For the first time in the brief history of the College Football Playoff, the Big Ten found itself without a playoff representative last season. But in 2018, the conference appears to be stocked with teams worthy of being on the playoff radar as the season begins and there are a handful of programs in the early stages of turning things around and growing with fresh new leadership over the past couple of seasons. Whoever comes out on top of the Big Ten will certainly have earned it given the road any school will have to travel to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game, but will it end up being enough to justify waving the Big Ten flag in the College Football Playoff?
Ohio State has made the most trips to the playoff among Big Ten programs, including winning the inaugural College Football Playoff national championship, but the season begins with a dark cloud flying above Ohio Stadium with head coach Urban Meyer serving a three-game suspension. Fortunately, Ohio State should be in good position to weather the storm thanks to young offensive stars like J.K. Dobbins running the ball and Dwayne Haskins anointed as the starting quarterback. But it will be the defense, led by Nick Bosa and Dre’Mont Jones on the defensive line, that carries Ohio State early on, including a road trip to Arlington to play TCU. Ohio State’s playoff bubble could hinge on the September schedule with the TCU game and a road trip to Penn State at the end of September.
Penn State was maddeningly close to making the playoff last year, but losing two games by a combined four points in back-to-back weeks leaves the football program hungry for more. And with Ohio State and Michigan State each coming to Happy Valley early in Big Ten play, James Franklin‘s Nittany Lions have a chance to make some noise early on despite a significant amount of turnover on defense and key losses on the offense. Despite the changes, having the Big Ten’s top quarterback in Trace McSorley should allow for some smooth transition while the rest of the pieces come together. Miles Sanders will not be Saquon Barkley, but he may not have to be running the football. Penn State’s best offensive line depth in years should be noticeable and a home schedule that also brings Wisconsin to Beaver Stadium puts Penn State in position to make a playoff case of their own.
Elsewhere in a stacked East Division is, of course, Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. Harbaugh may have the Big Ten’s top defense with players like Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich on the ends of the line and Lavert Hill playing corner. and the hope is transfer quarterback Shea Patterson will be a dramatic improvement for the entire offense. An early trip to Notre Dame should be a good litmus test for what the Wolverines will do this season. Meanwhile, Michigan State will continue to chug along and be a factor in the East race with 19 starters back from last year’s team.
Wisconsin has become the easy pick in the West Division, and they are a popular pick once again this season as the most reliable program in the West. But they are not without some potential hurdles as well. A challenging road schedule (Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern, Penn State… Purdue?) and just three returning starters on defense to go with questionable quarterback consistency from Alex Hornibrook is a lot to counter-balance the expected strong running game led by a monster offensive line paving the way for sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor, a popular preseason Heisman Trophy favorite. The West is littered with programs in rebuilding modes like Minnesota, Purdue and now Nebraska with Scott Frost, but Northwestern is always ready to pull an upset or two and this could just be one of those years where Iowa makes a run.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
BIG TEN EAST DIVISION
- Penn State
- Ohio State
- Michigan State
BIG TEN WEST DIVISION