As of today, we are less than a week away from seeing actual college football action. Even if the games this Saturday aren’t Power 5 teams it will still be fun for us football fanatics to finally get to watch some games that count.
Last week we started our college football season preview in the heart of the south by previewing the SEC. We took a look at teams like Auburn, South Carolina, and Mississippi St. Afterwards, we took a trip up the East Coast to take a look at sleepers and more from what the ACC has to offer, with teams like Florida St, Boston College, and Georgia Tech.
Continuing our journey across the nation’s Power 5 conferences we find ourselves in the Midwest. The past 4 seasons have seen champions from the SEC, ACC, and BIG 10. Today we look at the conference which won the 1st College Football Playoff, the Big 10.
Ohio State won the first ever CFP and have been looking to get back ever since. The Buckeyes enter the 2018 season as the odds on favorite to win the conference (+175) and the 3rd best odds to win the CFP (+850). Anyone who’s been following Ohio State knows Urban Meyer and his system produce NFL-caliber athletes making his teams a hard out every year. Similar to Alabama, Ohio State has seen 31 players drafted to the NFL since 2015, including 7 players drafted from last season’s team. Leaning heavily on new faces, this Ohio State team might be in for a unique challenge as Urban Meyer and the University have to deal with off the field issues stemming from Zach Smith’s time under Meyer. If Meyer receives a suspension and is able to retain his job then the Buckeyes will be fine later in the season. If Meyer loses his job it will be a tremendous blow to a program consistently in the title hunt. Notable Games: vs TCU, @Penn St., @Mich St, vs Michigan
Coming in with the second highest odds to win the conference (+270), Wisconsin looks to pound the rock on the way to a National Championship this season. Losing Quintez Cephus for an undetermined amount of time will hurt the Badgers if he misses the entire season, but the national attention will be on returning 1900+ yard rusher and potential Heisman Candidate Jonathon Taylor. The Badgers also return one of the best interior linebacker duos in the country with Ryan Connelly and T.J. Edwards. The two middle linebackers combined for 169 TOT, 22 TFL, 6 Sacks, and 5 INTs in 2017. They’ll be the glue that keeps the defense together as the Badgers look to see a lot of new faces on a defense that finished 2nd in the nation in Total Defense. Notable Games: vs BYU, @Iowa, @NW, @Michigan, @Penn St.
Michigan is the team that has yet to fulfill its destiny since bringing in Jim Harbaugh to resuscitate the program. They were extremely close 2 years ago but without a quality starting QB last year the defense was only able to take them so far. The Wolverines return 17 starters from last years team and with new QB Shea Patterson adding an element of escapability to the position, this could end up being one of the best Wolverine teams in some time. Unlike Wisconsin, Michigan returns almost their entire starting 11 (9) from a defense that finished 3rd in the NCAA in 2017. They return 4 of the top 5 sack leaders and leading tacklers from last year. Their defense will be one of the best again and their title chances will rest on the shoulders of whoever is quarterbacking the offense. Notable Games: @ND, vs Wisconsin, @Mich St., vs Penn St., @Ohio St.
Michigan State brings back the most starters in the Big 10 with 19 and looks to improve on yet another 10 win season. I know what some of you are thinking, How can the 11th ranked team who has won 10+ games 3 of the last 4 seasons be a sleeper? My answer is simple, people are still sleeping on them. Even the odds makers are sleeping on them with the 5th best odds to win the conference (+800) and 4th best odds to win their division (+500). Maybe their outlook is more a determination for how strong the Big 10 is this year and more particularly their division, or maybe it has something to do with being outscored by a combined 65 points in games against Notre Dame and Ohio State. Either way you want to look at it, the Spartans have beaten Michigan 4 out the last 5 times and with uncertainty at Ohio State the Spartans could be in for another strong season under Mark Dantonio. Notable Games: @Arizona St, @Penn St, vs Michigan, vs Ohio St, @Nebraska
Iowa is the prototypical sleeper team. Rarely are they ever favorites to win their division or conference and yet every now and then they are right up there in contention for a major bowl game. Last season was odd for the Hawkeyes as they lost three 1 score games and also gave Ohio State a death-blow in their CFP hopes by throttling them 55-24. Iowa will have to find a way to remedy losing your best DB’s in back to back seasons in Desmond King and Josh Jackson along with losing their best defensive player in Josey Jewell. It won’t be an easy season for the Hawkeyes but their schedule lines up nicely if they can manage to take care of business. They miss Michigan, Michigan St, and Ohio State in crossover games and get Wisconsin and Nebraska at home. The schedule says sleeper all day but they’ll have their work cut out for them if they want to do something special. Notable Game: vs Iowa St, vs Wisconsin, @Minnesota, @Penn St, @Purdue, vs Nebraska
Northwestern has quietly had a really good run under head coach Pat Fitzgerald. He’s 87-65 during his time with the Wildcats, posting three 10 win seasons, including winning 10 games in 2017. NW returns 14 starters including senior QB Clayton Thorson who looks to lead a rather experienced team to another 10 (if not more) wins this year. Their main competition in the West is Wisconsin who they’ve split 2-2 the past 4 seasons. They have a pair of gauntlets this year as they play Michigan, Michigan St, and Nebraska in consecutive weeks followed by consecutive games against Wisconsin, Notre Dame, and Iowa 3 weeks later. The road will be difficult but I’m not going to be sleeping on them if they do some damage this year. Notable Games: @Purdue, vs Mich, @Mich St, vs Neb, vs Wisconsin, vs ND, @Iowa
Other Keys to the 2018 BIG 10 Season:
Nobody is really sleeping on Nebraska and they also aren’t a favorite to win anything substantial. After winning a championship at UCF, Scott Frost brings his coordinators and optimism to Lincoln where he’ll try to make Nebraska nationally relevant again. The Cornhuskers return 15 starters, 7 on offense and 8 on defense. The main question is how will the young QBs fair in the new system? They return the top 2 WR in Stanley Morgan Jr and JD Speilman who combined for over 1800 yards and 12 touchdowns. However, with a new QB and new running backs, it’ll be Frost’s offense that will have to shine this season. At least they should be fun to watch.
I’m not high on Penn State this year. Trace McSorley will have to carry the load on offense after the departures of Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki, DeaSean Hamilton, and Offensive Coordinator Joe Moorhead. That’s just too much for me to be thrilled about when looking at the Nittany Lions chances at making a run this year. Unless McSorley becomes the top QB in the NFL draft next year, I look for them to take a small step back this season.
Purdue might be the sexy pick to do some damage this season and Jeff Brohm might just be the guy to turn the Boilermakers program around. However, their schedule looks a lot like Northwestern’s gauntlet minus the recent history of success. Since I favor Northwestern over Purdue in the opener I give the edge to the Wildcats as a sleeper while looking at Purdue to build on the success of last year and make consecutive bowl games for the first time since 2011-12.
Lastly, I just want to see Lovie Smith succeed. Illinois hasn’t won a bowl game since Ron Zook was fired in 2011 and have only been back once in 2014. Lovie has gone 3-9 and 2-10 the past 2 seasons. I would love to see him get into bowl contention this year however improving to 4 wins would be a drastic turn around at this point. At least they don’t play Michigan, Ohio State, or Michigan State this year.
The BIG 10 East Division looks to be a treacherous journey for whoever comes out by seasons end, yet, the eventual champion could be sitting in the West. With 5 teams ranked in the preseason top 14, excitement for the conference has never been greater. After being shutout of the College Football Playoff last year, the BIG 10 looks poised to make a return trip back and have every chance to claim a 2nd College Football Playoff Championship.
As usual, May the best team win.
***Wikipedia was used for team history and coaches history
******Sports-reference.com was used for all player statistics
*******Odds were provided through Bovada.com