Depending on who you ask, the Big 10 is either the most overrated or underrated conference in college football (it’s not a coincidence most who call it underrated say the SEC is overrated and vice-versa). The recently released AP Top 25 poll has again made it a lightning-rod for debate, with four teams in the top 11. Michigan, at No. 11, is the last team seen on the preseason polls from the Big 10, so it’s highly evident depth isn’t expected beyond those four teams.
At the top there are four playoff contenders and two of them have great arguments for being considered the top team in the country. Ohio State comes in as the second-ranked team behind just Alabama. They’ve appeared in the College Football Playoff twice in its three-year history, lost only four games total in these past three seasons and won the inaugural playoffs in 2015.
Senior QB J.T. Barrett has been a fixture on those teams and is a perfect weapon for coach Urban Meyer’s offensive wizardry. The real strength of the team however, is the team’s D-Line. Reigning Big 10 D-Lineman of the Year, Tyquan Lewis, teams with two other All-American candidates in Nick Bosa and Sam Hubbard to terrorize opposing offenses. The only units in the nation that can match the strength of the Buckeyes’ front are Clemson’s D-Line, Oklahoma’s O-Line, and Alabama’s secondary.
At No. 6, Penn State is the other team projected to be a national contender. While OSU will be driven by defensive depth, the Nittany Lions boast offensive starpower. This year is dubbed by many to be the “Year of the Quarterback” in college football, but the Heisman Trophy winner might go to RB Saquon Barkley. He amassed nearly 2,000 yards a season ago and led the nation with 60 forced missed tackles against Power 5 opponents. It’ll be tough for voters to ignore his resume if his team reaches the playoffs. Helping him out will be QB Trace McSorley, who tossed 36 touchdowns along with nearly 4,000 yards. Despite the Buckeyes representing the conference in the CFP last year, it was PSU who actually won the conference. Two early losses doomed their chances to make it in, but a late-season surge helped them topple OSU and take the Big 10 crown.
Coming in at No. 9 is Wisconsin. This team certainly isn’t the ninth-most talented team in the country, but they have two things working highly in their favor: consistency and scheduling. The Badgers are always led by mature seniors on (Top 10 the past two years) defense and a stout O-Line, so they rarely experience an upset loss. That won’t change with them returning 17 starters. Their 2017 schedule has them (even heavily in the weak Big 10 West) favored in every game they play, and avoiding Penn State and Ohio State. Their toughest outing will be against Michigan, which fortunately is at home. It’s entirely feasible for this team to go 10-2, 11-1, or even 12-0 before the Big 10 Championship Game. If they then somehow can defeat Ohio State or Penn State, they’ll be a lock for the CFP.
Finally we get to Michigan, led by outlandish coach Jim Harbaugh. In a recent poll of FBS coaches, Harbaugh was voted the most overrated coach in the country. Considering Harbaugh inherited a team that won just five games prior to his arrival, and has taken them to 10-3 records both years, is odd. At the same time, it’s totally justified considering both the 2015 and 2016 seasons followed the same scripts. Michigan got hot, blew out weaker competition, Harbaugh was referred to as a god and the Wolverines as National Champion favorites. Then they tailed off and lost (again) to Ohio State. This year however, the big change is Harbaugh will now be playing with a team that’s mostly his recruiting classes, including 2016’s No. 1 overall recruit, DL Rashan Gary. He’s expected to make a huge leap with consistent playing time a year after backing up four players now in the NFL.
Lost in the shuffle of the upper-echelon teams are solid squads that could win anywhere from six to nine games. Northwestern returns an impressive duo of players on offense. RB Justin Jackson already has three 1,000-yard seasons and 31 touchdowns going into his final year with the Wildcats. QB Clayton Thorson, though inconsistent, flashed potential last year. But he’ll have to do it without the 2016 Big 10 Receiver of the Year, Austin Carr. Iowa’s calling card will be defense, with LB Josey Jewell leading what will be the best linebacker corps in the conference and perhaps nation. Both of those teams could play spoiler in the Big 10 West to the Badgers.
Finally we reach the Gophers. Last season ended in a bowl win over Washington State (now ranked 24th in the preseason poll), but the team’s success was overshadowed by off-field controversy. That led to Tracy Claeys being fired and P.J. Fleck being brought in as the new head coach. Fleck certainly rivals Harbaugh in terms of wild personality and demeanor. His Western Michigan teams can back up his behavior, too. They headed into the 2017 Cotton Bowl against Wisconsin with a 13-0 record, and lost in a nail-biter. Fleck also proved he can develop talent. WR Corey Davis set the NCAA career record in receiving yards with 5,200 and was selected fifth overall by the Titans in the 2017 draft.
The WMU Broncos won with an explosive offense carrying their less-than-stellar defense. The Golden Gophers are the exact opposite. Of the nine former Minnesota football players drafted in the past three years, seven of them have been on the defensive side of the ball compared to just two on offense. They’ve ranked in the top 25 nationally on defense for the past two seasons, but outside the top 50 on offense. CB Jalen Myrick was the only Gopher drafted in April, but they return just four of their 10 other starters on defense. DT Steven Richardson is expected to be one of the top non-Ohio State D-Lineman in the conference after a 2016 campaign where he posted 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks. He and LB Jonathan Celestin will have to stabilize the unit while the rest of the new starters adjust to the learning curve.
Offensively, Fleck will have to inject his trademark energy into an anemic unit that ranked 84th in 2016. Juniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks combined for 1,800 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2016. They were the lone bright spots for an offensive scheme that was half throwback-style power, half Auburn-style spread. Connor Rhoda is expected to be the new QB. His bar for performance is low considering his predecessor (somehow recently signed by the Vikings!) threw just eight touchdowns to 12 interceptions. Fleck’s offense last year threw for 3,500 yards and an amazing TD/INT ratio of 33 to four. They’ll be greatly helped out by a projected offensive line that will be on average: 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds.
Looking at their schedule, they received tough luck in terms of their match-ups. Three of their four most important games will be on the road. Going to Oregon State will be a challenge in Week 2, and being the away team in games they have to win against Northwestern and Iowa is a real damper on the team’s odds. Thankfully, they host Wisconsin. Although the Badgers are clearly the better team, a rivalry game at home in college football means there is a great shot at victory. The team does still have a favorable start, with a high chance to start 7-0. If they can beat Iowa or Northwestern, then a 9-3 campaign with a good bowl game to close the season is a lock.
Even the most optimistic outlooks though, still couldn’t put them as Big 10 Champions come December. The OSU/PSU game in October will certainly determine which team will win the title game in Indianapolis and likely receiver a berth in the CFP. The Buckeyes are a deeper team, more experienced, and that game will be in Columbus, Ohio. Plus, it’s hard to see them not playing to avenge last year’s upset the Lions had.