Complete Big Ten preview for 2018.
The Big Ten heads into the 2018 college football season with five candidates to reach the playoff. After winning the conference championship last year, Ohio State is the favorite in the Big Ten to win the league title once again. However, rival Michigan and division foes Penn State and Michigan State aren’t far behind. In the West, Wisconsin is a clear favorite over Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue. The Badgers face a tougher schedule than they had in 2017, but coach Paul Chryst’s program has the returning talent to push Ohio State or any of the teams from the East in the Big Ten Championship.
Saquon Barkley is someone else’s problem now, but opponents should still be wary of this offense, especially if Trace McSorley displays the kind of accuracy he showed while completing all 12 of his third-down passing attempts vs. Washington in the Fiesta Bowl. Penn State is going to get its points. But can a graduation-depleted defense stop opponents from getting theirs? That’s what will determine whether this team earns its third consecutive New Year’s Six bowl berth.
OSU ended last season with a win over That Team Up North and a defeat of USC in the Rose Bowl, but the 55–24 setback at Iowa still can’t be explained. Plus, the late-season momentum was offset by the loss of a multitude of key players, QB J.T. Barrett atop the list. The Buckeyes will march onward with a new quarterback, a roster loaded with hungry talent and a defense that still plans to come after people.
This is a pivotal season for coach Jim Harbaugh, whose struggles against his three main rivals are well documented. His fourth Michigan team will once again be outstanding on defense. If the offense, a trouble spot in recent years, shows any improvement, this team can compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff — even against a difficult schedule that includes the usual suspects from the Big Ten East as well as Notre Dame (on the road) and Wisconsin (the top team from West). However, if the quarterback play remains an issue and the offensive line doesn’t progress, it will be more of the same in Ann Arbor.
Head coach Tom Allen landed Indiana’s best recruiting class in years and has upgraded the program’s athleticism. But depending on freshmen to win against Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State is not a winning formula. With questions at quarterback, the offensive line and across the defense, the ceiling for this team could be six wins.
Coach DJ Durkin’s endless enthusiasm was tested last year. Injuries crippled a promising team that upset Texas in the opener. The Terrapins got pounded by the Big Ten’s biggest bullies. Now there’s a second straight top-30 recruiting class in tow, five new coaches, a new state-of-the-art indoor practice/sports medicine facility in New Cole Field House, and a whole new offense with some healthy quarterbacks. Big Ten foes may not have to “Fear the Turtle” just yet, but they’ll have to start paying attention.
Michigan State bounced back from a 3–9 season to reach double-digit wins for the sixth time in eight years. With 19 returning starters from a team that went 10–3, the Spartans are a dangerous contender in one of the best divisions in college football and will continue to be a problem for Penn State and Michigan. A return to the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2015 is unlikely but not impossible. No one is expecting Michigan State to leapfrog Ohio State, but that’s the way coach Mark Dantonio likes it.
A bowl game is the hope for coach Chris Ash’s third season — a goal he is not shying away from. But if bowl eligibility does happen, it will likely be achieved early. Six of the first seven opponents Rutgers faces were a combined 20-52 last season, including three that lost 10 games or more. The closing five-game stretch of Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State — a combined 52-14 last year — isn’t conducive to making bowl headway. In the end, it all comes down to offensive improvement and the play at quarterback for this team.
The defense has been the star for the first three years of the Paul Chryst era, a stretch that includes 34 wins. Now, the Badgers might have to light up the scoreboard if they’re going to make a run at the Big Ten title. A light non-conference schedule should give the defense a chance to grow, but that group needs to be ready for a Big Ten slate that includes road games against five bowl teams from a year ago.
There is a lot to like but also a lot to question about this Iowa team. QB Nate Stanley and TE Noah Fant both have star potential, the defensive ends might be the best in the Big Ten as a group and the kicking game is solid. On the other hand, the top two running backs have to be replaced, along with all three starting linebackers and an All-America cornerback.
One of Iowa’s biggest strengths might be its schedule, which doesn’t include games against Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State – three of the Big 4 from the Big Ten East.
Nebraska has been largely absent from the national discussion since 2001, and the Cornhuskers haven’t won a conference championship since 1999. Without overstating things, coach Scott Frost and staff were miracle workers at UCF, taking a program from 0-12 the season before they arrived to 13-0, including a Peach Bowl victory against Auburn, last year, their second in Orlando.
Whether they can work such magic in two seasons again is uncertain. Nebraska had better than 4-8 talent a year ago, and much of it returns. New systems are in place all the way around, causing growing pains, and the schedule is daunting. But the Cornhuskers will be up-tempo, aggressive, physical — and competitive.
For the third time in four seasons, Minnesota figures to enter November still in search of an elusive sixth win — and bowl eligibility. A year ago, in coach P.J. Fleck’s first season at Minnesota, the Gophers lacked depth and talent and finished at 5-7, including 2-7 in the Big Ten. It marked the first time Minnesota had missed a bowl since 2011.
“The outside people are going to say, “What about your wins?”” Fleck said during the spring. “Again, I’m not worried about all that. I’m not worried one bit about any of the wins and losses. I’m worried about developing this football team.”
Fleck, who took Western Michigan from 1-11 to 8-5 in Year 2 in Kalamazoo, received a one-year rollover contract extension at Minnesota during last season and now has five years remaining to build the program in his image.
With 27 wins in the last three seasons and a new lakefront facility, Northwestern clearly has momentum. Keeping it likely depends on QB Clayton Thorson, who, if healthy, can take the Wildcats a long way. But his uncertain status and key losses at running back, safety and defensive tackle increase the degree of difficulty. Northwestern needs line play to excel and for its star power on defense to shine again. Although the schedule is tough, Northwestern misses both Ohio State and Penn State and gets almost all of its marquee opponents at home.
Coach Lovie Smith’s teams are 5-19 overall and just 2-16 in the Big Ten, including an unprecedented 0-9 in 2017. He has a six-year deal, so the administration is giving him time. The fans want to see some progress and some excitement. The schedule is challenging, with an early game against South Florida in Chicago, visits from Penn State and Iowa and trips to Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern.
During the past two decades, the third year has been a charm for Illinois coaches. Ron Turner, Ron Zook and Tim Beckman earned bowl bids in their third seasons. If offensive coordinator Rod Smith continues to have a golden touch with quarterbacks, like he did at Arizona, the offense will improve. Enough to bump the win total to six? Probably not.
Last year was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Coach Jeff Brohm exceeded those expectations by leading Purdue to its first bowl win since 2011. Veteran defensive leaders keyed the turnaround last year. Now, with so many of those players gone, the pressure is on the offense. Purdue could take a step back in Year 2 before it takes two steps forward in Year 3.