The Big Ten still doesn’t get a lot of love despite winning the National Championship last season. Ohio St. is the number one team in the preseason AP pool, and Michigan St. is a top 10 team as well. Wisconsin is the only other top 25 team, which means that there is not a lot of depth. On top of that there are a lot of new coaches in the league as well. But improvements from Penn St. and Michigan could make a big difference in the overall conference perception.
My prediction order has hardly changed at all from last season, and perhaps I was just a year early. Ohio St. was way better than expected last year, and should be better this year. If they avoid injuries, or more suspensions they will be hard to beat. They get Michigan St. and Penn St. at home which is a huge advantage. They avoid three of the top four teams from the West and get the 4th (Minnesota) at home. Michigan St. should be a strong second place, but they do have to go to Nebraska, so that is enough to make them an easy choice at #2. But they will be very good and could be a top 10 team until late in the season.
Penn St. was a mess last year, but a lot has changed. James Franklin is going into year two, and Christian Hackenberg is going to be a third year starter, who can’t possibly be as bad as last season. Everything about this team should be better this year, but their schedule does them no favors. They go on the road to both Ohio St. and Michigan St., but at least they luck out with the two Illinois schools in crossover. Michigan has a new coach, and he is getting a lot of hype already. This team has recruited well over the last couple of years, so it is possible they go on a big run, but I suspect there will be some breaking in time needed. Their non-conference schedule could beat them up, and they have to go to Penn St. the week before The Game. Not an easy path. Indiana couldn’t get anything at quarterback last season, and they could finish anywhere in the bottom three. Coach Kevin Wilson’s seat could be a little hot soon. Maryland had their moments last season, but they lost some key players. They could also finish pretty much anywhere in the bottom three. Rutgers has an impossible schedule that includes Nebraska and at Wisconsin as crossover games, so they will be lucky to not finish last.
The imbalance amongst the divisions is as staggering as ever. Wisconsin is the the clear favorite at the top, but they have a new head coach, and lost star RB Melvin Gordon. They have a nice replacement in Cory Clement, but there could be some growing pains in year one of the Paul Chryst era. They also have to play on the road at Nebraska and Minnesota, although their crossover games should be easy wins. Nebraska makes sense as the second place team, but they also are looking at a new head coach. They could finish 6–2 or 2–6 in the Big Ten and it wouldn’t surprise me. Iowa’s schedule makes them the third place choice, but they do have to go on the road to both Wisconsin and Nebraska. But they get Indiana and Maryland as crossovers which is just too good to overlook. Meanwhile Minnesota is the team I wanted to pick for third, but having to play Michigan and at Ohio St. in consecutive weeks is a tall task. They go get division big guns Wisconsin and Nebraska at home though.
Things drop off hard after that. Purdue might be better, but they have a murder’s row to open conference season (@MSU, MIN, @WIS) and might not survive that. If they win one of those 5th place should be no problem. Otherwise Northwestern probably takes it. They get Purdue at home, which could be the tiebreaker. Illinois fired their coach the week before the season, and they were going to be bad anyway. Their crossover games are Ohio St. and Penn St., and it’s really possible they could go 0–8.
Offensive Player of the Year
My predictions for last season in this category weren’t that bad. Ohio St. QB JT Barrett was soooo good last year before he got hurt. People forget how good he was, and he didn’t miss the entire season. As long as he doesn’t get hurt this should be his award to lose. Michigan St. QB Conor Cook seems like a safe backup plan. He was very good last year, and should be getting a lot more attention this season as his draft stock rises.
Penn St. QB Christian Hackenberg is probably the top of tier two. If he improves like people think he can/will, he could be the #1 pick in the NFL draft. Wisconsin will always have a RB in the race and this year Corey Clement will be in the discussion at some point. He might just have to many guys to climb over, but Wisconsin’s softer schedule could make a big difference. Ohio St. RB Ezekiel Elliot finished last season strong and probably rounds out the group of serious contenders. He might be battling his own QB(s) for hype though.
It is really hard to find a darkhorse outside of these five guys, so let’s get super crazy. Let’s say Ohio St. WR Braxton Miller as kind of a “career achievement award”. He could end up being a monster as an all-purpose guy.
As always, it’s hard teams in these categories because every team has someone who thinks they are really good/bad. Michigan got two points in the AP poll, which seems a little crazy. Most people have them in the middle of the Big Ten though. Maybe the Minnesota hype is too much (keep this in mind).
After Iowa let me down in this category last season I can’t pick them here again, but the bottom of the conference is so bad. Maybe Purdue though. A lot of people have them at the very bottom, but I think Illinois and Northwestern could finish behind them.
Coach On the Hottest Seat
As usual, start with the guys completely safe: Dantonio, Meyer, Harbaugh, Franklin, Chryst, Riley, Kill.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman didn’t even last one game. The interim coach there might be long for the job, but that doesn’t really count.
Kevin Wilson took a big step back last season, and has now lost star RB Tevin Coleman to the NFL. This is year five, and the pressure has to be mounting. Four wins in conference probably saves him, anything less and that might be it. Kyle Flood starts year four, and last year wasn’t that bad. They went 3–5 in their first year in the Big Ten, but 8–5 overall. A repeat of that surely saves his job, but he might have a little wiggle room.
Kirk Ferentz is still the longest tenured coach in the Big Ten by a lot. He has been rumored to be on the hot seat before. Iowa slipped back to 4–4 in the Big Ten and lost their bowl game again. They haven’t won one since 2010. At this point you would think he either needs a trainwreck of a season or fail to meet expectations much higher than he has this season.
Randy Edsall was fine in year four at Maryland, and would probably need to backslide badly to get canned. They went 4–4 in the Big Ten (in the tougher division) and 7–6 overall (7–5 in the regular season).
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald seemed like a lifer, but he has struggled a bit the last two seasons after a 10-win campaign in 2012. He is beloved by the school, but he has 4 conference wins total the last two seasons. He probably doesn’t get fired this year, but a bad season will definitely put him on the hot seat next season. Meanwhile at Purdue, Darrell Hazell has found it very hard to win. He is 1–15 in the conference in his two seasons, and as silly as it seems to fire a coach after three years, he has to at least improve upon his record to hang around.
Big Ten Champion
It’s pretty hard to pick anyone but Ohio St. here. They really should be better than last season. Their road games are Michigan, Rutgers, Indiana and Illinois. They could go 8–0. Michigan St. could be right there but their schedule isn’t as friendly. I want to go all in on Minnesota as my dark horse. They have a tough schedule, but it things break right they could at least get to the championship game, and then anything is possible.