Rivals.com 2018 Big Ten Preview
A long off-season without football unofficially comes to an end on Monday, July 23, as the Big Ten Conference kicks off their Media Days at the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile. Here at Rivals.com we have one of the deepest collection of experts on the Conference’s 14 member institutions, and those experts came together ahead of Media Days for this preview of the 2018 Big Ten football campaign.
Season predictions, as voted on by the Rivals.com Big Ten publishers:
West Division Champion: Wisconsin
East Division Champion: Ohio State
Championship Game Winner: Ohio State
Conference MVP: Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
2017 record: 2-10
Head coach: Lovie Smith, 3rd season
Key player: Mike Epstein, Soph. RB
Player to watch: Bobby Roundtree, Soph. DE
Outlook: After a disappointing 2-10 campaign in 2017, Illinois will be looking to make progress and be more competitive in Lovie Smith’s third season in Champaign. Expectations are low, with most preseason prognosticators placing Illinois last in the Big Ten West. The Illini are placing their hopes in a revamped offense under new coordinator Rod Smith, who learned the spread as the protégé of Rich Rodriquez at multiple stops, including Arizona for the last six seasons. Smith will have to find a quarterback to orchestrate the high-tempo scheme. Sophomore Cam Thomas was erratic in spot starts as a true freshman. The Illini brought in fifth-year transfer A.J. Bush, who failed to make an impact at Nebraska and Virginia Tech. Three true freshmen will also be in the mix. The top targets in the passing game are wide receiver Ricky Smalling and tight end Lou Dorsey, both potential sophomore playmakers. Senior wide receiver Mike Dudek is also hoping to bounce back in a career that has been plagued by injuries. Expect the new offense to be run-heavy, with Epstein the best fit for the new scheme. He’s a home-run threat when he can stay healthy. Defensively, Illinois is improved up front, and Roundtree is a potential star coming off the edge. Former four-star defensive tackle Calvin Avery, a freshman from Dallas Bishop Dunne, could make an immediate impact. The secondary is young, but there’s talent in corner Nate Hobbs and safety Bennett Williams, a freshman All-American last year. The biggest question mark is at linebacker, where the Illini lost starter Tre Watson to transfer. Former JUCO transfer Del’Shawn Phillips is solid, but this group lacks athleticism and depth.
2017 record: 5-7
Head coach: Tom Allen, 2nd season
Key player: Brandon Dawkins, 5th SR. QB
Player to watch: Reakwon Jones, R-JR. LB
Outlook: Indiana has questions at the quarterback position for the second consecutive season. Despite redshirt sophomore Peyton Ramsey starting in four of the nine games he played in last year while sharing time with now-graduated Richard Lagow, the additions of 2018 four-star Tampa Bay (Fla.) Tech product Michael Penix Jr. and Arizona grad transfer Brandon Dawkins show the starting job is wide open heading into fall camp. Additionally, redshirt juniors Nick Westbrook and Donavan Hale – widely expected to be Indiana’s top two receivers last year – saw their 2017 campaigns cut short due to injury, so their health and level of impact this fall will be watched closely. Tegray Scales and Chris Covington graduated and moved on to the NFL, taking with them 21.8 percent of last year’s total tackles, so whoever replaces them at each of the starting linebacker spots will have big shoes to fill within the Hoosiers’ defense.
2017 record: 8-5
Head coach: Kirk Ferentz, 20th season
Key player: Nate Stanley, JR. QB
Player to watch: Amani Jones, JR. MLB
Outlook: The Hawkeyes return seven starters on the offensive side of the ball, led by junior quarterback Nate Stanley. This will also be the second year that the offense will be directed by Brian Ferentz, so Iowa fans are hoping for some growth on that side of the ball. On defense, Iowa returns six starters, but it will be replacing all three starting linebackers from last season. The Hawkeyes should be strong up front, led by defensive ends Anthony Nelson and A.J. Epenesa, but they will also be replacing All-American Josh Jackson at cornerback. Iowa’s schedule sets up pretty well with the first four games of the season at Kinnick Stadium, including the first Big Ten game against Wisconsin. The tough stretch will be playing four of five on the road after the bye weekend in late September. It’s fair to say that the result of the game against the Badgers and how the Hawkeyes navigate the four road games in the middle of the year will define the season.
2017 record: 4-8
Head coach: D.J. Durkin, 3rd season
Key player: Ty Johnson, SR. RB
Player to watch: Kasim Hill, R-FR. QB
Outlook: After losing their top two quarterbacks to season-ending injuries less than two full games into last season, the Terps are looking to bounce back in a big way in 2018. Redshirt freshman quarterback Kasim Hill should be at full strength when camp starts and will have every opportunity to win the starting job under first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Up front, Maryland returns four starters (three of which are seniors) that have combined for over 100 starts along the offensive line. That experienced o-line will pave the way for a deep running back unit that is led by senior Ty Johnson, who has rushed for 1,879 yards and 11 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Defensively, the Terps hope to be much improved along the defensive line and that unit could possibly be led by Auburn transfer and former No. 1 prospect Byron Cowart. The Terps will look to Illinois graduate transfer Tre Watson to try and fill the shoes of outgoing linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr., who led the team in tackles the past three seasons. The defensive backs should be a strength for the Maryland defense once again, led by senior safety Darnell Savage Jr. and junior nickel back Antoine Brooks Jr. The Terps aren't likely to compete for a division title just yet, but a second bowl birth under third-year head coach DJ Durkin should be the expectation despite one of the nation's most difficult schedules.
2017 record: 8-5
Head coach: Jim Harbaugh, 4th season
Key player: Shea Patterson, JR. QB
Player to watch: Tarik Black, Soph. WR
Overview: This might be the fastest defense Don Brown has ever had, he said this spring, and it could well be the best in the conference. But defense hasn’t been Michigan’s issue the last few years. It’s all about the offense … more specifically, quarterback play. Michigan has lost only one game under Jim Harbaugh when the team's QB rating is above 45 or so (and 45 is bad). Junior quarterback Shea Patterson is supposed to be the guy who changes that, but they need to protect him. Left tackle remains a huge question mark, and it could well be a freshman — either redshirt freshman James Hudson or true freshman Jalen Mayfield — who mans that spot. But let’s be clear: this team is loaded at a number of positions. It’s got a talented senior running back in Karan Higdon, receivers with elite potential and tight ends who have NFL potential. If the line is solid, this team could win the Big Ten.
2017 record: 10-3
Head coach: Mark Dantonio, 12th season
Key player: Brian Lewerke, JR. QB
Player to watch: Joe Bachie, JR. LB
Outlook: Returning 19 starters from a team that won 10 games for a program that has six double-digit win seasons in the last eight years should make most observers think about ranking Michigan State in the preseason top 10, if not the top five. However, it will be tough to crack the top three in the Big Ten East in 2018. Michigan State has skill position talent and line strength to complement proven leaders at quarterback and middle linebacker in Brian Lewerke and Joe Bachie. The Spartans will be good enough to win on any given Saturday, with the potential to string together 10 or more victories through the course of the regular season. Getting Ohio State and Michigan in Spartan Stadium will help, but Penn State will be seeking revenge when Michigan State travels to Beaver Stadium on Oct. 13. Michigan State has proven players at 20 of 22 starting positions, with new center Matt Allen the only variable on offense. He was functional in the spring, and Michigan State has a good trend of next-man-up accountability on the offensive line. The rest of the offensive front will be a year stronger and that much more stable. MSU’s receivers are terrific and diversified, again. Michigan State will be among the nation’s best in the secondary and linebacking corps. The Spartans are good, not great, in the pass rush department at defensive end. Kenny Willekes is a third-team All-Big Ten selection at defensive end. But in order to compete with Ohio State and return to the College Football Playoff, as they did in 2015, the Spartans need to be able to harass the quarterback with a standard four-man rush rather than relying on blitzes. If no one steps up as a third-down designated pass rusher to help Willekes, MSU’s ceiling of potential will likely remain just shy of a Big Ten championship.
2017 record: 5-7
Head coach: P.J. Fleck, 2nd season
Key Player: Tanner Morgan, R-FR. QB
Player to Watch: Antoine Winfield, JR. Safety
Outlook: After a 5-7 year one under P.J. Fleck in which an already thin team was hurt by injuries and lost three games by seven points or less, there is optimism for improvement in year two. Headlined by four-star receiver Rashod Bateman and four-star offensive linemen Daniel Faalele and Curtis Dunlap, Fleck brings in a top 30 recruiting class to Minnesota for the first time in 10 years. Minnesota gets star safety Antoine Winfield Jr. back after an injured hamstring caused him to miss the team’s last nine games of the season. He will be joined on defense by standout rush end Carter Coughlin (11.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks) and linebacker Thomas Barber, who last year finished third in the Big Ten in tackles (115). Ultimately, the team’s success will come down to the play of a freshman quarterback, likely redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan, who looked as comfortable as you could expect from a freshman in the spring. All-Big Ten running back Rodney Smith will be relied on for much of the offense. Minnesota will be one of the younger teams in the conference and have several question marks, but the Gophers will be slightly deeper and more talented than a year ago.
2017 record: 4-8
Head coach: Scott Frost, 1st season
Key player: Stanley Morgan Jr., SR. WR
Player to watch: Adrian Martinez, FR. QB
Outlook: Nebraska may be one of the harder teams to read in the Big Ten heading into the 2018 season. Scott Frost comes back to NU with as much momentum as any coach in college football after a perfect 13-0 season at Central Florida. The question is how far away is this Husker roster from contending in the Big Ten West? One thing is certain, the schedule makers did not do Frost any favors in his first year, as Nebraska plays road games at Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Northwestern and Iowa, while Michigan State comes to Lincoln. Most NU fans are being realistic with their preseason expectations, as six to seven wins seems to be where most sit, with eight wins being probably the top end prediction you will see out there. The biggest unknown is the quarterback position, and if either Tristan Gebbia or Adrian Martinez have what it takes to make Frost’s offense go in year one. Martinez has generated a lot of buzz this summer after a strong finish to the spring.
2017 record: 10-3
Head coach: Pat Fitzgerald, 13th season
Key player: Clayton Thorson, R-SR. QB
Player to watch: Paddy Fisher, R-Soph. LB
Outlook: The big question in Evanston is, when will quarterback Clayton Thorson return from the torn ACL he suffered in the Music City Bowl win last December? The fifth-year senior, who has started 39 straight games, will return at some point but may not be ready for the opener at Purdue on Aug. 30 after having surgery in mid-January. The Wildcats lost all-time leading rusher Justin Jackson to graduation, but running back Jeremy Larkin looks ready to pick up where Jackson left off after an impressive freshman year, and he will be running behind an offensive line that returns four starters. Defensively, the front seven will once again be stout against the run, spearheaded by middle linebacker Paddy Fisher, the Big Ten Freshman Defensive Player of the Year last season. NU has a pair of veteran corners, including standout Montre Hartage, but will be breaking in two new starters at safety. Northwestern will be a solid team in all facets in 2018, but winning 10 games again looks like a long-shot with a tougher schedule.
2017 record: 12-2
Head coach: Urban Meyer, 7th season
Key player: Nick Bosa, JR. DE
Player to watch: Kendall Sheffield, R-JR. CB
Outlook: The Buckeyes are in that rare position of 'losing a lot' and 'returning a lot' in 2018. Early in the season the focus will be on who is not back with losses of players like J.T. Barrett, Billy Price, Jamarco Jones, Denzel Ward and a trio of defensive ends. But once you get past the shock of that, this team is still stacked if replacements like Dwayne Haskins, Thayer Munford and others are able to fill the void. The Buckeyes do return a pair of former 1,000-yard rushers with J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber and they won't have to share their carries with the quarterback with Haskins being much more of a pro-style passer. The two positions that will be of note this year will be an offensive line that has lost two players who are off to the NFL and a linebacker group that also lost a pair of players. There is no shortage of talented guys looking to step up at each position but how quickly will the Buckeyes be able to reload with a Sept. 29 date with Penn State in State College? That game should go a long way in determining who comes out of the Big Ten East on top.
2017 record: 11-2
Head coach: James Franklin, 5th season
Key player: Trace McSorley, SR. QB
Player to watch: Miles Sanders, JR. RB
Outlook: Saquon Barkley, a generational talent at running back, will spend the upcoming season playing in the NFL. But he’s not the only absence for which the Nittany Lions will need to account as six other players were drafted to the league in April. Gone too are offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, wideouts coach Josh Gattis and running backs assistant Charles Huff. Worthy of their own discussions on an individual level, what isn’t being talked about as much is what Penn State has coming back. Trace McSorley is among the country’s most dynamic quarterbacks, he’s got an evolved offensive line to protect him and budding talent at many of the skill positions, while the defensive side of the ball is trading ample experience for considerable talent and explosiveness. Some of the schedule’s toughest opponents will be played at Beaver Stadium, but the likes of Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin will very much put this team to the test.
2017 record: 7-6
Head coach: Jeff Brohm, 2nd season
Key player: Markus Bailey, Jr. LB
Player to watch: Rondale Moore, Fr. WR
Outlook: Purdue won more, and sooner, than it probably should have in Jeff Brohm's debut season, as the program won seven games, including a bowl, on the heels of several years of futility. Brohm's innovative style on offense and special teams loomed large in the turnaround, but not as much as the shocking play of a defense that had been one of the worst in the Big Ten for many years. Now, linebacker Markus Bailey is a star, but most of the rest of that defense is gone, so there are questions on that side of the ball to either be answered or offset by gains offensively in Brohm's second year. With two quarterbacks who won games for Purdue last season, quality depth at running back and tight end, and some promise - albeit unproven promise - at receiver, the onus may move to the offense in Brohm’s second season.
2017 record: 4-8
Head coach: Chris Ash, 3rd season
Key player: Bo Melton, Soph. WR
Player to watch: Artur Sitkowski, FR. QB
Outlook: This season could be a make or break season for head coach Chris Ash. Last season he doubled his win total taking the team from two to four wins. The Scarlet Knights have a lot of question marks surrounding the team, especially on the offensive side of the ball. This upcoming fall, Rutgers will have its third offensive coordinator in three years under Ash. The offense will be led by former coordinator John McNulty who was program’s coordinator from 2007-08 before leaving for a job in the NFL. Another question mark around the offense is the quarterback. Right now it appears true freshman Artur Sitkowski will win the job, but what exactly can he do for a team in the Big Ten East as a true freshman? One thing is for certain, Ash has to show his team is progressing or his seat could get hot very quickly.
2017 record: 13-1
Head coach: Paul Chryst, 4th season
Key player: Jonathan Taylor, Soph. RB
Player to watch: Jake Ferguson, R-FR. TE
Outlook: Despite having three different coordinators in as many seasons, Wisconsin's defense has been the standout unit since Paul Chryst took over the program in 2015. But in 2018, all eyes will be on the offense, which welcomes back nine of 11 starters from a 13-1 team in 2017. The Badgers return all five starters - eight, in total, who have started games at some point in their career at UW - on the offensive line. That unit will pave the way for Heisman hopeful Jonathan Taylor, who rushed for 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns as a true freshman. Junior Alex Hornibrook returns for his second full season at UW's starting quarterback and he'll have arguably Wisconsin's deepest and most talented group of receivers in recent memory to throw to this fall. If coordinator Jim Leonhard is able to patch a few holes on the other side of the ball - specifically at defensive end and cornerback - the Badgers, who have a more challenging schedule in 2018, should be a strong favorite to return to Indianapolis.