1)- Ohio St.- (8-1) (10-2)
HC Urban Meyer has established a well-oiled machine at Ohio St., replacing one good player for another. The Buckeyes lose their starting QB, which is always a challenge in college football, but they return enough talent from last season’s conference championship team to take their usual spot as the team to beat this season. I could see a few games on the schedule that the Buckeyes could lose, but under the Meyer era, Ohio St. seems to find a way to win the close ones. Both Penn St. and Michigan had Ohio St. on the ropes last season, yet the Buckeyes managed to escape with a win. So, for that reason, I have to give the Buckeyes respect, and figure them to win their division with only one loss, perhaps at Penn St. I’m thinking. EDITORS NOTE: I wrote this before all the turmoil surrounding Meyer and the program surfaced, so I’ve since added a non-conference loss to my prediction. And there might be another conference loss or two. Meyer will still be the coach, but the distraction that has occurred already is bound to have negative effects on this team. And I don’t think it’s over. I have a feeling the media will continue to hound Meyer throughout the season.
2)- Michigan- (7-2) (10-2)
The Wolverines play a tough schedule this season, so my prediction here may look a bit high compared to other publications. There are also some suggestions floating around that HC Jim Harbaugh is on the hot seat, due to his teams’ record against rivals Michigan St. and Ohio St. I’d be surprised if those suggestions are coming from the Michigan athletic department. I think it’d be crazy to get rid of Harbaugh, and it’s partially because of his coaching abilities that I see Michigan once again posting a good record. The offense has struggled recently, mostly due to poor QB play, which is surprising under Harbaugh. Harbaugh has once again turned to a transfer and this one comes with high accolades. But even if the transfer doesn’t work out, I thought Brandon Peters showed promise before he got hurt last season. The line has some questionable spots but some good RBs return. The defense should be outstanding as it returns eight starters from a defense that was outstanding last season. Since Harbaugh took over, Michigan hasn’t been as far from “upper echelon” status as some publications suggest. They’re certainly closer to being a legitimate contender than they’ve been in the last 10 years. If Harbaugh can find a superstar QB, and some say this transfer could be just that, the Wolves are going to pop through. The competition is thick in the Big Ten right now, and once again I figure Michigan to lose to their aforementioned rivals, but I’ve got them otherwise unblemished.
3)- Penn St.- (6-3) (9-3)
Penn St. loses a lot of starters from last season’s defense and some key position players on offense. But QB Trace McSorley returns as who I consider the best QB in the conference. McSorley has that “it” factor… the type of QB who can win some games for his team. And the O-Line is highly regarded this season so I think the Nittany Lions should be fine on offense, and most reports indicate that this is a strong recruiting class replacing the departed starters on defense, so I don’t see much of a drop off for a Penn St. program who has been on the rise under HC James Franklin’s regime. But the schedule gets tough right in the middle of the season with a six game stretch against five of the best teams in the conference sandwiched around a road game at lower-tier Indiana. I don’t think the Nittany Lions are good enough to win all six, and I’m actually calling for them to lose to Indiana, but I figure them to come out of the stretch with some nice wins as well.
4)- Michigan St.- (5-4) (8-4)
Most of the publications I’ve read are expecting big things from the Spartans. A couple of ‘em have them top 15 in their pre-season national rankings. Mark Dantonio is an excellent coach, and the Spartans have 18 starters returning from a team that finished with ten wins last season and posted a 7-2 conference record. But let’s not get carried away here. A closer look reveals that last season’s team wasn’t quite as dominant as the win-loss record would indicate. A win is a win, and I certainly respect that, so you can’t dismiss the mental toughness, but Sparty struggled to get some of those wins against lower tier teams (2 conference win Maryland, Minnesota, Indiana). And the top ranked defense that everyone is glowing about returning nine starters was almost invisible against Ohio St. as the Buckeyes simply ran the ball right through the middle en route to a 48-3 walloping. And there’s also the 20 point loss to Notre Dame. The marquis win was against Penn St., but personally I feel this was the result of being in the right place on the Nittany Lions schedule. Penn St. was coming off of the biggest and most anticipated conference game of the year against Ohio St. the week prior. College kids (even the pros sometimes) tend to let down after such a game (Ohio St. got thumped at Iowa on the same Saturday). The win at Michigan was nice, but Michigan was suffering QB issues and the game was partially played, and then stopped for a significant amount of time, and then resumed in a torrential downpour. And there’s also much ado about QB Brian Lewerke. The kid played lights out against Penn St.—good Brian, but I remember bad Brian showing up quite often. But again, you can’t dismiss getting the “W” under any circumstances so this team has proven to have the resolve to “get-er-done” in a conference that was top to bottom the strongest it’s been in a long while, and an argument could be made that the poor showing against Ohio St. was due to the aforementioned letdown that college kids often suffer as the Spartans were coming off their big win against Penn St. And Dantonio is one of the best in the conference, overshadowed by a couple of high profile coaches in the conference who grab most of the headlines. So while I agree that Michigan St. will be good, I’m not buying the idea that they’ll improve upon or even match last season’s win total.
5)- Maryland- (4-5) (6-6)
Maryland returns some key offensive playmakers, most of the starting O-Line, and their choice of three QBs who all saw playing time last season. The defense, which was very poor last season, returns only four starters. The Terrapins were competitive at times last season, but the injury bug hit the QB position hard, leaving Maryland to break in a new one through most of the season, so it’s hard to tell if their record would have been better. The defense will have to get better if Maryland is to knock of any of the upper echelon conference teams on the schedule, which I don’t see them doing. And we’ll have to take a pulse on this team at times, as it appeared from the couch last season that this team gave up when the going got tuff. But Maryland has a handful of lower tier teams on the conference schedule, which I do see them winning.
6)- Indiana- (2-7) (5-7)
HC Tom Allen did OK in his debut last season I think, although the win-loss record wouldn’t indicate as much. I said in my post-season review that Indiana may have been the best last place team this conference has had in a long time as the Hoosiers were competitive in almost all of their games. They have a lot coming back on offense and QB Peyton Ramsey seems to have the heart of a winner. But they lose a lot from a defense that was pretty good by Indiana standards, which could be a problem, we’ll have to see. Allen’s forte is defense, so I have a feeling the D might not be as bad as it appears on paper, again, by Indiana standards. The Hoosiers have a good chance to win all three non-conference games, and I think they may turn in a couple of upset wins (Michigan St. and Penn St. perhaps), but I also don’t think they’ll be good enough to dodge a couple of disappointing losses (Rutgers and Minnesota perhaps). In the end I figure the Hoosiers to match last season’s record.
7)- Rutgers- (1-8) (4-8)
For me, adding Rutgers to the conference four seasons ago was a head-scratcher, both from a geographical and competitive standpoint. Can this program be competitive in the Big Ten? So far, the answer has been no as the Scarlet Knights have a 7-25 conference record thus far, with two of those wins coming against fellow head-scratcher Maryland. But, while New Jersey stretches far beyond the boundaries of a conference historically known to represent the Midwest, it does have a large enough population to draw significant talent from, and being a member of a power five conference should help. So, over time, and with some progressive results on the field, there is a good chance that Rutgers will eventually be a contender in the conference. A case could be made that a baby step was taken last season as the Scarlet Knights put together a nice mid-season run, winning three of four conference games. But it appeared as though the team was satisfied at that point and packed it in to close the season with three straight lopsided losses by a combined score of 116-13. This season’s edition returns a significant amount of starters, and there’s a freshman QB who comes in highly touted, so I don’t see Rutgers as taking a step backwards in terms of talent/progress, and believe they will win all of their nonconference games. But I do think the conference wins will drop off from last season. The Maryland game is on the road, and I’m calling for Rutgers to win one of the two home games against Indiana and Illinois, but otherwise, I don’t see any wins on a pretty tough remaining schedule.
1)- Wisconsin- (8-1) (11-1)
10 starters return on offense from a team that ran the table aside from the Big Ten championship game, which they almost won. And while there aren’t many starters returning on defense, there is a significant amount of experience returning and the DC returns for a second season, which has been rare at Wisconsin lately. So I’m calling for pretty much the same as last season although the crossover schedule is tougher so I’m seeing a loss at Ann Arbor and a road game at Penn St. will be quite a challenge as well. There are also a couple of other land mines on the schedule but with this offense and the fact that I feel HC Paul Chryst is an excellent play caller, I look for the Badgers to be a serious contender for “best in the conference”. Despite not having a big arm, QB Alex Hornibrook for the most part, is very good. But he has to be great in the big time games, namely the championship. Last season he wasn’t.
2)- Purdue- (6-3) (8-4)
I had a good feeling about Purdue last year and called for the significant improvement that surprised most others. I could see the Boilermakers had good players, but were just poorly coached. I didn’t know much about HC Jeff Brohm coming in, but had heard his name come up on occasion as being successful and knew that any decent coach could improve upon his predecessor. I’ve seen enough of Brohm now to say that I like him. He calls a few too many trick plays for my taste, but then, it’s easy to question play calling from the couch. The Boilermakers have a good amount of returning starters on offense, including two decent QBs who shared time last season. They lose a lot on defense, but again, this program has more talent than most think, and the fiery DC is as impressive as Brohm. The schedule is a bit tougher this season, so if the Boilermakers are to improve on last season’s record, they can’t afford a stumble like last season’s road loss to Rutgers. I don’t see the Boilermakers knocking off the big boys on the conference schedule, and I’m calling for a loss at East Lansing, but I do think they take care of business against the mid to lower level teams.
3)- Iowa- (6-3) (7-5)
Iowa has what many consider to be an easy schedule – I saw one publication suggest the Hawkeyes may be favored in 10 of their twelve games – but I don’t see Iowa as talented enough to win quite that many. But then, who knows with Iowa? HC Kirk Ferentz has a history of turning in an outstanding season every few years, usually when the grumbling over six to eight win seasons ramps up a bit. The grumbling never gets too bad though, if Iowa was the type of program that won’t stand for “slightly above average”, Ferentz would have been let go by now. Despite the occasional standout season, I’m calling for typical Iowa this season, with the “before seen” early disappointing losses (Northern Illinois and Iowa St. is what I have in mind) that leave you thinking this is a team that may not win a game, followed by a surprising turnaround as Iowa works its way back to its above average status in the conference. The Hawkeyes are projected to be strong on the D-Line but otherwise lose a lot of starters on defense including all three linebackers. They also lost some key playmakers on offense, most notable to me is RB Akrum Wadley. Returning starting QB Nate Stanley put up some nice numbers last year and most publications are singing his praises and expect big things from Stanley. I like Stanley OK, but I’m not completely sold yet. I think a Hawkeye fan I know said it best when I asked him what he thought of Stanley… “I don’t thinks he’s going to lose any games for us, but I don’t think he’s going to win any for us, either.”
4)- Northwestern- (4-5) (6-6)
Northwestern finished with a better record than I predicted last season, although many others figured the Wildcats would be good. Pat Fitzgerald is a good, but not great, coach in my opinion, so I have a hard time trusting this team. Seems like they always turn in a head-scratching loss at some point in the season (see Duke last season), and often times get off to a slow start early in the season. I’ve also had doubts about returning two year starting QB Clayton Thorson, but some of those doubts were tempered last season. Thorson is highly regarded by most, and rightfully so, the kid has talent, but my complaint is often times he fails in crucial situations. But again, he proved me wrong about that a couple of times last season, so maybe I’m too hard on the kid. Thorson suffered a serious injury in the bowl game last season, so his effectiveness early in the season is questionable, assuming he’s even cleared to play, which isn’t a slam dunk. The Wildcats have a good amount of starters coming back from last season’s ten win team (7-2 in the conference), but this season face two tuff cross-over opponents, play a couple of 50/50 games on the road, and I don’t see them beating Wisconsin, so there’s the five conference losses I’m calling for right there.
5)- Nebraska- (3-6) (5-7)
They’re making new HC Scott Frost out to be the second coming of Tom Osborne. I suppose any HC change could be cause for Huskers fans to celebrate after the Mike Riley era. One publication is ranking Frost as the best coaching hire of the season. I don’t stray too far from the Big Ten, so I can’t say I know much about Frost as a coach, although I do remember him as a player. But I am skeptical of his ability to meet what appears to be lofty expectations. Frost has been a HC for only two seasons. The “what have you done for me lately” idiom works both ways when it comes to college football coaches. Turn in one good season and suddenly you’re considered one of the best coaches in the country, worthy of being lured away for a hefty contract. Frost is coming off that kind of season at UCF where he led the Knights to an undefeated record in 2017. But I don’t see the likes of FIU, Austin Peay, and SMU on the Nebraska schedule this season. I do see Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan St. and Ohio St., though. And there’ll be something similar next season and all other seasons to follow. You get where I’m going. This is a big time conference with big time coaches. Again, I don’t know much about Frost as a coach, can’t say that I’ve even seen him speak during an interview, and he could be very successful. But I’ve seen this scene go the other way. Remember, Tim Beckman and Darrell Hazell were successful in the MAC before stepping up to the Big Ten. Nebraska will have to break in a new QB and only return five starters on offense. And despite his poor performance and eventual ousting, Riley was nowhere near as bad of a coach as the Hazell’s and Beckman’s of the world, at least from an X’s and O’s standpoint. About three to four games into last season it hit me that I need to get past the iconic Nebraska image and realize that this program has fallen to “mid-level” status when it comes to overall talent. Poor coaching can make good players look bad, but I don’t think that was entirely the case last season. From the couch it really didn’t look like Nebraska players were much better than the Northern Illinois players. Frost will certainly get a mulligan this season if things don’t go so well, and since he’s a homegrown Husker, will probably get the benefit of the doubt in years to come. But I see tough sledding this season.
6)- Illinois- (2-7) (5-7)
I’m not a big fan of the current overused cliché, “change the culture”. Not entirely sure what is meant by “culture”. But I’ll assume I’m applying the phrase correctly when I say Illinois has compiled a mountain of bad culture prior to HC Lovie Smith’s arrival two seasons ago. So a tall order for Smith to step right in and immediately turn things around, but, considering Smith’s resume, I think most expected more than the record produced so far. From the couch it appeared that the Illini were slightly improved on the field last season, if not so much on paper. The team was certainly more disciplined than in prior seasons. The bottom of the conference, i.e., teams like the Illini have gotten better. But so has the top of the conference. So I’d say it’s still premature to throw Smith under the bus, but this season should and probably will be pivotal to the Smith era. If things don’t improve significantly after three years, it’s probably time to re-evaluate, especially when the significant improvement at Purdue after similar “culture” issues is highly visible as a benchmark. The Illini have a good amount of experience returning, and I like QB Cam Thomas, although most say he’ll have to battle for a starting position. I predict the Illini take a baby step forward on paper and win two conference games and all of their nonconference games. Whether or not that will be enough to extend Smith’s tenure I’m not sure.
7)- Minnesota- (1-8) (3-9)
Minnesota is another team that I don’t see performing as well as most are projecting. But I will admit this is based more on a gut feeling than the facts. I’m still unsure about HC P.J. Fleck. He’s known for his high energy, and positive attitude, yet is quoted as saying “I’m not worried one bit about any of the wins and losses. I’m worried about developing this football team”. I’m guessing there’s more context to consider when absorbing that statement, and there are probably several coaches who are in a rebuilding phase who feel the same way, but personally I find it a strange and somewhat selfish thing to say out loud to the media. I’m guessing the seniors on the team are concerned about wins and losses. We’ve seen successful MAC coaches completely bomb out in the Big Ten (see Tim Beckman and Darrell Hazell). And Minnesota has seen the high energy used car salesman schtick in Tim Brewster. Despite Fleck stating at the beginning of last season that he was going to/needed to “change the culture”, his predecessor, Jerry Kill, had the program in pretty good shape, at least by Minnesota standards. The “change in culture” resulted in going from 9-4 to 5-7 so…..
Minnesota has 13 starters returning from a team that was competitive against the middle tier teams, and posted a nice win against a waning Nebraska program, but didn’t finish well at all as they didn’t score a point in the last two games of the season. I thought QB Demry Croft showed promise and certainly could contribute to the development of the team, but he transferred right after the season ended, leaving the Gophers without a QB who has thrown a pass at the FBS level. QB play is huge at the college level, so I don’t see many wins for the Gophers this season. Which apparently isn’t anything to be worried about.