Compared to most years, this summer has been bare of meaningful college football previews. Between COVID-19, social issues, and the uncertainty about this upcoming season, it feels as if writers of several publications and websites are taking a wait-and-see approach. But bettors have no choice but to forge ahead and prepare accordingly.
As much as we don’t know, there is a certainty that we can look forward to. We might not currently have a true glimpse into the transfer portal, know whether or not there will be fans in the stands, or spring games and rosters to analyze, but we do and always will have head coaches. In order for any program to succeed, it needs coaching. A bad coach can take your school to new lows and a great coach can turn a forgotten program into a powerhouse.
Over the next two weeks, we will look at three head coaches from the Big Ten, Big XII, ACC, and PAC-12 (I am almost certain these schools will play in some capacity) and what it will take — or the change in direction needed — in order to get their respective programs over the hump in 2020.
Some of these coaches are being pegged as being on the “hot seat”, but if there is a lack of funds from no ticket sales and or concessions along with a drop in TV revenue for certain conferences (here’s to you PAC-12!), we can expect the coaching carousel to slow for the time being. Others are in stable situations and a step or two from climbing their division and the national ranks.
Michigan – Jim Harbaugh
Harbaugh has by all accounts been a failure so far. He’s had a habit of winning the games he is supposed to and then failing to step up in class, in particular against rival Ohio State (see: embarrassing 62-39 and 56-27 losses the last two seasons). Harbaugh’s best move since arriving in Ann Arbor was hiring defensive coordinator Dan Brown. Thanks to Brown, the defense has held up well, whereas most of the program’s shortcomings have been offensively despite having former 5-star quarterbacks and a myriad of talented receivers. Gone is the passing threat that Shea Patterson possessed, but what the offense really needs is creativity. Last season featured a lackluster run game and predictable play calling, which led to Patterson’s ho-hum numbers. If Michigan were to make a leap in 2020, it will need to adopt a faster, run-based offense with multiple looks and formations. The Wolverines currently don’t have any big-armed quarterbacks and, while there is speed at receiver, none possess prototypical NFL size. Quarterback runs are expected to be a big part of offense this year, but they need to couple that with a much quicker pace (89th L2 seasons). The Big Ten is improving from the bottom up, meaning scoring points needs to be a priority.
Purdue – Jeff Brohm
Brohm is an elite head coach. Many would say top 10 and it’s difficult to disagree. He’ll will always produce a top 25 run defense and recruit NFL talent at the receiver position (see: Heisman candidate Rondale Moore and two more up-and-coming 4-star sophomores). But what’s interesting about Brohm’s time in West Lafayette is a lack of a run offense (126th, 83.3 ypg in 2019), something he thrived at cultivating as a coordinator at Louisville and Head Coach at Western Kentucky. Despite injuries to multiple quarterbacks and Moore, Brohm still ignored the running back room. With so much talent at wide receiver, there are times when defenses will all but give the Boilermakers 4-6 yards to avoid coughing up the big play. Brohm is the master of the shootout and has a plethora of weapons on offense. But if he can slow down at times and produce even a moderately efficient run game, I can see Purdue being a tough out for any team in the nation.
Illinois – Lovie Smith
It’s easy to forget that Illinois beat Wisconsin and then dominated Purdue the following week, AND won at Michigan State two weeks later — all with a roster of forgettable transfers and 2-star sophomores. The Illini made a bowl appearance and TCU did not…let that sink in for a second. Smith is not a great coach by any stretch. He did, however, discover something about the Big Ten last year. If you can successfully pass here and there, you have a fighting chance. There’s only one Iowa, but a bunch of teams trying to mirror the Hawkeyes. Smith has typically stuck to a run-first approach, but while trailing last year, the Illini were forced to pass and Brandon Peters, a Michigan transfer (ironic, no?), caught a lot of teams off guard. Peters isn’t going to draw much attention from NFL scouts, but the mere threat of a pass was enough propel the Illini to a handful of upset victories.
If Illinois devotes itself to passing more than just on 3rd-and-long, I feel the offense has upside. Peters does a good job of taking care of the football, even when he’s inconsistent. There are other positives too, as Smith coaches run defense well (arguably his only above average quality) and the secondary is his most talented unit. If Illinois can improve by 2 or 3 ppg, there’s breakthrough potential and a good chance of returning to the postseason. This is an experienced team now, and while Smith has not recruited well, he has accumulated some decent offensive weapons. I feel they are right on the cusp of finding that annual 7-win ceiling, which is huge considering where this program has been over the last decade.