2017 College Football: Big Ten Conference Preview

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Is the Big Ten Championship Ohio State’s to lose?

The Big Ten was full of excitement last year. The conference champion didn’t get to represent the Big Ten in the playoffs, but rather, the world got to watch an utter disassembling of Ohio State at the hands of Clemson. There was controversy behind the call to put the Buckeyes in the playoffs over the Nittany Lions, though in the end, it was likely the right call. A year later, the Buckeyes are looking as strong as ever, Penn State is on a run for vengeance, and the Khaki Kaptain of Ann Arbor is still on his quest to bring glory back to Michigan.

Let’s take a look at the upcoming season in Big Ten football.

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East Division:

Indiana Hoosiers

Last Season: 6-7 (4-5); 4th in Big Ten East

Post-Season: Lost (24-26) in Foster Farms Bowl vs. Utah

Departures: HC Kevin Wilson, LB Marcus Oliver, RB Devine Redding, OG Dan Feeney

Pressing Concerns: The major question is whether their surprisingly high-powered offense will continue with the departure of Kevin Wilson and the promotion of defensive coordinator Tom Allen. Can the Hoosiers avoid turnovers this season, unlike last year? Indiana more than doubled their turnover numbers from 2015 to 2016. It’s paramount that the offense, led by quarterback Richard Lagow, take care of the football if Indiana hopes to finish with their first winning record since 2007. The running game is in question with a running back by committee being the initial plan for 2017.

Biggest Strengths: Nine starters return on defense, not including linebacker, TJ Simmons, who hopes to recreate his 2015 production following an injured 2016. Led by the linebacking corps and cornerback, Richard Fant, the back seven will prove that Indiana’s Achilles heel is no longer on the defensive side of the ball. They will feature key offensive players, namely two extremely talented receiving targets, Simmie Cobbs and Nick Westbrook. Cobbs and Westbrook provide Lagow with some stability, giving him options in the passing game and taking pressure off RB Mike Majette to follow in the footsteps of Tevin Coleman and Jordan Howard.

Offensive Players to Watch: WR Nick Westbrook, QB Richard Lagow Jr., WR Simmie Cobbs

Defensive Players to Watch: LB TJ Simmons, LB Tegray Scales, CB Richard Fant

Make-or-Break Factor: QB Richard Lagow’s production, more than ever, is vital to the success of this offense; his lack of production for the other team even more so. The offense must take care of the ball. For once, the major pressing concern isn’t their defense. The Hoosiers no longer have to simply outscore their opponent. This is the perfect time for Indiana to prove they belong. Tom Allen is a great fit for these guys and this conference.

Key Games:

  • 10/14 vs. Michigan – Indiana has to open Big Ten play with Ohio State and Penn State, including facing the Buckeyes at home for week one of the season. Starting off 0-3 in conference play is not a recipe for a winning season. Michigan is in a reloading year, this might be one of Indiana’s opportunities to capitalize. And the Hoosiers get a bye week to prepare for the Wolverines’ visit to Bloomington. Last season they played the Wolverines tight on the road. An upset here wouldn’t be as crazy as you think.

2017 Prediction: 7-5 (4-5); 4th in the Big Ten East. If Indiana can pick up just one win in their first six conference games, they are set up to run the table in their final three Big Ten matchups, as well as their out of conference games. If they do that? Hello, winning season.

Maryland Terrapins

Last Season:6-7 (3-6); T-6th in Big Ten East

Post-Season: Lost (30-36) in Quick Lane Bowl vs. Boston College

Departures: CB Will Likely, CB Alvin Hill

Pressing Concerns: The quarterback position. Last season, they couldn’t find a solid starter. But the headliner of their recruiting class is freshman quarterback, Kasim Hill, who figures to be a starter one day. With all the measurables of an ideal QB, hopefully, we all get a chance to see what he can do, but he will likely need a year to sit in order to put his best foot forward. As for other concerns, protecting the freshman in the passing game will be a necessary improvement to complement the effective run game.

Biggest Strengths: Experience. The Terps return a lot of starters on both sides of the ball, including their entire offensive line. And again, just like last year and fortunately for Maryland’s QBs, the Terps should boast a solid rushing attack with 1,000-yard rusher, Ty Johnson, returning. He had six touchdowns and averaged a whopping 9.13 yards per carry. Whoever wins the battle for quarterback, they’ll have an electrifying receiver in D.J. Moore.

Offensive Players to Watch: RB Ty Johnson, WR D.J. Moore

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Jermaine Carter, LB Shane Cockerille

Make-or-Break Factor: Hate to beat a dead turtle, but the Terps improve as the quarterback position improves. If they can get consistent play from their QB, that means their line will have been better in pass protection and their running game will continue to thrive.

Key Games:

  • 11/4 @ Rutgers – On the road in the Bronx, this is a must-win game for the Terps to avoid finishing near the bottom of the Big Ten East. Very few games on Maryland’s schedule have the Terps with the advantage. They can’t drop a game like this one.

2017 Prediction: 3-9 (1-8); 6th in the Big Ten East. Maryland has an unfortunate draw of Big Ten West teams in Minnesota, Northwestern, and Wisconsin. Combine that with a rough Big Ten East and a road game against Texas to open the season, and this year is set up to be disappointing.

Michigan Wolverines

Last Season: 10-3 (7-2); 3rd in Big Ten East

Post-Season: Lost (32-33) in Orange Bowl vs. Florida State

Departures: LB Jabrill Peppers, DE Taco Charlton, TE Jake Butt, CB Jourdan Lewis, RB De’Veon Smith

Pressing Concerns: Is it rebuild or reload this season? The lack of experience sums up the encompassing concern for Michigan. The Wolverines have to replace 11 of their top 13 leading tacklers on defense. Can Jim Harbaugh’s recruits on both sides of the ball step up and put Michigan ahead of schedule and keep the success rolling?

Biggest Strengths: If there’s one position you want experience at, it’s quarterback. And Michigan has that in junior QB Wilton Speight. The difference is, this season, the Wolverines will rely heavily on Speight, and there is no room for error like in last season’s losses to Ohio State and Iowa. Last season, Michigan’s attack was balanced, with almost identical rushing versus passing production per game. It seems likely they may trust their leader passing the ball a little more this season, especially with an inexperienced defense. Chris Evans is due for a breakout year as the lead back.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Wilton Speight, FB Khalid Hill, RB Chris Evans

Defensive Players to Watch: DT Maurice Hurst, DE Rashan Gary, LB Mike McCray

Make-or-Break Factor: The play of the secondary will provide an indication of the team’s success. The defensive front looks to reload and continue their success against the run. But with all of the playmakers gone in the secondary, the Wolverines will need their recruits to help gather takeaways. Lucky for them, they play very few teams this year that excel at passing the football.

Key Games:

  • 9/2 vs. Florida (Arlington, TX) – A win in week one against a SEC foe could help soften the blow of a loss in conference play for Michigan. It would also set the Wolverines up for a hot start to the season heading into their matchup against Penn State.
  • 10/21 @ Penn State – Penn State figures to be one of the best teams in the country and a key contender for the Big Ten East. A win in Happy Valley could mean big things for the season, and finally help put the Wolverines in the driver’s seat for a Big Ten Championship berth.
  • 11/25vs Ohio State – The Game. This is set up for the talent to favor the Buckeyes. But Michigan gets its home crowd in a rivalry game, maybe even as underdogs, just where they want the scarlet and gray.

2017 Prediction: 10-2 (7-2); 3rd in the Big Ten East. Michigan likely comes up short against the top two teams in the Big Ten East. Harbaugh has loaded Ann Arbor with talent and is firmly in the driver’s seat as his third year gets underway. Sometimes though, these transitions lead to rough starts as the exodus of leaders and abundance of youth will prove to be their downfall against more experienced teams in their division.

Michigan State Spartans

Last Season: 3-9 (1-8); 6th in Big Ten East

Post-Season: Did Not Qualify

Departures: DT Malik McDowell, S Montae Nicholson, LB Riley Bullough

Pressing Concerns: Anytime the quarterback is unknown, it jumps off the page in terms of concern. Michigan State’s QB position looks to be between the young Brian Lewerke and the experienced Damion Terry. If they go with Lewerke, Sparty will add a little mobility and potential upside to their offense. However, taking these risks mean owning up to the mistakes common with a young starter. The offense in general needs to improve by converting opportunities into touchdowns. As for other concerns, turnovers for both sides of the ball were an issue last season. They had a -5 turnover margin, only winning the turnover battle in two games – two out of their three wins.

Biggest Strengths: The Spartans have a strong, three-headed monster in the backfield with LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes, and Madre London; plenty of talent if they can get even decent run blocking this season. Michigan State also has a lot of experience on the defensive side of the ball. Mark Dantonio always gets the most out of the defense, so he’s looking for more of a repeat of 2015 and less of 2016.

Offensive Players to Watch: RB LJ Scott, C Brian Allen

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Chris Frey, DE Demetrius Cooper

Make-or-Break Factor: Defensive performance. If the defense plays like a typical Mark Dantonio unit, Michigan State has the running attack to take the pressure off the question mark at quarterback. If the defense is performing, they are getting to the quarterback, unlike last year, and forcing turnovers. The difference between the Spartans squeaking into a bowl game versus competing for the Big Ten East hinges on whether the defense rises to the Pat Narduzzi-era dominance again.

Key Games:

  • 9/23 vs. Notre Dame – The Spartans get a bye week to prepare for a Fighting Irish team in limbo and led by a coach on the hot seat in Brian Kelly. A win at home could be some enormous momentum heading into conference play. A loss will put enormous pressure on the losing coach.
  • 10/7 @ Michigan – This is a “prove it” game. If you’re ready to prove 2016 was just a fluke, beat your rival in Ann Arbor. Out of the top tier Big Ten East teams, this game is definitely one to circle, because Michigan State gets Penn State and Ohio State back-to-back in November.

2017 Prediction: 6-6 (3-6); 5th in the Big Ten East. The Spartans aren’t quite ready to compete for the division again, but bowl eligibility certainly isn’t out of the question. Brian Allen is a great leader and his presence on the offensive line will be huge to the success of the running game and the development of Brian Lewerke. Dantonio, if he wants to save his job, needs to get the most out of his defense.

Ohio State Buckeyes

Last Season: 11-2 (8-1); 2nd in Big Ten East

Post-Season: Lost (0-31) in Fiesta Bowl (CFP Semi-Final) vs. Clemson

Departures: RB/WR Curtis Samuel, CB Marshon Lattimore, S Malik Hooker, CB Gareon Conley, LB Raekwon McMillan, C Pat Elflein

Pressing Concerns: The passing attack was in dire need of help and creativity. Urban Meyer changed up the coaching staff, adding offensive coordinator and former Indiana head coach, Kevin Wilson. Wilson will look to add a vertical attack to free up running lanes for returning 1,000-yard rusher Mike Weber and quarterback JT Barrett. The offensive line must also provide more time for JT Barrett to spread the wealth. On defense, Ohio State has to replace the play-making ability of a bevy of talent lost to the NFL. The talent in the back seven is there, but the experience isn’t.

Biggest Strengths: Ohio State has the statistics and recent draft history to vouch for the strength of its front seven. The defensive line is easily the strongest in the Big Ten as they return their top five leaders in sacks from last season. The talent is rich and deep and will elevate the defense while trying to repeat last year’s “next man up” success in the secondary. On offense, they return starting quarterback and Heisman candidate, JT Barrett, along with offensive guard, turned center, Billy Price. Losing just one starter on the offensive line, Price anchors the very young unit looking to improve from their struggles in protection.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB JT Barrett, RB Mike Weber, C Billy Price

Defensive Players to Watch: DE Tyquan Lewis, LB Jerome Baker, DE Sam Hubbard

Make-or-Break Factor: Easy – the passing game. Ohio State struggled stretching the ball vertically last season, and their struggles all came to a head in their blowout loss to Clemson in the College Football Semifinal game. JT Barrett has spent this offseason developing cohesion with the wide receiver unit so that their offense isn’t as one-dimensional as the last few seasons. Enter, Kevin Wilson.

Key Games:

  • 9/9 vs. Oklahoma –Ohio State used the national matchup victory to help their case in reaching the College Football Playoff last season. This year is no different. No more Bob Stoops for the Sooners, but the Buckeyes still have to deal with Baker Mayfield. Dropping this game would put enormous pressure on the rest of the schedule.
  • 10/28 vs. Penn State – Even though Ohio State still got into the final four, revenge is still on the mind. Last year, Penn State got the bye week to prepare, this year Ohio State gets the bye while Penn State comes off a game against Michigan.
  • 11/4 @ Iowa – Iowa shocked Michigan last year, ending their chances at finishing in the top four. Ohio State will be coming off an emotional revenge game versus the Nittany Lions and have to travel to Kinnick Stadium in a potential trap game.
  • 11/25 @ Michigan – This is The Game. Michigan had every chance and reason to win last year’s instant classic, overtime showdown in Columbus. They’ll be vying to finish the job this season in their house. The pressure will be on the Buckeyes this time around. They have the superior talent and high expectations, but anything can happen in a rivalry.

2017 Prediction: 11-1 (8-1); 1st in the Big Ten East. The Buckeyes sweep the Sooners and get revenge on Penn State, but drop a trap game at Iowa. Despite this, they persevere through The Game and make it to the Big Ten Championship.

Penn State Nittany Lions

Last Season: 11-3 (8-1); 1st in Big Ten East

Post-Season: Lost (49-52) in Rose Bowl vs. USC

Departures: WR Chris Godwin, DE Garrett Sickels, DE Evan Schwan

Pressing Concerns: Offensive line play has been a problem the last few seasons as the Nittany Lions struggled to protect departed QB Christian Hackenberg. They will have to improve so that the offense can get the ball to skill players. On defense, Penn State will have to fill some major shoes on a defensive line that lost talent to the NFL.

Biggest Strengths: Penn State needs to rely heavily on running back Saquon Barkley. The junior tailback is sure to be NFL-bound, and by relying on his production, the Nittany Lions won’t have to play from behind. Quarterback Trace McSorley will also be a huge strength. He now has experience in some big time games and came up clutch using an improved passing attack. The defense has a lot of starters and production returning, so their entire unit shouldn’t jump off the screen for the wrong reasons like it did in last year’s Rose Bowl shootout with USC and Sam Darnold. While the offensive line was a concern last year, they only lost one starter, so the consistency and experience should help keep McSorley upright.

Offensive Players to Watch: RB Saquon Barkley, QB Trace McSorley, TE Mike Gesicki

Defensive Players to Watch: S Marcus Allen, LB Jason Cabinda

Make-or-Break Factor: Living up to expectations. Penn State flew under the radar until their upset of Ohio State. There’s no more hiding as the underdog. James Franklin has nearly his entire team back from last year’s Big Ten champion squad. Can they repeat their success with all eyes on them from the start?

Key Games:

  • 9/23 @ Iowa– Opening the Big Ten season in Iowa City after three relatively easy out of conference matchups is a dangerous proposition for the defending conference champs. Iowa has the potential to upset anyone, though they also have the potential to be exploited by anyone. This will be the first showing of what the McSorley/Barkley tandem is made of.
  • 10/21 vs. Michigan – Penn State’s one blemish from last season was a blowout loss at the hands of Michigan. This one’s revenge and necessary for Penn State’s chances at a repeat conference title.
  • 10/28@ Ohio State – The Buckeyes are out for revenge. A returned block field goal for a touchdown propelled Penn State to an upset victory and Big Ten championship. However, the College Football Playoff Committee left them out of their final four. What’s worse is that the Buckeyes get a bye week to prepare for Penn State, yet the Nittany Lions get the fortune of facing Michigan at home before traveling to Columbus.

2016 Prediction: 10-2 (7-2); 2nd in the Big Ten East. Penn State gets its revenge on Michigan but gets a taste of their own medicine at Ohio State. Their offense will be dynamic and versatile enough to hang with anyone in the country. Their defense, however, will have just enough holes to keep the Nittany Lions out of playoff contention.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Last Season: 2-10 (0-9); 7th in Big Ten East

Post-Season: Did Not Qualify

Departures: DT Darius Hamilton, WR Carlton Agudosi

Pressing Concerns: Rutgers fielded the worst offense in the country last season with just 283 yards per game. Also, who will be under center this season? The Scarlet Knights have a talented recruit in Johnathan Lewis, with face-of-the-program potential, but is he ready to carry the torch? With their lack of success, that might be the wise move for the program. On top of that, whoever does play quarterback will have to try to survive behind a struggling offensive line.

Biggest Strengths: A talented WR corps, led by Jawuan Harris and Janarion Grant, who returns from injury,  headlines what should be an improved offense. Former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill should allow them to convert more scoring opportunities and perhaps steal some of the close games they lost last season. And the one plus of a previously young defense is that now the return with more experience, poised to hopefully make more stops, especially on third downs.

Offensive Players to Watch: WR Janarion Grant, WR Jawuan Harris, QB Johnathan Lewis

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Trevor Morris, LB Deonte Roberts

Make-or-Break Factor: Stopping the run. Rutgers got burned for over 300 yards far too many times and gave up far too many third down conversions. The defense will need to get off the field to keep games from getting out of hand. This means the offense needs to be better at moving the ball and controlling the clock. This also means that Rutgers has to play defense with more physicality. They cannot afford to be pushed around like they were last season.

Key Games:

  • 10/21 vs. Purdue – At home against a beatable conference opponent, Rutgers has to win one to improve on last year. If they can combine this win with one the week before in Champaign, their win total will have doubled from 2016 to 2017. Progress. Well, “progress.”

2017 Prediction: 2-10 (0-9); 7th in the Big Ten East. Rutgers needs to win their out of conference matchups against Eastern Michigan and Morgan State. Two out of their three Big Ten West foes are Illinois and Purdue. Even though they’ll probably be underdogs in most, if not all, of their matchups, those might be their four realistic opportunities at wins this season.

West Division:

Illinois Fighting Illini

Last Season: 3-9 (2-7); 6th in Big Ten West

Post-Season: Did Not Qualify

Departures: DE Dawuane Smoot, DT Chunky Clements, LB Hardy Nickerson

Pressing Concerns: Lovie Smith’s defense fielded front seven talented enough to compete. Yet, even with all of that, they struggled. Now, in 2017, they have neither the leadership they had in Nickerson nor the playmaking from Smoot and still need to improve, especially on third down. Replacing their production should be a top priority.

Biggest Strengths: Even though the offense struggled in 2016, it has the pieces and skill to take a major step forward. Mike Dudek is back from injury to go along with Malik Turner and Desmond Cain, making one of the conferences most underrated receiving corps. The Illini get their leading rusher, Kendrick Foster, back to help balance out the attack. On defense, their best unit is the secondary. Jaylen Dunlap leads a youthful but promising group of corners.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Dwayne Lawson, WR Mike Dudek, RB Kendrick Foster

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Tre Watson, S Patrick Nelson, CB Jaylen Dunlap

Make-or-Break Factor: For the Illini, its time of possession. Look for that stat to be most indicative of a successful season. Getting the defense off the field and allowing their new QB to spread the ball around will determine whether Illinois is closer to their 2015 5-7 record or last year’s disappointing 3-9.

Key Games:

  • 11/4 vs. Purdue – Illinois lost in disappointing fashion to Purdue last season. They need this win to show signs of life in their program. A win also likely keeps them out of last place in the Big Ten West. A big step forward for Lovie Smith’s squad.

2017 Prediction: 4-8 (2-7); 6th in the Big Ten East. Illinois may only pick up a conference win against Rutgers. For their record to be better, look for an upset against in-state rival, Northwestern or against fellow Big Ten West bottom-feeder, Purdue. The future is looking decent for the defensive minded Lovie Smith, but the present is littered with inexperience and question marks.

Iowa Hawkeyes

Last Season: 8-5 (6-3); 2nd in Big Ten West

Post-Season: Lost (3-30) in Outback Bowl vs. Florida

Departures: QB CJ Beathard, CB Desmond King, DT Jaleel Johnson

Pressing Concerns: Stop me if you’ve heard this before: quarterback uncertainty. With Beathard gone, Nathan Stanley or Tyler Wiegers will be under the spotlight to throw the ball downfield. The defense was fantastic but is looking to improve in a consistent run defense.

Biggest Strengths: The Hawkeyes defense, even with key players leaving, should be the strong suit. They suffered a huge blow, losing safety Brandon Snyder to a torn ACL; however, their secondary should be as physical as ever, and return three of their four starting defensive lineman. On offense, Iowa has the recipe for a good ground game – Akrum Wadley at running back and an offensive line with four returning starters.

Offensive Players to Watch: RB Akrum Wadley, C James Daniels, OG Sean Welsh

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Josey Jewell, DT Nathan Bazata, LB Bo Bower

Make-or-Break Factor: Play action passing. If Iowa can develop an effective running game, they’ll be able to capitalize on opportunities downfield. The Hawkeyes have never been a pass-happy offense, but have usually taken calculated chances to go vertical. The difference between their highly successful 2015 and their small step back in 2016 was the lack of a vertical game. With a new QB, play-action should be Kirk Ferentz’s best friend. Even before the play action, we must figure out who will be QB1 come September.

Key Games:

  • 9/23 vs. Penn State – As much as it could be a trap for Penn State, Iowa will also be relatively untested when the Nittany Lions visit Iowa City. Starting off conference play with a win over the defending champs gives Iowa all the momentum in the west.
  • 11/4 vs. Ohio State – This sets up perfectly for the Hawkeyes. Just like they spoiled Michigan’s season last year in a trap game, this seems like the candidate of this year.
  • 11/11 @ Wisconsin – This matchup may very well determine who represents the west in the Big Ten Championship. It’s a tall task visiting Camp Randall the week after hosting the Buckeyes.

2017 Prediction: 9-3 (6-3); 2nd in the Big Ten West. Whew, Iowa somehow managed to get Sparty, Ohio State and Penn State as its Big Ten East opponents for 2017. The silver lining is that they are set up to play host for a couple trap games. They face Penn State to open Big Ten play, and Ohio State at home the week after the Buckeyes play the Nittany Lions. Iowa should be near the top of the Big Ten West and fighting for a berth in the Big Ten Championship.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Last Season: 9-4 (5-4); 5th in Big Ten West

Post-Season: Won (17-12) in Holiday Bowl vs. Washington State

Departures: CB Eric Murray, LB De’Vondre Campbell, WR KJ Maye, DT Theiren Cochran, CB Brien Boddy-Calhoun

Pressing Concerns: Finding a passing attack will be at the top of the list for highly touted new head coach, PJ Fleck. Last year, the Gophers relied on their run game and defense. With most of the team back and a new QB, opponents will be stacking the box to stop the two-headed monster in the backfield of Smith and Brooks. Minnesota needs to sure up their run stopping, since their losses last season came largely due to poor run defense.

Biggest Strengths: The running attack of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks might be the best of the conference. Smith and Brooks combined for over 1,800 yards on the ground last year. The strength of the defense is definitely in the linebacking corps and their large disruptive defensive tackle, Steven Richardson, who will look to lead the way in replicating the defense’s sack production of last year (37).

Offensive Players to Watch: RB Rodney Smith, RB Shannon Brooks

Defensive Players to Watch: DT Steven Richardson LB Jonathan Celestin, S Antoine Winfield

Make-or-Break Factor: It’s all on the ground attack; for both sides of the ball. Can the Gophers have their way and produce in the run game behind their best offensive players? Will PJ Fleck submit to his roster’s strengths and go away from the passing game? Can the defense get stops against the best running backs in the conference? The big boys up front better ‘row the boat’ in the run game.

Key Games:

  • 10/28 @ Iowa – This is Minnesota’s first difficult test of the season, as they should be favored in their first seven games. A big win in Iowa City could help the Gophers reach Indianapolis in December.
  • 11/11 vs. Nebraska – A close loss to the Huskers last season impacted a close Big Ten West race. Getting some revenge at home after two difficult away games in a row at Iowa and at Michigan would be a huge win for the season.
  • 11/25 vs. Wisconsin –PJ Fleck’s first battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. It’s been thirteen straight losses for Minnesota in this rivalry game. It’d be a hell of a beginning for the Fleck era to end that streak. His Western Michigan team fared well but came up short in last year’s Cotton Bowl. A close loss won’t be good enough this time.

2017 Prediction: 8-4 (5-4); 3rd in the Big Ten West. The Gophers start hot, but can’t escape the tough second half of their schedule. Back-to-back road games against Iowa and Michigan following by a visit from Nebraska is a rough start to November. Finishing at Northwestern and Wisconsin, two teams known for their very different styles of running is a tall order as well.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

Last Season: 9-4 (6-3); 3rd in Big Ten West

Post-Season: Lost (24-38) in Music City Bowl vs. Tennessee

Departures: QB Tommy Armstrong, WR Jordan Westerkamp, S Nathan Gerry, RB Terrell Newby

Pressing Concerns: Nebraska loses a lot of its offensive production from last year, specifically their dual-threat quarterback, Tommy Armstrong. The Huskers have decent protection with unknowns at quarterback and running back. They will likely need to find a way to get creative on offense and make something for defenses to start game planning against. Their defense has a great coordinator in Bob Diaco, but he doesn’t inherit a plethora of talent. There is also the question of how the secondary will react to senior leader Chris Jones being out with injury, possibly for the entire season.

Biggest Strengths: The defense was productive last season, but now has a brand new scheme. Josh Kalu gives the secondary some life. The former corner looks to pick up where Nate Gerry left off. They’ve also got a good set of receivers in Stanley Morgan and De’Mornay Pierson-El. Tulane transfer Tanner Lee is the presumed starter, so he’ll have a great line and a good set of receivers to throw to.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Tanner Lee, WR De’Mornay Pierson-El, WR Stanley Morgan

Defensive Players to Watch: S Joshua Kalu, LB Dedrick Young, DE Freedom Akinmoladun

Make-or-Break Factor: The production of the offense. Sounds like a vague, cop-out, but there are so many questions surrounding the offense in 2017. Tulane transfer, Tanner Lee, has to fill the shoes left behind by Tommy Armstrong. There’s no Jordan Westerkamp to throw to, the leading rusher, Terrell Newby has left for the NFL. While their offensive line is experienced, they are not dominant and don’t have a lot of depth to allow the offense to feel out the game. The defense should hold up, but only if the offense doesn’t keep them on the field all game.

Key Games:

  • 10/7 vs. Wisconsin – after a couple of cupcake games to open conference play, Wisconsin comes to town. This game, along with the Oregon out-of-conference matchup in week two will be major indicators for Nebraska’s season. If they can win those two, losses against Big Ten East’s Ohio State and Penn State may be easier to swallow.
  • 11/24 vs. Iowa – The Huskers need this one after two road games at Minnesota and Penn State. A tough matchup at home to end the season, and they very well could be playing spoiler for the Hawkeyes.

2017 Prediction: 7-5 (5-4); 5th in the Big Ten West. After a solid 9-win season in 2016, it will be too difficult to replicate their success with none of the people responsible for it on the roster in 2017. Mike Riley has all the right pieces in place to rebuild the Huskers into a competitive team. But for 2017, his future quarterback, Patrick O’Brien, isn’t ready, he has no true RB1, and a defense adjusting to a scheme change.

Northwestern Wildcats

Last Season: 7-6 (5-4); 4th in Big Ten West

Post-Season: Won (31-24) in Pinstripe Bowl vs. Pitt

Departures: WR Austin Carr, LB Anthony Walker, DE Ifeadi Odenigbo

Pressing Concerns: Despite returning four out of five starters, Northwestern’s offensive line just flat-out wasn’t good in pass protection. They will need to protect to future NFL prospect Clayton Thorson better this year to keep the team in contention. In addition, Thorson loses his go-to, safety valve in Austin Carr. On defense, the Wildcats have to replace a lot of production with Odenigbo and Walker gone. The secondary, if healthy, has potential but will need to lean on the defensive line to mask their deficiencies.

Biggest Strengths: Northwestern’s strength definitely lies in their two main offensive playmakers: QB Clayton Thorson and RB Justin Jackson. Another productive season for Jackson could free up the passing game for Thorson and help make the offensive line’s job easier. Worst case scenario, the bulk of offensive responsibilities fall on Jackson, who is one of the best backs in football.

Offensive Players to Watch: RB Justin Jackson, QB Clayton Thorson

Defensive Players to Watch: S Godwin Igwebuike, DE Xavier Washington, LB Nate Hall

Make-or-Break Factor: Pass protection. Clayton Thorson needs time to throw, and while the run blocking allowed for Justin Jackson to run for 1,500+ yards, the Wildcats need to spread the ball out for higher point production in order to win. Their magic number last season was 24. Northwestern’s six losses came when they scored less than 24.

Key Games:

  • 9/30 @ Wisconsin– A chance at three wins in the last four seasons. Northwestern gets its bye week right before this matchup at Camp Randall. Starting off conference play with a win against the defending division champs could be huge for this Wildcats team.
  • 10/27 vs. Michigan State – Sparty is sandwiched between games at home versus Iowa and at Nebraska. This stretch of three games has got to garner two wins in order for Northwestern to avoid slipping back into mediocrity.

2017 Prediction: 8-4 (5-4); 4th in the Big Ten West.Road games at Wisconsin and at Nebraska do not bode well for the Wildcats being near the top of the West. They have the skill position talent to win the division but an inconsistent group of linebackers and a porous pass protection will prove troublesome for the Wildcats.

Purdue Boilermakers

Last Season: 3-9 (1-8); 7th in Big Ten West

Post-Season: Did Not Qualify

Departures: WR DeAngelo Yancey

Pressing Concerns: Turnovers were a major issue last season. Quarterback David Blough threw 21 interceptions. Who even does that? Blough forced far too many passes, proving his inconsistencies to be greater than his potential. Jeff Brohm has his work cut out for him with Blough under center. Defensively, they need to play like they the opposing quarterback is, well, David Blough. They’ve got to find a way to force more turnovers.

Biggest Strengths: Just like last year, it’s the linebackers. Markus Bailey, Ja’Whaun Bentley, and Danny Ezechukwu should be tackle leaders on the Boilermaker defense. And there is plenty of experience on the defensive end, entering 2017. Bailey was dynamite during his freshman season and enters this year as a bright spot for the team.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB David Blough, RB Markell Jones

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Markus Bailey, DE Gelen Robinson, LB Ja’Whaun Bentley

Make-or-Break Factor: Purdue stunk it up on third down and coming out of halftime. Purdue’s defense can’t lose steam, and their offense can’t keep them on the field all game. Coming out of halftime prepared will keep contests closer this year.

Key Games:

  • 10/7 vs. Minnesota – It’s not impossible for Purdue to be winless going into their bye in October. A home game victory versus Minnesota before having to travel to Wisconsin would be a huge upset.
  • 10/21 @ Rutgers – The Big Ten’s own “Toilet Bowl.” Purdue has got to at least pick up this conference win and maybe sneak in another for any end to this season to have a positive note.

2017 Prediction: 2-10 (2-7); 7th in the Big Ten West. Purdue has a rough out of conference schedule, opening with Louisville, led by Heisman Trophy winner, Lamar Jackson, followed by Ohio and Missouri. If they want better than two wins, Purdue will have to find a victory in their games against Ohio, Illinois, Northwestern, or possibly in-state rival, Indiana. Jeff Brohm could be a dark horse in the division, but not with this roster.

Wisconsin Badgers

Last Season: 11-3 (7-2); 1st in Big Ten West

Post-Season: Won (24-16) in Cotton Bowl vs. Western Michigan

Departures: RB Corey Clement, OT Ryan Ramczyk, LB TJ Watt

Pressing Concerns: Replacing NFL-caliber talent will be no small task for Paul Chryst and the Wisconsin coaching staff. Combine that with a brand new defensive coordinator in Jim Leonhard. The pass defense was taken advantage of late in the season, so they will be forced to toughen up.

Biggest Strengths: This Badger team is rich in talent. Even though they lost a lot to the NFL, the depth may make this year’s squad even better. Offensively, Hornibrook still has a ton of talent to spread the football with, in Jazz Peavy and NFL-bound Troy Fumagalli. Of course, you can’t talk Badger football without their towering line and dominant run game, either. Jake Cichy and T.J. Edwards make one of the best linebacker duos in the Big Ten. Cichy is dangerous and possesses the ability to seamlessly move around in this defense.

Offensive Players to Watch: TE Troy Fumagalli, WR Jazz Peavy, QB Alex Hornibrook

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Jack Cichy, LB TJ Edwards, DT Conor Sheehy

Make-or-Break Factor: Wisconsin must score more points than they’ve been accustomed to putting up and that’s all hinged around the QB. Alex Hornibrook’s only passing game above 200 yards was their overtime loss versus Ohio State last season. As always, teams will be forcing Hornibrook to pass. The strategy will be to force him to beat them instead of the running attack.

Key Games:

  • 11/18 vs. Michigan – Can the Wolverines spoil the Badgers season? Jim Harbaugh’s squad visits the week after Iowa with the Badgers eyeing revenge for last year’s close loss.
  • 11/25 @ Minnesota– After two home games versus maybe their two toughest opponents on the schedule, Iowa and Michigan, facing a rival to finish out the season screams trap.

2017 Prediction: 11-1 (7-1); 1st in the Big Ten West. Wisconsin has the perfect schedule to run the table. No tough out of conference matchups, and toughest Big Ten East opponent being Michigan in a reloading year. Wisconsin has no reason to watch a division rival play in Indy instead of them.

In the end, Ohio State will battle for their second Big Ten title game victory against Wisconsin, who has played for the conference championship every year but two. Ohio State and Wisconsin will play for the first time this season, with the Buckeyes securing their second Big Ten championship in four years.

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