clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Big Ten Football Power Rankings, Preseason Edition

There’s a three-headed monster... and then everybody else.

Syndication: Arizona Republic Joe Rondone / USA TODAY NETWORK

College football is back. It’s been a long six and a half months, but the wait is finally over. Week One of the 2023-24 season is just around the corner, and it’s going to be a season of lasts around the sport. It’s the last year the Big Ten is using the two-division format, and the last year before teams from the other side of the Rocky Mountains join the conference. The author is going to try and appreciate every week of this season for what it brings, because while this sport is flawed, it’s still college football, and there are few things better than that.

On to the conference itself. Last year, the Big Ten joined the SEC as the only conference to ever put two teams in the College Football Playoff in the same year, when Michigan and Ohio State both made it. There’s a chance the conference could do it again this year, but after the three teams at the top, the Big Ten does not have a whole lot of national contenders available. The East will be a bloodbath, with three top-10 teams nationally vying for the title, while the West will be a different sort of bloodbath, with every “contender” dealing with major question marks. Without further ado, let’s dive into the power rankings, and see if we can answer some of those aforementioned questions.

1. Michigan

Last Year: 13-1 (9-0 B1G), Big Ten Champions, CFP Semifinalist

Next Game: vs. East Carolina

Biggest Game: vs. Ohio State, Week 13

The Wolverines have the best backfield in this conference. And given that this conference contains (among other names) TreVeyon Henderson, Braelon Allen, Nicholas Singleton and Miyan Williams, that is a bold claim to make. But it deserves to be made. Blake Corum (1,463 yards, 18 TD last year in 11 full games) is going to be a legitimate Heisman candidate, Donovan Edwards (991 yards, seven TD last year) would be the best running back on about 10 teams in this conference, and J.J, McCarthy ran for 306 yards last year as a quarterback.

The defense is also going to be stacked. Kris Jenkins and Mason Graham return to a defensive line that allowed just 98 rushing yards per game last season (seventh-best in the country), and Will Johnson, Rod Moore, and Mike Sainristil all return to boost a secondary that was very young last year. This team probably won’t even be tested until Week 11 when it travels to face Penn State, but by then, both the offense and defense will be in full form. Don’t be shocked if Michigan returns to the College Football Playoff for a third consecutive year.

2. Penn State

Last Year: 11-2 (7-2 B1G), Rose Bowl Champions

Next Game: vs. West Virginia

Biggest Game: vs. Michigan, Week 11

How good is Drew Allar going to be? One of the best quarterbacks in the Class of 2022, Allar saw action in 10 games last year, going 35-for-60 with 344 yards and four touchdowns. Penn State has had a basically unbroken string of solid quarterback play for almost a decade, with Trace McSorley and Sean Clifford combining for a record of 63-23 during their time at the school. If Allar can exceed their level of production (which is a real possibility), then he might be able to do what they could not, and take Penn State to the Playoff.

It won’t be all on Allar, of course. Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen became the first pair of freshmen to rush for 700 or more yards as teammates in Big Ten history last year, and they certainly didn’t get any worse in the offseason. Defending All-American cornerback Kalen King leads a stingy defense that averaged two forced turnovers a game last year, and defensive end Chop Robinson could make quarterbacks’ lives miserable this year. The Nittany Lions have to travel to Ohio State, but draw Michigan at home. If they can just split those games, than a Big Ten conference title (and potentially a whole lot more) might just be in the cards,

3. Ohio State

Last Year: 11-2 (8-1 B1G), CFP Semifinalist

Next Game: at Indiana

Biggest Game: vs. Penn State, Week 8

Can Kyle McCord be the next A.J. McCarron? It might sound like a convoluted comparison, but think about it. McCarron sat for a year at Alabama, became a full-time starter in his third season at the school as a redshirt sophomore, and proceeded to go 36-4 and win consecutive national championships. McCord is in his third year at Ohio State, has seen bits and pieces of action the last two years, and joins a loaded offense. Whether or not McCord can earn the job (backup Devin Brown will receive time against Indiana) remains to be seen.

It’s almost a shame the question mark at quarterback is so big, because this offense is loaded. The last five Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year winners have all been Buckeye quarterbacks, but this year, another position player may take that award. Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming will all probably be first-round draft picks at wide receiver as soon as they leave college, and don’t forget about TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams in the backfield. Oh yeah, Tommy Eichenberg and JT Tuimoloau are back on defense. If the question mark at QB disappears, this is the year for Ohio State to get back on top in the Big Ten.

4. Wisconsin

Last Year: 7-6 (4-5 B!G), Guaranteed Rate Bowl Champions

Next Game: vs. Buffalo

Biggest Game: at Illinois, Week 8

The Badgers are taking “new year, new me” incredibly seriously. After firing head coach Paul Chryst (who compiled a 67-26 record along with three division titles at the school) in October of his eighth season, Wisconsin went in a completely different direction for his replacement. Luke Fickell, one of the hottest names on the coaching market, chose Wisconsin after a spectacular 57-18 tenure at Cincinnati that saw the school compile three seasons of 11 or more wins and a College Football Playoff berth.

However, Fickell didn’t get those wins by playing Wisconsin-style football. His offense is far more passing-based, and SMU transfer Tanner Mordecai will be the guy to pilot his offense this year. Wisconsin's receiving corps is nowhere near the level of Ohio State’s, but Chimere Dike is a very good receiver, and both Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi could be good dump-off options out of the backfield. The defense is still going to be your typical Wisconsin defense: very good, very physical, very tough to score on. But if the offense can take a jump from last year’s 26.3 points per game, then the Badgers could very easily win their seventh (and final) Big Ten division title.

5. Iowa

Last Year: 8-5 (5-4 B1G), Music City Bowl Champions

Next Game: vs. Utah State

Biggest Game: at Wisconsin, Week 7

Speaking of offensive improvement...

The Hawkeyes offense was anemic last year, there’s simply no other way to put it. It averaged 17.7 points per game, which was a bottom-10 mark in the country, and four of its five losses came without giving up 28 points. Iowa had arguably the best defense in the nation last year, but the end result was 8-5 because the offense was one of college football’s worst.

Maybe this year will be different. Cade McNamara is here from Michigan, and in 2021, he did lead the Wolverines to the CFP, a run that included a win over Iowa. The secondary is still going to be dominant thanks to Cooper DeJean and Quinn Schulte, and the Hawkeyes boast what’s probably the best special teams unit in the Big Ten. If the offense can get out of its own way long enough to consistently score 21 or more, then the Hawkeyes could very easily put together a division title run.

6. Maryland

Last Year: 8-5 (4-5 B1G), Mayo Bowl Champions

Next Game: vs. Towson

Biggest Game: vs. Illinois, Week 7

Can the Terrapins put together three straight winning seasons for the first time since 2003? The Big Ten schedule-makers seem determined to prevent that. Maryland has to travel to Michigan State, Ohio State and Nebraska, and welcomes both Penn State and Michigan to the friendly confines of College Park. At most, Maryland will be favored in one of those games, and all of them are going to be tricky (if not impossible) to deal with and come out with a victory. So how can Mike Locksley’s Terrapins get back to bowl play?

Simple: it’s Taulia time. Taulia Tagovailoa (younger brother of Tua) has become a legitimate star, and after a Second-Team All-Big Ten season last year, he’s looking for more in his senior season. While the Big Ten generally can count on strong quarterback play from a number of teams, it’s pretty thin on the ground this year. There's an argument to be made that Tagovailoa is the best QB in the conference this year, and if running back Roman Hemby and a sneaky good defense continue to make leaps, Maryland could put a real scare into the Big Ten’s big dogs this season.

7. Minnesota

Last Year: 9-4 (5-4 B1G), Bad Boy Mowers Pinstripe Bowl Champions

Next Game: vs. Nebraska

Biggest Game: at Iowa, Week 8

Here’s a fun fact for you: despite a 44-27 record, Minnesota has never made the Big Ten title game under P.J. Fleck. In fact, the Golden Gophers haven’t even split a conference title since 1967. That streak probably won’t be broken this year, given that Minnesota welcomes Michigan and Wisconsin, but also travels to North Carolina, Iowa and Ohio State. While Athan Kaliakmanis did earn five starts last year, that was a short runway for what will probably be a season filled with losable games week in and week out.

Further complicating matters is the production the Golden Gophers lost in the offseason. They return slightly under 60% of their production, but among the departed players are superstar running back Mohamed Ibrahim, stalwart center John Michael Schmitz, quarterback Tanner Morgan and leading tackler Mariano Sori-Marin. The receiving corps should be really good thanks to Brevyn Spann-Ford and Chris Autmann-Bell, and the defense (especially the secondary) is still plenty experienced, but if Kaliakmanis doesn’t have the ability to take over games, then a regression from 9-4 seems imminent.

8. Illinois

Last Year: 8-5 (5-4 B1G), Reliaquest Bowl appearance

Next Game: vs. Toledo

Biggest Game: at Minnesota, Week 10

We've been talking a lot the last few teams about hard schedules. It’s time for a break from that. Illinois avoids Ohio State AND Michigan, and it gets both Penn State and Wisconsin at home. It’s the third-easiest schedule in the Big Ten West, and it’s a big reason why Illinois could contend for the division. Another reason is its defense, which was second in the nation last year in yardage allowed per game. Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph Jr. are both back on the defensive line, and the team led the nation in turnovers forced last year with an astonishing 32.

As for the offense... well, let's just say Iowa wasn’t the only defensive juggernaut that struggled to score points last year. Isaiah Williams is one of the best-kept secrets in the Big Ten (PFF has him on its All-Big Ten First Team, along with two Ohio State receivers), but other than him, it’s pretty slim pickings. Tommy DeVito and Chase Brown have departed, leaving transfer Luke Altmeyer and Brown’s backup Reggie Love III to pick up the pieces. If they can, another eight-win season might be in the cards.

9. Purdue

Last Year: 8-6 (6-3 B1G), Big Ten West Champions, Citrus Bowl participants

Next Game: vs. Fresno State

Biggest Game: at Nebraska, Week 9

Speaking of the Illinois defense, some of its mojo just may have migrated to West Lafayette. New head coach Ryan Walters (at 37, the eighth-youngest FBS coach) was the defensive coordinator for the Illini, and took them from the 97th-ranked scoring defense the year before he got there to the top scoring defense in the country last season. Considering Purdue’s tendency to lose a lot of shootouts, hiring a guy who coordinated a defense that gave up just 12.3 points per game last year is probably a good idea.

On offense, Texas transfer Hudson Card will have his work cut out for him. Devin Mockobee is back at running back, but leading receiver Charlie Jones departed after a sixth season of college football. The schedule is also not very kind to the Boilermakers, with 10 of their games coming against top-50 defenses. Their offense is solid, but if they want to get back to above .500, solid isn’t going to cut it. The offense needs to be great.

10. Nebraska

Last Year: 4-8 (3-6 B1G)

Next Game: at Minnesota

Biggest Game: at Illinois, Week 6

The Matt Rhule era is officially here, and Nebraska fans are... trying not to feel too hopeful. After the hometown hero hire of Scott Frost flamed out spectacularly, the Cornhuskers decided they needed a coach who was, well, not Scott Frost. Enter Rhule, who’s previously shown his coaching acumen by turning around Temple and Baylor. He’s provided a jolt to this program, but coaches can’t really impact what goes on once the ball is snapped.

Luckily for Rhule, he’s got a pretty solid bunch of players. Unlike in years past, this team has an edge to it, exemplified by the defense. John Bullock, a former walk-on who earned a scholarship in the summer and will receive time at linebacker after only playing on special teams the last two years, has earned a Blackshirt, traditionally signifying that a player is a defensive starter. He also earned a single-digit jersey, a tradition Rhule brought to the school that denotes the toughest players on the team. Bullock is the personification of this team’s mentality. The Cornhuskers may have less talent than in previous years, but they’ll definitely have more bite. Time will tell whether that results in wins.

11. Michigan State

Last Year: 5-7 (3-6 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Central Michigan

Biggest Game: vs. Maryland, Week 4

Last year was definitely not ideal for the Spartans, who slumped to 5-7 after an 11-2 2021. Six of the seven losses came by double digits, suggesting that the team simply wasn’t good. To make matters worse, starters Payton Thorne, Keon Coleman and Elijah Collins all left in the transfer portal. The offense might be able to bounce back, depending on how well junior Noah Kim handles starting at quarterback, but the real issue was the defense.

On the defensive side of the ball, Michigan State wasn’t spartan at all. It gave up over 416 yards per game, ahead of only Indiana in the Big Ten and good enough for a bottom-30 mark in the nation. That should be helped by transfers like Tunmise Adeleye and Semar Melvin, but the key is for the returnees to take a step forward. Jacoby Windmon was really good last year before getting hurt, and Cal Haladay earned second-team All-Big Ten last year. If it can take another leap forward (and if the secondary can grow up), Michigan State could get itself back over .500 this year.

12. Indiana

Last Year: 4-8 (2-7 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Ohio State

Biggest Game: vs. Michigan State, Week 12

Someone please tell Tom Allen that keeping his starting kicker close to the vest isn’t going to get this team to a bowl game. Indiana has to deal with Ohio State, Maryland (on the road), Michigan (on the road), Penn State (on the road), Wisconsin and Illinois (on the road). That is five of the top six schools on this list, and whether it’s Tayven Jackson or Brendan Sorsby under center for the Hoosiers, they’re probably losing all five of those games handily.

On the bright side, Jaylin Lucas might be the best return man in the country, as evidenced by his 591 yards and two touchdowns in the kick return game. Cam Camper totaled 569 receiving yards last year despite tearing his ACL in his seventh game, and he’s back and healthy this year. However, two dynamic playmakers are not enough to save a team, especially one that will only be favored in three contests this year.

13. Rutgers

Last Year: 4-8 (1-8 B1G)

Next Game: vs. Northwestern

Biggest Game: at Indiana, Week 8

Good luck this year, Scarlet Knights. This team will be favored in one game after Week 3, and that game is against FCS school Wagner. Aaron Lewis was honorable-mention All-Big Ten last year, but he is literally the only Rutgers player that made PFF’s All-Big Ten preseason teams this year. Gavin Wimsatt is back at quarterback after six starts last season, but he completed just 45% of his passes and threw more touchdowns than interceptions.

Rutgers was one of the five worst teams in the country at getting first downs last year — it finished with 178 for the season, just over half of what FBS leader Washington got. That, of course, led to some anemic scoring, with a mark of 17.4 points per game even worse than Iowa’s output last season. And unlike Iowa, Rutgers didn’t put forth a great defense, giving up 29.3 points per game. It’s likely going to be a ninth straight losing season for the Scarlet Knights, but it could be worse.

14. Northwestern

Last Year: 1-11 (1-8 B1G)

Next Game: at Rutgers

Biggest Game: vs. Maryland, Week 9

I don’t think there’s any argument that these past 12 months have been some of the worst in Northwestern history. This site and several other publications have already delved deeply into what’s happened over that timeline, so I’m going to focus on the next three months instead. For the positives: Coco Azema will be one of the best safeties in the Big Ten, especially if he can stay healthy. Bryce Gallagher will once again be high up the leaderboards for tackles and will probably crack the century mark again. The defense as a whole has become a little underrated, and could definitely throw a scare into some teams this year.

As for the other stuff: Cam Porter is probably going to be the lead back, and should fill Evan Hull’s shoes nicely. Michigan transfer A.J. Henning is going to make a big impact at wide receiver, and Bryce Kirtz and Thomas Gordon provide some continuity in catching the ball. But it probably won’t change too much for an offense that couldn’t crack the top 90 nationally in either passing or rushing yardage last year. Whether Ben Bryant or Brendan Sullivan becomes the guy at quarterback, they’ll be dealing with a lot of tough tasks, especially once Big Ten play really kicks off. As long as the Wildcats don’t go winless, things can only go up from here.