In so many ways, Big Ten Conference football is loaded this season.
With the retirement (for now, anyway) of Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and several long-suffering programs on the rise, the Big Ten race is as wide-open as it has been since Meyer arrived in Columbus in 2012 and began compiling an 83-9 record over seven seasons. This summer, eight conference teams have been showing up in one preseason top 25 or another.
In the Eastern Division, the big four — Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State — are expected to wage war, especially if the Buckeyes slip even a little bit. In the suddenly deep Western Division, young coaches such as Nebraska’s Scott Frost, Purdue’s Jeff Brohm and Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck have made such a quick impact that six teams — all except Illinois — are considered potential title threats.
The strength of the Big Ten isn’t limited to its growing list of contending teams, either. Look around the conference and you see some of football’s most critical positions teeming with veteran, NFL-bound talent.
Indeed, the Big Ten has cornered the market on pass-rushing defensive ends, with four potential first-round draft picks. There are tackling machines at linebacker from Nebraska to Maryland and every school in between. Every team — yes, even Rutgers — seemingly has a quality running back to power its offense. Wide receiver is yet another position where the all-conference voting is going to be very difficult.
For all of its riches, however, the Big Ten is potentially deficient in two vitally important areas.
First, it might not have a super team that is capable of ending the conference’s two-year streak of missing out on the four-team College Football Playoff. Second, it has a distinct shortage of proven quarterbacks.
Not much is expected to change with Ryan Day taking over for Meyer at Ohio State. However, the Buckeyes suffered significant graduation losses, including a Heisman Trophy finalist in quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Their SEC-level recruiting should keep the Buckeyes near the top, but this might be the season the rest of the Big Ten closes the gap.
If there is one conference team with the talent and timing to reach college football’s final four, it is Michigan. The Wolverines have a new offensive coordinator in Josh Gattis, a returning starter at quarterback in Shea Patterson, a cadre of tall wide receivers, the nation’s best offensive line and eight players who started at least one game on the nation’s second-ranked defense. But Michigan also has coach Jim Harbaugh, who has won plenty of games in his four seasons at his alma mater but hasn’t beaten Ohio State nor won anything of note.
Quarterbacks make the world go around in college football these days and the Big Ten has precious few teams with proven signal-callers. The few that do could have a leg up this season.
Michigan’s Patterson, Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke, Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey, Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez and Iowa’s Nate Stanley are the only returning starters who are guaranteed to keep their first-string status this season. Meanwhile, there were quarterback competitions entering fall camp at the University of Wisconsin, Ohio State, Maryland, Rutgers, Minnesota and Illinois. Transfers likely will make their starting debuts at Ohio State, Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois and Northwestern. Penn State lost longtime starter Trace McSorley to graduation and his heir apparent, Tommy Stevens, to the transfer portal.
The combination of balanced division races and inexperienced quarterbacks might keep the Big Ten out of the CFP for the third straight season, but it should make for an entertaining and competitive conference season.