2019 Big Ten Conference Preview: Contenders or Pretenders

Another season, another year without a berth in the college football playoff for the Big Ten Conference. Despite Ohio State finishing 12-1 and ending the regular season with an impressive win over the Michigan Wolverines, the conference was left out in the cold. Is it the nine-game conference schedule, the refusal to schedule FCS opponents or could it be that the playoff committee has some vendetta against the conference. Maybe the latter is a bit extreme, but there has to be something that the committee is using to excluding the conference.

Or perhaps it could be that they expect a conference champion to be able to beat a team that it is superior to?

For the outgoing conference commissioner, Jim Delaney, the hope is that the best team in the conference will be able to avoid that unexcusable pitfall in 2019. By doing so, the conference champion could end up celebrating in Indianapolis and make plans to play in Arizona or Atlanta for the college football playoffs.

 

CONTENDERS (order of confidence)

 

Ohio State Buckeyes 13-1 (8-1) Conference Champion

Last Game: Defeated Washington 28-23 in the Rose Bowl

Returning Starters: 13 (4 offensive, 7 defensive, kicker, punter)

OSU is a contender if:

If there is no drop off with new head coach Ryan Day. Day is already showing the ability to recruit at a high level, but will he be able to coach at that same level as well. Yes, he went 3-0 in the three games he coached while Urban Meyer was suspended, but the level of competition was not that great. His first job as head coach is making sure that transfer quarterback Justin Fields is ready to take over the reins as OSU quarterback. The former 5* recruit comes with a lot of hype but will he be able to live up to it?

OSU is a pretender if:

The new offensive line takes too long to gel. The Buckeyes return only one starter up front, left tackle Thay Munford, and three of the new starters are underclassmen. Couple this with a new quarterback who will be trying to learn a new system this could end up all bad if there is no cohesion with the line.

Player to watch:

KJ Hill WR – If Fields is going to have a successful first year with the Buckeyes, it will be because he found a favorite receiver very quickly. After finishing 2018 with 70 catches, 886 yards, and six touchdowns, Hill is the most experienced returning receiver for the Buckeyes. If he is able to quickly establish chemistry with Fields, those numbers could go even higher in 2019.

Potential Breakout Player:

Jeffrey Okudah CB – Depending on who you talk to, some will consider OSU “DB U.” Based solely on potential, Okudah is in line to become the next top-flight corner to wear the scarlet and gray. The Texas native has the size, 6’1 200 lbs, and speed to be a dominant performer he just needs to start making plays. In two seasons in Columbus, Okudah has yet to register an interception. If the Buckeyes want to repeat as conference champions, his improvement as a playmaker will go a long way in achieving that goal.

 

Michigan Wolverines 10-3 (8-1)

Last Game: Lost to Florida 41-15 in the Peach Bowl

Returning Starters: 14 (7 offense, 5 defense, kicker, punter)

Michigan is a contender if:

New offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and his system work. Head Coach Jim Harbaugh has struggled with evolving his archaic offensive system and while the team feasts on lesser opponents any team with a pulse on defense have had its way with the Millenium version of “3-yards and a cloud of dust.” While the offense isn’t littered with 4.3-forty yard dash guys, Speed in space is the mantra being used by Gattis. If the new scheme finds a better way of utilizing the talented receiver trio of Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and Nico Collins, the team should be able to make it to Indy for the Big Ten title game.

Michigan is a pretender if:

The defense has not figured out how to cover in space. Statistically, the Wolverines defense finished at the top of college football, but during the season teams were able to take advantage of defensive coordinator Don Brown’s overly aggressive scheme. Even if it means utilizing more zone, Brown has to make sure he doesn’t expose a defensive backfield unit. Outside of senior cornerback LeVert Hill and safety Josh Metellus, most of the players back there are talented but inexperienced.

Players to Watch:

Josh Uche DE & Kwity Paye DE – With the departure of Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, there is a void on the defensive line. Last season Uche and Paye showed that they are capable of taking on a more prominent role. How will they respond to higher expectations?

Potential Breakout Player:

Christian Turner RB – With the graduation of Karan Higdon and suspension of Chris Evans, the starting running back position is wide open. Tru Wilson has the most experience, and true freshman Zach Charbonnet comes with the hype, but look out for sophomore Christian Turner. Turner possesses the perfect blend of power, speed to give head coach Jim Harbaugh a player he could rely on until Charbonnet is ready.

 

Michigan State Spartans 7-6 (5-4)

Last Game: lost to Oregon 7–6 in the Redbox Bowl

Returning Starter: 18 (8 offense, 8 defense, kicker, punter)

Michigan St. is a contender if:

Brian Lewerke bounces back. After struggling with injuries most of 2018, Lewerke is looking to recapture his mojo from the 2017 season. After completing nearly 60% of his passes two years ago, Lewerke’s completion percentage dropped to a paltry 54%. With him healthy, the Spartans have to hope he can regain the confidence from two years ago when he was considered a top quarterback in the conference.

Michigan St. is a pretender if:

No one steps up at the running back position. In the past, MSU has been able to rely on multiple guys contributing at running back… but not in 2018. In addition to the struggles at quarterback the lack of a rushing attack — MSU finished 114th in the nation in rush offense — intensified the issues on the offense. Connor Heyward (529 yards, five touchdowns) returns, but he will need some help. True freshman Anthony Williams looked good during the spring but will that translate to the fall?

Player to Watch:

Tyriq Thompson LB – Thompson came to state with high expectations, but up until this point he has yet to live up to the hype. With focusing on Joe Bache, Raequan Williams and All-American candidate Kenny Willikes, Thompson will have opportunities to be an impactful player his last season in East Lansing.

Potential Breakout Player:

Jalen Nailor WR – Despite his freshman season being cut short by injuries, Nailor showed a lot of flash and dash in the six games he did play in. Not only did the sophomore average 17.3 yards on eight catches, but he also found success running the reverse averaging 14.2 yards on nine carries. If he can stay healthy, the expectation is that he will easily surpass last years numbers and become the most dangerous offensive weapon for the Spartans.

 

Iowa Hawkeyes 9-4 (5-4)

Last Game: Defeated Mississippi St. 27-22 in the Outback Bowl

Returning Starters: 10 (5 offense, 4 defense, punter)

Iowa is a contender if:

The title of starter doesn’t scare the Iowa defense. The entire front four for the Hawkeyes moved on, but head coach Kirk Ferentz used a rotation of eight guys, so the new starters come with a lot of game experience. AJ Epensa has the most talent of the unit and looks to build upon a successful 2018 campaign that saw him rack up 16.5 tackles-for-loss and 10.5 sacks. If fellow junior Chauncey Golston can build upon a productive sophomore season, Iowa could have one of the top defensive end duos in the nation.

Iowa is a pretender if:

Quarterback Nathan Stanley struggles to find continuity with his new weapons. Replacing a trio that combined for 140 receptions and 1,773 yards is a daunting task, if Stanley struggles, it could spell disaster for a promising season and his NFL hopes.

Player to Watch:

Ihmir Smith-Marsette WR – Stanley will need to find a new favorite receiver and Smith-Marsette could be that guy. After posting a gaudy 15.7 yard-per-catch average in 2018, the talented junior showed the ability to be a big-play receiver in a conservative offense.

Potential Breakout Player:

Shaun Beyer TE – With both TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant moving on to the NFL, Beyer is hoping to become the next guy in the line of great Iowa tight ends. He may not have the stats to back the expectation, Beyer has the size (6’5, 244 lbs) and track background that makes him the obvious choice.

 

Penn St. Nittany Lions 9-4  6-3)

Last Game: Lost to Kentucky 27-24 in the Citrus Bowl

Returning Starters: 13 (5 offense, 6 defense, punter, kicker)

Penn St. is a contender if:

The Nittany Lions have a dominant defense. If Yetur Gross-Matos, Micah Parsons, Cam Brown and John Reid can help make this a Top 10 ranked scoring defense, it won’t matter who is playing quarterback. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry has helped improved the defensive rankings each of his three years in Happy Valley, so an improvement of this magnitude is not out of the question.

Penn St. is a pretender if:

If Sean Clifford is not ready and the team struggles to score more than 27 points per game. Clifford is a traditional drop-back quarterback, so the Penn St. offense loses some of the freestyle ability that it had under Trace McSorley. The success/failure of the Penn State offense will be tied to the playcalling and in-game adjustments made by head coach James Franklin, will he be up to the challenge?

Player to Watch:

Pat Freiermuth TE – The biggest security blanket for any quarterback is his tight end. Freiermuth caught eight touchdowns last season and you can expect to see his targets increase in 2019 with a new quarterback under center.

Potential Breakout Player:

Micah Parsons  LB – It’s hard to envision a player that leads the team in a statistical category to be in line for a breakout season but this speaks to how good Parsons is. in 2018 he led Penn State in tackles with 84 despite only starting one game. Imagine the impact he will have in 2019 due to the increase in snaps.

 

 

PRETENDERS:

Illinois Fighting Illini – We’ve been waiting for the Illini to turn the corner under Lovie Smith and it has yet to happen. The program added its share of transfers, but will that translate into enough wins for him to keep his job? The defense returns 10 starters and is led by All-Big Ten candidates Bobby Roundtree at defensive end and Nate Hobbs at cornerback.

Indiana Hoosiers – The Hoosiers return nine defensive starters but is that a good thing considering they surrendered 424 yards per game and almost 30 points per game. If sophomore Stevie Scott can replicate an impressive freshman season, 1,137 yards and 10 touchdowns, maybe that will keep opposing offenses off the field.

Maryland Terrapins – Virginia Tech transfer quarterback Josh Jackson is a significant upgrade at a position that has been inconsistent for the last five seasons. How long will it take him to get up to speed in a new offense? Fortunately for Maryland fans, new head coach Mike Locksley will be able to rely on the talented Anthony McFarland at running back until Jackson figures things out

Minnesota Golden Gophers – The Gophers have a lot of talent offensively, but they have to prove that the defensive improvement in the second half of the season was not a fluke. The addition of Notre Dame transfer Micah Drew-Treadway and the return of Antoine Winfield should go a long way in maintaining stability on that side of the ball.

Nebraska Cornhuskers – Nebraska will be better than last season’s 4-8 record but how much better? The health of quarterback Adrian Martinez will be key to head coach Scott Frost taking this team to the next level. Unfortunately, there still are still questions on the defensive side of the ball that keeps them from contending for the West Division championship.

Northwestern Wildcats – Sophomore quarterback Hunter Johnson comes with the high school resume, but will it translate on the collegiate level? If it does, Northwestern has enough defensive talent needed to contend in the West Division.

Purdue Boilermakers – Purdue has bonafide stars in wide receiver Rondale Moore and linebacker Markus Bailey, but quarterback play will determine success or failure for Purdue. Unfortunately for Boilermakers fans, Elijah Sindelar has not been able to stay healthy while in West Layfayette.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights – The defense improved in 2018 but the offense took a step back as it finished in the bottom half of every major offensive category. The less Art Sitkowski has the ball in his hands (18 interceptions last year), the better. Maybe head coach Chris Ash needs to consider using running back Raheem Blackshear a lot more in 2019.

Wisconsin Badgers – The defense does a great job finding replacements for departed players as linebackers Chris Orr and Jack Sanborn look to take on more prominent roles. Offensively, Jonathan Taylor returns as the best running back in the nation, but the turnover of talent on defense and uncertainty at the quarterback position will hurt the Badgers in 2019. 

 

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