This should be an outstanding conference this season. The Big Ten features some of the top running backs in the country. Six running backs return who topped the 1,000 yard mark last fall. Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, gets my vote as the top back in the nation! I also believe Barkley is a frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy. The East division is loaded. Three teams could legitimately be in the chase for a national title. Overall, I have eight teams going bowling, while several others I peg at 5-7. The Big Ten will have one representative in the CFP playoff. Read on to find out who that team will be.
OHIO STATE It was just two years ago when the Buckeyes last won a national championship. This years team has a chance to repeat the 2014 dream season. The Buckeyes are loaded, and with the return of quarterback J. T. Barrett could be unstoppable. What has me excited is the hiring of new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. Wilson will bring with him a full arsenal of passing genius. The offense also returns running back Mike Weber (1,119) yards, and four offensive lineman (80) career starts. The defense is also loaded. The front seven, could arguably be the best in the country. The secondary lost three players to the NFL, but should still be capable with many highly regarded recruits. The schedule is tough but manageable. A week two matchup with Oklahoma will be a marquis matchup. I fully expect a 12-0 regular season and a return to the CFP!
IMPACT NEWCOMER……….LB Baron Browning, A freak at 6-4 230 pounds. Should play immediately.
FUN FACT……….J.T. Barrett has 100 career touchdowns. He needs six to break Drew Brees Big Ten record.
PENN STATE If anyone can play with Ohio State, it’s this bunch of Lions. Quarterback Trace McSorley stunned me with his performance last year. He simply took over for the departed Christian Hackenberg and took the offense to another level. The offense improved by 14 points per game. The Lions have, who I consider to be the best running back in the country. Saquon Barkley is a beast, and is my favorite to win the Heisman. Barkley had a combined 2,074 yards from scrimmage last season. The only apparent weakness on offense is at wide receiver. Head coach James Franklin, was impressed with the competition during the spring. The defense should also be top-notch, but two replacements will need to be found in the trenches. Circle the October 28th matchup at Ohio State. The winner of this game will find its way into the Big Ten Championship.
IMPACT NEWCOMER……….G Michal Menet, Standout freshman should start at guard.
FUN FACT……….Penn State is 44-7 on homecoming.
MICHIGAN Many believe the Wolverines will make a run at the top of the division, despite having only five returning starters. I’m not one of them. This will be a rebuilding season in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines sent 11 eleven players to the NFL. There are holes everywhere on the roster, with the exception of quarterback. Wilton Speight is in a heated battle with John O’Korn for the keys to the offense. Speight was solid last year, and I expect him to hold off the challenge. Running back Chris Evans hopes to be the first running back since 2011 to rush for 1,000 yards. The defense returns just one starter. The competition for starting roles was intense during the spring, and continues as we head into the season opener. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has done a masterful job of recruiting. Those recruits will pay dividends next season, as they go through growing pains this season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER……….C Cesar Ruiz, True freshman could anchor the offensive line this season.
FUN FACT……….The Wolverines are 19-6 at home versus the Big Ten in the last 25.
INDIANA Tom Allen takes over for the departed Kevin Wilson at Indiana. The Hoosiers hired within, elevating Allen from his defensive coordinator position. Allen will have what might be his best defense in years. Nine starters return, making this side of the ball the strength of the team. Quarterbck Richard Lagow returns. He has a strong-arm and a solid receiving core. Lagow was plagued by interceptions last season (17). Replacing running back Devine Redding, will be a tall task for the offense. The Hoosiers have been bowling for two years in a row. I think that streak comes to an end this season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER……….DT Juan Harris, 6-3 370 pound monster, should plug up the middle on defense.
FUN FACT……….The Hoosiers have lost 21 straight to Michigan.
MARYLAND Head coach DJ Durkin has pumped life into a program that had struggled for years. The second year coach, brought in what many are calling the top recruiting class in Terrapins history. The top recruit is actually quarterback Caleb Henderson, a transfer from North Carolina. Henderson is a perfect fit for the spread offense. Ty Johnson led the team with 1,031 yards rushing last season. He will be joined by several other highly touted running backs, making this unit one of the deepest in the Big Ten. I also expect big things from an offensive line that returns three starters. Last year this unit gave up 49 sacks, second most in the FBS. It’s the defense that has me concerned. The rushing defense was abysmal last season, allowing almost five yards per carry. Improvement on this side of the ball is a must, if the Terps are to contend for a bowl. The schedule is brutal. Non-conference games with Texas and Central Florida, are on tap in September. They also draw my two toughest teams from the West division, in Wisconsin and Northwestern. Look out for these turtles in 2018.
IMPACT NEWCOMER……….RB/WR Anthony McFarland, dynamic athlete who can go to the house on any play. Could be fantastic on special teams as well.
FUN FACT……….On November 4th Maryland will play Rutgers in the Bronx at Yankee Stadium. The first regular season game to be played there.
MICHIGAN STATE From 2013-2015, the Spartans were dominant going 36-5. Last season the wheels fell off in a 3-9 campaign. Everything went wrong for the Spartans, from injuries, to fighting amongst themselves. Head coach Mark Dantonio has made it a priority to change the culture and attitude, with team building events. In the spring several players were injured, further complicating an already inexperienced roster. Dantonio does have some nice pieces to build his offense around. Thousand yard rusher LJ Scott returns. He will be joined by quarterback Brian Lewerke. Lewerke has a chance to be a star in this league. The defense needs to replace nine starters. A tall task for a team that struggled all last season on that side of the ball. I’m not sure that the Spartans have the quality athletes on their current roster to right this ship. Dantonio is a great coach. This season could test his ability to keep the ship from sinking.
IMPACT NEWCOMER……….WR, Trishton Jackson, terrific athlete with tons of speed, should become a fan favorite.
FUN FACT……….The Spartans had just 11 sacks last year. Only two teams had less.
RUTGERS It can’t get any worse for Rutgers, or can it? The Scarlet Knights were flat-out an embarrassment in most games last season. They were shutout four times and gave up 40 or more points four times! The defense allowed 5.7 yards per carry. So here is the good news. I love the hiring of Jerry Kill to take over the offense. Kill is a no-nonsense coach, who will get results. I also love the addition of quarterback Kyle Bolin, a transfer from Louisville. He gives them a major upgrade at the position. Several other graduate transfers will immediately play dividends on offense. The defense returns eight starters. Logic would tell you that, they should be better on that side of the ball. I guess the proof will be in the pudding.
IMPACT NEWCOMER……….LB, Tyshon Fogg, big and fast, could be dynamic pass rusher.
FUN FACT……….The Scarlet Knights were defeated by an average of 30 points per game in Big Ten action last season.
WISCONSIN The Badgers are by far the class of this division. They return 15 starters overall and should be primed to play in the Big Ten championship game. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook was solid last year after taking over for Bart Houston. I’m still undecided on just how good Hornibrook can be. He threw nine touchdown passes, but also tossed six interceptions. He will need to vastly improve on those numbers. I’m excited about both Chris James and Bradrick Shaw at the running back position. The offensive line will once again be a strength, with 90 career starts returning. The defense is loaded with talent. They also get back a couple of key players such as Jack Cichy and Chris Orr, who were injured much of last season. This team is senior laden, and could be a big sleeper.
IMPACT NEWCOMER……….LB/DE Andrew Van Ginkel, highly rated JC transfer, who can rush the passer.
FUN FACTS……….Only Alabama has allowed fewer points over the last two seasons.
NORTHWESTERN It’s a good time to be a Wildcat football fan. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald, has what he thinks could be his best squad in years. The Cats have a dynamic duo of quarterback Clayton Thorson and tailback Justin Jackson. The only question mark on offense is at wide receiver. replacing Austin Carr and his 90 receptions, could be a daunting task. The defense was solid last year, and should be even better in 2017. The secondary could be the best in the conference. Fitzgerald an All-American linebacker himself, will need to revamp the position. He has several, young athletic guys ready to step up. The schedule is also favorable, as they avoid Ohio State and Michigan from the East. A road trip to Madison in late September, could well decide the division title.
IMPACT NEWCOMER……….DE Earnest Brown, four star recruit from the state of Texas.
FUN FACT……….The Wildcats return their top five rushers from last season.
NEBRASKA The Huskers started the season 7-0 last year before the wheels fell off. Back to back losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State, ruined what potentially could have been a Big Ten championship. This year might well be a rebuilding year for Mike Riley’s Cornhuskers. The offense losses seven starters, which include several standouts. Riley has brought in quarterback Tanner Lee from Tulane. Lee is a big prototype gunslinger, who pro scouts love. Open competition at both the running back and receiver positions is still ongoing. I expect the offense to be a work in progress as the season rolls along. The defense is also in flux. New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has the Huskers switching to a 3-4 alignment. He hopes this scheme will create more of a pass rush. This is clearly a year of transition for me. However, with the level of athletes on hand, it shouldn’t take long to iron things out.
IMPACT NEWCOMER……….WR, Tyjon Lindsey, small at 5-9 160. Electrifying!
FUN FACT……….Nebraska has now sold out 354 consecutive home games. That’s an NCAA record.
IOWA It’s hard to imagine that head coach Kirk Ferentz has been here for 19 years. The Hawkeyes will need to find another quarterback this season. The battle between Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers rages on. I expect both to play. Akrum Wadley had a breakout season (1,096) yards. He will run behind one of the top offensive lines in the country. The defense will once again be stout. The top four tacklers return, to a team that allowed only 18 points per game last season. The secondary could be a concern, with the loss of three starters. Home games against Ohio State and Penn State will be the key to the season. Iowa is fundamentally sound and they rarely beat themselves. Iowa will once again be significant players in the Big Ten west.
IMPACT NEWCOMER……….A.J. Epenesa, this kid will make an impact by seasons end.
FUN FACT……….Iowa is 18-4 the last three years when rushing the ball 40 times or more.
MINNESOTA P.J. Fleck will attempt to “row the boat” at Minnesota. His first order of business was to change the culture, following the alleged sexual scandal of ten players. So far so good. The Administration, players and fans, seem to have bought in. Fleck has opened the competition for all jobs. The position battles have been hotly contested on both sides of the ball. The quarterback battle rages on between Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda. I expect the younger Croft to eventually win the job. The duo of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, give the Gophers a two-headed monster at tailback. The defense has holes everywhere. The lack of quality depth will be a problem. I love the hiring of Fleck here. I just think it’s a guessing game as to how good this squad will be. The Gophers might struggle early, but I do expect them to go bowling.
IMPACT NEWCOMER……….OT Blaise Andries, big and strong, should be in the mix at tackle.
FUN FACT……….22 players had off-season surgeries. Most are expected to be ready for the opener.
PURDUE It seems like decades ago, when Joe Tiller was walking the sidelines at Purdue. Tiller retired after the 2008 season and that’s the last time that Purdue football has really been relevent. The new man in town is head coach Jeff Brohm. Brohm is considered an elite offensive guru. The problem is, you must have the athletes to run his system. The Boilermakers don’t. Brohm will rely heavily on transfers to fill the many holes all over the roster. He went out and recruited ten junior college and graduate transfers. All are expected to see significant playing time. The problem with this method is, it’s only a temporary fix. Depth on the offensive and defensive lines are terribly thin. The strength of the team will be the play of quarterback David Blough and a solid committee of running backs. The schedule is also very tough. Non-conference tilts with Louisville and Missouri will be a tough task. The Boilermakers are a long way from competing in the Big Ten.
IMPACT NEWCOMER……….DB T. J. Jallow, could possibly be the best of the JC transfers.
FUN FACT……….Purdue hasn’t won a football game in November since 2012. That’s 17 straight losses.
ILLINOIS I was the first to say that Lovie Smith would take the Illinois bowling last year. What a mistake that was. I was on hand to witness North Carolina hand it to the Illini in week two. I was a firm believer in Smith’s ability to get the most out of his inaugural squad. Quarterback Wes Lunt struggled before finally getting hurt, and what I thought was a solid defense never materialized. Lunt is gone, and nobody has yet to step up to claim the position. Receiver Malik turner is the lone hot-shot on offense. Turner led the team in receptions with 48 and has NFl potential. The front seven on defense is a major problem. The Illini could play as many as seven underclassmen up front. This might well be a very long season in Champaign.
IMPACT NEWCOMER……….LB Deishawn Phillips, rated as the number three junior college transfer.
FUN FACT……….Illinois hasn’t won six regular season games since 2008.
HOW THEY WILL FINISH
OHIO STATE 12-0
PENN STATE 11-1
MICHIGAN STATE 5-7