2018 Big Ten Preview
June 26, 2018
By Marc Lawrence
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2018 BIG TEN PREVIEW
Bring It On
Thirteen Big Ten teams – sans Rutgers - will square off against at least one non-conference team that participated in a bowl game last season, with 24 of all 39 non-conference games featuring opponents coming off bowl trips. Michigan State and Northwestern will each face bowl teams in all three of their 2018 non-conference contests.
Counting conference and non-conference contests, every Big Ten team will face at least five teams that played in a bowl game last season. Nebraska leads the way with nine such contests, followed by Indiana, Michigan State and Northwestern with eight apiece.
Back For More
Ohio State and Wisconsin will look to repeat as division champions this season. The Badgers finished 9-0 to win the West Division for the second consecutive season and the Buckeyes completed the season with an 8-1 mark to claim the East Division, giving the Buckeyes at least a share of their sixth straight division title. Last season's divisional crowns marked the fourth for the Badgers and sixth for the Buckeyes.
Bad Ass Bowlers
Big Ten teams rolled in the bowl games last season, going 7-1 SU and 6-2 ATS. The only loss was Michigan’s mystifying disappearance against South Carolina. It reversed a lackluster 3-7 SU and 4-5-1 ATS effort the previous bowl season.
Note: The numbers following each team name represents the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.
ILLINOIS (Offense - 8/4, Defense - 8/3, 41 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: BABY LOVE... AT BREAKNECK SPEED
Lovie Smith went one better in 2017 when, after starting the second-most amount of freshmen in 2016 (29.2 percent of all starts), no less than 37.1% of all starts were made by freshmen last year – the most in the nation – including 31 first-time starters. Now, behind new OC Rod Smith, a long-time former offensive coordinator under Rich Rodriguez, who brings a fast-paced, run-often scheme, the Illini will hope RB Mike Epstein (who rushed for 350 yards in five games as a freshman before a season-ending injury last year) and fifth-year senior WR Mike Dudek (former Big Ten Freshman POY) can push the pace like a fast break basketball team. "I'm so excited for this offense," Epstein said. "I think it's an offense tailored to our skill guys.”
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Illinois is 3-37 SU and 14-26 ATS in its last forty Big Ten games versus .500 or greater opponents.
PLAY ON: at Rutgers (10/6)
INDIANA (Offense - 8/4, Defense - 4/1, 56 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: LEO THE LION
Talk about a great hire, Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden insists, “Tom Allen is a great fit for IU. I really believe that Mike DeBord on the offensive side and Allen on the defensive side is unique. They are very experienced, thorough game-planning coaches.” Furthermore, L.A. Chargers OL Dan Feeney firmly believes that Allen has the mantra ‘LEO’, Love Each Other, working in his favor. "Everybody is buying into that.” Allen is also a devout Christian and a defensive strategist par excellence. Since his arrival, Indiana is the most improved team nationally in total defense (169.4 YPG). And that was on the heels of improving 11 PPG and 130 YPG in 2016. A school-record 13 Hoosiers earned all Big Ten honors in 2017. Color them dangerous.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Over the last 22 years, the teams for which Allen has been a member of the coaching staff have posted a combined 227-76 (.754).
PLAY ON: vs. Purdue (11/24)
IOWA (Offense - *7/3, Defense - 6/3, 45 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: A PIN IN THE BALLOON
The signs of regression are in the air. The Hawkeyes lost 2 players to NFL defections, 11 returning starters have departed, and 14 players from the 2-deep are gone. Two Iowa defenders voted unanimous All-Americans are gone, including LB Josey Jewell (101.5 tackles), who was one of 5 starting seniors to depart from the defense. On offense, RBs Akrum Wadley and James Butler each graduated after combining for nearly three-quarters of the team’s rushing yardage in 2017. The good news is QB Nate Stanley had a 137.4 passing efficiency in the fourth quarter last season as the Hawkeyes outscored the opposition, 123-60, in the final stanza and overtime. Our concern is they have won 16 games the last two seasons despite being out yarded 27 YPG in the process.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Kirk Ferentz is the longest tenured FBS head football coach in the nation.
PLAY AGAINST: at Illinois (11/17)
MARYLAND (Offense - *8/4, Defense - 5/1, 48 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: WANTED: A NEW DJ
The Terrapins most dynamic player, WR DJ Moore, opted to leave early for the NFL. The first-team All-Big Ten receiver led the conference in both receptions (80) and receiving yards (1,033) while pacing Maryland with 9 touchdowns. Meanwhile head coach DJ Durkin hopes to patch a defensive line that managed to produce only 16 sacks in 12 games last season (only two Power 5 conference teams, Nebraska and Oregon State, had fewer). Meanwhile, new OC Matt Canada (LSU) will look to ignite an offense that went backwards in 2017, ranking 100th or worse in three of the four major categories (scoring, total and passing offense). Interestingly, this will be Canada’s sixth school in the last eight years.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Terps are 0-9 SUATS following a win from Game Seven out the last five years.
MICHIGAN (Offense - *8/3, Defense - 9/3, 63 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: HOWLING AT THE MOON
We warned last year that Michigan was in line for a fall in 2017. That’s because the Wolverines’ seniors had accounted for the highest percentage of starts of all FBS teams in 2016 (76.6%). It was a wickedly high number and meant that Jim Harbaugh would need to rely on a bevy of underclassmen to compensate for the losses. As a result, the baby Wolves are back with sharpened teeth as those same underclassmen accounted for nearly 50% of all starts made by UM last season, the 7th most in the nation. With three Big Ten revenge games on tap, and former Ole Miss QB Shea Patterson now behind center, look for a the Wolves to be howling in 2018.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The SU winner ‘In The Stats’ is 35-4 in UM games with Harbaugh as its head coach.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Maryland (10/6)
MICHIGAN STATE (Offense - *10/3, Defense - 9/3, 49 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: BACK FOR MORE
Featuring one of the youngest teams in the nation last year, the Spartans’ 10-3 effort marked the biggest single-season turnaround in MSU football history, capped off with a resounding 42-17 win over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl. As a result, Michigan State brings back a plethora of starting experience (33 players) with confidence beyond compare that most coaches would die for. According to SB Nation, MSU has the most returning production of any team in the FBS. The Spartans are returning 239 starts (84 percent) out of a combined 286 possible starting positions from 2017’s offense and defense. The 19 position starters are second only to Kansas (20). It’s likely enough to make HC Mark Dantonio forget that all three of their non-conference games will come against bowlers.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Underclassmen accounted for 56.6% of MSU’s total team starts last season – the 4th most in the land.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Michigan (10/20)
MINNESOTA (Offense - 7/3, Defense - 7/2, 40 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: ALL HANDS ON DECK
As expected when taking over a program in the midst of a complete overhaul, new head coach P.J. Fleck’s boat sprung a leak last season. Through all the seepage, the Gophers managed to win every game in which they won the stats, while losing every game in which they were out-yarded. Surprisingly, they led the nation in Fewest Penalties (39) last season. Meanwhile, top-rated JUCO transfer QB Vic Viramontes appears set to take over. The strong-armed former Cal quarterback is a dual-threat option passer built like a linebacker with deceptive speed. He will operate behind an experienced OL that was pressed into action because of injuries last season. A mass exodus on the DL, though, means the lifejackets will need to be ready and standing by. FYI: Minny’s mighty 13-2 ATS mark as a conference dog of 7 or more points is noteworthy. But then again they were 13-0 ATS until Fleck arrived.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Fleck’s teams are 27-1 SU in their L28 games in which they’ve won the stats, including 16-0 the last 16.
NEBRASKA (Offense – 6/4, Defense - 8/3, 52 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: FROM ZERO TO HERO
After mentoring the only team to ever go from zero wins to zero losses in just two seasons, and one of only two Power 5 schools (out of 13 openings) to hire a Group of 5 head coach in the offseason, Scott Frost finally returns to Nebraska where he won two Big Ten titles as a quarterback for the Huskers. He’ll also be looking to return Nebraska to its glory days as a storied football program. It won’t be easy, though, as the Huskers will take on the most bowlers (9) of all Big Ten teams this season, including all 5-road contests. That’s not promising for a team that was 2nd worst in the nation in Tackles For A Loss last season (3.7).
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Nebraska is 31-1 SU in season-opening games the last thirty-two years.
NORTHWESTERN (Offense - *7/4, Defense - 7/3, 61 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: PURPLE REIGN
Coming off their second 10-win season in three campaigns, the Wildcats are one of two Big Ten teams (Michigan State the other) that will square off against postseason foes in all three of their non-conference games this year. Hopefully, SR QB Clayton Thorson returns healthy after tossing for nearly 6,000 yards and 37 TDs the past two seasons. QB coach guru Terry Shea insists the 6’ 4” Thorson has NFL skills and likely would have left early for the draft had he not suffered a knee injury in the Music City Bowl last season. The bigger hole is replacing RB Justin Jackson, the Wildcats’ all-time leading rusher (now with the San Diego Chargers). In addition, three new coaches have been added to the staff.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Pat Fitzgerald has never had a player selected in the first three rounds since taking over the program 12 years ago.
PLAY AGAINST: at Michigan State (10/6)
OHIO STATE (Offense - 7/3, Defense - 4/2, 49 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: ET TU BRUTE
That Urban Meyer’s .851 winning percentage is the highest among active – and 3rd highest all-time (Knute Rockne .881 is No. 1) – of all coaches with at least 10 years of experience, speaks for itself. The Buckeyes won their 36th Big Ten title last season and will look to repeat as conference champions for the first time since last doing so in 2009. Having the nation’s strongest running back tandem in 1,000-yard rushers J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber (each gained 1,000 yards while starting every game as freshmen in 2017 and 2016, respectively) is a powerful weapon, to say the least. That and 229 career starts back on both sides of the ball makes Brutus a badass Buckeye this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: When Ohio State visits Maryland in November, it will mark only its 3rd back-to-back road game in four years.
PLAY AGAINST: at Michigan State (11/10)
PENN STATE (Offense - *8/5, Defense - 3/2, 39 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: SHADES OF THE PAST
If it seems like James Franklin’s Penn State squads have closely resembled Joe Paterno’s glory teams its because they have. Last year was the first time since 1985 and 1986 that the Lions appeared in a second-straight New Year’s Six bowl game. And a 20-3 record in its last 23 games is the best span since going 20-3 from 1990-1995 – not to mention its 24.6 scoring differential in 2017 was tops in the nation. Big holes must be filled, though, with the loss of star RB Saquon Barkley to the NFL, as well as the void of 69.6% of games started by seniors last year. QB Trace McSorley (57 TD passes the last two seasons) helps fill some of the vacuum. Meanwhile, five new coaches have been added to the staff.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Of the 780 minutes played in 2017, Penn State only trailed for 37 minutes, 42 seconds.
PLAY AGAINST: at Pittsburgh (9/8)
PURDUE (Offense - *9/4, Defense - 4/1, 53 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: BOILER REPAIRED
Safe to say that behind numbers that improved across the board on both sides of the ball, Jeff Brohm’s first season with Purdue last year was a total success. In fact, a 3-0 SUATS mark in the Boilers’ final three games banished an awful 0-12 SU and 5-7 ATS record established over the course of Purdue’s final three games the previous four years. And according to Ralph Michaels of Cal Sports, the Boilermakers snapped a 5-year streak of having played UNDER their season win-total. As a result they also increased attendance 13,433 per games last season – best of all Power Five teams. Unfortunately, seven of the eleven starters that led to a defensive resurgence for the Boilermakers are gone. Instead, Brohm must rebuild a front seven that improved over 100 rushing yards per game. A 9-win ATS season looks to be a reach this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Brohm is 14-0 SU and 13-1 ATS from Game Eleven out.
PLAY AGAINST: as a dog vs. Wisconsin (11/17)
RUTGERS (Offense - *7/4, Defense - 8/2, 42 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: ON THE BANKS OF A MUDDY RIVER
Rutgers welcomes its 9th offensive coordinator, John McNulty, in as many years. He certainly has the experience and the potential to bring a spark to an offense that needs new life, having coached the likes of Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, Antonio Gates and many others. His offense thrived in a previous stint with Rutgers (under Greg Schiano) when the Knights became the first team in FBS history with a 3,000-yard passer and two 1,000-yard rushers in 2007. The good news is the Knights will take on just six bowl foes this season. The bad news is they conclude the season with five of them. Fortunately, the defense has improved in both seasons under Chris Ash. It’s time for the offense to stand and deliver.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Rutgers has outgained 3 foes in 24 games under Ash: Kansas, Morgan State and Norfolk State.
PLAY ON: vs. Illinois (10/6)
WISCONSIN (Offense - *9/5, Defense - 4/1, 44 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: LOADED FOR BADGER The best news for Wisconsin this year is likely the absence of an Ohio State sighting on the schedule: the Badgers are 44-6 during the regular season since 2006 when they don't play the Buckeyes. More important, though, is the fact that 10 of UW’s offensive starters in the Orange Bowl are back. They also return 100% of their offensive line starts (including 3 All-Americans), 100% of their passing yards (QB Alex Hornibrook 20-3 as a starter) and 92.3% of their rushing yards (RB Jonathan Taylor 2,072 total yards). Plus, UW returns its kicker, holder, long snapper, punter and kickoff specialist from last year from a team that was No. 2 team in the nation in Time Of Possession last season. Lots to like about the Badgers this year.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Wisconsin and Penn State are the only Big Ten teams that have posted a winning season the last 13 consecutive years.
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