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Big Ten Football Season Preview

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This upcoming season has all the makings of an exciting one for the Big Ten. What can we expect from each and every team? We gotchu fam. Look no further.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JUL 18 Big Ten Football Media Days
One final season under Dim Jelany begins later this week.
Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Big Ten football baby. It’s coming. It’s almost here. I’m not sure how you made it through the entire summer without being reminded that you shouldn’t sleep on Mohamed Ibrahim this year, but enclosed in this very piece is some of that and more. We’ve got a preview on each team, projected standings, who goes bowling, and some projected postseason awards.

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Team Previews

Big Ten East

Indiana:

What’s that smell? Could it be? Is that what I think it is?

Is that…reasonable, genuine optimism surrounding IU football? You’re damn right it is. The top six rushers from last season are back — most importantly Stevie Scott. His production last season as a true freshman speaks for itself. The wide receivers room is perhaps the most dangerous — and diverse — it’s been in years. Vertical threat Nick Westbrook is capable of a deep touchdown every night, Donavan Hale can go anywhere and Whop Philyor has the speed to get away from any corner in the conference. If healthy, those two position groups are locks to produce if the quarterback play even remotely allows it. And this is where it gets interesting.

We’ve seen flashes of starting quarterback Michael Penix, who has fans believing Indiana is capable of 7+ wins, but the knee injury is a red flag. With a new system under Kalen DeBoer, maybe Penix can flourish. The offensive line is expected to be consistent after a good season as a unit last year. Mix that with three capable quarterbacks ready to play, and there’s a lot of pressure on the QBs this season. If the one on the field isn’t performing, there are two more waiting right behind him. If the one on the field is performing, well...strap in folks.

Defensively, a big spike is expected from last year. The 2018 Hoosiers returned just three starters and saw a drop in points allowed and yards allowed as well as an enormous drop in passing yards per game, completion percentage and sacks — 14 fewer sacks, to be exact. With Tom Allen shifting more of his attention to his defense and seven starters returning, that side of the ball is a lot more experienced and should be a lot more reliable.

Bottom line: The good news? The three non-conference games should be wins, so there are three victories off the bat. The bad news? The crossovers are Northwestern, at Nebraska, and at Purdue. Two road games, no Illinois, no Minnesota. More bad news? The Hoosiers play in the Big Ten East. What makes the conference schedule especially difficult is the fact that the pick ‘em games (Maryland, Nebraska, Purdue) are all on the road. They do have an opportunity in East Lansing to take down Michigan State, and get Northwestern at home before a bye. Essentially, to get to a bowl game, Indiana is going to need an upset or two. That’s just life in the bottom half of the Big Ten East.

Maryland:

The Terrapins were sitting at 5-3 last season — including another win over Texas (who is back, folks) — before dropping their final four games and falling out of bowl contention. The quarterback room has been bitten by the injury bug far too many times in the past two seasons, which probably stripped a bowl appearance from them. With a brand new coaching staff, Maryland will have a fresh start a year after the tragic death of OL Jordan McNair.

Offensively, look no further than Anthony McFarland. The 5’8” sophomore rushed for 1077 yards last year on just 131 carries — an average of 7.9 (!) yards per rush. The Terps can complement his speed with bigger backs in Tayon Fleet-Davis and Javon Leake, who combined for over 600 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. Expect Josh Jackson, the transfer quarterback from Virginia Tech, to start right away, but don’t be surprised if Tyrrell Pigrome sees some playing time as well. Three of last year’s four leading receivers will be back, but could see an increased workload in what should be a more balanced offense compared to the run-heavy scheme last season.

On defense only five starters return, perhaps none more important than Antoine Brooks. The senior safety will look to captain the secondary after losing standout Darnell Savage. Tino Ellis had 11 pass breakups last season and will likely be the team’s best corner. The team took a big leap last season after returning just five starters, allowing 28.7 points per contest just one season after allowing 37.1. They also allowed fewer rushing yards, passing yards, total yards, a lower completion percentage and had two more sacks.

Bottom line: There’s talent in College Park and potential to make a run at a bowl game. But with a tough second week matchup against Syracuse, the Terps need to either get it together quickly or hope for an upset or two down the stretch. The schedule is tough, but this team was inches from taking down Ohio State in a shootout last year. Keep your eyes on the Terrapins, they’re entirely capable of an upset — one that could shake the entire division.

Michigan:

This is Jim Harbaugh’s best shot to date at bringing home the Big Ten East crown. With Ryan Day in his first season at Ohio State with a new QB, the Wolverines could very well battle the Buckeyes with a spot in Indianapolis on the line in Ann Arbor on Nov. 30. In terms of the on-field performance, expect this year’s offense to look more like the 2016 offense. Eight starters return, but the most important piece to this year’s offense is someone that wasn’t there last year — new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. The wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator at Alabama last year, Gattis will be able to work with an experienced quarterback in a more up-tempo offense that is littered with talent. Donovan Peoples-Jones had a solid season last year after showing flashes in 2016, but he could break out this year with his freakish athletic ability.

Defensively, Michigan only returns five starters from a team that allowed just 235 yards and 13.5 points per game going into the Ohio State game. Defensive back Lavert Hill is back, but without Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary, defensive coordinator and mastermind Don Brown will have to find replacements if Michigan wants to make a run at the playoff. He will, and this unit will dominate.

Bottom line: In terms of those defensive replacements, Michigan has two games to figure it out before they face Heisman hopeful Jonathan Taylor and Wisconsin on September 21. The first half of the schedule is favorable for a team with a new OC, but the second half is going to be tough with home games against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State as well as road games against Penn State, Maryland and Indiana. If the Wolverines are going to make the playoff, it’s going to have to be in convincing fashion.

Michigan State:

The Spartans have the most perplexing four-year history of any team in the conference. Since 2014, their records are as follows: 12-2 (College Football Playoff berth), 3-9 (losses to Illinois and Indiana), 10-3 (wins against Michigan and Penn State) and 7-6. The good news? They return nine offensive starters and eight starters on the defensive side. The bad news? Those numbers were 10 and nine last year, respectively, and production on both sides of the ball took a deep dive compared to the previous season. The offense went from 24.5 points per game down to 18.7 and the defense allowed a higher completion percentage, more yards per play and the most passing yards per game since 2015.

Offensively, the Spartans are coming off the worst rushing performance since 2012 - just 125 yards per contest, nearly 25 yards worse than their next worst season in that span. With Brian Lewerke starting (again) and the entire offensive line returning, Mark Dantonio has to be optimistic the production level increases in East Lansing.

But a slight increase in an already-slow-and-low-production offense won’t mean much of anything if the defense doesn’t continue to be in Michigan State form. Reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Kenny Willekes is back and looking to improve on his total of 15.5 sacks from last season and Joe Bachie will look to have back-to-back 100-tackle seasons. After allowing just 12 points per game in its final four regular season games, Michigan State could have the best defense in the conference as well as one of the best in the entire country.

Bottom line: The Rocky Lombardi experience last year was objectively rough for Sparty. It’s pretty safe to assume this team won’t fulfill expectations if Lewerke isn’t healthy, but even then, the offense just has to improve. This is another season for Michigan State that could either end in double-digit wins or a near .500 record.

Ohio State:

The Ryan Day era has arrived in Columbus, and so perhaps has the Justin Fields era. The transfer dual-threat quarterback came in from Georgia with a limited but impressive sample size, completing 69% (nice) of this passes and 266 rushing yards on 42 carries in 12 games. The ceiling for the new offense is higher than anyone’s in the conference, especially with JK Dobbins and KJ Hill returning to complement Fields’ game, but the floor is perhaps as low as its been for Ohio State in a while. A new head coach, new offensive coordinator and new quarterback who wants to be the man at his school could be trouble in paradise just as easily as it could be a match made in heaven.

Defensively the Buckeyes should be dominant. They return nine starters, including six of their top seven tacklers from last season. Sack machine Chase Young is also back and should find himself as an All-American by the end of the season. The rest of the guys they have returning were all members of perhaps the worst defense in the Urban Meyer era. They allowed the most points per game, yards per game, rushing yards per game and yards per play since 2012. With so much returning production, one can only imagine those numbers improve by a decent margin.

Bottom line: The Big Ten West crossover matchups for the Buckeyes are Wisconsin, at Nebraska and at Northwestern—three difficult matchups. Without having to face a Notre Dame caliber team in the non-conference portion of the schedule, Ohio State will have to take care of business as favorites in likely every game, hope Michigan slips up once along the way, and defend its crown in Ann Arbor to close the regular season if it wants to make the playoff.

Penn State:

This is the most intriguing team in the East. We don’t really know what James Franklin can do without Trace McSorley under center. With McSorley and Miles Sanders both gone, Franklin will have to replace almost 2,300 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns. Additionally, McSorley’s ability to manage a game late is a priceless trait Penn State will be without which will be especially tough in a season that includes road contests against Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State. In Franklin’s first two seasons in Happy Valley — without McSorley as the starter — the Nittany Lion offense averaged about 22 points and 342 yards per game. The next three years with McSorley, those numbers spiked to 37.5 points and 438 yards per game. In short, the pressure is on Sean Clifford to produce for a coach who thinks his team should always be a contender.

Defensively the Nittany Lions only return six starters, but that includes five of the team’s top six tacklers. Expect that unit to be one of the top ones in the conference.

Bottom line: Franklin’s struggles in late-game scenarios arose last year in a number of matchups. He’s certainly not afraid to walk the walk, but this will be a pivotal year for him to cement his place as an annual contender in the Big Ten. To me, it feels as though his stock is trending downward. Quarterbacks and running backs have traditionally been asked to carry a massive workload in his offenses, and with both of those positions lacking proven star-power for the first time since 2014-15 (both 7-6 seasons), the pressure is on to remain in the top tier of a top-heavy division.

Rutger:

What many hoped was a big step forward in 2017 was completely erased last season after a 1-11 campaign. The already dull offense fell flat on its face, the defense cracked a bit more after a decent turnaround in ’17, and the team had a turnover margin of -14 — by far the worst mark under Chris Ash. If you want to be optimistic, there is this: in the second half of the season, the Scarlet Knights came within four points of both Big Ten West champion Northwestern and Michigan State in East Lansing. They also fought well with Penn State before falling 20-7. They covered the spread six times as the underdogs — and this is where the bad news starts — which they were in 11 of 12 games.

Rutger is losing five of its top seven tacklers from last season and only returning five starters. Artur Sitkowski will be under center and fans can only hope he improves from his numbers last year - 49% completion percentage, four touchdowns and 18 interceptions. There is a sense of optimism from some media members and the Rutgers staff about an improved offense this season, and that will probably start with running back Raheem Blackshear. The 5’9” back was also the teams leading receiver last year, and will be splitting time with fellow running back Isaih Pacheco. If Sitkowski takes a big step forward in his true sophomore season and the two backs stay healthy, the Knights can pick up a couple of wins.

Bottom line: If there is no sign of true growth this year, the Chris Ash experiment is likely going to be over soon. He had genuine traction in 2017 but it all fell apart last year. Three of the five offensive linemen are returning along with the two running backs, who can hopefully take a little pressure off Sitkowski at first. As I see it right now, Rutgers is probably looking at three wins, at most.

Big Ten West

Illinois:

This is an enormous year for Lovie Smith in Champaign. With 17 total starters back, a very manageable non-conference schedule and a crossover game against Rutger, Illinois could sniff bowl contention if all goes well. The quarterback room is littered with freshmen with an offensive line full of upperclassmen. Reggie Corbin is back after a 1,144 rushing yard season last year and should see those numbers climb even more. The wide receiver room is experienced and talented, and should improve from a rocky season due to injury, suspension and dropped balls last year. 2018 was Smith’s best Illini offense of his tenure by far, and this year’s could be even better.

Defensively, however, there’s work to be done. Last year’s defense was Smith’s worst, allowing almost 40 points and over 500 yards per game. In a much-improved Big Ten West this season, those numbers are just not going to cut it. The team is going into the season with 10 of its 11 projected starters back on defense, so expect a jump in production.

Bottom line: The Illini had a dismal year on one side of the ball and a fine year on the other, and were two possessions away from a potential bowl game. They gathered momentum last year and have a good, young group of underclassmen mixed with a lot of experienced upperclassmen. In a proving year for the head coach, expect Illinois to play with a sense of urgency and with something to prove. Most people are projecting the West will be wide open for six of seven teams — excluding Illinois. In a tight division, that could be a huge motivating factor.

Iowa:

The good news — Nate Stanley is back along with essentially Iowa’s entire rushing production from last year. The bad news — reliable targets Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson are gone. Kirk Ferentz will find replacements and this team will compete, he’s had an over .500 record every year since 2006 except for just one. The only two things we know about this team right now are as follows:

  1. Stanley is going to tear it up again
  2. The running back unit is going to be reliable

The question mark is really the entire defense. With only four starters returning from easily the program’s best unit in the last half-decade, there will be pressure to repeat if the Hawkeyes want to win the division. On the bright side, last year’s dominant defense only had five starters back from the team prior, and that didn’t include master of destruction Josey Jewell — they figured it out just fine.

Bottom line: This is going to be your standard Iowa team with a slight upgrade in quarterback and rushing attack. An eight win caliber team plus an offensive upgrade equals contender. November 29 in Lincoln could decide who goes to Indy.

Minnesota:

Last year’s Minnesota team was one of the most perplexing Big Ten teams I’ve seen in a while. PJ Fleck played a couple of different quarterbacks who had totally different styles, and thus had an offensive that was all over the place all season long. This season, the Gophers bring back nine starters, including every single receiving threat, both quarterbacks and 1,000-yard-rusher Mohamed Ibrahim. Ibrahim and wide receiver Tyler Johnson could be the most dynamic one-two-punch in the division this season — both had over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns at their position last year.

Defensively, last year’s unit was the team’s worst in years. This year, they will be without stars Blake Cashman and Jacob Huff. The pressure will be on defensive end Carter Coughlin, who had 9.5 sacks last year (second in the conference), to lead an experienced defense through a pretty manageable schedule. The numbers should improve by a decent margin, and if so, the Gophers should be in a good position in almost every game this season.

Bottom line: Both the offense and defense are coming off average years, but both will improve. One side of the ball is going to have to exceed expectations if Minnesota is to compete in the division, and if I were a betting man, I would bet on the offense to put up some serious numbers. Ibrahim and Johnson aren’t Big Ten household names yet, but they will be after this season. With Nebraska and Wisconsin at home Minnesota could shake things up in the West.

Nebraska:

Fans outside of Lincoln don’t seem to be happy with Nebraska’s preseason hype after a 4-8 season that included home losses to Colorado and Troy. A message to those fans: deal with it, because this team is good. We know Scott Frost can coach, we know Adrian Martinez can play and we know the team put the pieces together in the second half of the season — the Huskers went 4-2 with blowout wins over Minnesota and Illinois, and a 9-6 victory over Michigan State. The two losses? Road games against Ohio State (36-31) and Iowa (lost on a game-winning field goal as time expired). This year, they get both of those teams at home as well as crossover games against Indiana and Maryland. The two bye weeks come on Oct. 19 and Nov. 9 with two very winnable games in between — an almost ideal schedule if they take care of business beforehand.

Even with the 0-6 start, last year’s team was Nebraska’s best on the offensive side of the ball since 2015. The Huskers averaged 36.6 points per contest in the final six games of the season, and scored 40+ three times. Quarterback Adrian Martinez is fresh off a really impressive freshman season and with an entire offseason to work with Frost as the team’s number one QB expect his numbers to jump significantly. He’ll miss wide receiver Stanley Morgan, his reliable top target last season, but can trust JD Spielman to step up and have a massive year leading a really solid unit. On defense six starters are back, but a lot of production from last year is not. Only one of the team’s top six tacklers returns, but it’s Mohamed Barry, who racked up 112 tackles last season and was second in the conference in tackles per game.

Bottom line: Offensively, this team will produce and give trouble to every team in the West. The division is wide open, and the Huskers have arguably their four toughest matchups all at home. Don’t be surprised to see Big Red at the top of the standings when the calendar turns to December.

Northwestern:

How will Pat Fitzgerald follow up a division title? That’s the million dollar question. The Big Ten’s most unpredictable team is entering an incredibly intriguing season. Without four-year starter Clayton Thorson, Northwestern will have to hope the transition of either Hunter Johnson — a former 5-star quarterback recruit — or TJ Green is a smooth one. Despite returning six starters, the offense is full of question marks. Last year’s offense was one of the worst under Pat Fitzgerald this decade. It was perhaps saved by the sudden dominance of Isaiah Bowser, a rising sophomore who had almost 900 rushing yards in eight games as the team’s starter. After the remarkable four years of service Justin Jackson gave the Wildcats and how much talent Jeremy Larkin had before he retired for medical reasons, Bowser’s potential almost seems too good to be true. He certainly displayed all the tools necessary to be a capable Big Ten running back last year, but following up a strong freshman campaign isn’t easy. Northwestern returns a couple of its top receivers, but will likely turn to Bennett Skowronek to lead that group. Trey Pugh will likely be the starting superback, and don’t be surprised if he’s the x-factor for the Wildcats this season. Fitzgerald’s superbacks usually don’t stuff the stat sheet, but their value in a successful offense goes well beyond that.

Defensively, this unit will compete with the 2015 defense for Fitzgerald’s best as head coach. The Wildcats return Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher — the conference’s two leading tacklers last year. Joe Gaziano and Samdup Miller are also back to further strengthen that front seven. Losing Montre Hartage to the NFL is going to hurt the secondary a bit, but JR Pace will be able to fill his spot. At 6’1”and 200 pounds, the junior safety gave opponents nightmares last season with 82 total tackles, seven pass breakups and four interceptions. The schedule is difficult so the numbers may not be elite, but this defense has potential to be ready to slow down any opponent on any given week.

Bottom line: Opening with Stanford on the road, road games against Wisconsin and Nebraska on back-to-back weeks, along with a crossover game against Ohio State is not an enviable schedule. The offense should be middle of the pack, but Fitzgerald has been able to spark life into his offenses at exactly the right time as of late. If the defense stays healthy and meets expectations, the Wildcats will have an opportunity to win any game this season if the offense can evolve and meet its potential. Of course they won’t go undefeated, but every game could be close. Just another fun and capable team in the Big Ten West.

Purdue:

The Brohm train built an absurd amount of momentum last season before getting mauled by Auburn in the Music City Bowl. Most people will remember the highs of this team — the beatdown of Ohio State — but few will remember the lows — like the 41-10 loss to Minnesota or the home loss to Eastern Michigan. That fluctuation in a young team with a young coach proves what nearly everyone believes: Jeff Brohm has Purdue on the rise really, really quickly. The highs were those flashes of greatness, and the lows were the growing pains. This year will be more of the same.

Yes, Rondale Moore could be an All-American this year after a sensational freshman campaign, but he’s one out of three members returning to the offense. The other two are offensive linemen Matt McCannn and Grant Hermanns. No DJ Knox, no Markell Jones, no David Blough. The quarterback solution is going to be Elijah Sindelar, who has a decent amount of experience under center. His numbers last year were far from spectacular, and he likely won’t be David Blough, but Brohm knows he’s getting a quarterback with legitimate in-game experience who had a solid season in 2017. As far as running backs go there’s a good chance it ends up being by committee. Senior Tario Fuller is the projected starter, but he only had 14 carries last year and has young talent behind him. The wide receivers will be led by Moore and despite not returning any other starters, will still have a decent amount of experience with Brycen Hopkins and Jared Sparks.

On the defensive side, the entire front seven is back, including the conference’s third leading tackler and the team’s leader in sacks last year, Markus Bailey. He and Cornel Jones lead a loaded group of linebackers that will look to improve a defense that took a dip in production last season. With the offense constantly seeming to be one play away from a touchdown at all times, this defense should be able to keep Purdue in the game nearly every week.

Bottom line: Unfortunately (and somewhat surprisingly), Rondale Moore can’t do everything for this offense. There will be times where he flourishes thanks to great play-calling, and there will be times where he seems to be carrying the offense on his back. There is a group of legitimate division contenders, but Purdue is probably just an inch outside. Possible, but unlikely. Then again, they shocked us last year on multiple occasions. Maybe they do it once more.

Wisconsin:

The Badgers will be contenders in the West simply because they have the conference’s best running back in Jonathan Taylor. The Heisman candidate will be the leader of an offense that has some quarterback trouble. Will new starter Jack Coan take the offense to the next level, or will mediocre quarterback play haunt Wisconsin yet again? Either way, it can’t really be much worse than it was last year — Alex Hornibrook threw for 1,532 yards with a 59% completion percentage, 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The good news for Coan is that all five of the team’s leading receivers are back. Despite only one returning starter on the offensive line, the offense has a number of reliable weapons to rely on to ease into the season.

Losing TJ Edwards and Ryan Connelly is going to be difficult to overcome for the defense. The production was way down last season, but the unit was also constantly crushed by injuries. To put it simply, this will be a totally solid, typical Wisconsin defense if it stays healthy.

Bottom line: The Badgers were straight-up disappointing last year. This is easily a top two team in the division, but with a ridiculous in-conference schedule. They travel to Nebraska and Minnesota, and have crossover games against Ohio State (on the road), Michigan and Michigan State. The talent is there, but the schedule is going to be a pain.

Projected Standings (bowl eligible teams bolded)

East:

  1. Michigan
  2. Ohio State
  3. Michigan State
  4. Penn State
  5. Indiana
  6. Maryland
  7. Rutger

West:

  1. Nebraska
  2. Iowa
  3. Wisconsin
  4. Northwestern
  5. Minnesota
  6. Purdue
  7. Illinois

B1G Championship: Michigan over Nebraska

OPOY Watch List (top 3):

  1. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
  2. Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue
  3. Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan

Sleeper: Adrian Martinez, QB, Nebraska

DPOY Watch List (top 3):

  1. Chase Young, DL, Ohio State
  2. A.J. Epenesa, DL, Iowa
  3. Kenny Willekes, DL, Michigan State

Sleeper: Paddy Fisher, LB, Northwestern

COY:

Scott Frost, Nebraska.