The Michigan Wolverines claimed their first Big Ten championship last season since 2004, but the championship game itself honestly felt like an afterthought when it arrived. A week prior, the Wolverines had toppled the Goliath that was Ohio State and won the Big Ten East, earning the right to face Iowa for the conference crown.
But after beating the vaunted Buckeyes and winning one of the hardest divisions in all of college football, the Big Ten Championship quickly became a three-hour coronation for the East division representatives, like it always does.
When the Big Ten realigned the most recently (2014), an East team has won the conference championship every subsequent year. In fact, the Big Ten West winner has been outscored by a margin of 283-123 by the Big Ten East winner since 2014.
Translation: win the East division, win the conference.
So how is the Big Ten East going to shake out in 2022? Can the Wolverines repeat? Will the Buckeyes reclaim the throne they occupied for four straight years entering 2021? Does Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford have any more magic as he enters what feels like his 10th season in Happy Valley? Tuck has had Jim Harbaugh’s number since he arrived, but is “Tuck comin” for it all now?
Frankly, I can see a world where any of the top three teams claim the title this season, but this is how I see the Big Ten East finishing up in 2022.
7) Indiana, 2022 Projected Record: (3-9) | 2021 Record: (2-10)
The Hoosiers were the worst team in the conference last season and they have an uphill battle ahead of them in 2022 as they fight to regain relevancy. Indiana is breaking in a new offensive coordinator, new defensive coordinator, new quarterback, a new middle linebacker, new running backs and new pass catchers.
A complete overhaul for a desperate team.
It is hard to see any world where the Hoosiers reach .500, but they should be more competitive than they were a season ago.
6) Rutgers, 2022 Projected Record: (6-6) | 2021 Record: (5-7)
I feel like Tobias Funke clamoring about the promise of Rutgers football — ”There are dozens of us, DOZENS!” — but I am a believer in what Greg Schiano is building in his second stint with the program.
Since Schiano’s return, the Scarlet Knights have improved from three wins to five (including a surprise Gator Bowl appearance due to Texas A&M backtracking because of Covid) in his first two seasons, and I think they will continue their upward momentum again in 2022.
However, due to a difficult schedule and a young team, this season could easily become a back step year for Schiano and company, but I believe in Rutgers.
5) Penn State, 2022 Projected Record: (6-6) | 2021 Record: (7-5)
This is the year head coach James Franklin’s seat goes from slightly microwavable warm to the scolding hellfire of Mount Doom hot. Penn States is 11-11 the past two seasons and I anticipate more of the same — literally — this season.
With holes across the offensive line, veteran quarterback Sean Clifford — who should surpass 40 career starts this season — will again be running for his life every week. And the defense, especially in the front seven, is expected to take a step back while new coordinator Manny Diaz implements his scheme.
Week 1 against Purdue should offer a significant glimpse of what we need to know about the Nittany Lions as Franklin coaches for his job.
4) Maryland, 2022 Projected Record: (7-5) | 2021 Record: (6-6)
The Terrapins are becoming the trendy pick to take that next step in 2022 and while I think they will slightly improve, I can’t see it as clearly as others with quarterback Taulia “Turtle” Tagoviloa.
Turtle is uber talented, but sometimes he plays like he’s stuck on his back and can’t recover. He was great in regular season wins last year, completing 73.1% of his passes, averaging 345 yards per game and throwing 15 touchdowns compared to only one interception.
But in losses, Turtle completed 64.3% of his passes, averaged 254 yards per game and threw nine touchdowns compared to 10 interceptions. Until a more consistent player is shown, it is hard to have overwhelming faith in Maryland as a team.
3) Michigan State, 2022 Projected Record: (8-4) | 2021 Record: (10-2)
Michigan State is a tough team to figure out coming off an improbable special season, and I could be swayed to believe outcomes as low as 6-6 or as high as 10-2 this season.
On one hand, head coach Mel Tucker seems to have that infectious “IT” factor that creates exhaustive buy-in from fans and players alike. Tucker was once again aggressive in the transfer portal to help replenish his offense, and the defense is largely in-tact with key players returning at each level.
On the other, I’m dubious quarterback Payton Thorne can replicate his school record 27 touchdown passes behind a piece-meal offensive line and without All-American running back Kenneth Walker drawing the majority of attention. Furthermore, Michigan State was able to overcome the country’s dead-last passing defense and the conference’s No. 11 ranked third-down defense to post a 4-0 record in one-score games last season.
While defensive improvements are expected, the Spartans face a more difficult schedule in 2022, so a few more losses could follow.
2) Ohio State, 2022 Projected Record: (10-2) | 2021 Record: (10-2)
Ohio State will again be a threat for the Big Ten Championship and National Championship in 2022, but there are more reasons for concern than normal in Columbus.
Offensively, Ohio State will still be among the nation’s best, but losing wide receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave will inevitably make quarterback CJ Stroud’s life more difficult. But given their depth chart talent, these losses will at least be mitigated.
However, the concerns defensively are the most alarming. In both losses last year, the Buckeyes were thoroughly dominated in the trenches and a schedule featuring new physical foes Notre Dame and Wisconsin will provide an early barometer for new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and his 3-3-5 scheme.
1) Michigan, 2022 Projected Record: (11-1) | 2021 Record: (11-1)
“oF cOuRsE yOu PuT miCHiGan fiRSt!”
Listen, I received the same knee-jerk comments when I projected Michigan to finish (what turned out to be a lowly) 9-3 last season, so hear me out.
The Michigan offense that was third in the Big Ten in total offense and second in scoring offense last year and is going to be even better in 2022. In addition to the returning eight starters, the Wolverines bring back wide receiver Ronnie Bell, add Rimington finalist Olu Oluwatimi at center, and sophomore running back Donovan Edwards is ready to explode with an increased role.
The best special teams in the country is completely intact, so let’s keep it moving.
Defensively is where the skepticisms are fair and warranted because Michigan loses seven starters from last season. However, this unit is littered with a deceptive amount of experience and potential at all levels.
The secondary will immediately be a strength with returners DJ Turner, RJ Moten, Rod Moore, Gemon Green (all who have starting experience) and five-star freshman Will Johnson, as the Wolverines work to manufacture a pass rush in the absence of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo.
Hutch cannot be replaced, but the loss can be mitigated with the talent on the roster, and the next Ojabo could always be lurking. Remember, the latter entered last season with one career tackle and zeroes across all other statistical categories.
Furthermore, the Wolverines have produced at least one first round pass rusher from every starting duo since Harbaugh came to Michigan. I fully trust this staff to find the next one.
As far as coaching is concerned, the narrative surrounding the departures of offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald are massively overblown. Gattis’s co-OC from last season, Sherrone Moore, retains that title and is accompanied by returning quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss, who was extensively involved in game plans last year.
Defensively, Jesse Minter’s defense will likely be the exact same scheme. Macdonald and Minter worked together with the Baltimore Ravens from 2017-20, so while new faces will emerge this season, they will still be growing within the same system they learned in 2021.
Ric Flair said it best, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man,” and all roads go through the Wolverines in 2022.