The Big Ten can’t help but find itself at the forefront of the national discourse right now. We’re less than a month away from games starting, and the conference has a real shot at sending multiple teams to the College Football Playoff for the second year in a row.
And yet all the conversation is about four teams — Oregon, UCLA, USC, and Washington — that will be joining the conference starting in 2024. It’s something of a shame how realignment has taken up all the air in the sport right now, because the reason people care about college football is the game itself. And fortunately, we’re getting closer and closer to the games, which should be especially fun in the Big Ten this year.
This will be the case even though the conference seems set to follow a similar blueprint we’ve seen in recent years: The ball is kicked off, and then, when it’s all said and done, either Michigan or Ohio State lifts the trophy in Indianapolis and earns a spot in the College Football Playoff.
We will look at the B1Ggest conference in the land and lay out the three main questions that will determine how this season goes.
1. Will it be OSU and Michigan again?
The biggest regular season game in each of the last two years has taken place when the biggest rivals in the sport step onto the field. After an eight-year streak of winning The Game, Ohio State has struggled to deal with Michigan’s overwhelming physicality in each of the last two seasons.
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, this matchup has determined the winner of the Big Ten East — and, by extension, the winner of the Big Ten Championship Game against a horribly overmatched team from the West — in both of those years.
The way Jim Harbaugh wants his team to play has given Ohio State major problems recently. Michigan loves to throw its big offensive line out there, make you prove you can slow down the running game, and if you can’t, you’re getting spoonfed a heavy dose of whatever running back is back there on a given Saturday. (This year, it’ll once again be the 1-2 punch of Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards, who are as good a running back duo as we’ve seen in recent memory.)
Last season, the Wolverines added a new dimension in the form of J.J. McCarthy, the former five-star quarterback who was a bit rough around the edges but injected some big play ability in the passing game that hasn’t always been there.
The result: Michigan 45, Ohio State 23 in front of a stunned crowd in Columbus. The Buckeyes never looked totally comfortable against the physicality of the Wolverines, and after three quarters of getting hit with body blows, the Wolverines were able to land haymakers in the fourth quarter with a pair of 75+ yard touchdown runs by Edwards.
All of this is important context heading into this season, because it’s hard to imagine any other team preventing the exact same situation when Ohio State heads up to Ann Arbor to close the regular season this year. There’s a team in Happy Valley that will disagree with that sentence, but these are two of the three or four best programs in college football for a reason.
Another year of McCarthy mixed with what should be the nation’s best running game and one of America’s best defenses is going to be exceptional.
Replacing C.J. Stroud will be hard, but the former blue-chip prospect (either Kyle McCord or Devin Brown) filling the role will be surrounded by the country’s best collection of skill position talent led by Marvin Harrison Jr., along with a talented defense that found itself licking its collective wounds following last year’s game against the Wolverines.
It’s college football, so you can’t wave away the possibility of one of these teams having a bad game on the wrong day against a team that is having a great game on the right day. But as things stand, the de facto Big Ten title game is slated to take place on Nov. 25 at the end of the regular season.
2. Can Penn State finally break through?
You can make the case that the best program in the playoff era never to reach the playoff is the Nittany Lions, which have an “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” reputation in the Big Ten East. Even in 2016, when they beat Ohio State and won the conference, the Buckeyes got selected by the committee to go to the CFP.
This year, Penn State has perhaps the most talented roster it’s ever had under coach James Franklin with difference makers at almost every position on both sides of the ball (although wide receiver is a bit of a concern).
This is especially true at quarterback, where longtime incumbent Sean Clifford has moved on to the NFL and made way for Drew Allar, a former five-star recruit who 247Sports had as the best signal-caller in his class. Allar flashed his obvious potential when he got mop up duty for Clifford last season.
Allar may not need to do much as he adjusts to life as a college football quarterback, thanks to a good offensive line led by projected top-10 pick Olu Fashanu and one of the best 1-2 punches at running back in the nation in true sophomores Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen.
And yet, it’s possible Ohio State and Michigan are just better. There’s a way for the Nittany Lions to win the Big Ten and/or make the CFP with a loss to only one of them — they travel to Columbus to play the Buckeyes this year but get the Wolverines in Happy Valley.
Can they put up a better fight against Harbaugh’s smashmouth football than they did last season? After years of playing Ohio State close, can Ohio native Allar get them over the hump in his home state? Can they avoid losing a dumb game, something they did well with last year, but overall has become too common in the Franklin era?
Keep an eye on Penn State’s first two Big Ten games: a Sept. 16 trip to Illinois and a home tilt the following week against Iowa. If they can get through both of those unscathed, that’s a good sign. And if they can get through both of those looking like one of the best teams in America, the Nittany Lions will become a trendy pick to knock off at least one of the big two in the division and finally make it to the playoff.
3. Can Luke Fickell or Matt Rhule hit the ground running and win the West?
The Big Ten West has a reputation for being a gross, hideous, absolutely disgusting conference where the games are about as aesthetically pleasing as the weather in the upper Midwest in the winter. Fickell and Rhule, the new head coaches at Wisconsin and Nebraska, respectively, are viewed as potential breaths of fresh air who could help shift that perception, but the big question is whether they’ll be able to do that right away.
Rhule can identify and develop diamonds in the rough, and he is one of the nation’s best coaches at spearheading quick turnarounds. The problem is that Nebraska, which was 4-8 last year, might not be quite there yet. Only two Huskers earned All-Big Ten nods last year — WR Trey Palmer, EDGE Garrett Nelson — and they’re both in the NFL.
If anyone can right the ship now, it’s Rhule, who has had some success in the transfer portal already and has said all the right things about his new gig.
But my bet is that Fickell is far more likely to hit the ground running, even if he seems set to overhaul a big part of what has made Wisconsin successful for decades.
Fickell hired former North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo, whose high-octane offenses score in bunches, to take the same job. He landed Tanner Mordecai, one of the nation’s most prolific passers in each of the last two seasons, in the transfer portal from SMU.
Current Big Ten Futures Odds:
Perhaps the Badgers will line up for their opener against Buffalo under center with a burly fullback blocking for a running back who totes the rock 300+ times, but let’s just say I’d be surprised.
Then again, Braelon Allen is one of the best running backs in the country, and if the Badgers wanted to ease into becoming a pass-happy team, handing him the football would be a good way to do it.
Fickell’s a defensive savant who should take one of the nation’s top units that returns eight starters from last year and keep that at a high level. If the offense can hit the ground running, this is going to be a dangerous team.
But it remains to be seen if Wisconsin can get past a stingy Iowa team that is following every blueprint for every other Kirk Ferentz team, a tough Minnesota squad that turned into a darling of the analytics community last year, and an Illinois team that has bullied teams on both sides of the ball under Bret Bielema.
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