1.Wisconsin (Ranked #8 Nationally)
Wisconsin won a double-digit number of games last season for the fourth year in a row, and the 2017 season was the best in recent memory as the Badgers went 13-1 and were a touchdown away from a College Football Playoff berth. In his three years at the helm in Madison, Paul Chryst has been nothing but extraordinary, boasting a career record of 34-7 with the Badgers, and with QB Alex Hornibrook back after having an underrated 2017 (2,644 yards on a 62% completion rate, 25 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 148.6 QB rating) this Badgers team will contend for a spot in the playoff again. The offense as a whole will just have to replace TE Troy Fumagalli, but outside of him, pretty much everybody returns on this offense including the top four rushers, the next six pass catchers after Fumagalli, and everybody on the offensive line. RB Jonathan Taylor returns and is a dark horse Heisman candidate after racking up 1,977 yards on 6.6 (!) YPA as a freshman. This offense should improve on last year’s already superb marks.
Defensively, we start to run into some issues. The Badgers had one of the best Ds in the country last year, giving up just 4.4 yards per play. However, just four starters return from last season. On the line, NT Olive Sagapolu is the only returner, leaving big holes at the ends to be filled by sophomore Isaiahh Loudermilk and junior Garrett Rand. The cornerback spot is another concern as two sophomores will have to fill in there. The one bright spot on the defense is the linebacking corps. TJ Edwards returns after an All-American season in 2017, as do seniors Ryan Connelly and Andrew Van Ginkel on either side of him. This unit is not without inexperience though, as sophomore Christian Bell will have to slide into the second outside linebacker spot after starting zero games as a freshman. The schedule is really easy out of conference, but the Badgers do draw their five toughest games in conference all on the road (ouch!) and a team even as talented as this one will not be able to go 12-0 in the regular season like they did last year.
Projected Regular Season Record: 10-2 (7-2 Big Ten)
Iowa has gone 7-6 or 8-5 six of the past eight years (one 12 win season, one four-win season) and I see a very familiar trend repeating itself this year. QB Nate Stanley was inconsistent last year, passing at just a 56% completion rate, although his 26 touchdown to six interception ratio did impress me. The top two pass catchers from last year, WR Nic Easley and TE Noah Fant, both return along with promising backups TJ Hockenson (blocking TE) and sophomore receiver Ihmir Smith Marsette, who will move into a starting role after 187 yards as a freshman. The run game won’t be great, which it wasn’t last year either (11th in the Big Ten in rushing ypg), but they lose NFL talent Akrum Wadley AND his backup, James Butler so it may fall even further. I expect a better passing game and worse ground game, but this offense should be pretty consistent from where they were last year.
On defense, the Hawkeyes lose All-Americans Josh Jackson and Josey Jewell, but do get back FS Brandon Snyder, who missed last year with an injury. My big concern is linebacking group, where the Hawkeyes lose not only their #1 tackler in Jewell, but also the #2 and #3 tacklers from the defense, meaning there will be three new starters on the second level. Sophomore Nick Niemann is a name to watch, his brother Ben held down a starting role at the sam linebacker spot last year. This defense will take a step back, and it will mainly be due to this giant question mark at the second level. Despite my worries on defense, Istill think this Iowa team is a near lock to make a bowl, the schedule is one of the easiest in the power five with just Penn State of the top four teams in the East, and all three non-conference games are likely wins at home. Another 8-5 year just feels right.
Projected Regular Season Record: 8-4 (5-4 Big Ten)
Northwestern is always that team where you look at the top 25 rankings in early October and see that they are randomly #16 and it shocks you. The Wildcats have won ten games two of the past three years, and while I don’t see them making it there again, don’t be shocked if Northwestern, coming off a bye, playing at home, beats Michigan in week four and you look at the top 25 on October 1st and see the Wildcats just sitting there. As has been pointed out, Northwestern actually comes into the year riding the longest win streak of any power five team (eight) and they finished 19th in my end of year top 25 (which does not take into account bowls, they would have moved up even further). The Wildcats will lose Justin Jackson, who was a generational talent at running back, so QB Clayton Thorson, who is not your typical dual-threat style Northwestern quarterback, will have to step up and the passing game will have to lead the offense after taking a back seat last season.
The defense loses both safeties, and a couple pieces elsewhere, but most of this group returns, including NFL Draft prospect Paddy Fisher who will play at middle linebacker after leading the team in tackles (113) last year. As long as the safety play, especially from sophomore JR Pace, is solid, this defense should improve and could crack the fours in opponent yards per play. The schedule looks pretty tough with Notre Dame and Duke out of conference and five road games in Big Ten play. In addition to that, the Wildcats get the unfortunate draw of Michigan and Michigan State from the East, but it could be worse and this team should still make a bowl.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (5-4 Big Ten)
Jeff Brohm’s first year in West Lafayette exceeded expectations and then some. The Boilermakers had not had a winning record since 2011, but Brohm pulled out a miracle and helped lead this Purdue team to seven wins, just one fewer than they had in the previous three years combined. Brohm, an offensive genius at the group of five level, will need the offense to step up if the Boilermakers want a repeat bowl appearance for the first time since 2011-2012. QB Elijah Sindelar was just alright last year, but enough pieces return around him, including every running back and four of five from the offensive line, that I expect some pretty massive improvement on offense.
Defensively, this team loses a lot and will return just four starters. Both safeties return, Markus Bailey returns at WLB after 89 tackles and seven sacks last year, and Lorenzo Neal (two sack, 3.5 TFL) will hold down the nose guard spot again, but outside of that, there are a lot of unkn0wn quantities, and you are going to see a defense that starts at least six underclassmen, including a pair of freshmen at corner and one more at the end spot. I am expecting a big step back on defense, and the schedule certainly doesn’t help. Two power fives out of conference, Ohio State and Michigan State from the East and their games against the bottom three teams in the division (their most winnable games) all on the road makes this a contender for the worst draw in the nation. This is a bowl deserving team that may not get there because of the schedule.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (3-6 Big Ten)
PJ Fleck did a tremendous job building up Western Michigan, but anybody who thought the same transition would take place overnight at Minnesota was fooling themselves. Freshman Tanner Morgan is the projected starter at QB. Fleck hand picked Morgan to be his guy to lead the Golden Gophers into the future, but I am always skeptical of a freshman leading a team’s offense. However, the skill corps around him is pretty solid. The top three receivers are back (although they lose a lot of depth), and a similar thing is true at the running back spot where Rodney Smith (977 yards, 4.3 YPA) returns for his senior year but loses his backup. This is the rare case where I see a freshman QB actually improving the offense because he fits Fleck’s scheme (and teams just generally do much better in year two under a coach) but I still wouldn’t expect this offense to set the world on fire.
Minnesota looks pretty solid on defense at a glance, but again, depth may be an issue. The defensive line adds Alabama transfer OJ Smith at nose tackle and returns DE Carter Coughlin, who was fantastic last year (6.5 sacks, 5 TFL). In the secondary, a name to watch would be S Antonio Shenault, who despite some health issues still managed 65 tackles and three picks. I see this defense being pretty average again as a whole, but injuries could send it spiraling out of control. The schedule isn’t awful, and Minnesota won’t have to face any power fives out of conference (although Fresno State is really good). Games against Purdue, Northwestern, Indiana, and Iowa are all at home and the Gophers will need to get three of those four if they want to make a bowl in year two under Fleck.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (3-6 Big Ten)
Nebraska made the best hire of the offseason when they took former Cornhusker QB Scott Frost who turned UCF from a 0-12 team to national champions (wink) in just two years. I honestly believe Frost is a top-20 coach in the country, maybe higher, but he has very little to work with in his first year in Lincoln. Three of five starters are back on the offensive line as are the top two receivers, but the problem comes in the quarterback room where the Cornhuskers don’t return a single player that even threw a pass last year. The QB battle looks to be between a pair of freshman: Tristan Gebbia and Adrian Martinez. Both are four-star recruits, and Gebbia has shown to be the better passer of the two, but the true freshman Martinez may fit better into Frost’s scheme because of his ability to make plays with his feet, and he has the added advantage of being a Frost recruit. Whoever wins the job, I don’t actually expect a step back because of how much respect I have for Frost as an offensive-minded coach.
The defense was…. not good last year. The Cornhuskers gave up 6.3 (!) yards per play, a full .6 yards per play worse than the second-worst team in the conference, Rutgers, and almost two full yards per play behind the leaders of the conference. New defensive coordinator Erik Chinander (formerly UCF DC) doesn’t have much to work with but I do expect some improvement because of the number of starters returning and flat out progression towards the mean. With Frost at the helm, the ceiling is quite high, but Nebraska draws three of the top four from the East, and while I don’t see a bowl in year one, Michigan State at home in late November once Frost has figured out the whole QB situation just smells upset alert, doesn’t it?
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (2-7 Big Ten)
There are a lot of coaches on the hot seat in 2018, but Lovie Smith’s seat may be the hottest. I don’t think a bowl is even possible, but doubling last year’s two wins would be the absolute minimum for him to even have a chance at keeping the job for another year. QB Cameron Thomas returns after starting two games last year and being pretty awful throwing the ball as a freshman (375 yards, 42% completion rate, zero touchdowns, five interceptions, 75.0 QB rating) but the reason he is likely to become the starter this year is what he was able to do on the ground, averaging 4.5 YPA but showing flashes of a true option style QB. There are plenty of sophomores around Thomas, including the top receiver, top running back, and four of five on the offensive line, making this one of the least experienced offenses in the power five. This offense will probably be the worst in the conference again, but I am expecting some improvement over the course of the next few years as the group plays together.
Defensively, this team will be better, although still won’t nearly be average and will struggle mightily against top-level Big Ten competition. The schedule is easy enough that there is a decent chance this team goes 3-0 out of conference (although will be underdogs vs USF). The Fighting Illini draw Penn State from the East and will get Maryland, Nebraska, and Rutgers, their three most winnable games in conference, all on the road, and a bowl game in year three under Lovie is certainly a stretch.
Projected Regular Season Record: 4-8 (2-7 Big Ten)