1.Ohio State (Ranked #2 Nationally)
At the time of writing, Urban Meyer’s future with the Buckeyes is still unclear after reports surfaced that Meyer had knowledge of former Buckeyes receiver coach Zach Smith’s history of domestic violence as far back as 2009. Smith was fired when a 2015 police report came to light two weeks ago. In a statement, Meyer claimed that he reported this to the university when he knew of it, but if I had to make a prediction, Urban Meyer is probably not coaching this team week one. However, according to an article from USA Today published yesterday, former Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops has emerged as the frontrunner for the job, and with all my eggs in that report’s basket, I’ve decided to not move my prediction for Ohio State this year, or even give them the “new coach” tag in my model, given that both coordinators will be staying so the players won’t have to learn new schemes. Urban Meyer is probably a top three coach in college football, but Bob Stoops was right at that level when coaching at OU, and if he unretires to come coach the Buckeyes, I wouldn’t expect much of a drop in coaching. Even if this team has to deal with a coaching change, this is still one of the most talented rosters in the nation and a very likely contender for the college football playoff. Sophomore Dwayne Haskins will slide into the starting role at QB, and I am excited to see him play. In limited time last year, Haskins was tremendous, boasting a 173.1 QB rating, something that will make him the front-runner for the Heisman if he can keep it up over the course of a full year. At running back we have another rare case where I am not worried about a sophomore starting, as JK Dobbins was tremendous as a freshman, racking up 1,403 yards and seven touchdowns on 7.2 (!!!!!!!) yards per attempt. The top six receivers return, along with two All-Big Ten caliber player on the left side of the line in Isaiah Prince and Michael Jordan. This offense will be one of the best in the nation and could crack seven yards per play, which the Buckeyes haven’t done since all the way back in 2014 when they won the national title.
Defensively I am willing to say that I am less confident that this is a “best in the country” level team, but the Buckeyes may be top ten. The NFL losses, especially Denzel Ward, Damon Webb, and Jerome Baker, will be missed, but the defensive line, despite having three players drafted by itself, may actually improve with the beast known as Nick Bosa at the helm. Bosa racked up 8.5 sacks last season, and I expect him to break double digits en route to an All-American level year. The Buckeyes will have to play TCU in Arlington and will have to face my #2 and #3 teams in conference on the road as well, but this is maybe the most talented roster in the country, and I don’t think Urban Meyer’s departure will change that.
Projected Regular Season Record: 11-1 (8-1 Big Ten)
2.Penn State (Ranked #7 Nationally)
Anytime anybody asks me if I have a “sleeper” playoff pick, the Penn State Nittany Lions are my answer ten times out of ten. Many are picking this team to finish fourth in their own division, but I have PSU as my #7 team nationally, and much like I rooted against Miami when I told everyone they were overrated last year, I will be rooting for Penn State because of how underrated they are nationally. RB Saquon Barkley is gone, but QB Trace McSorley (3,570 yards on a 66.5% completion rate, 28 touchdowns, just ten interceptions, 153.7 QB rating) returns after being covered up by Barkley’s shadow these past few seasons, and he is probably one of the top ten returning QBs in the country. Barkley’s replacement will be junior Miles Sanders (6.2 YPA in limited time last year), and the receiving group returns three big playmakers in Juwan Johnson, DeAndre Thompkins, and Brandon Polk. The offensive line should be excellent as well, as it returns four starters including an all-conference contender at left tackle in junior Ryan Bates. The offense does lose OC Joe Moorhead (QB coach Ricky Rahne takes his job) and will take a step back, but it won’t be nearly as drastic as some will make it out to be, and this will be a top-15 offense again.
On the defensive side of things, I expect a similar type of thing, maybe a slight drop, but not anything too drastic. The back seven might be a mess, but the defensive line should be potent, and Ryan Buchholz and Shareef Miller may be one of the best pairs of ends in the nation. The rest of the defense is a pretty big question mark. WLB Koa Farmer (48 tackles, 4.5 TFL) is a name to watch. The big holes on defense, especially in the secondary, are why many are expecting the Nittany Lions to take a step back, but if you watched them closely last year, you may notice that James Franklin was one of the most frequent substituters in top-level college football, and despite not starting last year, this team returns six backups with over 20 tackles last season, most of whom will start in 2018. Another reason to join me on the Penn State bandwagon is the schedule. This team isn’t going to lose a game out of conference, and Michigan is the only tough road game they will have all year. I see double-digit wins for the third season in a row.
Projected Regular Season Record: 10-2 (7-2 Big Ten)
3.Michigan State (Ranked #13 Nationally)
After a 3-9 disaster in 2016, Michigan State got right back to their winning ways in 2017, winning double digits games for the sixth time in an eight-year span. This team returns more than any team in the country as a whole. Let’s start with just the offense where ten starters are back including QB Brian Lewerke, his halfback, LJ Scott, five of the top six receivers, and four of five from the offensive line. This offense should take a massive step forward and should easily be in the top half of the conference, and they could go higher if head coach Mark Dantonio decides to start taking more risks.
On the defensive side of things, nine starters return from what was one of the best defenses in the Big Ten last year. DE Kenny Willekes (seven sacks), MLB Joe Bachie (100 tackles), CB Justin Layne (40 tackles, eight PBUs), and FS David Dowell (52 tackles, five interceptions) are all back just to name a few, and this could be one of the best defenses in the nation. The schedule shapes up rather nicely, as they avoid Iowa and Wisconsin from the West and will get Ohio State and Michigan both at home. I am expecting another 9-3 regular season with a shot at ten wins if the bowl game goes their way, but a conference title may not be in their reach because of a crowded East division that will contend with the SEC West for the toughest in the country.
Projected Regular Season Record: 9-3 (6-3 Big Ten)
4.Michigan (Ranked #14 Nationally)
This pick is going to stir up even more controversy than my West Virginia one, maybe I just hate teams that wear yellow and blue, but trust me, I have good reasons. First off, I need to clear something up off the top. Jim Harbaugh is not on the hot seat. Harbaugh is 28-11 in his three years in Ann Arbor, which is really solid, so please stop the “Big Ten title or he is out!” talk, ok? Alright, now on to why I’m low on Michigan. First off, the quarterback situation. Michigan’s QB situation was never good last year, and I’m not sure why people think Shea Patterson, who was decidedly alright at Ole Miss (3,139 yards, 23 touchdowns, 12 interceptions in two years), is going to change things. There is a reason Patterson transferred, and it is because his backup outplayed him against tougher competition when Patterson got hurt last year. This offense will almost certainly improve after being one of the worst among top 25 teams, but still will be around average for a Big Ten team.
On defense, boy is this team good. This is where I get the Michigan hype. Sam linebacker Khaleke Hudson was awesome last year (he lead the team in sacks and interceptions, who does that?) and MLB Devin Bush (100 tackles, five sacks) is a legit NFL prospect too, making this one of the best linebacking corps in the country as long as one of two sophomores, Devin Gil or Josh Ross, step up in the will spot. Now comes the #1 knock against this team, and it is an obvious one, the schedule. The Wolverines draw a much tougher schedule than the top three in the conference, getting both Ohio State and Michigan State on the road and drawing Wisconsin and Northwestern from the West. UM will also have to travel to Notre Dame in the non-conference. I don’t see this team making a New Year’s Six bowl, and I certainly don’t get the playoff hype.
Projected Regular Season Record: 8-4 (5-4 Big Ten)
Indiana football has not had a winning season since all the way back in 2007, but after back to back bowl trips and with a talented roster returning last year, 5-7 in year one under Tom Allen just felt like a disappointment. This year the ceiling feels lower, especially because of QB Richard Lagow’s departure. Sophomore Peyton Ramsey is the projected starter, he was the backup last season (started five games due to an injury to Lagow) and threw for 1,252 yards on a 65.4% completion rate, ten touchdowns, and five interceptions (127.9 QB rating), but Arizona grad transfer Brandon Dawkins will challenge for the job. The offensive line returns all five starters, including a left side that will contend for all-conference honors with junior Coy Cronk and senior Wes Martin who have combined for 56 career starts. A lot returns in the skills corps as well, and a healthy inexperienced QB is better than dealing with a decent injury-prone one like the Hoosiers had to last year, so I actually see some improvement.
On the defensive side of things, I am much less cheery. Indiana returns just three starters from last year’s fantastic group (4.9 opponent yards per play). The top three tacklers are gone, and this side of the ball will have to welcome in an entirely new linebacking corps after the group was a strength last year with Tegray Scales and Chris Covington. Playing in the East is tough because the schedule guarantees four losses, so the Hoosiers will have to sweep the non-conference or will be forced to sweep games in conference @ Rutgers, vs Maryland, vs Iowa, and vs Purdue in order to make a bowl, and I am just not quite confident enough in this defense to call for that this year, although the future is bright.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (3-6 Big Ten)
I really, really like Maryland this year, but the schedule is absolutely brutal. The Terps return almost everybody on offense from a team that was riddled with injuries and still managed to go 4-8. UNC transfer Caleb Henderson was projected to be the starter last year, but broke his foot, so the starter week one was Tyrell Pigrome, who threw a pick-six on his first pass, but was absolutely incredible for the game as a whole (75% completion rate, 175 yards, two touchdowns, one rushing TD, 235.8 QB rating) for about one half of football before tearing his ACL. Kasim Hill then came in and was also excellent, he ended up playing about one half of football as well (85.7% completion rate, 230 yards, two touchdowns, one rushing touchdown, zero interceptions, 209.1 QB rating) before tearing his ACL. That led the way for Max Bortenschlager to come in to start the rest of the season, who was decidedly less excellent (51.9% completion rate, 1,313 yards, ten touchdowns, five interceptions, 109.1 QB rating). When he hurt his shoulder with three weeks to go it turned into a sick joke. Walk on Ryan Brand came in and was even worse (51.1% completion rate, 204 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions, 86.0 QB rating). I am not sure which one of Hill or Pigrome will start, in fact, I would guess both get reps at starter over the course of the year. New OC Matt Canada has a lot to work with in the run game as well, with all five starters on the line back, along with the top five rushers from last season, including HB Ty Johnson (6.4 YPA). I expect massive improvement from this offense.
On the defensive side of things, this team does return fewer starters, but the Terps will add transfers from Auburn (DE Byron Cowart), Illinois (LB Tre Watson), and Florida State (CB Marcus Lewis), all of whom will be expected to start and make an impact in their first year at their new team. Buck/DE Jesse Aniebonam is back from injury, and this defensive line really entices me as they also return DT Mbi Tanyi. The secondary should be pretty solid too. Darnell Savage returns at safety after three picks and 59 tackles last year, although I will worry about the man playing opposite him, sophomore FS Antwaine Richardson, who struggled at times last season. As I mentioned earlier, the schedule is really tough with Texas out of conference, and five almost-certain losses in conference play. This team deserves to go bowling but with this schedule, I just don’t see it happening.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (3-6 Big Ten)
Is Rutgers going to be not awful this year? My computer has the Scarlet Knights rated as my #55 power conference team (of 64), which may sound rough, but it is actually some improvement! The run game was alright last year, but will take a step back, and the passing game was awful but should take a step forward. QB Giovanni Rescugno returns after starting the last seven games last year (47% completion rate, 517 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, 95.0 QB rating), but Chris Ash may hand the reigns over to true freshman Arthur Sitkowski who was the biggest name prospect to commit to Rutgers in recent memory. Sitkowski is an early enrollee with a big arm that fits Ash’s scheme, and I project that he is starting by the end of the year.
On the defensive side, this team will continue to improve after giving up 5.7 yards per play a season ago. The defensive line is a bit of an issue as they lose both DE Kemoko Turay and NT Sebastian Joseph, who were taken in the NFL draft. If returning starters Kevin Wilkins and Jon Bateky can get some pressure, the secondary should cover the rest, as it is the best unit on this team. All four starters are back, including CB Blessuan Austin, who returns from an ACL tear after locking down offenses in 2016. I expect some big improvement from this team, but with a road game @ Kansas in the non-conference, and a tough draw where they will have to face six of the top seven teams in the conference, a bowl game just isn’t realistic.
Projected Regular Season Record: 4-8 (2-7 Big Ten)