March Madness is hitting full speed this afternoon, and there are sure to be a few bracket-busting upsets in the next couple of days. With that in mind, we’re taking a look at a couple Big Ten football teams that could play the Cinderella role. Which program is more likely to surprise us and knock off some “top seeds” next fall?
Jesse Temple: Nebraska
OK, so Nebraska will never technically be considered a so-called "Cinderella" team. But given that the Cornhuskers underachieved in Mike Riley's first season in Lincoln, they are a group that should be on the rise in Year 2. For starters, there was perhaps no team as unfortunate as Nebraska last season. A Hail Mary loss to BYU. An empty overtime possession against Miami. Poor clock management in a stunning loss to Illinois. An inability to scratch out one more first down against Wisconsin. Reliving the details likely are still painful for Cornhuskers fans.
But there is reason for optimism moving forward, and you can start with Nebraska's 37-29 victory against UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl. It would have been easy for the 5-7 Cornhuskers to fold up shop because they backpedaled into a postseason berth. Instead, they scored 30 straight points after falling behind 21-7. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. passed for a touchdown and ran for another score and showed he can be a solid signal-caller.
Armstrong threw way too many interceptions last season -- 16, to be exact -- but if he can cut down on that number, it will keep the team from beating itself. Leading receiver Jordan Westerkamp (918 yards, seven touchdowns) is back, as are Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore. Top tailback Terrell Newby (765 yards, six touchdowns) also returns. That's a pretty darn good place to start. If the defense can be better -- particularly the pass defense, which ranked 13th in the Big Ten -- the Cornhuskers have a chance to compete in the Big Ten West.
Nebraska also has a manageable schedule. The Cornhuskers open with a road game against Northwestern before playing Illinois, Indiana and Purdue. Nebraska could be at least 3-1 heading into a game against Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. Following a road game against Ohio State, Nebraska plays Minnesota and Maryland at home. That gives Nebraska a great opportunity to be 5-3 or 6-2 in league play heading into its regular season finale at Iowa. All signs point upward in Lincoln.
Dan Murphy: Illinois
Lovie Smith has to line up against the Big Ten West plus defending conference champion Michigan State and preseason top 5 Michigan in his first year in Champaign. But you can’t be a Cinderella without taking down some big-name teams, so if we’re hunting for a big surprise why not the Illini?
Smith, a defensive X's and O's specialist, should be able to help on that side of the ball. Illinois held opponents to a respectable 23.3 points per game last season but has to replace several key pieces in the front seven.
On offense, Wes Lunt returns as a fifth-year senior at quarterback. The winding, injury-riddled path Lunt has taken to his final season for his home-state team is textbook fodder for the feel-good Cinderella story. He’ll also get a nice boost from the return of wide receiver Mikey Dudek. The junior missed all of last season with an ACL injury after a standout freshman year in 2014. Dudek and Ke'Shawn Vaughn, last season’s leading rusher, give Lunt some weapons. He’ll need to do a better job of helping them get into the end zone this season to knock off some of the heavyweights on their schedule.
Illinois on paper is still at least a couple years away from competing with the Big Ten’s best even if Smith and his staff pull all the right levers. But the middle of March is no time for logic. The energetic alumnus at athletic director turning around a program that has taken some serious lumps in the last year sounds like a team ready for its one shining moment.