Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
Email Joe to talk about the Gophers.
The Gophers are headed for a fifth-place finish this year in the Big Ten West, behind Northwestern, according to a poll of 29 writers conducted by Cleveland.com.
The same poll predicted the Gophers would finish last in the Legends Division last year, and the Gophers responded with a 4-4 conference record, finishing ahead of Michigan (3-5) and Northwestern (1-7).
Heading into their fourth year under Coach Jerry Kill, the Gophers need to replace NFL draft picks Ra’Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen, along with quarterback Philip Nelson and leading receiver Derrick Engel. But overall, it’s an older team that expects to take another step forward this year.
The Big Ten scrapped its Legends and Leaders format and adopted East and West divisions with Rutgers and Maryland joining the conference this year. The Big Ten does not conduct its own media poll, so Cleveland.com has been putting this together for four years. I’m one of the voters and had the Gophers finishing fourth in the West, ahead of Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue.
Here’s the predicted order of finish -- note there were more than 29 first-place votes in each division because of predicted ties:
1. Wisconsin, 183.5 points (15 first-place votes)
2. Iowa, 173 points (11)
3. Nebraska, 157.5 points (5)
4. Northwestern, 112 points (1)
5. Minnesota, 96.5 points
6. Illinois, 58 points
7. Purdue, 31.5 points
1. Ohio State, 195 points (23 first-place votes)
2. Michigan State, 180 points (10)
3. Michigan, 136 points
4. Penn State, 105.5 points
5. Maryland, 84 points
6. Indiana, 78.5 points
7. Rutgers, 33 points
Big Ten title game matchup predictions
Ohio State over Wisconsin, 12 votes
Michigan State over Iowa, 5
Ohio State over Iowa, 4
Ohio State over Nebraska, 3
Michigan State over Wisconsin, 2
Michigan State over Nebraska, 1
Michigan State over Northwestern, 1
Nebraska over Ohio State, 1
Preseason vote for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year
1. Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State (13)
2. Randy Gregory, Nebraska (10)
3. Michael Bennett, Ohio State (4)
4. Joey Bosa, Ohio State (1)
4. Jake Ryan, Michigan (1)
Big Ten Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Award
1. Braxton Miller, Ohio State QB (21)
2. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin RB (5)
3. Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska RB (2)
4. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State QB (1)
INDIANAPOLIS – The bowl projections keep changing at the top, with Northern Illinois and Oklahoma State falling out of the BCS picture with losses in the past 17 hours.
The Gophers seem to be headed back to Houston for the Texas Bowl on Dec. 27, but they could wind up facing a Pac-12 team instead of a Big 12 team. Jerry Palm currently has the Gophers facing Oregon State, and Phil Steele has them playing Washington State. Stay tuned.
Tomorrow is Bowl Selection Day, and we'll have you covered.
BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
I’m really enjoying my first trip to the Big Ten Championship Game. I’m impressed by how functional Indianapolis is for an event like this. I’m staying about a half-mile from Lucas Oil Stadium, but the hotels all seemed connected to the Convention Center by skyway, and it’s a short walk from there to several bars, restaurants and the stadium.
The streets are filled with fans yelling “O-H!” and “I-O!” or “Go Green!” and “Go White!”
I’m tempted to pick Michigan State in an upset. But I’m predicting a 34-30 win for Ohio State. I think the strength of Michigan State’s defense can cancel out the strength of Ohio State’s offense, and I think the Buckeyes’ defense is better than the Spartans’ offense.
That might sound blasphemous after Ohio State just gave up 600 yards to a sputtering Michigan team, but I’m chalking that up to a rivalry game where anything can happen. I think this one will be close, but Braxton Miller will make just enough plays to send Ohio State to the BCS title game.
INDIANAPOLIS -- It’s snowing here on the eve of the Big Ten Championship Game, but it’ll be perfectly comfortable inside Lucas Oil Stadium, when No. 2 Ohio State faces No. 11 Michigan State.
Indianapolis is about a three-hour drive from Columbus, and it's a little more than four hours from East Lansing. I bumped into a bunch of fans for each school as I was checking into my hotel, so it should be interesting to see what the crowd is like inside the 67,455-seat stadium.
“We’re anticipating 50/50, but I’m hoping a stronger Buckeye crowd will show up, like I’m sure [the Spartans] do,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “Can’t control that. But I think it’s going to be a great environment. Really, really excited for it.
HALL WON’T START
Meyer said senior offensive guard Marcus Hall won’t start Saturday after getting ejected from last week’s Michigan game and then throwing a tantrum before giving fans the double-bird salute on his way into the tunnel.
“Very, very disappointed in his actions,” Meyer said. “He paid the penalty for the fight, which is he missed three quarters in a rivalry game. It’s not Marcus. But just really disappointed in his actions after the fight.”
Hall is 6-5, 315 pounds, and his replacement -- redshirt freshman Pat Elfein -- is 6-3, 295.
"I love Pat Elfein," Meyer said. "He's going to have a great career here. A lot of confidence in him."
It’s unusual for teams to go full-contact in practice, especially at this stage of the season, but that’s what Michigan State did to get ready for Ohio State.
“I think you’re trying to put yourself in as many game-like situations – safe, not getting injured, so you can simulate as close to what you’re going to see on Saturday,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. “I think we pushed the envelope there a little bit to try to do that.
“I think our players need to understand, ‘Hey, it’s not touch out there, it’s full-contact. We have to play. There’s no question in my mind that Braxton Miller is the most physical quarterback that we have played this year, in terms of … taking hits and running with power as a quarterback.”
The Big Ten announced its 2018-2019 football schedules today. Here's how it looks for the Gophers, with crossover games against the Big Ten East Division in bold.
Sept. 29 -- at Maryland
Oct. 6 -- Iowa
Oct. 13 -- at Ohio State
Oct. 20 -- at Nebraska
Oct. 27 -- Indiana
Nov. 3 -- at Illinois
Nov. 10 -- Purdue
Nov. 17 -- Northwestern
Nov. 24 -- at Wisconsin
Sept. 28 -- at Purdue
Oct. 5 -- Illinois
Oct. 12 -- Nebraska
Oct. 19 -- at Rutgers
Oct. 26 -- Maryland
Nov. 9 -- Penn State
Nov. 16 -- at Iowa
Nov. 23 -- at Northwestern
Nov. 30 -- Wisconsin
Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week today after rushing for four touchdowns and 151 yards against Iowa.
Leidner also completed five of 12 passes for 71 yards in a victory over San Jose State.
The last Gopher to be named Freshman of the Week was Philip Nelson, on Oct. 29, 2012. Nelson, now a sophomore, missed Saturday's game with a strained right hamstring. Leidner, a redshirt freshman, was making his first career start.
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