After hearing calls about how great the Big Ten was becoming, the conference fell flat on its face during the postseason. Ohio State was blanked in the College Football Playoff by eventual national champion Clemson. Michigan couldn’t hold on to beat Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Penn State blew a double-digit fourth-quarter lead in the Rose Bowl against USC. The rest of the conference went 3-4.
Now, entering the 2017 season, the Big Ten is once again looking to prove itself among its power conference peers, and it just may have some teams able to help wave the Big Ten banner. The Big Ten may even have a chance to place not one, but two teams in the College Football Playoff if things go down in their favor in the Pac-12 and Big 12 (or, of course, in the ACC and SEC).
BIG TEN EAST
1. Ohio State (11-2 in 2016, lost Fiesta Bowl vs. Clemson in College Football Playoff semifinal)
What is not to like about the Buckeyes this season? The Big Ten’s deepest team across the board thanks to multiple years of bringing in the top recruiting classes in the Big Ten seems to only be getting stronger. In 2017, the Buckeyes will have a tremendous defensive front led by Sam Hubbard and a strong linebacking unit with Chris Worley. If there is one concern, it might be in the secondary. On offense, J.T. Barrett is back once again and has the luxury of handing off to sophomore running back Mike Weber. The expectations are high for the Ohio State offense with new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson but we’ll see how quickly that offense gels. The Bucks also get some of the toughest games at home — Oklahoma and Penn State — although road trips to Nebraska, Iowa, and Michigan are not to be taken lightly. Not only is Ohio State a favorite in the Big Ten, but they might prove to be a favorite to win the national championship for the second time in the College Football Playoff era.
2. Penn State (11-3, Big Ten champion, lost Rose Bowl vs. USC)
The Nittany Lions surged last year and will be out to prove the 2016 season’s Big Ten championship was not a fluke. The Big Ten’s best offense will shine in Happy Valley with RB Saquon Barkley, QB Trace McSorley, TE Mike Gesicki and more led by offensive coordinator Joe Moorehead, but the defense will have to show a little more development and improvement this season to avoid some slips along the way. If Penn State wins every game they are favored in, they could be making a legitimate playoff case at 11-1 without a Big Ten conference or division championship. Road games at Iowa, Northwestern, and Michigan State will be dangerous.
3. Michigan (10-3, lost Orange Bowl vs. Florida State)
Jim Harbaugh will have the Wolverines looking pretty good once again this season even after replacing a good number of starters from last season. Michigan has started to catch up on the recruiting trail and Harbaugh has proven more than capable of developing the players to reach their full potential. And after slumping to the finish line last season, the motivation will be to finish what was started a season ago. The Wolverines return just one starter on defense (but they do have Rashan Gary) but have a good chance to get past that initial hurdle while everyone finds a role. The offense must figure out its quarterback situation, but can rely on running back Chris Evans to have a breakout season. Michigan will be a slight work in progress this season, but could still potentially be undefeated when they make the trip to Penn State in mid-October. Tread carefully with Michigan in 2017.
4. Michigan State (3-9)
This season could not possibly go worse for Mark Dantonio and the Spartans, could it? Of course it could, with just a small handful of returning starter from a woeful 2016 season. Despite all of the trends seemingly going against the Spartans, Dantonio should not be counted out just yet. A new season will offer Michigan State a chance to start from scratch without the preseason expectations of competing for a Big Ten title weighing on their shoulders. LJ Scott is still there to run the ball and he will have to be the main guy until the rest of the offense figures things out, including at quarterback. The Spartans defense has traditionally been the strong suit, but they will also have to forget about what happened last year and get back to fundamentals. The Spartans can still be tough, but they may lack enough playmakers to do any serious damage in the division. A return to the bowl season, however, is not that far out of reach.
5. Maryland (6-7, lost Quick Lane Bowl vs. Boston College)
Maryland is a program that should be watched closely because head coach DJ Durkin is starting to get the blueprint off the ground in College Park. For 2017, the season will be more about continued growth within the program and develop a young roster to be able to physically go toe-to-toe with their division rivals. Maryland may be capable of scoring an upset (Nov. 11 vs. Michigan, Nov. 25 vs. Penn State?), but they are still at least a minimum of a couple of more years away from having the kind of size, durability, and depth needed to make a run at the division crown. Instead, the goal of getting to and winning a bowl game will be seen as a step in the right direction, and that is well within reason.
Tom Allen takes over as the head coach of the Hoosiers on a full-time basis, and he has a good amount of work to do. For starters, Indiana has to reshape its offensive approach, and it is expected the offense will downshift gears in the post-Kevin Wilson era.The Hoosiers also have big shoes to fill on offense. Richard Lagow will provide some stability as the starting quarterback but he must cut down on mistakes. Nick Westbrook will remain the top target after 995 receiving yards and six touchdowns a season ago. Indiana is not typically known for its defense, but Allen’s squad returns almost an entire defense with starting experience, and that defense can do enough to keep some games within reach if the offense gets on track.
7. Rutgers (2-10)
Year one under head coach Chris Ash revealed that the Rutgers rebuild is going to take some time and patience. Fortunately for Rutgers, Ash appears to have the right mindset for the challenges that lay ahead. Rather than immediately set the bar as high as winning the Big Ten, Rutgers simply needs to focus on the little things that build a program. As bad as things were for Rutgers a year ago, there are some reasons to be at least a bit more optimistic this season. Having a healthy Janarion Grant is among them. Grant is arguably the most electric player in the Big Ten and he looks to come back for a strong season in the offense and special teams after having his 2016 season cut short due to injury. The defense also returns a good amount of starting experience, which could potentially pay off in the growing and maturing process with the program. reaching a bowl game will be a reach for Rutgers, but improving on last year’s win total should absolutely be expected.
BIG TEN WEST
1. Wisconsin (11-3, Big Ten West champion, won Cotton Bowl vs. Western Michigan)
The Badgers took an unfortunate blow this summer with the loss of linebacker Jack Cichy, but the Badgers have plenty of returning talent on offense and defense to keep things running smoothly in Madison. The Badgers running game will always be in good form behind an offensive line returning just about everybody, and tight end Troy Fumagalli will be a big target to trust. Plus, the schedule is as favorable as possible with no Ohio State or Penn State, but a home game against Michigan late in the season. The Badgers also get Northwestern and Iowa at home, but must go to Nebraska. The Badgers appear to be in a great spot to get back to Indy.
2. Nebraska (9-4, lost Music City Bowl vs. Tennessee)
The Cornhuskers stumbled their way to the finish last season. After starting the season 7-0, Nebraska’s season went off the rails with an overtime loss at Wisconsin and a 59-point beating at Ohio State as Nebraska dropped four of the final six games, including the bowl game. If Nebraska is going to improve their chances of competing for the Big Ten West, getting stronger up front will be the key. If the offensive line doesn’t improve, the signature running game will not be a factor, and the passing game will not be a consistent threat despite a pair of talented receivers like De’Mornay Pierson-El and Stanley Morgan.
3. Northwestern (7-6, won Pinstripe Bowl vs. Pittsburgh)
Those pesky Wildcats will again be a thorn in the sides for a handful of teams this season. Pat Fitzgerald continues to keep the Wildcats playing well and that should continue in 2017 with one of the top[ running backs in the Big Ten; Justin Jackson. Jackson will rack up big rushing numbers once again this season, but there may not be a tremendous amount of support from the rest of the offense, and that could ultimately keep Northwestern from making a serious push for the division. But Northwestern is going to score an upset somewhere this season, and a home game against Penn State (a week after facing Wisconsin) should not be overlooked.
4. Iowa (8-5, lost Outback Bowl vs. Florida)
There are two strengths for Iowa this season, and neither one of them will help make the Hawkeyes a legitimate Big Ten title contender. The offensive line should be dominant enough to give Akrum Wadley plenty of opportunities to grind out yardage. The linebackers should be steady enough to hold down the fort in the middle of the field as well. Other than that, there are some questions about Iowa this season. One drastic change could come on the offense, where offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz is expected to open things up with the offense. We’ll see how quickly that changes Iowa’s outlook. Until then, Iowa will be a stingy team (just ask Michigan) lacking much firepower.
5. Minnesota (9-4, won Holiday Bowl vs. Washington State)
Expect good things to come at Minnesota, where P.J. Fleck is already kicking up dust and getting the engines going on the recruiting trail. Fleck is going to provide a spark with the Gophers, but it may be another year or so before things really get going in the Big Ten West. The schedule is more difficult than it was a season ago with a pretty brutal November slate. The Gophers do have Rodney Smith to run the ball, and he can do damage catching the ball as well. A lack of depth will be addressed over time, but for now, it remains a serious concern for Fleck and his staff.
6. Purdue (3-9)
Fleck stole the show when it came to new coaching hires, but Purdue came away with a solid hire that should start paying off rather quickly. Jeff Brohm may have a complete rebuild on his hands in front of a challenging schedule, one should expect Purdue’s offense to start improving immediately. Success in 2017 should not be judged by the win total, because Purdue simply does not have the talent to win much more than they did last year, but having David Blough back to lead an offense in transition will be a benefit while receivers find themselves and the offense continues to build using a new offensive philosophy. Better days are coming, but they will be few and far between in 2017.
7. Illinois (3-9)
Hiring Lovie Smith was supposed to have a positive impact on the Illini. Instead, the program took steps backward and now Illinois is in serious danger of falling to the bottom of the conference while others improve. Recruiting has not gone well with Smith as the head coach, and this year’s team has few options to replace whatever key players are moving on. This is a young team that will need time to grow and develop, but any serious signs of progress will be more likely to show up in 2018 if you are being optimistic.
BIG TEN CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION
Ohio State over Wisconsin