All season long we’ll take a look at the Big Ten power rankings. For the record - as I know I’ll get comments about it all season long - this isn’t a ranking of teams based on record, or place in the polls, but rather my assessment of how the teams are playing at the time. If two teams met on a neutral field and played 100 times, a team that wins 51 times gets ranked ahead of the team that wins 49 times. Capeesh?
Good, now with that out of the way, let’s get to it!
1. Ohio State
For the first time in a long time, Ohio State looks mortal. They’re still hands down the most talented team in the conference, but with a new head coach, new quarterback, and very sparse QB depth, the Buckeyes are putting all of the weight of the season on Justin Fields’ shoulders. They’re still the odds on favorite to win the conference, but I’m less sure of OSU than I am most seasons.
Similarly, Michigan lost a bunch of players from their vaunted 2018 defense, and are currently thin at the running back position. Still, the Wolverines are very talented, and will look to reload at a few positions, rather than rebuild.
3. Penn State
Sean Clifford has officially been announced as the starting quarterback, and the Lions now begin preparations for Idaho. The defense will keep the team in most games, but the offense will need to do its part against the top third of the schedule if the team is to get back to double-digit wins.
4. Michigan State
After the top three, things get a bit dicey. There’s a bloc of teams that are all solid, and could trip up the top tier, but I don’t see them really contending for the conference crown. Leading this group is Michigan State, which suffered from a host of injuries last year, but still put together a solid campaign. Mark Dantonio decided to shake up his offensive staff after a terrible year on offense by bringing back all of his offensive staff, which is a bold move Cotton. Let’s see how it pays off for him.
Like Penn State, Iowa is going to lean on its defense. In particular, the Hawkeye defensive line is one of the best in the country, and if the offense can at least be serviceable, Iowa will be in the running for the West crown deep into the season.
Okay hear me out on this one. Northwestern is quietly a very good football program, and will give fits to whatever team underestimates them. They have solid defense, and just enough cogency on offense/special teams that they can hang around with better teams. A quick turnover for a score and a sure win is suddenly looking uncertain. The Wildcats could push to repeat as West champions.
I wanted to put the Badgers higher on this list, but after a rough 2018 campaign, I’m very much in wait-and-see mode. Jonathan Taylor is still a threat whenever he touches the ball, but he needs help.
Now we’re into the next tier of teams. Can they be good this year? Sure. But I really need to see it to believe it. Leading this group is Maryland. Yes, Maryland. The Terrapins are actually one of the most talented teams in the conference, but routinely are snake-bitten by injuries. They can hang with a lot of teams, and put scares into the big dogs (see: Ohio State, 2018). They do have a new coaching staff and some upheaval at quarterback, but their run game will remain strong. The Friday night B1G opener will tell us a lot about both Maryland and Penn State.
For the life of me I don’t get the Nebraska hype. They’ve been mediocre on the recruiting trail, and started out last season 0-6, with a loss to Troy. Then they cobbled together four wins in the back half of their season, over Minnesota, Bethune-Cookman, Illinois, and Michigan State. And now they’re supposed to be in the running for the playoff? Again, not until I see it will I believe it.
I like what PJ Fleck is doing in Minneapolis, and the Gophers have gotten back to solid defense and running the ball, but I need to see them take down the bigger names in the West before I can truly believe they’re a dark horse on that side of the conference.
And now we’re into the bottom tier of the conference. Teams that are going to struggle all season for various reasons. Leading the group are the Boilermakers, who had a fun year in 2018, getting to watch Rondale Moore posterize fools all season, and romping all over Ohio State. But this is slated to be a rebuilding year in West Lafayette, and I think Purdue will struggle to make a bowl.
Indiana has decent skill at exactly one position - quarterback. The rest of the roster just doesn’t have the ratings or the experience to be much of a threat. Like most years, the Hoosiers are praying to somehow get to 6 wins, and they’ll be praying a lot.
The Illini have actually started to pull in some talent, but it’s still young talent. And frankly there’s not quite enough of it yet. While I’d love for Lovie Smith and his majestic beard to stick around and continue the build, I fear that another poor season will be the final nail in his coffin.
And lastly we have the Scarlet Knights. Unlike Illinois, Rutgers has not been recruiting very well. The optimistic take for the Knights is 3 wins this year, which is rough. On the other hand, another bad season and Chris Ash may be ousted as head coach, which at least gives the hope that things could improve in the future?
This season I want to add a little something different, and see if we can track how teams fare in these rankings throughout the season. Maybe see how certain teams improve to the detriment of others.
Preseason is just a bunch of dots, but in the coming weeks we’ll see if there are any noticeable trends that develop.
Next week, we’ll have actual on-the-field results to discuss! Football is back!