Big Ten

Already without AD, Jerry Kill's departure leaves Gophers' future uncertain

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Already without AD, Jerry Kill's departure leaves Gophers' future uncertain

Entering this season, Minnesota was on the brink of taking the next step and asserting itself as a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten West.

November hasn't even arrived, and Minnesota has lost its athletics director and its head coach, throwing the program's future into uncertainty.

The two leading figures departed under totally different circumstances. Former athletics director Norwood Teague earned everyone's scorn when he stepped down following accusations of sexual harassment, accusations that grew in number — and in the amount of disgust — as time went on. Former head coach Jerry Kill earned everyone's sympathy when he was forced to retire Wednesday due to medical concerns.

But while they went out in completely different fashions, they left behind them interim replacements and uncertainty.

[MORE BIG TEN: Jerry Kill fights tears during emotional exit, and so do we]

Uncertainty is a strange thing to associate with Kill and his staff. After all, the main word previously used to describe a group of coaches that had been together for decades was "stability." Assistants followed Kill from job to job, doing great work in turning around programs at Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and then Minnesota.

“I walked in to see the coaches this morning," Kill said during his emotional retirement press conference Wednesday morning. "I didn’t say anything (prior to Wednesday) to anybody because I didn’t want things to leak out. I owed it to them. I’ve been with many of them over 20 years. I will tell you that they are the finest coaches in the country. This isn’t an easy job. It’s come a long, long way, a long way, probably more so than I know in a lot of ways. They’ve been a big, big part of it. We’ve got a great recruiting class going on, and they know we have great stability here. So I think we’ll be OK there.

"But to look guys in the eyes that you’ve been with 20 years … not a lot of fun."

Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys takes over as the interim head coach — the third man this season to hold that title with a Big Ten program — and he's served in the role, kind of, before. Kill was forced to take a "leave of absence" two seasons ago, when he worked to better get his epilepsy under control following multiple seizures that year. But Kill admitted Wednesday that during that time he was still working 10 to 12 hour days even though he wasn't on the sideline on Saturdays.

The stability and the experience under Kill should serve Claeys, the rest of the coaching staff and the team well. Though Kill's exit will take its emotional toll, the football, the Xs and Os, remain the same.

But though Claeys will surely do good work the rest of this season, what lies beyond is anyone's guess.

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Gophers gear right here]

Kill had this program skyrocketing from a three-win season his first year to a bowl the next, then back-to-back eight-win campaigns, just the 18th and 19th in school history. There were those who believed the Gophers would land a spot in the Big Ten title game this season. Minnesota's on-field play has been anything but championship-level so far this season, with the Gophers sitting at 4-3. But that shouldn't take away from where Kill took this program.

Kill's success, however, doesn't guarantee that his assistants will be given the chance to keep doing what he started. There's a strong case to be made, for sure, that they should be given that opportunity. The years of experience as Kill's right-hand men qualifies them to keep the Gophers on the track Kill set them on. But when a new athletics director is hired, will he or she see things the same way? Or will it be a classic case of a new AD wanting to bring in "their guy"?

Hence the uncertainty.

Someone like Bill Cubit, the interim coach at Illinois, has had an entire season to audition for the job in Champaign. Claeys won't get nearly as long, and he has a brutal schedule to finish the season, with games against Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa next plus the annual season-finale against Wisconsin. All four teams boast some of the best defenses in college football. But Claeys also has a different challenge than Cubit or Maryland's interim head coach Mike Locksley. Claeys is helming a winning program, and there are recruiting successes both with the program and coming into the program that could keep momentum going.

It will be a while until we find out what the direction is in which Minnesota is heading. Kill said Wednesday, "I’ve had a bomb dropped on me," in reference to the suddenness of the change in his life. The same can be said for the Minnesota football program.

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?