July is the last full month without a college football game in 2019. August cannot come soon enough.
Last week, I previewed the PAC-12. This week, we’ll talk all things Big-10.
The Big Ten has been shut out of the College Football Playoffs for back-to-back seasons now, and that can’t be sitting well with these universities. Last year, Ohio State was left out with a 12-1 record because of a blow-out loss to Purdue earlier in the season. The year before was a similar story, with the same record and the loss coming at the hands of Iowa.
Had those losses been closer in score, and those two games more competitive, the Big Ten likely would have had a representative in the playoffs.
Yes, that is concerning, but what Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren should be more upset with, is why the conference is relying on Ohio State to be the representative?
The Buckeyes won the first CFP championship in 2014, and made the semi-finals two years later in 2016. In between those appearances, Michigan State took a seat in the final four.
And that’s it.
Sure, only four teams in the entire country get in, but the SEC has been represented 6 times and the ACC 5. That does not cut it for a conference with a history of championships. Could 2019 be the year they get a school back in the picture?
Ohio State – The biggest storyline in the entire conference is whether this is the year Michigan can beat big brother Ohio State. If Jim Haurbaugh can finally get the Wolverines to do it, it might as well be the year after Urban Meyer retires. Also, JT Barrett and Dwayne Haskins are in the NFL, so why not 2019?
Well, until he can prove otherwise, the Buckeyes will always be his bugaboo. Even if they have a rookie head coach in Ryan Day, and a redshirt-freshman quarterback in Justin Fields, you can’t trust Michigan in the big game.
Fields, a 5-star recruit who committed to Georgia, backed up Jake Fromm last season, and the biggest play he was involved in was a fake punt in the SEC title game. Sure, it was a wasted year for the young gunslinger, but if he uses it as motivation, the Big Ten should be on notice. The rest of the team is full of the best athletes in the mid-west, and in typical Ohio State fashion, the players who went to the NFL are being replaced with the next set of guys. They’ll do just fine. Keep in mind, this incoming class is still Meyer’s recruits. Oh, and their schedule this season? Laughable. They open against Florida Atlantic, Cincinnati, Indiana and Miami. That is a full month for the Bucks offense to get into rhythm with Fields and give their coach some breathing room before the conference grind. They get Michigan State, Wisconsin and Penn State at home, but will travel on November 30th to Michigan. It’s not crazy to think OSU is undefeated going into that tilt. They should finish 11-1 or 12-0 on the season, win the division and have a real shot (again) at the CFP.
Michigan – After losing the 2018 opener to Notre Dame, the Wolverines ripped off 10 wins in a row and were sitting in a top 4 ranking. Then they took a flight to Columbus, and got smacked around Ohio Stadium to the tune of 62-39.
One month later, they were embarrassed by the Florida Gators in the Chick-Fil-A-Peach Bowl, 41-15. So, what motivation did these boys have this off season? Well, for one, their coach’s job might be on the line. The nation’s third highest paid coach is 0-4 against their rivals. He has had a top-10 recruiting class the past 3 seasons. His overall record of 38-14 is nothing to be ashamed of. He’s hit the 10-win mark 3 of his 4 years in maze and blue but losing that regular season finale to OSU every year has left a stink on each season.
Over the Winter, he hired former Penn State and Alabama wide receivers coach Josh Gattis to call plays. As a first time OC, Gattis will have returning quarterback Shea Patterson and wide outs Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins to design for. Patterson is coming off a 2,600-yard campaign where he completed 65% of his passes and a rating of 149.8. Peoples-Jones and Collins were his top two targets, combining for 85 catches, 1,220 yards and 14 touchdowns. You know the defense will be there, they always are. That is one thing the khaki-wearing headset-tossing Harbaugh has been consistent with.
Bottom line, it feels foolish even previewing Michigan’s season, because until they beat Ohio State in week 12, it will be a disappointing season in Ann Arbor. I do expect them to be good, maybe even really good. But I still don’t think it’s enough to get over that hump. I see a 10-2 season ahead, which gets them into a good bowl game. It might also send their coach into the unemployment line at the same time.
Penn State – In just 5 seasons, James Franklin has taken this team from obscurity to relevance not only in the conference, but in the country. It’s time to cash in.
It’s conference title or bust in 2019 for Penn State. Last year they rebounded from losing Saquon Barkley to the NFL and still finished 9-4, but now they need to replace 3-year starting quarterback and team leader Trace McSorley, and that will be an even tougher task. They have some talent at running back and some depth at receiver, but without an experienced arm under center, the offense could struggle. The defense however should be able to keep the opponents in check enough for Penn State to win their first four games (Idaho, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Maryland). They have had solid defenses for the past 4 years, but this might be their best unit yet. D-end Yetur Gross-Matos redefines the term ‘stud pass rusher’, and Micah Parsons headlines a linebacker core that will wreak havoc in the conference. Parsons led the team in tackles last season with 83, and only started one game. This team is loaded with talent, 39 four and five-star recruits to be exact, and with a light first month of the season, they might just find their rhythm before they hit conference play. A 9-3 record is within reach and I expect them to weather the storm at quarterback and come out just fine.
Michigan State – They aren’t on the level as the teams above, but they are so much better than the teams below. They have a defense that SEC teams would drool over and could end up turning more players pro on that side of the ball than any other university in 2020. If their offense can keep pace, they could really have a fun season. But that is a big “if.” In 2018 they lost the Red Box Bowl 7-6 to Oregon and before that scored just 26-points in the month of November. They should have a healthy Brian Lewerke back at quarterback, which should be a big boost for the Spartans. The o-line is a mess and there is competition at running back, so there is plenty to still fall into place out in East Lansing. It would be a shame if the offense can’t put up enough points to take advantage of this stellar defense, but I just don’t think they have the fire power. With road games at Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan, that is a heavy haul, but I do think the defense can steal a win or two in there. Their floor is 7 wins and the ceiling should be 9. I’ll give them the middle and predict an 8-4 year for Mark Dantonio in his 16th season as the HC of the Spartans.
Indiana – This Hoosiers team started 4-1 in 2018 with a win over Virginia but then dropped 6 of their final 7. It was a rough go for Indiana fans as they were in most of those games but just couldn’t pull out victories. Quarterback Peyton Ramsey started all 12-games last season and put up 2,875 yards. Running back Steve Scott rushed for over 1,000 yards in his true freshman campaign and returns to a depth chart with experienced receivers Nick Westbrook and Donovan Hale. On the other side of the ball, 9 starters return with plenty of experience. Their entire secondary is still intact and the linebacking core should make a lot of exciting plays. Tom Allen’s Hoosiers will improve from last season, no doubt, and should find their way into the bowl season. They should finish 6-6, with a 7-5 season in reach. They do have the ability to also pull off a big upset win over one of the teams above.
Maryland – Another 5-7 team from 2019 trying to get that one more win to become bowl eligible, but they will have a much tougher track than Indiana. Mike Locksley was given the keys to the Terrapins kingdom this summer, but his 3-31 career head coaching record is less than desirable. Look for him to rely on All-American running back Anthony McFarland to be a bell cow for the offense, and Virginia Tech transfer Josh Jackson should be the starting quarterback immediately. With only one returning starter on the defensive line, the lack of experience here could be what brings the defense down. They will have Ohio State transfer linebacker Keandre Jones anchoring a unit that also returns both outside backers. The Terps open with back-to-back home games against non-conference opponents Howard and Syracuse, but have 3 of their final five games on the road, including trips to Ohio State and Michigan State. I think the offense has potential to be good, but the defense doesn’t, and they will get eaten up in the Big-Ten. Look for another 5-7 season in College Park.
Rutgers – The Scarlet Knights went 1-11 last season and were winless in their 9 Big-Ten games. Offensively they put up less than 14-points per game and return quarterback Art Sitkowski for his second season. To say he must improve on his decision making is a massive understatement. In 2018 he threw 4 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. As the only passer on the depth chart with game experience, it will be his position to lose. Leading rusher Raheem Blackshear returns, but only amassed 500 yards last season. He was also the team’s leading receiver, with only 44 catchers. Defensively, top tackers Trevor Morris (109) and Deonte Roberts (90) have graduated and left behind a unit with inexperience. They likely won’t win a conference game this year, but open at home against UMass, likely their best bet to win a game.
Iowa – Nate Stanley is back for the Hawkeyes with a chance to set all of the school records. The 4th-year quarterback had a sneaky good season in 2018, racking up 2,852 yards and 26 touchdowns to established himself as one of the better quarterbacks in the West Division. Stanley can ball, he just needs to tighten up his consistency and not wait for the big moments to shine. With 4 offensive linemen coming back, at least he knows he will stay upright. But who will he throw to?
Tight-ends Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson are taking their 27 combined touchdowns to the NFL and leaving behind a very inexperienced group that have only 3 collective catches in college action. He does have Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith as returning receivers, a pair of ball seeking speedsters who can track down the longest of passes.
An experienced and hungry line highlights the defensive side of the ball. Keep an eye on A.J. Epenesa, who could be a top draft pick in 2020. Coming off a 9-4 season in which they lost to Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdie and Northwestern by only a combined 22 points, Iowa fans have high expectations for Kirk Ferentz’s 21st season in Iowa City. They do have to travel to Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska, but Ferentz has been in these situations before. Look for Iowa to win the division and secure a top-25 ranking. They should win 9 games for sure, but I’ll give them an extra road win take a 10-2 finish here.
Nebraska – I’m not ready to give the Cornhuskers the division like so many others have. Sure, the rest of the division seems to be rebuilding, but Nebraska needs to prove something first. True-Freshman Adrian Martinez showed glimpses of being a very solid Big-Ten quarterback last season but will need to take bigger steps in 2019 for Nebraska to be in the discussion. Head coach Scott Frost handled adversity well in his first year, bouncing back from an 0-6 start to finish the season on a 4-2 stretch. In that run they lost to Ohio State by 5, Iowa by 3 and Northwestern by 2. Oh, and Martinez and company put up 28 or more points in all of those games. The quarterback finished with a school record 295-yards per game at the end of the season and if he improves, look out Big-Ten West.
They have the benefit of starting the season against South Alabama, Colorado, Northern Illinois and Illinois. That’s a great way to gain momentum and could finish that run 3-1 or 4-0 if they play well enough. With the majority of the line returning, depth at the skill positions and defensive lineman Darrion Daniels, a grad transfer from Oklahoma State, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic in Lincoln. Frost could take this program from a bowl-ineligible 4-8 team to an 8 or 9-win team playing in a legit bowl.
If Martinez progresses like he should, I see the Cornhuskers finishing 9-4, which is a massive improvement from 2018. Look for them in the top-25 at some point this season as well.
Wisconsin – I picked the Badgers to make the CFP last year and boy did they disappoint, finishing 7-5 with losses to BYU and Minnesota. It was so bad that starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook transferred to Florida State for his senior season. Now a new quarterback will take snaps and likely handing off to stud running back Jonathan Taylor more often than not. Taylor won the Doak Walker Award, rushing for 2,194 yards and owns the FBS record for the most rushing yards in two combined seasons. With four starting offensive linemen now in the NFL, he is going to have to be more elusive than ever. Defensively, Paul Chryst returns a solid secondary with a lot of experience but has defensive line depth concerns. They should be in the top-25 mix all season and could be in the race for the division. 9-4 is within reach for the Badgers, especially since they get Southern Florida, Central Michigan and Kent State for out of conference opponents. Still, I’ll drop the expectations to 8-4 here.
Northwestern – Was last season a Cinderella year for the Wildcats? They won 7 of their final 8 games to finish 8-4, took the West division and defeated Utah in the Holiday Bowl. Pat Fitzgerald made alumni proud last season, and although they lost by 3 touchdowns in the Big-Ten title game against Ohio State, it was a big step forward in the program’s history.
Here’s the short on the new season: Quarterback Clayton Thorson had ice in his veins down the stretch run last year, but he’s now with the Philadelphia Eagles. Fortunately for Fitzgerald, Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson is wearing purple, and he has potential to be twice the quarterback that Thorson was. While Johnson joins an offense alongside running back Isaiah Browser (866-yards and 6-touchdowns in 2018), they have a tough start to the season playing at Stanford in week one, hosting Michigan State week 3 and then back-to-back road trips at Wisconsin and Nebraska to follow. That is one hell of a start to the season, and Johnson will have very little time to get into rhythm with his receivers. They return a solid defense with plenty of experience, so look for them to anchor this team. I expect them to win 7 games this year. 8 isn’t out of reach, but with that start to the season, it’s going to be a grueling first half.
Purdue – One reason, and two words, why you’ll watch more Boilermaker football more in 2019 than you ever have before: Rondale Moore. Coming off a true-freshman campaign where he caught 114 balls for 1,258 yards and 14 touchdowns, there is reason to believe he could find his way into a Heisman campaign. If quarterback Elijah Sindelar can stay healthy, and put that 2017 ACL tear behind him, he could put up big numbers in West Lafayette. He also has one of the nation’s top tight ends in Brycen Hopkins. Defensively, they have a lot of talent, size and speed, but new head coach Jeff Brohm will need to juggle the lineup. The University has not won 8 games in 12-years and hasn’t reached the 9-win plateau in 16. I really want this team to be good, and I think they will be, but to win the division they will need to be great. I think they have a higher ceiling than Minnesota, so I’ll give them the nudge over the Gophers in the standings. Their Athletic Director hasn’t done them any favors this season by scheduling a tricky Vanderbilt team in week 2 and TCU in week 3. I’ll give them an 8-4 season, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they fell to 6-6 because of the tough start.
Minnesota – Coming off a 7-5 season and a Quick Lane Bowl victory over Georgia Tech, the Gophers could be in the conversation for the West crown. After all, they do get to open the season with South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern. They also only have four conference road games. True Freshman Zach Annexstad won 3 of his 7 starts at quarterback last season for PJ Fleck’s offense, and for the first time in 3-years, Minnesota has a number one quarterback going into camp. All-Big Ten receiver Tyler Johnson can make plays and outrun defenders while Mo Ibrahim looks to improve on a season in which he rushed for 1,160 yards and 9 touchdowns. Defensively, the Gophers were atrocious in the first half of the season, allowing over 42-points per game, but made drastic changes and improved to giving up just 24 a game over the final month of the season. While a Big-Ten title game is the goal, they will fall just short of that mission and finish 7-5 once again. Their last four games of the season are against Penn State, Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin, and that is just too brutal of a stretch for them to run through.
Illinois – Not much to see here folks. They won 4 games last year and Vegas has the win total set at only 3 for 2019. They have an incredibly small recruitment class of only 13, so depth will be a major cause of concern, and with a quarterback yet to surface as their number one, head coach Lovie Smith may be forced to give true freshman Isaiah Williams snaps this year. The Illini have a weak receiving core without much experience, so couple that with a 19-year old quarterback going against Big-Ten defenses, and you can smell the turnovers already. With Smith taking over defensive coordinator duties this fall, the pressure is heavier than ever in Champaign, IL. He does have defensive end Bobby Roundtree and cornerback Nate Hobbs on his depth chart, and those two can really play. If anyone on this roster can play on Sunday, it’s these two. The goal for Illinois should be to win 6 games and make a bowl and with Akron, UConn and Eastern Michigan on their schedule to open the season, they might get a head start. I expect them to win two of those three games, and possibly two conference games (maybe Rutgers and Minnesota), so I’ll take the over in Vegas and say they finish 4-8.
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