It was always for the best the Big Ten scrapped its sanctimonious division names in favor of geography when it expanded to 14 teams four years ago, but never more than this offseason.
There was nothing legendary about, and not a whole lot of leadership associated with, the various scandals that have cropped up at Big Ten schools this year. Some are tangentially related to football programs; others (most notably at Maryland and Ohio State) are central to any discussion about the upcoming season.
The on-field happenings step into the spotlight this week, at least for those inclined to partake in a form of intentional amnesia. And the usual suspects — Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin, all of which but Michigan has claimed at least one Big Ten title since 2013 — are set up for strong seasons.
In a different time, maybe it would have had the potential for an, ahem, legendary season. Ultimately, though, that’s a poor description of the off-field happenings likely to be most remembered about Big Ten football’s 2018.
1. Wisconsin (No. 3 nationally, 13-1 in 2017): The Badgers have three great advantages, all of which make them a strong playoff contender. First, they own one of the strongest offensive identities in the country, and capable returnees at tailback (Jonathan Taylor) and quarterback (Alex Hornibrook). Two, it feels like they’ve been superb on defense for forever, lending a sense of invulnerability even in a year when there are significant graduation losses to replace. And three, a place in the Big Ten West.
While the Badgers’ defense probably won’t match last year’s, it will be fine. They haven’t allowed more than 350 yards a game since 2007, and even some minor regression won’t put them close to that figure. While the top half of the division should be better this season, Wisconsin still resides in a comfortable neighborhood. There’s an obvious path to playoff: Split games at Michigan and Penn State, roll through the rest of the schedule and win the Big Ten title game. Easier said than done, but it’s plenty plausible.
2. Northwestern (No. 35, 10-3): Not to pick on the Wildcats, but a lot of things went their way during an eight-game winning streak to close last season. Four of those victories came by one possession, and three in a row at one point were earned in overtime. It was a fortunate team.
But it’s also a program that has become more talented in recent seasons. The defensive front is especially strong. Clayton Thorson could become the school’s career passing leader with a good senior year, though he is coming off ACL surgery. Wildcats career rushing leader Justin Jackson graduated, but replacement Jeremy Larkin had 112 yards in the Music City Bowl against Kentucky.
In other words, a similar season isn’t out of the question. But it might require a similar degree of success in tight games to match last year’s record.
3. Iowa (No. 36, 8-5): Whose turn is it now to have their season ruined at Kinnick Stadium? Two years ago, things went sideways on Michigan. Last year, the Hawkeyes effectively knocked Ohio State out of the national title picture with a 55-24 drubbing. This year’s candidates to curse a trip to Iowa: Wisconsin (Sept. 22) and Northwestern (Nov. 10).
As usual, you know Kirk Ferentz’s team isn’t going to be the most exciting bunch on offense, but they’ll be technically sound and opportunistic on defense. They’re also the most likely team to clock in with a sub-three-hour game in the early-afternoon television window. Iowa is hardly ever bad, excellent once every five years or so and rock-solid the rest of the time. Go ahead and put the 8-4 in the bank now.
4. Purdue (No. 48, 7-6): The funny thing about Jeff Brohm’s first season at Purdue is that while the first impressions suggested the Boilermakers got much better on offense, their greatest progress was in more effectively stopping opponents. That was especially true in preventing the run, an area Purdue was downright inept at the entire decade.
There’s some rebuilding to do this season on defense, but that’s easier to gloss over after making a surprise bowl appearance in which the Boilermakers held Arizona to 26 yards on the ground. Offensively, the same two quarterbacks who split time last year (David Blough and Elijah Sindelar) are back and vying for time.
Count Purdue among the teams with the most intriguing schedules of the first month. The Boilers will see Northwestern, Missouri, Boston College and Nebraska, and anything from 4-0 to 0-4 in those games is a reasonable prediction. The better the start, the brighter the immediate future for a team that’s trended up ever since Brohm’s arrival.
5. Nebraska (No. 55, 4-8): Sept. 22 could be the time the “Scott Frost: Returning Hero” story line runs into harsh reality. The Cornhuskers will visit Michigan that day, and will later travel to Wisconsin, Northwestern, Ohio State and Iowa, with no sign of Indiana, Maryland or Rutgers among the cross-divisional games.
Frost will get a mulligan if necessary, in part because he’s a former Cornhusker quarterback who helped Nebraska earn a share of the 1997 national title and in part because he guided Central Florida to a perfect season last year.
It will probably be necessary. A true freshman, Adrian Martinez, will start at quarterback in the opener for the first time in program history. Nebraska ranked 119th nationally in rushing offense last year and was No. 114 against the run. That’s almost an unthinkable combination for the Cornhuskers, and they aren’t going to become good at both overnight. A more reasonable expectation for Year 1 is adequate, and that would probably be enough to win two or three more games and earn a bowl invitation.
6. Minnesota (No. 82, 5-7): The Golden Gophers will start true freshman walk-on Zach Annexstad at quarterback in their opener Thursday against New Mexico State, and while it says something about Annextad’s competitiveness that he won the job, it also reveals plenty about the state of Minnesota’s offense.
Gophers quarterbacks combined to average 126.1 yards per game last year while completing just 47.2 percent of their attempts. Annexstad can’t do much worse than that, and chances are he’ll do a bit better with the help of an experienced offensive line and senior tailback Rodney Smith.
Still, those were the foundations of an offense that was shut out the last two weeks of the 2017 season. Minnesota’s defense will again keep it in games, but there’s a real chance this team takes a step back before a breakout occurs under Coach P.J. Fleck.
7. Illinois (No. 97, 2-10): Only two Power Five programs finished outside the top 100 in both rushing offense and passing offense last season: Illinois and Tennessee. And the Volunteers changed coaches.
The Illini did no such thing, and so the Lovie Smith experiment enters its third season. Illinois lost its final 10 games last season, only once in that stretch scoring more than 17 points. Inexperience explains some of the woes, but it doesn’t change the reality that bad and boring is a poor way to live in a power conference. There’s a long way to go, which means the Illini could grow up faster than expected and still fall short of a bowl bid.
1. Ohio State (No. 5, 12-2): Let’s acknowledge the basics first. The Buckeyes have averaged 12.2 victories over the past six seasons, they’re the defending Big Ten champions and they ranked in the top 10 nationally in total offense and total defense last season. Whether you want to discuss tailbacks J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, defensive linemen Nick Bosa and Dre’Mont Jones or several other spots, talent will not be an issue in Columbus.
Let’s also acknowledge that on-field matters are less important than the dubious way Coach Urban Meyer handled everything that flowed from Courtney Smith’s accusations of domestic violence against now-former Buckeye assistant Zach Smith.
Still, how Meyer’s absence during the preseason and three regular season games and his diminished standing as a result of his suspension impacts his ability to run his program remains to be seen. Might matter a ton, might not matter at all. But it’s arguably the biggest question surrounding the Buckeyes for now.
2. Penn State (No. 10, 11-2): The last time the Nittany Lions won 10 games in three consecutive seasons was 1980 to 1982 (they came a win shy in both 1995 and 2007 of owning such streaks). With quarterback Trace McSorley back for his senior year, there’s a pretty good chance Penn State reaches double figures in the win column this year.
He’ll need to be good for the Nittany Lions to make a run at something more than 10-2. Penn State’s starting secondary departed after last season, and there were significant losses in the front seven as well. There shouldn’t be a massive drop-off, but James Franklin’s team probably can’t count on smothering as many opponents as last year.
3. Michigan State (No. 12, 10-3): When a program wobbles as badly as the Spartans did in 2016 — going from a playoff appearance to 3-9 — it’s not easy to recover the mojo. And while Michigan State might not have gotten all the way back on offense, it did more than enough on defense to get to 10-3 and reestablish a sense of stability under Coach Mark Dantonio.
It’s not the exact same team back for another run, but most of the key figures from returned. That means the Spartans could very well have another top-10 defense, which in turn means the best teams in the Big Ten need to be ready to win the sort of 14-13 slugfest Michigan State is eager to engage in nearly every season.
4. Michigan (No. 13, 8-5): This won’t be the last reminder that the Wolverines are a combined 1-5 against Michigan State and Ohio State under Coach Jim Harbaugh. And while Michigan has established an impressive defensive standard under coordinator Don Brown, the offense just didn’t do its part last year.
The Wolverines’ magic number was 20 last year — 8-0 when they scored 20 points, 0-5 when they didn’t. Brought in to correct the problem is Mississippi transfer Shea Patterson, who threw for 17 touchdowns in seven games last season before suffering a season-ending injury. An opening week trip to Notre Dame will function as a valuable barometer for Michigan and an offense that must improve if the Wolverines are to be relevant in the Big Ten East.
5. Indiana (No. 65, 5-7): Peyton Ramsey will start the Hoosiers’ opener at Florida International after fending off Arizona transfer Brandon Dawkins (a.k.a. the guy who lost his job to Khalil Tate). Morgan Ellison, Indiana’s top rusher last year, almost certainly will not start the opener after earning an indefinite suspension.
The Hoosiers have greater issues than those two skill positions. A defense that was largely excellent against all but a few high-end opponents last season graduated eight starters. Indiana’s ability to replace them, and now a suspended tailback who was going to enjoy the benefit of a tested offensive line, will be what determines whether the Hoosiers return to the postseason after a one-year hiatus.
6. Maryland (No. 74, 4-8): It’s anyone’s guess how this goes in the wake of offensive lineman Jordan McNair’s preventable death from heatstroke in June. And frankly, it feels unseemly to delve into much of anything related to on-field results. That seems unlikely to change at any point this season.
Coach D.J. Durkin is on administrative leave, with offensive coordinator Matt Canada running the program in an interim capacity. But what matters most is how players — individually and collectively — are coping with the death of a teammate, and that’s pretty much impossible to measure.
The Terps figured to be a little better this year assuming they avoided the quarterback injuries that basically ended their season before October last year. But there wasn’t as easy a fix to their defensive woes. Consider this a mystery team, with a bowl bid qualifying as a successful year for a program very much in a state of flux.
7. Rutgers (No. 88, 4-8): The future is now for the Scarlet Knights, who will start true freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski in the Sept. 1 opener against Texas State. And, much like how things are at Minnesota, it’s not a bad idea since Rutgers threw more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (seven) last year while completing less than half of its pass attempts.
Fixing the offense needs to be the priority in Coach Chris Ash’s third season. The Scarlet Knights made progress on defense last year, but scored 20 points against only two FBS opponents (Illinois and Maryland).
But if there is improvement — a big if — it doesn’t take much squinting to see six winnable games among the season’s first seven: Texas State, Kansas, Buffalo, Indiana, Illinois and Maryland. Rutgers will figure out pretty quickly whether it made strides from last year.