Big Ten football preview: 20 things to know ahead of the 2017 season
Four Big Ten football teams played in last year's New Year's Six bowl games. This upcoming 2017-18 season will once again feature a flurry of talented programs out of the conference.
Here are 20 things to know about the Big Ten:
1. The Big Ten's return to glory has been overstated in some respects — depth remains an issue, and there are few healthy passing games in the league entering 2017 — but there's little doubt that the conference is in better shape than it's been in a while. Despite the College Football Playoff semifinal debacle at the Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State continues to be one of the most powerful programs in college football. Penn State enjoyed a breakthrough 2016 that is capable of being repeated and Michigan, despite back-to-back third-place finishes in the Big Ten East, has restored respectability under Jim Harbaugh. Throw in the consistent success of Wisconsin, and the Big Ten is stronger at the top than it had been over most of the past decade, even if it's still waiting for Nebraska to become a national threat again, and even if Michigan State abruptly fell off the map last fall.
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3. The Badgers received rough preseason news when standout linebacker Jack Cichy was declared out for the season with a torn ACL. Cichy also missed the second half of last season, after racking up 60 tackles in seven games. Combine Cichy's injury with the losses of standout pass rushers Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt, plus defensive backs Sojourn Shelton and Leo Musso, and new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has some significant questions to answer in only his second year of coaching. The Cichy news is tough to take, but the Badgers were deep at inside linebacker, where they still have T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly and Chris Orr. After losing coordinators Dave Aranda and Justin Wilcox in consecutive years, uncertainty lingers for the Wisconsin defense, but there's little reason to think that the Badgers defense won't perform at a high level against a schedule largely featuring unproven offenses. This team as a whole won't be quite as strong as the one Wisconsin fielded last year, but it's again capable of winning enough to get to Indianapolis and be in the major bowl picture.
4. Nebraska's hopes rest on the arm of Tulane transfer quarterback Tanner Lee, who has become of the offseason's greatest mysteries. Mike Riley inherited Tommy Armstrong and went 15-11 over the past two years with Armstrong as the primary quarterback. Now, he turns to the 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior Lee, who has better pure passing potential than Armstrong in Riley's offense. Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage even recently called Lee a "top NFL prospect" upon visiting Lincoln. Will Lee live up to the increased hype on the field? At Tulane — where, to be fair, he was a young player with a lackluster supporting cast — Lee completed 53.6 percent of passes for 3,601 yards, 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions in two years, averaging just 5.9 yards per attempt for teams that had 3-9 records in consecutive years. Lee may have the tools, but the results have yet to be shown. At Nebraska, Lee faces significant pressure stepping into a situation where the Cornhuskers haven't lost fewer than four games since 2003 and haven't won a conference title since it was part of the Big 12 in 1999. Fans are understandably restless; after a 7-0 start last year, the Huskers again went 9-4, including a 59-point loss to Ohio State, a 30-point loss to Iowa and a 14-point loss to Tennessee, making things feel similar to the problems of the Bo Pelini era. The Huskers have a ton to prove after they had lackluster rushing production last year and mediocre performances defensively — which won't be helped by an injury to top cornerback Chris Jones. With cross-division games against Penn State and Ohio State and a nonconference trip to Oregon, the 2017 season looks like it'll be more of the same for Nebraska, with Lee's play perhaps the difference between matching Riley's 6-7 debut and his 9-4 follow-up.
5. There are few mysteries as to how Iowa will play. While the Hawkeyes have a new offensive coordinator, it's Kirk Ferentz's son, Brian, promoted from offensive line coach. The offense will be built around an experienced offensive line that will be among the nation's best, along with an excellent tailback duo featuring the versatile Akrum Wadley and Nevada graduate transfer James Butler. Both Wadley and LeShun Daniels rushed for 1,000 yards last year, and there's a good chance that Wadley and Butler (who had 1,336 yards for the Wolf Pack) will repeat the feat of having two 1,000-yard backs with Daniels gone. Even if Iowa runs well, its ability to compete for the Big Ten West hinges on developing some sort of threat in the passing game. C.J. Beathard is gone at quarterback, leaving little experience, with sophomore Nathan Stanley the favorite for the job. The receiving corps is devoid of proven production beyond Matt Vandeberg, who missed most of last year with an injury. The Hawkeyes have a couple big losses on defense in Jaleel Johnson and Desmond King, but there's enough talent returning, headlined by linebacker Josey Jewell, to think this will be a typically strong unit. But in addition to visiting Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska, Iowa hosts both Penn State and Ohio State from the Big Ten East. If the Hawkeyes can diversify their offense a bit, they'll be capable of pulling off an upset, but expect a typical seven or eight-win Iowa team rather than a breakthrough contender like we saw in 2015.
6. If Wisconsin falters, Northwestern has as good of a chance to win the Big Ten West as any of the other contenders. Junior quarterback Clayton Thorson still has significant work to do, especially given that he lost prolific wideout Austin Carr. He did, however, take a step forward last year — 3,182 yards, 22 touchdowns, but only 6.7 yards per attempt — and he'll be playing with a standout tailback in Justin Jackson (4,129 career yards) and a line that may not be a liability, even if it's still not a strength. The defense has to replace a key piece in Anthony Walker; otherwise Pat Fitzgerald should have another stingy unit in place, led in particular by a secondary featuring safety Godwin Igwebuike. If Thorson continues to progress and the defense manages the linebacker attrition, it's possible Northwestern pulls off another nine- or 10-win season, including the bowl. Fitzgerald has won at least nine games three times as head coach at Northwestern, and such seasons in Evanston should never be taken for granted. Don't be surprised if he puts together a second one in three seasons.
7. P.J. Fleck needed a transition year at Western Michigan. He inherited a 4-8 team and went 1-11 in his debut, before turning the Broncos into a MAC power. At Minnesota, Fleck now has the benefit of four years of experience but it may take some time for the Golden Gophers to adapt to another new coach. The good news for Fleck is that his Year 1 schedule features plenty of winnable games, especially early. Minnesota should flirt with bowl eligibility, but there are few clear strengths beyond the solid running back tandem of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. The passing game is a mystery, and there are holes to fill at defensive end and cornerback. Last year's team did win nine games for the first time since 2003 — capped by an impressive defensive performance in a Holiday Bowl win over Washington State — and it's reasonable to expect another solid defense. Still, while that schedule features winnable games, most of the games feel like toss-ups beyond the opener against Buffalo. Fleck did an outstanding job at Western Michigan and will certainly bring energy to Minnesota. It may just take a year or two to assemble a roster that meshes with his style and wins those toss-ups more often than not.
8. After going 9-39 in four years the past four years, there are no quick fixes at Purdue. The best hope is that new coach Jeff Brohm at least makes the Boilermakers more fun as quickly as possible. Brohm was an inspired, Joe Tiller-esque hire, a creative coach who put together exciting and prolific teams at Western Kentucky. The Boilermakers were hopelessly outmanned in the Big Ten the past few years, winning a total of three Big Ten games under Darrell Hazell. Brohm has an experienced quarterback in David Blough, who must cut down on his 21 interceptions, and an experienced defense, but the Boilermakers have to rebuild their receiving corps and face significant questions on the offensive line. Three of Purdue's past five Big Ten wins have come against Illinois, including an overtime game last year. The Boilermakers have mostly played at a MAC level — actually, they have gone only 1-3 against the MAC since 2013— so even though Brohm is a terrific addition, getting back to the postseason won't happen immediately. Not finishing last in the Big Ten West, winning multiple conference games and creating long-term hope are reasonable goals, for now.
9. Ask any Big Ten fan to name one player on the Illinois roster, and the most common answer might be a player who has missed the past two seasons with knee injuries. The good news for Illinois this year is that wide receiver Mike Dudek, who had 76 catches for 1,038 yards as a freshman in 2014, is set to return. The bad news is that Illinois is proven at few positions after going 3-9 in Lovie Smith's debut as head coach. Junior quarterback Chayce Crouch does have solid receivers in a healthy Dudek and Malik Turner, giving the Illini some hope on offense, but the defense loses its clear best players — Hardy Nickerson, Carroll Phillips, Dawuane Smoot — and faces significant questions up front. The Illini draw home games with Rutgers and Indiana from the East, but the overall results are likely to resemble what we saw last year.
10. Rutgers has won fewer than two games three times in the past 20 seasons, so it would be inaccurate to say that things cannot get worse than last year, when the Scarlet Knights went 2-10 in Chris Ash's debut. However, it would be accurate to say that things cannot get worse for Rutgers in the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights went 0-9 in conference play, scoring zero or seven points in six of those games. They lost to Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State by a combined score of 224-0, four games in which they were out-gained 2,258 to 382. Ash brought in former Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill as Rutgers' eighth offensive coordinator in eight years, and at least he'll have some pieces to work with in senior running back Robert Martin, Louisville transfer quarterback Kyle Bolin and all-purpose weapon Janarion Grant, who missed most of last year with an injury. Rutgers is going to be better this year. It has to be. While Kyle Flood took the Scarlet Knights to three bowl games, he left Ash in a difficult situation, and Year 1 proved to be worse than anyone could have imagined. Stuck in the brutal Big Ten East with a nonconference game against Washington, making significant tangible progress will be difficult — although Purdue and Illinois are on the schedule — but at least the Scarlet Knights can be more competitive and get in the win column in Big Ten play.
11. Maryland has quickly found more stable ground under its new coach than fellow Big Ten newcomer Rutgers, but a brutal schedule makes another bowl trip a tall task. There's plenty to like about what D.J. Durkin is doing at Maryland. He took the Terrapins to a bowl in his debut season. They have a underrated big-play running back in Ty Johnson (1,004 yards), and solid experience on defense led by LB Jermaine Carter. Find improvement in the passing game, perhaps with North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson, and this team can be better than the one we saw last year. But consider the schedule: The Terrapins trade a road trip to FIU for a road trip to Texas. After playing Purdue last year, they draw Wisconsin, Northwestern and Minnesota from the Big Ten West, on top of the typical East games against Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State. The Terps won six games last year, but none of those wins came against teams with winning records, and they were blown out in five of their six Big Ten losses. Even if Maryland is better this year — and it's unlikely to endure as many routs — it might not be noticeable in the standings.
12. Kevin Wilson guided Indiana to back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 1990-91, but it's up to Tom Allen to push the Hoosiers to their first winning record since 2007. Bowl losses dropped Indiana's final record to 6-7 in both 2015 and 2016. Indiana is now in the hands of Allen, who had only six years of FBS assistant experience before being elevated from defensive coordinator to replace Wilson. Allen did a fantastic job in his one year as coordinator, engineering a phenomenal turnaround on defense in which the Hoosiers improved from 112th to 25th in yards per play allowed. With 10 of the top 12 tacklers back and a veteran passing game, Indiana has room for optimism. Senior quarterback Richard Lagow has Nick Westbrook back, in addition to the return of Simmie Cobbs from an injury. The Hoosiers do, however, need to replenish their run game and avoid significant regression on an offensive line that loses star Dan Feeney. With both Purdue and Illinois on the schedule from the West (although both on the road), another bowl bid is possible, but as usual at Indiana, facing Big Ten East competition, the margin for error will be slim.
13. History says that Michigan and Michigan State are rarely good at the same time. After one year of relevance for both, Michigan State abruptly came crashing down in 2016, turning three straight AP top-six finishes into a 3-9 record. Mark Dantonio set a high standard for the Spartans, and it's impossible to rule out a significant bounce back. However, a realistic recovery for Michigan State is just getting back to the postseason. Last year's team fell apart after losing some foundational players from the teams that went to the Playoff thanks to a ton of close wins. With youth and a quarterback shuffle, everything fell apart, and now the Spartans face even bigger questions. The defense loses its top players, headlined by linebacker Riley Bullough and defensive tackle Malik McDowell. Six of the Spartans' top eight receivers, the top four receivers and three starting offensive linemen are gone. Sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke has potential after getting work last year, but playing in a tough division with few proven standouts, expectations have to be tempered despite all the success before last year. Even if the drastic 2016 drop-off was an extreme event that won't be repeated, it's hard not to feel that the Dantonio era in East Lansing, one of the most successful in school history, already reached a peak that will be difficult to come close to duplicating.
14. Jim Harbaugh is 20-6 with one major bowl bid and an 0-2 record against Ohio State in his first two seasons. Brady Hoke was 19-7 with one major bowl bid and a 1-1 record against Ohio State in his first two seasons. But while the Harbaugh hype has outpaced the results thus far — back-to-back third-place finishes — it's undeniable that Harbaugh and his coaching staff have been an enormous improvement on the Hoke era, stabilizing Michigan football while pointing the Wolverines on an upward trajectory. The Harbaugh and Hoke results have been similar thus far, but a significant divergence can be expected soon. It just might take Michigan another year to truly achieve desired results. Simply citing the fact that Michigan has only five returning starters doesn't tell the whole story of the amount of talent the Wolverines will have in 2017. It does tell part of the story, though, as there will be some bumps, particularly in the receiving corps and the secondary, and there won't be as much depth in positions of strength like the defensive line. Last year's Wolverines started the season 9-0 before running out of steam in November and ultimately losing three of their final four games. Now, the top three receivers are gone — Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt were responsible for 69.2 percent of the team's receiving yards — as are 10 of the top 14 tacklers on defense. A wave of promising young players is ready to emerge. How quickly can the transition happen?
15. Even with only one returning starter, the Michigan defense is likely to be stronger than the offense. Don Brown is a fantastic defensive coordinator, and the line in particular is still exceptional, featuring Chase Winovich, Maurice Hurst, Bryan Mone and Rashan Gary. The secondary has lots of uncertainty, but the combination of a disruptive pass rush and a lack of top passing opponents — Michigan doesn't play Penn State until Oct. 21 and Ohio State until Nov. 25 — will give the defensive backs time to figure things out. The offense has breakout candidates, including running back Chris Evans and wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, but quarterback play, whether it's incumbent Wilton Speight or a new starter, isn't going to carry this team without reinforcements up front and out wide. Michigan will not be the dominant force we saw the first two-thirds of last year, but it will still be dangerous, and it still will be competitive. It should also be better in November than it is in September. The goal for Michigan is always beating Ohio State, winning the Big Ten and getting to the playoff, but accomplishing all of that will be far more realistic in 2018.
16. Last September, Penn State had a 2-2 record, losing to rival Pitt and getting blown out by Michigan. When the Nittany Lions started October by trailing Minnesota 13-3 at halftime, the outlook for the James Franklin era looked bleak. But Penn State proceeded to engineer one of the most stunning in-season turnarounds in recent history, and repeat success is likely. The combination of star tailback Saquon Barkley, mobile quarterback Trace McSorley, a deep receiving corps, improved offensive line depth and the addition of new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead allowed the Nittany Lions to flip a switch and grow into an exciting, explosive big-play offense that earned a reputation for comebacks and scoring bursts. Penn State came from behind to beat Minnesota, then took down Ohio State a few weeks later with a blocked field goal return. The Nittany Lions ended up winning nine games in a row, including a Big Ten title game thriller against Wisconsin, before falling short in a Rose Bowl thriller against USC. All of a sudden, Franklin has a full roster at his disposal, giving way to newfound confidence. Now, Penn State has a roster fully equipped to compete for another Big Ten title.
17. Penn State's offense will be better in 2017. For all of the fun of 2016, the Nittany Lions still struggled on third downs and had a work-in-progress offensive line. While top receiver Chris Godwin is gone, nearly everyone else is back for Year 2 in Moorhead's system, with what should be the best offensive line Penn State has had in several years. That's excellent news for Barkley, the nation's best running back, and it's excellent news for McSorley, who earned a reputation as a fearless big-play passer. Standout tight end Mike Gesicki headlines what remains a deep receiving corps, giving this offense plenty of options as it seeks to become more efficient and consistent to avoid having to make some of the comebacks we saw last year. The offensive line has to actually make the leap, of course, and the defense has some holes to fill, particularly in the pass rush, but there's enough returning experience combined with exciting young potential due to recruiting gains to put Penn State right back in the playoff conversation with another exciting offense that continues to make big plays but is more consistent and won't have to engineer so many comebacks.
18. Ohio State is 61-6 under Urban Meyer. It continues to beat Michigan every year. It won a national title in 2014 and goes to major bowls every year. Yes, the Buckeyes' 31-0 loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl was disconcerting, but if any team is capable of bouncing back and being a national title contender again right away, it's Ohio State. Keep in mind that last year's team was very young and still blew out Oklahoma on the road, edged Michigan and lost only to Penn State on the road on a blocked kick in the regular season. This year's roster is significantly more experienced, even if there are concerns at receiver and in the secondary, and Meyer worked quickly to address the team's biggest problem, hiring former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson as an offensive coordinator upgrade. The Buckeyes have an absurdly loaded defensive line, a stellar linebacking corps, a mobile senior quarterback in J.T. Barrett, a rising star running back in Mike Weber and enough offensive line talent to overcome concerns about big-game performances last year. Ohio State is still built to contend for national championships.
19. Ohio State's national championship potential depends on Wilson developing consistency and explosiveness on offense. The Buckeyes have gone 23-3 without Tom Herman and have put up big offensive numbers many weeks, but there's still been something missing on offense, an identity crisis of sorts in which the receiving corps has struggled, play-calling in big games has felt amiss and Barrett hasn't looked like the budding superstar who finished fifth in the Heisman race as a freshman in 2014. Barrett avoids mistakes and puts up rushing numbers, which are always going to be a staple of Meyer's offenses, but he averaged a mere 6.7 yards per pass attempt and couldn't get much going downfield. If young receivers emerge, then Wilson will be in good position to get creative and stretch the field better both vertically and horizontally. The way last season ended was troubling, but it would be foolish to bet against Ohio State abruptly correcting what went wrong.
20. With Penn State and Oklahoma both visiting Columbus, Ohio State is the favorite to win the Big Ten and make the playoff, which would be its third bid in four years. Iowa, Nebraska and, obviously, Michigan are all potentially tough road trips, but the Buckeyes will be as disruptive as anybody in their defensive front, improved on the offensive line and at least a little bit more explosive on offense. Nearly any Ohio State loss is a surprise, and while there are enough hurdles to trip the Buckeyes up once in the regular season, we have yet to see a Meyer-coached Buckeyes team lose twice before the postseason. Penn State will challenge Ohio State, and Michigan and Wisconsin can't be ruled out, either, but the Buckeyes are the team to beat.