The Big Ten finished the 2017 season with five teams ranked in the final AP Top 25, tied for the most with the SEC. The conference has picked up right where it left off last year with five teams ranked in the AP’s preseason poll, again tied with the SEC for the most of any conference.
We shouldn’t read too heavily into preseason polls, but still, the fact that the Big Ten has five teams ranked, not to mention all five in the top 15, shows just how tough the conference could be this season.
Preseason power rankings are difficult given we haven’t actually seen any of these teams in action, but with a little over a week until conference action kicks off (deep breath), here’s an educated guess at how the Big Ten’s fourteen teams stack up:
1. No. 4 Wisconsin
2017 record: 13-1 (9-0 Big Ten)
WEEK 1: vs. Western Kentucky
There’s not much (at least for now) to separate the conference’s top five teams, but it’s hard not to love a Wisconsin team returning its starting quarterback, All-American running back, and entire offensive line. Jonathan Taylor put up ridiculous numbers as just a freshman in 2017, and Alex Hornibook should lead a more reliable Badger passing attack as he enters his third season as the team’s starter. The defense loses seven starters, but returns All-American linebacker T.J Edwards who seems poised to lead another stifling Wisconsin defense in his final season with the Badgers.
2. No. 5 Ohio St
2017 record: 12-2 (8-1 Big Ten)
WEEK 1: vs. Oregon State
As usual, the Buckeyes probably have the most talented roster of any in the conference, if not the nation. J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber combined to rush for over 2,000 yards last year and are simply two of the best backs in the nation. Nick Bosa is back for the Buckeyes on defense and will likely find himself in the opponent’s backfield whenever he wants. The only question marks that keep the Buckeyes out of the top spot in these rankings are Dwayne Haskins in his first year as starting quarterback and the unknown fate of Urban Meyer. Haskins should be more than fine behind center, let’s not forget how well he played at Michigan last year, but losing Coach Meyer would undoubtedly hurt the Buckeyes and their chances of making a playoff run.
3. No. 10 Penn State
2017 record: 11-2 (7-2 Big Ten)
WEEK 1 : vs. Appalachian State
First and foremost, Inside NU would like to bid one final farewell to Saquon Barkley and his Big Ten days, so here you go:
The Nittany Lions are still stacked on offense despite the loss of their All-American running back. James Frankin has a top-five recruiting class coming in after a strong 2017 campaign, and the Trace McSorley-Juwan Johnson passing connection is poised to be one of the best in the nation. The Nittany Lions have two revenge game opportunities getting Ohio State and Michigan State at home this year — they lost those two games by a combined four points last season. Concerns remain on the defensive end where some young players will be thrust into starting roles, but the offense should keep the team competitive in the Big Ten East race.
4. No. 14 Michigan
2017 record: 8-5 (5-4 Big Ten)
WEEK 1: at Notre Dame
The secret to Michigan’s success this season is no secret — they need a quarterback. The Wolverines return proven starters in nearly all positions on both sides of the ball, so now it’s up to Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson to see if he can revive a Michigan offense that finished 105th in the country in yards per game last season. Rashan Gary and Khaleke Hudson will have the Wolverine defense as one of the top in the country again, and the offensive line returns four of five starters from last season. The Week 1 trip to South Bend will reveal if Patterson can live up to the hype and provide Michigan with the consistent quarterback play they need to be a Big Ten contender.
5. No. 11 Michigan St
2017 record: 10-3 (7-2 Big Ten)
WEEK 1: vs. Utah State
The Spartans won ten games last season and have the most returning production of any team in the conference. Running back LJ Scott has made his way onto Maxwell and Doak Walker preseason watchlists, and the defense is again expected to be one of the best in the country (notice a trend?). Senior quarterback Brian Lewerke won the starting job and exceeded expectations last season, but still showed inconsistencies that raise concern. However, if the Spartans can get the Lewerke that combined for 845 passing yards and 6 touchdowns against Northwestern and Penn State last season, they could be the team to beat in the East.
2017 record: 10-3 (7-2 Big Ten)
WEEK 1 at Purdue
If you haven't been following our summer previews of the ‘Cats, here’s what you need to know: If Thorson is full strength, the offense should be good to go despite the loss of our Lord and Savior Justin Jackson. Defensively, the front seven is stacked, but an inexperienced secondary could be a weak spot. With a tough schedule and a Northwestern team that tends to play both up and down to its competition, expect a lot of games to be decided in the fourth quarter. Clayton Thorson is the most experienced QB in the conference, and his play down the stretch in games will likely make or break the Wildcats’ season.
2017 record: 8-5 (4-5 Big Ten)
WEEK 1: vs. Northern Illinois
The Hawkeyes lose key components from last year’s squad on both sides of the ball in running back Akrum Wadley as well as their entire starting linebacking corps. Wadley, the school’s fifth all-time leading rusher, will be hard to replace, but an experienced receiving corps, led by preseason All-American TE Noah Fant should keep the Hawkeyes competitive. Kirk Ferentz and his Iowa program have embodied consistency in recent years, managing to win at least seven games in the past five seasons. With the exception of an October trip to State College, the Hawkeyes have one of the easier conference slates as they get Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Nebraska at home. Another seven to eight win season seems likely for Coach Ferentz in his 20th year with the Hawkeyes.
2017 record: 7-6 (4-5 Big Ten)
WEEK 1: vs. Northwestern
Led by first year head coach Jeff Brohm, Purdue’s transformation from conference laughingstock to Foster Farms Bowl champions was deservedly one of the storylines of the 2017 Big Ten season, but we shouldn’t be so quick to jump on Brohm’s Boilermaker Bandwagon™. Out of their six wins against Power Five conference teams last season, only three finished the year with winning records, and none with more than eight wins. Purdue loses the majority of last year’s defensive starters, and back-to-back matchups with Ohio State and Michigan St. in October — two teams absent from their 2017 schedule — will provide a more challenging test for an inexperienced Purdue defense. The offense returns two solid quarterbacks and a running back, which should keep Purdue competitive, but Brohm still has a lot to prove before the Boilermakers can be considered the real deal.
2017 record: 4-8 (3-6 Big Ten)
WEEK 1: vs. Akron
The Cornhuskers’ four wins last season were the program’s lowest since 1960, meaning new head coach Scott Frost has a tough task ahead of him in his first year in Lincoln. What Frost accomplished at UCF was nothing short of incredible, but he’s in for a rude awakening in his first Big Ten season — Nebraska’s conference schedule includes trips to Ann Arbor, Columbus, and Madison, and let’s not forget he’s taking over a team that lost to Northern Illinois at home last season. Frost’s proven track record of producing elite offenses coupled with the arrival of the dual-threat true freshman Adrian Martinez bodes well for the Huskers on the offensive side of the ball, but inexperience and defensive struggles should limit this young Nebraska team to no more than six or seven wins.
2017 record: 5-7 (2-7 Big Ten)
WEEK 1: at Florida International
The Hoosiers were probably better than last year’s 2-7 conference record suggests. They led Ohio State at halftime, took Michigan to overtime, and hung with a tough Michigan State team in East Lansing before seeing a fourth quarter lead slip away late. Indiana’s defense was solid last year (26th in S&P+) and should remain sturdy, but things were shaky on the offensive side of the ball. Last year’s leading receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr. could be tough to replace, and none of the three quarterbacks in the hunt for the starting job have the raw playmaking ability to go up against the gauntlet that is the Big Ten East. Although they aren’t losing too many key pieces from last year’s squad and should remain strong on defense, it’s hard to see Indiana making any more noise than they have in the past.
2017 record: 5-7 (2-7 Big Ten)
WEEK 1: vs. New Mexico State
Head coach PJ Fleck just announced that the Golden Gophers will begin the season starting a true freshman walk-on at quarterback, which gives you an idea of the state Minnesota is at offensively right now. That being said, Fleck and the Gophers’ offense can't do much worse than the way they finished 2017, being shut out by Wisconsin and Northwestern in their final two games. Experience on the offensive line and at running back could temporarily offset the struggles of a passing offense that finished 121st in the country last year, but the Golden Gophers nonexistent passing attack will eventually catch up and simply make them too easy to defend.
2017 record: 4-8 (3-6 Big Ten)
WEEK 1: vs. Texas State
After a painstakingly bad 2016 campaign, Rutgers showed competency last season (three conference wins!). The Scarlet Knights are yet to name a starting QB, but true freshman Artur Sitkowski has impressed in practice scrimmages and could be the fresh burst of youth that thrusts Rutgers out of the Big Ten doghouse and into the College Football Playoff conservation. Ok, obviously that’s not gonna happen, but for some reason, the former four-star recruit out of IMG Academy de-committed from Miami to join the Scarlet Knights, so maybe there’s something going on in Piscataway that we don't know about?
2017 record: 4-8 (2-7 Big Ten)
WEEK 1: vs. Texas (FedEx Field in Landover, MD)
Everything is trending downwards in College Park right now. Disturbing off-the-field allegations have dominated the team’s offseason thus far, leading to putting head Coach DJ Durkin and two other staff members on administrative leave. The school named former LSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada the team’s interim head coach in just his first season with the Terps, a move seemingly geared towards trying to steer the program from the “toxic culture” addressed in the ESPN report. Canada will have to juggle off-the-field distractions the rest of the preseason as he tries to get his team prepared for a tough matchup against Texas to start the season. The defense allowed 37.1 PPG last season (worst in the Big Ten), and any chance the Terps have of winning games this year will rely on the offensive production of dual-threat quarterbacks Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill, who both impressed early last year before suffering season-ending injuries. If neither of these two can bounce back from their injuries and find a groove, the Terps are in for a long season.
2017 record: 2-10 (0-9 Big Ten)
WEEK 1: vs. Kent State
It’s hard to find reasons to get excited about this Illinois team. They failed to win a conference game last season, finishing 126th in the FBS in both scoring offense (15.4 PPG) and total offense (280.4 YPG) last season. AJ Bush, a grad transfer from Virginia Tech, was recently named the team’s starting quarterback, and will finally have a chance to earn his first career FBS start under new offensive coordinator Rod Smith. Perhaps the best thing the Fighting Illini have going for them this season is their schedule — they don't play a true road game until their fifth game of the season, Oct. 6 at Rutgers, and their conference slate is free of Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.