The Big Ten has been in the news for all of the wrong reasons as of late. Urban Meyer is about to serve a three-game suspension for Ohio State after a report from Brett McMurphy said that Urban had specific knowledge of domestic abuse allegations against a member of his coaching staff, Zach Smith, in 2015. At Maryland, DJ Durkin is currently on administrative leave after the death of lineman Jordan McNair.
Despite the controversies, Big Ten football will still be played this season, and the top of the conference is loaded with talent. Ohio State and Wisconsin are the two favorites to represent the East and West in the Big Ten Title game, but Penn State, Michigan, and Michigan State will look to play spoiler.
Here are my preseason power rankings for the Big Ten.
Can Lovie Smith turn this program around? Only time will tell, but is too late? Last year was a learning year for the Fighting Illini as they started 16 freshmen. These freshmen like running back Mike Epstein and safety Bennett Williams will be more experienced and will look to improve upon their disastrous 2-10 2017 season. If the Illini can take the next step forward this year, 2019 will be full of promise with the arrival of 5-star quarterback Isaiah Williams.
Rutgers is not very good, but they’re not as bad as you think. A lot of their struggles are due to the fact that they are members of the Big Ten East, which is significantly tougher than the West with games against Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Michigan State. Chris Ash is in his third year and will look to continue the trend of increasing wins each year, tallying 2 and 4 wins in his first two years. Defense is the strength of the Scarlett Knights, lead by linebacker Deonte Roberts. The offense is still a work in progress. Truthfully, if Rutgers can win 5 games this year, that would be a huge win for the program.
Like Ohio State, Maryland is embroiled in controversy after the death of lineman Jordan McNair. Coach DJ Durkin is on administrative leave after being accused of abuse and disparagement. If Durkin is not on the sidelines, that changes everything for the Terps. Putting controversy aside, the biggest reason for Maryland’s struggles last year was due to injuries. Both quarterbacks, Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill, are back from season-ending injuries from a year ago. However, your guess is as good as mine as to how the Terps season will play out without their coach.
Last year, Indiana’s season came down to a few miscues. The Hoosiers had four single-digit losses. If the ball bounces the other way, they could’ve been a bowl team. Also, just today, a week after naming Peyton Ramsey the starting quarterback, graduate transfer Brandon Dawkins left the program. Despite the issues on offense, the defense has improved every year under Tom Allen, finishing 27th in the country in 2017. In order to make a bowl, Indiana will have to learn how to win the close games.
Can Fleck and the Golden Gophers row the boat to relevancy this year? It will all start with true freshman Zack Annexstad under center, who happens to be a preferred walk-on. Early on, look for the Golden Gophers to rely on running back Rodney Smith for production. The defense should be solid once again, which allowed 22.8 points per game in 2017. That being said, Minnesota is an extremely young team that is still a few years away from true success.
The hype for coach Jeff Brohm is real. After bringing the Boilermakers to a bowl game last season, hopes are high that Brohm can eventually bring the Boilermakers to the upper tier of the Big Ten. The quarterback position is still a mystery since Brohm has yet to name either Elijah Sindelar or David Blough as the starter. Jackson Anthrop is a game changer at receiver. However, Purdue lost the majority of their contributors on defense. Their success will hinge on their ability to come up with stops in big moments.
I firmly believe that Scott Frost can make Nebraska a contender not only in the Big Ten West, but in the college football landscape. Though, it takes time to build a program and get your guys that are tailored to your style of play. True freshman Adrian Martinez will be the first freshman quarterback to ever open the season for Nebraska. Stanley Morgan Jr. is also an exciting receiver that could be a first round pick next year in the 2019 NFL draft. Don’t expect Nebraska to compete for a Big Ten title just yet, but be patient. It’s coming sooner than later.
The Iowa Hawkeyes seem to always play spoiler for Big Ten title hopefuls. Two years ago, they upset Michigan on a last-second field goal. Last season, they blew the doors off of Ohio State, which most likely led them to miss the playoff top four. Kirk Ferentz’s team lost top rusher Akrum Wadley so expect the Hawkeyes to open it up a bit more with returning quarterback Nathan Stanley. Circle September 22 on your calendars because that’s when Wisconsin comes to town. Let’s just say this. If I was a Wisconsin fan, I would be extremely nervous going into this game.
Coaching is the top strength of the Northwestern Wildcats because Pat Fitzgerald is the most underrated coach in college football. The Wildcats also return experienced quarterback Clayton Thorson, who will be one of the Big Ten’s best at the position. There’s no secret as to why Pat Fitzgerald has stayed with this program all of these years despite being brought up for numerous coaching vacancies. Fitzgerald wants to be the man to win a Big Ten Title and bring the Wildcats back to the Rose Bowl, which would be their first since 1995. It’s unlikely that happens this year, but with Fitzgerald at the helm and an important game against Wisconsin at home later this year, you never know what can happen.
The time for Michigan to rise to the top of the Big Ten is now. With the Urban Meyer scandal, a potential step back for Penn State, and potential problems with the Michigan State offense, this could be the year that Michigan Wolverines play for a Big Ten title, which they have never done since conference realignment in 2011. The defense will be one of the best in the country lead by linebacker, Devin Bush Jr. and defensive tackle Rashan Gary. The season will all depend on if Ole Miss transfer quarterback Shea Patterson is the real deal. If Patterson becomes Michigan’s best quarterback in the Jim Harbaugh era, a 10 win season is more than attainable.
4. Penn State
Before we talk about this year’s team, take a bow, Saquon Barkley. You helped bring the Nittany Lions back to the top of college football. Now, it’s time for senior quarterback Trace McSorley to be “the guy.” Penn State lost a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, but James Franklin is a Top 5 recruiter in the country. If McSorley can carry the load until the young guys get up to speed, the drop off from last year will be minuscule.
3. Michigan State
Do not sleep on Mark Dantonio and the Michigan State Spartans. Nothing about this team screams the SportsCenter Top 10 in terms of talent, but this group is experienced, disciplined, and well-coached. The Spartans lose only four starters from last year and return veterans at every major position including quarterback Brian Lewerke and linebacker Joe Bachie. If Michigan State can play Michigan State football aka control the field and play good defense, they could upend Ohio State at the top of the conference.
Had it not been for a 6 point loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, Wisconsin would have made the College Football Playoff last season. This year, expectations should be very high as the Badgers bolster one of the best offensive lines in the nation to go along with the return of quarterback Alex Hornibrook and Heisman hopeful running back Jonathan Taylor. The Badgers have some holes to fill on defense, but the Badgers are the proverbial favorite to represent the Big Ten West in the conference championship game.
1. Ohio State
This preseason, the biggest story at Ohio State has nothing to do with the play on the field. All of the storylines revolve around the Urban Meyer controversy and his three-game suspension. As bad as it is at Ohio State, it will only get worse in terms of media attention once Meyer returns from his suspension. Let’s remove Urban Meyer from the equation right now. The Buckeyes are still the best team on the field in the Big Ten. Defensive end Nick Bosa, who will most likely be a Top 5 draft pick, anchors a defense that has NFL talent all over. The biggest transition will be at the quarterback position as Dwayne Haskins takes over for JT Barrett. Expect some growing pains early, but if Haskins shows promise, the Buckeyes will fight for a spot in the College Football Playoff.