Last year, Penn State overcame early season losses to Pitt and Michigan to reel off nine straight wins including an upset of Ohio State and went on to win the Big Ten title over Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions are loaded again this year with 16 returning starters, nine on offense, and are the flavor of the month in many publications. Penn State has a schedule conducive to a National Championship run but four of their five road games come at the best the Big Ten has to offer so the Nits will have to run the gauntlet outside Happy Valley.
Penn State finds the East in a state of transition. Ohio State is very young but does return eight starters on the offensive and defensive lines. The Buckeyes face Penn State in Columbus on November 11th and that game could very well determine the division.
Michigan is in a rebuilding year for Jim Harbaugh with just six returning starters, only one on the vaunted Wolverine defense. Michigan State figures to rebound from a nightmare 2016 while Indiana, Maryland, and Rutgers look to make progress in their respective programs.
The Big Ten West looks to be a crap shoot with Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota and Northwestern all in the mix. With just a smidge more offense, Wisconsin could have very well been in the FBS playoff mix. The Badgers were unlucky in their three losses and return 15 proven starters. Mike Riley is in his third year at Nebraska and close to having the Huskers where he wants them. A new defensive scheme and transfer QB that can really throw the ball around will make the Black Shirts dangerous on any given Saturday.
P.J. Fleck takes over at Minnesota and instantly gives the Gophers some stability. Northwestern is te sexy upstart pick in the West but will need improved quarterback play and a defense that can tackle to make the hype reality. Illinois and Purdue have a lot of work to do to even be competitive with this bunch.
The obvious choice here with 15 returning starters and a veteran QB. Urban Meyer has lost tree Bowl games in his career and has come back to win the National Championship after losing the first two. The Buckeyes will be tested opening the season at Indiana and then hosting the rematch with Oklahoma. They host Penn State off a bye week and will need to close the show at Michigan in their regular season finale. Ohio State should be unbeaten heading into the Big Ten Conference Championship game and FBS playoffs.
The Nits return all their bug weapons from last year including QB Trace McSorly and probable Heisman candidate RB Saquon Barkley. The defense returns six starters but as good as they were in the second half last year, remember that they were shredded by USC in the Rose Bowl. Penn State will score and get their points but even if they were to win at Ohio State, not sure that the Nits can stay perfect against the rest of a rugged conference schedule that includes roadies at Iowa, at Northwestern and at Michigan State.
Talent isn’t the problem for the Wolverines, experience is with just six returning starters, one on the defensive side of the ball. The team will play it’s heart out for Harbaugh but Michigan has lost several close games under he lead including three of their last four last year by a combined five points. On the positive side, expectations are not as high this year and the Wolves are playing with house money.
It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Michigan State but after beating Notre Dame in Week Two, the best Sparty could do the rest of the way was go 1-9 with a win over Rutgers. You wouldn’t think a Mark Dantonio team could post back-to-back sub .500 seasons but with non-conference games vs. Notre Dame and Western Michigan (albeit at home) and B10 roadies at Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern and Ohio State … that is a very real possibility.
The Hoosiers promoted from within after letting Kevin Wilson go by tabbing DC Tom Allen who was the Ole Miss DC from 12-14. Indiana seems to be tagged that breakthrough team every year and never seems to get it done. Their stats show “buy” signs again for this year but their first four conference games are Ohio State, at Penn State, Michigan and at Michigan State. On the bright side, their final three conference games are against teams that went 3-24 so Indiana should once again get Bowl eligible.
The Terps were hurt by injuries last year, especially at QB during conference play. The Turtle opened 4-0 vs. a soft non-conference schedule but managed just two wins the rest of the way (Michigan State and Rutgers) before showing little in their Bowl loss to a not very good Boston College. The Terps open at Texas this year and have no soft spots but Towson. Maryland could very well win three or less games this year.
The arrow can only point up for a Rutgers team that scored seven points or less in six Big Ten games last year and was shut out four times. The Scarlet Knights brought in some quality transfers at the skill positions and eight returning starters on defense should show improvement Rutgers gets Illinois and Purdue out of the West so a couple of Big 10 wins are possible.
The Hawkeyes are always at their best when you least expect it. Last year, Iowa had a dream schedule, lost its non-conference showdown with FCS North Dakota State and basically mailed in the rest of their 8-5 season. This year, the Hawkeyes return two formidable lines and have two potential 1000 yard rushers that should keep opposing offenses off the field. With the departure of Bob Stoops, Kirk Ferentz is now the longest tenured coach in major college football and he’s made of better stuff.
Tulane transfer Tanner Lee is an NFL prospect that can really throw the ball around. He’s an excellent fit for the Mike Riley system and should flourish. The Huskers catch Ohio State and Penn State out of the East but get the Buckeyes and their important division games at Lincoln where they were 7-0 last year.
The Badgers will be in the hunt again but doesn’t it seem like year after year this team loses it’s showdown games and then is a coin toss to show up at it’s Bowl. Paul Chryst enters his all important third year with a solid core nucleus of 15 returning starters and looks to be set on both the offensive and defensive lines. The Badgers have a tough early road game at BYU and finish up with a tough roadie at Minnesota. With a couple of breaks, it would surprise nobody if the Badgers won the West and the Big Ten.
The Wildcats return 16 starters but the offense is toothless and the defense doesn’t figure to be as good as it was last year where it clearly overachieved. Northwestern misses Ohio State and Michigan but the Wildcats have a tough early game at Duke and then face Wisconsin and Nebraska on the road. Penn State visits for homecoming. Pat Fitzgerald is a good coach that gets as much as he can from his kids but in our eyes, the Cats are an eight win team at best.
P.J. Fleck took Western Michigan from 0-13 in his first year to 13-1 in year four, ultimately giving Wisconsin everything it wanted in the Cotton Bowl. Fleck has no easy task in replacing four-year starter Mitch Leidner at quarterback but the cubbard is far from bare and Fleck has brought in the former DC from Arkansas to handle a pretty good stop unit. Fleck is an excellent recruiter but will still need a couple of years to work his magic in Minneapolis.
Lovie Smith is one of the real gentlemen in football and you can’t help but root for him. If given the time, he’ll get the Illini going in the right direction and do it right. That said, he inherited a train wreck and has a lot to do. In the end, he can recruit the Midwest and Florida from his time in Chicago and Tampa Bay. His NFL pedigree is attractive to kids but only time will tell.
Jeff Brohm gets his shot at Purdue and might be the best of the Boiler HC hires over the last decade. Brohm was 30-10 at Western Kentucky and a former Louisville QB himself so it shouldn’t be long before Purdue is getting it done on offense. The Boilers return eight defensive starters and a couple of Big Ten win and avoiding the basement in the West would be a very positive first season in Lafayette.
Ohio State defeats Iowa and advances to this year’s College Football Playoff.