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College Football Preview 2019: Breaking Down the Big Ten

Adrian Martinez, Nebraska
2018 In Review: (East) Riding a 10-game win streak and undefeated in the conference, Michigan entered the Ohio State game as a Playoff contender and the favorite in the Big Ten. Things unraveled quickly, as they allowed 62 points to Dwayne Haskins and the Buckeyes, allowing OSU to take over the division despite some serious defensive issues. Behind them, Penn State and Michigan State struggled to keep pace due to injuries, while Rutgers dropped to the cellar once again.
  (West) With preseason favorite Wisconsin struggling, the Big Ten West was wide open for much of 2018. While the Badgers remained in the hunt, Northwestern quickly emerged as the team to beat. Despite a non-conference slate that included losses to Duke and Akron, the Wildcats ended up going 8-1, topping Wisconsin and Iowa to lock down the division. Near the bottom, both Nebraska and Minnesota had early struggles, ending up 3-6 in the conference. Yet, both ended the year flaming hot and have significant momentum entering 2019.


Power Rankings
East Division

1. Michigan Wolverines (National Rank: 4)
Strengths:
Weaknesses:
Projected Record:

2. Ohio State Buckeyes (National Rank: 6)
Strengths: No longer splitting carries with the departed Mike Weber, J.K. Dobbins should have a monster junior season at running back. Dobbins' is much more explosive than Webber and seemed to just be scratching the surface of his vast potential his first two years in Columbus... Despite some of the struggles the Buckeye defense suffered through in 2018, it is a group with loads of talent. Nine starters are returning, including a number of All-American possibilities, namely end Chase Young. Nearly every key piece returns in the secondary, which will need to play better in '19 after finishing 11th in the conference in pass defense... Losing a first-round NFL Draft pick who threw for 50 touchdowns at QB is a tall order, but OSU feels confident in former five-star recruit Justin Fields. Fields never saw much action at Georgia, but there is no denying he has superstar potential.
Weaknesses: Ryan Day is an accomplished coach who was a logical choice for the program once Urban Meyer announced his retirement. Yet, replacing such a legendary head coach is going to obviously take a transition period and Day will have lofty expectations no matter what... The offensive line has some serious holes, forced to replace four starters. Junior left tackle Thayer Munford is the lone holdover, although youngster Nicholas Petit-Frere could improve rapidly... There are a number of tough road trips on this schedule. The Buckeyes have to go on the road against Nebraska, Northwestern and Michigan. They are good enough to win at least two of those games, but an undefeated campaign would be an awfully tall order.
Projected Record: 11-1 (8-1 Big Ten)

3. Penn State Nittany Lions (National Rank: 17)
Strengths: The Nittany Lions have real stars on this defense, namely defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos and linebacker Micah Parsons. Gross-Matos had eight sacks last fall and seems to only be getting better, while Parsons is the next great linebacker to pass through State College... While PSU loses their QB and running back, both positions offer loads of potential. Sean Clifford has impressed the coaching staff at QB, while sophomore Ricky Slade could be even better than the departed Miles Sanders by the end of the year... Sophomore K.J. Hamler emerged as a bonafide No. 1 receiver in 2018, and should have a huge season. The Nittany Lions would feel even better about their group of wide outs if redshirt freshman Justin Shorter could break out. Shorter came in as a highly touted receiver, but couldn't stay healthy last year.
Weaknesses: Trace McSorley was the winningest QB in the school's storied history, and replacing him won't be easy. While Clifford has talent, he isn't the leader that McSorley was, at least not just yet... The secondary should be strong, but must stay healthy. Senior corner John Reid looks finally 100 percent, but fill need to stay that way as the new No. 1 CB. He has to replace the production of All-Big Ten Amani Oruwariye... A very tough October stretch will determine whether this Nittany Lions team is a pretender, or contender. They get Purdue at home, Iowa on the road, Michigan back in Pennsylvania, and then go on the road against Michigan State.
Projected Record: 9-3 (6-3 Big Ten)

4. Michigan State Spartans
Brian Lewerke, Michigan State

Strengths: This is one of the toughest defenses in the country, well-coached and experienced. There are a total of eight starters returning from a group that was eighth in the country in scoring defense and had the best rush defense. Senior end Kenny Willekes and linebacker Joe Bachie are surefire All-Conference players... The hope is that QB Brian Lewerke is 100 percent and ready to go for 2019. Lewerke was very strong in his sophomore season but struggled to stay healthy last fall, resulting in a terrible MSU offense. If he can regain his 2017 form, this Spartans offense will take a major step forward... Nearly every important contributor to the offensive line is back in the fold this year. Junior center Matt Allen is an absolute force in the middle, while left tackle Cole Chewins plays a crucial role in keeping Lewerke afloat.
Weaknesses: Once the clear strength of the offense, MSU's ground game lacked much bite in 2018. Junior Conner Heyward has talent, and will be operating behind a physical O-Line, but will still need to show that he can be the workhorse back the Spartans have long needed... Felton Davis is a bigger loss to this offense than some may give him credit for. Despite placing third on the roster in receiving yards, Davis was 6'4" and a dangerous red zone presence. Even with Cody White and Darrell Stewart Jr. back, the Spartans will feel his absence... Justin Layne and Khari Willis are both gone from the secondary, leaving two notable holes that need to assessed. Josiah Scott and David Dowell should keep the unit from completely falling apart, but Willis was an All-Big Ten player, while Layne could do everything.
Projected Record: 8-4 (5-4 Big Ten)

5. Maryland Terrapins
Strengths: The Terrapins boast one of the nation's most underrated running backs in Anthony McFarland, who had 1,034 yards in 2018, while averaging nearly eight yards per rush. Now the clear No. 1 guy with Ty Johnson absent, expect a monster sophomore campaign from McFarland... Maryland got uneven quarterback play last season and while Kasim Hill choose to transfer, things could be improved at the position. That is because of the arrival of Virginia Tech transfer Josh Jackson, who seems to be a great fit in new head coach Mike Locksley's offense. Jackson has size, instincts and mobility, which should do some serious damage if used correctly... One of the most versatile defenders in college football is nickelback Antoine Brooks Jr., who was All-Conference with 9.5 TFL and 68 tackles. He will need to be especially strong in 2019, as the Terps lose a lot in their secondary.
Weaknesses: There is no obvious No. 1 option for Josh Jackson to throw to. Sophomore Jeshaun Jones flashed serious potential as a youngster last fall but is not your prototypical top receiver. Behind him, D.J. Turner and Dontay Demus are going to have to step up, as Maryland will sorely miss Taivon Jacobs... Linebacker Tre Watson was huge for this defense in 2018 and he is now gone. Watson, a former Illinois transfer, led the team in tackles with 114 while also picking off five passes. The fact Maryland added Ohio State transfer Keandre Jones is huge, but Watson is still going to leave a major void in the middle... While Maryland will not play Texas this year, the non-conference slate is no breeze, which is always concerning in the loaded Big Ten East. Syracuse at home will be a tough task in early September, while a road trek to Temple could be a trap game.
Projected Record: 6-6 (4-5 Big Ten)

6. Indiana Hoosiers
Strengths: Indiana has quietly become a machine for churning out star running backs, with sophomore Stevie Scott the next in line. Scott had 1,137 yards in 2018 and continues to get better and better. He may be among the most underrated playmakers in the league... New offensive coordinator Kalen DeBeor did a great job with the offense this past season at Fresno State. He has a veteran quarterback to work with in Peyton Ramsey, along with a ton of weapons at receiver. This offense could be the strongest it has been in some time... A manageable non-conference slate puts the Hoosiers in a good spot to make a bowl after a two-year hiatus. They will need just three Big Ten wins and get both Michigan and Ohio State at home.
Weaknesses: Even though Tom Allen's pedigree is the defense, this group was not great last season. They were tenth in the Big Ten in nearly every defensive category, with the exception being the total defense, which was 11th. Can the return of eight starters change the narrative in Bloomington?... There is no real star on the defense and Indiana loses their top two tacklers. Veterans like Marcelino Ball, who will play the "Husky" position will need to step up in a big way... While Peyton Ramsey has experience, Michael Penix Jr. seemed prime to steal the starting QB job before being lost to injury. It won't be unreasonable for Allen and DeBeor to see what Penix can do at the position.
Projected Record: 4-8 (1-8 Big Ten)

7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Strengths: Running back Raheem Blackshear was a bright spot on this offense last year, becoming the first Rutgers player in over three decades to lead the team in both rushing and receiving. He is going to be leaned on heavily throughout the 2019 campaign... Rutgers has long done a good job developing defensive backs and that could be strength of this roster. Senior corner Damon Hayes is probably their best defender, while sophomore Avery Young has a lot of upside. This team was 19th in total pass defense in '18... Center Michael Maietti has been a staple for this offensive line during his Rutgers career. He started all 12 games as a redshirt sophomore last season and looks like a real anchor in the middle.
Weaknesses: This was was the worst Power Five team in college football a year ago, and it wasn't really close. The Scarlet Knights were beat by 41 points by Kansas, one of the worst programs FBS football has to offer... Their quarterback play was atrocious and I'm not sure it can get much better. Sophomore Arthur Sitkowski was a big-name recruit but he was not ready for the show in 2018, throwing just four touchdowns to 18 interceptions... There is just not Big Ten depth on this roster at any position group. Right now, Rutgers is battling MAC schools to compete in one of the most balanced leagues in college football. They just aren't even close to most in this division at the moment.
Projected Record: 1-11 (0-9 Big Ten)

West Division

1. Nebraska Cornhuskers (National Rank: 21)
Strengths: Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez looked like a future star in this offense last season. His big arm and ability to scramble are an ideal fit in Scott Frost's wide-open offense and you saw him start to turn a corner late in 2018. He is a legitimate Heisman threat if he can continue to build... The defense was the big problem last year but there is a ton of talent back in Lincoln. Senior linebacker Mohamed Barry is their heart and soul on that side of the ball, but they need to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks... Junior J.D. Spielman and sophomore Kade Warner lead an intriguing group of wide outs. Spielman was third team All-Big Ten and will do even more damage if Frost can find more creative ways to get him the ball.
Weaknesses: Expecting a 4-8 team to make the jump to West Division champ is a lot to ask. With that being said, Nebraska lost a ton of close games (Colorado, Troy, Northwestern, Iowa) which they should do a better job of closing out this fall... The running back situation is not ideal heading into the opener. Former Georgia Tech transfer Dedrick Mills is now one of the few options, as both Maurice Washington and freshman Wan'Dale Robinson have ongoing legal problems... It won't be easy to replace linebacker Luke Gifford, who led the team in tackles for loss and sacks. That puts more pressure on Barry to continue making plays all over the field, but the linebackers behind Gifford aren't terrible options.
Projected Record: 9-4 (7-2 Big Ten, Lose in Big Ten Championship)

2. Wisconsin Badgers (National Rank: 22)
Strengths: One of the best running backs in the country, Jonathan Taylor, returns to Madison. Taylor won the Doak Walker Award for his play in 2018 and continues to be the guiding force for this Badger offense... The receiver group is one of the strongest it has been in awhile, with Danny Davis, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor leading the way. There is also a chance formerly dismissed Quintez Cephus could be let back on the team, which would make a huge difference... The defense reloads incredibly well and they could have a very strong secondary. Sophomore safety Scott Nelson is a gritty, Midwestern-style player, while Chris Orr and Zack Baun should keep the linebacker unit a strength.
Weaknesses: The constant question for this program for a long time: quarterback. Alex Hornibrook decided to transfer, meaning that Jack Coan and Graham Mertz are the two battling it out. Coan is likely going to start the year considering the experience he gained a year ago, but Mertz has the hype as a big-name prospect... The offensive line does a great job reloading, but replacing four starters is still no easy task. Junior center Tyler Biadasz is going to have to be a big leader for this group... Special teams is typically not a big problem for the Badgers, but it was last season. Kicking and punting was both bad and there isn't much experience at either spot entering 2019.
Projected Record: 8-4 (5-4 Big Ten)

3. Northwestern Wildcats 
Strengths: This team just plays hard under head coach Pat Fitzgerald and they are a team nobody likes to face. That has gone a long way in building a physical, hard-nosed identity that helped the Wildcats win this division a year ago... Even though long-time starter Clayton Thorson is gone, the Wildcats still look incredibly strong a the quarterback spot. That's because of the arrival of Clemson transplant Hunter Johnson, a former four-star recruit. Johnson has a ton of talent, and a decent crop of playmakers back to help him... Junior middle linebacker Paddy Fisher is one of the best in the business, part of a very good front seven. Fisher and fellow linebacker Blake Gallagher both topped 100 tackles in 2018 and will keep the Wildcat defense incredibly stingy.
Weaknesses: Northwestern did not defend the pass well last season, coming in 12th in the league. To make matters worse, they lose three starters on the back-end. D-Coordinator Mike Hankwitz is going to have to think of something creative to hide the problems in the secondary... Another team with questions on the offensive front. They are replacing three starters and this group wasn't always terrific last year... Is Isaiah Bowser ready to lead the rushing attack? They were dead last in the Big Ten in rushing due to the retirement of Jeremy Larkin before Bowser came on at the end. He has plenty of talent, but will need the O-Line to help out too.
Projected Record: 7-5 (5-4 Big Ten)

4. Minnesota Gophers 
Strengths: Minnesota ended their 2018 on a tear, winning three of their last four and stealing back the Axe from arch-rival Wisconsin. This gives the program some real momentum entering P.J. Fleck's third year and the young talent appears to be growing quickly... This is the strongest the Gophers have been at the skill positions (with the exception of QB) in a long time. Senior receiver Tyler Johnson and senior running back Rodney Smith are already established stars, although Smith missed most of last season. Then, there is the young talent, such as sophomore Rashod Bateman and powerful tailback Mohamed Ibrahim just waiting to burst through... Minnesota came in seventh in the conference in pass defense in 2018 and could be very solid there this upcoming season. Junior Coney Durr is a proven corner, while the hope is that safety Antoine Winfield Jr. can finally stay healthy. Winfield Jr. may be the most talented defender on the entire team but has dealt with nagging injuries throughout his time in the Twin Cities.
Weaknesses: Quarterback play is a clear concern. Tanner Morgan split time with Zach Annexstad last fall but now is the clear-cut guy after Annexstad was ruled out indefinitely during fall camp. Can Morgan build on some late-season success? He doesn't have to be anything too special for this offense to continue to improve... The defense played with a ton of energy after Joe Rossi was promoted to defensive coordinator. Can it play that way over the course of a three-month season? It will have to if Minnesota wants any chance at contending in the tricky West... Even though the non-conference schedule does not include any Power Five opponents, it includes a number of sneaky Group of Five teams that could trip this team up. A road trip to Fresno State is particularly concerning, as the Bulldogs nearly beat them in Minneapolis a year ago.
Projected Record: 7-5 (4-5 Big Ten)

5. Iowa Hawkeyes
Strengths: Having a veteran quarterback is an obvious luxury in the competitive Big Ten West, and Iowa has just that in Nate Stanley. Stanley recorded 2,852 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2018, although cutting down on his turnovers will be the goal this upcoming fall... Junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa didn't even start a year ago and still managed to lead the Hawkeyes in sacks, totaling 10.5 in total. Epenesa is now going to start, and the future high NFL Draft selection is without a doubt one of the top defenders in the entire nation... Speaking of future NFL Draft picks, Iowa has two on the offensive line, with Alaric Jackson and Tristian Wirfs. Jackson has been a starter at left tackle the past two seasons, while Wirfs is a brick wall at the other tackle spot.
Weaknesses: How does Iowa replace two stud tight ends, including John Mackey Award winner T.J. Hockenson? The tight end position is always crucial in this offense under Kirk Ferentz and the hope is that either junior Shaun Beyer or senior Nate Weiting can step up... While the Hawkeyes do return Epenesa up front, there is still a lot of other spots up for grab in the front seven. In total, six starters depart to a defense that was awfully strong, but not necessarily very deep in 2018... The schedule is very difficult, with a ton of very concerning road treks. Not only does Iowa get their in-state rival Iowa State in Ames, they also get cross-division meetings against Michigan in Ann Arbor and Penn State at home. Even with a ton of talent and experience, that schedule could restrict this team from reaching their full potential.
Projected Record: 6-6 (4-5 Big Ten)

6. Purdue Boilermakers
Strengths: Even with his alma mater aggressively trying to poach him, Jeff Brohm decided to sign a contract extension to stay in West Lafayette for the long term. That is a huge win for this program, and Brohm continued the momentum by signing one of the top recruiting classes in school history. It will be fun to watch to see what he can do with the elevated talent level... They don't get much better than sophomore Rondale Moore, one of the most versatile playmakers anywhere in the country. Moore put up totals of 1,258 receiving yards and 213 rushing yards, while adding 14 total touchdowns. He single-handedly beat Ohio State and became a serious Heisman Trophy candidate, and it should be thrilling to see what he does for an encore... Nine starters return to a defense that didn't up great numbers in 2018 but has potential. Senior linebacker Markus Bailey is a legit All-American possibility, while true freshman George Karlaftis will add much needed support at defensive end. He is a West Lafayette native who Brohm managed to keep away from schools like Ohio State, Alabama and Clemson.
Weaknesses: Purdue was 11th in the Big Ten last season and they now lose their top two rushers in D.J. Knox and Markell Jones. Unless senior Tario Fuller can step up, Purdue is going to have to find some new ways to open up the ground attack. Moore will help on jet sweeps, but offensive coordinators Brian Brohm and JaMarcus Shephard will still need to be creative... David Blough is gone at the quarterback position, which leaves the Boilermakers forced to move on to Eljah Sindelar. Sindelar has a good amount of experience, but it will still be a transition from Blough, who had 3,705 yards and 25 touchdowns... This is another team without an absolutely daunting schedule, but there are a number of trap games. They get two Power Five opponents in the non-conference, in Vanderbilt and TCU, while also a tough November. They'll need to start off hot early to ensure bowl eligibility in 2019.
Projected Record: 6-6 (4-5 Big Ten)

7. Illinois Fighting Illini
Strengths: The Illini possess one of the nation's most underrated running backs in Reggie Corbin, who ran for 1,085 yards and 8.5 YPC a season ago. Along with the powerful Mike Epstein, Illinois is going to run the ball down the throats of West Division foes. This team was second in the league in rush offense in 2018... The defense was a problem this past season, but nine starters return to Champaign. Junior linebacker Jake Hansen leads an experienced front seven that has some intriguing upside, particularly guys like sophomore Calvin Avery... Oluwole Betiku was a five-star recruit at USC but never was able to see significant snaps with the Trojans. His arrival in Illinois is going to raise the talent in a big way on the defensive front.
Weaknesses: Quarterback is their biggest question as the regular season inches closer. True freshman Isaiah Williams is considered a frontrunner as a four-star recruit but Michigan transfer Brandon Peters may come in and steal the job. Peters saw some action in his Wolverines career but fell out of favor before heading across the conference... Junior defensive end Bobby Roundtree was the Illini's top pass rusher last season, with 7.5 sacks. Unfortunately, Roundtree suffered a severe spinal cord injury in a swimming accident over the off-season. The Illini will not have him in 2019, but will hope for a full recovery. This might more pressure on junior Isaiah Gay or Betiku to step up at the end spot... Will Lovie Smith's job security hang over this team like a cloud in 2019? While Smith recently signed an extension, its hard to imagine he will be able to survive another season without a bowl trip. Rumors of a coach on the hot seat always provide some unwanted drama for teams already with issues they need to solve.
Projected Record: 4-8 (1-8 Big Ten)

All-Big Ten Teams
First Team
QB: Adrian Martinez, Nebraska
RB: Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin
RB: J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State
WR: Rondale Moore, Purdue
WR: K.J. Hill, Ohio State
TE: Jake Ferguson, Wisconsin
OL: Thayer Munford, Ohio State
OL: Ben Bredeson, Michigan
OL: Tyler Biadasz, Wisconsin
OL: Alaric Jackson, Iowa
OL: Jon Runyan, Michigan
DL: A.J. Epenesa, Iowa
DL: Kenny Willekes, Michigan State
DL: Yetur Gross-Matos, Penn State
DL: Chase Young, Ohio State
LB: Joe Bachie, Michigan State
LB: Paddy Fisher, Northwestern
LB: Mohamed Barry, Nebraska
CB: Lavert Hill, Michigan
CB: Josiah Scott, Michigan State
S: Jordan Fuller, Ohio State
S: Antoine Brooks Jr., Maryland
K: Matt Coghlin, Michigan State
P: Drue Chrisman, Ohio State

Second Team
QB: Shea Patterson, Michigan
RB: Reggie Corbin, Illinois
RB: Anthony McFarland, Maryland
WR: Tyler Johnson, Minnesota
WR: J.D. Spielman, Nebraska
TE: Pat Friermuth, Penn State
OL: Tristian Wirfs, Iowa
OL: Coy Cronk, Indiana
OL: Cesar Ruiz, Michigan
OL: Rashawn Slater, Northwestern
OL: Cole Van Lanen, Wisconsin
DL: Carter Couglin, Minnesota
DL: Joe Gaziano, Northwestern
DL: Mike Panasiuk, Michigan State
DL: Raequan Williams, Michigan State
LB: Markus Bailey, Purdue
LB: Micah Parsons, Penn State
LB: Zack Baun, Wisconsin
CB: Jeffrey Okuhah, Ohio State
CB: Dicaprio Bootle, Nebraska
S: Josh Metellus, Michigan
S: Antoine Winfield Jr., Minnesota
K: Jake Moody, Michigan
P: Will Hart, Michigan

Award Projections
Conference Championship: Michigan over Nebraska
Offensive Player of the Year: Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
Defensive Player of the Year: A.J. Epenesa, DE, Iowa
Breakout Player of the Year: Adrian Martinez, QB, Nebraska
Freshman of the Year: Zach Harrison, DE, Ohio State
Coach of the Year: Scott Frost, Nebraska

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