The Big Ten is one of the premier football conferences year in and year out but without the flashy offenses and more all around and defensive minded programs sometimes don’t get the recognition they deserve. The West division is wide open with 5 teams all in the mix and will knock each other off week after week for the top spot. Then in the East the top 4 teams again each have the fire power to represent the Big Ten in the playoff.
- Ohio State
The Ryan Day era is now fully underway with Urban Meyer now away from the sidelines but with a program loaded with 4 and 5 star recruits nobody should feel bad. The defense was frankly not very good last year giving up big plays in every game but with two new cordinators and plenty of talent to utilize they should be better on that side of the ball. The offense will have to replace Dwayne Haskins, Mike Weber, Paris Campbell, and Michael Jordan but have plenty of guys who have gotten meaningful snaps who are ready to pick up the slack. J.K. Dobbins and Hill, Mack, Victor, and Olave all return at receiver and with highly touted Justin Fields under Center it’s safe to say they have weapons. The Buckeyes travel to Ann Arbor for a primetime showdown and have two intriguing September road games at Nebraska and Cincinnati.
2. Michigan State
With a roster returning the second most starters in the country have high hopes again of contending for the Big Ten East Title. After a 10 win season in ‘17 the Spartans went 7-6 in ‘18 which was a let down from expectations largely due in part with the worst offense in the Mark Dantonio era averaging 18.7 points per game. Brian Lewerke is looking to be back on track and healthy which is the biggest component and with almost all starters back across the board and a shuffling of coaching responsibilities this team is poised to make some noise. The defense will be dominant with more than likely 5 players will be drafted in next years NFL draft which only allowed 17.2 points per game which led the Big Ten. They have a tough road schedule in conference at Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Northwestern but if they can get some momentum this is a team that always plays with a chip on their shoulder and will be battle tested.
The Wolverines hit 10 victories last season under Harbaugh but still fell short of the Big Ten East Division behind Ohio State. Starting quarterback Shea Patterson returns and with a good trio of receivers coming back too they should have a good offense. Everything about Harbaugh being this quarterback guru is still yet to be seen and is more and more of a smoke screen at this point as it’s been his crutch actually his whole time in Ann Arbor. The defense was very good last year with 4 guys getting drafted in this years draft and should still be solid. Big games against Ohio State (Nov. 30) and Notre Dame (Oct. 26) will be games to watch to see how far they can go.
4. Penn State
Trace McSorely is now gone after being one of the top play makers in the conference for years and so is Miles Sanders. James Franklin has shown to be a solid recruiter in Happy Valley so there will be bodies ready to be plugged in for the next wave. The Nittany Lions need more production from its pass catchers in KJ Hamler and Pat Freirmuth who are both rising stars. The defensive line should still be very good even with the departures of Kevin Givens and Shareef Miller. This team has a tough schedule as well going on the road to Ohio State, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Iowa.
New coach Mike Locksley is an interesting hire since he went 2-26 at New Mexico from 2009-2011 but he had a standout year as the Alabama offensive coordinator in 2018. That is something Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill should be excited about and with McFarland back at the running back spot primed for a bigger role they could score some points again. They do have to retool a new offensive line but the defense is more of a glaring issue giving up almost 30 points a game which was an improvement from the year prior. The back end of the schedule is a monstrous test for this team so if 6 wins is the goal they need to make up some ground early in September to get there.
Tom Allen has gotten this Indiana team on the cusp of a bowl game a few years in a row now but hasn’t been able to crack the door down just yet. Their offense has some play making ability with Stevie Scott and Peyton Ramsey coming off a full year under center. Most of the defense returns even though they gave up 6 yards a play last year with a new D coordinator they should be able to put more pressure on opposing offenses. They don’t play Wisconsin or Iowa which helps their cause to maybe finally reach a bowl game and have 3 very winnable non conference games with Ball State, Eastern Illinois, and UConn.
Chris Ash and his team took a step backwards last season going from four wins to just one and he will be on the hot seat right away. They averaged only 13.5 points a game and had only four plays longer than 40 yards all year. QB Artur Sitkowski needs to play better than the tune of 4 TDS and 18 INTS which were last years numbers. The Scarlet Knights have to replace 6 of their top tacklers too on defense and being in the gauntlet of the Big Ten East there is no let up in sight in Piscataway and it could be a very long fall.
As the trendy pick to win the West with many college football analysts I also do think this is an Iowa year to take the spot in the title game from this side. There isn’t much of a difference between number 1 and 5 here but with an offense that was putting up over 30 a game and Nate Stanley returning at quarterback with the top three rushers they should be tough to beat. They did lose Fant and Hockenson to the NFL but with a solid offensive line and hard nosed defense they will be in every ball game. If they do want to win the West Division it’s going to be on the backs of a brutal road slate with Iowa State, Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Nebraska they won’t come out unscathed but can do enough to hold that coveted top spot.
Paul Chryst and the badgers coming off an 8-5 season and a victory over Miami in the bowl season and will have a new face at quarterback as long time starter Alex Hornibrook is gone. They are going to ride Jonathon Taylor until the horses are in the front because as a soph,ore he ran for over 2,000 yards and 16 TDS and will be a Heisman front runner again. The powerful offensive line they always have in Madison will be slightly retooled losing 3 starters but that is never an issue up there. Really like the defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard there he is a great mind who will have his work cut out losing his whole starting line backing core. They catch three of the top four from the East in Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State and then travel to Minnesota and Nebraska.
The Scott Frost era wasn’t all roses and daffodils as they started 0-6 and everyone thought the sky was falling. But as a true Nebraskan he weathered the storm and the huskers finished 4-2 down the stretch and played much better. Of the 8 loses half came by way of five points or less, Adrian Martinez is back and will take more strides forward and Maurice Washington and four star prospect Wandale Robinson will help move the ball all season. They have a favorable schedule with winnable non conference games against Northern Illinois and Colorado while Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Iowa all visit Lincoln. This team is taking steps and Frost is the right man for this program and college football is better when this program is relevant.
Coming in at 4 in my rankings is the wildcats and defending West Division champs and as mentioned before this division is wide open for the taking with the top 5 very closely bunched together and not much of a gap between them all. I could see this team maybe repeating with its stingy defense and a steady offense even losing Clayton Thorsen but with Hunger Johnson the former five star prospect from Clemson taking the reigns it shouldn’t be an down tick at all. The receiving core will miss Nagel who had 68 catches but they return Isaiah Bowser who rushed for almost 900 yards and Johnson could make this offense a little more dynamic than it was with Thorsen. The defense is instrumental in how successful a season they have and Pat Fitzgerald is one of the best at doing it. Only allowing 23 points a game and creating 26 turnovers with difference makers Paddy Fisher and Joe Graziano. They head to Stanford for an early season show down and host Michigan Stat, Ohio State, Iowa, Purdue, and Minnesota.
It’s now P.J. Fleck’s third year and they closed the 2018 season winning 3 of 4 including a rivalry game against Wisconsin and in a bowl game against Georgia Tech. Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith return to full strength in the backfield which is one of the deepest in the league along with Tyler Johnson a talented r clever on the outside who is underrated after going for 78 receptions and 1,100 yards last year. The quarterback job is an open competition throughout camp between Tanner Morgan and Zach Annexstad. The defense played better but losing Blake Cashman will hurt but a nice return will be Antoine Winfield at safety after he missed most of 2018. They have some favorable crossover games and hit the road to Purdue, Iowa, and Northwestern.
With Purdue coming in at 6 it shows you the depth of this division and the Big Ten as a whole because this team can beat any team in the conference as it showed blowing out Ohio State last season and derailing their playoff hopes. The biggest win this off season was Jeff Brohm opting to return instead of taking the Louisville job which is his alma mater. They have a different style of offense for the Big Ten they are more uptempo and return dynamic all around playmaker Rondale Moore. The defense needs improvement if they are to continue to move forward as surrendering 30 points per game will not prove to be a successful model even with a high potent offense. Leading tackler Marcus Bailey passed on the NFL and will be back and Lorenzo Neal has all offseason to recover from a knee injury. If the defense can stop anyone it will give them a shot in a lot of games because that offense can put up points in a hurry
In Lovie Smith’s third season the fighting Illini took a needed step forward even though it was small it was something. They finished 4-8 and don’t have much of a quarterback at the moment trying out 4 new guys to see who can come in and start. Reggie Corbin is back after rushing for over a 1,000 yards and improved play moving forward would be a much needed boost. They gave up just under 40 points a game last year which is horrendous and still are shuffling some pieces around there on that side of the ball and the coaching staff so things aren’t perfect there. They have a chance at some easy non conference wins but once in the Big Ten it could be tough sledding through the long parts of the fall in Champaign.
Tony is a SUNY Brockport alum and joined Saturday Tailgate in 2019. He covers all things Michigan State and Big Ten.