The Daily Iowan

Previewing the Big Ten Conference

Daily Iowan Pregame Editor Adam Hensley teamed up with Sports Editor Pete Ruden to compile the DI’s preseason Big Ten football outlook, complete with record predictions, players to watch, and team previews.

Ohio+State+Head+Coach+Urban+Meyer+addresses+the+media+during+Big+Ten+Football+Media+Days+in+Chicago+on+Tuesday%2C+July+24%2C+2018.+%28Nick+Rohlman%2FThe+Daily+Iowan%29
Ohio State Head Coach Urban Meyer addresses the media during Big Ten Football Media Days in Chicago on Tuesday, July 24, 2018. (Nick Rohlman/The Daily Iowan)

Ohio State Head Coach Urban Meyer addresses the media during Big Ten Football Media Days in Chicago on Tuesday, July 24, 2018. (Nick Rohlman/The Daily Iowan)

Nick Rohlman

Nick Rohlman

Ohio State Head Coach Urban Meyer addresses the media during Big Ten Football Media Days in Chicago on Tuesday, July 24, 2018. (Nick Rohlman/The Daily Iowan)

Adam Hensley and Pete Ruden

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With kickoff just a month away, college football is gearing up for another season of rivalries, upsets, and just about any storyline imaginable. Ohio State will try to repeat after winning the conference title, but other teams in the East will be tough in the race to represent the division in Indianapolis. Wisconsin is the early favorite to win the West, having the best offensive line, running back, and defense the conference has to offer.

Big Ten East

1) Ohio State

2017 Record: 12-2

Predicted 2018 Record: 11-1, 9-1

Head Coach: Urban Meyer (seventh season, 73-8)

Player to Watch: Nick Bosa, defensive end

CBS Sports’ Chris Trapasso ranked Bosa as his No. 1 prospect for the 2019 NFL Draft — for good reason. Bosa finished 2017 with 16 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks, 2 passes defended, and 1 forced fumble. Don’t be surprised to see Bosa take home some major hardware when the season finishes.

Season Outlook: There are plenty of questions surrounding Ohio State. No J.T. Barrett, new coordinator pieces, and only returning four starters on defense are issues. But then again, this is Urban Meyer’s show. The Buckeyes will likely turn to Dwayne Haskins at quarterback, and he proved to be a capable signal caller last season, completing 70.2 percent of his passes for 565 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Stat: The Buckeyes averaged 41.1 points per game last season, tied for the league high.

 

2) Penn State

2017 Record: 11-2, 7-2

Predicted 2018 Record: 10-2, 7-2

Head Coach: James Franklin (fifth season, 36-17)

Player to Watch: Miles Sanders, running back

Saquon Barkley is gone, and his 1,271 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns, along with 54 receptions and 632 yards, are not easily replaceable.

Enter Miles Sanders. Sanders racked up 191 yards and 2 touchdowns on 31 carries in 2017, and he will be the go-to guy in the ground game for the Nittany Lions.

Season Outlook: Nittany Lions will certainly be a good team in 2018. Penn State had the second-best scoring offense and defense in the conference last season, and its power on both sides of the ball will likely not change. Trace McSorley was the Big Ten’s best quarterback last season, throwing for a conference-best 3,570 yards and 28 touchdowns. That prowess in the passing game shouldn’t change much, even without the security Barkley provided. The Nittany Lions have two tough games, against Ohio State and Wisconsin, on the docket, but they get to play them in the comfortable confines of Beaver Stadium.

Stat: McSorley racked up the most total yards of offense in the Big Ten with 4,061 — 210 more than Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett.

 

3) Michigan State

2017 Record: 10-3

Predicted 2018 Record: 10-2 (7-2)

Head Coach: Mark Dantonio (12th season, 100-45)

Player to Watch: Brian Lewerke, quarterback

Athleticism combined with one of the conference’s best arms is a recipe for success, and Brian Lewerke is the chef. He flashed the ability to dominate on the field in 2017, throwing for 400 or more yards in back-to-back games. He takes care of the ball, too, throwing merely 7 interceptions in 417 attempts last year.

Season Outlook: The Spartans bounced back incredibly in 2017, just one season removed from finishing an abysmal 3-9. Now, on the heels of a 10-3 campaign, Michigan State’s schedule isn’t too tough this season despite playing in the deadly East Division. Expect Lewerke to have a monster season, and the rest of the offense should follow suit. Defensively, David Dowell anchors a very solid secondary.

Stat: The Spartans gave up 1,239 rushing yards last season, the fewest in the conference.

 

4) Michigan

2017 Record: 8-5, 5-4

Predicted 2018 Record: 9-3, 6-3

Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh (fourth season, 28-11)

Player to Watch: Karan Higdon, running back

Higdon returns after posting 994 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground, as does Chris Evans, who will serve as a serviceable backup after rushing for 685 yards and 6 touchdowns last year. Higdon showed big-play potential against Indiana and Minnesota, gaining 200 yards rushing in each game and scoring 5 touchdowns over the two.

Season Outlook: This is a big year for Harbaugh’s Wolverines. Michigan has had enough average seasons that this one is make-or-break. The running game should be strong with Higdon and Evans returning, but big questions remain at quarterback. Shea Patterson, a transfer from Ole Miss, seems to be in a position to win the starting job, but he hasn’t taken it yet.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Wolverines had a strong secondary that gave up just 150.1 yards a game through the air, the best in the Big Ten. That group didn’t lose anyone, setting it up for success again this season.

Stat: Michigan was the only team in the Big Ten to give up fewer than 2,000 passing yards last season.

 

5) Indiana

2017 Record: 5-7

Predicted 2018 Record: 5-7, 2-7

Head Coach: Tom Allen (third season, 5-8)

Player to Watch: Morgan Ellison, running back

As a true freshman, Ellison appeared in 11 games last season, rushing for 704 yards and scoring 6 touchdowns. He averaged nearly 5 yards per carry, which is nothing to scoff at. Now in his second year under offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, Ellison could be very well fashion a 1,000-yard campaign.

Season Outlook: Indiana showed last season it can hang with any team in the conference, staying with Ohio State in the season-opener (this season, it opens the season on the road against Florida International — a bit of a change). The Hoosiers defense needs work, but it jumped in production last season, especially against the passing game.

Stat: Indiana’s pass defense ranked third in the Big Ten, giving up 2,156 yards last season.

 

6) Maryland

2017 Record: 4-8, 2-7

Predicted 2018 Record: 4-8, 2-7

Head Coach: D.J. Durkin (Third season, 10-15)

Player to Watch: Taivon Jacobs, wide receiver

Jacobs is going to be the go-to guy in the passing game for the Terrapins this season with the departure of D.J. Moore. He recorded 80 receptions and 1,033 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2017, while Jacobs caught 47 passes for 553 yards and 5 touchdowns. Only one other receiver — Jahrvis Davenport — made it over the 100-yard mark (123).

Season Outlook: Maryland had a weird season in 2017, with four quarterbacks seeing time and three going down with injuries. But with a healthy group in 2018, things will certainly be different. It is hard for receivers to build chemistry when someone new is throwing to them every week.

Defensively, the Terrapins gave up 37.1 points a game in 2017, the most in the Big Ten. They couldn’t contain teams, either, giving up 419.4 yards per game. Maryland loses a good chunk of its defense, though, so like its quarterback situation, nothing is guaranteed.

Stat: D.J. Moore recorded more than 53 percent of Maryland’s receiving yards in 2017, leaving plenty of room for Jacobs, Davenport, and D.J. Turner.

 

7) Rutgers

2017 Record: 4-8

Predicted 2018 Record: 4-8, 2-7

Head Coach: Chris Ash (third season, 6-18)

Player to Watch: Raheem Blackshear, running back

Blackshear isn’t a household name, but he might be (at least in the New Jersey area) once he finishes his college career with the Scarlet Knights. He averaged 6.1 yards per carry last season, which is better than Saquon Barkley. Blackshear’s touches didn’t come all too regularly, but the plan changes this season. As a true freshman in 2017, he scored 5 touchdowns — 3 on the ground and 2 in the receiving game.

Season Outlook: Well … it’s Rutgers. Chris Ash’s group will beat a team or two it shouldn’t this season, but overall, Rutgers isn’t in a position to make noise in the conference (being in the Big Ten East doesn’t help at all, either). The Scarlet Knights did win three conference games last season, which is more than Indiana and Maryland had to offer.

Stat: Rutgers gave up 41 touchdowns last season. That’s 13 more than the Scarlet Knights scored on offense.

 

Big Ten West

1) Wisconsin

2017 Record: 13-1

Predicted 2018 Record: 12-0, 9-0

Head Coach: Paul Chryst (fourth season, 34-7)

Player to Watch: Quintez Cephus, wide receiver

Cephus has the potential to really come into his own this season. Last season, he finished second on the Badgers in receiving yards with 501 and led the team in touchdown receptions with 6, but that’s not the crazy part — he missed the team’s final five games after a leg injury cut his season short. If he stays healthy in 2018, he can be a big force for a powerful Wisconsin offense.

Season Outlook: Wisconsin finished 2017 with the best defense in the conference, allowing just 13.9 points per game, and the offense will be even better this season, making it hard for coaches to find any weak points.

Jonathan Taylor is back for another year after leading the Big Ten with 1,977 rushing yards in his freshman season, and he will run behind a veteran offensive line that will allow him to pile up the stats. If Alex Hornibrook can be more consistent and make better decisions (15 interceptions in 2017), the level of production the offense puts out will be hard for any team to match.

Stat: Taylor led the Big Ten with 1,977 rushing yards — 574 yards more than Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, the conference’s next best back.

 

2) Iowa

2017 Record: 8-5

Predicted 2018 Record: 9-3, 6-3

Head Coach: Kirk Ferentz (20th season, 143-97)

Player to Watch: Nate Stanley, quarterback

Stanley inserted his name into Hawkeye history last season, tossing 26 touchdowns in 13 games. That’s 1 TD shy of tying the school record. Oh, and this was all in his first season as a starter. Iowa’s 2018 offense could be potent, but it starts and ends with Stanley. If Stanley plays as he did against Ohio State (226 yards, 5 touchdowns) rather than Wisconsin (8-of-24, 41 yards, 1 interception), Hawkeye fans will be in for a season for the ages.

Season Outlook: It’s a typical Iowa season outlook — the Hawkeyes will have chances to win a game or two they shouldn’t, but there are just as many chances they drop a game they should win (on paper), say on the road against Minnesota, Purdue, or Indiana. Regardless, Iowa’s offense has the potential to be scary. On defense, the linebacking corps is the biggest question. Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann, and Bo Bower all graduated.

Stat: Iowa led the Big Ten with 21 interceptions last season.

 

3) Northwestern

2017 Record: 10-3

Predicted 2018 Record: 7-5, 5-4

Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (13th season, 87-65)

Player to Watch: Jeremy Larkin, running back

Replacing Justin Jackson — Northwestern’s all-time leader in rushing yards and touchdowns — will not be easy, but Larkin is the guy to do it. As the Wildcats’ No. 2 back last year, Larkin racked up 503 yards and 5 touchdowns on 84 carries for an average of 6 yards per carry. He ended the season with his best game of the year in the Music City Bowl, carrying the ball 9 times for 112 yards.

Season Outlook: Northwestern is set to take a step back in 2018. Two of its crossover games are against Michigan and Michigan State. Add in a nonconference game against Notre Dame for a tougher schedule. But with Clayton Thorson, who finished fourth in the conference in passing, at the helm of the offense, along with Larkin, the offense is in good enough hands to guide the Wildcats to a bowl game. Linebacker Paddy Fisher finished fourth in the Big Ten with 113 tackles last year, and he will anchor a middle-of-the-road defense that allowed 20.1 points a game in 2017.

Stat: With Jackson, Northwestern had the fourth-best offense in the conference, gaining 408 yards and 29.2 points per game.

 

4) Purdue

2017 Record: 7-6

Predicted 2018 Record: 7-5, 5-4

Head Coach: Jeff Brohm (second year, 7-6 record)

Player to Watch: Whoever wins the quarterback battle (seriously)

A two-quarterback system shouldn’t be something Brohm revels in this season. David Blough began last season, throwing for 1,103 yards, 9 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. But Elijah Sindelar finished the year as Purdue’s starter, throwing for 2,099 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. Sindelar did all this while playing on a torn ACL in the last few games. There’s a high chance he’s Purdue’s guy in 2018.

Season Outlook: Brohm has a good thing going in Boilermaker territory. While at Western Kentucky, he put the Hilltoppers on the map nationally. Granted, the Big Ten is a much tougher conference than the Sun Belt, but Purdue might mess around and win eight, nine games in 2018. It’s just a matter of figuring out the quarterback situation and tightening a pass defense that allowed the second most yards and touchdowns in the Big Ten.

Stat: Purdue gave up 3,153 yards on pass defense, which is more than nine teams had offensively last season in the Big Ten.

 

5) Minnesota

2017 Record: 5-7, 2-7

Predicted 2018 Record: 6-6, 3-6

Head Coach: P.J. Fleck (Second season, 5-7)

Player to Watch: Thomas Barber, linebacker

Barber ranked third in the Big Ten with 115 tackles in 2017, trailing only Rutgers’ Trevor Morris and Iowa’s Josey Jewell. His mark was first among Gophers by 37. He was also a playmaker on the defensive side of the field, forcing 3 fumbles and picking off a pass.

Season Outlook: Minnesota’s quarterback room is a mess right now. The Gophers are left without a quarterback who has thrown a pass in a Minnesota uniform. Seth Green — a redshirt sophomore — is the longest-tenured quarterback in the room and is the only one who has seen action. Running back Rodney Smith will likely play a key role on the offense with the team’s quarterback problems, and Barber anchors the defense. If the offense can find a way to incorporate the pass, the Gophers have the potential to propel themselves to a bowl game.

Stat: Minnesota had the second-worst passing offence in the conference, racking only 126.1 yards a game.

 

6) Nebraska

2017 Record: 4-8

Predicted 2018 Record: 5-7, 2-7

Head Coach: Scott Frost (first season)

Player to Watch: Stanley Morgan Jr.

Scott Frost’s Central Florida offense last season was explosive to say the least. The offense won’t be as potent in 2018 at Nebraska, but give his system a couple of years to get in place. Last season, Central Florida’s top receiver, Tre’Quan Smith, tallied 1,194 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. Expect similar production from Morgan, who caught 61 passes for 986 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.

Season Outlook: Scott Frost has already been hailed as the best thing to happen to Nebraska since Interstate 80, but realistically, his system will need a few years to get into place (if it ever does in Lincoln). Nebraska needs a quarterback, and the Huskers don’t have anyone comparable with Central Florida’s McKenzie Milton, who threw for 4,037 yards and 37 touchdowns last season. Three of Nebraska’s eight losses in 2017 were within 7 points, so the pieces are there for Frost to work with.

Stat: Nebraska’s pass defense gave up a quarterback-efficiency rating of 138.3 — dead last in the conference in 2017.

 

7) Illinois

2017 Record: 2-10, 0-9

Predicted 2018 Record: 2-10, 0-9

Head Coach: Lovie Smith (Third season, 5-19)

Player to Watch: Mike Dudek, wide receiver

Dudek exploded on the scene in his freshman season in 2014, catching 69 passes for 965 yards and 6 touchdowns, breaking the program record for receiving yards by a freshman set by Arrelious Benn. Since then, Dudek has torn his ACL twice, missing two seasons. Last season, he recorded 24 receptions for 262 yards and a touchdown before being forced to miss five of the team’s final six games.

Season Outlook: Dudek’s return will certainly give Illinois’ passing game a boost this year, but one player can’t change everything. The Illini possessed the second-worst offense and third-worst defense in the Big Ten last year.

But now in Lovie Smith’s third season, he is starting to get some of his own recruits into his program and may be entering a new phase of coaching. The Illini seem to be making progress in a lot of areas, but the quarterback position is in flux. Finding someone who can throw the ball and move the chains will be important for Smith and new offensive coordinator Rod Smith if they want to take a step forward.

Stat: The Illini offensive line gave up 42 sacks in 2017, an average of 3.5 a game. That mark was the most in the conference.

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