The Big Ten arguably was college football’s best conference in 2016 despite a rough showing in bowl season. Here’s a look at some predictions and storylines for each team heading into 2017.
You’ve heard the drama already. The champion of the nation’s best conference didn’t participate in the College Football Playoff, but a team that didn’t even win its own division in said conference received a bid.
Penn State’s unlikely rise to Big Ten champion wasn’t enough to make college football’s version of the Final Four, even with a signature victory over Ohio State. Instead, it was the Buckeyes who went to the Fiesta Bowl, but they were embarrassed by Clemson, 31-0, and put a black mark on the conference in the process.
In fact, the Big Ten’s 3-7 showing in bowl play sort of wiped away all the hype it gained throughout the season. But there’s always next year to get that train moving again.
Here’s a breakdown of what to watch for in the Big Ten in 2017, in order of finish from last season.
The Nittany Lions won nine in a row after a 2-2 start, beat Ohio State and knocked off Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. That wasn’t enough to get them to the College Football Playoff, but a Rose Bowl appearance was an accomplishment in itself. What’s more is that Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley both will be back to try and make a run at the Playoff next year.
Both shined in a thrilling 52-49 loss to USC in the Rose Bowl, and they’re going to be back stronger than ever next season. It’s not to say losing receiver Chris Goodwin to the NFL won’t hurt, but Penn State looks ready to take another step forward in 2017.
Urban Meyer didn’t take his first-ever shut out loss as a head coach too kindly. The Buckeyes’ offense next season reportedly will be under the direction of Kevin Wilson, the former Indiana head coach whom Meyer has admired from afar for quite some time. Wilson called J.T. Barrett “the best quarterback in college football” after Barrett ran for 137 yards in a win over the Hoosiers prior to Wilson resigning from Indiana after the season.
Now Wilson will get to work with Barrett and running back Mike Weber as Ohio State looks to make another run to the CFP. However, versatile All-American Curtis Samuel and wide receiver Noah Brown left early for the NFL Draft.
Ohio State will have to replace plenty on the defensive side of the ball, too, with Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley and Raekwon McMillan all leaving early, but Meyer’s teams always reload rather than rebuild.
The heartbreaking double-overtime loss to Ohio State in the regular-season finale dropped Michigan from the College Football Playoff to the Orange Bowl, where FSU dealt it another tough defeat. Jabrill Peppers didn’t play, and Jake Butt’s send-off to the NFL was marred by an ACL injury.
All of that takes away from a pretty solid season from the Wolverines, who going to have to delve deep into their recent star-studded recruiting classes to replace some top talent. In addition to Butt and likely Peppers leaving, De’Veon Smith, Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson are gone from the offense. Defensively, Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Channing Stribbling, Delano Hill and Jourdan Lewis won’t be back, leaving Michigan with plenty of holes to fill for 2017.
And the season won’t start easily. Michigan faces SEC East champ Florida at AT&T Stadium on Sept. 2.
Wilson’s abrupt and mutual resignation prior to the Hoosiers’ bowl game came as a big surprise, leaving Tom Allen in charge of continuing their gradual rise to competing in the Big Ten. Getting a team that has been to back-to-back bowl games is a good start.
Mike DeBord left Tennessee to be Allen’s offensive coordinator and is poised to have the Hoosiers moving the ball more efficiently. Allen said he’s going to stay out of DeBord’s way when it comes to the offense and focus on managing the defense, but we’ll see how that goes if Indiana isn’t performing up to par, especially with leading rusher Devine Redding having already declared for the NFL Draft.
D.J. Durkin took Maryland to a bowl game in his first season, but he’s not going to settle for that. He’s been hot on the recruiting trail in his mission to build a Big Ten contender, bringing in seven four-star recruits for his 2017 class.
He also has freshman Lorenzo Harrison and sophomore Ty Johnson returning to form an underrated running back duo for offensive coordinator Walt Bell, who will have to groom another quarterback with Perry Hills gone.
The Spartans went from the College Football Playoff to 3-9, a drop-off that seemed impossible under coach Mark Dantonio, who resurrected the program from mediocrity. Avoiding another awful season falls squarely on the shoulders of running backs L.J. Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London.
It’s anyone’s guess if Brian Lewerke, Damion Terry or Messiah deWeaver will start at quarterback. Wide receiver Donnie Corley showed flashes as a true freshman, but things go so bad that he was also playing cornerback by the end of the season.
Speaking of the defense, lineman Malik McDowell and safety Montae Nicholson left early for the NFL Draft, while linebackers Riley Bullough and Ed Davis have exhausted their eligibility.
To put it plainly, Michigan State looks like it is in for another rough season. And that’s without mentioning it has to face both Michigan and Ohio State on the road.
Chris Ash knew he had a tough task ahead of him when he decided to leave Ohio State for the rebuilding project at Rutgers, but he’s on the right track. After going 2-10 overall and 0-9 in conference play, Ash currently has the 35th-best recruiting class in the nation coming, according to Scout.com.
The biggest issue is rebuilding a Scarlet Knights’ offense that was shut out four times last season. Ash has given that duty to Jerry Kill, the former Minnesota head coach who had to retire in 2015 because of ongoing health issues. Having Kill’s experienced mind running the offense should help put a couple more wins on the board in 2017.
Big Ten Football Predictions, Storylines For 2017 (cont.)
The Badgers just couldn't get over the hump last season, losing to Ohio State and Michigan by seven points each before falling to Penn State in the Big Ten title game. The season ended successfully, though, with a Cotton Bowl win over Western Michigan.
Now Alex Hornibrook will get the keys to the offense with Bart Houston departing the two-quarterback system and standout running back Corey Clement also running out of eligibility. Hornibrook likely won't have Ryan Ramczyk around to help either, as the offensive lineman is expected to declare for the draft.
The signature defense also is losing a key piece in T.J. Watt, who will join his brother J.J. in the NFL after making himself eligible for the draft. But the Badgers always seem to find a way, they easily could find themselves atop the West again.
The biggest question heading into next season is whether or not Iowa knows the forward pass exists in college football. Kidding aside, something major needs to change offensively, and Kirk Ferentz is hoping his son Brian is the right man to run that unit after Greg Davis announced his retirement.
The running game is fine with Akrum Wadley returning for his senior season, which will ease the pain of losing LeShun Daniels. However, the Hawkeyes need to find a replacement for C.J. Beathard, and preferably one who has the confidence and ability to throw it more often.
The Huskers won nine games last season, and none of their victories were very impressive. They also ended their season with a 30-point loss to Iowa and two-touchdown defeat to Tennessee in the Music City Bowl. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong battled injuries, and he's gone after exhausting his eligibility. Top defensive back Nathan Gerry also won't be around next season.
Nebraska is limping on the recruiting trail, as four potential commitments decided to go elsewhere during the Army All-American Bowl. Coach Mike Riley is going to need some newcomers to step if the Huskers want to take a step toward competing for a conference title.
Out is Tracy Claeys, in is the energetic 36-year-old P.J. Fleck to help Minnesota become a legitimate power in the Big Ten. It won't happen right way, but Fleck is just the type of coach the Gophers need to inject life into the program.
He's hard at work already, luring some of his Western Michigan recruits to join him in Minneapolis. Fleck also will have top rusher Rodney Smith back to help guide the offense from a 9-4 team. The Gophers aren't too far off from challenging some of the heavyweights in the conference, and Fleck is going to try and speed up the process.
The Wildcats knocked off Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl, but these aren't the types of seasons that coach Pat Fitzgerald expects - going to a lower-tier bowl game after a mediocre Big Ten season.
Northwestern got some good news with top rusher Justin Jackson returning, but he's going to need a lot of help from quarterback Clayton Thorson. Fitzgerald didn't make any changes to the coaching staff for the seventh straight year, and some are wondering if that's the right move considering the program seems stuck in a holding pattern.
Lovie Smith's return to the college ranks wasn't exactly a fun experience in Year 1. The Fighting Illini went 3-9 and simply did not have enough talent to succeed in the conference. They'll also be losing quarterback Wes Lunt, who wasn't all that good but much better than Jeff George Jr.
Smith will have to get the turnaround job done through recruiting, and he's got a decent class coming in next season with four- and three-star recruits.
It's now up to Jeff Brohm to make Purdue football relevant again. The former Western Kentucky coach is considered a home-run hire to turn around the Boilermakers and clean up the mess from Darrell Hazell.
What will be Brohm's most important change? Getting David Blough to stop throwing interceptions.