The Big Ten is in not in great shape. They haven’t placed a team in the National Championship game since 2007, the longest drought among the power five, and they haven’t won a National Championship since 2002, also the longest drought unless you truly believe in “vacated” titles. Losing QB Braxton Miller might not turn Ohio St. into a bad team, but they probably took away the Big Ten’s hopes of winning a National Championship this season unless Michigan St. is much better than they seem.
It’s possible that the conference is a little deeper than in the last few years, but even the teams at the top are probably second tier teams nationally at this point. But that is irrelevant to this conversation, since the focus is just what will happen within the conference. Without further adieu…
On paper, this should be the stronger of the two, thanks to a stronger backend (Indiana and Maryland) than the West (Minnesota and Illinois). The two best teams in the conference (Ohio St. and Michigan St.) sit atop this division, and barring something crazy will likely produce the winner of the division from their head to head matchup. Remarkably, Ohio St. misses the top four teams in the West (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern), and Michigan St. misses three (they do play Nebraska, but in East Lansing). This sets them up for very similar runs and Michigan St. gets the nod at #1 for three reasons, Miller being hurt, getting OSU at home, and getting them after a bye week.
Michigan could up anywhere from 3rd to 6th, and despite having one of (the most?) experienced QBs in the league, they have too many questions at too many places to be a lock. Penn St. QB Christian Hackenberg might be the best QB in the conference by year’s end, but he loses his security blanket WR Allen Robinson, and PSU’s lines on both sides of the ball have some questions. New coach James Franklin could get his team to third place though, thanks to some easier crossover games, and bye weeks before both Michigan and Ohio St. Indiana is probably the mystery team of the East. Every year they seem to have expectations that this is finally the year Kevin Wilson makes them a real team. It seems hard to see their offense not being amazing, but like the last few years it remains to be seen whether they can stop anyone. Maryland and Rutgers are kind of unknown. Maryland WR Stephon Diggs is one of the best in the country, but the caliber of talent both of these schools will see going forward will be very different than before. I expect Maryland to pull out at least one surprise victory.
Although Wisconsin is ranked highest in the AP poll, the separation between the top three here probably isn’t all the significant. Between Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa, if one team emerges from the three-team round robin with two victories, it’s a safe bet that team will win the division. Nebraska is the only one of the three with a crossover game again any of the top four teams from the East, which means the schedules worked out really well for these three teams. Iowa probably has the cushiest schedule of the three, but Wisconsin’s edge in talent might be enough to take them to the division title.
Northwestern is the de facto #4 team in this division, but they have been decimated by players leaving and getting hurt, and it seems less and less likely they will be the hunt. They should still finish ahead of Minnesota, who has a tough road schedule, plus Ohio St. Tim Beckman is trying to stay afloat at Illinois, but this program just can’t climb out of the cellar. A brutal road schedule won’t help and them finishing last isn’t crazy. Purdue and Rutgers will have to have the argument of least talent, and while their schedule is a bit easier than Illinois, they probably will still finish last.
Offensive Player of the Year
Braxton Miller’s injury opened this up a bit. RB Melvin Gordon was a beast at running back this year, and could enter the Heisman race if things break right. Wisconsin’s schedule will give him an opportunity to put up huge numbers. He is the guy right now. RB Ameer Abdullah is 1B to Gordon’s 1A, but Nebraska might not be as good. Either way, these two are by far and away the frontrunners.
Maryland WR Stephon Diggs might be the most talented player in the Big Ten, but he needs too much help to thrive, and Maryland might struggle too much in their first season. Penn St. QB Christian Hackenberg might be the best QB in the conference at some point, and because of that he has to be in the conversation as well.
Indiana RB Tevin Coleman is a dark horse. That offense should put up stupid stats and he might be the breakout player in the conference this season.
It’s hard teams in these categories because every team has someone who thinks they are really good/bad. As far as overrated goes, using the AP poll as a measuring stick, Nebraska is rated as the 4th best team in the conference, which might be a little high. Michigan has more problems than people want to admit, and if they play the same as last year but without the same good fortune, they could finish 5th.
On the flip side, Iowa is the 5th or 6th rated team based on the polls, but could easily be the 4th best team at the end of the season. They are due for a big season that they seem to have every few years before slipping back into mediocrity.
Coach On the Hottest Seat
The only coaches completely safe are Dantonio, Meyer, Anderson, Fitzgerald, Franklin, Edsall, Hazell and Kill. Everyone else’s seat is at least a little warm.
Kevin Wilson has improved every year at Indiana, and doesn’t get enough credit for that. The expectations are too high though, and if he can’t get to 4–4 in conference the whispers might get louder. Kyle Flood is only in his third season, and moving to a new conference probably bought him at least a year. But a disastarous season could cause him problems.
For some reason Tim Beckman was in firing rumors after just his second season at Illinois. The expectations are way too high for a program that hasn’t been a powerhouse since…ever. It’s hard to envision more than 2 conference wins, so it’s likely his name will come up again. Kirk Ferentz is the longest tenured coach in the Big Ten by a lot. He has been rumored to be on the hot seat before. But he is coming off his first winning conference season out of the last four, and probably his best since 2009. Even though Iowa isn’t entering the season in the top 25, it seems like there are just enough expectations that a flop could cause a stir.
There are two serious candidates. Runner-up Bo Pellini has 9 wins in each of his six seasons at Nebraska. NINE WINS!!! Kevin Wilson has 10 wins in three years at Indiana. But Pellini has said stupid things, failed to win the division in two of his three Big Ten seasons, and not returned Nebraska to the national prominence they (for some reason) demand. It’s insane to think another 9-win season would get him fired, but if Nebraska fails to at least reach the Big Ten Championship game, who knows.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke probably has the most to fear. His record has continued to go backwards in three seasons. The people in Ann Arbor are restless. There’s a new offensive coordinator in town, so there are surely expectations for results there. Hoke probably needs 8 wins to safely secure a return. It’s crazy to think that Michigan would want to go through a third coaching change in a 10 year stretch, and even crazier to figure who they think could be had that would be a massive improvement.
Big Ten Champion
With Michigan St. and Wisconsin as the winners, it would be a rematch of the 2011 game, and the third appearance for both schools in just the 4th instance of the game. Michigan St.’s offense should be improved, but they lost a lot on defense. Wisconsin has a great running game, and what should be another solid defense. Michigan St. will be the champion, and cement themselves as one of the big powers in the Big Ten going forward.