Big 10 Football: Preview and Predictions for 2019 Season
Despite being one of the sport's best conferences, the Big Ten hasn't sent a representative to the College Football Playoff in two straight seasons.
Ohio State and Michigan are among the programs hoping to change that in 2019.
Throw in Penn State, and the East Division contains the conference's top three CFP hopes. While the other side of the Big Ten isn't as strong, the West includes a popular breakout choice in Nebraska along with several preseason Top 25 squads.
In this Big Ten preview, we'll look at the favorites, challengers, biggest stars, top storylines and more.
Note: All slides with multiple items are ordered alphabetically by school.
For more college football and NFL draft talk, check out the Stick to Football podcast with B/R's lead draft expert Matt Miller.
Potential Top NFL Draft Picks
The Big Ten boasts a couple of defensive ends who will likely be top-10 selections in the 2020 NFL draft. And really, both Ohio State's Chase Young and Iowa's A.J. Epenesa have a decent shot at rising into the first few picks. Young has piled up 20.5 tackles for loss with 13 sacks in two seasons, and Epenesa—who will be an official starter in 2019 for the first time—has 22 and 15, respectively.
Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan
During his first season in Ann Arbor, Patterson guided the Wolverines to a 10-3 record last year. He completed 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,600 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions, also showing decent mobility in limited rushing attempts. Patterson chipped in 273 yards and two scores on the ground.
Adrian Martinez, QB, Nebraska
When Scott Frost left UCF for Lincoln in December 2017, his top priority was flipping Martinez's commitment from Tennessee to Nebraska. Last year, it was obvious why. Even as the Huskers flailed during an 0-6 start, the offense steadily improved. Martinez spearheaded the 4-2 season-ending surge with his dual-threat ability. He ended his freshman year with 2,617 passing yards, 17 scores and eight interceptions, adding 629 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Even without holding a meaningful role as a freshman, Fields is already a well-known player. The No. 2 overall prospect in the 2018 class left Georgia and secured immediate eligibility in Columbus. He's set to replace Dwayne Haskins, who smashed school records and was a first-round NFL draft pick. Fields accounted for eight touchdowns as the backup to UGA starter Jake Fromm.
Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue
Moore wasn't simply a breakout star in 2018; only Memphis running back Darrell Henderson and Wisconsin star Jonathan Taylor collected more all-purpose yards. While posting an FBS-best 114 receptions, Moore racked up 2,215 total yards and scored 14 touchdowns.
Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
After tallying 1,977 rushing yards on 6.6 per carry with 13 touchdowns as a freshman, Taylor was more productive across the board in 2018. He scampered for a nation-leading 2,194 yards at a 7.2 clip, scoring 16 times. He earned AP All-America honors in both seasons.
Ohio State Heading into New Era
Fields is set to replace Haskins, and Ryan Day—who went 3-0 as the interim head coach last season—is officially stepping in for Urban Meyer.
The faces are different, but expectations remain the same. Ohio State is seeking its third straight Big Ten crown and fourth conference title in the last six seasons.
Yes, much of that pressure falls on Fields and Day because no roles are more scrutinized than those of the quarterback and head coach. Given the surrounding talent, though, the Buckeyes have the personnel for a smooth transition.
Michigan Looking to Silence Critics
You've probably heard this before: In Jim Harbaugh's tenure, Michigan is 0-4 against Ohio State and 2-2 opposite Michigan State.
Context matters. But that's not good enough.
Harbaugh made an important decision over the offseason, relinquishing control of the offense and hiring Alabama assistant Josh Gattis to revamp the scoring attack. However, hype is nothing new for Michigan. This time, on-field results need to follow.
One Mess of a West Division
What a glorious disaster. Other than Illinois, six programs in the West have a reasonable chance to win the division.
Northwestern is the reigning champion, and Wisconsin is regularly a contender, but both teams have a dicey schedule. Nebraska has received a whole bunch of hype but needs to improve a horrid defense. Iowa's efficiency tends to vary dramatically. Minnesota and Purdue are rising programs but still unproven.
Be ready for a November filled with rapid changes in the West standings.
According to Caesars, Michigan is the Big Ten favorite.
That sentence probably sparked one of two reactions: "We're doing this again, huh?" or "It's finally the year!"
Although the Wolverines lost several key defenders, they've consistently fielded an elite defense. Veteran coordinator Don Brown has earned immense benefit of the doubt, and Michigan has plenty of returning talent on that side of the ball.
The question, as it always has been for Harbaugh's Wolverines, is whether the offense can score against top-level competition. That burden falls on Gattis and Patterson.
Until it's proved otherwise, the Buckeyes are the league's standard. In each of the last five seasons, they've finished no worse than sixth in the final AP Top 25.
Ohio State travels to Nebraska, Northwestern and Michigan but hosts Michigan State, Wisconsin and Penn State, so the schedule is balanced. While every slate has a tricky road contest or two, this schedule isn't outside the ordinary for Day in his debut campaign.
Fields has attracted most of the attention, yet the defense may define the Buckeyes' year. The unit ranked an uncharacteristic 72nd in yards allowed per play last season but returns a strong majority of its core. If the defense is elite again, OSU should be too.
Ranked 15th in the preseason AP poll, Penn State is looking to rebound from a slightly disappointing year. Though the Nittany Lions went 9-4, they lost to Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan.
Do that, and you're guaranteed to not compete in the East.
New quarterback Sean Clifford is under major pressure, but the combination of a top-tier defense and a favorable September schedule affords a decent initial margin for error. The trick will be navigating road trips to Iowa, MSU and Ohio State.
Last season, the Spartans fielded one of the nation's best defenses. That should remain true in 2019 with star rusher Kenny Willekes, tackle machine Joe Bachie and cornerback Josiah Scott leading the unit.
But when the offense struggled in 2018, it was really bad—like, borderline unwatchable. MSU averaged 26.6 points in seven wins and a staggering 9.5 in six losses.
Many of those problems can be attributed to an injury-plagued Brian Lewerke, who dealt with a shoulder setback. He mustered just six yards per attempt and tossed 11 interceptions compared to eight touchdowns and, unlike 2017, didn't provide a mobile threat.
The Spartans desperately need a healthy Lewerke to deal with trips to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Non-Illinois West Division Teams
Analysts are tasked with leading a reader in the right direction. After watching teams in 2018 and studying all offseason, this is where tireless research is supposed to shine.
Yeah, about that. Beyond Illinois, which is a non-factor, expectations for the West vary immensely.
Some buy the Nebraska hype; others can't see past a bad defense. Wisconsin is a constant factor, but the schedule includes Michigan, MSU and Ohio State. Northwestern is notorious for shaky starts, and the 'Cats meet MSU, Wisconsin and Nebraska by Oct 5.
Minnesota is still prone to random collapses, and Iowa always has a couple of games where the offense disappears. Purdue avoids Ohio State and Michigan in crossover play yet travels to Penn State, Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin.
Does anyone have a dartboard nearby?
Best Rivalry Matchup: The Game
Yes, The Game has been a one-sided rivalry lately. Ohio State boasts seven straight wins in the series and has dominated this millennium. Since 2000, the Buckeyes are 16-3 against Michigan.
Still, during Harbaugh's four-year tenure, this showdown has often decided the division champion. Ohio State prevented Michigan from winning the East in 2016, sealed the division with a victory in 2017 and secured the winner-take-all matchup last year.
The stakes will probably be the same in 2019.
Michigan hosts this season's clash, which should feature a pair of excellent defenses. Ohio State returns a strong majority of its production and potential All-Americans in Young and Jordan Fuller, while Michigan has consistently fielded an elite defense with Brown overseeing the unit.
The big unknown is how the offenses will fare. Fields is set to lead the new-look Buckeyes, and Patterson is preparing to run the Wolverines' overhauled system.
While we have a decent understanding of what to expect from the scoring attacks, we can't be certain until they hit the field. The opening month is especially critical for the programs, especially if the Nov. 30 meeting is to determine the East.
Coaches on the Hot Seat
Lovie Smith, Illinois
When the school announced a two-year extension for Lovie Smith last November, the decision understandably furrowed some brows. Why would Illinois offer that to someone who is now 9-27 at the school?
The answer is simple: If a head coach doesn't have four years remaining on his contract, that's the easiest target for negative recruiting. The more important question was whether the extension raised his buyout, but that number remained at $4 million for 2019.
And we might be talking about that $4 million in October.
On the bright side, Illinois has a manageable nonconference slate of Akron, UConn and Eastern Michigan. The Illini should be 2-1 at worst. But if they fall to Nebraska, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Purdue to open Big Ten play, Smith's seat may be toasty.
Chris Ash, Rutgers
On results alone, that Chris Ash is returning for a fourth year may be surprising. Rutgers is just 3-24 against Big Ten competition and 7-29 overall in three seasons during his tenure.
However, his hefty buyout means a fifth year is possible. Per Josh Newman of the Asbury Park Press, Ash is still due approximately $8 million if fired after the 2019 season. That number may prevent the school from making a change for at least another year.
But if the Knights fail to win a Big Ten game again, the administration might need to have an unpleasant conversation.
Best Offense: Ohio State
Nebraska has a legitimate shot at this crown thanks to Martinez, and Michigan is hoping a new offense leads to more explosive plays. Purdue coach Jeff Brohm has the foundation of a highly productive attack in West Lafayette, too.
But over the last six seasons, Ohio State has posted the Big Ten's highest average of yards per play and yards per game five times.
Yes, the Buckeyes have several questions to address. While a gifted prospect, Fields has little significant experience in college. Ohio State also must replace 2,433 receiving yards and 31 touchdowns from the trio of Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon. Plus, the offensive line lost four starters.
Those situations won't be painless to overcome, but OSU has the right personnel for a smooth transition. Beyond star runner J.K. Dobbins and top wideout K.J. Hill, the program consistently recruited elite talent under Meyer, and a bunch of those former 4- and 5-star prospects are positioned for starting jobs in 2019.
Plus, a relatively easy September—other than a month-ending trip to Nebraska—affords the Buckeyes a chance to put up big numbers while they sharpen the offense.
Best Defense: Penn State
Even if the offense struggles at times, a potentially outstanding defense should keep Penn State engaged.
Last season, Yetur Gross-Matos piled up 20 tackles for loss. Robert Windsor added 11 and Shaka Toney chipped in 7.5. All three of those linemen are back, while Shane Simmons is healthy and sophomores Jayson Oweh and PJ Mustipher are ready for larger roles.
The Lions have superb depth at linebacker with Micah Parsons, Jan Johnson and Cam Brown, three of the defense's top-five tacklers last season. Ellis Brooks added 30 stops, and Jesse Luketa should be a top backup after contributing on special teams.
Senior safety Garrett Taylor and cornerback John Reid highlight a retooling secondary, but Tariq Castro-Fields had seven pass breakups in 2018 and Lamont Wade is a former top recruit. If they play anywhere near their potential, that will solidify an elite unit.
Ohio State will likely be the Big Ten's next-best defense, though Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa should all be excellent too.
Projected Regular-Season Standings
1. Ohio State
3. Penn State
4. Michigan State
Projected Conference Championship Matchup: Iowa vs. Ohio State
Nebraska's home-heavy schedule does not include Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State. Despite our significant concern about their defense, the Huskers have a terrific chance to match the hype. Iowa travels to Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska, while Wisconsin has a grinding crossover slate.
Iowa's elite defense and competent offense should survive the gauntlet. But we're also comfortable with saying the East's representative will stand atop the Big Ten.
Ohio State's opportunity to ease into the schedule is invaluable. As long as the Buckeyes avoid a massive letdown at Indiana, they should be well-prepared for the heart of 2019 at Nebraska, vs. MSU, at Northwestern and vs. Wisconsin.
That prediction places a lot of trust in Fields' ability to adapt quickly, but his individual talent was evident in minimal yet impressive action.
If the Buckeyes meet the Hawkeyes in Indianapolis, that probably means a showdown of two elite defenses. Although Fields is the less proven player compared to Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley, the surrounding weapons favor the Buckeyes considerably.
Predicted Big Ten Champion: Ohio State