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Big Ten Power Rankings: Ohio State is still the team to beat

At least Northwestern isn’t last.

Joshua A. Bickel/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

If there was ever any doubt about the Big Ten’s status as one of the premier conferences in college football, this past offseason has erased that. A seven-year television deal with media giants CBS, FOX and NBC worth around $1.2 billion per year has solidified the value of the conference as a viewership juggernaut every fall Saturday, while the bombshell recruitment of USC and UCLA to the ranks of the Big Ten has expanded the conference’s reach to nearly 2800 miles.

Back to actual play, though. Last season, the Ohio State Buckeyes were beaten by Michigan for the first time in the Harbaugh-era in Ann Arbor, and the Wolverines rode this success over their sworn nemesis to a Big Ten Championship and a berth in the CFP — albeit only to be shellacked 34-11 by Georgia in the semifinal. A repeat is not going to be easy for Michigan, however, and OSU will look to regain its position as Big Ten champion. The Big Ten West will certainly be an exciting race, with five teams having a realistic chance to win the division. With so much parity within the conference (especially the west), the Big Ten will prove that even without the exciting news of the offseason coming into effect this season, the Big Ten is still up there with the SEC.

Before jumping into ranking the 14 teams in the conference, here are some key games to circle on your calendar.

Notable Matchups

  • Notre Dame at Ohio State, September 3
  • Penn State at Auburn, September 17
  • Michigan State at Michigan, October 29
  • Ohio State at Penn State, October 29
  • Wisconsin at Iowa, November 12
  • Michigan at Ohio State (Do I even need to put this?), November 26

And now, for the fun part...

1. No. 2 Ohio State

Last Season:

  • 11-2 (8-1 Big Ten)
  • Won Rose Bowl (48-45 vs. Utah)

No, Ohio State has not lost the mantle as the kings of the Big Ten after one loss to a Harbaugh-led Michigan team on a snowy Saturday in Ann Arbor.

Last season, it is no mystery what killed the Buckeyes. The Ohio State defense, specifically its run defense, got gashed by Michigan, Oregon and Utah, giving up 35 or more points and 200+ rushing yards in each of those games. The Buckeyes overhauled their defensive coaching staff in response to their weakest defense in years, choosing not to renew Kerry Coombs as defensive coordinator and hiring Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles in response. At Oklahoma State, Knowles transformed one of the worst defenses in the nation into one of the best within five years, with the Cowboys ranking No. 3 in total defense and No. 5 in rush defense in 2021. Although he will have significantly less time to make a turnaround, the resources around him will be far better, especially with the Buckeyes’ overhaul of the secondary’s positional coaches.

Knowles’ defense does not have to carry the weight of the team, either. Ohio State will have the best offense in the country: CJ Stroud, TreVeyon Henderson, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Marvin Harrison and a strong offensive line should dismantle teams from the first snap, and OSU’s depth at every position will allow it to survive whatever is thrown its way. With a dominant offense and a defensive coordinator to harness the mountain of talent the Buckeyes have, another thrashing at the hands of the Wolverines is probably not in the cards.

2. No. 8 Michigan

Last Season:

  • 12-2 (8-1 Big Ten)
  • Big Ten East Champion
  • Won Big Ten Championship (42-3 vs. Iowa)
  • Lost CFP Semifinal (11-34 vs. Georgia)

Michigan no longer has to point to past successes under Bo Schembechler and Lloyd Carr to prove that it is one of the top programs in college football. For the first time under Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines knocked off Ohio State, and despite being no match to eventual champions Georgia, even getting to the CFP is a major accomplishment.

However, the team will need to fill holes given the loss of pass-rushing duo Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo along with a slew of other key players such as safety Daxton Hill, halfback Hassan Haskins and two members of their stellar offensive line. Even with these departures, the Wolverines keep their top four receivers, QB Cade McNamara and explosive 5-foot-8 running back Blake Corum. On defense, they will have to retool in many positions, namely on their edge and the secondary — the two positions groups that produced the most for them during the 2021 campaign. Although UM’s offense should keep firing at the same level, the defense will likely regress due to inexperience in key positions.

While it’s not impossible, the Wolverines’ key losses over the offseason will make a repeat victory over the Buckeyes improbable.

3. No. 18 Wisconsin

Last Season:

  • 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten)
  • Won Las Vegas Bowl (20-13 vs. Arizona State)

Wisconsin’s playstyle has always been one of the most predictable in college football: great defense mixed with a hefty dose of ground and pound. It was no different last year, as breakout freshman Braelon Allen led the Wisconsin offense to over 215 rushing yards per game while the Badger defense dominated every aspect of a contest.

In 2022 though, the Badgers will have to tap deeper into quarterback Graham Mertz’s potential to have a shot at winning the Big Ten. Despite the bad rap he gets, Mertz is a former top-75 recruit, and he passed the ball well in the second half of the 2022 season. However, the Badgers enter this fall with a massively inexperienced wide receiver corps, and Mertz will not have the same weapons to go to.

On defense, Jim Leonhard will likely keep his juggernaut Badger defense firing on all cylinders despite the losses of key players, including both all-conference middle linebackers in a Leonhard scheme that relies on the ILBs to penetrate the line of scrimmage and wreak havoc in the backfield. Wisconsin will bring up Tate Grass and Jordan Turner to fill these roles. Both replacements already have valuable on-field experience from 2021, and with Leonhard’s strong coaching, the middle linebacker position and various other holes will likely be smoothed over come October.

If Mertz and the Badgers’ green receiving corps can mesh, this season can be one of excitement in Madison. But if the passing game sputters, expect the same Wisconsin team we have grown accustomed to.

4. No. 15 Michigan State

Last Season:

  • 11-2 (7-2 Big Ten)
  • Won Peach Bowl (31-21 vs. Pittsburgh)

In the end, Michigan State and Ohio State both ended at 11-2, but the stories behind these records were massively different.

Newly extended coach Mel Tucker and his Spartans seemed to win every close game, with notable one-score victories against Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska. Against Ohio State, though, MSU’s lack of depth and experience on both sides of the ball showed compared to powerhouse programs like Ohio State as they lost 56-7 to a Buckeyes team that scored at will against a helpless Michigan State defense.

The Spartans will also have to replace key 2021 performers, namely early-season Heisman candidate Kenneth Walker III, but with two backs coming to East Lansing (Jarek Broussard and Jalen Berger) through the transfer portal, the running game appears to have retooled this summer. Payton Thorne should also continue his solid 2021, and having Jayden Reed at receiver certainly makes the prospect of repeating a season in which he was 17th in QBR more than possible. The biggest weakness could be the Spartans’ secondary. Despite having a top pass rush, issues there could derail any hopes to get past Michigan and Ohio State.

5. Iowa

Last Season:

  • 10-4 (7-2 Big Ten)
  • Big Ten West Champion
  • Lost Big Ten Championship (3-42 vs. Michigan)
  • Lost Citrus Bowl (17-20 vs. Kentucky)

Brian Ferentz has been the Iowa offensive coordinator since 2016, and the Hawkeyes have never been above 88th on the total offense rankings in that span. Kirk Ferentz’s son will continue to head the Iowa offense no matter how dismal it is, and 2022 does not look good for the unit.

Most importantly, the black and gold have no reliable quarterback. Spencer Petras was one of the worst quarterbacks in the Big Ten last year, and Alex Padilla has not been a viable alternative. Maybe redshirt freshman Joey Labas can make a difference, but he likely won’t get a chance this season.

With the departure of center Tyler Linderbaum and guard Kyler Schott, a shaky 2021 offensive line will become even more unstable. At least top tight end Sam LaPorta will return, but that’s about the only bright spot.

The Iowa defense will keep the team in contention, however. Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Riley Moss returns for a fifth year, and the Hawks retain their entire linebacker corps and three of four defensive linemen.

Just like last year, Iowa’s success will hinge on its defense. If their defense is playing at its best and forcing turnovers, the team will win. But when the defense does not play exceptionally well, the Hawkeyes’ anemic offense can’t keep pace with other Big Ten programs.

6. Penn State

Last Season:

  • 7-6 (4-5 Big Ten)
  • Lost Outback Bowl (10-24 vs. Arkansas)

If there is a ranking I feel least confident in, it’s this one. Penn State can be anywhere from contending with Ohio State to once again being a seven or eight-win team that middles in Big Ten play.

A lot of that comes down to whether the defense can live up to expectations. According to ESPN’s SP+ prediction, Penn State is forecasted to have the second-best defense in the Big Ten, second to only perennial stalwart Wisconsin The Nittany Lions’ front seven will be their biggest potential roadblock to realizing their potential. While the defensive line has the capability to be one of the best in the nation, five-star Dani Dennis-Sutton must be the anchor. While Dennis-Sutton certainly has the tools to be electric, he may also require some time to grow into the system, à la Zach Harrison with Ohio State.

Behind the line, the Nittany Lions will have to replace two linebackers. With a lot to prove and no clear blue-chip recruits to compete for spots, the linebacker corps will be forced to adapt quickly before a September 17 bout against Auburn. PSU’s secondary will be what elevates the defense to a potential conference-best form. Joey Porter and Ji’Ayir Brown are scary returning pieces, and opposing receivers will have a tough time finding any room.

On the other side of the ball, Sean Clifford will keep being himself: a solid, but not world-beating, starting quarterback. If the offensive line can improve, the significant number of returning receivers and running backs should give Clifford options to work with. If everything goes to plan, Penn State could be one of the best teams in the Big Ten. Yet there are too many players that have to prove themselves to put Penn State in the same tier as Michigan State and Wisconsin.

7. Minnesota

Last Season:

  • 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten)
  • Won Guaranteed Rate Bowl (18-6 vs. West Virginia)

It’s no mystery that P.J. Fleck has transformed this program from a floundering Big Ten pushover to a bowl contender, but after continued success, fans want more. And after embarrassing losses to Bowling Green and Illinois, it is clear that this program has not yet reached its potential — something which may be challenging in 2022.

Most notably, Minnesota is losing four starters on the offensive line, a group that allowed Mohammed Ibrahim and company to rush for nearly 200 yards per game. Ibrahim and top pass catcher Chris Autman-Bell will provide yards for the offense, but Tanner Morgan was a below-average Big Ten quarterback last season; behind Autman-Bell and maybe Dylan Wright, the Golden Gophers’ receivers are a bit shaky.

Minnesota’s defense is coming off of a season in which they it was of the best units in the nation, but UMN should not expect to remain at that level. Despite good additions to the line and secondary through the transfer portal, losing the best defensive back and linebacker is nearly impossible to recover from for a program not named Ohio State or Michigan. Fleck and his staff will be sure to develop the positions (DB, OL) where holes gape, but replacing so much talent in one year is hard to do, even for Fleck.

8. Purdue

Last Season:

  • 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten)
  • Won Music City Bowl (48-45 vs. Tennessee)

Let’s start with the obvious: Purdue had a great 2021 season. After going 6-12 in 2019-20, Purdue rode a win over Iowa to a statement bowl victory over Tennessee.

But that Purdue team will look a lot different with the loss of its core stars to the NFL Draft, namely defensive end George Karlaftis and wide receiver David Bell. However, Purdue has already proven it can compete without these two stars, having beaten Tennessee without either of them in the Music City Bowl.

To continue that post-Bell and Karlaftis success, Aidan O’Connell will have to keep passing the football the way he did against Tennessee, where he threw for 534 yards. Despite the loss of Bell, O’Connell’s receiving corps still looks solid, with Iowa transfer Tyrone Tracy and Music City Bowl star Broc Thompson looking to pick up the loss in production due to the departure of Bell. Purdue’s tight ends will also be key to potential success in 2022, as Payne Durham hopes to boost his draft stock with a strong season.

On defense, the biggest loss comes up front, as Karlaftis and DaMarcus Mitchell have moved on to the NFL. But with a strong secondary and serviceable linebacker corps, co-DCs Ron English and Mark Hagen should be able to conjure another solid defense, albeit less electric as last season’s.

The Boilermakers will hinge on O’Connell’s performance at QB. With a high powered offense like the one we saw against Tennessee, Purdue could keep up with most conference squads not named Ohio State or Michigan.

9. Maryland

Last Season:

  • 7-6 (3-6 Big Ten)
  • Won Pinstripe Bowl (54-10 vs. Virginia Tech)

Maryland is Iowa’s antithesis. The Terrapins’ offensive quality is only matched by the likes of Ohio State, and with a slew of returning starters, including four offensive linemen, their strongest unit looks to become even better.

Redshirt junior Taulia Tagovailoa will build upon his top-20 passing season (according to ESPN), especially if he continues his trend of limiting turnovers from the end of last season, but the stacked receiver room is what really makes this Maryland offense scary. Maryland returns nationally touted Dontay Detmus Jr. and slot man Rakim Jarrett while also bringing in Florida receiver and former top recruit Jacob Copeland.

Maryland’s defense is where the question marks arise. Outside of its aggressive but relatively solid cornerbacks, the team has massive holes, especially after losing both safeties and two top front-seven talents. Maryland will easily finish off below-average teams with explosive offense, but when Michael Locksley’s team can’t put up points at will, it will lose big.

10. Nebraska

Last Season:

  • 3-9 (1-8 Big Ten)

This might be cliche at this point, but Nebraska is the best 3-9 team ever. Perhaps that explains why Scott Frost is sticking around for yet another season despite having underperformed expectations throughout his entire tenure in Lincoln.

In 2021, Nebraska seemed to lose every game by one score, even against strong teams like Wisconsin and Michigan. Sure, some of that performance in close games is probably due to poor game management and performance, but there is no way to lose so many one-score games without at least some degree of bad luck.

Despite success outside of the wins department in 2021, Frost fired nearly every assistant, and departures — including five defensive starters and longtime quarterback Adrian Martinez — mean that turnover will be the theme of the year. One of those assistants, Mark Whipple, is particularly exciting, as he previously transformed the Pitt offense into a top-10 FBS offense. Frost also acquired 14 transfers, including Texas QB Casey Thompson, to replace the mass of departing talent.

In an ideal world, Nebraska can finish anywhere from the top in the West to a season around .500, but it would be surprising to see the Huskers with three wins again.

11. Illinois

Last Season:

  • 5-7 (4-5 Big Ten)

Bret Bielema has brought some much-needed optimism to U of I, but Illinois has a talent problem, specifically on offense (ranked 103rd by ESPN SP+ in returning talent). The Illini brought in transfer quarterback Tommy DeVito from Syracuse and have a former 1,000-yard rusher in Chase Brown, but their interior offensive line and wide receivers are thin. DeVito is simply not good enough to produce without skill around him, as proven by his time with the Orange.

On defense, the Illini have some exciting returners, particularly cornerback Devon Witherspoon and Calvin Hart Jr., a linebacker who missed most of the season with a knee injury. Despite scattered stars, Illinois will likely regress with losses on both sides of the ball. Bielema will have to bring in more top-flight recruits before he can establish a program that challenges any of the big five in the West.

12. Rutgers

Last Season:

  • 5-7 (2-7 Big Ten)
  • Lost Gator Bowl (10-38 vs. Wake Forest)

For a team as historically poor in the past decade, 5-7 is quite a victory for the Scarlet Knights. At the same time, even with a strong defense (compared to Rutgers’ standards), the Scarlet Knights just do not have enough talent to beat top programs.

Rutgers’ secondary returns top players Kessawn Abraham and Christian Izien, and Greg Schiano should be trusted to develop the front seven, which admittedly lost its core over the offseason. Another solid defensive year should translate to at least a season in which they can beat teams with weak offenses.

On offense, RU needs to turn around a unit that was the Big Ten’s worst in 2021. And with the departure of four offensive linemen, the future looks even worse. QB Noah Vedral and RB Kyle Monangai can both run the ball decently, but it all depends on the line in front of them, especially with the Scarlet Knights’ relatively poor receiving corps allowing limited chances for Vedral to throw the ball deep. While it won’t be as bad as when Schiano came in, Rutgers is still near the bottom of the pack.

13. Northwestern

Last Season:

  • 3-9 (1-8 Big Ten)

As a Cleveland native, perhaps my ranking of Northwestern at No. 13 might just be because I’ve been conditioned to expect the worst from the teams I support. It might also be because, after a 3-9 season, NU still has unanswered questions almost everywhere, most notably at quarterback, where Ryan Hilinski has not been a convincing QB1. Even if his reads are solid, Hilinski’s ball-throwing skills are certainly lacking, and it would take a fairly large shift in his second season under OC Mike Bajakian to transform him into a competitive option.

Hilinski will have some help though, as OT Peter Skoronski, WR Malik Washington and RB Evan Hull (1,009 yards last year) will all perform. However, losing Sam Gerak at center and returning three mediocre linemen will make it hard for the line to perform outside of Skoronski.

On defense, the Wildcats have fewer holes. The Northwestern secondary will be one unit particularly worth watching, even with the transfer of Brandon Joseph to Notre Dame. Last year’s core of Cameron Mitchell, AJ.. Hampton and Coco Azema will combine with transfer Jeremiah Lewis to hopefully form the strongest area of this Wildcat roster.

Up front, things are a bit dicier. Bryce Gallagher had a strong season at linebacker, racking up tackles against strong opponents like Michigan and Minnesota. Outside of Gallagher, there’s a lot of work to be done, and Xander Mueller will have to show the promise he displayed against Wisconsin throughout the entire season. On the line, a conglomerate of transfers and veteran Adetomiwa Adebawore will have to hold down the fort, particularly against the run, to which the Wildcats gave up a whopping 213.9 yards per game.

There’s certainly optimism to be had with the secondary, but if the offense and defensive line don’t improve, it’ll be another long season.

14. Indiana

Last Season:

  • 2-10 (0-9 Big Ten)

After a 2020 season that bred nothing but optimism in Bloomington, Tom Allen’s entire project crumbled. 2021 was downright awful in every aspect of the game.

Problems started at quarterback. Whether it was Michael Penix Jr., Donovan McCulley or Jack Tuttle, the men under center simply didn’t produce. While Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak might be better than last season’s options, his lack of mobility and penchant for turnovers mean he won’t be enough of an upgrade to start generating many touchdowns for Indiana. At receiver and running back, there is equally little to be excited about, except maybe the transfer of RB Shaun Shivers from Auburn.

The Hoosiers won’t be as bad on defense, but there is still a dearth of talent, especially in a front seven that recently lost leader Micah McFadden. Even with lots of action in the transfer portal, it’s hard to imagine a season where the IU defense performs well. Winning even two conference games will be a victory this season.