Big Ten Football 2017 Predictions

Complete Big Ten preview for 2017.

The Big Ten had a top-heavy 2016 season, as four teams finished inside of the top 10, Ohio State earned a CFB Playoff spot, and Penn State fell just short of reaching the top four after defeating Wisconsin in the conference title game. Fast forward to 2017 and not much has changed with the depth at the top of the league. Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin are Athlon’s projected top four teams from the Big Ten, with the Buckeyes and Badgers picked to meet in Indianapolis for the conference title game. Outside of the top four, little separates Northwestern, Nebraska and Iowa in the battle to challenge Wisconsin in the West, and Michigan State looks to get back on track after a disappointing 2016 season. The league also features three new coaches: Tom Allen (Indiana), P.J. Fleck (Minnesota) and Jeff Brohm (Purdue).

 

Here are five key storylines or discussions that shaped Athlon’s Big Ten predictions for 2017:

 

1. Ohio State and Penn State

The debate at the top of the Big Ten starts where it ended in 2016. Penn State and Ohio State tied for the East Division at 8-1 in league play last season, with the Nittany Lions owning the tiebreaker thanks to a 24-21 victory in Happy Valley over the Buckeyes. However, the balance of power should swing back to Columbus in 2017. Ohio State is primed for a run at the national title behind senior quarterback J.T. Barrett and one of the top defenses in college football. Barrett should thrive under the watchful eye of new play-caller Kevin Wilson, with a promising group of playmakers also ready to emerge on the outside. Urban Meyer’s defense is overflowing with depth in the trenches, but for the second year in a row, faces a rebuilding effort in the secondary. Despite the question marks in the secondary and the new faces at receiver, Ohio State is the pick to win the Big Ten over Penn State. However, the Nittany Lions shouldn’t be too far behind. Coach James Franklin’s team should make a run at a CFB Playoff bid behind quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley. Penn State’s quest to win the conference or earn a playoff spot is likely to depend on the development of the offensive line and the new faces at defensive end. The schedule isn’t daunting but Penn State does have to play at Columbus this year. After finishing 2016 by winning nine out of their last 10 games, can the Nittany Lions ignite the momentum again and continue where they left off?

 

2. Michigan…A Quick Reload or Rebuilding Year?

Michigan’s six returning starters are the second-fewest among Big Ten East Division teams. But the exodus of talent hasn’t slowed preseason expectations for the Wolverines. In Athlon’s projected top 25, Michigan is picked to finish No. 10 nationally. Coach Jim Harbaugh is one of the best in college football, and back-to-back top-five recruiting classes should ensure this program doesn’t fall too far in the win column. Helping the cause for a quick reload is the return of quarterback Wilton Speight and one of the Big Ten’s deepest backfields. Speight will have to hold off promising redshirt freshman Brandon Peters in the fall, as well as find new playmakers on the outside after tight end Jake Butt and receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson departed Ann Arbor. The line struggled at times last fall and remains a concern with just two starters back. Linebacker Mike McCray and senior Maurice Hurst are the leaders for a defense that suffered massive losses. But after limiting opponents to 14.1 points per game last fall, Michigan should still rank near the top of the Big Ten. Sophomore Rashan Gary is a rising star up front, and there’s a promising group of sophomores stepping into key roles in the back seven. With road trips to Penn State and Wisconsin, along with the home date against Ohio State, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Wolverines slip to nine wins. However, despite the significant personnel losses from last season – Harbaugh’s team won’t fall too far in the national rankings in 2017.

 

3. Wisconsin a Clear Favorite in the Big Ten West

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The Badgers have earned a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game in two out of the last three seasons and all signs point to another appearance in December. Coach Paul Chryst’s team returns 17 starters from last year’s 11-3 squad, and sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook should take a step forward in his second season under center. But as with any Wisconsin team, expect Chryst to lean heavily on his ground game and defense. Running back Corey Clement will be missed, but the Badgers have a trio of talented options on the ground, including Pitt transfer Chris James and sophomore Bradrick Shaw. Replacing standout left tackle Ryan Ramczyk is the biggest concern for Chryst’s offense this fall. On defense, new play-caller Jim Leonhard must find replacements for linebackers Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt. However, Leonhard has plenty to work with at all three levels, and the return of Jack Cichy and Chris Orr from injury adds talent and competition to the linebacker unit. Another advantage Wisconsin has is its schedule. The Badgers won’t have to play Ohio State or Penn State in the regular season. Michigan also comes to Madison in late November. After winning 11 games against one of the nation’s toughest schedules in 2016, Wisconsin figures to be a lock for double-digit victories against an easier slate in 2017.

 

Related: Big Ten Football 2017 All-Conference Team

 

4. After Wisconsin…What to Make of the Big Ten West?

While Wisconsin is a heavy favorite (and easy pick) in the West Division, selecting the order of teams in the next tier (2-4) is a little more challenging. Little separates Nebraska, Northwestern and Iowa, and all three have a case to be selected at No. 2. Athlon eventually settled on Northwestern as the top challenger to the Badgers, largely due to a favorable crossover slate (no Michigan or Ohio State) and swing games at home against Iowa and Michigan State. Quarterback Clayton Thorson made strides in his second year as a starter in 2016, but the junior needs to find a new go-to target after Austin Carr expired his eligibility. Running back Justin Jackson returns after rushing for 1,524 yards last fall and could find more running lanes if the offensive line takes a step forward with four starters back. The Wildcats return seven starters from a defense that limited opponents to 22.2 points per game in 2016. Nebraska is one of the hardest teams to get a read on this offseason. The Cornhuskers are transitioning schemes on defense with the addition of new coordinator Bob Diaco. On offense, coach Mike Riley has a new quarterback (Tulane transfer Tanner Lee) and a revamped receiving corps. Nebraska also catches Penn State and Ohio State in crossover play. If Iowa finds the right answer – either Tyler Wiegers or Nathan Stanley – at quarterback – the Hawkeyes could emerge as Wisconsin’s top challenger. Coach Kirk Ferentz’s team returns one of the Big Ten’s best running backs in Akrum Wadley, and the league’s top offensive line. Additionally, seven starters from a defense that held opponents to 18.8 points per game in 2016 provide a strong foundation for 2017. Out of these three teams, Iowa has the toughest path to No. 2. The Hawkeyes play at Nebraska and Northwestern, while Ohio State and Penn State appear in crossover play.

 

5. Will Michigan State Rebound in 2017?

A year after winning the Big Ten Championship and earning a spot in the CFB Playoff, no one expected Michigan State to win the conference last season. However, it’s unlikely anyone could have predicted the drop off witnessed in East Lansing last fall. The Spartans completely collapsed in 2016, finishing 3-9 and just 1-8 in Big Ten play. The three wins were the fewest under coach Mark Dantonio and snapped a string of nine consecutive bowl trips. Is this a one-year blip or does Dantonio have a rebuilding project on his hands for 2017? The answer probably lies closer to rebuilding project. Michigan State returns just five starters but played a handful of young players that gained valuable experience last season. Brian Lewerke steps in at quarterback for his first full year as the starter, and the defense has to rekindle the pass rush after recording only 11 sacks in 2016. Running back LJ Scott just missed 1,000 yards (994) last season and is expected to handle a heavy workload this fall. Don’t expect Michigan State to rebound back into conference title contention. However, a reasonable expectation is six wins and a trip to a bowl game.

 

Big Ten 2017 Unit Rankings

Best RB

Units

Best WR

Units

Best OL

Units

Best DL
Units

Best LB

Units

Best DB

Units

1.  1.  1.  1.  1.  1. 
2.  2.  2.  2.  2.  2. 
3.  3.  3.  3.  3.   3.  
4.  4.  4.  4.  4.  4. 
5.  5.  5.  5.  5.  5. 

 

 

Big Ten Football 2017 Predictions

         
East Division
Rank Team   Projected Big Ten Record Projected Overall Record
1 Ohio State 8-1 12-1
2 Penn State 7-2 10-2
3 Michigan 7-2 10-2
4 Michigan State 4-5 6-6
5 Indiana 4-5 7-5
6 Maryland 4-5 6-6
7 Rutgers 1-8 3-9
         
West Division
Rank Team   Projected Big Ten Record Projected Overall Record
1 Wisconsin 7-2 10-3
2 Northwestern 5-4 8-4
3 Nebraska 5-4 7-5
4 Iowa 4-5 7-5
5 Minnesota 4-5 6-6
6 Purdue 2-7 3-9
7 Illinois 1-8 2-10
         
Big Ten Championship
 Ohio State over Wisconsin 

 

 

Big Ten 2017 Superlatives and Season Predictions

 

Steven

Lassan

Mitch

Light

Mark

Ross

  @AthlonSteven @AthlonMitch @AthlonMarkR
Offensive POY

J.T. Barrett

QB, Ohio State

Saquon Barkley

RB, Penn State

J.T. Barrett

QB, Ohio State

Defensive POY

Josey Jewell

LB, Iowa

Josey Jewell

LB, Iowa

Josey Jewell

LB, Iowa

Coach of the Year

Urban Meyer

Ohio State

Pat Fitzgerald

Northwestern

Pat Fitzgerald

Northwestern

Coach on Hot Seat

Mike Riley

Nebraska

Mike Riley

Nebraska

Mark Dantonio

Michigan State

Top Freshman

Donovan

Peoples-Jones

WR, Michigan

Donovan

Peoples-Jones

WR, Michigan

Donovan

Peoples-Jones

WR, Michigan

Top Newcomer

Tanner Lee

QB, Nebraska

Tanner Lee

QB, Nebraska

Tanner Lee

QB, Nebraska

Sleeper Team Nebraska Indiana Northwestern

Key Position

to Watch

Ohio State DBs Michigan DBs Ohio State DBs
Best Coordinator Hire

Kevin Wilson

OC, Ohio State

Jerry Kill

OC, Rutgers

Kevin Wilson

OC, Ohio State

Hardest Team

to Evaluate

Michigan State Michigan State Michigan
Coach on the Rise

Joe Moorhead

OC, Penn State

Jeff Brohm

HC, Purdue

Jeff Brohm

HC, Purdue

Must-See Game

Ohio State at 

Michigan

Ohio State at

Michigan

Ohio State at

Michigan

Breakout Player

Rashan Gary

DL, Michigan

Chris Evans

RB, Michigan

Rashan Gary

DL, Michigan

Comeback Player

Matt VandeBerg

WR, Iowa

Mike Dudek

WR, Illinois

Janarion Grant

WR, Rutgers

 

Event Date: 
Sunday, June 4, 2017 - 17:42

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