First 2-Time Winner of CFP?
The College Football Playoff (CFP) came into existence three years ago to replace the computer/number driven Bowl Championship Series (BCS). The CFP brought new excitement to the bowl season which it hadn’t seen in years. The first year saw Ohio St upset Oregon to win the inaugural CFP National Championship in 2014. The following two years Alabama and Clemson clashed in the Championship Game, with each team winning once. That means the Big 10, the SEC and the ACC have each won one CFP National Title. This year, the trophy will be coming home to a conference for the second time, and that conference will be the Big 10.
The Big 10 can easily be divided into three tiers: the bottom tier (long-term rebuild), the middle tier (rebuilding/dark horses) and the top tier (title contenders).
The Bottom Tier
These teams are all competing to not be in the cellar of the conference. Rutgers, Purdue, Illinois, and Maryland are all teams that have seen glory days, but those days are long past. Some quick hitters for these teams.
- Rutgers is a young team that is trying to get better. They have a decent linebacking corps on defense and the offense has a couple of playmakers at wide receiver. But their true freshman quarterback is going to be thrown to the wolves early and often this season.
Purdue has a new coach, a new philosophy, and a new attitude. The problem is, it’ll take a few years for everything to gel and a couple of recruiting classes to get everything put together.
Illinois has had some of its stars bitten by the injury bug the last few years. They have a few athletes that can really make some noise, but it all hinges on the offensive line giving the wide outs and quarterback enough time to get the ball off. That is a tall task to ask of this group.
Maryland has the best chance to get out of the bottom tier this year. They have a solid stable of running backs that will carry the load on offense. They need to be more consistent, which is hard to do against some of the defensive lines they will face this year. They also have a freshman quarterback, Kasim Hill, that looks to be the real deal.
The Middle Tier
These teams are either rebuilding and should compete in a year or two, or they are the dark horse teams that could cause some chaos for the top teams in the conference. Indiana, Nebraska, Minnesota, Northwestern, Michigan State and Iowa are all quality schools that have the right mix to be dangerous on any given Saturday but lack the depth to be true contenders.
Indiana is led by a veteran receiving corps and QB Richard Lagow can really sling the ball around the field. They need to protect the ball better to be one of the better offenses in the conference. Their defense returns 9 starters led by a solid linebacking corps that will test opposing offenses.
Nebraska needs to have a good year as coach Mike Riley might be sitting on the hottest seat in the conference. Gone are Jordan Westerkamp and Tommy Armstrong, the team MVP from last year. Tulane transfer Tanner Lee takes the reins on offense and has looked solid so far. Bob Diaco, after a few rough years at the helm at UConn, takes over as the new defensive coordinator. While the Huskies struggled as a team his last few years at UConn, Diaco is a brilliant defensive mind that should help shore up the Corn Huskers defensive unit that lost a lot of leadership last year.
Minnesota starts the P.J. Fleck era which is sure to give the fan base lots of reasons to be excited. P.J. Fleck did great things at Western Michigan and brings that same level of excitement and dedication to the Golden Gophers. However, the wide open passing attack will take some time to get established. Luckily, they have a two-headed running attack with Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. The front seven of the defense should be solid once again with Steven Richardson, the All-Big Ten tackle, leading the way. As long as the run defense holds up, Minnesota will give everyone fits.
Northwestern is one of the dark horse teams to win the Western Division. The offensive line returns four starters and has Justin Jackson back. Last year he ran for over 1,500 yards and should be ready to do the same thing again this year. The secondary was banged up last year, which gave lots of players extra playing time they probably wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. That could be valuable since last year was a bend-but-don’t-break style secondary that was opportunistic, creating 16 interceptions. They need to stay healthy to be a force to be reckoned with.
Two years ago Michigan State was on top of the Big 10, making it all the way to the CFP semifinals, making it a season to remember. Last year was a season to forget. A 3-9 campaign with a 1-8 Big 10 record caused the Spartan faithful to question their loyalties. This year, don’t expect a Big 10 championship, but the team should be better. Mark Dantonio is a great coach. He will have corrected the red zone woes that troubled the team last year, when they only entered the promised land 57% of their visits there. This year, expect that number to climb. They have a three-headed monster in the backfield that will give every single opponent fits. The defensive line is extremely talented and should do well against the run. They need to do better against the pass, though, with only 11 sacks recorded last year. LB Chris Frey isn’t the most flashy of players but he is always in the right spot at the right time.
Iowa will be led by a fantastic and experienced offensive line. They open up huge holes for Akrum Wadley and the running game. Wadley gained 1,081 yards last year and has the talent to be a 1,500 yard back this year. Last year the lack of a downfield passing attack really hurt them. They will need to figure the passing attack quickly this year with a new quarterback in place. LB Josey Jewell is one of the best in the nation and the glue that holds this Defensive unit together. He has led the team in tackles the last two seasons and should do so again this year. Iowa will challenge Wisconsin in the western division.
The Top Tier
While the middle tier teams are all solid, these four teams set themselves apart. Wisconsin is the heavy favorite to win the western division with Penn St, Michigan and Ohio St doing battle in the eastern division.
Wisconsin is going to be a force. In the preseason polls they are ranked #10 with a very realistic shot at going 12-0. Their schedule is definitely in their favor this year. Their toughest tests are an early-season road game at BYU (Sept. 16) and then home matchups against Iowa (Nov. 4) and Michigan (Nov. 11). Ohio St and Penn St are not on the schedule unless they meet in the Big 10 Championship. Troy Fumagalli is one of the top TEs in the nation and the running game is led by bruiser Bradrick Shaw. QB Alex Honribrook will work the play-action pass and should be very confident following last season. The defense has a new defensive coordinator in Jim Leonhard, a former Badger safety. He inherits a defense that ended last season seventh overall, fourth in scoring defense and third against the run. They lost quite a few pieces from that defense but the expectation for excellence is there with D-Line that brings back all of their starters. If the secondary can be more solid than they were last year, this team could very well be in the CFP. And once there, anything can happen.
Penn State narrowly missed out on being included in the CFP Tournament last year. They started the season 2-2 before going on a tear, winning the Big 10 Championship with a win over Wisconsin. Then meeting up with USC in the Rose Bowl, in what was one of the most exciting bowl games of the year. This year they start the season ranked #6 in the preseason polls. They have a solid schedule, although it is not as favorable as Wisconsin’s. Their bye week falls perfectly midseason. The first half features Pitt (Sept. 9), Iowa (Sept. 23) and Northwestern (Oct. 7). Following their bye they have Michigan (Oct. 21), travel to Ohio St (Oct. 28), and travel to Michigan St (Nov. 4). The offense is stacked with big-play potential. They return nine starters including Trace McSorley, Mike Gesicki and Heisman-hopeful Saquon Barkley. The defense returns eight starters with Safety Marcus Allen laying the wood. He had 110 tackles last year and wants to have a huge senior season.
Michigan lost a lot of talent from last year’s squad on both sides of the ball, but they have lots of young talent waiting to fill those spots. Jim Harbaugh has recruited really, really well since taking the helm, which is why they are ranked #9 in the preseason polls. Luckily, they have Wilton Speight back at QB to lead those young playmakers. The defense lost even more talent with 11 of their top 13 tacklers gone from last season. Again, the talent is there, but young and inexperienced. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, they don’t have a lot of time to get ready. They open the season Sept. 2 against Florida in Texas. After that they have some tough matchups at Penn St (Oct. 21), at Wisconsin (Nov. 18), and they end the regular season in Columbus against Ohio St (Nov. 25).
Ohio St, ranked #2 in the preseason poll, is riding the “12-0 or bust” train. They have big dates against Oklahoma (Sept. 9), Penn St (Oct. 28), at Iowa (Nov. 4) and ending the season against their bitter rival Michigan (Nov. 25). J.T. Barrett is the veteran QB ready to lead the Buckeyes to the national title. His offensive line is big, mean, aggressive and full of next-level players. Not only are they protecting Barrett, they will open huge holes for sophomore RB Mike Weber. On the defensive side of the ball, defensive coordinator Greg Schiano is ready to tear opposing offenses apart. In fact, Schiano, former NFL head coach for Tampa Bay, says that this team’s defensive line is better than the lines he had in the NFL. DE Tyquan Lewis, DE Sam Hubbard and DT Michael Hill will wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines.
This season the Big 10 is ready to bring home the national title again. They have four contenders that can take home the national title. Michigan is extremely talented but probably too young to get past Ohio St and Penn St this year. Wisconsin, Penn St, and Ohio St, have the experience and talent to win it all and make the Big 10 the first conference to bring home the CFP trophy for a second time.