The Big Ten. It has been the most polarizing conference in the last few years. Ever since the Buckeyes won the National Championship in 2014, the Big Ten has laid a goose egg. First their 2015 appearance by Michigan State where they were shut out by Alabama and 2016 when Ohio State got shut out by Clemson. Then the last two years the Big Ten hasn’t represented as their best chance in the Buckeyes came up short behind Alabama in 2017 for the last spot and then thanks to their blowout loss at Purdue and slipping by a few games, were 6th in the vote, even behind two-loss Georgia. So the Big Ten is trying to find a way to get back in the Playoff. The question is, will they?
Ohio State will have a new coach in 2019 as Urban Meyer retired. But they still have talent all over the place. Michigan many feel like will have their moment in the sun this year with a returning quarterback and a stout defense. Penn State and Michigan State can’t be taken for granted either. In the West, it may be very competitive with Nebraska making strides under Scott Frost. However, Iowa looks to be a formidable challenger themselves and the likes of Purdue, Northwestern, and Minnesota will put up fights. Wisconsin wants to show last year was a fluke when they went 7-5 too so that could be a fight in the west. It could be very interesting on what happens in the Big Ten this year.
BIG TEN EAST
(1) MICHIGAN WOLVERINES: Jim Harbaugh will be under the scope for one game in 2019: Ohio State. Yes, the Wolverines will field another dangerous team under Harbaugh especially on defense. But the offense is in question of “can they take that next step?” Michigan brought over Alabama co-OC Josh Gattis to run things and develop a spread offense. That will help Shea Patterson at quarterback to go along with a stout offensive line to protect him. He will have Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins. If those guys can stay healthy, watch out. The running game will be interesting as Karan Higdon and Chris Evans are not on the team. It leaves Tru Wilson as the main guy. He rushed for 344 yards last year but 5 yards per carry so it could be a secret in the making. The defense has been strong but will miss three studs in Devin Bush, Chase Winovich, and Rashan Gary. However, the Wolverines are pretty deep and fast up front and bring back sack leader Josh Uche. The secondary is strong with Lavert Hill at corner and Josh Metellus at safety. Michigan’s schedule is a “thankfully we have our rivals come to Ann Arbor” schedule as Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State are all coming up to the Big House (in between those teams are Maryland and Indiana on the road). The two tough battles away will be Wisconsin and Penn State. It’s manageable and they can go 12-0 as the Badgers and Nittany Lions aren’t as strong as they’ve been the past few years and maybe just maybe, Harbaugh can silence critics. BEST CASE RECORD: 12-0 WORST CASE RECORD: 8-4 MY PREDICTION: 11-1. A hair uneasy with the road tilt at Penn State as it is a nightmare place to play. However, the rest of the schedule bounces in their favor including I think a big W against their rivals in Columbus.
(2) OHIO STATE BUCKEYES: Urban Meyer is gone after last season’s controversy. Enter Ryan Day. Obviously he doesn’t have the prestige of a star head coach but that may not be too bad. AND he is running one of the elite programs in college football. He will also have a new quarterback in Georgia transfer Justin Fields. Fields, who expected to get plenty of playing time at Georgia, didn’t get that much at all (and when he did it was “hand the ball off” mostly) and opted to transfer and play important minutes. He’ll get his shot at Ohio State. The major issue is that Fields will have an offensive line that is very new and if last year at Georgia showed anything, he was still wet behind the ears when he was there. At least Fields will have a stud in JK Dobbins at tailback. Dobbins and Mike Weber split time last year but it seems like he will get a bulk of the carries. If he takes pressure off of Fields, Fields will have KJ Hill, who could have a huge year in Columbus. On defense, the Buckeyes hope to improve from last year where they were less than stellar, especially against the pass. In fact, the Buckeyes ranked at the bottom half of the conference in all major categories. This year that can’t be the case or else Ohio State will struggle. However there is hope with Chase Young at end (9.5 sacks last year) and Tyreke Smith. The linebackers at Ohio State are experienced, but haven’t been as dominant or intimidating like we would think of Buckeye linebackers in the past. The secondary is solid with Jordan Fuller and Isaish Pryor being great safeties and Jeffrey Okudah could be a shutdown guy. But if Damon Arnette can’t get things cooking, even the average passing squads of the Big Ten will have field days on the Buckeyes. Ohio State has a a schedule seeing key rivals of Penn State and Michigan State at home but three games on the road could be interesting: at Nebraska, at Northwestern, and of course at Michigan. We’ve seen the last few years going to a Big Ten West school has been Ohio State’s death for the playoff. BEST CASE RECORD: 12-0 WORST CASE RECORD: 8-4 MY PREDICTION: 10-2 I am not overly sold on Fields just yet and I think the Nebraska game will be like Iowa and Purdue for the Buckeyes. And Michigan gets them this year.
(3) PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS: To say Penn State is going to have an interesting year is an understatement. Trace McSorley…gone. Miles Sanders…gone. The offense will probably take a step back as a new quarterback takes charge in Sean Clifford. The good news is he will have a seasoned targets at receiver in KJ Hamler and a tight end in Pat Freiermuth. Three linemen return which will be helpful, but again, it will be a young crew up front outside of that. The youthfulness extends to the backfield as Ricky Slade takes over. He did well in the times he was in last year but the question will be can he be the feature guy like Sanders was and Barkley before that? So questions abound on Penn State’s offense. Defensively Penn State should be the force and an improved one. Yetur Gross-Matos had 8 sacks last year and Robert Windsor had 7.5 and the line is pretty deep with young underclassmen. Linebackers also will pose a problem with offenses as Micah Parsons and Jan Johnson come back alongside Cam Brown. The secondary is solid and only going to be better with that pass rush up front too. If Penn State can stop the run (which they struggled a bit in 2018) and I think they will, they could be a sleeper in the Big Ten. Largely I think that is because the schedule starts out pretty good for the Lions until mid-October when the teeth of the schedule comes in at Iowa, then Michigan, and at Michigan State in three consecutive weeks. And they nearly finish off at Ohio State. By then, hopefully for Penn State, they answered their questions on offense. BEST CASE RECORD: 11-1 WORST CASE RECORD: 7-5 MY PREDICTION: 9-3. Penn State could go 5-0 heading to Iowa which will test their physicality. I feel like they can sting Michigan in Happy Valley but Michigan State has been their albatross the last few seasons and that late tilt in Columbus won’t be fun either.
(4) MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS: For the first time since starting at Michigan State, Mark Dantonio is feeling it from the Spartan faithful. After a year where the Spartans could have netted maybe a New Year’s Six game with their defense and a quality offense, it has gone south. The Spartans were dreadful on offense and many blamed the coaching staff for its inability to adjust. So Brad Salem takes over at coordinator and will try to use more of an up-tempo offense. The line returns four guys hopefully that have improved in the off-season that can protect Brian Lewerke. Lewerke was injured midway through the season but tried to play through it which really was a bad idea (and also something Dantonio got ripped for, by keeping him in games). If he is healthy, Michigan State should have a solid passing attack especially having the top two targets in Cody White and Darrell Stewart Jr (assuming both can stay healthy-notice a trend here?). The running game is a big question mark. Connor Heyward starts but he isn’t a game breaking RB. So a lot of ifs on offense. Defensively, Michigan State remains a strong squad. They ranked first overall against the run and bring back six of their front seven starters. The pass rush is going to be strong with Kenny Willekes at end. Joe Bachie is the next of great Michigan State LB’s and will have a seasoned group to captain. It will be can they get stronger in the secondary with Josiah Scott leading the way. If history shows, then yes as David Dowell and Xavier Henderson at safeties can reignite the No Fly Zone that dominated Big Ten foes from 2012-2015. Michigan State’s schedule is a typical schedule but having to see Michigan and Ohio State on the road this year while having trips to Northwestern and Wisconsin (both of whom have given Michigan State nightmares) so any chances of a dark horse run is slim in 2019. BEST CASE RECORD: 10-2 WORST CASE RECORD: 6-6 MY PREDICTION: 8-4. The road games will doom Michigan State, but it could all depend on consistency on offense.
(5) MARYLAND TERRAPINS: Mike Locksley returns after going to the Nick Saban School of Coaching and installing an offense at Alabama that just obliterated opponents all season long. Of course, being in the Big Ten East, he will have his work cut out. He is really going to have a clean slate as three starters return on offense, notably Anthony McFarland Jr, who could be a sleeper at RB in the conference. And he will get Virginia Tech transfer Josh Jackson to quarterback the offense. But the question will be especially in the division is can they protect Jackson from the likes of what they see out of the Big Four in the Big Ten East? On defense, the Terrapins will also have a clean slate as the defense returns four which is a middle-of-the road crew but with high hopes down the road with their recruiting. They will need to get to quarterbacks better (which they didn’t last year) to help out a decent secondary. But the front guys need to step up everything that pretty much gashed them in 2018. Maryland’s schedule is intriguing with a home game against the vastly improved Syracuse team and open up with Penn State at home and they get a fun run of seeing Michigan and Ohio State in back-to-back weeks late in the season which may decide if they see a bowl game in 2019. BEST CASE RECORD: 5-7 WORST CASE RECORD: 3-9 MY PREDICTION: 4-8. Maryland is very young and will be better in the years to come, but it isn’t this year.
(6) INDIANA HOOSIERS: You have to give credit to Tom Allen’s teams for putting up fights against the big boys. There is hope with bringing 15 starters back to put up some fights again in 2019. Peyton Ramsey looks to start but the depth at Indiana is pretty impressive and could give secondaries fits with Nick Westbrook and Donavan Hale on the other end. Add on Stevie Scott who ran for 1,100 yards and you have a very formidable offense. Some questions abound if the Hoosiers line can protect the backs as they only return two starters up front. On defense, the Hoosiers struggled last year in nearly everything. They got to get better without question. Returning 8 can be good but the upperclassmen all have to make bigger contributions or else it will be another long season in Bloomington. James Head and Jerome Johnson could be keys to the Hoosiers pass rush. Indiana’s schedule has an easy non-conference one but plenty of road games on the conference one that will doom them and they have Ohio State and Michigan in Bloomington but I wouldn’t expect upsets there. The talent isn’t there like it is with the rest of the Division. BEST CASE RECORD: 6-6 WORST CASE RECORD: 3-9 MY PREDICTION: 4-8 IF they can find a way to win at Maryland the Purdue game will be huge and to see if they can get into a bowl game. But I don’t see it happening. Beating Rutgers may be their lone conference W.
(7) RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHTS: A debate can be made Rutgers is now the worst power 5 squad in the nation. Hopes of Chris Ash turning the program around have disappeared and the Scarlet Knights don’t have any kind of depth even on the levels of Indiana and Maryland. The offense is brutal with Artur Sitkowski at quarterback (bad decisions and poor accuracy) and that’s where it ends on Rutgers offense honestly. Raheem Blackshear and Isaih Pacheco are good running backs but won’t amount to much if the Scarlet Knights are behind all the time. Defensively Rutgers can’t give up that many yards on the ground (215 per game last year). Questions abound if they can stop the run and so far it hasn’t been the case. The passing defense is not too bad and they have guys who can get to the QB (Elorm Lumor, Mike Tverdov) and Damon Hayes and Avery Young are solid corners. Rutgers schedule, well…doesn’t have too many wins on there. They are probably the least talented bunch in the conference and just don’t have the horses to compete with the rest. Wins vs. UMass and Liberty are pretty likely but I don’t see them taking anyone else down. Maybe Illinois? They gave Michigan State a run last year but I doubt it happens again. BEST CASE RECORD: 3-9 WORST CASE RECORD: 1-11 MY PREDICTION: 2-10. The Chris Ash Era has run its course at Rutgers but the buyout is $8 million. It could be another year of misery in Jersey.
BIG TEN WEST
(1) NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS: Still too soon to pick the Huskers to win the Big Ten West? Last year Nebraska started off 0-6, a nightmare for Frost in his first season. However, the minute they started winning, they were an entirel different team. The Huskers had a near miss at Ohio State and then a W against Michigan State and another near miss at Iowa showed they were ready to compete with the big boys of the Big Ten and the stride begins this year. Adrian Martinez is a budding star at quarterback and only got better as the season progressed. He will miss Stanley Morgan but will have JD Spielman and Maurice Washington as complimentary targets. Washington will be the feature guy in the backfield and could have a big year. The line returns two starters but high hopes are with Trent Hixson and freshman Center Cam Jurgens. On defense will be a different thing which was a giant mess last year. They return 5 starters and questions will have to be on the line (if they can get pressure on quarterbacks) and linebackers on the outside to add more of a rush. The secondary is inexperienced as well, but hopes of a young crew behind the upperclassmen gives Nebraska hope. In other words, Nebraska is hoping to outscore their opponents to cover up some defensive woes and make the needed stops to win games a la Oklahoma does. Nebraska’s schedule is pretty nicely laid out for them in 2019. They get Ohio State at home and avoid Michigan and Penn State too. Road trips to Colorado, Purdue, and Minnesota aren’t the end of the world. Could the Huskers actually run the table? Possible, but only if the defense makes strides which may not be the case. But regardless, Nebraska is a sleeping giant ready to wake up. BEST CASE RECORD: 12-0 WORST CASE RECORD: 7-5 MY PREDICTION: 10-2 They get Ohio State at home, but I wonder if the inexperience nails them at Minnesota and Purdue.
(2) IOWA HAWKEYES: Iowa is always known as the “stale, vanilla” program of the college football world. Honestly, I think that changes at least for this year. Nate Stanley is a quality quarterback who can get the job done and is accurate. Now if he can move it downfield more instead of relying on the tight ends (which his top two targets at end are in the NFL now) he could be a Heisman dark horse. He will have a few guys to throw at receiver in Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette but they need to be more involved. The running game could be solid if the line improves in between the stout tackles as Iowa has a bevvy of experienced runners (Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young, Ivory Kelly-Martin). But the defense is where they will be vicious. AJ Epensa had 10.5 sacks last year for the Hawkeyes. Chauncey Golston is also a beast in his own right. The linebacking corps may not be dominating like they’ve had in the past but they are deep and seasoned. The secondary will miss Amani Hooker but they are also seasoned and we have always seen Iowa put up quality defenses that keeps them in games. With a pass rush that Iowa has, the secondary’s loss of Hooker won’t be as impactful. Iowa’s schedule is rough to say the least. They see their annual improved rival in Iowa State on the road early on, but that may be the “easiest” road game all year with trips to Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Nebraska to end the year. Stealing a win or two is a must if the Hawkeyes want to play in Indianapolis in early December. BEST CASE RECORD: 11-1 WORST CASE RECORD: 6-6 MY PREDICTION: 9-3. Iowa will take down their in-state rivals and edge out Wisconsin in Madison. But Northwestern is always an issue as will be Michigan and Nebraska.
(3) NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS: Say what you will about Northwestern but they are probably the most resilient team in the conference. After two embarrassing home losses to Duke and Akron, the Wildcats nearly stunned the Wolverines before decisively beating Michigan State and kick-started their run to the Big Ten Championship game. That said, there are some gaping holes on offense notably. Clayton Thorson and his inconsistency is gone. But hopes of Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson giving that needed jolt on offense. Isaiah Bowser will ease pressure off Johnson in the run game as he was rolling down the stretch for the Wildcats and their success. But Johnson will enjoy the receiving corps that helped the Wildcats get there in Ben Skowronek and Riley Lees. But Northwestern needs that deep threat to really make them have a strong shot. Defensively Northwestern is quietly underrated. Linebackers are their strength as Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher being mentioned as some of the best in the nation. The Wildcats have a defensive line that can get after the quarterback led by Joe Gazaiano (7.5 sacks last year) and can stop the run. However, what the Wildcats struggled in was the secondary (109th in the nation against the pass). Some of it was injuries but still, they were beat a lot last year. It may make or break the Wildcats chances at a Big Ten championship game return. Northwestern has an early road schedule that is rough with a start at Stanford before a 3-game stretch against Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Nebraska (with the latter two being at home) and then a home tilt with the Buckeyes. If they can find a way to be 4-2 midway through the season, the Wildcats have a great chance at Indianapolis again. BEST CASE RECORD: 10-2 WORST CASE RECORD: 6-6 MY PREDICTION: 8-4. Front side is too problematic and may be 2-4 with Iowa coming in. But they will continue to fight.
(4) WISCONSIN BADGERS: Many people seemingly banked Wisconsin due to their recent history under Paul Chryst and a strong running back in Jonathan Taylor to make the College Football Playoff (I wasn’t one of them). However, the defense fell back big time against the run and teams could make key passes as well. Adding on with more inconsistencies under quarterback Alex Hornibrook and a tougher schedule, the Badgers fell to 7-5 and was pretty much done from the Big Ten Championship race by November. The main target of Wisconsin’s struggles, Hornibrook, is gone as a transfer to Florida State. Enter either Jack Coan or Graham Mertz. Mertz is highly touted and gives Badgers fans hope. He may start the season but there isn’t much in the way of a lot of help on offense aside from Taylor. Receivers over the time have also been maligned for being unable to make big plays. AJ Taylor may be the best guy in that group. The line will also be in question after the losses of key guys but has an established center in Tyler Biadasz. But of course the offense will be centered around Jonathan Taylor who is a front-runner for the Heisman. The questions seem to be more an more for Wisconsin on defense the last few years. The defensive line is thin and on the secondary nobody has stepped up being that guy yet (though three starters return). Linebacker may be a strength but also a question of depth there as well. The Badgers schedule starts off pretty nice with five straight home games after their trip to South Florida, but one of them includes Michigan. The back end is interesting with trips to Ohio State, Nebraska, and Minnesota (with a home game against Iowa sandwiched between the former two). It’s possible they can upset the Huskers and Gophers, but a lot of things need to pan out. BEST CASE RECORD: 10-2 WORST CASE RECORD: 5-7 MY PREDICTION: 8-4. I don’t see Wisconsin doing much early on to Michigan and forget Ohio State. Nebraska may decide Wisconsin’s fate of a Big Ten Championship run.
(5) PURDUE BOILERMAKERS: Northwestern is probably the most resilient Big Ten team, but Purdue is right there too. After an 0-3 start including a home loss to Eastern Michigan, Purdue rolled off 4 wins including a 49-20 beatdown of Ohio State. The Boilermakers will probably have one quarterback instead of a dual tandem as Elijah Sindelar takes over. He is a pocket-style QB which will be huge as Rondale Moore (who could be the best receiver in college football) is his primary target. Tight end Brycen Hopkins and Jared Sparks also look to factor as key targets for Sindelar. The questions will be is if can the run game can get going and the line can protect Sindelar long enough to get the ball out to Moore. Purdue’s defense returns 9 starters. They were gashed last year on really both the pass and the run (mostly pass), but the linebacking squad could be a force with Markus Bailey and Western Kentucky transfer Ben Holt. Purdue’s line hoping that experience helps will be under the scope a bit if they can pressure quarterbacks and stop the run. However, hopes are high on the secondary where they are fast and will get after it and may have some depth back there with the recruits they have brought in under Jeff Brohm. Purdue’s schedule is one that if they can handle the home portion of it (3-4 at West Lafayette) could set up a really interesting go for the Big Ten West in 2019 as they avoid Michigan and Ohio State. If they can take down Vanderbilt and TCU, they could go into Penn State 5-0. But the monster is the end run at Northwestern and Wisconsin, two teams that really give Purdue nightmares. BEST CASE RECORD: 8-4 WORST CASE RECORD: 5-7 MY PREDICTION: 8-4 I like what Brohm is doing up there and I think they will make significant progress to the point they still have a shot at the Big Ten West title in November.
(6) MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS: When he’s winning, PJ Fleck is that coach that can do no wrong for a college football program and he has “charisma.” When he’s losing, it is “enough with the antics and just win.” Fleck will have to answer the question of “who leads the offense,” Zack Annexstad or Tanner Morgan. Annexstad was injured and the Gophers went 3-4 while Morgan went 4-2. Whatever quarterback starts needs to be consistent. At least the parts around them should be fine. Tyler Johnson had an excellent year of having over 1,000 yards and looks to be a force regardless of QB and Rashod Bateman also is a great secondary receiver. If both can make big plays, it will go a long way. Minnesota’s running game is going to be a bully to opposing defenses. Mohamed Ibrahim rushed for over 1,000 while Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith come back from injury and could give fits as well. The defense returns seven including star end Carter Coughlin (9.5 sacks in 2018). Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin will lead the way at LB while safety Antoine Winfield Jr looks to stabilize a young but effective secondary. But they will need to find a way to stop the run, which really got them good last year. Minnesota’s schedule avoids the monsters of the East save Penn State and a fairly easy out of conference run while road trips at Purdue, Rutgers, and Northwestern are attainable. If they can take care of business at home and steal a win or two on the road, they also have a shot at Indianapolis. BEST CASE RECORD: 10-2 WORST CASE RECORD: 6-6 MY PREDICTION: 8-4. Minnesota continues to make strides under Fleck, but I am not sure if they can take down Nebraska even at home. Purdue, Iowa, and Northwestern may be too much as well.
(7) ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI: Lovie Smith has been in a nightmarish situation in Champaign. They have not been close to a bowl game in his tenure (last year was close when they were 4-5 but then dropped their final 3 games including an embarrassing 63-0 home loss to Iowa). At least the running game is a bonus with Reggie Corbin getting a large bulk and Mike Epstein backing him up. However, they need anything….ANYTHING to keep a balance as the passing game was dreadful. MJ Rivers is likely the QB for Illinois but he will have competition. But the receivers will have to step their game up too which has been a problem. The offensive line returns four so whoever the quarterback is, will need to not worry too much save for his receivers making plays. Defensively, Smith will take over a group that was horrible on all aspects. Bobby Roundtree is likely not going to play but they do have returning starters and a USC transfer in Oluwole Betiku. It should help a seasoned secondary as well. The question will be can the linebackers step up and play stronger? Illinois schedule is one that if they can sneak an upset here or there, could net them a bowl game. It will be hard, but the non-conference schedule should be 3 wins and they host Rutgers, but if they can steal two wins somewhere (Northwestern, at Purdue?) it could go a long way for Smith. BEST CASE RECORD: 5-7 WORST CASE RECORD: 3-9 MY PREDICTION: 4-8. Despite the record, Illinois will be a tougher out to teams especially in the West.
BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP: NEBRASKA VS. MICHIGAN: Michigan finally gets their shot after seeing rivals Ohio State and Michigan State primarily dominating the show in Indianapolis while Nebraska could get there with a young group and a stout offense. It would be more of an offense vs defense war I think. However, I am always in line of the “Defense wins championships moniker” and Michigan has that. Nebraska, not as much. Wolverines pull away in a close battle for three quarters. MICHIGAN 38, NEBRASKA 28
(1) WILL MICHIGAN GET TO THE PLAYOFF WITH ONE LOSS? Yes. If Notre Dame and Ohio State are a top 10-15 program (which I think at least Ohio State will be) and if Penn State is a top program still, then Michigan should have no issue getting in.
(2) HAS WISCONSIN’S WINDOW CLOSED? Temporarily, yes. But if Graham Mertz is any indication what he can be, the badgers will have an adequate quarterback for the first time in a very long time. We know their run game will always be near the top of the college football world. But the defense took a step back and now the Badgers are in a division where the competition is much stronger than in years past where their primary rival was Iowa. But Paul Chryst will have to adjust accordingly on offense to get the Badgers atop the Big Ten West again.
(3) IS JUSTIN FIELDS THE ANSWER AT OHIO STATE? Honestly, I don’t really see it. I get that he was a top blue chip prospect coming out of Georgia and he is the ultimate dual threat QB. However I do wonder how mentally tough he is. He went to Athens thinking he was “the guy” over incumbent QB Jake Fromm and instead rode the bench and played garbage minutes where he really didn’t show his skills nor did he play that great when he was in. Now, the Fields camp said Georgia promised him things that didn’t deliver. So either Fields will A. Try to show Georgia made a mistake; B. Try to overdo it in Columbus and make many mistakes; C. Make mistakes and lose what I think is a shaken confidence and the Buckeyes struggle. Or D. All of the above. He’s got to focus on playing football. And something about him doesn’t make me think he will.
That’s it for this week.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat