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.
Top five Heisman Trophy candidates
1. Jonathan Taylor (above), RB, UW: Was ninth in the voting last year, which seemed low after his 2,194 rushing yards led the nation.
2. Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan: If the Wolverines can finally turn the corner, Patterson will be in the Heisman discussion.
3. Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue: Boilermakers' explosive receiver/runner/return man might be most exciting player in the nation.
4. Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State: Departed Dwayne Haskins was third in 2018 voting and the receiving corps remains strong.
5. Adrian Martinez, QB, Nebraska: As a true freshman starter, he was a perfect fit for Scott Frost's spread-option offense.
Top five quarterbacks
1. Shea Patterson (above), Michigan: Transfer gave Michigan its best quarterbacking in the Jim Harbaugh era and should be improved.
2. Adrian Martinez, Nebraska: Best thing about the dual-threat quarterback was he never once looked like a freshman.
3. Justin Fields, Ohio State: Was solid in limited snaps as a freshman at Georgia and he runs better than Dwayne Haskins.
4. Nate Stanley, Iowa: Hawkeyes hope Menominee native finds consistency, goes from good to great in third season as starter.
5. Brian Lewerke, Michigan State: Injured shoulder derailed his — and Michigan State's — season, but he's healthy again.
Top five running backs
1. Jonathan Taylor, UW: With 4,171 rushing yards, 6.9 per carry and 29 touchdowns in two years, he's already chasing records.
2. J.K. Dobbins (above), Ohio State: Sophomore slump should end quickly now that he no longer has to share carries with Mike Weber.
3. Anthony McFarland, Maryland: Averaged 7.9 yards per carry while setting school freshman rushing record with 1,034 yards.
4. Reggie Corbin, Illinois: Came out of nowhere as a junior to rush for 1,085 yards and — get this — 8.5 yards per carry.
5. Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota: Stepped up when top two backs were lost to injury, rushing for 1,160 yards as a freshman.
Top five receivers
1. Rondale Moore (right), WR, Purdue: Consensus all-American as a true freshman after leading the country with 114 pass receptions.
2. Tyler Johnson, WR, Minnesota: With size and leaping ability, imagine what Johnson could do with better quarterback play.
3. K.J. Hill, WR, Ohio State: Buried behind three NFL-bound receivers last year, Hill still caught 70 passes for 885 yards.
4. Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR, Michigan: More wide-open offense should allow Peoples-Jones to finally realize his potential.
5. Jake Ferguson, TE, UW: Flip a coin among Ferguson, Purdue's Brycen Hopkins, Penn State's Pat Freiermuth as Big Ten's best.
Top five defensive linemen
1. Chase Young (above), DE, Ohio State: No, he's not a Bosa, but athletic freak should build on the 9.5 sacks he rang up last season.
2. A.J. Epenesa, DE, Iowa: Rangy end led the conference with 10.5 sacks as a sophomore ... and he never even started a game.
3. Kenny Willekes, DE, Michigan State: While not dynamic athletically, Willekes led Big Ten in tackles for loss with 20.5.
4. Raequan Williams, DT, Michigan State: Spartans led the nation in rush defense and Williams was their anchor in the middle.
5. Yetur Gross-Matos, DE, Penn State: His 20 TFLs give him edge over Northwestern's Joe Gaziano, Minnesota's Carter Coughlin.
Top five offensive linemen
1. Tyler Biadasz (above), C, UW: Could've entered NFL draft, but strong year could elevate nation's best center to first-round status.
2. Alaric Jackson, T, Iowa: Playing left tackle at Iowa is a ticket to NFL and the athletic Jackson is one of Hawkeyes' best.
2. Ben Bredeson, G, Michigan: Senior from Hartland Arrowhead takes a step up after twice being named second-team All-Big Ten.
4. Jon Runyan, T, Michigan: Was full-time starter for the first time as a junior and was a first-team All-Big Ten selection.
5. Rashawn Slater, T, Northwestern: Iowa's Tristan Wirfs and UW's Cole Van Lanen have more potential, Slater has more experience.
Top five linebackers
1. Micah Parsons (right), OLB, Penn State: Elite recruit led Nittany Lions in tackles as true freshman despite making only one start.
2. Paddy Fisher, ILB, Northwestern: Rangy, old-school thumper shows up on play after play from his middle linebacker spot.
3. Markus Bailey, OLB, Purdue: Bailey put NFL on hold to return for senior season, should benefit from more experienced line.
4. Joe Bachie, ILB, Michigan State: Tackling machine is a two-time All-Big Ten selection who is primed for his best season.
5. Khaleke Hudson, OLB, Michigan: Senior does a little bit of everything at Wolverines' viper position, and he does it all well.
Top five defensive backs
1. Lavert Hill (above), CB, Michigan: Stats were so-so because teams didn't throw at him, but Hill was still third-team All-American.
2. Josiah Scott, Michigan State: A sensation as true freshman in 2017, he missed first eight games of 2018 with a knee injury.
3. Jordan Fuller, S, Ohio State: Senior free safety does it all and leads what is expected to be a vastly improved secondary.
4. Josh Metellus, S, Michigan: Second-team All-Big Ten selection as junior is a playmaking force on the back line of defense.
5. David Dowell, Michigan State: Despite occasional inconsistency, he was first-team All-Big Ten in 2017, third-team in 2018.
Top five specialists
1. Ihmir Smith-Marsette (above), KR, Iowa: Will add punt return duties after leading Big Ten with 29.5-yard average on kickoff returns.
2. Matt Coglin, K, Michigan State: Junior's stats — 18-for-22 on field goals — were stellar. That's too many attempts, though.
3. Drue Chrisman, P, Ohio State: Despite his booming leg, Chrisman had 29 punts downed inside the 20 compared to one touchback.
4. Donovan Peoples-Jones, PR, Michigan: Had 10.0-yard average on 25 punt returns, the best mark among all full-time returners.
5. Demetrius Douglas, KR/PR, Minnesota: Ranked second in punt-return average, third in kickoff-return average in conference.
Top five impact transfers
1. Justin Fields (above), QB, Ohio State: Former five-star recruit fled Georgia and Jake Fromm, then somehow gained immediate eligibility.
2. Josh Jackson, QB, Maryland: After going 11-5 as a starter at Virginia Tech, grad transfer still has two years of eligibility.
3. Hunter Johnson, QB, Northwestern: Former five-star recruit took one look at Trevor Lawrence and left Clemson after one year.
4. Brandon Peters, QB, Illinois: Illini whiffed on USC's Matt Fink, recovered by landing Peters, a grad transfer from Michigan.
5. McLane Carter, QB, Rutgers: Starting to sense a quarterback trend here? Carter began last season as the starter at Texas Tech.
Top five position groups
1. Michigan offensive line (above): Four returning starters — Jon Runyan, Ben Bredeson, Michael Onwenu and Cesar Ruiz — earned All-Big Ten honors.
2. Michigan State defensive line: Spartans led nation in run defense and four starters return up front, led by Kenny Willekes, Raequan Williams.
3. Ohio State secondary: Three starters return and remaining spot will be handled by Jeffrey Okudah, a shutdown corner who was the fifth man.
4. UW running backs: Jonathan Taylor and third-down specialist Garrett Groshek are back, with two talented freshmen hoping to provide depth.
5. Michigan secondary: Cornerback Lavert Hill and safety Josh Metellus lead the way, with elite recruit Daxton Hill moving right in at safety.
Top five impact freshmen
1. Daxton Hill, S, Michigan: Wolverines have an open spot in the secondary and Hill, the nation's top safety recruit, will fill it.
2. Wandale Robinson, WR/RB: Nebraska: Shifty all-purpose back could be for Nebraska what Rondale Moore was for Purdue last season.
3. George Karlaftis, DE, Purdue: West Lafayette native enrolled in school early and started from the first day of spring practice.
4. Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State: Prized five-star recruit should have ample opportunity in Buckeyes' depleted receiving corps.
5. Zach Charbonnet, RB, Michigan: Missed spring ball and fell behind redshirt freshman Christian Turner but will be heard from.
Top five breakout/bounce-back candidates
1. Jeffrey Okudah (above), CB, Ohio State: Buckeyes running feeder program for NFL secondaries, which is the only reason Okudah didn't start.
2. Chris Orr, ILB, UW: Orr has persevered through injuries and a stacked inside-linebacker group, but now it's his time to shine.
3. Antoine Winfield, CB, Minnesota: A freshman All-American in 2016, Winfield lost his season to injury in past two Big Ten openers.
4. Sean Clifford, QB, Penn State: Trace McSorley graduated and Tommy Stevens transferred, handing QB-friendly offense to Clifford.
5. Kwity Paye, DE, Michigan: After biding his time behind Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, Paye is ready to get after quarterbacks.
Top five potentially surprising teams
1. Michigan State: New coordinator Brad Salem will give the offense more juice and the defense should be the Big Ten's best.
2. Nebraska: Scott Frost didn't turn around Central Florida until his third season, but Cornhuskers might be ahead of schedule.
3. UW: Shaky quarterback play has held back the Badgers, so junior Jack Coan or true freshman Graham Mertz must come through.
4. Purdue: Boilermakers defense can't help but be better than it was in 2018 and offense has oodles of returning firepower.
5. Indiana: Experienced Hoosiers return every skill player of note, but it's hard to make headway in the loaded Big Ten East.
Top five potentially disappointing teams
1. Michigan: Each of Jim Harbaugh's four seasons were a disappointment. Anything short of a title will run that streak to five.
2. Northwestern: West Division champs went 5-1 in Big Ten games decided by one score last season. That'll be hard to duplicate.
3. Penn State: Although still talented, Nittany Lions will be very young after losing five starters who had eligibility remaining.
4. Minnesota: Young Gophers were wildly inconsistent last season. Biggest problem with that? Minnesota is still a young team.
5. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz said Hawkeyes didn't do the little things well. If that changes, they could contend. If not, they won't.
Top five coaches with something to prove
1. Jim Harbaugh (above), Michigan: He hasn't beaten Ohio State nor won a title, now he's being picked for first. It could get ugly.
2. Chris Ash, Rutgers: Scarlet Knights are 7-29 under Ash and, after a 1-11 season, might be heading in the wrong direction.
3. Lovie Smith, Illinois: Smith has been playing teenagers during rebuild, but even he admits this is the year to improve on 9-27 record.
4. Ryan Day, Ohio State: In seven seasons in Columbus, Urban Meyer was 83-9 with one national title (2014). You're up, Ryan.
5. Mike Locksley, Maryland: Did three years as an Alabama assistant teach Locksley anything after his 2-26 stint at New Mexico?
Top five candidates to make College Football Playoff
1. Michigan: Spread concepts installed by new coordinator Josh Gattis should give Jim Harbaugh his best offense at Michigan.
2. Ohio State: Urban Meyer is gone, but all that talent remains. New coach Ryan Day faces a lot of roster turnover, though.
3. Michigan State: The defense remains stout and the offense will be improved, so Spartans should be right back in the chase.
4. Nebraska: A favorable schedule, improved recruiting and renewed enthusiasm have the program on a rapid rise.
5. UW: Was the fall to 8-5 a one-year deal or a sign the program is in decline? Tough schedule, but UW will be back in 2019.
Five easiest conference schedules
1. Nebraska: Four toughest opponents on the schedule — Ohio State, Northwestern, UW, Iowa — must come to Lincoln.
2. Purdue: Boilermakers have five home Big Ten games and somehow avoid Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State from the East.
3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes’ three crossover games won’t be easy, but Michigan State, Penn State and UW games are at home.
4. Minnesota: With five home conference games and crossovers against Rutgers and Maryland, the Gophers could get on a roll.
5. Michigan: Wolverines get Ohio State and Michigan State at home, though playing Notre Dame in late October could spell trouble.
Top five conference games
1. Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 30: Jim Harbaugh (above left) is 0-4 against Ohio State. If he wants to win East, he has to beat the Buckeyes.
2. Michigan at UW, Sept. 21: Badgers hope to rebound from rare down season and Wolverines seek fast start in huge Big Ten opener.
3. Ohio State at Nebraska, Sept. 28: Buckeyes were rocked at Iowa in 2017, Purdue in 2018. Can Nebraska make it three straight?
4. Penn State at Ohio State, Nov. 23: Last two meetings were decided by one point. Buckeyes might be looking ahead to Michigan.
5. Iowa at Nebraska, Nov. 29: It would surprise no one if the West Division title was on the line in this escalating rivalry.
Five toughest conference schedules
1. Iowa: Playing road games at Michigan, UW, Nebraska and Northwestern plus a home game with Penn State will be no small task.
2. UW: Byes will help, but having crossover games with Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State in one season should be illegal.
3. Michigan State: Spartans' conference road schedule includes Northwestern, Ohio State, UW and Michigan. Good luck with that.
4. Northwestern: Season could end early as first five Big Ten games are with Michigan State, UW, Nebraska, Ohio State and Iowa.
5. Maryland: Terps better win early because it gets ugly in November with Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan State.
Top five non-conference games
1. Notre Dame at Michigan, Oct. 26: Timing is curious as game is sandwiched between Big Ten roadies at Penn State and Maryland.
2. Northwestern at Stanford, Aug. 31: West Division champions open at the Cardinal, who have 40 wins over the past four seasons.
3. Arizona State at Michigan State, Sept. 14: Herm Edwards made a positive impact in his first season as coach of the Sun Devils.
4. Iowa at Iowa State, Sept. 14: In-state rivalry takes on whole new meaning now that Cyclones are picked for third in Big 12.
5. TCU at Purdue, Sept. 14: Kudos to Boilermakers for bringing in Vanderbilt and TCU, picked for fourth in Big 12, back-to-back.
Tom Oates has been a staff member of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department for 30 years and its editorial voice for more than 15, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day — from UW athletics to the Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee Brewers and Bucks, as well as local teams such as the Mallards and Mustangs.
Contact Tom Oates at firstname.lastname@example.org