College football is back and every week I will be posting our version of Big Ten Power Rankings. I won’t be using any formula per say, just some facts, stats, and my opinion. Also note, I will make the rankings based on the current situation/landscape for each team within the conference, not necessarily based on record. I’m optimistic Rutgers will go to a bowl this season, but that doesn’t mean I will start them in the top half of the rankings. Besides, it’s more fun to start from the bottom and work up the ladder. Hopefully that helps clarify how I am approaching this and the weekly power rankings starts some fun spirited debate. Which division is better? There will be a lot to discuss throughout the season and we start here.
Former Rutgers assistant Darrell Hazell is on the hot seat this season and it’s possible they start off 1-2 with non-conference games against Cincinnati and Nevada. It could be another ugly season for the Boilermakers, but heck, at least they have a solid basketball program. So they have that going for them, but I don’t see them topping 3 wins this season on the football field.
I’m making a point here, as I don’t understand why Maryland is universally picked ahead of Rutgers this season. They were 3-9 last season and threw more interceptions at the quarterback position than any FBS team in the country. For Rutgers fans concerned about Chris Laviano as our starter, Maryland is starting Perry Hills behind center, who threw 8 touchdowns and 13 interceptions last season with only 5.6 yards per pass attempt and a 50% completion rate. Sure, their non-conference schedule is far easier and they realistically should start the season 4-0 after playing Howard, FIU, UCF, and Purdue. BUT, there last 8 games will be very difficult and it’s possible they lose out the rest of the season. Seriously. Of course, Maryland fans seems to be counting on their senior day game against Rutgers as a likely win, and you can’t blame them for that. One thing is for sure, no matter the records of both teams, Rutgers at Maryland in the season finale will mean a lot for both programs and really is becoming a true rivalry.
Hiring Lovie Smith at Illinois may turn out to be a good move. However, doing so a couple days before spring practice started seems like a decision that rears it’s ugly head later on during the season. Doesn’t playing catchup for 6 months ultimately, um, catch up with you? Wes Lunt is a fine quarterback, but with Mikey Dudeck out again with another ACL injury, he needs to establish a go to receiver. I think Illinois will be better prepared this season under Smith, but they have a challenging non-conference schedule with North Carolina and MAC upstart Western Michigan. They have Purdue and Minnesota at home, but their road schedule is brutal and they even have to play Rutgers on the road for Homecoming. I’m not saying Lovie’s transition from the pro’s to college will be Eddie Jordan level bad, but the transition will be harder than people are taking into account I think.
I am an eternal optimist and think Rutgers can be the surprise of the Big Ten this season. However, it would be unreasonable to start them in the power rankings any higher without proving themselves on the field first. I think they had a tremendous training camp and will play with a chip on their shoulder all season. I think Ash is the type of coach to get the most out of his players and will ultimately get this team to overachieve this season. I think the trajectory of this team will be determined by how much the defense improves under defensive coordinator Jay Niemann and Ash. If they can keep them in games, especially on the road, I think Rutgers will surprise more than a few critics this season. There are even reasons to think Chris Laviano will be a better quarterback this season. There are some other question marks at linebacker and in the kicking game, but having such a veteran team is a major reason to be optimistic this season. In Ash We Trust!
Listen, I dislike this team and think Rutgers is a better program as much as anyone who wears the scarlet color. But the bottom line is Indiana is a bowl team from last season that has a high octane offense and although they have to replace Nate Sudfeld and Jordan Howard, head coach Kevin Wilson has proven to be a successful offensive coach in the Big Ten. Their defense has about the same amount of question marks as Rutgers does, so I put them slightly ahead for now, with their offense being the tiebreaker. Plus their non-conference schedule is pretty easy with FIU, Ball State and Wake Forest. I am confident Rutgers can catch the Hoosiers down the road and beat them on the field this season, but it seems fair to start them one spot ahead at the beginning of the year.
9. Penn State
Coach Hype enters his third season after making major coaching changes on both sides of the ball. How their offense responds to a new coordinator and new quarterback will be interesting to watch. However, they may have the best running back in the conference in one-time Rutgers commit Saquon Barkley. It would make sense to make him the focal point, but their offensive line must improve. On defense, they lost a great coordinator in Bob Shoop, who jumped ship to Tennessee in the offseason. They also have to replace Carl Nassib on the defensive line, who was otherworldly last season. I think they will still have an above average defense this season, but not as dominant as last year, which kept Penn State in most of their games. Credit the Nittany Lions with scheduling Pitt and Temple in non-conference play. Those two early games will tell us a lot about the ceiling for this team.
Minnesota looks to be similar to last season, with their strength on defense and being offensively challenged on the other side of the ball. Certainly, Mitch Leidner is an experienced quarterback and how much he improves should determine how far the Golden Gophers go under first year head coach Tracy Claeys. This is not a flashy team, but they are tough and won’t be an easy out for any of the Big Ten powers.
We will find out a lot about the Badgers this weekend when they open up the season against #5 LSU at Lambeau Field. They have a brutal schedule at the start of Big Ten play, as their first four conference opponents are Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa, with only the Buckeyes at home. That has to be the most difficult four game stretch for any team in the country this season. To make matters worse, they just lost their most valuable offensive lineman in Dan Voltz, who was forced into retirement for medical reasons. They must keep running back Corey Clement healthy to help balance the offense with new quarterback Bart Houston. Otherwise, they could be 2-5 when they host Nebraska the last weekend of October.
Similar to Minnesota, but a slightly better defense last season and about the same lack of offensive production. How much quarterback Clayton Thorson improves this season will probably determine if they can challenge for the West division title. Also, they need to survive October with road games at Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State. Right now, I think they should be right above the middle of the pack in the conference, but could shoot up or down depending on that brutal stretch.
I think the Cornhuskers respond to Mike Riley in his second year at the helm and they have a nice bounce back season. I don’t necessarily think they exceed that 9 win total that the school and fan base grew tired of under former head coach Bo Pelini, but I think they suffered a lot of bad luck last season. Having senior Tommy Armstrong at quarterback puts them as a legitimate challenger in the West division. If they can be more consistent, they will be near the top of the Big Ten all season.
There is no doubt Michigan will be a good team this season. However, I’m not so sure they will be destined to play in the college football playoff, as some have predicted. They are breaking in a new starting quarterback, who Jim Harbaugh has still not announced. Michigan should again have a dominant defense, but the offense needs to pull their weight. They struggled with the run at times last season and they need to prove they can control the game on the ground this year. No matter what you think of Harbaugh, the man or the tweeter, there is no denying he is a heck of a football coach. However, he has already allowed for off the field distractions to creep in before the season is even underway. Not to mention their last three road games to end the season are at Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State. My one guarantee is they will be fascinating to track this season.
3. Michigan State
Remember, with all the hype in Ann Arbor it’s their neighbor in East Lansing that is the Big Ten defending champion. Replacing all-conference quarterback Connor Cook will be a big challenge for the Spartans. However, Tyler O’Connor, who won the starting job under center, did come in last season and help upset Ohio State on the road to win the East division title. He wasn’t spectacular, but he managed the game well and threw a big touchdown and had zero interceptions. I admit I sweat this program and think they are the model for what Rutgers can ultimately become. I think Mark Dantonio is one of the best coaches in college football and I see them challenging for the East title again.
It’s been a popular opinion that Iowa is overrated and should drop down after last season’s Big Ten West title and Rose Bowl berth. Sure, they lost their last two games of the season, but they return the bulk of the starters from last season. That includes C.J. Beathard back at quarterback and Desmond King on defense, who is arguably the best player on that side of the ball in the Big Ten. They should be the prohibitive favorite in the West. Their toughest opponents on the schedule this season, which include Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Michigan, are all home games. I think they repeat in the West.
1. Ohio State
Yes, the Buckeyes are replacing a lot of starters this season, as well as breaking in new co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano to replace Chris Ash. However, their roster is stacked with 4-star and 5-star recruits who have had a year or two to develop within their program. And they simply have the best player in the conference in J.T. Barrett at quarterback. I know he struggled at times last season, but I expect he will be the best version of himself this season. Ohio State is the team to beat in my opinion, so they start the season at the top.
Thanks for reading and Big Ten action kicks off in just 4 days!!! For a detailed look at how our expert handicapper T.J. Jurkiewicz views the win totals Vegas set for the Big Ten this season, click here.