I’ve waited long enough. With just over a week to go before the first (real) Saturday of college football, it’s time to put some Big Ten predictions down on paper. Or screen, at least. Just kidding. I’m always analog. These rankings definitely started as lead on a notebook page.
And they’ve undergone some changes since I last power-ranked the Big Ten for the 2018 Hail Varsity Yearbook. Ohio State’s spot atop the division is a little shakier. I’ve gone back and forth on Penn State. Maryland, my favorite under-the-radar Big Ten team of the past few years, might be underwater right now. That’s just the East Division.
In the West there’s a very deserving favorite, but it feels as though the gap between Wisconsin and all the others may not be as large as the preseason punditry makes it seem. As an embracer of randomness I don’t really go in for predictions all that much, but here’s how I see the Big Ten shaking out.
1. Ohio State: Rally or crumble? That’s my question right now for the Buckeyes: Do they crumble because of Urban Meyer’s controversial August or rally around him for his return in mid-September? With Ohio State at No. 1 here it’s clear I’m choosing “rally.” The Buckeyes are still the most talented team in the league and should be fine without Meyer against Oregon State and Rutgers. TCU in Texas in Week 3? I’m a little less confident about that one now, but the Buckeyes could lose there and still be in contention to win out the rest of the way with Meyer back on the sidelines. And what an unavoidable storyline that would be. But not improbable.
2. Michigan: I thought harder about moving Michigan up to the top spot than I would’ve a month ago given the goings on at Ohio State. If quarterback Shea Patterson can bring a little dynamism to that position and the offensive line is a little better Michigan has the skill-position talent to play with anyone. It won’t take much to help out a defense that will be better than it was a year ago, and it was pretty good while extremely young in 2017. There’s a lot to like with Michigan in 2018, but I’m still not quite ready to pick the Wolverines to go into Ohio Stadium and win a de facto division championship game.
3. Penn State: Despite being ranked in the top 15 of both major polls, I’m starting to feel like the Nittany Lions might be a little undervalued. They still have Trace McSorley, perhaps the best quarterback in the league. They’ll be fine at running back, despite the loss of Saquon Barkley. The key questions are on defense (three starters returning) and what will the loss of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead to Mississippi State mean? If neither turn out to be pressing questions in 2018, wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see Penn State end up in Indianapolis again.
4. Michigan State: I’ve been preparing myself for this pick since January. I was writing about it earlier this week. There’s nothing wrong with an experienced Michigan State team, other than the fact that right now they’re being given credit for 10 wins last year when it should’ve been closer to eight. It’ll be closer to eight this year.
5. Indiana: I seem to be mostly alone in seeing some encouraging signs in Tom Allen’s first full season in Bloomington. The Hoosiers played some decent football over the final half of last season, losing four of seven games overall by one score or less. There’s a bit of a rebuild on defense, Allen’s specialty, but my bigger concern is what happens at quarterback. Arizona transfer quarterback Brandon Dawkins is in but I’m wondering what about returning quarterback Peyton Ramsey? He was pretty good for a freshman a year ago.
6. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights improved by two wins a year ago and it felt like a quantum leap in Year 2 under head coach Chris Ash. Rutgers has been building towards this year, has 15 of 22 starters returning, something of a defense now and big-time freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski. He’s drawn rave reviews so far in August. Not only has Rutgers leapt Maryland over the course of the last few months in my mind, I toyed with putting the Scarlet Knights ahead of Indiana, too.
7. Maryland: Rally or crumble, right? We don’t know the outcome of Maryland’s investigation into DJ Durkin yet, but I was already concerned about turnover on the Terrapins’ staff before I ever had an idea of why the Terps might’ve had so much turnover. Durkin or offensive coordinator Matt Canada? Doesn’t make much of a difference to me in terms of who is leading this team in 2018, it’s shaping up to be a rough one. Oh, and Maryland opens with Texas. A solid Temple team visits two weeks later.
1. Wisconsin: The schedule toughens up on Wisconsin from what it was for last year’s 13-1 season. The Badgers have tough cross-division games against Penn State and Michigan on the road as well as losable division games at Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue. In the end, however, a Wisconsin team with one of the best running backs in the country running behind five returning starters is too hard to ignore. That said, if the Badgers win the division it won’t be in the cake walk the preseason polls would have you believe.
2. Iowa: The Hawkeyes return good experience overall, including what should be one of the Big Ten’s best pass-catch duos in quarterback Nathan Stanley and tight end Noah Fant, but the losses at linebacker give me a little bit of pause. If anything, I’m more confident in Iowa’s offense, which is a strange place to be. The Hawkeyes’ Big Ten fate could hinge on the conference opener when they host Wisconsin.
3. Nebraska: I am absolutely convinced of the Cornhuskers’ potential to be better than expected right away in Year 1 under Scott Frost. Could Nebraska win the West? Sure. I’m not convinced the Huskers will be that far behind the Hawkeyes when the two meet at the end of the season and I’m not convinced Iowa’s that far behind Wisconsin right now. Get a couple of breaks and all of the sudden you’ve got an out-of-control Nebraska bandwagon bounding and bouncing down the hill ahead of schedule. While everything in the offseason has been encouraging, I also just can’t ignore that recent first seasons for some of the best coaches in the game looked like this: Dabo Swinney, 9-5; Nick Saban, 7-6; Kirby Smart, 8-5; James Franklin, 7-6. Prudence, at least a little bit, wins out here though I think for most Husker fans those records would be perfectly satisfactory against this schedule.
4. Purdue: I think Northwestern is going to beat Purdue on Aug. 30, a Thursday-night matchup. The Boilermakers have a lot to replace on defense and the Wildcats should be a little further along, but I also think Purdue keeps getting better. The nonconference schedule is pretty tricky, but by the time regular Big Ten play rolls around Purdue will be a team nobody really wants to face. I have a ton of respect for Pat Fitzgerald as a coach. I might have even more for Jeff Brohm.
5. Northwestern: Fifth feels like a slight for what I think will be a pretty good Northwestern team, but it’s not about the Wildcats so much as it is an improving division. Northwestern also has two tough stretches in October and November: Michigan-at Michigan State-Nebraska and, two weeks later, Wisconsin-Notre Dame-at Iowa. A team would have to be pretty darn good to come out of that run at even 4-2.
6. Minnesota: Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody has popularized the term Year Zero for teams undergoing a coaching transition. Minnesota might have had a Year -1 in P.J. Fleck’s first season because it’s young again with a bunch of question marks. (The Gophers didn’t even have boat-ified uniforms in 2017, which has been remedied this season unfortunately.) The schedule, at least, is forgiving. The Gophers could get to 4-0 before the meat of conference play begins, but it will likely be downhill (upriver?) from there.
7. Illinois: Here’s the good news –– the Illini are a year older than they were a year ago. They’re still plenty young, however. At least the cross-division draw includes Rutgers and Maryland, offering a chance for a couple of conference wins. Also, former Husker AJ Bush appears to be the starter at quarterback.
Ohio State over Wisconsin: It's the expected pick, the one every Big Ten prognosticator would've predicted back in the spring, but it feels much more fragile than it did a few months ago. It wouldn't surprise me at all if one or both of these teams didn't end up in Indianapolis, but they're still the most likely to do just that. It won't be a fun result for anyone not decked out in scarlet and gray, but that's sort of been the Big Ten most of the time in the Urban era.