Over the past 10 years the SEC has proclaimed itself as the preeminent conference in college football. However, if there is one conference closest to surpassing the SEC, it's the Big Ten. Winning two National Championships in the past 15 years, Ohio State has traditionally been the flagship program.
With teams like Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan, and Michigan State all improving, the Big Ten is making a case to be the best conference in the land. How does the 14-team Big Ten stack up heading into this year?
Let's have a look:
14. Illinois Fighting Illini
Last year's record: 2-10
Most important returning player: RB Mike Epstein
Lovie Smith's return to coaching has not been pretty. Illinois is a combined 5-19 the past two seasons. These numbers provide little hope for both this upcoming season and Smith's future. The Fighting Illini have an incredibly young roster, led by sophomores Bobby Roundtree and Bennett Williams. If the Illini have any hope of putting together a decent season, they must find a quarterback. Sophomore Cam Thomas was the only scholarship QB with the team in the spring (though three freshmen have since joined). Before suffering a season-ending injury last year, Epstein provided a spark from the running back position. This will be a pivotal year for Smith, as the Illini are pegged to finish last in the conference yet again.
13. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Last year's record: 4-8
Most important returning player: LB Deonte Roberts
After a rough introduction to the Big Ten in 2016, Rutgers showed signs of improvement last year. The offense was abysmal -- 13.8 points per game in Big Ten play -- but the defense began to show promise. Led by Roberts, the Scarlet Knights defense will be relied upon to carry the team this season. Rutgers' back seven is the strength of its team. Roberts finished the year with 104 tackles, while Trevor Morris finished with a team-leading 118. Freshman Artur Sitowski could be the answer at quarterback for head coach Chris Ash. Rutgers seems to be on the upswing, but the process may take at least another season.
12. Maryland Terrapins
Last year's record: 4-8
Most important returning player: DE Jesse Aniebonam
A season-opening win at #23 Texas last season had Maryland fans giddy for the rest of the season. The Terps went to Ohio State with a 3-1 record, and subsequently got trounced by a score of 62-14. Coach Durkin will have his top two quarterbacks, Kasim Hill and Tyrrell Pigrome, back in action for the opening week. Matt Canada will bring a new look to the offense this year, as the Terps will play with more an emphasis on snaps under center as opposed to their usual shotgun scheme. The defense will be boosted by incoming transfers Byron Cowart and Marcus Lewis, as well as returning stud Jesse Aniebonam. The Terps may be a few years away from competing for a Big Ten title, but they should enjoy a better season this year.
11. Indiana Hoosiers
Last year's record: 5-7
Most important returning player: DL Nile Sykes
Indiana may have had a losing record in 2017, but the Hoosiers easily could have flipped a few of their losses. Four of their seven losses came by eight points or fewer, including an overtime loss against Michigan. Offensively, Morgan Ellison is a promising back. The starting quarterback is still up for debate, as Peyton Ramsey and Arizona transfer Brandon Dawkins are fighting for the starting role. Indiana's strength is their defense. The Hoosiers defense was sixth-best in the Big Ten last season in total yards allowed (while only surrendering 25.3 points per game). Linebacker Tegray Scales and lineman Jacob Robinson lead the way for the Hoosiers. The squad will be reliant upon Nile Sykes to supply a much-needed pass rush on the edge. The top of the conference is still far ahead of the Hoosiers, but head coach Tom Allen is making a difference in Bloomington.
10. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Last year's record: 5-7
Most important returning player: RB Rodney Smith
P.J. Fleck is trying to turn Minnesota into Western Michigan, going as far as ingraining his "Row the Boat" culture into the program and team uniform. Any hopes for a quick turnaround starts with Minnesota's quarterback play. The Gophers threw for a measly seven touchdowns in Big Ten play a season ago, and head into 2018 without a trusty starter. Smith stands out as the purest playmaker, needing only 1,260 all-purpose yards to break the school record. The Gophers were rather stout defensively a season ago, finishing 36th nationally in points per game (22.8), and 11th against the pass (174.5 yards). DE Carter Coughlin and LB Thomas Barber are two of the best players on Minnesota's roster. If Fleck can conjure a viable passing attack out of his quarterbacks, Minnesota may be on to something sooner rather than later.
9. Purdue Boilermakers
Last year's record: 7-6
Most important returning player: LB Markus Bailey
Jeff Brohm is making Purdue fans very optimistic about their future prospects. The Boilermakers are coming off their most promising season since 2003, and look like a team capable of making a big jump over the next few seasons. The offense will likely carry the team this season, as a big chunk of their defensive unit have departed the program. Both of their top QB options -- Elijah Sindelar and David Blough -- are returning from devastating injuries. The offense will be paced by a good group of running backs led by Markell Jones and Tario Fuller. Replacing the missing pieces on defense will be a tall task. This aspect may result in Purdue taking a slight step back this year before climbing up the standings in the coming years.
8. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Last year's record: 4-8
Most important returning player: WR Stanley Morgan
Lincoln is charged up and ready to return to the spotlight thanks to Scott Frost's return. After leading UCF to an undefeated season, Frost has returned home to turn around a downtrodden Nebraska program. Two freshmen, Tristan Gebbia and Adrian Martinez, are the front-runners to start at quarterback. Luckily, two of the Cornhuskers best players are wide-outs Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman. The Huskers defense was atrocious last season, and must turn it around if they hope to avoid another losing season. Nebraska hasn't won the Big Ten since 1999. The Cornhuskers likely won't be conference contenders this season. However with Frost back in town, things are looking up for Big Red.
7. Iowa Hawkeyes
Last year's record: 8-5
Most important returning player: QB Nate Stanley
In Kirk Ferentz's 19 seasons with the Hawkeyes, Iowa has finished under .500 four times -- including his first two years on the job. It is a safe bet, nearly every year, that Iowa will be a competent team. Iowa's best rusher from a year ago, Akrum Wadley, is gone. Their three starting linebackers from last year, including All-American Josey Jewell, have left the program. Duly, All-American cornerback Josh Jackson is currently plying his trade in the NFL. Nate Stanley provides a steady hand at quarterback. This will be crucial when facing teams like Wisconsin and Penn State. Iowa has the potential to have a very good record considering it avoids Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State on its schedule. Without question, the Hawkeyes could challenge for the Big Ten West crown.
6. Northwestern Wildcats
Last year's record: 10-3
Most important returning player: LB Paddy Fisher
Pat Fitzgerald has done a tremendous job turning around the Northwestern program. The Wildcats have averaged nine wins in each of the past three seasons, and are coming off a great 10-win campaign. Clayton Thorson returning for another season gives the Wildcats the most experienced quarterback in the conference. Replacing star running back Justin Jackson will be difficult, but Jeremy Larkin should provide the Cats with a respectable option. Northwestern's defense should be very good this year, led by Joe Gaziano, Paddy Fisher, Nate Hall, and Montre Hartage. Avoiding Ohio State and Penn State gives Northwestern a shot at a 10-win season for a second year in a row.
5. Michigan State Spartans
Last year's record: 10-3
Most important returning player: RB L.J. Scott
Mark Dantonio's Spartans are always a tough team to knock off, and that will be no different this season. The Spartans have won at least 10 games in six of the past eight campaigns. Quarterback Brian Lewerke is an important piece for Sparty, but running back L.J. Scott will be expected to power the offense. Michigan State returns all but four starters from last seasons squad, and should once again have one of the nations best defenses. State's secondary may be the best in the country, supporting a rushing defense that ranked second nationally a season ago. Michigan State is joined by Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan in a loaded East, but it would be foolish to count out the Spartans.
4. Penn State Nittany Lions
Last year's record: 11-2
Most important returning player: QB Trace McSorley
Replicating the production of Saquon Barkley is nearly impossible, though that is not the only problem the Nittany Lions are facing heading into 2018. The Penn State defense has to replace eight starters from last years team. James Franklin's squad is incredibly talented and has athletes at every level. McSorley will get a ton of Heisman love if he performs up to his standards, and he'll have to be incredible for Penn State to survive their Big Ten gauntlet. Ohio State and Michigan State travel to Happy Valley back-to-back weeks. The Nittany Lions also have a very tough three-game stretch later on in the year (vs. Iowa, at Michigan, vs. Wisconsin). These contests could make-or-break their season.
3. Michigan Wolverines
Last year's record: 8-5
Most important returning player: DL Rashan Gary
The one thing everyone says has been holding back Jim Harbaugh's Michigan teams since his arrival? The lack of a quarterback. This is where Shea Patterson comes in. The former 5-star recruit transferred to Ann Arbor after starting his career at Ole Miss. Patterson's instant eligibility immediately makes Michigan a contender in the Big Ten -- and perhaps nationally as well. The Michigan defense is elite. Rashan Gary is a standout on the the defensive line. Devin Bush -- an All-American inside linebacker -- is flanked by a potential All-American in Khaleke Hudson. To top it off, Lavert Hill and David Long make up one of the best secondaries in the nation. The pressure is on Michigan and Harbaugh this season.
2. Wisconsin Badgers
Last year's record: 13-1
Most important returning player: RB Jonathan Taylor
Wisconsin isn't a flashy team by any stretch of the imagination, but they may have one of the two best running backs in the country. Jonathan Taylor is an absolute animal. Taylor finished third in rushing yards behind Rashaad Penny (now with the Seahawks) and Bryce Love (Stanford's electric back). Quarterback Alex Hornibrook also returns to Madison in hopes of avenging their loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. Overall, this might be the best Badgers offense since Russell Wilson was on campus. Defensively, the Badgers must replace eight starters (though the only group of major concern may be the secondary). For the first time during the Paul Chryst era, the Badgers offense must carry the team to reach their ultimate goal.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
Last year's record: 12-2
Most important returning player: DL Nick Bosa
The Buckeyes are the only team from the Big Ten to win a National Championship this century. Even after losing seven players to the NFL, Urban Meyer's team is absolutely loaded. Dwayne Haskins appears to be the replacement at quarterback for former star J.T. Barrett. J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber combine to make up one of the best backfields around. The Buckeyes return their top seven receivers from a year ago. As such, Haskins should have plenty of weapons to play with. Nick Bosa leads a defense that accumulated 114 tackles for loss last season. Ohio State can play with anybody, and should be the class of the Big Ten yet again.
*As of August 1, Urban Meyer has been placed on administrative leave. Ohio State is investigating Courtney Smith's domestic violence claims against her ex-husband, former Ohio State assistant football coach Zach Smith.
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