Big Ten In-Depth Breakdown
The Big Ten had a sensational year last year, as they had four teams who had their names in the College Football Playoff. The finish to season put a bit of a damper on an otherwise phenomenal season. This time the conference will be hoping for a more positive bowl season (3–7 in bowl season last year) and maybe even their second national title in the College Football Playoff era.
Big Ten East
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
2016 Record: 11–2(8–1)
Projected 2017 Record: 12–1(8–1)
Last year was considered a disappointing season in Columbus. At just about every other school in the country, 11 wins and College Football Playoff appearance is a sensational season, but that’s just how high expectations have gotten since Urban Meyer came to town.
After a dismal offensive performance in the semifinal game against Clemson, Meyer brought in former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson to coach the offense. J.T. Barrett will be back under center for his senior year. His year was soured by a terrible showing in the Fiesta Bowl, but he should bounce back to Heisman hopeful status. Joining him in the backfield, Mike Weber is coming of a sensational redshirt freshman season (1,096 yards, 9 touchdowns) and will be joined by talented true freshman J.K. Dobbins. The receiving corps is in rebuilding mode. Parris Campbell and tight end Marcus Baugh will be counted on to take the next step, while Demario McCall will be looked to to replace Curtis Samuel. Austin Mack is a name to keep an eye on. The offensive line struggled in the bowl game, but four sure handed starters are back lead by Billy Price and Jamarco Jones.
The Buckeyes ranked second in the Big Ten and sixth nationally a year ago in total defense. Don’t expect to take any steps back this year. Despite losing three starters in the secondary, the Buckeyes are confident about what they have. Senior Damon Webb becomes the veteran leader of the group. At the two corner spots, junior Denzel Ward and sophomore Damon Arnette are the expected starters, but true freshman Jeffrey Okudah should see some extensive time. Erick Smith is a veteran that will be fine at strong safety. The front seven is loaded behind the depth of the line. Tyqwan Lewis, Sam Hubbard and Nick Bosa are all capable of being All-Americans, while Jalyn Holmes and Jonathan Cooper provide ridiculous depth. Kick it inside and it’s really no different. Dre’Mont Jones is a force in the middle. Who will be alongside him is the question. Michael Hill was the starter there last year, but Robert Landers might be too talented not to start. Tracy Sprinkle can rotate in when needed as well. The linebacking corps needs to replace Raekwon McMillan, but Chris Worley will kick inside to help. Senior Dante Booker and sophomore Malik Harrison look like the best bets to take of Worley’s outside spot.
Kicker Sean Nurenberger will need to get back to form after being replaced for a period of time last year. True freshman Drue Chrisman will have to take over at punter. Campbell is a speedster who can cause problems in the return game.
The Buckeyes schedule is features tough crossover road games at Nebraska and Iowa and closes with the rivalry game at Michigan. Both pre-season playoff contenders the Buckeyes will see, they will see in Columbus, which definitely helps. The schedule has some potential stumbling blocks, but if the Buckeyes can win the Big Ten, they have a shot to be back in the College Football Playoff.
2. Penn State Nittany Lions
2016 Record: 11–3(8–1)
Projected 2017 Record: 11–1(8–1)
James Franklin went from the hot seat to the brink of the College Football Playoff in an unbelievable season in Happy Valley. Now the question is, is Penn State back? They have to show that last year wasn’t a fluke and they are setup to do just that. Junior RB Saquon Barkley is back following a fantastic sophomore campaign (1,496 yards, 18 touchdowns). Both he and QB Trace McSorley (3,614 pass yards, 29 touchdowns, 8 interceptions) could be in the Heisman conversation if the Nittany Lions are back where they were last season. Barkley and McSorley are just two of ten returning starters on the offensive side of the ball. The receiving corps is loaded with talent. DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall and DeAndre Thompkins form on of the best corps in the conference and TE Mike Gesicki might just put them at the top, following a record setting season for him at the tight end spot. The offensive line was one of the laughing stocks of the entire country at the beginning of last season, but the unit took leaps and bounds. While they have taken steps forward, there are still more steps to take. Leading the way will be sophomores Connor McGovern and Ryan Bates. This unit is extremely deep, as well.
The defense isn’t as experienced as the offense, but does return six starters. Up front, replacing Garrett Sickels will not be easy, but Torrence Brown, Shareef Miller and Ryan Buchholz provide viable options. It will help that both defensives tackles return in junior Parker Cothren and senior Curtis Cothran. The Nittany Lions always seem to have a great linebacking corps and that should be the story once again. Jason Cabinda returns in the middle, but one of the outside spots will be up for grabs. Cam Brown looks certain to take that spot after being thrust into a bigger role last season. The secondary may be the concern. The return of senior S Marcus Allen is huge, but the injury to CB John Reid in the spring is as well. If Reid cannot play this season, there are question marks about who takes over. The safety spot opposite of Allen is up for grabs and should be a good battle between experienced senior Troy Apke and talented sophomore Ayron Moore.
Both Tyler Davis and Blake Gillikin return to form the top special teams unit in the Big Ten. Joey Julius is the most well known kickoff specialist in the country with his hard hitting tackles. The return game struggled a bit last year and the Nittany Lions may try some new faces back there this year.
The schedule is another tough one. Road games at Iowa, Northwestern and Ohio State will test to see if they’re a legitimate contender. The Nittany Lions look built to have another great season and challenge for a potential playoff spot. The Ohio State might almost serves as a play in game.
3. Michigan Wolverines
2016 Record: 10–3(7–2)
Projected 2017 Record: 9–3(6–3)
It’s “rebuilding” time in Ann Arbor. Jim Harbaugh’s rebuilding definition is a lot different, though, then Rich Rodriguez’s or Brady Hoke’s, though. The offense returns five starters, so the offense has some solid building points. QB Wilton Speight is back after a strong sophomore year (2,538 yards, 18 touchdowns, 7 interceptions) to lead the offense. Behind him, Chris Evans showed some real upside, rushing for 614 yards and four touchdowns on just 88 carries. There is some experienced depth, as well, behind Evans. The questions of who Speight will be throwing to is a big one. Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt are all gone to the NFL and Freddy Canteen transferred Notre Dame. This leaves the Wolverines with no proven options. True freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones is going to have an impact, but who else? Tyrone Wheatley Jr. must step up at the tight end spot, while the group of receivers needs to develop quickly. The offensive line is in basically the same boat. Mason Cole and Ben Bredeson return on the left side, but the entire right side and the center needs to be replaced. The offensive line needs to find their starters and mesh quickly before facing Florida to open the season in Arlington.
The Michigan defense was stingy to say the least. They were the number one total defense last season, but repeating that feat would be a miracle. If anyone could do it, though, it would be defensive guru Don Brown. The Wolverines return one, that’s right one, starter on the entire defense. Mike McCray is a good one to return though as he is back at one of the outside linebacker spots. Who will join him is an unknown. Devin Bush Jr. is expected to take over the in the middle, but the other outside spot is a mystery. On the line, no starters return, but there are some strong building blocks. Rashan Gary had a strong year last year and should become that elite force of the edge. Chase Winovich is a name that’s not mentioned, but should be. Inside, seniors Maurice Hurst and Bryan Mone are a solid tandem and Aubrey Solomon should see plenty of time this season. The secondary is in full rebuild mode. Both corners need to be replaced. Lavert Hill and David Long must step up and true freshman Ambry Thomas may be forced into early playing time. At safety, Tyree Kinnel will be looked to, while Josh Metellus will likely get the call. Jordan Glasgow will be expected to be ready if need at safety or linebacker. That’s just part of the depth issues the Wolverines could experience.
The Wolverines have replace do-it-all Kenny Allen. Two freshman will be looked to fill these roles. The return game isn’t in much better shape with Jabrill Peppers gone.
The schedule is tough right out of the gate, as they meet Florida in Jerry World to begin the year. The Wolverines draw a decent conference schedule, with Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State heading to Ann Arbor. Drawing Minnesota and Purdue in crossover games is nice, but the Wolverines will head to Camp Randall before facing Ohio State at home the next week. The Wolverines should stay in the Big Ten East race, but to make a run at the playoff, this group will have to grow up quickly.
4. Maryland Terrapins
2016 Record: 6–7(3–6)
Projected 2017 Record: 7–5(5–4)
D.J. Durkin has already done a sensational job in his time at Maryland. In just one year, Durkin got the Terps back to the bowl season and followed that by bringing in the 4th rated recruiting class in the Big Ten. Now the challenge is taking the next step. If they want to, they have to find a quarterback to lead the way. North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson is eligible and has the best overall skill set of the group competing for the spot. Max Bortenschlager had a good spring. Sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome and true freshman Kasim Hill are talented options that might get a shot. Whoever the quarterback is will have an array of help around him. Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison form a tandem that opposing defenses will struggle to stop on the ground. WR D.J. Moore will hope to build on the upside he showed last season. Taivon Jacobs returns after suffering a knee injury last year and Jacquille Veii is back in College Park after transferring back to Maryland from Towson. The line is in good shape with Damian Prince and Derwin Gray anchoring a strong group.
The defense has to be able to stop the run better this year, especially in the run heavy Big Ten. That starts up front, where the Terps are hoping Kingsley Opara can wreak havoc. DE Jesse Aniebonam had 9.0 sacks last season and should see even more snaps this season. Jermaine Carter Jr. returns in the middle. Shane Cockerille may be back alongside him if he can overcome his off the field issues. JC Jackson hopes to improve after struggling at times early last season. Darnell Savage and Denzel Conyers are expected to start at safety, but Markquese Bell will see playing time. Tino Ellis and RaVon Davis will battle for the corner spot opposite of Jackson.
Adam Greene struggled a bit last year and will have to be more reliable. Wade Lees is one of the best in the conference after allowing just 20 returns last season. Moore is dangerous on kick returns and Veii should help to replace William Likely.
The Terps schedule is rough. It starts at Texas and then see road test at Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Crossover games against Wisconsin and Northwestern are tougher than last year’s Nebraska and Purdue draw. Still, Durkin has the team in place to cause issues in the Big Ten East. Don’t expect a conference championship appearance this year, but don’t rule out a top three finish either.
5. Michigan State Spartans
2016 Record: 3–9(1–8)
Projected 2017 Record: 5–7(3–6)
Mark Dantanio has gone from one of the hottest coaches in the country to one of the ones with the hottest seat. Although he was cleared of any wrongdoing in the sexual assault issues plaguing the university currently, the happenings are still troubling. Add in the fact that the Spartans are coming off an abysmal 3–9 season in which they won just two FBS games and Dantanio is practically in a must win season. Shocking, considering that just the previous season, the Spartans were in the College Football Playoffs Semifinal.
If the Spartans hope to get back to their winning ways, the offense must play better. L.J. Scott is back after being one of the few bright spots last year (994 yards, 6 touchdowns). Combine him with senior bruiser Gerald Holmes and the Spartans run game will be tough to stop. Quarterback is still a question mark, but sophomore Brian Lewerke showed some promise last year. Messiah DeWeaver, a redshirt freshman could give him a run for his money and senior Damion Terry wants one last shot. At receiver, no starters return, but Trishton Jackson had some really bright moments last season. If he can build on those and get some help from the other options, the Spartans passing game has a chance to improve. On the line, Brian Allen returns at center and that’s it, so it is a bit of a rebuilding project for the Spartans there.
The Spartans have been trending downwards defensively over the last few seasons and last year continued that trend. The defensive line had their worst year under Dantonio as no one of the line recorded more than 2.5 sacks. The man that had 2.5 sacks is back in Demetrius Cooper, but he will have to have more of an impact this season.At defensive tackle, Raequan Williams, Mike Panasiuk and Naquan Jones are all players with upside. At linebacker, Chris Frey and Andrew Dowell return to form a solid core. In the middle, Joe Bachie is ready to become the starter. The secondary will rely on underclassmen to take over starting roles. Sophomore Justin Layne and redshirt freshman Josiah Scott will have to grow up quickly. At safety there is a little more experience, but not by much.
Matt Coughlin will be the new kicker, but his has some concerns. Jake Hartbarger is back at punter, but needs to be more consistent. The return game is a big question mark.
The Spartans schedule is pretty bumpy. Both Ohio State and Michigan are road game and Penn State will come to East Lansing the week before the Ohio State game. The good news is, the Spartans will have two really good chances for wins to open the season and a bye before Notre Dame comes calling. There is honestly just too much that has to happen for the Spartans to be back where they were. It looks like another year of battling for bowl eligibility for Dantonio’s crew.
6. Indiana Hoosiers
2016 Record: 6–7(4–5)
Projected 2017 Record: 5–7(2–7)
Kevin Wilson is no longer the coach at Indiana. Why do I start with this fact that almost everyone knows? Because I still don’t understand the move. He had gotten the Hoosiers to back-to-back bowl game after the program had not made a bowl game in the eight years prior. Now Tom Allen, who was in his first year as the defensive coordinator last year, is now in charge.
Offensively, the Hoosiers are in decent shape, but they have to put the ball in the end zone more often and run the ball better. The Hoosiers have quietly been one of the top school in terms of producing NFL talent, with claims to Tevin Coleman, Jordan Howard and Devine Redding. With running backs coach DeAndre Smith gone, can this trend continue. If so, Camion Patrick might be the next in line. Health is an issue for him, so junior Mike Majette and redshirt freshman Cole Gest could get a good amount of carries. Whoever is at running back will be taking the ball from senior QB Richard Lagow. Last year, Lagow threw for a ton of yards (3,362) but threw way too many interceptions (17), especially in clutch moments. He will have to cut down on his turnovers this season if the offense wants to take the next step. The group of receivers he will throw to is a pretty good one. Nick Westbrook is the leading returning receiver in the conference (995 yards, 6 touchdowns) and Simmie Cobbs is back from an injury that sidelined him last season. The tight end spot could have an impact, with experienced seniors Danny Friend and Ian Thomas in place. On the line, three starters must be replaced. Sophomore Coy Cronk will anchor the unit this year, taking that role from the departed Dan Feeney.
The Hoosiers had a solid defense a year ago, but in Big Ten terms that’s not say much. Nine starters are back, though, from last year’s young unit. Up front, big DT Ralph Green III is gone, but Nate Hoff and Jacob Robinson form a strong tandem in the middle of the line. The Hoosiers will being hoping for more pressure off the edge after struggling to create pressure at times. Senior LB Tegray Scales is one of the most underrated players in the entire country and is the heart and soul of the Hoosiers defense. He back after leading the team in tackles (126), sacks (7.0) and tackles for loss (23.5). Marcelino Ball is back at the hybrid spot after starting there as a freshman meaning he will only be better. The secondary is loaded and has good depth. Senior Rashard Fant is the leader of the group after recording three interceptions a year ago. He was almost impossible to throw on and S Jonathan Crawford wasn’t any easier to throw on, as he also intercepted three passes last season. A’Shon Riggins returns, but Andre Brown may beat him out for the number two corner spot.
Griffin Oakes struggled a bit last year, but has shown before that he can be reliable. Sophomore Hayden Whitehead is expected to take over at punter. The return needs to improve quickly after losing Mitchell Paige this offseason.
The Hoosiers schedule give them few breaks. It’s starts right out of the gate when they welcome in Ohio State to begin the season. They also draw Michigan at home, but do draw Wisconsin this year in crossover play. The games at Michigan State and Maryland may be the difference between the Hoosiers going bowling and not. The Hoosiers have a shot to make a third straight bowl game.
7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
2016 Record: 2–10(0–9)
Projected 2017 Record: 4–8(2–7)
Although the record may not show it, Chris Ash made a lot of progress in his first year at Rutgers, completely changing the culture of a troubled off the field program. Now his focus has to turn to winning games if he wants to stick in Piscataway long term. Ash has to get the offense to respond, after it struggled mightily. The Scarlet Knights ranked last in total offense and second to last in scoring offense. The quarterback spot will luckily be a little more settled, with Giovanni Rescigno expected to start after showing some promise. He will have a good group of running backs behind him, led by the tandem of senior Robert Martin (625 yards, two touchdowns) and senior Josh Hicks (157 yards, 0 touchdowns). Gus Edwards, the Miami transfer, may also contribute. At wide receiver, senior Janarion Grant will be back from an injury that cost him most of last season. Sophomore Jawuan Harris stepped up in his absence (481 yards, 3 touchdowns). Keep an eye on true freshman Bo Melton. Jerome Washington should also have an impact out of the H-Back role. On the offensive line, senior Dorian Miller returns, as does junior Tariq Cole. The staff focused on recruiting the offensive line and it paid off. There a plenty of freshman who could see the field this season.
The defense wasn’t anything to write home about either. The secondary was the most successful unit, but that’s not saying a lot, considering how much the run defense struggled. Isaiah Wharton and Blessuan Austin form one of the top cornerback duos in the Big Ten. Both safeties are back in Saquan Hampton and Kiy Hester. This unit is in good shape. At linebacker, all three starters do return, but they simply have to be better. Tyreek Maddox-Williams might be the one to get that started. On the line, there is some talent, but getting to the quarterback will be important. DT Sebastian Joseph leads the way, but Darnell Davis and Kemoko Turay have to be more effective.
David Bonagura was accurate last year, but only saw 14 attempts. Michael Cintron has the job for now, but needs to improve his average. Grant is a threat to take all of his returns to the end zone.
The Scarlet Knights schedule presents some challenges. The Knights will welcome in College Football Playoff semifinalist Washington to start the season. The conference schedule contains road game at Michigan and Penn State within a three week span, but does draw Illinois and Purdue this year in crossover play. The Scarlet Knights have a shot to add a few more wins this season. Making a bowl game is not out of the question.
Big Ten West
1. Wisconsin Badgers
2016 Record: 11–3(7–2)
Projected 2017 Record: 11–2(8–1)
Paul Chryst has gotten back to the success that Bret Bielema had in his time in Madison. Now the question becomes can Chryst take that next step. The Badgers might just be built to this year. For the first time in a long time, the Badgers head into the season with a starting quarterback in place. Sophomore Alex Hornibrook played substantially last year, but has to take better care of the football. With Bart Houston not breathing down his neck on every mistake, it should make it easier. The Badgers have a storied running back history and a couple of new names will emerge. Sophomore Bradrick Shaw is expected to be the starter after showing some potential last year in his limited carries. Pittsburgh transfer Chris James should get some carries, as well. Taiwan Deal is the player who’s been in the system the longest and will fight for carries. The Badgers have some talent to throw the ball to this season. Senior TE Troy Fumagalli is back after finishing second on the team in receiving a year ago (580 yards, 2 touchdowns). The leading receiver is back, in Jazz Peavy (635 yards, 5 touchdowns). The offensive line will once again be loaded. Junior Michael Deiter and sophomore Jon Dietzen will anchor an extremely experienced and extremely deep group.
The Badgers will have to work past the fact that, once again, they will be under the direction of a new defensive coordinator. If anyone can handle this, it’s the Badgers. The linebackers will once again be the best unit on this team. Jack Cichy is back after an injury cost him the last half of the season a year ago. He will join T.J. Edwards, who recorded a team high 89 tackles last season, in the middle. The two outside linebacker spots need to be filled after T.J. Watt and Vince Beigel both departed. Garret Dooley had 3.5 sacks last year in limited action. Up front, Conor Sheehy, Chikwe Obasih and Alec James all present solid option on the ends. The Badgers will have to find someone at nose tackle. Olive Sagapolu seems like the most likely option. The secondary has stars in CB Derrick Tindal and S D’Cota Dixon. Sojourn Shelton needs to be replace opposite of Tindal. Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson is favorite for now.
Rafael Gaglianone is one of the top kickers in the Big Ten and should continue to be a weapon. Anthony Lotti should have a good season. The Badgers return game should be improved this season.
The Badgers have a manageable schedule this season. A road trip to BYU will be a challenge, but the out of conference schedule is not brutal by any means. In conference, the Badgers draw Maryland, Indiana and Michigan in crossover play and get Northwestern, Maryland, Iowa and Michigan all at home. Things are setting up for Wisconsin to have a special year.
2. Iowa Hawkeyes
2016 Record: 8–5(6–3)
Projected 2017 Record: 8–4(5–4)
Kirk Ferentz just keeps plugging along in Iowa City as he will coach his 19th season with the Hawkeyes this year. Last year, the Hawkeyes took a step back following a surprising run to a Big Ten West Title the year prior. Now Ferentz will try to get his team back into the Big Ten Title Game. In order to do that, the Hawkeyes will have to replace steady C.J. Beathard. Sophomore Nathan Stanley and junior Tyler Wiegers are locked in battle that could go into the fall. Whichever quarterback starts will be behind an offensive line that returns all five starters and won the Joe Moore Award a year ago. That line will also open holes for 1,000 rusher Akrum Wadley, who can also be a threat out of the backfield. Toks Akinribade will be the change of pace if Wadley needs a breather. Wide receiver is a big question mark, with concerns all over the place. Tight ends Peter Pekar and Noah Fant will be relied on early until the receiver situation becomes clear.
The Hawkeyes defense is always sneaky good and this year should be no different. The linebacking corps is loaded with All-American candidate Josey Jewell being flanked by fellow tseniors Ben Niemann and Bo Bowser. The defensive line returns Nathan Bazata in the middle, but has to replace Jaleel Johnson. DE Anthony Nelson is now a full time starter and should build on his 6.0 sacks. The secondary will have to reload after losing three starters, including a do-it -all DB Desmond King. They will have to mature quickly with superstar QB Josh Allen on the schedule week one.
K Keith Duncan came through in the clutch for the Hawkeyes against Michigan last year and was reliable. Colten Rastetter looks to be the punter. The return game isn’t anything to get excited about.
The Hawkeyes have a tough road to navigate. It starts with a sneaky tough Wyoming team at home and in late September, contains a visit from Penn State before they head to East Lansing. In early November, the Hawkeyes will face Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes look like they could cause problems in the Big Ten West, but their just not on the level that Wisconsin is.
3. Northwestern Wildcats
2016 Record: 7–6(5–4)
Projected 2017 Record: 8–4(5–4)
Pat Fitzgerald’s team seems to be in the same position as they are every year. They very well could win the Big Ten West, but on the other hand they could finish in the basement. Many think this year’s team is built for the first. QB Clayton Thorson is back following his phenomenal sophomore year (3,182 yards, 22 touchdowns, 9 interceptions). Joining him in the backfield will be a Heisman sleeper Justin Jackson. Last year he ran for 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns. This year, he may be relied on even more than last year with Austin Carr gone. Who will take over his spot at receiver? Jalen Brown comes in from Oregon and may be the answer to that question. Solomon Vault is a blur whose speed can cause problems. Riley Lees, a redshirt freshman, might also have an impact. Luckily, Garrett Dickerson is back at tight end. The line returns four starters and will be one of the top units in the conference.
The Wildcats defense had a solid season, allowing just 22.2 points per game despite allowing 265.2 passing yards per game. The secondary returns three starters and CB Keith Watkins II returns after the injury that cost him most of last season. Godwin Igwebuike could be an All-American. The front seven has some vacancies, but there is talent. Three defensive linemen are back. Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson are back at the tackle spots, which is exciting. Both Xavier Washington and Joe Gaziano recorded 4.5 sacks last year and will hope to build on that. The depth down here is very good, too. Linebacker is a bit of a head scratcher, but Nate Hall return at least.
Hunter Niswander is back once again at punter, but the Wildcats are in search of a new kicker. Vault’s speed can hurt opposing team on kick returns and Flynn Nagel should return punts.
The Wildcats schedule isn’t as tough as some in the Big Ten. Penn State, Michigan State and Iowa all come to Evanston. The schedule isn’t without it’s rough spots though. Both Wisconsin and Nebraska are on the road, as is a tricky Maryland team. Northwestern will be tough to beat, but they just aren’t ready to compete with Wisconsin.
4. Nebraska Cornhuskers
2016 Record: 9–4(6–3)
Projected 2017 Record: 7–5(5–4)
Mike Riley got the Huskers back to the nine win mark that they were so accustomed to under Bo Pelini. Now Riley must back that up in a place that demands winning. The Huskers will have to replace a successful Tommy Armstrong Jr. at quarterback. Tulane transfer Tanner Lee’s experience fits the offense nicely, but he will stave off a challenge from redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien. The Huskers backfield is loaded this season with talent, but that talent is untested. Devine Ozigbo is the most experienced of the group, but the talent behind him may limit his carries. The Huskers return two strong receiving options in Stanley Morgan Jr. and De’Mornay Pierson-El. On the line, three starters are back and most of the players vying for open spot have experience.
The defense will experience a lot of changes with Bob Diaco in place. The main change will be the 3–4 scheme. Finding four linebackers will be tough, especially considering only one starter from a year ago returning. Marcus Newby and one other linebacker will have to emerge on the edge in Diaco’s defense, which relies on good edge play. Freedom Akinmoladun is back and maybe the move from 4–3 DE to 3–4 DE will allow him to be more effective. Mick Stoltenberg looks to be a perfect fit at nose tackle. The secondary is extremely deep. Chris Jones looks like All-Big Ten material. Aaron Williams, Kieron Williams and Joshua Kalu are all capable of starting and producing. The only question will be if they can find someone opposite Jones at corner. The Huskers are confident that Lamar Jackson (no, not that Lamar Jackson) can fill the role.
After the unexpected death of Sam Foltz before last season, Caleb Lightbourn stepped into the role and did a decent job, but will have to iron out some struggles. Drew Brown is reliable enough at kicker. De’Mornay Pierson-El can be a dynamic returner if he stays healthy.
The Huskers schedule is very manageable. The Huskers will have road tests at Oregon and Penn State, but get Ohio State, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa. The Huskers will have a shot to get back to nine wins if the offense can improve and the defense can adjust quickly to the new system.
5. Minnesota Golden Gophers
2016 Record: 9–4(5–4)
Projected 2017 Record: 7–5(4–5)
Row, row, row that boat all the way to Minneapolis. The P.J. Fleck era begins for the Gophers as they enter a bit of a rebuilding mode. The Gophers offense will start by having to replace Mitch Leidner at quarterback. Senior Conor Rhoda has been in the system a while, but has only career start. He will have to fight off sophomore Demry Croft if he wants to start. Whichever quarterback gets the start under center will have a great running game behind him. Rodney Smith totaled 1,158 yards on the ground a year ago and added 16 touchdowns. Shannon Brooks added 650 yards and 5 touchdowns as the change of pace option. The Gophers will miss Drew Wolitarsky dearly at receiver. None of the returning receivers had over 18 receptions a year ago. The Gophers need senior Rashad Stills and Nate Wozniak to step up their production. The offensive line returns four experienced starters, anchored by senior Vincent Calhoun.
The Gophers defense was stingy last season and hope to be that same way again this year. It starts in the linebacking corps, where Jonathan Celestin returns in the middle of an extremely deep group. Junior Blake Cashman is back after leading the team in sacks, but because of the depth at outside linebacker, he may not even start. The defensive line will only return one starter, but that one is a big one in senior DT Steven Richardson. With as much depth as they have at linebacker, some edge rushers may have to put there hand in the dirt to cover for a lack of depth at defensive end. The Gophers allowed 230.9 yards a game passing a year ago, so there is room for improvement. Both safeties are back, but both corners need to be replaced. Antoine Winfield Jr. could play corner if needed, but the Gophers will hope that a few corners can emerge.
The Gophers might have the strongest special teams unit in the conference, with steady junior Emmit Carpenter at kicker and accurate senior Ryan Santoso back at punter. Jalen Myrick is gone and replacing his production won’t be easy. There are capable options on the roster, though.
The schedule is challenging, but there are wins available. Road games at Iowa, Michigan and Northwestern will be tough, but Wisconsin, Michigan State and Nebraska all head to Minneapolis this season. Getting back to nine wins will be tough, especially with so many changes. Still, the Gophers should be back in a bowl game.
6. Purdue Boilermakers
2016 Record: 3–9(1–8)
Projected 2017 Record: 3–9(2–7)
The Boilermakers can’t be faulted for giving coaches too little time. They gave Darrell Hazzell plenty of time and did the same with Danny Hope before him. So Jeff Brohm will be given time. He was successful at Western Kentucky almost immediately, but here, things are different. He will inherited a team that hasn’t won more three games in a season since 2012. The offense struggled, like they have for a while, last season, but did take a small step forward. Junior QB David Blough led the entire Big Ten in passing a year ago (3,352 yards, 25 touchdowns) but did lead the country in interceptions (21). If he can cut down on the interceptions, he could make Purdue a dangerous offense. The problem is, who is Blough going to throw to? Cole Herdman is back at tight end (344 yards, 5 touchdowns), but the two top wide receivers are gone. The leading returning wide receivers group doesn’t contain a receiver with more than 17 receptions or 183 yards. The Boilermakers will have to run the ball better this season, but they are confident that five or six running backs can cause problems. The problem is the line returns just two starters and had a terrible spring.
The Boilermakers defense was bullied by opponents, who scored 38.3 points per game against them. They will have to improve on that number if they want to win games. Bringing over DC Nick Holt should help. He returns two of the three starters at linebacker, which will be the strongest unit on that side of the ball. Markus Bailey is superstar after leading the team in tackles and interceptions a year ago from the middle linebacker spot. Flanking him will be two experienced seniors in Ja’Whaun Bentley and Danny Ezechokwu. There is depth here, as well. The line returns Gelen Robinson and Eddy Wilson in the middle and has plenty of strong options on the edge. The secondary has to play better. Despite only allowing 207.4 yards a game, the Boilermakers secondary was scored on 22 times through the air last season. That just can’t happen, especially in a run heavily Big Ten. The secondary will need to create more interceptions after unit forced a total of four interceptions a year ago. Senior Da’Wan Hunte is back and led the team in passes defended a year ago with 6. Two transfers should help bolster this group.
J.D. Dellinger comes off a strong freshman year and should only get better. Joe Schopper will be back to handle punting duties. The return game wasn’t much of a weapon a year ago.
The Boilermakers schedule is tough once again. The season opens at Lucas Oil Stadium against Louisville. The out of conference schedule also contains a road trip to Missouri. In conference, the Boilermakers have to head on the road to face Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa.
The Boilermakers have the capability of surprise a few people this season. However, making a bowl game would be rather shocking.
7. Illinois Fighting Illini
2016 Record: 3–9(2–7)
Projected 2017 Record: 2–10(0–9)
Lovie Smith’s first year wasn’t as positive as many in Champagne were hoping it would be. The Illini went from a fringe bowl team to competing to stay out of the Big Ten West basement. Now, Smith must stop the bleeding that has already started. That starts with his offense. Last season, they ranked outside the top 100 in all four major offensive categories. Smith and Garrick McGee will be focused on finding a new starter at quarterback after oft-injured Wes Lunt’s graduation. Those injuries did allow two competitors, Jeff George Jr. and Chayce Crouch, to get some valuable experience. Crouch is the more mobile option of the two, but George Jr. has the better arm. Don’t count out former Virginia Tech quarterback Dwayne Lawson, who will enter the battle in the summer. The running back spot is in good shape with the solid 1–2 punch of Kendrick Foster (720 yards, 7 touchdowns) and Reggie Corbin (523 yards, 2 touchdowns). The receiving does return their leading receiver from a year ago in Malik Turner (712 yards, 6 touchdowns). Mikey Dudek is back for his third try at his senior year, after his last two tries were ended by an ACL injury before they even started. Prior to that, he was a 1,000 yard receiver. After that the depth chart is loaded with underclassmen. Two true freshman might be forced into early playing time. The same thing may happen at tight end. The line returns three key starters, headlined by senior Christian DiLauro. Behind the projected starter, though, the Illini are really young.
The defense had their tough moments last season, but was nowhere near as bad as the offense. The Illini ranked 17th in pass defense and returns three starters in the secondary. Patrick Nelson finish third on the team in tackles last season after he was forced into action as a freshman. He will join S Stanley Green, who also had a fabulous freshman year, and senior CB Jaylen Dunlap. Tré Watson return at linebacker after racking up 102 tackles last season. Replacing Hardy Nickerson Jr.’s production will be hard. Del’Shawn Phillips, who comes in as a JUCO, will hope to provide at least a little help. The Illini are known for producing good defensive lineman. James Crawford may be the next defensive end to make the NFL if he can take advantage of the opportunity. Jamal Milan and Kenyon Jackson are slated to start, but talented true freshman Kendrick Green will get his reps.
K Chase McLaughlin is back after a solid sophomore season. Ryan Frain is gone and junior Ryan Tucker is the only punter in the roster. The return game may benefit heavily from the influx of freshmen.
The schedule won’t be of any help to the Illini. The out of conference features Western Kentucky coming to Champagne and a road trip to possible NY6 buster South Florida. In conference, the Illini will have to see Ohio State in addition to the rest of the Big Ten West. Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern are all home games, but it still won’t be easy. The Illini are just too young in the two deep to make a bowl game. Staying out of the basement would be an accomplishment.
Big Ten Championship Game (Indianapolis, IN): Ohio State Buckeyes over Wisconsin Badgers
First Team All-Big Ten
QB Trace McSorley. Sr. Penn State
RB Saquon Barkley. Jr. Penn State
RB Justin Jackson. Sr. Northwestern
AP Akrum Wadley. Sr. Iowa
WR Nick Westbrook. Jr. Indiana
WR DaeSean Hamilton. Sr. Penn State
TE Troy Fumagalli. Sr. Wisconsin
C Billy Price. Sr. Ohio State
OL Mason Cole. Sr. Michigan
OL Michael Dieter. Jr. Wisconsin
OL Sean Welsh. Sr. Iowa
OL Beau Benzschawel. Jr. Wisconsin
DL Tyquan Lewis. Sr. Ohio State
DL Rashan Gary. So. Michigan
DL Sam Hubbard. Jr. Ohio State
DL Dre’Mont Jones. So. Ohio State
LB Josey Jowell. Sr. Iowa
LB Jack Cichy. Sr. Wisconsin
LB T.J. Edwards. Jr. Wisconsin
CB Rashard Fant. Sr. Indiana
CB Derrick Tindal. Sr. Wisconsin
S Marcus Allen. Sr. Penn State
S D’Cota Dixon. Sr. Wisconsin
K Tyler Davis. Sr. Penn State
P Blake Gillikin. So. Penn State
KR Janarion Grant. Sr. Rutgers
PR De’Mornay Pierson-El. Sr. Nebraska
Second Team All-Big Ten
QB J.T. Barrett. Sr. Ohio State
RB Rodney Smith. Jr. Minnesota
RB Ty Johnson. Jr. Maryland
AP Mike Weber. So. Ohio State
WR Jazz Peavy. Sr. Wisconsin
WR Saeed Blacknall. Sr. Penn State
TE Mike Gesicki. Sr. Penn State
C James Daniels. Jr. Iowa
OL Brian Allen. Sr. Michigan State
OL Jamarco Jones. Sr. Ohio State
OL Damian Prince. Jr. Maryland
OL Isaiah Prince. Jr. Ohio State
DL Jesse Aniebonam. Sr. Maryland
DL Maurice Hurst. Sr. Michigan
DL Conor Sheehy. Sr. Wisconsin
DL Nick Bosa. So. Ohio State
LB Tegray Scales. Sr. Indiana
LB Jerome Baker. Jr. Ohio State
LB Jermaine Carter Jr. Sr. Maryland
CB Denzel Ward. Jr. Ohio State
CB Jeffrey Okudah. Fr. Ohio State
S Godwin Igwebuike. Sr. Northwestern
S Damon Webb. Sr. Ohio State
K Emmit Carpenter. Jr. Minnesota
P Wade Lees. So. Maryland
KR D.J. Moore. Jr. Maryland
PR Janarion Grant. Sr. Rutgers
Third Team All-Big Ten
QB Clayton Thorson. Jr. Northwestern
RB L.J. Scott. Jr. Michigan State
RB Bradrick Shaw. So. Wisconsin
AP Robert Martin. Sr. Rutgers
WR D.J. Moore. Jr. Maryland
WR Donovan Peoples-Jones. Fr. Michigan
TE Marcus Baugh. Sr. Ohio State
C Patrick Kugler. Sr. Michigan
OL Ryan Bates. So. Penn State
OL Nick Gates. Jr. Nebraska
OL Ben Bredeson. So. Michigan
OL Keegan Render. Jr. Iowa
DL Steven Richardson. Sr. Minnesota
DL Chase Winovich. Jr. Michigan
DL Freedom Akinmoladun. Jr. Nebraska
DL Gelen Robinson. Sr. Purdue
LB Mike McCray. Sr. Michigan
LB Jason Cabinda. Sr. Penn State
LB Markus Bailey. So. Purdue
CB Chris Jones. Sr. Nebraska
CB JC Jackson. Jr. Maryland
S Antoine Winfield Jr. So. Minnesota
S Joshua Kalu. Sr. Nebraska
K Drew Brown. Sr. Nebraska
P Ryan Santoso. Sr. Minnesota
KR Parris Campbell. Jr. Ohio State
PR Jacquille Veii. Sr. Maryland
Must Watch Games
1. Ohio State @ Michigan, Nov. 25
2. Penn State @ Ohio State, Oct. 28
3. Michigan @ Penn State, Oct. 21
4. Michigan @ Wisconsin, Nov. 18
5. Iowa @ Wisconsin, Nov. 11