College Football

Big Ten coaches trying not to get caught up in first few weeks

Good and bad from Big Ten teams early in season doesn't necessarily define anything yet

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin leads his team on the field prior to the game against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Beaver Stadium last Saturday. (Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports)
Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin leads his team on the field prior to the game against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Beaver Stadium last Saturday. (Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports)

The Big Ten features three programs ranked in the top 10 in the nation. Penn State sits at No. 5, Michigan at No. 7 and Ohio State at No. 9 in the USA Today Coaches poll.

Nationally, those teams get picked apart. Are they for real? Do they have what it takes to make the College Football Playoff? Does Ohio State’s loss to No. 3 Oklahoma mean it needs to sit highly talented and previously-a-Heisman-candidate quarterback J.T. Barrett?

What a team is or isn’t is almost impossible to know after two weeks of football. Iowa found that out Saturday against Iowa State, giving up 467 yards of total offense a week after looking stout against an NFL-caliber quarterback in the opener against Wyoming.

How long it takes for each coach and program to know exactly what they have depends on who you ask.

“I think it’s a combination of the amount of games you have combined with the type of opponents you play,” said Penn State Coach James Franklin, who led his Nittany Lions to a 33-14 win against Pitt on Saturday. “I don’t think anybody probably truly has an idea until the midpoint of the season. There’s still a lot to be determined. That’s where preseason rankings and some of those things don’t matter because there’s so many games to be played.”

Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh was predictably vague on the subject. Both he and Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald went the “one game at a time” route, and Harbaugh deadpanned that “the record is the immediate indication as you progress through the season,” during the Big Ten teleconference on Tuesday.

Both talked about focusing heavily on the next opponent as a way to avoid getting wrapped up in what a team is or is not. While Harbaugh said he didn’t “have a prediction” for when exactly he’d know, Fitzgerald offered that it’s usually a month in for him, with school and the first few games.

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Ferentz went down a similar path in his response to the question, saying “it’s like every season. You learn every week,” and said the Hawkeyes’ first two weeks showed they could both play good defense, but needed to shore things up while also being capable of scoring and committing turnovers.

There’s a lot to sort out, and making declarative statements about football teams two weeks in does no one any good.

Franklin said avoiding that is harder as a young coach, but that “experience definitely matters,” in being able to take a more measured approach.

No one has a better example of that recently than Michigan State and head coach Mark Dantonio. Last season, the Spartans looked after the first few weeks like they’d be headed back to Indianapolis and maybe another trip to the College Football Playoff, sitting in the top 10 of the rankings after those first few weeks.

As anyone who paid attention to Big Ten football knows, that crashed pretty hard en route to a 3-9 season, including seven straight losses and losses in nine of the last 10 games. Dantonio used it as the example of why you can’t get caught up in the first few weeks — and shed some light on why coaches cling to the “one game at a time” cliché.

“I think the players understand after last year you have to stay focused,” Dantonio said. “Last year we won against Notre Dame and were sitting there as the eighth-ranked team in the nation. Well, that wasn’t necessarily true either. So you try to take it one game at a time. As dull as it sounds, that’s what we must do.

“I think it changes year by year (when you know). You find out if you have a special team based on the adversity they can handle, because everyone’s going to have it.”

INDIANA WITH AN EARLY BYE

Amid the damage and devastation caused by the latest Hurricane to reach landfall in the United States, college football once again felt the effects this week. Among the many cancellations or postponements due to Hurricane Irma, Indiana and Florida International were forced to cancel their game, set for this week, because FIU had to displace 170 athletes across eight sports.

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Indiana Coach Tom Allen said Tuesday around noon on the Big Ten teleconference the Hoosiers were “absolutely” looking for a replacement game and got just that Tuesday afternoon. The Hoosiers will play Charleston Southern on Oct. 7, which was the original date of their bye week.

In the meantime, Indiana hasn’t been able to get in a regular groove of preparation.

“It’s different, that’s for sure,” Allen said. “We weren’t expecting this latest turn, but you have to be flexible and learn to adjust. We told our players that last night. Not ideal, but we’ve put a plan in effect to be able to maximize this week and take advantage of it both in practice time as well as recruiting this weekend.”

Indiana’s next game is at home vs Georgia Southern on Sept. 23 at 2:30 p.m.

SMITH RETURNS TO TAMPA

Lovie Smith has been connected to Tampa, Fla., since the 1990s. He first was defensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1996 to 2000 under head coach Tony Dungy, then spent two years as the Buccaneers head coach in 2014 and 2015.

Smith and Illinois go to Tampa this weekend, marking his return to the city for football purposes, and his Illini will play at Raymond James Stadium, where he saw more than a few defeats in his two seasons running the Bucs.

The longtime Tampa resident — he said he’s had some sort of home there since the 1990s — went with the “business trip” line to deflect any sort of homecoming storyline, though.

“My feeling is about bringing a 2-0 Illinois football team down there,” Smith said. “We want to get to 3-0. We don’t have time for much else. This isn’t a family reunion or anything like that. It’s a business trip for us. My thoughts are going to be pretty much on that.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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