Rivals.com Big Ten Preview: Team-by-team breakdown
The annual Media Days for the Big Ten Conference kick off July 18 and are being held at the Hilton in downtown Chicago. Here at Rivals we have one of the deepest collection of experts who follow the conference’s 14 members, and those experts came together ahead of Media Days for this preview of the 2019 Big Ten football campaign.
2018 record: 4-8
Head coach: Lovie Smith, 4th season
Key player: Reggie Corbin, Sr. RB
Player to watch: Brandon Peters, Jr. QB
Outlook: Smith enters his fourth season holding a 9-27 record with just four conference wins. Most preseason prognosticators have him planted firmly on the hot seat. The running game showed some life in 2018 under first-year offensive coordinator Rod Smith, and the Illini return star running back Reggie Corbin and four starters on the offensive line. Tackle Alex Palczewski is a potential All-Big Ten performer and future NFL Draft pick. Quarterback will be the most intriguing position battle in camp. The Illini brought in Michigan transfer Brandon Peters and Rivals100 prospect Isaiah Williams, and we expect both to compete for the starting job. The receiving corps must be better than what we saw this spring. The hope is that junior Ricky Smalling can have a bounce-back season and two transfers from USC, Trevon Sidney and Josh Imatorbhebhe, can make an impact.
Smith will double as the defensive coordinator after Hardy Nickerson’s departure. It’s a tall task, despite his reputation as a top defensive coach during his NFL career. He takes over a unit that was one of the worst statistically in all of college football. There’s some emerging talent, such as cornerback Nate Hobbs and defensive tackle Calvin Avery, but if the defense doesn’t improve by leaps and bounds, it will be another long season in Champaign and Athletic Director Josh Whitman will have a tough decision to make regarding Smith’s future at Illinois.
2018 record: 5-7
Head coach: Tom Allen, 3rd season
Key player: Stevie Scott, Soph. RB
Player to watch: Jack Tuttle, R-Fr. QB
Outlook: Similar to 2018, Indiana once again faces questions at the quarterback position. While the starting job is incumbent Peyton Ramsey’s to lose, Allen expects the redshirt junior to be pushed by former Rivals150 prospect Jack Tuttle, who was granted immediate eligibility in the spring after transferring from Utah in the winter, and redshirt freshman Michael Penix Jr., a former four-star prospect who got off to a promising start last fall before suffering a season-ending ACL injury against Penn State. Indiana will also have a brand-new offense with the arrival of offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer from Fresno State.
The graduation of four-year starting strong safety Jonathan Crawford, who became one of two players in program history to play 50 games, leaves a void at his position and leadership-wise within the entire defense. Indiana's offensive line and defensive line both need greater depth, especially the interior of the defensive line after four defensive tackles graduated. Dameon Willis’ graduation creates a hole at middle linebacker, with no clear favorite for the starter there.
2018 record: 9-4
Head coach: Kirk Ferentz, 21st season
Key player: Nate Stanley, Sr. QB
Player to watch: Chauncey Golston, Jr. DE
Outlook: In college football, when you have a third-year starter returning at quarterback, your team is usually in good shape. That's the case for the Hawkeyes, who return Stanley for his third year. Couple that with the return of a generally pretty experienced offensive line and three seasoned running backs and you have the potential to be a good offense. One of the keys will be the development of the passing game, where Iowa will be looking for players like Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and tight end Shaun Beyer to emerge into larger roles after losing two of their top three pass catchers early to the NFL.
On defense, while Iowa lost its entire starting defensive line, it does return All Big Ten performer A.J. Epenesa and three other experienced defensive linemen. Development of depth up front will be key to go along with what should be a pretty solid back seven on defense.
2018 record: 5-7
Head coach: Mike Locksley, 1st season
Key player: Anthony McFarland, R-Soph. RB
Player to watch: Josh Jackson, R-Jr. QB
Outlook: Offensively, there is a lot to be excited about in College Park. Locksley returns to the Terps' sidelines after spending the past three seasons under Nick Saban at Alabama. Locksley inherits a running back group as good as any in the country, led by McFarland, who rushed for over 1,000 yards a season ago. The Terps also welcome back junior running back Javon Leake, who enters the 2019 season averaging a staggering 9.5 yards per carry. A young and inexperienced wideout group is led by rising sophomore Jeshaun Jones, who caught five touchdowns a season ago. The biggest offseason addition for Maryland was Jackson, a Virginia Tech grad transfer, at quarterback. The Michigan native started 16 straight games for the Hokies, going 11-5, before suffering a season-ending injury in the third game of last season. Another big offseason addition was Buffalo grad transfer tight end Tyler Mabry, who was an All-MAC performer a season ago and grew up with Jackson. His ability to block and catch, along with Chig Okonkwo's ability to catch the ball, should help the tight ends get much more involved this season.
Defensively, the Terps return just a handful of starters, led by All-Big Ten nickel back Antoine Brooks Jr., who led the team with 9.5 tackles for loss a season ago. Another newcomer who is a big addition on the defensive side of the ball is Clemson grad transfer Shaq Smith. He was penciled in as a starting linebacker for Clemson before transferring to Maryland. In the secondary, the Terps will be led by cornerback Tino Ellis, who started every game a year ago and led the team in pass breakups. Maryland could see its share of ups and downs along the line on both sides of the ball and the punting job remains up for grabs heading into the fall. Getting to a bowl game appears to be the goal for Locksley in year one.
2018 record: 10-3
Head coach: Jim Harbaugh, 5th season
Key player: Shea Patterson, Jr. QB
Player to watch: Nico Collins, Jr. WR
Outlook: There are plenty of question marks — specifically, interior defensive line, running back and second corner — but there’s more than enough talent on this team to win the majority of the games on the schedule, especially since many of the toughest games are at home. The Wolverines play rivals Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State at home, though road games at Wisconsin and Penn State will be tough. This offensive line figures to be the best in Harbaugh’s five years, and the quarterback situation is stronger than it’s been in years. Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey will both play. Christian Turner and freshman Zach Charbonnet are capable but unproven backs, and the wide receiver corps is the best in years. Collins might be the best of the bunch, but Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones are future NFL-caliber receivers, too. Slot receiver Mike Sainristil is turning heads, and sophomore Ronnie Bell surprised as a frosh.
How this defense fares against teams that like run right at you will be a big factor in the team’s success, but this is the year the Wolverines pick it up offensively under new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and try to put more points on the board quickly.
2018 record: 7-6
Head coach: Mark Dantonio, 13th season
Key player: Brian Lewerke, Sr. QB
Player to watch: Xavier Henderson, Soph. DB
Outlook: Coming off a disappointing 7-6 season plagued by injuries on both sides of the football and anemic production on offense, Michigan State is poised to overachieve this season. The return of a fully healthy senior quarterback during spring football provided the Spartans offense with a much-needed boost under first-year offensive coordinator Brad Salem, who has been tasked with weaning the program away from the two-back offense that has been a staple of Michigan State football during the Dantonio era. For any scheme to work, the Spartans offense must get improved production and consistency from the O-line. The front five is a veteran group with more than enough experience and physical ability to get the job done. As a unit, however, the O-line underachieved last season, injuries notwithstanding. Running back is another position that needs to play better. Connor Heyward, a junior, and LaDarius Jefferson, a sophomore, have experience. Don’t sleep on freshman Anthony Williams, an early enrollee who had an impressive spring. The Spartans have quality starters at wide receiver in veterans Cody White and Darrell Stewart, and a promising a playmaker in sophomore Jalen Nailor. Junior tight end Matt Dotson appears ready for a breakout season.
Defensively, the Spartans are tasked with replacing NFL Draft picks Khari Willis at safety and Justin Layne at corner. With junior corner Josiah Scott leading the way and sophomore safety Xavier Henderson waiting in the wings, the retooled Michigan State secondary is in good hands. This Spartan D-line has the potential to be the best of the Dantonio-era, with defensive end Kenny Willekes and defensive tackle Raequan Williams returning as seniors. Michigan State’s top 10 defense should keep the Spartans competitive in every game this season. The ceiling of this team, however, will be determined by the effectiveness of the offense.
2018 record: 7-6
Head coach: P.J. Fleck, 3rd season
Key player: Carter Coughlin, Sr. LB
Player to watch: Antoine Winfield Jr., R-Soph. DB
Outlook: Minnesota was young last season and had bumps along the way, but the Golden Gophers finished the season strong, like a team that could compete for the Big Ten West in 2019. There's a case to be made that both sides of the ball will improve from last year. The offense had as many as nine freshmen starting at times in 2018, and 97.1 percent of its offensive production from last season returns (tops in the country).
The defense went from poor to strong after making a change at defensive coordinator and elevating defensive line coach Joe Rossi mid-season. Depth could be a concern, and Minnesota is particularly thin at defensive tackle and safety. However, 2019 should be Fleck's most talented and most experienced team.
2018 record: 4-8
Head coach: Scott Frost, 2nd season
Key player: Adrian Martinez, Soph. QB
Player to watch: Darrion Daniels, Sr. DL
Outlook: For a team that is coming off back-to-back 4-8 seasons, expectations are as high as ever for Nebraska in Frost’s second season. The Huskers are the preseason pick to win the Big Ten West in three of the four major magazine publications that came out this summer. Martinez is getting early Heisman Trophy buzz, as he’s currently fourth on the Las Vegas odds boards, behind only Trevor Lawrence, Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts.
The biggest thing when you look at the Huskers going into the 2019 season is the schedule. They drop Michigan and Michigan State on their crossovers and replace them with Maryland and Indiana. The Huskers also get Ohio State, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa in Lincoln. The start to the schedule is key, as NU opens with South Alabama, Colorado, Northern Illinois and Illinois before facing off against Ohio State. A 4-0 start is almost a must if this season is going to get to the level people think it can.
2018 record: 9-5
Head coach: Pat Fitzgerald, 14th season
Key player: Paddy Fisher, Jr. LB
Player to watch: Hunter Johnson, Soph. QB
Outlook: The bad news for the defending West-division champion Wildcats is that they lost all-time passing leader Clayton Thorson, a four-year starter, to graduation. The good news is that they may have an even more talented quarterback ready to take over the reins in Johnson. Expectations are sky-high in Evanston for Johnson, who transferred from Clemson and was a five-star quarterback coming out of high school. Still, Fitzgerald didn’t anoint Johnson as the starter coming out of spring practice and no one knows for sure if he’s ready to command the offense after running the scout team last year.
At least Johnson will have a strong running game to lean on, featuring Isaiah Bowser, a big, bruising back who took over the starting job halfway through the 2018 season as a true freshman and transformed the offense into a power rushing attack. Northwestern’s receiving corps is deep, led by senior Bennett Skowronek, but there are question marks up front. The Wildcats’ offensive line returns just two starters and is learning a new system under first-year offensive line coach Kurt Anderson.
While the offense may improve this season — that shouldn’t be too difficult as the Cats finished just 12th in the Big Ten in total offense last year — the strength of the team will once again be the defense. The front seven will be a handful and should be particularly stout against the run, led by senior defensive end Joe Gaziano and junior middle linebacker Fisher, who are both entering their third year as starters. After making a Big Ten-high 227 tackles over the last two years, Fisher has the kind of talent to turn pro a year early if he has another big season. The Wildcats must replace a cornerback and a safety in the secondary, but they have players with plenty of experience ready to step in. The back half will be led by junior safety JR Pace, a big hitter in run support who also has a nose for the ball (a team-high three interceptions last year).
On special teams, the Wildcats need to be better on field goals than they were a year ago, when injuries struck down their top two kickers, and they must also find a reliable punter. Despite facing a difficult schedule that opens with a road game at Stanford, another eight-win regular season could be in the cards for Northwestern. Whether or not that’s enough to once again win the West and reach the conference title game in Indianapolis remains to be seen.
2018 record: 13-1
Head coach: Ryan Day, 1st season
Key player: Chase Young, Jr. DE
Player to watch: Justin Fields, Soph. QB
Outlook: A lot changes in Columbus, with the departure of Urban Meyer, Dwayne Haskins, Nick Bosa, most of the offensive line, three receivers, etc. But optimism is still high for the two-time defending Big Ten champions with a lot of new faces in key roles. The good news is that the Buckeyes return almost everyone else, as Meyer left the Buckeyes with a stocked cupboard and the deepest roster of any team in the conference. Ohio State will not play a Power Five non-conference opponent for the first time in the Power Five-era, with games against Florida Atlantic, Cincinnati and Miami (Ohio) providing early-season matchups for a team looking to replace a lot of offense.
The defense is going through a major overhaul in terms of coaching personnel, with Day cleaning house and only defensive line/associate head coach Larry Johnson remaining from last year’s staff as the Buckeyes look to the North with the additions of Greg Mattison and Al Washington to the staff.
The Big Ten schedule maker did this team no favors with an early road test at Nebraska and then back-to-back games with Penn State and Michigan to close the season as well as a Friday night game at Northwestern looking like it has the potential to be this season’s Purdue or Iowa. With all of that being said, there is more than enough returning for this team to finish atop the Big Ten East, but with a first-year quarterback really seeing his first major action, there is little margin for error with this team as this might be as vulnerable as the Buckeyes have been since the 2011 season.
2018 record: 9-4
Head coach: James Franklin, 6th season
Key player: Sean Clifford, R-Soph. QB
Player to watch: Yetur Gross-Matos, Jr. DE
Outlook: The outlook for Penn State’s 2019 season really hinges on one question: What’s more important in college football, talent or experience? No doubt, when you have both you’re in great shape. But in Penn State’s case this season, so many older players took the grad-transfer route, including quarterback Tommy Stevens, wideouts Brandon Polk and Juwan Johnson, and a handful of second-team defensive players. For whatever those players might have brought to the table in terms of experience, though, the story’s undercurrent is that younger players of the elite recruiting classes of 2017 and 2018 more or less took their presumptive starting jobs. Whether that talent will be enough to exceed the quality of last year’s up-and-down - and ultimately unfulfilling - season in which Penn State lost to its three primary division rivals in Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan, remains to be seen.
2018 record: 6-7
Head coach: Jeff Brohm, 3rd season
Key player: Rondale Moore, Soph. WR
Player to watch: Lorenzo Neal, Sr. DT
Outlook: Purdue has made remarkable progress in just two seasons under Brohm, going 13-13 with two bowl bids. Few could have envisioned that given the dire situation he inherited. What’s next? The prospects are enticing. And they begin with an offense that could be among the Big Ten’s best. Elijah Sindelar looks primed for a big senior season. The caveat: Can Sindelar stay healthy? He had knee surgery after the 2017 season and it has been a bit balky ever since. There’s a lot of production to replace at running back. The potential of the receivers is off the charts, and leading the parade is Moore. The unit should get a big boost from four touted freshmen, led by David Bell. Purdue has one of the league’s top tight ends in Brycen Hopkins. But all of this skill talent could be dulled if the line doesn’t develop. The interior is a major worry.
The defense was battered last year. Blame it on youth. Improvement is expected from the line. True freshman end George Karlaftis looks like the program’s next star pass rusher. A big key is Neal, who must be healthy coming off a knee injury. If he is compromised, the defense could suffer. A lot. The linebacking unit has an unabashed star in senior Markus Bailey. A wild card is Western Kentucky grad transfer Ben Holt - the son of defensive coordinator Nick Holt. He will start ... and be a star. This secondary is getting bigger across the board. If there is a bellwether at cornerback, it’s sophomore Kenneth Major. Safety is one of the more exciting positions on the team. True freshman Jalen Graham is a 6-3 pterodactyl who could have just-add-water impact.
After redshirting last year, junior J.D. Dellinger will be the new kicker. He held the job in 2016 and shared it in 2017. Ready or not, true freshman Brooks Cormier will be the punter. Moore makes the return game downright dangerous. With Brohm locked up with a new seven-year, $36.8 million deal after he flirted with Louisville, he can focus on building on the foundation he has laid. It will be interesting to see what Brohm and his cutting-edge offense can accomplish as he continues to add talent. The program may be a year from seriously contending for the West Division title, but another bowl trip certainly is realistic … and expected.
2018 record: 1-11
Head coach: Chris Ash, 4th season
Key player: McLane Carter, 5th-Sr. QB
Player to watch: Isaih Pacheco, Soph. RB
Outlook: Although last year we said it was make-or-break time for Ash, this year seems to be it for him. After coming off of an 1-11 season, Ash might arguably have the hottest seat out of every coach in the country. This year’s offense will look a little bit different as the Scarlet Knights lost two of their best returning players to the transfer market in tight end Travis Vokolek (Nebraska) and offensive lineman Jonah Jackson (Ohio State). Not to mention the team also saw starters Jerome Washington and Tariq Cole both sign UDFA contracts with NFL teams. Rutgers added a couple new weapons, including two graduate transfers in Carter, a former Texas Tech quarterback, and Wisconsin tight end Kyle Penniston, both of whom are expected to compete and possibly start at two key positions. If the Scarlet Knights want to keep Ash for another year, they are going to have to improve on the offensive side of the ball, and quickly. Last year Rutgers was ranked the lowest-scoring offense in the FBS, scoring just 13.5 points per game. It will be up to second-year coordinator John McNulty to get creative this year in order to get the ball in the hands of playmakers Raheem Blackshear and Pacheco.
2018 record: 8-5
Head coach: Paul Chryst, 5th season
Key player: Jonathan Taylor, Jr. RB
Player to watch: Garrett Rand, R-Jr. DE
Outlook: After starting in the top 5 to begin the 2018 season, Wisconsin is looking to bounce back from a disappointing 8-5 record last fall. UW returns arguably the nation’s top running back in Taylor, who needs 2,235 yards to become the FBS all-time leading rusher. However, he will have to do so with a new set of offensive linemen. Though potential All-American center Tyler Biadasz returns, four of the five regular starters are gone from last year. Taylor will also receive handoffs from a new starting quarterback, as Alex Hornibrook departed the program in the winter. Four signal callers competed for reps in the spring, and we will see if junior Jack Coan (five games, four starts in 2018) locks down the starting spot or if 2019 All-American Bowl MVP Graham Mertz potentially finds a way to the top of the depth chart.
Defensively, Jim Leonhard’s unit will miss production from some NFL-bound linebackers. Chris Orr and Jack Sanborn appear ready to fill in on the inside, but someone will need to step up alongside redshirt senior Zack Baun to replace Andrew Van Ginkel’s athleticism and production at outside linebacker. With Rand coming back from injury, the defensive line could take a step forward and allow UW to put more pressure on the passer, something that was lacking in 2018. The defensive backfield returns some key contributors despite D’Cota Dixon heading to the NFL, and it will be interesting to see who emerges from a young cornerback group.