Every Monday, we will break down the Big Ten and where Penn State sits in the conference hierarchy.
No Big Ten teams have played a game yet, so this serves as a set of preseason rankings.
Come back next Monday to see how these rankings shift following Week 1 action.
Five players on the AP’s preseason All-America team ties Alabama for the most in the country. Jonathan Taylor, behind the nation’s best offensive line, can put up Melvin Gordon-type numbers and win the Heisman. Alex Hornibrook isn’t going to light secondaries on fire, but does the job head coach Paul Chryst asks of him. Wisconsin’s defense lost a few key pieces from last year’s 13-1 run. But there’s a reason why six of seven Sports Illustrated writers picked the Badgers to reach the College Football Playoff.
2. Ohio State
Not having Urban Meyer for the first three games isn’t that big of a deal. Ohio State could blow out Oregon State without a head coach at all, and Meyer will be back in practice to gameplan for Rutgers and No. 16 TCU. Sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins could contend for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, while J.K. Dobbins would win the league rushing title if not for Taylor. Ohio State’s depth and defensive line, led by freak Nick Bosa, make the Buckeyes a New Year’s Six lock, yet again.
3. Penn State
The Nittany Lions could end up at No. 1 or 5 in these rankings by time the season ends. For now, this seems just right. Trace McSorley is going to get his and make the Nittany Lions a tough out at home. Miles Sanders might put up better rushing stats than Saquon Barkley did in 2017, and the wideout room is deep even after losing DaeSean Hamilton. But question marks at tight end, defensive tackle and linebacker will need to be answered before Ohio State comes to town on Sept. 29.
According to Bill Connolly’s projected S&P+ ratings, Michigan enters 2018 with the second-best defense in the country. Linebacker Devin Bush will be in the Butkus Award conversation come December, and defensive ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich will terrorize backfields. But Michigan’s defense was similarly dominant in 2017, and the Wolverines finished 8-5. Former five-star recruit and Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson could be Jim Harbuagh’s missing piece to a league title.
5. Michigan State
In those same projected defensive S&P+ ratings, the Spartans sit at No. 3. Mark Dantonio’s squad returns 21 starters, tied for the most in the conference. Brian Lewerke — who threw for 400 yards in Penn State’s backbreaking loss in East Lansing last year — is being slept on, and so are Michigan State wide receivers Felton Davis III, Darrell Stewart Jr. and Cody White. The Spartans have the worst odds to the win the national championship out of the Big Ten’s top tier, but that doesn’t mean Michigan State can’t make it back to Indianapolis and play its way into the playoff.
Iowa is the best of the rest. History and Las Vegas bookmakers both peg the Hawkeyes for an eight-win season, but a favorable schedule — home against Wisconsin, at Penn State are the only ranked games — and solid offensive returners could have Kirk Ferentz’s side looking at nine or 10 wins. Tight end Noah Fant is CBS Sports’ No. 19 overall prospect for the 2019 NFL draft. With Akrum Wadley off to the league, Nate Stanley’s connection with Fant will drive Iowa’s offense.
The Wildcats boast a new state-of-the-art facility on Lake Michigan, but familiar faces return. Clayton Thorson is in his third full season as Northwestern’s starting quarterback, and his favorite target — 6-foot-4 junior Bennett Skowronek — will be back. Running back Justin Jackson moves on, but Jeremy Larkin (84 carries, 503 yards as a freshman) should fill the void just fine. Linebacker Paddy Fisher led Northwestern with 113 tackles as a redshirt freshman in 2017. Expect him to become the new Josey Jewell in the Big Ten West.
Purdue still isn’t sure who will start at quarterback, David Blough or Elijah Sindelar. So that’s a big question mark. But head coach Jeff Brohm, who was reportedly close to leaving West Lafayette for the Tennessee job this offseason, has the Boilermakers going in the right direction. In Brohm’s first season, Purdue reached its first bowl game since 2012 and won it, giving the Boilermakers a winning season. Expect another one in 2018.
All eyes will be on Scott Frost, whose offensive mind dazzled at Oregon and guided UCF to an undefeated campaign last year. The Knights led college football in scoring offense (48.2 points per game), and that has Nebraska fans dreaming about what could be after lackluster seasons under Mike Riley. But expectations should be kept in check for now. Frost is going with a true freshman at quarterback, and while Adrian Martinez — a four-star recruit — has potential, there will be growing pains for the Cornhuskers.
Head coach Tom Allen is a defensive wizard. But it’s the Hoosiers’ offense that will determine how far Indiana goes in 2018. Peyton Ramsey will start at quarterback, and his mobility will add a dimension that Richard Lagow never brought to the table. Top 2017 wideout Simmie Cobbs is the NFL, and leading rusher Morgan Ellison is indefinitely suspended. But the return of wideout Nick Westbrook, who suffered a torn ACL after a 54-catch season in 2016, should help.
Either Kasim Hill or Tyrrell Pigrome will start under center, and both proved to be versatile before suffering season-ending injuries in 2017. Gone is D.J. Moore, last year’s Big Ten receiver of the year. His 80 receptions and 1,033 yards will be impossible to replace with one guy. If Hill and/or Pigrome stay healthy, it will be interesting to see what offensive coordinator Matt Canada can do with them.
The bright spot for Rutgers is its September and October slate. The Scarlet Knights’ first eight opponents are Texas State, Ohio State, Kansas, Buffalo, Indiana, Illinois, Maryland and Northwestern. The problem is their November stretch, finishing the year with Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State. But with some returning talent on defense, head coach Chris Ash has a slim shot to get bowl eligible before that November gauntlet.
Walk-on true freshman Zach Annexstad will start for the Golden Gophers. That may seem odd. What’s weirder is that all four quarterbacks on Minnesota’s roster are freshmen. Maybe a fresh start is what Minnesota needed after ranking 121st in passing offense last year.
Unless new offensive coordinator Rod Smith — who worked with Heisman candidate Khalil Tate at Arizona last season — can put quarterback Cam Thomas in a position to succeed, the Illini are doomed to another abysmal season. Entering his third year at the helm, Lovie Smith needs something to build on.