Big Ten Football: Preview and Predictions for 2017 Season

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistAugust 28, 2017

Big Ten Football: Preview and Predictions for 2017 Season

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    With four teams ranked in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll, three new coaches and some of the country's longest-standing rivalries, the Big Ten is once again at the center of the college football universe. That should translate into a tremendous 2017 season, one that could rival the great one the league had a year ago—during the regular season, that is.

    Ten of the conference's schools made bowl games last season, but they only won three of those—and none of the big ones. Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State were involved in College Football Playoff-affiliated contests but each lost, with eventual national champion Clemson shutting out Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal game.

    Will the league have better results in 2017? We'll get a good indication early on as the opening week of games includes some big ones for the Big Ten, with Ohio State visiting Indiana on Aug. 31 and Michigan facing Florida in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 2.

    What else can we expect from the Big Ten this season? Follow along as we break it all down.

Biggest Stars

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    J.T. Barrett
    J.T. BarrettJennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

    Barkley ran for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns last season as a sophomore, posting a pair of 200-yard games as well as 194 yards and two scores (along with a TD catch) in the Rose Bowl loss to USC. Best known for his GIF-worthy moves in the open field, Barkley is a threat to go the distance on every carry.

                

    J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State

    It only seems like Barrett has been at Ohio State forever, but in reality this will be his fourth season at the helm for the Buckeyes. With one more chance to recapture the glory of his redshirt freshman performance in 2014, Barrett needs 3,847 yards of total offense to pass Drew Brees as the Big Ten's career leader.

               

    Rashan Gary, DE, Michigan

    The No. 1 overall prospect from the 2016 recruiting class had a solid, if not spectacular, freshman campaign with one sack and five tackles for loss. But that was mostly as a backup, while this fall he'll be the focal point of a Michigan unit that lost most of its stars from a season ago. Gary is poised for a breakout year and will be key to what the Wolverines do on defense.

             

    Josey Jewell, LB, Iowa

    Jewell heads into his senior season having registered 301 career tackles including 250 over the past two years. Very few of Iowa's defensive plays see him left out as he has a knack for chasing down ball-carriers and disrupting passing lanes.

           

    Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern

    No current FBS player carried the ball more the past season than Jackson (298). As a junior he ran for a Big Ten-best 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns, giving him 4,129 yards and 30 scores for his career. He's also proved to be a capable pass-catcher with 78 receptions.

Top Storylines

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Can Fleck 'Row the Boat' in Minnesota?

    After an impressive run at Western Michigan that included an unbeaten regular season and trip to the Cotton Bowl in 2016, P.J. Fleck brings his high-energy, super-motivated coaching style to Minnesota. There's no denying he has the enthusiasm for the bigger job, but will that translate into success in the Big Ten?

    Fleck takes over for Tracy Claeys, who was fired in January following a sexual assault scandal that saw the former coach take the side of 10 players the school suspended. The Golden Gophers were 9-4 last season, their most wins since 2003. They capped the year with a 17-12 victory over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl, though they must replace three-year starting quarterback Mitch Leidner.

    Fleck is one of three new coaches in the Big Ten this season, along with Indiana's Tom Allen and Purdue's Jeff Brohm.

               

    Will Ohio State's new OC solve all its problems?

    When last we saw Ohio State, it was being shut out for the first time since 1993, losing 31-0 to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. That capped a season full of uneven offensive performances despite a mass of talent on that side, prompting coach Urban Meyer to make major changes to his staff.

    The big move was bringing on recently fired Indiana coach Kevin Wilson as offensive coordinator. Wilson's Hoosiers teams were routinely effective moving the ball, and the hope is he'll be able to do the same with the Buckeyes and their superior talent.

    Wilson will be the third offensive coordinator for Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett.

            

    Is Penn State as good as it was last winter?

    The defending Big Ten champion is Penn State, which after a slow start to 2016 turned into a juggernaut en route to nine straight wins and nearly as many thrilling comebacks. The Nittany Lions rallied to beat Wisconsin in the conference title game before falling 52-49 to USC in a thrilling Rose Bowl.

    That game should serve as a springboard to 2017 for Penn State, which at sixth in the Associated Press poll has its highest preseason ranking since 1999 (per College Poll Archive). Also helping the Lions' cause is the return of most of their best players from last season, including junior running back Saquon Barkley and junior quarterback Trace McSorley.

    A midseason stretch will likely determine PSU's fate in the conference, as it visits Northwestern, Ohio State and Michigan State while hosting Michigan during a five-week stretch from Oct. 7 to Nov. 4.

The Favorites

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    Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

    Ohio State

    The highest-ranked Big Ten team in the preseason poll, No. 2 Ohio State enters 2017 once again as not just a contender to win the conference but also to represent the league in the playoffs. If the latter happens, don't expect the Buckeyes to replicate their woeful Fiesta Bowl performance.

    The Buckeyes lost plenty of talent from that team, particularly on defense, where it will start an entirely new secondary. Yet up front they're as strong as ever, with defensive coordinator Greg Schiano calling his line the best he's ever coached, including when he was head coach of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, per the Big Ten Network.

    OSU's offense begins and ends with fifth-year senior quarterback J.T. Barrett, who threw for 2,555 yards and 24 touchdowns and ran for 845 yards and nine scores in 2016.

             

    Penn State

    No Big Ten team was hotter down the stretch last season than Penn State, which after starting 2-2 (including a blowout loss at Michigan in its conference opener) ran off nine straight to take the East Division and then beat Wisconsin in the league championship game. The Nittany Lions won't sneak up on anyone this season.

    Coach James Franklin was rewarded for his efforts with a six-year contract extension, with the first year of that deal seeing him in charge of 16 returning starters, including nine on offense. Penn State averaged 37.6 points per game in 2016, and its 6.5 yards per play were tops in the Big Ten.

    Because Penn State and Ohio State are both in the East Division, only one of them can make it to the conference title game, which will make the Lions' Oct. 28 tilt at OSU a de facto division championship match.

The Challengers

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Michigan

    We've seen what Jim Harbaugh has done with the talent he inherited from previous coach Brady Hoke, winning 10 games in consecutive seasons. Now he gets to show what he can accomplish with the bevy of top-tier recruits he's signed.

    The Wolverines only return five starters from last year's 10-3 team, with ESPN's Phil Steele ranking them as having the fourth-least experience among 130 FBS teams. At this point, any discussion of their depth chart is just speculation, since Harbaugh has yet to release a team roster (other than one from his elementary school in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1973).

                   

    Northwestern

    Tied with Penn State for the most returning starters in the Big Ten with 16, Northwestern is coming off a 7-6 campaign that began with two straight losses, including one to an FCS school. The Wildcats were uncharacteristically explosive on offense as Clayton Thorson was the program's first 3,000-yard passer since Mike Kafka in 2009, while workhorse running back Justin Jackson led the conference in rushing with 1,524 yards.

    Expect more of the same from Northwestern this fall as long as a receiver can replace the production lost from the Austin Carr's departure (90 catches, 1,247 yards, 12 touchdowns).

                  

    Wisconsin

    A year after having arguably the toughest schedule in the country, Wisconsin has a far more manageable slate this fall since Ohio State and Penn State are no longer on there as crossover foes. In addition, the most difficult nonconference matchup is a trip to BYU compared to the 2016 opener against LSU.

    To take advantage of that schedule the Badgers may need to pass more than normal, since they lost their top two rushers, including Corey Clement. The defense will likely carry things for most of the year, though a season-ending injury to senior linebacker Jack Cichy affects the depth in the middle.

Best Rivalry Matchup

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    Andrew Weber/Getty Images

    Michigan at Ohio State (Nov. 25)

    The Big Ten is home to some of the best rivalry trophies and longest-running series in college football, with Minnesota and Wisconsin set to battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe for the 127th time and in-state rivals Indiana and Purdue vying for the Old Oaken Bucket for the 120th time.

    There's no fancy souvenir when Michigan and Ohio State meet to end the regular season each year, but that doesn't make the game known simply as "The Game" any less significant. The fact it served as an unofficial playoff elimination last season only added to the rivalry's long history.

    Michigan holds a 58-49-6 edge in the series, but Ohio State has won five in a row and 12 of 13, the Wolverines' lone triumph in that run coming in 2011. The 2016 edition was an all-time classic, decided by fractions of an inch when OSU quarterback J.T. Barrett converted on fourth down in double overtime to set up the game-winning score.

    That was the first OT game in series history, and Michigan fans are still analyzing frame-by-frame replays of that play.

Coaches on the Hot Seat

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    The Big Ten's coaching roster is one that features a good mix of name recognition, prolonged success and promising futures. What it doesn't include is anyone whose seat is particularly warm entering the 2017 season, since nine of the league's coaches are in either their first, second or third year on the job, and those who've been around longer have done more than enough to warrant plenty of job security.

    But if we had to pick some coaches who could face heat if this fall goes sideways, it's these two:

              

    Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

    Only Kirk Ferentz (at Iowa since 1999) and Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern's coach since 2006) has been in charge of a Big Ten program longer than Mark Dantonio, who enters his 11th season. His 90 wins are second-most in school history, and he's two years removed from a conference title (his second in a three-year span) and a playoff appearance.

    But last season Michigan State cratered at 3-9 overall and 1-8 in the Big Ten, their worst record since 1982. And making matters worse is the Spartans bring back one of the most inexperienced rosters in the country.

    "The starting quarterback, top four receivers, half the first-string offensive line, half the first- and second-string defensive line and linebacking corps, and four of the top five defensive backs are gone," wrote SB Nation's Bill Connelly, who describes MSU as entering a rebuilding year after having a "rebuilding-year record" in 2016.

    Dantonio's only losing season at MSU was his third, in 2009, when he went 6-7 but followed that with consecutive 11-win campaigns. He'll be hard-pressed to match that turnaround, and another bad year could prompt the program to make a change.

            

    Lovie Smith, Illinois

    Illinois made a big splash in March 2016 when it abruptly fired Bill Cubit—who had only been named the permanent coach the previous November, following a year as interim coach after Tim Beckman was fired days before the 2015 season began—and brought in veteran NFL coach Smith. He led the Chicago Bears to Super Bowl XLI and was still well-regarded in the state, and his hiring returned the Fighting Illini to the national spotlight for the first time in years.

    The spotlight quickly turned away from them, though, as Smith's initial Illinois team went 3-9 and had the second-worst scoring offense (19.7 points per game) in the Big Ten.

    Smith hadn't coached at the college level since being Ohio State's defensive backs coach in 1995, and he's yet to make an impact on the recruiting trail. Illinois' 2017 signing class ranked 10th in the Big Ten and didn't include a player rated higher than three stars.

Best Offense

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Penn State

    With nearly 90 percent of its production from a year ago returning, per ESPN's Phil Steele, Penn State's offense is far and away the most experienced and explosive in the Big Ten. So it goes when top-tier playmakers such as running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley are both back for their junior years.

    Barkley had nearly 2,000 all-purpose yards and 22 touchdowns on 300 offensive touches, and his 25 plays of 20-plus yards tied for ninth-most in FBS last year. McSorley threw for a school-record 3,614 yards and 29 TDs, tossing four TD passes in each of PSU's final three games, including the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl.

    Top receiver Chris Godwin is the only major departure, but the Lions are deep at wideout and have productive tight end Mike Gesicki back for his senior year.

             

    Want more Penn State? Get the new B/R app to track the team and other college football news all season.

Best Defense

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Ohio State

    You know the recruiting and development are top-notch when a team sees three-fourths of its starting secondary (as well as its leading tackler) get drafted and the defense is still highly rated. That's what we have in Ohio State, where the many first-time starters it will play on the back end are hardly a step down from the ones they're replacing.

    Bleacher Report NFL draft expert Matt Miller has five Buckeyes projected as first-round picks in 2018, four of those coming on defense. Linebacker Jerome Baker (12th), defensive tackle Dre'Mont Jones (19th), cornerback Denzel Ward (28th) and defensive end Sam Hubbard (31st) are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of defensive talent the Buckeyes have at their disposal in 2017.

    There's also defensive linemen Nick Bosa and Tyquan Lewis, linebacker Chris Worley and safety Damon Webb.

    OSU allowed only 4.36 yards per play and 15.5 points per game last season, numbers that were inflated by the 31-0 loss to Clemson in the playoffs. Expect similar numbers, if better ones, this fall.

Projected Regular Season Standings

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    East Division

    1. Ohio State
    2. Penn State
    3. Michigan
    4. Indiana
    5. Michigan State
    6. Maryland
    7. Rutgers

            

    West Division

    1. Wisconsin
    2. Northwestern
    3. Nebraska
    4. Minnesota
    5. Iowa
    6. Purdue
    7. Illinois

Projected Conference Championship Matchup

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Ohio State vs. Wisconsin

    Since the Big Ten added a championship game in 2011 the contest has usually been a close one, with a notable exception: when Ohio State bulldozed Wisconsin 59-0 in 2014. That proved to be the last game for then-Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen, who left to coach Oregon State days later, and the blowout pushed Ohio State into the inaugural playoffs where it won it all.

    The Badgers and Buckeyes played a much closer game last October, with OSU pulling out a 30-23 overtime win in Madison. That looked like it was going to be a preview of the conference title game before OSU lost to Penn State and PSU ended up rallying to beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship.

    Instead we'll have to wait until this December to get another OSU/Wisconsin clash, assuming the Buckeyes can win the top-heavy East Division—which won't likely get decided until the Nov. 25 finale at Michigan—and Wisconsin doesn't slip up against the weaker West Division.

                

    Winner: Ohio State

                 

    Statistics are provided by cfbstats unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information courtesy of Scout.com, unless otherwise noted. Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.