Big Ten

Big Ten preview: Connor Cook returns to have that jackpot season with Spartans

connor-cook-0826.png

Big Ten preview: Connor Cook returns to have that jackpot season with Spartans

Connor Cook’s NFL Draft prospects would have been pretty darn good had he entered the draft this past spring.

He might not have been the No. 1 pick, but after leading the Big Ten with 3,214 passing yards — 27th in the country, it’s still the Big Ten, guys — and tossing 24 touchdown passes, he likely would’ve been a first-round pick.

In deciding to return for his senior season, though, he could hit the jackpot.

Cook is not only entering the 2015 season considered one of the conference’s best quarterbacks, he’s considered one of the country’s best quarterbacks, and a lot would have to go wrong to knock him out of the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. But Cook could conceivably approach that No. 1-pick status if he delivers on the expectations a lot have of him.

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Spartans have earned status as national-title contenders]

In addition to the great numbers and the physical skills scouts love, Cook has proven himself a winner with few peers. After taking over as starter a few games into the 2013 season, he helped led the Spartans to a 13-1 record, a Big Ten championship and a win in the Rose Bowl, where he dazzled with 332 yards and a pair of touchdowns, earning MVP honors. Last season, he led Michigan State to an 11-2 record and a remarkable come-from-behind win in the Cotton Bowl, where he threw for 314 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

This season, he could eclipse both of those fantastic campaigns by leading the Spartans to a realistic berth in the College Football Playoff.

But coming back was certainly more than about improving his draft stock. Cook is looking to achieve what he’s yet been able to, which really isn’t that much. But as the old maxim goes, there’s always room for improvement.

“I think that Connor has done a remarkable job, extraordinary job throughout his time,” Mark Dantonio said last month during Big Ten Media Days. “Came on the scene in 2013 and capped off the season with an MVP in the Rose Bowl as a sophomore and then MVP in the Big Ten Championship game as well. This past season did an outstanding job. Very few times was he sacked, not a lot of interceptions. But there's always room for improvement. I think he's come back with the idea that there are things left to prove. And he's going to continue to take his game to a higher level. And that's exciting because I think that the makeup of our football team, I think, in general is, you know, keep trying to strive forward, keep trying to move the process forward, and be as good as you can possibly be. So high expectations from our staff and from the general public. Very high expectations. Very high expectations from he himself.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Without Pat Narduzzi, will Spartans still have elite defense?]

Cook made Michigan State one of the country’s best offensive teams a season ago. The Spartans averaged 500 yards of total offense each week (11th in the FBS) and 43 points per game (seventh). It helped that he had one of the country’s best running backs in Jeremy Langford and the Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year in Tony Lippett.

He has neither this season, which will certainly put more pressure on him. But while the skill positions around him might take a bit of a hit, the offensive line should be sensational, one of the best in America, keeping Cook upright and giving him plenty of time to make decisions and not turn the ball over.

Whatever the offense around him looks like, Cook’s expectations remain incredibly high. He’ll be expected to post numbers and win games that match or exceed the best signal-callers in college football. And it seems like he can meet those expectations.

His draft stock is high. Now it’s time to send it higher with eye-popping numbers, a boatload of wins and a run at the national championship. It’s time to hit the jackpot.

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

1121_baker_mayfield.jpg
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?