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Big Ten power rankings: A new season begins

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Now’s the time to be optimistic, unless you’re an Illinois fan.

Ohio State v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

14. Illinois (Last season: 2-10 overall, 0-9 B1G)

Did the Illini make a deal with the devil that allowed them to sneak into the Rose Bowl in 2007 then destroy their football program for the next century? The rest of the West division is improving, but under Lovie Smith the Illini seem stagnant. Sadly their best chance of a B1G win could be at Rutger on October 6.

13. Rutger (4-8, 3-6)

Congrats on not starting in last, Rutger! Chris Ash’s crew had a strange 2017 in which they had 3 Big Ten wins (including a 14-12 barn burner over Purdue) yet still finished 4-8 thanks to an early loss to Eastern Michigan. They also got outscored 116-13 in their final three games, including a 41-0 loss to Indiana. Rutger has shown some promise under Ash, especially on the defensive side of the ball, but this is still a young team that is going to rely on true freshman Artur Sitkowski to win them games.

12. Maryland (4-8, 2-7)

This is a tough team to evaluate for many reasons. Jordan McNair’s death and the negligence that this university showed in treating him will overshadow the team all season, and it seems unlikely that suspended head coach DJ Durkin will be back before the season, if at all. That leaves Matt Canada, a name IU fans know all too well, as the interim head coach. If the Terps once again knock off Texas to start the season like they did last year, then they could be in a good position to make a bowl. If not, and the injuries pile up again, the season could spiral out of control quickly for the Terps.

11. Minnesota (5-7, 2-7)

P.J. Fleck didn’t get the boat all the way up and rowing in his first season in Minneapolis, as the Gophers finished 5-7 and scored more than 10 points only once in their last 5 contests. They’ll be young this year, and are starting true freshman Zack Annexstad at QB. But with a reasonable non-con schedule and games against IU, Illinois, and Maryland, this team could get to a bowl if things break their way.

10. Indiana (5-7, 2-7)

I think 10th is a fair ranking for the Hoosiers, who lose a few pieces on defense and have questions about who will be their starting QB. I believe in Tom Allen’s defense, even without playmakers such as Tegray Scales, Chris Covington, and Chase Dutra. It’s the offense that is worrying me for this season. Can Mike DeBord push the right buttons and find a system that works for this team? And please, can we cut it out with the three-yard passes on third-and-long? After the IU offense plummeted to 98th in S&P+ last year (after a not-so-great 2016), a dose of healthy skepticism is warranted.

9. Purdue (7-6, 4-5)

I have the opposite concerns for the team on the north side of the state. Purdue’s offense should be fine, as that’s Jeff Brohm’s bread and butter. It’s the defense that could be an issue. I’m expecting a lot of vintage early-2010s IU-style shootouts for the Boilers this year. We’ll get to see what Purdue is made of right away when they play an ACTUAL UNDER THE LIGHTS GAME in West Lafayette against Northwestern to kick off the season on August 30.

8. Nebraska (4-8, 3-6)

HAIL SCOTT FROST! THE SAVIOR HAS RETURNED!

Nebraska lucked out that one of their own turned into one of the hottest coaching prospects in college football after his undefeated season at UCF last year. Nebraska spiraled to 4-8 under Mike Riley last year, and that defense was atrocious, so I’m not expecting Frost to go in and win a division just yet. I realize Huskers fans are excited but they’ll need to temper their expectations for Frost in year 1. An early-season game in the Big House could give Nebraska fans an idea of how long his rebuild might take.

7. Northwestern (10-3, 7-2)

The Wildcats started out 2-3 last season then rattled off 8 straight to end the year (including three straight overtime victories) and no one still is sure how they did it. Clayton Thorson has a ton of experience as the veteran QB for Northwestern, and while his 15-12 TD-to-INT ratio from a season ago isn’t wonderful, he did score 8 rushing TDs. This is a tough schedule, but getting Wisconsin, Notre Dame, and Michigan all at home might help with it.

6. Iowa (8-5, 4-5)

The interesting thing about the Hawkeyes won’t be the final record (about 8 wins as usual under Kirk Ferentz), it will be the journey. Two years ago, Iowa lost to North Dakota State but beat Michigan. Last year, the Hawkeyes fell flat at home against Purdue, but beat Ohio State 55-24. I expect similar weirdness this year - beating Wisconsin then losing to Minnesota two weeks later wouldn’t surprise me at all. Nate Stanley should continue to improve under center this year, and even without Akrum Wadley, I’m not too worried about Iowa’s run game.

5. Michigan (8-5, 5-4)

Hey look! Jim Harbaugh’s in the news for saying something zany again! I’m as sick of this guy as the rest of you, and I think another season of losses to rivals might finally break even the most diehard UM fan’s spirit about Saint Jim. Road games against Notre Dame, OSU, and MSU won’t help with this, and the Wolverines get Wisconsin and Penn State as well. That’s a lot to ask from Ole Miss transfer QB Shea Patterson as he tries to pilot Michigan to above third place in the B1G East. Watch for Rashaun Gary to take Jabrill Peppers’ spot as “Michigan defender from Jersey who has his best game against Rutger.”

4. Penn State (11-2, 7-2)

Saquon Barkley and former OC Joe Moorhead may be gone, but Trace McSorley’s still around. Penn State’s had some great recruiting success under James Franklin as well. The Nittany Lions may take a step back after two straight NY6 bowls, but they’ve got great opportunities to knock off MSU, OSU, and Wisconsin in Happy Valley this season.

3. Wisconsin (13-1, 9-0)

People tend to love Wisconsin this year. Yes they’re great, but I’m hitting the brakes a bit. The best team they faced in their undefeated regular season last year was Florida Atlantic. Ohio State exposed their one-dimensional offense in the Big Ten title game. And it’s still unresolved if Alex Hornibrook can overcome the pressure in a big game, especially without tight end Troy Fumagalli. This year’s schedule is similarly weak other than trips to Happy Valley and the Big House, and while I’m confident in the Badgers having yet another 10-win year, I’m not sure if they’re title contenders.

2. Michigan State (10-3, 7-2)

Sparty bounced back in a big way last year. I expect that positive momentum to continue on through this season, as running back L.J. Scott enters his 10th year with the team while Brian Lewerke proves my theory that every Michigan State QB has been same exact person with the same exact stats since 1998. I like Michigan State a lot this year and think the game against OSU in East Lansing will decide the Big Ten East winner. But MSU’s week 2 game in the desert against Arizona State, which starts at 10:45 eastern time, could be a tough test for an often slow-starting Sparty team. If Herm Edwards outsmarts Mark Dantonio en route to a victory, I’ll never let Spartans fans hear the end of it.

1. Ohio State (12-2, 8-1)

Ohio State is expected to announce the results of the Urban Meyer investigation any moment now, and at this point it’s clear that nothing OSU President Michael Drake does will satisfy the entire fanbase. If OSU keeps Meyer, which seems likely at this point, I think it will be a disappointing commentary on a university that has gotten rid of two title-winning coaches before, and proof that OSU no longer believes that no one coach is more important than the school.

As for on-the-field stuff, this OSU team is loaded. Nick Bosa could be drafted #1 overall by the Browns next spring. J.K. Dobbins and K.J. Hill are back. Dwayne Haskins could be a better version of J.T. Barrett, who started for a good portion of four seasons. No matter who the coach is, 10-2 seems like the floor for this team, and I’m not expecting another Iowa-style flop. Even the big nonconference game against TCU (once called Little Sisters of the Poor by former OSU president Gordon Gee) is a neutral-siter in the JerryDome. You can bet the stadium will be filled with fans wearing scarlet and gray despite being around the corner from TCU. OSU are the defending B1G champs and should rightfully be the conference favorites coming into the season.