The Big Ten conference schedule kicks off in full this weekend, which means it’s time to predict how the teams will finish within their division. I purposefully wait to make my picks until the non-conference schedule is over, so I can have a better idea of who is a contender and who is a pretender. Given my prognosticating history, I need all the help I can get.
Once conference play gets rolling, I’ll do a weekly ranking of Big Ten teams 1 through 14, but for the initial round we’ll keep it East and West. As we’ll discuss, the two divisions could not be more different this year. Let’s start with the East…
The second edition of the Big Ten East reminds me a lot of the Big Eight of the 1980s. Ohio State and Michigan State play the role of Nebraska and Oklahoma – legitimate national championship contenders, who will fight for the title. Michigan has the role of Colorado – a team with potential, but one that’s probably a few years away. The other four teams will play the role of KU, KSU, ISU, MU, and OSU – teams that will peak at average and will pose little threat to the two big dogs.
- Ohio State. I know the Buckeyes have not been clicking on all cylinders. Quarterback is still a bit of a question, but this program has earned the benefit of the doubt until somebody knocks them down. Also, they host Michigan State in the Horseshoe.
- Michigan State. Oregon’s blowout loss took some of the shine off of what initially looked like a big Spartan win. Regardless, it’s still the best win by a Big Ten team this year. Michigan State has a challenging conference schedule with road games at Michigan, Nebraska, and Ohio State. If they win all three of those, they will have earned the division title.
- Michigan. It’s not that I think Hail to the Harbaughs are the third best in the division, it’s that nobody else has impressed me enough to be ranked ahead of the Wolverines. If I could, I’d insert a blank space to help illustrate the gap OSU/MSU and Michigan.
- Indiana. Picking the Hoosiers fourth is as much about the mediocrity of the division as it is about Indiana discovering how to play non-awful football. They may be 4-0 now, but there is a good chance they;ll be 5-3 or even 4-4 by November 1.
- Penn State. There are good arguments to be made for any of the three remaining teams to be picked last. From what I’ve seen of Penn State, they look rather dreadful despite having one of the finest quarterback talents in the country in Christian Hackenberg (hashtag sarcasm font). But, they already own a head to head win over Rutgers. Expect the Nitany Lions to beat a team they have no business beating, but to lose a lot of ugly games.
- Maryland. In my first draft, I had Maryland ahead of Penn State. But as miserable as PSU has looked, they haven’t been blown out by West Virginia and – yikes – Bowling Green. Maryland’s season may be uglier than their uniforms, which is saying a lot.
- Rutgers. I’m a little disappointed that Rutgers beat Kansas. Had they lost to the Jayhawks, Rutgers would have been locked into the #14 spot in the weekly power rankings for the season, no questions asked. Seriously, it might have taken wins over Ohio State and Michigan State to remove them from the cellar. As it is, the odds are very good the Scarlet Knights will have more suspensions (five, not including coach Kyle Flood) than wins.
The West should be wild this year, as every team except Illinois and Purdue has a puncher’s chance of winning a trip to Indianapolis be blown out by a far better team from the East. Before the season, this looked like a three horse race between Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Minnesota. But strong starts from Iowa and Northwestern have pushed them into the conversation. Predicting an order of finish is like flipping a five-sided coin – it’s damn near impossible. The two biggest factors in the West will likely be a) who can protect their home field and who has favorable cross-over games with the East. Teams that can win on the road and/or avoid OSU and MSU will have a leg up. Regardless, I’ll be surprised if a team wins this division with fewer than two losses.
- Wisconsin. Much like Ohio State, Wisconsin gets the nod based more on track record than clear potential. The injury to Corey Clement is big (Husker fans, feel free to insert a cell phone joke here), and the NFL scouts aren’t lining up to see Joel Stave. But the Badgers do have the easiest cross over games (Rutgers and at Maryland), have Iowa at home, and likely have a healthy mental edge on Nebraska.
- Minnesota. Arguably the best defense in the division, the Gophers would likely be a strong favorite if a) their offense was better and/or b) they didn’t have the toughest schedule in the division (Michigan and at Ohio State). Still, you underestimate Minnesota at your own risk.
- Nebraska. The Huskers have the best offense in the division, a very strong run defense, and game-changing weapons on special teams. But the Big Red has big issues with pass defense and pass rush, and is paper-thin at many critical positions. There are other concerns with NU’s ability to avoid penalties and mental errors, and to avoid the one quarter each game where nothing goes right. NU certainly has the talent and coaching to win the division, but this program needs to prove it can win big games again.
- Northwestern. In the relatively short time I’ve been following the Big Ten, one pattern has become clear: When Northwestern gets preseason hype, they fall apart. When the Wildcats are ignored, they are sneaky good. This is a sneaky good year, having beaten Stanford and Duke (thus winning the Brainiac Cup). October is big for the other NU: if they can go 4-0 or 3-1 against Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, and Nebraska, they could coast into Indy.
- Iowa. Kirk Ferentz’s seat was getting very very hot, but four straight wins have the Hawkeye faithful ready for a return to glory – or at least willing to hold off on shoving Ferentz out the door. If he can get a program that has been mediocre (if not bad) in the last three years to Indy, he deserves a contract extension. Cross over games with Maryland and at Indiana will help his cause.
- Illinois. It’s never good when you fire your head coach a week before the season starts, yet the Illini may be better for it – especially in the long run. The issue in Champaign is talent and consistency. Don’t be surprised if they play a spoiler role for one of the teams above them in the standings.
- Purdue. The bad news: The Boilermakers do not currently have a win over a FBS team. The good news: Purdue probably could finish fifth or sixth in the East.
Big Ten Championship
If everything holds to form, we’ll see a repeat of Ohio State and Wisconsin in Indianapolis. This time, the Badgers make the game interesting…for a quarter, before the Buckeyes rout them again.
Dark horse prediction: Michigan State pulls the upset in Columbus and heads to Indy undefeated and ranked #1. They face a Nebraska team who lost 35-17 to the Spartans in Lincoln as Connor Cook threw for 375 yards and five touchdowns. This time, Cook goes out with an early injury and Mark Banker’s run defense shuts down the Spartans. Mike Riley’s offense clicks on all cylinders as Nebraska shocks the nation with a 31-9 win.