Written by Evan McShane (@veryreasonable)
As spring practice wraps up around the Big Ten we wanted to talk a look, albeit a blurry one, at how the teams in the conference stand today. Spring is a tricky time to rank teams since graduated seniors and players leaving early are not practicing and most incoming freshmen have not arrived on campus yet. Here is how we see the Big Ten heading into the summer portion of the off-season.
1) Michigan, 2018 Record: 10-3 (8-1)
Head coach Jim Harbaugh enters his fifth season as head coach of the Michigan Wolverines with some less than impressive results thus far. During Harbaugh’s tenure, Michigan has an impressive 38-14 record, to go along with a 26-9 conference record. However, the Wolverines have failed against their rivals and have lost three consecutive bowl games. Although Michigan lost several players to the NFL draft, quarterback Shea Patterson will look to improve as he returns for his second season in the Big Ten. Despite a handful of missed opportunities on the football field, Harbaugh has put on a clinic in terms of recruiting since he arrived at Michigan. The Wolverines have consistently had one of the top-rated recruiting classes in the conference and in the country. This year is no exception. The talent has been in place, will this finally be the year Michigan lives up to their expectations under Jim Harbaugh?
2) Ohio State, 2018 Record: 13-1 (8-1)
Ohio State will begin a new era under head coach Ryan Day this season. The Buckeyes lost quarterback Dwayne Haskins to the NFL, but as always, the have plenty of capable reinforcements. While the Ohio State defense struggled at times last season, this year they will return 18 or their top 20 leading tacklers. The biggest addition to the 2019-20 Buckeyes is quarterback Justin Fields. Fields is one of the highest rated football recruits out of high school ever recorded. Fields transferred to Ohio State this offseason and was granted a waiver for immediate eligibility. Running back JK Dobbins should be poised for a huge season as the Buckeyes will likely run the ball more with a dual threat quarterback. While there are several questions about this Ohio State team as they begin life without Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes have the talent to win the conference yet again.
3) Nebraska, 2018 Record: 4-8 (3-6)
One might be shocked to see Nebraska so high on this list after going 4-8 last season in what was an underwhelming debut for head coach Scott Frost. However, things started to look different in Lincoln, Nebraska in late October last year. Following an 0-6 start and a narrow overtime loss at Northwestern, the Cornhuskers trounced Minnesota 53-28. They finished their final six games with a 4-2 record – their only losses coming by five points on the road against Ohio State and by three points on the road at Iowa. Nebraska looked like a completely different team during the second half of the season and true freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez showed real promise. Martinez is athletic, elusive, and has a knack for making big plays. It should come as no surprise if the Cornhuskers are massively improved next year. Look for Adrian Martinez to have a big season as Scott Frost works to get Nebraska back to its winning ways.
4) Michigan State, 2018 Record 7-6 (5-4)
Relative to the hype, last season was hit or miss for the Spartans. Many analysts pegged Michigan State as a potential playoff team until an early loss at Arizona State quashed their hopes. Quarterback Brian Lewerke dealt with a bothersome shoulder injury for much of the season. If he is healthy, Michigan State could experience much more success next season. Last year, the Spartans touted one of the very best defenses in the entire country. Much of their talent is returning and Michigan State will again be tough to beat in 2020. Can the Spartans stay healthy? If so, their ceiling might be as high as any Big Ten team.
5) Iowa, 2018 Record: 9-4 (5-4)
The Iowa Hawkeyes lost two tight ends to the first round of the NFL draft this season. Despite losing such significant talent, Iowa should be poised to have another successful season with Nate Stanley at quarterback. The Hawkeyes lost a good chunk of talent on the defensive side of the ball, but historically, Iowa has recruited defense very well and has usually had success replacing high caliber players. It seems as if Iowa always has a steady defense and steady offensive line. These two things are central to success in the Big Ten. 2020 should be no exception. The question for Iowa will be, how far can Nate Stanley take them?
6) Minnesota, 2018 Record: 7-6 (3-6)
Minnesota finished their season on an impressive high note. The Golden Gophers stunned Wisconsin, beating the Badgers 37-15 in Madison to become bowl eligible. Minnesota then beat Georgia Tech to win their first bowl under head coach PJ Fleck. The season was not without turmoil, however. Minnesota lost four straight games in early October and surrendered 55 points to a weak Illinois team in November. Overall, as PJ Fleck attempts to restore the Gophers football program, 2018 was a success with bowl eligibility and a postseason victory. The Gophers return most of their roster and should be a very experienced group compared to years past.
7) Penn State, 2018 Record: 9-4 (6-3)
Trace McSorley couldn’t do it by himself last year, although he came close. The Nittany Lions season was upended with back-to-back home losses against Ohio State and Michigan State early in the year. Penn State hung on and won the games in which they were favored, only to lose to underdog Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl. Tommy Stevens, a 6-foot-5 blue chip recruit, was expected to step in and start at the quarterback position, but he has entered the transfer portal. Penn State still has loads of talent on its roster, but there are many questions about where the production will come from. Will the Nittany Lions’ talent outweigh their inexperience, or is head coach James Franklin and Penn State due for a regression?
8) Wisconsin, 2018 Record: 8-5 (5-4)
The 2018 campaign was mightily disappointing for a Wisconsin team that was widely projected to compete for a college football playoff bid. The Badgers lost their third game of the season against BYU at home and subsequently lost every other game thereafter, failing to build any positive momentum. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook was a large part of that inconsistency. Next year, Hornibrook will be replaced by either stud recruit Graham Mertz or Jack Coan. Wisconsin lost four of their five starting offensive linemen and several talented defenders. One bright spot remains the return of running back Jonathan Taylor. The Badgers will rely on Taylor to carry them to success in 2020.
9) Northwestern, 2018 Record: 9-5 (8-1)
After a rocky 1-3 start to their season, Northwestern remarkably found themselves in the Big Ten Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Quarterback Clayton Thorson managed a balanced offense and was supported by head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s consistent defensive unit. The Wildcats got a midseason gift in the form of recruiting. Highly touted quarterback Hunter Johnson transferred to Northwestern from Clemson. Johnson will likely be the favorite to start for the Wildcats next season. If Northwestern can assemble another steady defense, they have the tools on offense to pace themselves to another successful season. Perhaps the most intriguing question for Northwestern in 2020, just how good is Hunter Johnson?
10) Indiana, 2018 Record: 5-7 (2-7)
As is too often the story in Bloomington, the Hoosiers failed to make a bowl game. After a racing out to a 3-0 non-conference start, Indiana posted a lackluster 2-7 record in conference play. The Hoosiers were constantly hampered by a limited offensive attack. Consistent and stout defensive play wasn’t enough to put IU over the top against the most formidable conference foes. Hoosier fans can only hope next year will be different with an intriguing three-way quarterback battle brewing. Freshman Jack Tuttle, who transferred to IU from Utah, will get a chance to start, as will RS freshman Mike Penix and junior Peyton Ramsey. With a new offensive coordinator and several returning starters, Indiana hopes to exceed expectations in 2019.
11) Purdue, 2018 Record: 6-7 (5-4)
Purdue had one the stranger seasons last year with wins over Ohio State, Iowa, and Boston College and puzzling losses at home against Northwestern and Eastern Michigan. Their season was punctuated by an embarrassing 63-14 bowl loss against Auburn. A wildly inconsistent defense was lifted up by a playmaking offense that relentlessly attacked downfield. Breakout star freshman Rondale Moore made a name for himself in the receiving game. Quarterback David Blough showed off his arm strength time and time again. The Boilermakers will turn to quarterback Elijah Sindelair next year to replace Blough. In addition to Blough, over two-thirds of Purdue’s offense graduated. Head coach Jeff Brohm has had great early success recruiting at Purdue. The Boilermakers will need his success on the recruiting trail to pay off quickly if Purdue plans to return to another bowl game.
12) Maryland, 2018 Record 5-7 (3-6)
Maryland hired Mike Locksley from Alabama to be their new head coach in a decision met with varying opinion. The Terrapins lost a lot of talent on defense and quarterback Kasim Hill is recovering from a knee injury. The quarterback position is up in the air for Maryland, but regardless of who wins the job, the Terrapins will likely take a dual threat approach featuring a steady dose of read options and quarterback runs. Maryland’s defense surrendered 30+ points on seven occasions last year. No matter how explosive their offense can be, Maryland will have to drastically improve their defense if they want to become bowl eligible next season.
13) Illinois, 2018 Record: 4-8 (2-7)
The Fighting Illini were able to see some improvement last year during Lovie Smith’s third season as head coach. Although the improvement was subtle as Illinois won just two conference games. While defense was Lovie Smith’s specialty in the NFL when he coached the Chicago Bears, this has not turned out to be the case at Illinois. The Fighting Illini gave up 40 or more points in half their games last season. They lost these six games by embarrassing margins of 63, 39, 39, 30, 29, and 19 points. If Illinois is to see any improvement moving forward, they will have to correct these fatal defensive flaws. Quarterback play has been less than stellar under Lovie Smith and it’s unclear who will be the started next year. Freshman Isaiah Williams, a high profile recruit out of Saint Louis, will compete with Sophomore MJ Rivers for the job. Will Illinois’ defense and quarterback play improve upon a 4-8 campaign in 2018?
14) Rutgers, 2018 Record: 1-11 (0-9)
Rutgers has been utterly abysmal since joining the Big Ten in 2014. Chris Ash will have another year to redeem himself and the program. One thing the Scarlet Knights showed flashes of last season as the ability to generate some big plays. Freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski struggled taking care of the football, but he did demonstrate the ability to stretch the field. Sitkowski will need to limit his mistakes if he’s going to make the most of his strong arm. Explosive running back Raheem Blackshear will also return to the Scarlet Knights. If Rutgers is going to have any success in 2020 it will be because their offense is generating big plays. If the offense stutters, it could be another dreadful season in New Jersey.