The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 17, 2018

2018 Big Ten Conference Preview

Note: The preseason ratings you see in the previews may not be the same as the ratings you see for the first game. We update every team’s rating based on player injuries, changes to the depth charts, and other factors that may change during preseason practice.
Our Power 5 Conference preseason ratings and won-loss predictions were figured before knowing the outcome of recent suspensions to Coaches Urban Meyer and D.J. Durkin at Ohio State and Maryland. Because our ratings set 100.0 as average, and the mean of all 130 teams must be 100.0, taking points away from Ohio State and Maryland require redistributing points to the other 128 teams. Expect these ratings to change prior to August 25.

Even before Ohio State had to put Meyer on paid leave, our summer PiRate Ratings had another team rated a little bit ahead of the Buckeyes. Michigan State won 10 games last year with wins over Michigan and Penn State. The Spartans were not as bad as they looked in the blowout loss in Columbus, and with practically the entire team returning plus the additions of some excellent talent that redshirted or saw minimal action, the Spartans begin the season ranked slightly higher than OSU.
Coach Mark Dantonio’s offense was not up to par last year, as Sparty averaged just 25 points and less than 350 yards per game. Things will be different this year, as returns 10 starters and a majority of the 2nd 11. Quarterback Brian Lewerke is not Khalil Tate, but the junior signal caller is primed to improve greatly on his passing numbers and equal or top his running numbers. Lewerke is known for breaking long runs in an unconventional manner. While he can break free on zone read plays, he has been known to make a simple quarterback sneak a long-gainer, and he can scramble as well as any contemporary.
Running back L.J. Scott can do a lot of damage between the tackles and then exploding outside once he gets through the line. He is powerful and has speed, and he excels at every part of the game, as a power runner with quick bursts to stretch the play wide; as a pass receiver (Ohio State got burned by a screen pass play to him); and as an incredible pass-protecting blocker).
The trio of Felton Davis, Cody White, and Darrell Stewart won’t confuse fans for the receivers at Oklahoma, but these guys are more than capable of making a defense that is expecting run pay dearly. Davis gives Lewerke the jump ball receiver in the end zone with his size and leaping ability.
An experience line with talent throughout should allow MSU to increase its offensive production to more than 30 points and 400 yards per game this year. Combine that with a highly-rated defense, and the Spartans can contend for a Playoff bid.
The strength of the defense is in the secondary, where free safety David Dowell intercepted 5 passes, knocked away 4 more, and recovered 2 fumbles. Cornerback Josiah Scott is a potential All Big Ten player as well.

Michigan State is solid at linebacker with Joe Bachie and Andrew Dowell returning, the team’s top two 2017 tacklers. Bachie intercepted three passes. If the Spartans are to reach the pinnacle, their pass rush will have to make a jump forward. End Kenny Willekes is capable of dumping the quarterback two or three times a game, but somebody else will need to step forward to prevent him from being double-teamed.

Michigan State might win an extra game with its special teams. Kicker Matt Coghlin was a perfect 38-38 on PATs and 15 of 19 on field goals. Punter Jake Hartbarger averaged 42 yards per punt with just 12 of his 69 punts returned for a measley 2.3 yards per return.

Ohio State has had to replace a head coach just prior to the start of a season in the recent past. In 2011, coming off a 12-1 season, Jim Tressel was dismissed, with Luke Fickell taking over as the interim. Ohio State fell to 6-7 and 3-5 in the Big Ten with the best talent in the conference not jelling. Urban Meyer became coach the next season and ran the table.

No matter who wears the headsets on the sideline on September 1st when the Buckeyes welcome a rebuilding Oregon State team to the Giant Horseshoe, Ohio State will look like Ohio State. The 2011 team commenced its season with a 42-0 win over Akron. It will be September 15, before the coaching issue might matter, when Ohio State plays TCU at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Ohio State rarely must rebuild when they lose highly-talented players every year, and this year is no different. Quarterback J.T. Barrett passed for 35 touchdowns and ran for a dozen more in his final year in Columbus. Normally, replacing a star talent like Barrett would lead to a major drop in offensive production, but not at this football factory. Ohio State’s probable third string quarterback until the number two guy transferred was a former high school phenom who out-dueled Josh Rosen, never lost a game in his high school career, and has been compared to Doug Flutie. Tate Martell will have to wait his turn, while Dwayne Haskins runs the offense. Haskins has the better arm and can force defenses to keep an extra man in the passing zones, while Martell is the scrambler type, the type that wouldn’t lose a game of tag, but with the need to work on his passing mechanics a little more.
The Buckeyes are loaded at running back with the return of J. K. Dobbins (1,403 yards 7.2 avg) and Mike Weber (626 yards 6.2 avg 10 TDs). Weber is a little more powerful, but Dobbins is the better pass-catching threat.

As good as the running back unit is, the receiver unit is better, again not as good as Oklahoma, but as good as any other Big Ten foe. Parris Campbell is the current Percy Harvin for this offense. The speedy hybrid receiver is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, be it on the speed sweep or via the pass (or as a kick returner). When you can catch a pass at the line of scrimmage and take it all the way, defenses must tell their safeties to retreat, and that opens the middle for bigger receivers as well as gives running backs more room to break free.

The Buckeye offensive line is the best in the East Division and second best in the league. Their version of Michael Jordan is a tall and strong guard who opens holes inside and stops enemy pass rushers. Tackle Isaiah Prince makes the left side of the Ohio State line mighty tough. The line should allow the Buckeyes to top 40 points and 500 yards again this year, unless there is a mini-train wreck with Meyer being dismissed.

Ohio State begins the season just behind Michigan State because their defense lost a lot of talented players, including the top three tacklers, two of 2017’s top pass rushing trio, and players responsible for 2/3 of the interceptions. One position that will be strong is at end, where Nick Bosa returns following a year where he finished third in the league with 16 tackles for loss and tied for first with 9 sacks. Robert Landers assumes the vacant end position.

Tuf Borland anchors the second line of defense, but this is one area of concern in 2018. Ohio State is thin at linebacker, and it wouldn’t surprise us if they eventually transition to more of a 4-2-5 team if they can uncover enough quality in their backfield. Ohio State has some re-tooling to do in the back line of defense, where cornerback Damon Arnette and safety Jordan Fuller need some help.

If Meyer is not able to coach this team, Ohio State will be at least a touchdown to 10 points weaker in 2018. Still, the Buckeyes would be a contender for the East Division crown, but not the top or even second choice to do so.

This is a pivotal year for Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh. The former NFC Champion coach with the 49ers has not worked the same magic at his alma mater that he was able to do at Stanford. This year gives him his best chance, and if the Wolverines don’t look as powerful as they did during the Bo Schembechler days, the fans in Ann Arbor may demand change.
The Maize and Blue have the talent to compete and even contend for a playoff bid this year, and if Harbaugh can get his new quarterback to play like he did against Auburn and Texas A&M while leading the Ole Miss offense, the pieces are in place for the Champions of the West to make a run at the championship of the Big Ten East.
Shea Patterson took his redshirt off late in the 2016 season at Ole Miss and looked like the next Archie Manning with his exceptional running ability and passing arm. Seven games into his sophomore season, Patterson’s season ended with a knee injury against LSU. Still, in just 6 1/2 games with the Rebels, his 2,259 passing yards and 17 touchdowns topped the entire Michigan offense in 13 games by more than 300 yards!

Michigan still has issues in the offensive line, where three starters return but only guard Ben Bredeson being all-conference quality. Patterson may be on the run too many times this year if the blocking cannot improve, and the ground game may stall like it did last year against teams like Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and South Carolina, the five teams that beat them.

If the line blocks just a tad bit better than average, the Michigan ground game will succeed. Patterson can take some of the defensive keying off Karan Higdon and Chris Evans, which should help the two running backs top their combined rushing for 1,679 yards and 17 touchdowns. Give Higdon a little room, and he can explode for 7-10 yards quickly. Evans is better equipped to earn the tough yards when they are needed.
Michigan has a young but somewhat experienced group of receivers. Last year’s starters did not shine, and this year’s replacements could easily make UM fans forget the 2017 starters. The best receivers may be tight ends Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry, and Michigan could succeed with the double tight end alignment this year. Patterson went to his tight ends in Oxford last year for some nice gains and conversions.

Make no mistake about it; Michigan’s bread and butter is their defense, and as good as the Wolverines were at stopping enemy offenses last year, 2018 could be very special. UM finished tops in the nation in passing yards allowed and third in total yards. Their secondary is even better this year, and we believe the Wolverines can lower last year’s points allowed per game from 18.8 to 15, especially if the offense sustains more drives.
In 19 years out of 20, a secondary this talented would be the tops in the land. This is that 20th year, when Washington has one of the best secondaries of all time. Michigan ranks just behind with the top two cornerbacks in the league. Lavert Hill and David Long may not put up the jazziest of numbers, but quarterbacks tend to throw the ball elsewhere. Think of it like issuing an intentional walk to a 50-homer guy in baseball.

The middle trio of this defense features two All Big Ten players in Khaleke Hudson and Devin Bush. Both are complete players that can stop the run, dump the quarterback, and defend against the pass. Bush might contend for the Butkus Award this year.

The defensive line is the weakest unit on this team, but it is still a big asset that is almost as strong as their rivals’ to the South’s d-line. End Rashan Gary should make first team all-conference if he stays healthy. Opposite side end Chase Vinovich could have been playing for pay this year, but he chose to return to Ann Arbor, and with another great year, his draft stock should go up.

Michigan begins the season playing what could be a playoff qualifier. The Wolverines travel to South Bend to take on Notre Dame in the top game of the opening week of football. The winner of that game should carry the momentum forward to a 7-0 start through mid-October. Michigan has some tough games in the second half, having to face Sparty in East Lansing and Ohio State at the Giant Horseshoe plus host Wisconsin and Penn State. This team has the talent to go 11-1 or 10-2, but with just a little less production, UM could find itself back at 5-4 in the league, which would be dangerous for Harbaugh’s chances to return in 2019.

Penn State coach James Franklin worked his magic at Vanderbilt, doing the unthinkable by winning nine games in back-to-back seasons, both years finishing in the top 25, and by beating Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee in the same season. So, it should come as no surprise that he would do wonders in Happy Valley, as the Nittany Lions just enjoyed their first back-to-back 11-win seasons since Joe Paterno was still walking the sidelines.

Coming off a Big Ten championship in 2016, the Nittany Lions may have been a little better last year, even though they came up a game short in the East Division standings. The two losses were by a combined four points, so the Nittany Lions were oh so close from running the table and making it to the Playoffs.

We expect Penn State to take a slight backward turn this year, because their defense is almost entirely new this year. Only one two starters return on this side of the ball, and none of them played in the secondary last year. Amani Oruwariye actually made the All Big Ten Second team last year as a key reserve, so the defensive backfield is not in as bad a shape as it appears to be.

Linebacker U must have talent in the middle of their defense, and this year is no different. Koa Farmer, a converted safety and Cameron Brown give the defense a pair of talented stoppers.

The front four has talent as well, led by end Shareef Miller. In a league with multiple star defensive ends, Miller takes a back seat to nobody. He led Penn State with 11 1/2 tackles for loss and 5 1/2 sacks.

The Penn State defense will not be as stingy as last year, when they finished 6th nationally in scoring defense, but the decline will not be severe. Expect Penn State to give up about 21 to 23 points per game this year.

The offense returns its star quarterback, but it loses its heart, as superstar running back Saquon Barkley has taken his 1,271 rushing yards, 632 receiving yards, the nation’s best kick returning, and his 23 total touchdowns to the New York Giants. Miles Sanders might rush for 1,000 yards replacing Barkley, but he won’t be the all-purpose player that comes around to a school about as often as Halley’s Comet.

Trace McSorley needs to have an incredible finish to his career to move up the ranks in a very heavily talented field of draft-eligible quarterbacks. He’d probably be an undrafted free agent if this were next May. He’s a tad undersized and lacks the arm strength to contend with players like Patterson at Michigan, but for Penn State’s offense, he is more than adequate, bordering on stardom.

McSorley will need wideout Juwan Johnson to have a breakout year, as he is the only one of three 50+ catch receivers left on the roster. Johnson provides a big target and has a nice combination of speed and agility to go with excellent hands. If DeAndre Thompkins can be the 1A receiver and play like he did as a secondary talent last year, then the Penn State passing game should be in good shape.

The best news on this side of the ball is that the offensive line might be the most improved of any in the league. Five players with significant starting experience plus three others that will earn extensive playing time should give McSorley the time he needs to locate open receivers and open some holes for the running game.

Maryland is a team with a lot of dissension at the present time. Coach Durkin has the support of his players, and if he is fired, we expect the this program to be affected more than Ohio State’s losing Meyer would be. This team was on the cusp of contending for bowl eligibility, but it would not surprise us if the Terrapins fell to the bottom of the division and even go 0-9 if the players don’t rally around interim head coach Matt Canada, who just arrived from LSU.

The Terp offense will move on the ground more than through the air this year after being exactly equal in 2017 with 162 yards rushing and 162 yards passing per game. The running back tandem of Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison should team up for about 1,800 yards with the improved blocking expected from an experience offensive line that welcomes back the top five players from last year.

Maryland leads the nation in only one quarterback statistic, and unfortunately, that is number of quarterbacks used. The recent history has been quite negative as to the incredible number of QBs in need of disability insurance. Last year was more of the same in College Park, as the first two were done for the year in Mid-September. To complicate matters further, Maryland will switch from a shotgun alignment to an under-center alignment this year. Redshirt Freshman Kasim Hill and sophomore Tyrell Pigrome have very limited experience, but one of the two will start against Texas on September 1.

Maryland basically threw the ball to two players last year, and one returns in 2018. Taivon Jacobs turned 47 catches into 553 yards and 5 TDs last year. Jacobs will not be able to make up for the receptions and yards lost when D. J. Moore became a first round pick in the NFL Draft.

Maryland needs to re-tool a little on the defensive side, but there are some athletes here that can shine. The Terps use the 3-3-5 defense, and the secondary will be the strongest unit on the team. Safety Darnell Savage intercepted three passes last year and returned one for a touchdown. He led UM with 8 passed defended. Nickel back Antoine Brooks finished second on the team with 77 tackles last year, and he proved to be an excellent run defender, finishing with a team-leading 9 1/2 tackles for loss.

Outside linebacker Isaiah Davis is the lone returning starter at linebacker. The Terps need Buck linebacker Jesse Aniebonam to emerge as a force coming back from injury after starring there in 2016, when he made 9 QB sacks.

With Durkin as coach, we were prepared to give Maryland a 50-50 shot at bowl eligibility this year and a 90% chance of getting five wins. If Durkin is dismissed, this team could fall to 2-10, and there will be a long coaching search trying to find somebody to right the ship.

Rutgers found a way to win four games last year with an offense that averaged just 18 points and 263 yards per game. The Scarlet Knights scored just 71 points in their eight losses. Coach Chris Ash is a defensive specialist, having been the defensive coordinator at Ohio State and Arkansas before coming to RU. Quietly, he doubled the win total between his first and second year, and he returns more experience this year than either of his first two seasons in New Brunswick.

The offense should experience some improvement this year, but don’t expect too much. Quarterback Giovanni Rescigno shared the job last year with less than stellar results, so there is only one way to go from 47% completions and 5.2 yards per pass attempt. Tight end Jerome Washington returns after leading RU with just 28 receptions and 282 yards. Former Boston College running back Jonathan Hillman and talented sophomore Raheem Blackshear will get the brunt of the rushing attempts. Blackshear has the ability to break a long gain via the run or the pass, but his diminutive size will limit the amount of touches he can get and stay healthy. The offensive line is anything but an asset, as the Scarlet Knights frequently allowed pass rushers to get into the backfield quickly.

The RU defense will most likely carry the team on its shoulders again this season. This unit limited Purdue to 12 points, but it is not one of the league’s premier stop troops. Eight starters return from 2017, so Rutgers’ numbers on this side of the ball could improve a little after finishing 11th against the run and 10th against the pass.

Linebackers Deonte Roberts and Trevor Morris finished one-two in tackles last year, and they could both top 100 tackles this year. There are multiple players with experience returning to the secondary, but none appear to be ready to challenge for all conference honors. The pass rush was close to nonexistent last year, and the top pass rusher used up his eligibility.

Indiana was on the verge of turning the program around into an annual bowl-contender until they decided it was time for Kevin Wilson to go. Wilson ended up at Ohio State as an assistant, while Tom Allen took over in Bloomington. After a 5-7 finish last year, it could be difficult to contend fro a 6-win season and bowl bid this season.

The defense gave Indiana a chance to compete in several games last year, and this year, a major rebuilding task will send the defensive averages up by about 7-10 points per game. The offense will not be that much better if any better at all, so the Hoosiers may have to fight to stay out of the basement if Maryland doesn’t implode.

The old saying goes that if you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks. What does it say when you have three? Allen was not all that pleased with the depth chart here, and late in Spring, he signed former Arizona Wildcat starter Brandon Dawkins to join the competition between Sophomore Peyton Ramsey and true freshman Michael Penix. Dawkins performed admirably under center in Tucson, but he was not going to see a lot of time with Khalil Tate on the roster. He is an excellent dual-threat player and should eventually become the starter.

The Hoosiers have a decent but not flashy running back duo that should help IU top the 130 rushing yards per game from last season. Morgan Ellison and Cole Gest should both get 7-12 attempts per game.

Two of the three starters returning on defense play in the secondary. Cornerback Andre Brown is not one of the top 10 at his position in the Big Ten. Jonathan Crawford is a decent but not exceptional strong safety. The Hoosiers have numerous inexperienced players with promising talent, but this secondary is vulnerable.

At least the secondary has some experience. The front seven is void of experienced starters. There are a couple of players in the trenches that look like Big Ten athletes. Tackle Jacob Robinson should make some big plays from the inside, but IU is weak everywhere else up front.

They were oh so close last year, but came up a bit short. Wisconsin ran the table in the regular season beating Northwestern by two games, while no other team in the West Division finished above .500 in league play. The Badgers are still the favorite to repeat as division champions, but they won’t be as good this year as they were in 2017. The Badger offense will need to be the best defense this year, because UW lost a considerable amount of talent on the other side of the ball from the league’s top defense.

The Badgers are noted for having excellent offensive linemen, tight ends, and powerful running backs. Expect more of the same in 2018, as the nation’s best offensive line is loaded with talent and experience. There is such incredible depth here that some of the backups could start for other Top 25 teams! Three of the players could make All-American! Tackle Michael Deiter could be the first tackle picked in the 2019 NFL Draft, but he is the second best on the team, and he is actually better utilized at guard. Dave Edwards is a beast. He is strong, quick, and agile, having been an option quarterback in high school.

Wisconsin lost a fine tight end in Troy Fumagalli (46 catches 547 yards), but when they still have two fine players nominated to the John Mackey Award Watch List. Zander Neuville and Kyle Penniston can block like guards but can sneak into the secondary and turn a short pass into a nice gain.

Fumagalli was the leading pass receiver, but the three two wideout receivers are back this year. Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor, and Danny Davis combined for just 87 pass receptions, but the trio averaged 16 yards per reception with 16 touchdowns.

Alex Hornibrook returns as the starting quarterback, and if he moves forward as much this season as he did last season, he could challenge McSorley and Lewerke for first team all-conference honors. His top job though will be handing the ball off to Jonathan Taylor, who rushed for 1,977 yards as a freshman.

If the Badgers stumble this year, it will be because their defense allows opponents to score points faster than the offense can respond. After giving up less than 14 points per game, less than 100 rushing yards, and just 262 total yards per game. The Badgers are still strong at linebacker with last year’s top two tacklers returning. T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly combined for 169 tackles with 22 for lost yardage; they picked up 5 passes, with Edwards taking one to the house.

Nose Tackle Olive Sagapolu can stop the two A-gaps without doing much of anything. At 346 pounds, he is tough to move out of the way and can force running attacks to direct plays to the next gap over. The Badgers are totally inexperienced at the end positions, and this will be a concern at the start of the season.

In the defensive backfield, safety D’Cota Dixon is the lone returning starter, and while he is excellent against the run, he is not a pass defense star.

Wisconsin will have time to get their new defensive players some playing time against three beatable opponents. The September 22nd game at Iowa could go a long way in determining the West Division champion.

Northwestern returns enough talent on both sides of the ball to give Wisconsin and Iowa fierce competition for the West Division flag. The University spent $260 million building the finest indoor facility in the nation, right on Lake Michigan, and the Wildcats are going to ramp up recruiting and possibly become the football equivalent of Duke Basketball, where the finest combination of athletic and academic successes end up in Evanston. This is down the road; for now, Coach Pat Fitzgerald tries to improve on a 10-3 season that included a narrow win over Kentucky in the Music City Bowl.

Clayton Thorson may not be an all-conference selection, but the senior quarterback has a good shot to hear his name announced in the 2019 NFL Draft. Thorson’s 2017 season was a bit off the 2016 season, but with his size and strength, NFL teams will have an interest in him. He has a a pair of experienced wide receivers returning, and Ben Skowronek and Flynn Nagel were the leading receivers last year.

Thorson relied on a lot of passes to his backs, and he will miss Justin Jackson’s 44 receptions and 1,311 rushing yards. Jeremy Larkin actually had better averages than Jackson in limited touches, as he has breakaway speed when he gets a little open space. The offensive line should be strong on the right side, but the left side could pose problems against some tough defensive stars.

Defensively, the Wildcats are stronger in the front seven and lacking in experience in their back line. Linebackers Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall combined to make 192 tackles with 26 for loss. Hall blitzed and sacked the QB five times. Up front, Samdup Miller and Joe Gaziano teamed for 14 1/2 sacks and 21 1/2 total tackles for loss. The secondary has just one returning starter. Montre Hartage intercepted a couple of passes, but this unit is lacking in stars.
Usually, Big Ten teams begin the season with a winnable game against a Group of 5 opponent. This year, Northwestern begins the season on the road in a pivotal conference game against Purdue. Then, in November, when Big Ten teams rarely play out of conference, the Wildcats host Notre Dame. The schedule is not favorable for a run at a division flag.

On the other hand, Iowa has a very favorable schedule to make a run at the division flag, even if like Wisconsin, they have a lot of replacing to do on the defensive side. Coach Kirk Ferentz enters his 20th season in Iowa City, and as a gift, the Hawkeyes are the only team in the Big Ten that does not play Ohio State, Michigan, or Michigan State.

On the offensive side, they Hawkeyes are led by their best player, quarterback Nate Stanley. Stanley came from out of almost nowhere to take over at QB last year and surprised the nation with 26 touchdown passes and 2.432 passing yards. Included in those stats were 5 TD pass games against Iowa State and Ohio State.

Like many teams in this league, Iowa uses a lot of two tight end sets, and the Hawkeyes return both starters this year. Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson teamed up to grab 54 passes good for 814 yards and 14 touchdowns. They will team up with top wideout Nick Easley to make Iowa’s passing game strong. The running game may be a work in progress with last year’s two top backs no longer around. Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin saw limited action in 2017 and looked capable of becoming contributors this year, but the Iowa running game may be down a little this year.

The defensive liability that will hurt the Hawkeyes this year is the middle of the defense. All of last year’s top linebackers are gone, and there isn’t much experience returning. Iowa will be vulnerable early against the short passing game and play-action passes until the new linebackers get enough reps to understand how to play at full speed. This is not the case up front, where the defensive line should be rather strong this year. Ends Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse should get to the enemy quarterback a fair amount of times and stop running backs on stretch plays often enough to encourage offenses to try something else.

The secondary may have four new starters this year, even though there is returning starting experience. The Hawkeyes will miss star defensive back Joshua Jackson and his eight interceptions.

Who saw this coming last year? Purdue was picked to maybe contend for fifth place in the division and hopefully win four or five games. Under new coach Jeff Brohm, the Boilermakers looked more like the Drew Brees team that played at Ross-Ade Stadium 20 years ago than recent Purdue squads. Purdue Missouri, Minnesota, and Iowa in the regular season, and then secured a winning season by topping Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl.
It is more of the same for the Boilermakers offensively this year, but like most of the division, they must rebuild on the other side of the ball. The offense improved only marginally in scoring average in Brohm’s first season in West Lafayette, but the defense shaved 18 points off the scoring average allowed.

A tight race for the starting quarterback job is still too close to call. Last year, Elijah Sindelar got a majority of the snaps, but he did so only because David Blough was out for the year with an injury. Sindelar played the last few weeks on a torn ACL, but both should be ready to begin the year. It could easily continue to be undecided into the season, as both could play.

The Boilermakers need true freshman Rondale Moore to live up to his credentials as soon as possible, because there isn’t a go-to guy on the roster. Most of the returning receivers are capable second and third options, but only if there is a play-making first option.

The running game should be slightly improved, even though last year’s starter has graduated. Markell Jones and Tario Fuller will carry the ball behind an experienced line featuring Rimington Award contender Kirk Barron at center.

Purdue’s run defense was one of the better groups in the nation last year, but most of the stars that made it so powerful won’t be on the sidelines this year. One of those who will be back is middle linebacker Markus Bailey, who finished second on the team in tackles and first in sacks. He played on the strongside last year, but he will return to the middle in 2018.

The front four has questions, especially at end, while there are concerns at the cornerback spots as well. Safeties Jacob Thieneman and Navon Mosley return as starters, but they were more of supporting role players than stars.

Purdue has two strong non-conference opponents on their schedule in Missouri and Boston College, and most of the winnable conference games are on the road this year. If Brohm can take the Boilermakers back to a bowl this year, it may be an even better coaching job than last year. It also may get him a lot of offers to coach at more successful programs.

Minnesota used to be as big a power in college football as Ohio State is today. That was nearly 60 years ago, but this school still has the resources to return to greatness. Second year coach P. J. Fleck knows how to recruit and coach, as he made Western Michigan a New Year’s Bowl participant. Fleck is a motivational coach in the mold of James Franklin, but don’t underestimate his ability to get the most out of the talent on hand. The Golden Gophers fell one victory short of qualifying for a bowl last year, but with a majority of his starters returning on both sides of the ball, Fleck should play game number 13 in December.

Minnesota couldn’t move the ball or score points well enough to find that elusive sixth win. Narrow losses to Maryland, Michigan State, and Iowa could have been wins with just a little more offense. Quarterback play was a major liability in 2017, so the fact that Minnesota will have a new signal caller in 2018 is not a bad thing. It was thought that either redshirt freshman Tanner Morhan or juco transfer Vic Viramontes will be under center when the Gophers take on New Mexico State in week one. However, in recent days it appears that true freshman walk-on Zack Annexstad might be the starter.

Annexstad is not your typical walk-on. He turned down scholarship offers at multiple FBS schools to pay to attend his father’s alma mater. He has the stronger arm and has the skills to lead this team to at least seven more points per game than last year.
UM is set at running back, where Rodney Smith narrowly missed topping 1,000 yards and could easily match or top his fine sophomore campaign, where he rushed for 1,158 yards. It’s at receiver where the Gophers are not yet quite up to standards of the top teams in the league. Tyler Johnson is a fine receiver, capable of turning a short pass into a long gain, but he cannot do it all himself. Freshmen and untested sophomores will man the other positions. The Gophers plan to create shade for the fans in the stadium, and they signed two of the largest offensive linemen in the game. Tackle Daniel Faalele tips the scale at 400 pounds on a 6 foot 9 inch frame. Curtis Dunlap is only 6-5 and 370. Both should add depth to an improving offensive line this year.

Unlike most of their division brethren, Minnesota has experience returning throughout the defensive side of the field. In fact, they have a star in each unit. End Carter Coughlin led the team with 6 1/2 sacks. Linebacker Thomas Barber led the team and finished third in the league with 115 tackles, including 10 1/2 for loss. Safety Antoine Winfield looked like an all-conference player when he was healthy in the four games he played.

Minnesota gave up 22.8 points per game and 347 yards per game, which in the Big 12 would have been outstanding. It’s just average in the Big Ten, and the Gophers have a chance to improve those numbers to 20 points and 330 yards given up. A non-conference schedule that should give them three wins means, they only have to go 3-6 to get back to a bowl. That’s a strong possibility.

There is a generation of college football fans that do not know that Nebraska was once what Alabama is today. The Cornhuskers last won the national championship 21 years ago and last looked like the best team ever 23 years ago. The Cornhuskers are a far cry from even respectability, but new coach Scott Frost should stir up excitement at his alma mater. Too bad he doesn’t have eligibility left, because Nebraska could use him under center. Two freshmen are competing for the starting quarterback job, Tristan Gebbia and Adrian Martinez. For the time being, both may play in the early games in hopes that one will emerge as the clear choice.

Whoever is in at quarterback, he will have a fine pair of receivers to aim his throws to. Stanley Morgan, Jr. and J.D. Spielman teamed for 116 receptions and 1,1816 yards. Morgan’s father was a star with the New England Patriots and likely headed to the NFL in another year.
In past years, it was not unusual for Nebraska to rush for 400 to 500 yards with 1st team All-American backs. Things have changed in Lincoln, as the Cornhuskers finished 13th in the league in rushing with just 107.5 yards per game last year. No back topped 500 yards rushing for the season, and leading returnee Tre Bryant fell short of 300 yards. A combination of having Frost’s hurry up spread offense and a better blocking wall should help Nebraska increase their rushing average by 30-50 yards per game this year.
The defense formerly and famously known as the Blackshirts in the dynasty years of this program looked more like the black and blue in recent years. Nebraska gave up 36.4 points and 436.2 yards per game last year, including 42 points to Oregon 56 to Ohio State, and a final three swoon that saw Minnesota, Penn State, and Iowa all top 50 points. Expect these numbers to shrink in 2018. We would not be shocked if NU shaved 10 or more points and 50 or more yards off those poor averages.

The front seven will lead the way in 2018. Nebraska switches to a 3-4 after being an even-front team last year. The move to defensive end from outside linebacker should help Ben Stille team up with Carlos Davis and Freedom Akinmoladun top the 7 sacks the trio produced last year. Linebacker Dedrick Young is the leading returning tackle, and he’ll team with juco transfer Will Honas to give the Cornhuskers a better second line of defense. Expect more aggressive play in the secondary this year, as defensive coordinator Erik Chinander prefers a defense that concentrates on forcing turnovers.
There is a path to six wins for Frost in his first year at Memorial Stadium, but it isn’t going to be easy. After an opening game at home with Akron, the next three games are a bit tricky.
Illinois finished last in offense and 12th in defense in the Big Ten last year, and Coach Lovie Smith realized that desperate measures were needed. After Arizona fired Rich Rodriguez, Smith hired his offensive coordinator, Rod Smith to try to jump start the Illini offense. Quarterback Cam Thomas flashed just enough talent in a relief appearance against Purdue last year to give Illinois fans hope that he can move the team with consistency. The cupboard isn’t bare in the receiving corps, as Mike Dudek, Ricky Smalling, and tight end Louis Dorsey all saw extended playing time in 2017 and combined to catch 77 passes. Mike Epstein led the team with 346 rushing yards, even though he wasn’t the starter. He should top 500 this year. The entire offensive line returns, so expect Illinois to do much better than the paltry 15.4 points and 280 yards per game this year.

Defensively, Illinois gave up 31.5 points and 418 yards per game last year and won only two games, against Ball State and Western Kentucky. In Big Ten play, they went 0-9 and only really challenged in one game. There really is no reason to believe those numbers will improve this year. The defensive line and secondary is the weakest in the Big Ten, and the linebacker trio is only marginally better.

This could be the end of the line for Smith as coach of the Illini. With a 5-19 record in two years, another double-digit loss season might not be acceptable.

Here is how the Big Ten Conference Media voted in the preseason poll, which was taken before Meyer and Durkin were put on leave.

Big Ten
East 1st Place Points
1. Ohio St. 23.5 191.5
2. Michigan St. 2 142
3. Penn St. 1 141.5
4. Michigan 1.5 140.5
5. Maryland 0 75.5
6. Indiana 0 60
7. Rutgers 0 33
West 1st Place Points
1. Wisconsin 28 196
2. Iowa 0 155
3. Northwestern 0 138
4. Nebraska 0 104
5. Purdue 0 98.5
6. Minnesota 0 64.5
7. Illinois 0 28

The PiRate Ratings differ somewhat, and as we have mentioned, we expect considerable movement in these ratings, especially in the East Division if Meyer and/or Durkin are dismissed. LATE NOTE: It was announced Friday afternoon that the Meyer investigation would conclude on Sunday.

Big Ten Conference
East Division
Team BTen Overall PiRate Mean Bias Average
Michigan St. 0-0 0-0 127.7 125.1 128.1 127.0
Ohio St. 0-0 0-0 125.1 122.3 125.6 124.3
Michigan 0-0 0-0 121.7 120.6 122.7 121.6
Penn St. 0-0 0-0 121.2 117.7 121.6 120.2
Maryland 0-0 0-0 102.2 100.2 100.5 101.0
Rutgers 0-0 0-0 98.4 97.0 96.2 97.2
Indiana 0-0 0-0 97.8 96.3 97.3 97.1
West Division
Team BTen Overall PiRate Mean Bias Average
Wisconsin 0-0 0-0 123.1 119.2 123.4 121.9
Northwestern 0-0 0-0 114.8 112.6 115.4 114.3
Iowa 0-0 0-0 113.2 110.0 112.0 111.7
Purdue 0-0 0-0 107.9 106.3 106.6 106.9
Minnesota 0-0 0-0 104.7 103.6 104.0 104.1
Nebraska 0-0 0-0 100.5 98.7 97.8 99.0
Illinois 0-0 0-0 94.0 93.5 92.9 93.5
Big Ten Averages 110.9 108.8 110.3 110.0

 

New Coaches
Not counting the two interim head coaches, Scott Frost is the lone new head coach in the league this year. Frost left undefeated Central Florida to return to his alma mater Nebraska. He turned UCF from an 0-12 team to a 14-0 team in just two years. If he can get Nebraska to a bowl in year one and then compete for 9 wins in 2019, he will have some property named after him in Lincoln.

Predicted Won-Loss Records
Note: These predicted won-loss records are strictly mechanical based on the initial PiRate Ratings. No upsets are factored in these predictions. Additionally, our PiRate Ratings are only useful for the next week of games and cannot really be used to forecast past that point. Part of our weekly adjustment to our ratings includes a factor where depth issues or non-issues have been pre-set. In other words, a team without talented second stringers may lose ratings points as the season progresses even if they win games by the predicted margin, whereas a team with exceptional depth (like Alabama) will improve during the season and see its rating rise even if they win games by a little less than the predicted margin. Ohio State and Maryland could see their ratings change by large amounts depending on the outcome of the two coaching investigations.

Team Conference Overall
East
Michigan St. 9-0 13-0*
Ohio St. 8-1 11-1
Michigan 7-2 10-2
Penn St. 6-3 9-3
Maryland 3-6 5-7
Rutgers 2-7 5-7
Indiana 0-9 2-10
West
Wisconsin 7-2 10-3
Iowa 7-2 10-2
Northwestern 5-4 7-5
Minnesota 5-4 8-4
Purdue 3-6 4-8
Nebraska 1-8 4-8
Illinois 0-9 2-10
* Michigan State to win Big Ten Champ. Game

Bowl Tie-ins
1. Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA
2. Citrus Bowl in Orlando, FL
3. Outback Bowl in Tampa, FL
4. Holiday Bowl in San Diego, CA
5. Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, FL or Music City Bowl in Nashville, TN
6. Pinstripe Bowl in New York, NY
7. San Francisco Bowl in San Francisco, CA
8. Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit, MI
9. Armed Forces Bowl in Forth Worth, TX
10. Heart of Dallas Bowl in Dallas, TX

Coming Tomorrow–The Atlantic Coast Conference

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