Big Ten Conference Preview: Contenders or Pretenders

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After being shut out of last year’s college football playoff, the Big Ten Conference is looking to bounce back and send at least one representative to the playoffs this year. Depending on who you ask, there are five teams leading the conference in Michigan St., Ohio St., Michigan, Wisconsin, and Penn St. that could crash the college football playoff party if things work out.

Conversely, the other nine teams in the conference are nothing more than pretenders this year. There is talent scattered on each team but the best thing they can hope for is winning in the non-conference and representing the conference well by making a bowl game.

CONTENDERS (order of confidence)

Michigan State Spartans 10-3 (7-2)

Last Game: Defeated Washington St. 42-17 in the Holiday Bowl

Returning Starter: 20 (9 offense, 9 defense, kicker, punter)

Michigan St. is a contender if:

The experience pays dividends. Led by quarterback Brian Lewerke, who some will say is the best quarterback in the conference now, the Spartans return 20 starters to a 10-win team that bounced back from an uncharacteristic 3-9 2016 season. Defensively linebacker Joe Bachie is the leader of a unit that finished in the top 20 nationally in scoring, rushing and total defense.

Michigan St. is a pretender if:

If the talent doesn’t match the experience returning
Whether it was Malik McDowell, Chris Frey, or Shilique Calhoun, in previous years the Spartans defense had a player you had to gameplan for and right now it is still unknown who that superstar defensive player is. Bachie and former walk-on defensive end Kenny Willekes are talented but will opposing offenses lay awake at night in fear of them or any other MSU defensive player, that remains to be seen?

Player to Watch:

Justin Layne & Josiah Scott CB – This duo has Spartans fans ready to reinstate the “no fly zone” at Spartan Stadium. Despite combining for only two interceptions, the cornerback tandem has the experience needed to make things difficult for opposing receivers.

Potential Breakout Player:

Connor Heyward RB – Head coach Mark Dantonio likes to run the ball, and while senior running back LJ Scott is talented, he cannot carry the load by himself. As a true freshman, Heyward saw most of his playing time on special teams but should see an uptick in carries as a running back with there being no established back up for Scott.

 

Ohio State Buckeyes 12-2 (8-1) Conference Champion

Last Game: Defeated USC 24-7 in the Cotton Bowl Classic

Returning Starters: 14 (7 offensive, 5 defensive, kicker, punter)

OSU is a contender if:

If sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins turns out to be the best quarterback Urban Meyer has ever coached. Meyer has always had one or the other — a guy under center that could run but couldn’t pass or a passer that wasn’t much of a runner. In Haskins, the Buckeyes have a quarterback that has the arm strength and accuracy to take advantage of the talented trio of returning receivers in Austin Mack, Johnnie Dixon, and Parris Campbell while also being able to keep opposing defenses honest with his ability to run the ball.

OSU is a pretender if:

The team is unable to replace the leadership lost with the graduation of JT Barrett IV. Barrett may not have been the best quarterback or athlete to ever play in the Horseshoe, but he might have been one of the best team leaders in program history. The Buckeyes lineup is littered with four and five-star talent but defensive end Chase Young, tackle Isaiah Prince or safety Jordan Fuller ready to step up in a hostile environment like East Lansing or Happy Valley?

Player to watch:

Chase Young DE – With defenses game planning to stop Nick Bosa, Young could see a lot more single coverage on the opposite end of the line which could result in more sacks. Young has lofty goals and aspires to surpass Bosa’s 8.5 sacks from 2017

Potential Breakout Player:

Luke Farrell TE – Farrell finished 2017 with only two catches, but with an inexperienced quarterback, the Ohio State’s passing offense could find itself relying on Farrell to become Haskins’ new security blanket.

 

Michigan Wolverines 8-5 (5-4)

Last Game: Lost to South Carolina 26-19 in the Outback Bowl

Returning Starters: 16 (6 offense, 8 defense, kicker, punter)

Michigan is a contender if:

Shea Patterson becomes the quarterback everyone hopes. In limited action at Ole Miss, Patterson showed glimpses of why he was the No. 1 ranked quarterback in his class. The production under center has been so abysmal for the Wolverines that he doesn’t have to be the Heisman hopeful that so many are predicting for him; he has to be good for the team to succeed.

Michigan is a pretender if:

The coaching and scheme changes still don’t fix the offensive line. Part of the reason for the offensive struggles has been inconsistency up front. In 2017 the Michigan offensive line failed to create rush lanes versus credible defenses and was unable to protect the passer against ANY defense. Despite hiring Ed Warinner to coach the line and the return of Ceaser Ruiz, Ben Bredeson, and Michael Onwenu on the interior, there still are questions about the line. If they aren’t answered soon, it could be another long season.

Player to Watch:

Khaleke Hudson LB – Hudson had a very productive 2017 season but even more is expected from him at the “Viper” position this season. With teams focusing on slowing down defensive ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich and linebacker Devin Bush Jr. Hudson should see a lot of single coverage when he blitzes which could lead to more sacks and tackles for losses. It may be blasphemous to say this, but he has already eclipsed the production of the hyped Jabril Peppers.

Potential Breakout Player:

Nico Collins WR – Collins played sparingly as a freshman, but the word out of Michigan camp is that the light has finally come on for him and he is ready to take on an expanded role. With the off-season departure of Kekoa Crawford and Eddie McDoom, and the recent injury to Tarik Black, the Michigan offense will need all the help it can get at the wideout position.

 

Wisconsin Badgers 13-1 (9-0) 

Last Game: Defeated Miami in the Orange Bowl 34-24

Returning Starters: 15 (9 offense, 4 defense, kicker, punter)

Wisconsin is a contender if:

The newcomers on defense catch on quickly. The Badgers are tasked with replacing seven starters from a defensive unit that was Top 5 in all categories in 2017. The cupboard isn’t completely bare with seniors T.J. Edwards, Olive Sagapolu, Ryan Connelly and D’Cota Dixon returning as starters. The non-conference schedule is soft enough to have the new starters ready by the time conference play opens against Iowa in Week 4.

Wisconsin is a pretender if:

If Alex Hornibrook continues to have turnover issues. The junior quarterback had the dubious distinction of throwing at least one interception in every Big Ten game in 2017 except the victory over Minnesota. With teams focusing to stop super sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor, Hornibrook will have to show he can protect the ball in tough situations. If he can’t, it may cost the Badgers a shot at the College Football Playoffs.

Player to Watch:

TJ Edwards LB – Edwards has continued the recent lineage of tough Badgers linebackers as he has been a starter since he stepped foot in Madison. With so many new players on the Badgers defense, there will be greater expectations for him to lead on and off the field.

Potential Breakout Player:

Zander Neuville TE – The tight end position plays an important role in the Wisconsin offense; it has to be able to block like a lineman while still being athletic enough to catch its share of passes. After catching only nine balls in 2017, many expect that production to go up in major way.

 

Penn St. Nittany Lions 11-2 (7-2)

Last Game: Defeated Washington 35-28 in the Fiesta Bowl

Returning Starters: 11 (7 offense, 3 defense, punter)

Penn St. is a contender if:

Running back Miles Sanders makes his best Saquon Barkley impression. The junior running back has shown flashes of being a star running back, but now he must prove he is ready to be the lead back for a PSU offense that is replacing its best receiver, tight end, and offensive coordinator.

Penn St. is a pretender if:

If the replacements for the eight defensive starters lost are not ready for the added responsibility of starting. The entire defensive backfield must be replaced, and while safety Nick Scott and cornerback Amani Oruwariye have been in the program for four years, it is their first seasons as starters.

Player to Watch:

Juwan Johnson WR – Quarterback Trace McSorley throws one of the best jump balls in college football, and the 6’4 Johnson looks to be on the receiving end of more of those passes with the departure of wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki.

Potential Breakout Player:

Cam Brown LB – Thrust into the starting lineup to replace defensive leader Jason Cabinda, Brown will be counted on to be the voice of the defense. He has the size, 6’5 230, to be an impact on a unit that is looking to replace a lot of key players.

 

PRETENDERS:

Iowa Hawkeyes – Quarterback Nate Stanley will make this team competitive but the issues on the offensive line will cost it too many games to really content.

Nebraska Cornhuskers – Head coach Scott Frost will infuse the program with a lot of energy but you cant expect much from a program starting a true freshman at quarterback in Adrian Martinez.

Purdue Boilermakers – Head coachJeff Brohm has to prove that last year’s improvement wasn’t a fluke and it starts with more consistent play out of David Blough — but we’ve heard that before.

Minnesota Golden Gophers – Head coach PJ Fleck is still trying to get people to row the boat in Minneapolis and things will be extra hard this year with a walk-on freshman, Tanner Morgan, leading the way under center.

Northwestern Wildcats – Clayton Thorson has all the tools to be a top quarterback but how will he respond after tearing his ACL in the bowl game. They also must replace Mr. do-it-all running back Justin Jackson

Illinois Fighting Illini – The honeymoon has long been over for head coach Lovie Smith; its time for results or he will be out in Champagne. But can the offense score enough (15.4 ppg in 2017) to be competitive.

Maryland Terrapins – How will the team react to the off-the-field issues and can the trio of defensive transfers in defensive end Byron Cowart, linebacker Tre Watson and cornerback Marcus Lewis be enough an impact on that side of the ball?

Indiana Hoosiers – The defense made strides in 2017 but must overcome a total overhaul losing eight starters. Safety Jonathan Crawford has NFL potential but will he have enough help.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights – Rutgers finishes the season against four of the five “contenders”  it could be another long season if they don’t get off to a fast start.

 

 

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