- If controversy in Columbus derails the Buckeyes, Michigan and Wisconsin will be the top challengers to take the Big Ten title.
Last year, Ohio State was the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten at -120. And while the road through the Big Ten East is treacherous—OSU barely survived Penn State—the Buckeyes rewarded bettors with a win over Wisconsin in the conference championship game.
This year, Vegas is expecting more of the same—although not quite so enthusiastically. Ohio State is again the favorite to win the conference at +163, but Wisconsin poses a serious threat coming out of the easier Big Ten West. And big-time programs like Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State aren’t going to give either of them a cakewalk. Meanwhile, teams like Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern are all scheming to change the status quo at the top of the conference.
Odds to win Big Ten:
Ohio State +163
Penn State +600
Michigan State +750
Big Ten East
(In order of predicted finish)
1. Ohio State
There’s a cloud over the Ohio State program with head coach Urban Meyer under fire, but the Buckeyes are still the most talented team in the Big Ten. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins hasn’t played much, but he’s expected to be a legitimate Heisman contender. At wideout, Parris Campbell is the guy to watch—he turns into an Olympic sprinter in the open field. And in the backfield, J.K. Dobbins is the best running back in the division. Defensively, the Buckeyes are led by DE Nick Bosa. Like his brother Joey, Bosa figures to be an early NFL Draft pick. His presence alone almost makes the Buckeyes a force on D. This is the best team in the conference on paper.
While some might not want to admit it, Jim Harbaugh’s return to Michigan hasn’t yet yielded the desired results. The Wolverines haven't made it to a Big Ten Championship Game, and they also haven’t beaten the Buckeyes. But this could be the year that changes. Ole Miss transfer QB Shea Patterson is now the face of this Michigan program, and he put up some impressive numbers as a freshman in the SEC. The Wolverines also have a great group of pass-catchers, as Grant Perry, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Eddie McDoom and Tarik Black are all capable of making big plays. Michigan is also stacked on defense, as DT Rashan Gary is a stud and the secondary is tough to beat. Ohio State might be the favorite to win the conference, but Michigan represents some serious value for bettors.
3. Michigan State
This program has quietly been one of the best in the country since 2010, winning 10 or more games in six of the past eight seasons. This year, quarterback Brian Lewerke is back under center for the Spartans. Lewerke is a solid passer from the pocket, but he also has the speed to make plays with his legs. That keeps defenses off balance, and it also creates more room for running back LJ Scott to work with. It’s highly likely that Scott turns in a career year for Michigan State, which returns nine total starters on offense. As for the Spartans defense, this should be an elite run-stuffing group up front. But if MSU is going to contend for the conference title, then it will need to do a better job of getting after the quarterback.
4. Penn State
Superstar running back Saquon Barkley is gone, which is a tough pill to swallow no matter how you look at it. Luckily for Penn State, Trace McSorley is back under center. McSorley has proven to be as good of a playmaker as there is at the position in his two years as a starter, and he’s now the undisputed focal point of this unit. The Nittany Lions offense will be just fine as long as he is healthy. The real concern for Penn State is on the defensive side of the ball. Nine starters from last year’s team are gone, and that is bad news in arguably the nation's toughest division. Some amount of regression from head coach James Franklin’s team feels likely, but don’t get used to it going forward.
Maryland returns its entire offensive line from a year ago, and running backs Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison III are more than capable of taking advantage of an experienced group up front. And redshirt freshman Kasim Hill is out to establish himself as one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the conference. On the other side of the ball, Maryland added some serious transfer talent. That should help a unit that also returns star LB Jesse Aniebonam, who suffered a serious ankle injury in Week 1 last season. The Terps are going to be a tougher team to beat this year, but asking them to compete with the national powers in the East isn’t realistic—especially given the turmoil that struck the program in August.
Last year, star wideout Nick Westbrook tore his ACL on Indiana’s opening kickoff. The expectation is that the junior will be at full strength when the Hoosiers get their 2018 season underway, so he should breathe life into an offense that averaged only 26.8 points per game in his absence. It’s also likely that quarterback Peyton Ramsey makes a significant improvement as a signal-caller. As a freshman in 2017, Ramsey threw for 1,252 yards with 10 touchdowns and only five picks in limited playing time. Defensively, the Hoosiers lose eight starters from a unit that played better than expected last year. It’s hard to see that group playing that well again, which means this team will probably lose most of its games.
Rutgers had the Power Five’s worst offense a year ago, which led to the team hiring its ninth offensive coordinator in as many years. The Scarlet Knights are now hoping that they can take advantage of what is actually a pretty good stable of running backs. Help, however, needs to come from the quarterback position. There have been some positive vibes coming out of New Jersey surrounding freshman Artur Sitkowski, but it might be another year or two before he hits his stride. Defensively, the best that can be said for Rutgers is its secondary is decent. Of course, that’s not enough to prevent this team from being the worst in the East yet again.
Big Ten West
The Badgers return nearly every key contributor on offense this year, which means star running back Jonathan Taylor will once again run behind one of the nation’s best offensive lines. And with a good quarterback in Alex Hornibrook under center, the Badgers should have one of the conference’s most well-balanced—and dare we say explosive—offenses. Uncharacteristically, defense is a relative question mark for the Badgers this year, but an incredibly soft early-season schedule will allow the inexperienced unit to ease into things. And Wisconsin has always been a next-man-up program, so it should be just fine with head coach Paul Chryst and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard in charge. This Wisconsin team is thinking College Football Playoff or bust.
Northwestern’s all-time leading rusher is gone, as running back Justin Jackson is now playing for the Los Angeles Chargers. The good news is that quarterback Clayton Thorson should be ready to play when the Wildcats open up their season against Purdue. Thorson tore his ACL in Northwestern’s Music City Bowl victory over Kentucky, but if he’s healthy, this team should be a threat to win double-digit games again. Defensively, the Wildcats have stars at every level, and they should be a nightmare to play—which has become the norm for a team coached by Pat Fitzgerald. If Wisconsin slips up, there's a good chance Northwestern will be first in line to reap the benefits.
Losing running back Akrum Wadley and star center James Daniels is a tough blow, but Iowa can usually be counted on to run the ball effectively. And in quarterback Nate Stanley, the Hawkeyes have arguably the best pure passer in the Big Ten West. Stanley suffered from up-and-down play a year ago, but this whole team's ceiling will rise considerably if he can achieve greater consistency. This year, the other side of the ball will be the bigger question mark for an Iowa team that usually defends really well. The Hawkeyes lost their entire linebacking corps in addition to All-American corner Josh Jackson, who memorably grabbed three interceptions in Iowa's blowout win over Ohio State. But even given the uncertainty at a few key positions, the Hawkeyes are a decent value play with the sixth-best odds to win the conference.
After Mike Riley led Nebraska to two losing seasons in the past three years, the Cornhuskers went out and hired Scott Frost. Frost comes to Lincoln after leading Central Florida to a perfect 13-0 season—which included an impressive win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl. His up-tempo offense will be a new look for the Big Ten. And defensively, this unit will take a lot of chances trying to cause turnovers. The problem is that it could lead to a lot of mistakes until Frost brings in more of his own recruits. Could Nebraska go 7-5 or 8-4 this year? It’s possible. But it’s unrealistic to expect much more than that right off the bat.
Purdue enjoyed a four-win improvement in head coach Jeff Brohm’s first year with the program, but the team is likely to take a small step back this season. Purdue returns only four starters on defense, and a lot of the roster's inexperience this season will be on the defensive line. In a conference full of teams that love to run the football, that figures to be especially problematic. The Boilermakers should be solid on offense, though. QB David Blough is back under center after a year where Purdue surprised some teams with their passing game. And running back Markell Jones is more than capable of making plays on the ground. Purdue might not be a title contender, but if’ll be competitive each week.
Star running back Rodney Smith—and his 3,224 career yards from scrimmage—is back to lead head coach P.J. Fleck’s Row the Boat movement in Minnesota. What will help is if Minnesota’s anemic passing game can find an answer under center. But with an inexperienced group of quarterbacks, it’s hard to see a clear path to that actually happening. Defensively, the Gophers are rather deep. They should be solid at all levels, but the Gophers desperately need somebody to make strides as a pass rusher. If nobody can pressure the quarterback, then it could be a long season.
It’s probably safe to say that head coach Lovie Smith is on the hot seat this season—the 2005 AP NFL Coach of the Year is a miserable 5-19 in his career with Illinois. This offense averaged a Power Five-worst 15.4 points per game last season and, in limited playing time last year, soon-to-be starting quarterback Cam Thomas completed just 42.4 percent of his passes for 375 yards, zero touchdowns and five interceptions. That’s not promising, but the hope is that a new spread attack will bring out the best in him. On defense, the Illini return seven starters from a unit that couldn’t stop anybody. It’s likely that opposing offenses will be looking forward to playing them once again.
Pick to win the Big Ten: Wisconsin
Wisconsin has quietly started to close the talent gap that has prevented it from reaching the next level in recent years. This team should be explosive offensively, which means the Badgers will finally be able to move the ball in a potential meeting with Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Best value bet: Michigan +400
If Shea Patterson can quickly find some comfort in his new offense, then Michigan is going to be as balanced as any team in the nation—not just the conference. That would make beating Ohio State a real possibility, making the +400 odds an enticing proposition.