Driving for 6: An obvious answer in picking Big Ten West; McCaffrey all-in as QB; and Russ’ energy
Although the weather outside is frightful (in some areas of our state), let’s take a drive.
You might want to bring along some oars.
1. In pondering Minnesota’s bowl win against Georgia Tech, a thought occurs.
The obvious answer in trying to select a favorite to win the Big Ten West Division in 2019 is — drum roll, please — there is no obvious answer.
I’m not saying Minnesota should be the pick, but P.J. Fleck’s program has my attention because of his team’s strong finish to this season. The Gophers won three of their last four games to finish 7-6. The victories were convincing upsets of Purdue (41-10), Wisconsin (37-15) and, on Wednesday night, Georgia Tech (34-10) in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit.
Next year the Gophers will welcome back nine offensive starters, including top running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, expected to return from anterior cruciate ligament injuries that ended their 2018 seasons. Meanwhile, the defense, resurgent under new defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, will have eight returning starters, and star safety Antoine Winfield is expected to return from a season-ending foot injury suffered in the Big Ten opener in September.
“We have a bright future — for sure,” said redshirt freshman running back Mo Ibrahim, the Quick Lane Bowl MVP after rushing 31 times for 224 yards and two touchdowns. “We’re all coming together as a team right now.”
If it sounds like I’m rowing the boat for the Gophers, well, that’s sort of the case. Smith and Brooks are proven weapons. Ibrahim flew under the radar in the Big Ten even though he finished with 1,160 rushing yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 5.7 yards per carry. He’s a hard-nosed runner who trucked a Nebraska defensive lineman whose name I won’t mention. He returns on offense along with receiver Tyler Johnson, who had 78 receptions for 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Northwestern won the division this season with a record of 8-1 while Iowa, Wisconsin and Purdue were 5-4. Nebraska and Minnesota were 3-6 and Illinois 2-7. The only team that you rule out as a potential division winner in 2019 is Illinois.
Although it may sound crazy, I’m actually going to wait until July to try to pick the winner. There will be roster movement in the offseason, with transfers potentially impacting the conversation. There will be coaching staff changes and injuries. When the race is as close as this one seems, with several teams involved, a lot of factors come into play because every little edge counts that much more.
No matter what transpires in coming months, it’s difficult to imagine the Wildcats duplicating their 8-1 finish. Other than that, it’s hard to say what will happen in the division. The race is evolving in an intriguing manner, with Minnesota and Purdue seemingly becoming much bigger factors in the league than Nebraska fans envisioned when the Huskers joined the fray in 2011.
Think of it this way: Purdue is only a 3½-point underdog to Auburn in the Music City Bowl.
Who saw that coming seven years ago?
And, yeah, keep an eye on Fleck’s crew.
2. In doing background work for a recent story on incoming Nebraska freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey, I was struck by a line in a Denver Post article about him making the jump to college ball: “A transition to receiver might make sense.”
Don’t bank on it.
“I’m going in trying to play quarterback and trying to get on the field and compete as early as possible,” he told me.
Does he have any thoughts at all of moving to receiver?
“No, sir,” he said.
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound McCaffrey, of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, is among seven players in Nebraska’s 2019 scholarship class who will begin classes Jan. 7, and therefore, be able to participate in spring practice. The others are Brant Banks, Wandale Robinson, Jamie Nance, Nick Henrich, Chris Hickman and Garrett Nelson.
3. In a Thursday appearance on “Early Break” (93.7 FM), 247Sports recruiting analyst Mike Schaefer revealed an interesting pick as his top player in Nebraska’s 2019 recruiting class at this point.
Hint: It’s neither Wandale Robinson nor Ty Robinson.
Schaefer goes with linebacker Jackson Hannah of Nashville, Tennessee, and makes a good case for the selection ( click here for the podcast).
A four-star recruit by Rivals.com, Hannah can play both inside and outside linebacker, said Schaefer, noting Nebraska’s lack of depth at inside linebacker.
“If you talked to people over in North Stadium throughout the year, Hannah’s film has been very impressive to them,” Schaefer said.
What’s more, Nebraska won the recruiting battle for Hannah against SEC teams such as Florida and LSU.
“LSU was pushing hard, and he still commits to Nebraska,” Schaefer said.
4. Former Nebraska running back Devine Ozigbo, whose improvement this season was one of the most interesting developments in Scott Frost’s first season as the Husker head coach, told me NFL teams are telling him they’re looking for him to continue to prove himself from a speed standpoint.
Frost said this fall that he thinks Ozigbo is “a Sunday guy.” I think he is worthy of a fourth- or fifth-round selection. I thought he showed this season he has ample speed (and power), especially as he came on strong in October and November.
NFL teams will be watching Ozigbo closely when he plays in the East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 19 at Tropicana Field in Tampa, Florida.
5. The energy at Pinnacle Bank Arena for Nebraska men’s basketball games is generally OK and occasionally above average. It gets especially loud whenever a zebra makes a questionable call. The mob is easily triggered, it seems.
However, there still are moments in PBA that are surprisingly serene, especially considering the large crowds for virtually every game.
Husker fans (and game-production officials) could take some cues from the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. I watched the Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Thunder last week at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. I had zero complaints. The place was full and rocking throughout the game. Fans were on their feet for the final three minutes.
Russell Westbrook’s talent and charisma certainly help matters. If you haven’t watched him sprint from the bench to the court during pregame introductions, check it out. I got the chills watching him do it, and I’m not a big fan of Russ.
That may be changing a bit after watching him live. He absolutely owns that building. He’s not only a force as a player, he’s a showman of sorts. He seemingly understands the importance of the entertainment aspect of his job. Impressive.
6. My favorite part of the night occurred late in the game as Oklahoma City made a surge and forced a Minnesota timeout. The crowd was bonkers as “Run Run Rudolph,” as performed by the great Chuck Berry, blared.
Hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas, or at least a tolerable one.
Extra point: OK, enough basketball talk.