The Michigan Wolverines are currently sitting at the top of the Big Ten after winning their first conference championship game over the Iowa Hawkeyes. That opportunity arose because they conquered the Ohio State Buckeyes, who were standing in their way of the promised land the last two decades.
Coming into 2022, at the top of the list projected to compete once again is Ohio State, which is tied for the most appearances in the Big Ten Championship game. And they boast a 5-1 record in those games. But even they are not the perfect team heading into the season. Here is the biggest reason why Ohio State, and the other Big Ten contenders, could find themselves missing Indianapolis this fall.
1. Ohio State’s Defense
We will start with the Buckeyes, who the media is just salivating over with Heisman candidate C.J. Stroud, Jaxson Smith-Njigba and TreVeyon Henderson all back. However, the reason they fell to the Wolverines last season was because of a putrid defense that simply could not stop the run. Overall, they finished 38th in the country by allowing 22.8 points per game.
Jim Knowles is now the defensive coordinator and is looking to turn around a defense that is returning quite a few starters. They also have two top-15 talents in the 2022 class in safety Sonny Styles and linebacker C.J. Hicks.
The defense just has to be good enough to give their offense more advantageous situations. If they can do that, they could easily be among the best teams in the country yet again this season.
2. Michigan: Replacing Ojabo/Hutchinson
There were plenty of times last season where Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo took over football games. Together, they were the best pass-rushing duo in the country. Individually, Hutchinson was the Heisman runner-up and Ojabo was a top-5 pass rusher. Then you paired those two with one of the fastest players in the country, Dax Hill, blitzing from even further outside.
That kind of speed and quarterback pressure is going to be impossible to replicate. However, the Wolverines are hopeful Mike Morris, Braiden McGregor and Taylor Upshaw step up.
“Morris could be the next Aidan Hutchinson, (David) Ojabo,” Harbaugh said in March. “There’s some really exciting things going on with the defensive line.”
Let’s hope he is right.
3. Michigan State’s schedule
The clout for Mel Tucker has risen to exponentially high levels, but he has a massive test in 2022. He’s now without his best player from the year prior as Kenneth Walker has moved on to the NFL and the Spartans play just about every contender for the Big Ten crown this season.
October is going to tell what this squad is about, as Michigan State has a three-game stretch of hosting Ohio State and Wisconsin, then heading to Ann Arbor to face the Wolverines in a Halloween weekend showdown.
Washington is one of their non-conference games and it’s on the road for the Spartans. They wrap up the season on the road against Penn State. They probably have the most difficult schedule of any contender in the conference.
4. Penn State’s rushing issues
Michigan showed this past season you don’t need elite quarterback play to win the conference and you can do it with a dominant defense and consistent rushing attack. The Nittany Lions accomplished that just a few years ago with Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders leading the way to a title in 2016.
But that has been severely missing from Happy Valley the past few seasons. In 2021, their leading rusher had 530 rushing yards and the team averaged only 107.8 yards per game on the ground, 118th in the country. Yet, their defense was No. 7 allowing just 16.8 points a game.
They recruited the No. 1 running back in the 2022 class, Nicholas Singleton, who has impressed in the spring. They need him to be elite to pull this program out of the reeds.
5. Graham Mertz’s play at Wisconsin
Braelon Allen is among the best running backs in the country and every year, the Badgers have an elite rushing attack. With Jim Leonhard coaching the defense, you can almost guarantee they will be at the top of every defensive metric yet again.
The one thing the Badgers seem to be missing every year is solid quarterback play. Graham Mertz was supposed to be the savior that got them out of this purgatory. He was a four-star recruit and the No. 65 overall player in his class, but he had more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10) in 2021. He also threw for just 1,958 yards in 13 games. He has become the same run-of-the-mill quarterback Wisconsin has bred the last two decades. If the Badgers are going anywhere, they absolutely NEED Mertz to be much better.
6. Iowa: Finding more explosion on offense
Iowa is the most vanilla team in the conference. To Kirk Ferentz’s credit, it makes them a consistent team that can win a lot of games. However, it limits them when they are trying to keep up with today’s high-powered scoring because their defense can only do so much.
The perfect example of that was the Big Ten title game last season. Michigan’s offense used to look very similar to Iowa’s; lots of running up the gut and little ingenuity. Now, Harbaugh was dialing up flea-flickers, running back throws, screens and end-arounds to speedy athletes.
The Hawkeyes have yet to adopt that next stage, and it may be because they don’t have the players to do it. To make matters even worse, their top back from a season ago, Tyler Goodson, is now in the NFL. They’ll have to find that explosiveness somewhere, or they won’t be going anywhere near the Big Ten title game.