CONFERENCE PREVIEW: BIG 10
By Simon Carroll
A team-by-team analysis of the Big 10, the season ahead and final standings predictions.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
2018: 13-1 (8-1), Big 10 Champions
Urban Meyer is gone, Ryan Day is in, and The Buckeyes will probably not even skip a beat. Such is the confidence in this Ohio State program, where in a season in which Michigan have their best shot in years to challenge their bitter foes they’re still second favourites by some margin.
Yes, Ohio State is losing some considerable talent; nine starters to be precise. Their offense will have to replace their Quarterback, three of their leading receivers, a running back and two of their offensive linemen in one season – pretty brutal all told. But The Buckeyes are used to this phenomenon of underclassmen leaving early.
Bringing in Justin Fields from Georgia was a way of keeping them competitive. It should get the most out of JK Dobbins, who will be the workhorse from either the backfield or receiver. Just get him the ball in space and he’ll get you the yards.
Some worries for last year’s champions – new Head Coach, new co-ordinators, and the rise of the Wolverines on their tail. But you have to go back to 2011 to find a season where they lost more than one Big 10 game. They’re top dogs until someone else proves otherwise.
2. Michigan Wolverines
2018: 10-3 (8-1)
Hopes are high in Ann Arbor this year. And for the first time since he arrived back in Michigan the pressure is on Jim Harbaugh to produce. With Urban Meyer retiring and Ohio State losing significant talent to the NFL, The Wolverines are the team best placed to knock them off their pedestal.
Since he got there, Harbaugh has had tough times getting this offense firing. But with the hire of Offensive Co-Ordinator Josh Gattis we should see a much more dynamic unit this season. Quarterback Shea Patterson has doubters to prove wrong after an underwhelming first year following his transfer from Ole Miss. But he has the talent and if they open up the playbook then they have the weapons at receiver – Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones & Tarik Black in particular – to be a force.
What’s more concerning for Michigan is the talent they lost on the other side of the ball. Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich accounted for pretty much all of this team’s pass rush last year. And Devin Bush is going to leave a huge hole at Middle Linebacker.
The early schedule, Wisconsin away notwithstanding, is pretty forgiving in the early weeks. This should allow their replacements to bed in before the tougher tests come later on. The East will be decided the last day of November when they host the Buckeyes – the winner likely going on to be Big 10 Champions.
3. Michigan State Spartans
2018: 7-6 (5-4)
The ‘Noisy Neighbours’ of the Big 10, Michigan State have been throwing spanners in the works of the two powerhouses ever since Mark Dantonio was hired in 2007. To be fair, that moniker does him a disservice. With much meager resources Dantonio has won the Big 10 three times in those twelve seasons. And at the very least he usually provides the East with a third challenger to the division.
Last year under an avalanche of injuries the Spartans regressed somewhat, winning just five conference games. And it’s a big ask to put them at the level of Ohio State or their big brother Michigan. But they should at the very least resume the role of spoiler and reclaim their usual third place finish.
The Defense has been the backbone of this team for a decade plus, and will likely be the case in 2019. Josiah Scott and David Dowell looking to form part of a formidable secondary. Joe Bachie will marshal the middle and Kenny Willekes provide the pass rush. But the offense will need to see quick growth from their young offensive line recruits and a healthy Brian Lewerke at Quarterback if they’re going to be more than just a pest this season.
4. Penn State Nittany Lions
2018: 9-4 (6-3)
No discredit to the job that James Franklin has done in Happy Valley since coming over from Vanderbilt – he’s made them extremely competitive in a tough division in a very short space of time – but the odds are stacked against him making a similar impression in 2019.
After losing Saquon Barkley in 2018 and seamlessly replacing him with Miles Sanders last year the odds of Ricky Slade or Journey Brown doing the same this season are slim. Add to that the loss of Trace McSorley at Quarterback and no defined replacement (Sean Clifford and Will Levis will battle it out after Tommy Stevens transferred to Michigan State) and the dropoff in offense for Penn State will be stark.
They have potentially the best edge rusher in the country in Yetur Gross-Matos, but will one guy be enough to keep that side of the ball competitive? Potentially a rebuild year for Franklin this season.
5. Indiana Hoosiers
2018: 5-7 (2-7)
I’m not quite sure that Head Coach Tom Allen gets the credit he deserves for the job he’s done at Indiana. In a division stacked with premier football programs, let alone the conference as a whole, he’s grown this program from perennial cellar-dwellers. He’s turned ‘a basketball school’ into a team that competes week in, week out. And The Hoosiers can give the elite a run for their money on their day.
Last season’s record could easily have been a winning one. Three of their losses were by seven points or more including a tense 28-33 defeat to Penn State. On the recruiting trail they’re doing much better and have some young talent coming through. But losing most of their Offensive Line this year means a tough situation for their Quarterback. And it’s still unknown whether that will be Payton Ramsey or the redshirt freshman Utah transfer Jack Tuttle.
6. Maryland Terrapins
2018: 5-7 (3-6)
For a program with some big money behind it, Maryland is a mess. After the tragedy that befell Jordan McNair last offseason and the subsequent suspension, reinstatement and then firing a day later of Head Coach Dick Durkin by University President Wallace Loh, Maryland has been a destination to avoid. Coaches like Josh Gattis have accepted co-ordinator positions at other teams, and parents are obviously reluctant to send their kids to a school where a student athlete was worked so hard he died.
The best that the Terrapins could do in their search for a new Head Coach was get Mike Locksley. He’s a Maryland alumni who has coached in various roles (including interim Head Coach) at College Park twice before. His record is hardly impressive as a head coach with a 3-31 record thanks to an ill-fated time at New Mexico. And it’s more than an uphill battle he faces trying to attract talent to a roster thin on talent. Add to that the losses of Darnell Savage, Derwin Grey, Byron Cowart and Ty Johnson to the NFL and you’re looking at a long, protracted rebuild in Maryland.
7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
2018: 1-11 (0-9)
I’m not sure that when The Big 10 recruited Rutgers into their conference in 2014, they told them they were going to be in the East Division. Because if they did, they should have politely declined. Even if Greg Schiano was still Head Coach I’m not sure they would ever be competitive amongst this company.
Zero Big 10 wins in 2018 is harsh for a program that played hard for Head Coach Chris Ash all the way through the season. But ultimately talent wins out and the Scarlet Knights have a distinct lack of it. New Jersey has never been known as a hotbed of college talent and recruiting out of state is a challenge – the Big 10 is attractive but who wants to get beat every week?
They have a slightly easier schedule this year and they could definitely steal a win off Maryland, Illinois or even Minnesota. But heading into the season with the hope of one conference victory is bleak.
1. Iowa Hawkeyes
2018: 9-4 (5-4)
For those of you familiar with Iowa’s penchant for grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory, you might find this prediction cavalier rather than bold. But hear me out; Iowa are at their best when they’re running the ball down people’s throats. They’ve made their money in the Kirk Ferentz era by winning in the trenches, their offensive line in particular. And they have a pair of elite tackles returning in Tristen Wirfs and Alaric Jackson to bookend that front five.
Quarterback Nate Stanley is an underrated passer who has shown when he is protected and healthy he can move the chains – obviously he’s lost his two 1st round Tight Ends (Hockenson, Fant) but Shaun Beyer is ready to step up and between him, Smith & Smith-Marsette they have a receiving corps that can get the job done.
Defensively they’ll hope AJ Epenesa can step up and replace some of the pass rush lost with Anthony Nelson, and Amani Hooker will be missed too. But they avoid Ohio State on their schedule and get Rutgers too. It’s hard not to see The Hawkeyes lose a gimme like they’re wont to do, but with Wisconsin not the power they once were this division is up for grabs.
2. Nebraska Cornhuskers
2018: 4-8 (3-6)
Everyone is getting excited about Nebraska, which is remarkable considering they got the Scott Frost era off to an 0-6 start. But there’s good reason for the optimism in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers finished the season strong on a tough slate (4-2). And they also showed they can put points on the board andmix it with the big boys.
I don’t say this lightly but Adrian Martinez might be the best Quarterback in the Big Ten. His first season as a starter saw him throw for 2,600 yards and 17 touchdowns versus just 8 interceptions. And combined with Scott Frost we could be in for a heavy scoring offense in 2019. Their schedule is very favourable too – no tough road games and getting Ohio State early maybe will let them catch the champions cold in the new Ryan Day era.
The only thing stopping me getting carried away and picking Nebraska for the West is their Defense. As much as they were racking up points on offense, the other side of the football were shipping them. Their D made sure that every game was close by allowing an average of 31 points per contest. Against run heavy teams like Iowa and Wisconsin, they might struggle to get enough of the ball to keep up. This helps me pump the brakes on the Cornhuskers a little, but if they show improvement they’ll be in the mix come November.
3. Wisconsin Badgers
2018: 8-5 (5-4)
Having won three out of four West divisions before last year, it seems reckless to disregard the Badgers come 2019. And i’m certainly not going to do that here. Wisconsin are a tough game for anyone and it’s a bitch to go up to Madison in November. But much like Penn State in the East, the circle has turned. And they’re going to have to rely on a lot of young talent getting up to speed quickly if they’re going to compete.
Their famed offensive line was wiped out with Michael Deiter, Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards all turning pro. Only Tyler Biadasz is a cemented starter and what is normally their strongest attribute is a question mark this year. That sounds ominous for Heisman hopeful Jonathan Taylor. In two seasons has run for over 4,100 yards and is looking for a blockbuster end to his college career.
The Linebacker position is the concern on defense with three leaving. But in Zack Baun and Chris Orr they have two returning seniors who can help the transition. Too many new pieces to be comfortable, but write The Badgers off at your peril.
4. Northwestern Wildcats
2018: 9-5 (8-1)
Last year’s winners of the West, Northwestern play above their talent level every season. And that is down in no small part to their excellent Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald who gets every ounce out of his roster. He’s got a job on his hands matching last season’s improbable eight conference wins with some key pieces departing, particularly on the offensive line.
More significant is probably the improvement of some of their division rivals forcing them back towards the pack. But The Wildcats have one very big reason to be optimistic, even if it takes a season to bear fruit – former Clemson Quarterback Hunter Johnson transferred to Evanston last year. The five-star recruit didn’t fancy sitting behind Trevor Lawrence and who can blame him? Johnson will be raw and has almost zero experience but did have the benefit of sitting behind Clayton Thorson and learning for a year. He’s a duel threat Quarterback just like his predecessor and if he hits the ground running Northwestern could make another unlikely push in 2019.
5. Purdue Boilermakers
2018: 6-7 (5-4)
The East may be top heavy with big-time programs, but when it comes to depth of competitive schools the West just about edges it. Truth be told any one of Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern, even Minnesota could make a surprise run for the division – we saw it with the Wildcats last year.
Purdue are another team that, on their day, can take on anybody. We saw it last year when they smashed Ohio State 49-20 and Boston College 30-13. They’ve lost starting QB David Blough but that shouldn’t hold them back considering the star-studded weapons they possess at Wide Receiver. In Rondale Moore they have maybe the best player in the Big 10, certainly alongside JK Dobbins the most electric. And Jared Sparks looks to take off this season too.
The problem is that Purdue can inexplicably get bulldozed by teams just as often as they can do the bulldozing – see the 41-10 shocker to Minnesota and the unbelievable 63-14 defeat to Auburn in The Music City Bowl to end the season for evidence. It’s a team built on shaky confidence – they get their tails up and they’re hard to stop, but a bit of adversity and they’ll collapse like a deck of cards.
Their defense should take the next step with all of their starting front seven returning, but it’s going to take some form of consistency not yet seen from The Boilermakers to make Jeff Brohm’s program potential contenders.
6. Minnesota Golden Gophers
2018: 7-6 (3-6)
I mentioned The Golden Gophers as a potential wildcard for a tilt at the West, and whilst it would be a major shock if they did so, they have some key weapons on this team that can provide that championship quality.
Head Coach PJ Fleck has coached up, recruited hard and played the transfer portal as well as any coach in the Big 10 and as a result has garnered a three-headed monster in the backfield with Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks and Mohamed Ibrahim all able to make splash plays. But the dangerman on this offense is undoubtedly Tyler Johnson, a playmaker on the perimeter or in the slot who after 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns last year will return as a senior.
Not sure who ends up as the starting Quarterback out of Zack Annexstad or Tanner Morgan, but if they can get him the ball Minnesota could build on the strong end to 2018 that saw them win three of their last four including away at Wisconsin and the bowl game against Georgia Tech
7. Illinois Fighting Illinis
2018: 4-8 (2-7)
The only thing impressive that Lovie Smith has cultivated so far in Champaign, Illinois is that fantastic beard. Such is the drastic situation that the Fighting Illini find themselves in. Smith was hired to boost recruitment and fortify the defense, his forte during his time in the NFL. If anything this program has gone backwards on both fronts: Illiniois recruiting classes have gotten steadily weaker year on year, whilst their defense averaged almost 40 points conceded per game last season.
Remarkably they have shown some signs of life on offense but still lack the kind of Quarterback play that will make a team competitive. Particularly one that doesn’t have a defense that can keep it close. Very little to get excited about if you’re an Illinois fan I’m afraid, although maybe for a team that shipped 60+ points three times last season the only way is up.
previously the founder of nfl draft uk, simon has been covering college football and the nfl draft since 2009. based in manchester, simon is also co-creator & weekly guest of the collapsing pocket podcast.