The 2017 college football season saw the Big Ten left out of the College Football Playoff. However, the conference did finish with five teams ranked in the top-20 nationally, setting the stage for another competitive season in 2018.
Depth continues to be a bit of a problem in the Big Ten. There is also an issue with balance, as the East Division is loaded with championship contenders while the West Division is a little top-heavy and includes some of the league’s lesser teams. Nevertheless, there are at least a handful of Big Ten teams with aspirations of reaching the College Football Playoff this season.
Here is a prediction of the standings in each division, each team’s record, and an overview of how each team looks heading into the season.
The Buckeyes are hands down one of the most talented teams in the country. The lone question is at quarterback with the unproven Dwayne Haskins taking over for J.T. Barrett. Haskins doesn’t have the experience or the running ability of Barrett, so the Ohio State offense will probably look a little different this year. However, the defense should be more than good enough to make up for any offensive shortcomings. Away games against Penn State and Michigan State make an undefeated season unlikely, but the Buckeyes should still win the Big Ten East and be in contention for a Playoff spot.
The Spartans will be good this season, especially on the defensive side of the ball. But I’m not sold on quarterback Brian Lewerke leading a team to a conference championship. The MSU contingent of wide receivers isn’t overly impressive either, so the Spartans will have to run the ball and play defense to win games this year. It’ll be tough to win nine conference games like that, especially in the East Division. Michigan State will come close to Ohio State but ultimately fall a little short in the standings.
Penn State may have the Big Ten’s best quarterback in Trace McSorley, but there will be a lot more pressure on him this season. There’s no more Saquon Barkley to lean on. Also, the Penn State offensive line may not be as strong as last season either. Between those losses and a crossover game against Wisconsin, the Nittany Lions are due for a small step backward in 2018.
We keep waiting for the Wolverines to take that next step under Jim Harbaugh and it just hasn’t happened yet. This could be yet another underachieving season in Ann Arbor. Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson will take over at quarterback, giving Michigan an elite signal caller. However, Patterson struggled against quality defenses at Ole Miss and could need a little time to gel with the Michigan offense. The Wolverines also open the season at Notre Dame and play a crossover with Wisconsin on top of facing the other teams in the East Division. For a team that has struggled in big games under Harbaugh, that’s not a recipe for success.
Maryland was crushed by injuries last year, especially at the quarterback position. As long as they can avoid similar misfortune this year, the Terrapins should be in a position to go to a bowl game. The talent level at Maryland has definitely improved from when D.J. Durkin arrived in 2016. Alas, the Big Ten East schedule is still incredibly difficult, and opening the season against Texas doesn’t make things any easier. But as long as the Terps can stay healthy, they should be able to find their way to six wins and a bowl bid.
The Hoosiers have a lot riding on Arizona transfer Brandon Dawkins stepping in and being a difference maker at quarterback. Of course, Dawkins has never proved himself over a full season, although he will have some dynamic receivers at his disposal at Indiana. On the flip side, the Hoosiers lost a lot of key players from last year’s defense, and they don’t exactly have the depth to plug new guys into the starting lineup without missing a beat. That will leave the Hoosiers struggling to reach six wins, even if they can go 3-0 out of conference against Florida International, Virginia, and Ball State, which is no guarantee either.
Things never seem to get any easier for the Scarlet Knights inside the Big Ten. They still don’t have an answer at quarterback, as projected starter Giovanni Rescigno was underwhelming last year. The Scarlet Knights are also liable to get pushed around in the trenches against most Big Ten teams. The Rutgers defense may be able to keep them in some games, but it’s hard to see the Knights winning too many games in 2018.
The Badgers have a team that is good enough to reach the College Football Playoff. Wisconsin’s powerful offensive line should plough the way for Heisman candidate Jordan Taylor, giving the Badgers one of the best rushing attacks in the country. The key will be quarterback Alex Hornibrook learning to take better care of the football after being too turnover-prone last year. Road games against Iowa, Northwestern, Michigan, and Penn State make it hard to believe they’ll get through the season blemish free, but the Badgers are definitely the best team in the Big Ten West.
After winning 10 games last year, this could be another big year for Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats. However, there are lingering questions about the health of quarterback Clayton Thorson after he tore his ACL in last season’s bowl game. If he’s not fully healthy, there could be a huge drop-off for the Northwestern offense. The Wildcats are strong on defense, but that’ll only carry them so far with Michigan, Michigan State, and Notre Dame on their schedule in addition to November road trips to Iowa and Minnesota.
The Hawkeyes are usually one of the most consistently solid programs in the Big Ten, and 2018 should be no different. Nathan Stanley gives them an experienced quarterback, albeit one without a lot of exciting options at wide receiver. Despite some inexperience at linebacker, the Iowa defense should also hold up well in the Big Ten. With both Wisconsin and Northwestern at home, the Hawkeyes may have a chance to make some noise in the West division, but the talent isn’t quite there to see Iowa doing anything too crazy in 2018.
Scott Frost admits he has a lot of work to do, but he’s a good enough coach to make the Cornhuskers interesting in his first season. Look for the Nebraska offense to gradually improve over the course of the season as they gain experience in Frost’s system. The real question is how much the defense can improve after giving up over 50 points on four separate occasions last year, including the last three games of the season. But I think Frost will find enough answers to get Nebraska to a bowl game.
The Boilermakers should be ecstatic that Jeff Brohm wasn’t poached away by another school over the summer. However, it could be tough for Purdue to match last year’s 7-6 record that included a bowl win. The Purdue defense has a lot of important pieces to replace. The quarterback competition between Elijah Sindelar and David Blough also remains unsettled. Finally, the Purdue schedule is difficult, as it includes crossover games against Ohio State and Michigan State, as well as non-conference games with Missouri and Boston College. Back-to-back bowl games could be too much to ask of the Boilermakers.
P.J. Fleck should get the Golden Gophers moving in the right direction, but there won’t be many tangible signs of progress in 2018. Minnesota thought they had an answer at quarterback until Vic Viramontes decided to return to junior college. The Gophers are now left with a pair of freshmen battling it out for the starting job. Even with a decent running game, it’ll be tough for Minnesota to do much better than repeating last year’s 5-7 record.
Illinois was a disaster last season, and while things should get better, they won’t get that much better. The Fighting Illini are still incredibly young and lack a proven quarterback after Jeff George Jr. decided to transfer. Lovie Smith’s team may be just good enough to steal a conference win. But Illinois appears to be at least another year away from getting out of the Big Ten basement.