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College Football Preview 2017-2018: Previewing the Big Ten

Wilton Speight, Michigan
Big Ten Conference

2016 In Review: After a miserable postseason in 2015 that saw the two teams competing for a Big
Ten Championship, Michigan State and Iowa, both get destroyed by other Power Five programs, the Big Ten was looking for redemption in 2016. The conference didn't disappoint: Ohio State pummeled Oklahoma and looked ready to compete for a National Title, Wisconsin stunned LSU at Lambeau Field, Michigan looked dominant and even Nebraska started off hot. As the season went on though, it was Penn State who rose seemingly out of nowhere. The Nittany Lions stunned the Buckeyes in a thriller then continued to win nine straight, including a comeback victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship. Ohio State and Michigan played their annual rivalry with a Playoff spot, where OSU won in overtime. Both PSU and OSU had reasonable Playoff chances, but only the Buckeyes were among the final four teams, while the Nittany Lions played in the Rose Bowl. However, the conference is once again searching for answers after another rough post-season in which Ohio State lost by 31 and was shutout, Penn State lost, Michigan lost and Wisconsin was tested by a MAC team. Is the Big Ten really a top-tier conference, or have their recent post-season struggles sunk the repetition of the conference? The season will likely hinge on the play of the three Eastern Division powers.

Ranking the Big Ten (click on Top 25 teams for more in-depth previews)

East Division

1. Ohio State Buckeyes (National Rank: 4)
For the first time ever in his lengthy coaching career Urban Meyer was shutout as Ohio State couldn't managed a single point in their Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson. Naturally, Meyer made changes, hiring former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson as offensive coordinator, and looking at different ways to jumpstart a mediocre passing attack. Wilson led some very dangerous offenses with the Hoosiers, and he has a veteran quarterback (J.T. Barrett) to work with along with a fabulous running back, in sophomore Mike Weber. The Buckeyes must identify some new weapons at wide out, as they lose a number of top receivers from a season ago. Defense may be the real strength for OSU this season, as they'll be extremely stout up front and throughout their front seven. Linemen Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard are All-Big Ten players, and sophomore Nick Bosa is ready for a huge season. If the secondary can reload after many NFL departures, this could be the best defense in the conference. The Buckeyes are still as talented as ever, and Meyer has proven that he can win big in this conference. They have some areas they'll need to work out, but Wilson is a huge addition for this team, and if he can help Barrett regain his 2014 form, the sky is the limit for the Buckeyes.

2. Penn State Nittany Lions (National Rank: 8)
Entering 2016 there seemed to be more talk about head coach James Franklin's uncertain future than anything else. The Nittany Lions had gone 7-6 for two consecutive seasons but most importantly, where a measly 0-6 against the East powers at the time (OSU, Michigan State and Michigan).  After a shaky 2-2 start that included a 39-point loss to the Wolverines, Penn State seemed to wake up. The offense hit its stride and the defense played with more intensity, all equating to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth. Don't expect that momentum to just die out as 2016 did; this program should keep it going in '17 and beyond. QB Trace McSorley is the ideal fit for OC Joe Moorhead's aggressive passing attack, and is helped by a plethora of offensive playmakers, including star back Saquon Barkley, receivers Saeed Blacknall and DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki. PSU averaged 37.6 PPG last season, but those numbers could get even better with the experience back. On the other side of the ball, the Nittany Lions have to rebuild their front seven but they do return veteran linebacker Jason Cabinda. The secondary should be very good, especially with All-American candidate Marcus Allen roaming at safety. It may be tough to overcome Ohio State once more, but the Nittany Lions are certainly a serious threat in the Big Ten this year. They very well could be in the Playoff conversation once again.

3. Michigan Wolverines (National Rank: 12)
Year Two of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan was certainly full of fireworks. The Wolverines jumped out to a 9-0 start and were No. 2 in the nation for a big chunk of the season before a stunning road loss to Iowa on a last-second field goal. Only to make matters worse quarterback Wilton Speight was injured in the loss and Michigan never again looked the same, finishing off the season 10-3. UM now has to replace an NCAA-leading 11 NFL Draft selections, especially on defense. The good news is there is plenty of talent still there defensively, including possible breakout stars like sophomore Rashan Gary and junior Chase Winovich. Veterans like linebacker Mike McCray and nose tackle Maurice Hurst will also ensure Don Brown's unit is still in tip-top shape in 2017. Speight is back at quarterback, but many around the country think redshirt frosh Brandon Peters could push him for the starting job. However starts will have to deal with a very young receivers corps, whose top returning receiver, Grant Perry, was suspended over the off-season. This is still a team that is going to be tough to beat and will look still very dangerous at times. But, it's hard to imagine a team that is losing as much as they are to overcome OSU and PSU in the East.

4. Indiana Hoosiers
Despite back-to-back bowl games, which is certainly not an easy feat at a school with a football culture like Indiana, the Hoosiers moved on from Kevin Wilson because of disagreements between him and AD Fred Glass, along with reports of possible mistreatment of players. Former defensive coordinator Tom Allen will now take over, and he'll have some nice talent to work with. Senior QB Richard Lagow struggled with consistency in 2016 but can really throw the ball, and the Hoosiers have some real playmakers at wide out, with junior Simmie Cobbs and junior Nick Westbrook. Indiana had their best defensive performance in years under Allen last season, and he returns a big chunk of his defense, including versatile linebacker Tegray Scales (126 tackles, seven sacks in '16). Add in a very veteran-laden secondary and Indiana is going to be a real tough out in the Big Ten this season. They might not be able to climb into the upper echelon of the division but this team should return to another bowl game, and might be able to pull off an upset or two.

5. Michigan State Spartans
After winning the Big Ten and making a Playoff appearance in 2015 it looked as though Michigan State was ready to become a perennial power, not just in the Big Ten, but nationally. Then 2016 happened. The Spartans struggled with injuries and a terrible offense and seemingly couldn't find any footing. They ended up falling to 3-9 with just one conference victory, but on the bright side were still pretty competitive, losing three games by four points or less. It is clear the offense needs to change things up, but it isn't clear how they should do that. Sophomore Brian Lewerke is healthy after missing most of last season, but the receivers corps lacks any clear playmakers. The backfield should offer some relief, as L.J. Scott returns for his junior season after managing 994 yards and six touchdowns last season. Michigan State's defense slipped slightly last year, and now has to replace eight starters. The secondary is especially precarious, with little to no experience returning back there. Mark Dantonio is a good coach, and Sparty was probably better than a three-win team in 2016. That gives me a little confidence they could rise back into contention, but this team still has some major issues it has to work out. Returning to a bowl and getting back above .500 should be the priority in East Lansing.

6. Maryland Terrapins
First-year Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin got off to a fast start last season, as the Terrapins jumped off to a 4-0 start before the meat of their schedule hit. The Terps needed a win over Rutgers to secure bowl eligibility and they did just that, before losing to Boston College, ending up 6-7. It wasn't a crazy successful year in College Park but showed the program was at least moving in the right direction. Maryland will now enter Year Two with Durkin as a possible dark horse. They feature one of the most underrated backfields in the entire country, which includes junior Ty Johnson (1,004 yards, 6 TDs in 2016) and big-time newcomer Anthony McFarland, who choose to stay in-state. That ground game will have to play well, considering how poorly Maryland passed the ball a season ago, although UNC transfer Caleb Henderson should be an upgrade at QB. The defense is still going to be inconsistent but Durkin is a defensive-minded head coach and he should be able to improve the group. Veterans like linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. and defensive end Jessie Aniebonam ensure the unit will be solid. With a tough opener on the road against Texas and a brutal conference schedule its hard to see the Terrapins improving on last year's win total but if their offense can improve, they could still make a bowl.

7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
To say that 2016 was a rough year for Rutgers doesn't even begin to touch on how much the Scarlet Knights struggled. They went 2-10 overall, failed to win a single conference game and lost to Michigan State, Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State by a combined 224-0. Second-year head coach Chris Ash clearly has a lot of work to do, especially offensively, where they managed just 15.7 points per game last season. It's unclear who their starting quarterback will be, as junior Giovanni Rescigno and true freshman Jonathan Lewis are competing for the starting job. Seniors Robert Martin and Josh Hicks will help as both running backs bring valuable experience, and receiver Janarion Grant gives Rutgers something to work with on the outside. The defense isn't terrible and the pass defense should actually be a real strength (18th in the country a year ago) but they still aren't up to Big Ten standards. It is going to be a long time before Rutgers is ready to be competitive again in the conference, and I don't see them being much better in 2017. They won't be going bowling but getting some conference victories needs to be the first step.

West Division

1. Wisconsin Badgers (National Rank: 9)
Despite facing a brutal schedule that included LSU in the non-conference and cross-division battles with Ohio State and Michigan, Wisconsin won 11 games and very nearly managed to win the conference. They will be very tough once more in 2017, as they return a large portion of their offense and enough on defense. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook split time last year but seems poised to take full control of the offense, while backs Bradrick Shaw and Pitt transfer Chris James will get most of the carries in the Badgers' power rushing offense. Receiver Jazz Peavy can hurt defenses in a number of ways, while tight end Troy Fumagalli may be one of the top pass-catchers in the Big Ten. The defense will have to replace sack machine T.J. Watt, fearless safety Leo Musso and just recently linebacker Jack Cichy, who re-tore his ACL. Even so, veterans like corner D'Cota Dixon, junior linebacker T.J. Edwards and senior linemen Chikwe Obasih should keep the unit among the best in the conference. Also helping out Wisconsin is the fact that their schedule lightens up tremendously. Outside of a late November meeting with Michigan there is a good chance the Badgers will be favored in every single game they play this season. That certainly bodes well for a tough that has very realistic Playoff hopes.

2. Northwestern Wildcats (National Rank: 22)
Things weren't looking good for Northwestern early on in 2016, as the Wildcats opened the year with a loss to MAC foe Western Michigan and then managed just seven points in a loss to FCS opponent Illinois State. They did eventually figure things out and ended the year 7-6, with a victory over Pittsburgh in their bowl game to cap it off. Things should be even better this season, as the Wildcats bring back a veteran quarterback in Clayton Thorson, an underrated back in Justin Jackson and plenty of experienced pieces on the defensive side of the ball. Thorson was somewhat inconsistent last year but should improve with another year under his belt and more options in the passing game (namely Oregon transfer Jalen Brown), while Jackson quietly ran for 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns. On defense, Northwestern must find a way to replace middle linebacker Anthony Walker, but they have three starters back on a very experienced and well-rounded defensive line and senior safety Godwin Igwebuike is an All-Conference talent. Much like Wisconsin, the Wildcats also have a very favorable schedule, making them probably the most dangerous dark horse in the league.

3. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Rodney Smith, Minnesota
A 9-4 record in 2016 was Minnesota's best in years, but a sexual assault case that rocked the team late in the season eventually led to Tracey Claeys' dismissal as head coach. Minnesota went out and got one of the hotter names in the coaching carousel in P.J. Fleck, who had just led Western Michigan to a New Year's Six Bowl. Fleck's first order of business is finding a new QB, as three-year starter Mitch Leidner graduates. Senior Conor Rhoda started one game last season due to an injury to Leidner and is a smart, cerebral quarterback. He will compete with sophomore Demry Croft and redshirt freshman Seth Green for the starting job (Fleck has announced both Rhoda and Croft will see split time in the opener). A great backfield, which is led by junior speedster Rodney Smith (1,158 yards, 16 touchdowns last season) and powerful Shannon Brooks should help take some pressure off the new QB, although Minnesota will have to patch up an O-Line that loses three starters. On defense, the Gophers continue to improve and they could be very good this year. Up front, senior Steven Richardson is among the best D-Linemen in the conference and youngsters Carter Couglin and Kamal Martin should help ensure Minnesota's terrific rush defense keeps going. The secondary must replace some key pieces, but sophomore Antoine Winfield Jr. is a star in the making. There will be some adjustment period needed for Fleck and an offense with plenty of new faces. Even so, Minnesota has a decent chance of being 7-0 by the time they play on the road against Iowa, and get into the meat of their Big Ten schedule. This team may not be ready to compete for a division title just yet, but 8-9 wins is a reasonable goal for the debut season of Fleck.

4. Nebraska Cornhuskers
The 'Huskers began 2016 7-0 and rose as high as seventh in the nation before their schedule became tough and some of their old issues caught up with them. They now enter 2017 forced to replace the school's all-time passing leader, Tommy Armstrong Jr., and without a clear-cut No. 1 at running back. Nebraska fans have been super high on Tulane transfer Tanner Lee at quarterback, but he may struggle going from the American Athletic to the physicality and speed of Big Ten football. The good news is that he does have two very dangerous receivers to work with in junior Stanley Morgan Jr. and senior De'Mornay Pierson-El. Nebraska was solid on defense for much of '16, and brings in new D-coordinator Bob Diaco, formerly the head coach at UConn. Diaco will replace the 4-3 with his own, aggressive 3-4 scheme, which should make the defense more blitz-happy and ferocious. He also has a great secondary to help out, as three starters are back, led by senior corner Chris Jones. Nebraska should be solid once more, and may be able to sneak into division title contention. However, third-year head coach Mike Riley has to be feeling some pressure. His 15-11 mark over his first two seasons isn't what the 'Huskers were looking for when they hired him, particularly at a program that hasn't won a conference championship in nearly two decades (1999).

5. Iowa Hawkeyes
After the stunning 12-2 season that yielded a division title and Rose Bowl berth in 2015 Iowa fell
back last season, going 8-5. However, they did win their last three conference games, and their upset over Michigan threw a spike into the Wolverines' National Title plans. They'll enter this season forced to replace third-round NFL Draft pick C.J. Beathard at quarterback, where sophomore Nathan Stanley and junior Tyler Wiegers will compete for the job. Neither should be asked to do to much, as Iowa returns senior Akrum Wadley (1,081 yards, 10 touchdowns) at running back, and also brings in heralded Nevada transfer James Butler, who wanted to move into a pro-style offense. The return of nearly everybody on the offensive line will ensure that Iowa's powerful, smashmouth offense will be tough to stop once again. Defensively, the front seven has some rebuilding to do, but senior linebackers Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann should keep it a strength. The secondary will miss interception machine Desmond King, but the Hawkeyes do a great job of developing talent in that unit. Losing a veteran quarterback like Beathard is tough, especially for an offense that managed just 153 passing yards per game anyways (118th in the country) but Iowa has never been a team that needs nor wants to air the ball out. They will play their in-your-face, gritty brand of football and if they can survive a tough end of October/early November stretch, which includes road trips to Wisconsin and Northwestern, a division title isn't completely out of the question.

6. Purdue Boilermakers
It was not surprising to see Purdue move on from head coach Darrell Hazell halfway through 2016, especially considering he went a lowly 9-33 overall and 3-24 in Big Ten play in West Lafayette. It was somewhat surprising to see his replacement: former Western Kentucky head coach Jeff Brohm, who Purdue managed to snag over a number of other interested schools. Brohm will bring his high-flying, up-tempo offensive scheme to the mix, and he has the perfect QB to run the show. Junior David Blough led the conference in interceptions last year but has a huge arm and did manage 3,352 yards in 2016. He'll be helped by solid back Markell Jones and a receivers corps that is inexperienced, but full of potential. It will be the defense where Brohm and staff have to do the most work, after this time allowed over 38 points per game last season. There are six starters returning, including sophomore Markus Bailey, their leading returning tackler, and senior defensive linemen Gelen Robinson, so there is something to work with there. It's hard to imagine Brohm completely turning around a Boilermakers' team that has been a punching bag in the conference the last few years, especially with Louisville and Missouri awaiting in the non-conference. But, this team should be a nice fit for his scheme, and should look overall better. Climbing out of the cellar of the West Division would be a great start for the new staff.

7. Illinois Fighting Illini
As expected, Lovie Smith's first season in Champaign wasn't exactly ideal. The Illini suffered through injuries, depth issues and inexperience throughout their roster, all contributing to a 3-9 stinker of a season. Unfortunately, things could get worse before they get better, as the Illini must replace QB Wes Lunt and a ton on the defensive side of the ball. Junior Chayce Crouch will take over for the departed Lunt after seeing some action a season ago. Crouch isn't much of a passer, but his running ability gives this offense something to work with. It also helps that Illinois has a rising star at running back (sophomore Reggie Corbin) and two very good receivers in senior Malik Turner and junior Mike Dudek. Dudek became the first Illinois freshman in school history to have 1,000 receiving yards, but he has suffered through two torn ACLs the past two springs. If he can stay healthy, this offense may actually have some bite to it. The defense, on the other hand, must replace eight starters from a group that allowed 31.9 points per game in '16. Unless a whole bunch of youngsters break out under Smith and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson, it could be a long year for that group. Lovie Smith is a fine football coach, and I expect him to eventually turn around this Illinois program. However, that will require time and a whole lot of patience in Champaign. With the rest of the Big Ten West improving, Illinois will have to work hard to stay out of the cellar of the division.

All-Big Ten Teams
First Team
QB Trace McSorley, Penn State
RB Saquon Barkey, Penn State
RB Justin Jackson, Northwestern
WR Nick Westbrook, Indiana
WR Malik Turner, Illinois
TE Mike Gesicki, Penn State
OL Mason Cole, Michigan
OL Brian Allen, Michigan State
OL Billy Price, Ohio State
OL Sean Welsh, Iowa
OL Beau Benzschawel, Wisconsin
DL Sam Hubbard, Ohio State
DL Maurice Hurst, Michigan
DL Steven Richardson, Minnesota
DL Rashan Gary, Michigan
LB T.J. Edwards, Wisconsin
LB Josey Jewell, Iowa
LB Tegray Scales, Indiana
CB Chris Jones, Nebraska
CB Grant Haley, Penn State
S Marcus Allen, Penn State
S Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern

Second Team
QB J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
RB Mike Weber, Ohio State
RB Rodney Smith, Minnesota
WR DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State
WR Jazz Peavy, Wisconsin
TE Troy Fumagalli, Wisconsin
OL James Daniels, Iowa
OL Jamarco Jones, Ohio State
OL Michael Dieter, Wisconsin
OL Brad North, Northwestern
OL Nick Gates, Nebraska
DL Tyquan Lewis, Ohio State
DL Nick Bosa, Ohio State
DL Conor Sheehy, Wisconsin
DL Chase Winovich, Michigan
LB Mike McCray, Michigan
LB Jerome Baker, Ohio State
LB Jason Cabinda, Penn State
CB Rashard Fant, Indiana
CB Derrick Tindal, Wisconsin
S D'Cota Dixon, Wisconsin
S Damon Webb, Ohio State

Projected Awards
Championship Game: Ohio State over Wisconsin
Offensive Player of the Year: Saquon Barkley, Penn State
Defensive Player of the Year: Josey Jewell, Iowa
Newcomer of the Year: Donovan Peoples-Jones, Michigan
Coach of the Year: Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern

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