Much of our focus has been on Michigan entering the 2019 college football season with a look at how some of the other teams in the Big Ten will look this season, but what about the grouping of 14 teams as whole?
Stepping back and taking a (mostly) objective look at the conference, this feels like it could be as competitive a Big Ten as we have seen in awhile. Michigan and Ohio State might be its best chance at a College Football Playoff team, but from spots three to 11 or 12, it honestly does not feel like the gap is that large and that could make for some volatility in the races in both divisions this year.
Here’s a bite-sized look at where each program is at heading into the 2019 season.
Big Ten East
This could be one of the better Indiana teams in recent memory and they might have a shot to surprise some people in this division, though they are still a tick below everyone else. One thing you can always count on is that they will be in position to pull off some upsets and then fail miserably. In that regard, they will remain one of the most entertaining teams in college football.
Where things stand today, how the Buckeyes fare moving forward might just be the most interesting question not only in the conference, but in the national scope of college football. They won at a historic clip under Urban Meyer and that’s a tall task for Ryan Day to tackle. They are going to continue to recruit and win at a high level, but it feels natural for there to be some sort of drop off unless Day is Lincoln Riley 2.0. They will probably remain one of the elite programs in the country, but perhaps a bit more vulnerable in big games here and there, perhaps even at the end of the regular season.
The Terps are starting over yet again, this time with Mike Locksley taking over head coaching duties. They are entering another rebuild, but they still have enough talent to put a scare into some teams. It is going to take some time as they pivot to new leadership, but I like how they rallied as a program after some of the toxic and heartbreaking stuff that went on in the lead up to last season. They probably will not be very good this year, but they will at least be respectable.
The one you have all been waiting on here. This is going to be a blog of its own soon, but I’ll give you the Sparknotes version of it. Top-to-bottom, this is the most talented team in the conference and they have made the appropriate philosophical changes this offseason to take that next step, so simply put, I expect them to. It’s also fair to expect to be disappointed, as the track record in big games under Jim Harbaugh kind of speaks for itself. However, one cannot let the past dictate how they predict the future. They are seen as the near-unanimous favorite to win the Big Ten for a reason and if they do not do it, it’s once again on them. Win the East, get to Indianapolis and see what happens from there. Their destiny is in their own hands this season.
The Spartans might have the best defense in college football this season, but it will not mean a whole lot if their offense remains one of the worst in the country. Mark Dantonio’s solution to this was not to fire any of his friends, but instead re-arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic and hope that it yields better results by shuffling his assistants around to different roles. The thing of it is, if they can even be just a slightly-below average offense, they are going to be a problem. They still will be, especially when they head to Ann Arbor. This is the dark horse team I have circled in the East, though I still feel like Michigan and Ohio State are better. It would be foolish to count them out, though. I’m warning you all right now. We’ve been down this road before.
WE ARE about to find out what James Franklin is made of with the Trace McSorley-Saquon Barkley officially in the rear-view mirror. I would be very surprised to see them at the top of the standings when the season is over. It feels like their ceiling might be competing for that third spot in the Big Ten East, but they have surprised people before. The problem is, many of their surprises have come in the form of Franklin making an absolutely horrid decision in a key moment.
They are an underwear stain on the rest of the Big Ten. That will not change.
Big Ten West
Thanks to Rutgers, the Illini are not the biggest laughing stock in the conference. Lovie Smith flat-out needs to start winning football games out there, but they honestly feel like the only team in the division that probably does not have a shot in the world to compete for anything this year. Brandon Peters is a huge upgrade at quarterback for them and depending on how well he plays, maybe they can find a way to get to 5-6 wins, but I just don’t see upward trajectory here.
We are about to find out how good Nate Stanley really is after both T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant left early to head to the NFL. It is not often that an offense can lose two first round picks and look the same next year, but a lot of the preseason magazines and hype machines have installed Iowa as one of the favorites to come out of the west. The truth is, you never quite know what you are going to get out of this program from year-to-year, but most of the time they are a tough out and playing at Kinnick, especially in primetime, continues to be nightmare fuel. They will continue to be a factor as long as Kirk Ferentz is there.
Not a ton of people seem to people seem to be hitching their wagons to P.J. Fleck and the Gophers in year three, and obviously Zach Annexstad being injured certainly may hurt, but of all the teams in this division this year, they feel like the biggest overlooked darkhorse to me. We are about to see what Minnesota can be under Fleck and my gut tells me that there’s a chance we see them in Indy this year moreso than a team like Nebraska, Purdue or maybe even Wisconsin.
All of the hype out west right now seems to be with the Cornhuskers, who are entering the second season of the Scott Frost era. There is no doubt that they are on the up in a big way, especially with Adrian Martinez at quarterback for the next few years. They lost a lot of close games last year and if they can convert on a few of those, they will be back in a bowl game. However, I feel like this program is still one more year away from being a serious contender in the conference. It will happen, but my gut has said all offseason that it will not be in 2019 quite yet.
The Wildcats have been up and down throughout the tenure of Pat Fitzgerald, but are always a tough out and well-coached. They have started to become a more consistent threat the last few years, especially after having won the West last season and earning a trip to Indy. With their new, fantastic facilities, it really does feel like they have staying power and are going to be a factor for the foreseeable future. If it clicks with Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson at quarterback this year, it would not be a shock to see them repeat as division champs.
Admittedly, I’m not as high on Purdue coming into this year as a lot of people seem to be, but they have arguably the country’s best offensive playmaker in Rondale Moore, who is only a sophomore and is only going to get more dangerous. The biggest win they had for 2019 is Jeff Brohm committing to them long-term instead of going home to Louisville, so that alone is huge. They will compete for the division like just about everyone else here, but I would put them in that same category as Nebraska as a team that is still another year away.
The Badgers were not good last year and now have some major questions at quarterback and a defense that is coming off of a season where they did not look like themselves. They have Jonathan Taylor, who may be the best college back in the country, but is that going to be enough for them? I don’t see the Badgers as a favorite to come out of the Big Ten West, but what you can always count on is the strong running game and a developed offensive line that is one of the best in the country. Despite their questions, they are always a threat and going to Camp Randall to play is among the most difficult tasks in college football.
What’s your take on the teams above and where they stand? Start the discussion in the comments below.