Big Ten coaches relying heavily on revamped defenses

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INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh watched his star-studded defense lead the way in winning last year’s Big Ten title.

He needs some new faces to emerge to make it two in a row – and he thinks he has the bodies.

Just four months after losing Heisman Trophy runner-up Aidan Hutchinson, defensive back Daxton Hill and linebacker David Ojabo in the NFL draft, Harbaugh returned to Indianapolis to explain what the Wolverines have in reserve.

“We had a great defense last year,” Harbaugh said Tuesday at football media days. “People are asking how we’re going to replace those stars? The thing is I’ve been part of many teams where the no-star defense was the better defense and I’ve got a sneaky suspicion it could be even better this year, honestly.”

At least that’s the hope.

But much has changed around the Big Ten and especially in Ann Arbor since the Wolverines made their first College Football Playoff appearance.

In addition to losing Hutchinson, Hill and Ojabo, defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald rejoined the Baltimore Ravens. Then, for the second straight year, Harbaugh took the advice of his most trusted adviser, his brother and Ravens coach John Harbaugh, and hired Jesse Minter, another former Baltimore assistant.

The revamping and readapting, especially on defense, has become a league-wide routine.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day responded to his first non-title season by hiring defensive coordinator Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State. Injuries, turnovers and poor play sabotaged Indiana’s big expectations last season, so coach Tom Allen replaced both coordinators and decided to start calling defensive plays again.

“I didn’t like how it felt,” Allen said. “That’s where I cut my teeth as a coach and how I got this job. So we created a system where I’ll be calling the plays and Chad Wilt will be the defensive coordinator. To me, it was more of a gut-feeling that I needed to do this.”

The bigger changes may be more evident in the Big Ten West, where the league’s more traditional black-and-blue image remains most prevalent.

Iowa, Wisconsin and Northwestern have combined for eight consecutive division titles and have captured 10 of 11 since the league’s format was introduced in 2011.

Each team has had its greatest success when balanced, ball-control offenses are paired with stout defenses. The model worked perfectly for Iowa last season and Northwestern in 2018 and 2020 though the Buckeyes won all three title games.

The problem: When things go awry, it can get ugly fast.

“The quickest way to lose games is to throw the ball over your head at Level 3 and we had that happen too much last year,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said, explaining his team’s 3-9 mark with a lone Big Ten win in 2021. “It’s really everybody but we’ve been pretty solid in that group (secondary) over the years and I think we’ll be very competitive there this year.”

There is no guarantee Wisconsin, which lost eight of its top 10 tacklers from 2021, or Iowa, which lost three key players in the secondary, will be as strong in 2022.

Michigan State was an impressive 11-2 (7-2 Big Ten) in coach Mel Tucker‘s second season despite finishing 11th in the league in defensive pass efficiency.

But it’s Ohio State and Michigan that will face the most scrutiny this season after being picked to finish first and second in the East. The soaring expectations for Michigan after finally beating the Buckeyes for the first time in a decade only make the stakes that much more important for Harbaugh and his new defensive guru.

“I’d have to go back to before the 2021 season and my brother said you can have Mike Macdonald or Jesse Minter, they’re both great,” Harbaugh said. “So I went back and talked to Jesse Minter and just felt it was the absolute best thing for the team.”

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.