The Big Ten begins play Thursday, and the top five teams in the conference seem to be in their own grouping, with the likes of Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue a good step or two behind them. If the Big Ten wants to prove it’s the best conference in the country, it may need some of those teams from 6-14 to make strides toward the top and make bowl games. Some teams are looking to build momentum, while others are trying to keep it.
(All records are from last season)
Here’s how I see things stacking up before the season starts…
14. Illinois (0-9, 2-10)
This week: Saturday vs Kent State (12:00 BTN)
Lovie Smith will be facing a similar situation to Chris Ash at Rutgers. Smith is in need a third-year jump. The issue has been the talent level in Champaign. The Illini were 118th in the S&P+ rankings last season. With a schedule that will feature them as underdogs in most of their last 10 games, it will be tough to improve upon the past couple years’ win totals.
They have a solid mobile quarterback in Cam Thomas, who is working under a new offensive coordinator who is expected to improve the Illini offense. The defense was solid last season, especially the secondary. Most of their defensive backs return and should continue to be good defending against big plays. If Illinois can show some sort of improvement, even four or five wins, that would be a good step up for Smith and company in Champaign.
13. Minnesota (2-7, 5-7)
This week: Thursday vs New Mexico State (7:00 BTN)
The Golden Gophers are projected to have nine games finish within a touchdown. So, there will be plenty of chances in P.J. Fleck’s second season. However, Minnesota will most likely be starting a freshman quarterback and a lot of their weapons on the outside aren’t returning.
In his first 17 games at Western Michigan, Fleck won three games. After that, he went 27-8, most notably that incredible 2016 season where Western Michigan went 13-1 and lost in the Cotton Bowl to Wisconsin. There’s still excitement around the football program at Minnesota, and with an energetic coach like Fleck, there’s still plenty of upside. However, it will take some patience for Minnesota to eventually reach their full potential under Fleck.
T11. Rutgers (3-6, 4-8)
This week: Saturday vs Texas State (12:00 BTN)
T11. Maryland (2-7, 4-8)
This week: Satuday vs No. 23 Texas (12:00 FS1 at FedEx Field)
I think Maryland and Rutgers are moving in completely different directions. Rutgers seems to be on the rise, while Maryland’s stock seems to be dropping.
I won’t get into any of the off-the-field stuff involving Maryland. All I’ll say is our thoughts and prayers are with the McNair family and the Maryland football.
For Maryland, both of their QBs they lost to injury last season return. If they can play at the level they did pre-injuries, Maryland’s offense could be explosive. The main issue for the Terrapins is the same as the Hoosiers and Scarlet Knights: they play in the Big Ten East. They also have a non-conference matchup with Texas, so Maryland cannot afford to slip up against any equal or lesser opponents this season.
Rutgers is the opposite, building their identity on their defense. Chris Ash has developed some really solid defenses in his two years in Piscataway, and this year should be no different. The offense has to pick up though if Rutgers wants to show any improvement in such a difficult conference and division. Quarterback Giovanni Rescigno won’t have a ton of returning weapons to work with from last season. They are a good running offense, but a one-dimensional offense doesn’t get you very far in the Big Ten East. The third year for a coach is usually a very important one for his future, especially somewhere like Rutgers. Ash will need a big step up in year three, mainly on the offensive side of the football.
10. Nebraska (3-6, 4-8)
This week: Saturday vs Akron (8:00 FOX)
Everyone is so excited about the Scott Frost hire, so why are the 10th on this list? I think it’s a really good hire, but it’s going to take some patience from the Husker faithful. Let’s talk quarterbacks. Frost’s options are junior walk-on Andrew Bunch, redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia or true freshman Adrian Martinez. Both of the latter are former four-star recruits. Bunch has the arm strength while Martinez has the legs.
Now defensively, they were one of the least disruptive in the country. They ranked 130th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), 128th in adjusted sack rate and 129th in overall havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defensed and forced fumbles divided by total plays). Frost brought along his defensive coordinator from UCF, Erik Chinander, who will certainly have his work cut out for him this season.
9. Indiana (2-7, 5-7)
This week: Satuday at Florida International (7:00 CBS Sports Network)
If Bloomington was a few miles west, the Hoosiers could have ended up in the Big Ten West division, completely changing expectations for this football team. Instead, they are in the East, with games against Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State guaranteed every year. Add a cross-conference game with an up-and-coming Purdue team and usually either Wisconsin, Nebraska, or Iowa, and that’s a tough schedule to get more than six or seven wins in.
The quarterback situation will be one to monitor in Bloomington. Sophomore Peyton Ramsey, who got the starts last season while Lagow was hurt, will start week one at Florida International. The offense on paper has plenty of weapons, and the defense, even though they lost a few big-time playmakers, is Tom Allen’s specialty. If the Hoosiers can “breakthrough” and win some of the games like Virginia, Iowa or Purdue (all at home), this season goes from an early winter vacation to a bowl game.
8. Purdue (4-5, 7-6)
This week: Thursday vs Northwestern (8:00 ESPN)
A lot of people liked the Jeff Brohm hire in West Lafayette. I don’t think many people thought the results would come so quickly. In his first season, Brohm and company rallied off three of their last four to make a bowl game, then they won the Foster Farms Bowl in a thriller over Arizona.
It was the defense that sparked the identity change at Purdue, but a lot of those starters from a year ago are gone. Can Brohm turn the Purdue offense around this year? There are a lot of returning pieces on that side of the ball for him to continue to work with. With a schedule that in theory can yield a lot of different results, week one against Northwestern, under the lights at Ross-Ade, will tell us a lot about the direction Purdue is going this year.
7. Northwestern (7-2, 10-3)
This week: Thursday at Purdue (8:00 ESPN)
There’s a chance you forgot about Northwestern’s eight-game winning streak last season. They have struggled to start seasons, most notably last season’s 2-3 start. Two years ago, they lost to Western Michigan and Illinois State in back-to-back weeks to start the 2016 season. However, the past two seasons they’ve ended with 7-6 and 10-3 records respectively.
This year they start out at Purdue on Thursday night and then Duke comes to town the next Saturday. If they can get off to a better start this year, this could be more than a rebuilding season for Northwestern. QB Clayton Thorson will need to improve without the school’s all-time leading rusher, Justin Jackson, in the backfield. But for now, I’m expecting another six or seven win season for the Wildcats.
6. Iowa (4-5, 8-5)
This week: Saturday vs Northern Illinois (3:30 BTN)
Let’s be honest, Iowa will probably win seven or eight games again this year. That’s just how things work in Iowa City. Quarterback Nate Stanley is back. He’s your typical Iowa QB, one that doesn’t make too many flashy plays but doesn’t make many mistakes. Other than their yearly tilt with Iowa State, the non-conference schedule doesn’t offer a whole lot. However, they host Wisconsin in week four. We all know it’s not easy to win at Iowa, so that will be a big game to see where this season will end up in Iowa City. For now, expect another seven or eight win season.
5. Michigan (5-4, 8-5)
This week: Saturday at No. 12 Notre Dame (7:30 NBC)
Austin, why do you have a team as talented as Michigan 5th in the Big Ten? Well, a few reasons. First, the Big Ten is loaded, and someone has to be 5th. On a serious note, Michigan hasn’t proven that they can beat the teams ahead of them on this list since Harbaugh came to Ann Arbor. They lost to all four of the teams ahead of them on this list last season.
There’s also the big question mark of Shea Patterson. A lot of people are excited that he was named the starter. Yes, Michigan struggled offensively last season, but it is still to be determined if Patterson is the answer. I’m willing to move Michigan up this list only if they prove they can beat the teams ahead of them. They’ll have a great chance to prove themselves in South Bend week one.
4. Michigan State (7-2, 10-3)
This week: Friday vs Utah State (7:00 BTN)
Michigan State was one of the most surprising teams in the nation last season. After a seven-win improvement, where does Sparty go from here? Well, last season’s team was very young, so all of that experience should pay dividends for Michigan State. The Spartans are a double-digit favorite in nine games on this year’s schedule.
Last season’s big wins over Michigan and Penn State were both in downpours, while when they played OSU and Notre Dame in normal conditions, they were beat by a combined 86-21. While they got a bit lucky last season with the weather, they will need to prove this season that they can in fact beat the big name teams in the East in normal weather conditions.
3. Penn State (7-2, 11-2)
This week: Saturday vs Appalachian State (3:30 BTN)
The heart and soul of this team last season, Saquon Barkley, has moved on to the NFL. Offensive Coordinator Joe Moorhead has moved on to Mississippi State. However, QB Trace McSorley and an incredible offensive line return, keeping this team in the thick of things in the East.
Penn State played a ton of people on the defensive side of the ball, so the backups last year that are now starters this season saw plenty of snaps last season. The schedule sets up well for the Nittany Lions. Their big road trip is at Michigan, while they host both Ohio State and Michigan State. Having McSorley back is enough for me to keep them in the top of the conference.
2. Wisconsin (9-0, 13-1)
This week: Friday vs Western Kentucky (9:00 ESPN)
It’s the age-old question: How good is Wisconsin? Last season, they ran the table all the way until the Big Ten Championship game, and people were still asking if they should make the playoff with a win and a 13-0 record. Part of that was because of their very weak schedule. That changes this year. They have road trips to Penn State, Michigan, Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue on the schedule.
However, they return a lot of talent in a lot of positions. QB Alex Hornibrook is back. RB Jonathan Taylor is back after nearly running for 2,000 yards last season. Their linebackers and linemen are some of the best in the conference. The secondary will be their only “weak spot.” We will learn how good Wisconsin truly is this year with a much more difficult schedule. Another run like last year and they could find themselves in the playoff.
1. Ohio State (8-1, 12-2)
This week: Saturday vs Oregon State (12:00 ABC)
Once again, Ohio State has one of the most talented teams in the country. They have, in my opinion, a potential upgrade at quarterback with Dwayne Haskins. They have all their running backs and receivers back and will once again be solid in the trenches. The defense is where there are a few holes to fill, but players like Nick Bosa should help lead that defense in the right direction.
There are two questions facing the Buckeyes. How will Urban’s suspension affect the team, mainly in Texas against No. 16 TCU and will OC Kevin Wilson be able to score in the red zone? We should have a good answer to both of those questions after week three.