and they're still building it back. They need an identity. That's what separates a talented roster or a high-scoring team from a Northwestern or Wisconsin. You need a defense that can make it ugly."

"We see them out in recruiting showing in places they haven't in decades. That's the ability to score some points right away and promise immediate playing time in the Big Ten."

Related: College Football's Top 25 Breakout Quarterbacks for 2019


"They're not the smart school football team, they're the physical one. They play you harder than any team in this conference."

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"They're smart as hell and disciplined, but they're successful because they genuinely like to play physical football. Turn the film on every single year that (Pat) Fitzgerald has been there. They play their butts off. That's their secret."

"They don't have elite speed at receiver, so they do a great job with mesh routes and short-yardage stuff. (Clayton) Thorson was such a good rhythm guy that they could dink and dunk you all the way down the field. Not a dangerous team passing the ball, though."  

"They're great at inside zone when they run, and the backs have always been solid. Not guys who blow you away, but they work in their system."

"On defense, they're always going to be basic in scheme, but they're so assignment sound. They've done a good job of building their guys up to have size up front." 

"(Paddy) Fisher is one of the better linebackers in the Big Ten. They're gonna be physical in the secondary and play a lot of press."

"They've come a long way from where Northwestern used to be. They're going to stay at the top of a division that's getting better top to bottom. This is a program everyone expects to fall back except other coaching staffs. They've got a great facility now they can recruit to."

"The “smart school” thing is that they’re always going to be in the right place against you. They force you to beat them one on one and they play really assignment sound football. It’s scary because now they’re starting to recruit better. Adding better athletes to that technique is a game changer."

Ohio State

"No one expects this team to take a step back because Urban Meyer left. They showed how good they can be without him. Expect that level of execution from the three-game suspension period. They weren't a different team in terms of what they called — they called the exact same stuff later on — but they had energy. Ryan (Day) was already evolving the play calling before he got the head job."

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Ohio State

"They're really just two hiccups away from the Playoff these last two years, Purdue and Iowa. Those two games are the difference for them making the Playoff back to back."

"Defensively, they were good up front, but they didn't have the secondary play last year that you expect from OSU. There's no Marcus Lattimore. There's no Eli Apple. It's a position that's hurt them again and again. The linebacker play is still good but not exceptional. They don't have anyone who can run and close on coverage like a Ryan Shazier. Teams got more and more confident that if you blocked well up front, you could hit them hard downfield. That's what Purdue did." 

"They're an exceptional offense. When you have a good quarterback and running back, that much speed across the field is impossible to account for. It's not even just downfield speed, it was all the little small routes, too."

"They’re not going to miss a beat after Urban, that’s why they hired the guy already in the program."

Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Starting QBs for 2019

Penn State

"They're set to take that next big step, not this year because they're replacing a lot of the star power from last year, but in the coming seasons they could be special. They've had a ton of talent cycle through, and that's helped them in recruiting so much, to point to Saquon (Barkley) or Trace (McSorley)."

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Penn State

"Trace was just a flat-out winner. Maybe the most respected QB in the conference, a coach's player. It's a huge void they have to fill on the field and in the leadership position, and James Franklin is drilling that home."

"They're going to run the ball more, but they'll have to be creative doing it."

"Wide receiver was a really weak spot last year, you saw them playing under their potential."

"When you watch their offense, they do a really good job exploiting the mismatches. They're not overly complicated, but they're smart. They adjust really well on offense; they're reading you early on so you have to change up what you're doing a lot against them."

"They lose some at every position on defense, but (DC) Brent Pry has done a great job with their personnel. They're more athletic in their front seven than Penn State ever has been but have a lot of youth."

"They've recruited so well that the gaps in replacing guys are getting shorter and shorter. They don't look like Ohio State right now, but they've got freshman and sophomores who do."


"With the culture they've created and the excitement of last season, they're changing that brand."

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"Rondale Moore came in as a true freshman and ended up an All-American. He's that special."

"Offensively with (Jeff) Brohm they're always going to be really multiple. They do a great job doing a lot of different things on offense. They want to get the ball out all different kinds of ways. There's a lot of NFL looks and formations they want to give you. They show a lot of pro stuff; from the outside, it's a high-volume playbook, and they still haven't really recruited to fit everything Brohm wants to do."

"Defensively, they want to do the same thing, a lot of changes, trying to confuse you. They disguised a lot last year and did a lot of multiple looks, lots of stemming; they were trying to hide what they'd lost. They have a lot of guys coming back with game reps, so they should be closer to that 2017 defense that helped carry them in spots."

"They've got a top-25 recruiting class at Purdue. That's a massive change for them, that's unheard of."

"The downside here is depth. They're talented enough at the top end to hang with anyone; that's what happened when they got the matchups they wanted to against Ohio State. The downside is that they're not deep enough to survive the season without slipping up here or there."

Related: College Football's Top 25 Breakout QBs for 2019


"It's still scary there. They competed pretty well down the stretch last season, but they're struggling because of personnel. You can't hide that in this league. Their defense gave them a chance here and there, but they can't score points."  

College football rankings: Rutgers

"Offensively, they're pretty creative; they're trying to manufacture yards as best as they can. But it's just not there with talent. The freshman quarterback (Artur Sitkowski) threw a lot of picks, but he has a lot of raw arm talent. You can live with the mistakes now, because if it clicks for him, he can change everything for them. They have to improve at that position, because there are athletes on the outside. They just can't get the ball to them."

"The offensive line doesn't look like or execute like a Big Ten line. They need to get fundamentally better if they're going to have any kind of shot."

"Defensively, they've been decent in spots but wear down because of depth."  

"You have to create your own juice there. It's not the Ray Rice Rutgers where they would be a wild crowd and the team was physical. It's kind of flat, sometimes it's hard to get your own guys going when you play there."

"They've been recruiting more against MAC schools than anyone else in the Big Ten. Right now they're struggling to shake the losing culture. They aren't in most of the battles in their backyard."


"That's still who everyone is shooting for in the West. They're the bell cow of the division even after an off year."

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Wisconsin

"They have been and will continue to be outstanding at the offensive line position, but they do have work to do replacing those guys. Still though, they're a national brand at that position, and it shows."

"Jonathan Taylor is a great back, and with how physical that line can be and how much they can control a game in that one aspect, you don't really have to have an elite-level guy at quarterback to make it work."

"Taylor is as good a running back as any in the country. They're not an exceptional passing team because they don't have to be. They'll just run you over."

"They mask pre-snap really well, lots of shifts and motions to try to outnumber you. They're doing that just as much to run on you as another team would to get a matchup in the passing game. They can shift-motion into the running lane they want most."

"Defensively, Jim Leonhard has them playing their butts off. They were definitely young in the back end, at corner especially. They're kind of built to stop their own offense more than anything else. It's a 3-4 with a big down three, and their outside backers are massive, 250-plus-sized kids."

"Their lack of a passing game hurt them more than they thought it would. You could load the box on them."