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Big Ten Football 2018 Predictions

J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State Buckeyes Football

J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State Buckeyes Football

The Big Ten heads into the 2018 college football season with five candidates to reach the playoff. After winning the conference championship last year, Ohio State is the favorite in Athlon's Big Ten predictions to win the league title once again. However, rival Michigan and division foes Penn State and Michigan State aren't far behind. In the West, Wisconsin is a clear favorite over Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue. The Badgers face a tougher schedule than they had in 2017, but coach Paul Chryst's program has the returning talent to push Ohio State or any of the teams from the East in the Big Ten Championship.

Wisconsin Badgers RB Jonathan Taylor

Ohio State…Still the Team to Beat in the Big Ten

The race to win the 2018 Big Ten title starts where it ended last season: Columbus, Ohio. Sure, the Buckeyes have to replace quarterback J.T. Barrett and fill a couple of holes on the offensive line and on defense, but coach Urban Meyer's team is still the one to beat in the Big Ten. New quarterback Dwayne Haskins is primed for a breakout year, and the offense is loaded with skill talent, including one of the nation's top one-two punches at running back in J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber. Meyer's defensive line could be the best in college football outside of Clemson, and the secondary is in good shape with the return of Damon Arnette, Jeffrey Okudah and Kendall Sheffield at cornerback and Jordan Fuller at safety. Ohio State's schedule features road trips to Michigan State and Penn State, so a loss in conference play wouldn't be a surprise. However, the game of the year in the Big Ten – Ohio State vs. Michigan – takes place in Columbus.

Michigan Poised to Take a Big Step Forward

After winning 10 games in back-to-back seasons to start Jim Harbaugh's tenure, Michigan slipped to 8-5 last fall. The on-field regression wasn't a surprise. After all, the Wolverines returned only six starters, were forced to play three quarterbacks and featured youth and inexperience at a couple of positions. A year later, the outlook for Michigan has improved. Harbaugh's team has one of the Big Ten's top quarterbacks in Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, and the defense is poised to rank among the nation's best with eight returning starters. Michigan possesses one of the nation's top defensive lines, linebacker units and defensive backfields in 2018. While Patterson will help the offense, this unit won't improve unless the line takes a step forward. Also, Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones have to develop on the outside to give the offense more big plays downfield. Of Michigan's five losses last year, four came by 14 points or less. Also, the Wolverines had a minus-eight turnover margin in losses in 2017. With an improved offense and fewer turnovers, a couple of those close defeats should turn into wins in 2018.

Penn State or Michigan State?

There isn't much separation among the top four teams in the Big Ten East Division. Ohio State is a projected playoff team by Athlon Sports, with Michigan finishing just outside of the top four. Penn State and Michigan State took the next two spots in the predictions, but there was plenty of debate in Athlon's meeting about the order. The Nittany Lions got the nod, largely due to the schedule. Penn State hosts crossover games against Wisconsin and Iowa and catches Ohio State and Michigan State in Happy Valley. The return of quarterback Trace McSorley eases the departure of running back Saquon Barkley to the NFL, but the offense is under the direction of a new play-caller (Ricky Rahne) after Joe Moorhead became the head coach at Mississippi State. Michigan State was one of the most-improved Power 5 teams last year, increasing its win total by seven games from the previous season. Another jump in victories or matching the 10-win campaign of 2017 wouldn't be a surprise. The Spartans return 19 starters, including quarterback Brian Lewerke and nearly everyone from one of the Big Ten's top defenses. Coach Mark Dantonio's team needs to generate more production out of its ground game and has to navigate a road trip to Penn State. But most importantly for Dantonio, Ohio State and Michigan come to East Lansing. One stat to watch: Michigan State had good fortune in close games last year, winning six contests by 10 points or less. Considering the returning talent, any reversal in fortune could be overcome by a depth chart stacked with talent and experience.

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Wisconsin Still Has a Commanding Edge in the West

The Big Ten's West Division is improving thanks to recent hires like Jeff Brohm (Purdue), P.J. Fleck (Minnesota) and Scott Frost (Nebraska), but the championship still runs through Madison. Wisconsin fell just short of reaching the CFB Playoff last fall, suffering its first defeat of 2017 in the Big Ten Championship to Ohio State. The Badgers are poised for another run into the top four behind an offense that returns 10 starters, including Heisman Trophy candidate and running back Jonathan Taylor. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook needs to be more consistent and cut back on interceptions (15 last season), but the supporting cast is there for marked improvement. Wisconsin's receiving corps is among the best in the conference, and the line ranks No. 1 in the nation in Athlon's unit rankings. While the offense could be even better than last year's version, the defense will likely take a step back. The Badgers return only three starters and enter the season with concerns at cornerback. The schedule is also tougher for coach Paul Chryst's team. Wisconsin plays Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue on the road. Assuming the defense doesn't regress too much and Hornibrook takes a step forward, the Badgers will the mix for a playoff bid in November.

Iowa, Northwestern or Purdue: Which Team is Wisconsin's Biggest Threat?

Considering none of those three teams ranked inside of Athlon's top 25 for 2018, it's hard to call any a threat to win the division. But if a team could surprise and win the West, it's likely to be Iowa. The Hawkeyes catch the Badgers in Iowa City and won't have to play Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State in crossover play. Quarterback Nate Stanley returns after throwing 26 touchdowns last fall, and Iowa's defensive line is among the best in the conference. Purdue gets the nod over Northwestern for third in Athlon's projected standings. That's largely due to the uncertainty surrounding quarterback Clayton Thorson for the Wildcats. Thorson suffered a significant knee injury against Kentucky in the Music City Bowl, putting his status in question for the opener. The first game of the year is critical for Northwestern. Purdue hosts the Wildcats on Aug. 30, in a matchup that could decide who finishes behind Iowa in the West. The Boilermakers have to rebuild a defense that limited opponents to just 20.5 points a game last fall. However, coach Jeff Brohm's offense should take a step forward behind quarterbacks David Blough and Elijah Sindelar, along with a solid stable of running backs.

What are the First-Year Expectations for Scott Frost at Nebraska?

Nebraska is poised to take a step forward in the coming years with Scott Frost leading the way, but 2018 is likely to be a transition season. The Cornhuskers are coming off a 4-8 record and are transitioning to new schemes on both sides of the ball. Frost has plenty of skill talent to work with in Lincoln, including Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman at receiver. If Tre Bryant returns to 100 percent, he could push for all-conference honors behind a solid offensive line. However, the biggest question mark for Frost's offense remains at quarterback. True freshman Adrian Martinez was impressive in the spring and could edge Tristan Gebbia for the starting nod. After giving up 36.4 points a game last fall, new defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has a busy offseason ahead. Chinander plans to be more aggressive with his play-calling than last year's coordinator (Bob Diaco), but the Cornhuskers have concerns at every level. The defense likely faces more of a transition period than the offense does in 2018.

Big Ten 2018 Unit Rankings

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Big Ten Football 2018 Predictions

Big Ten 2018 Superlatives and Season Predictions

 

Steven  Lassan

Mitch Light

Mark Ross

Braden Gall

 

@AthlonSteven

@AthlonMitch

@AthlonMarkR

@BradenGall

Offensive POY

Jonathan Taylor RB, Wisconsin

Jonathan Taylor RB, Wisconsin

Jonathan Taylor RB, Wisconsin

Jonathan Taylor RB, Wisconsin

Defensive POY

Nick Bosa DL, Ohio State

Devin Bush LB, Michigan

Nick Bosa DL, Ohio State

Devin Bush LB, Michigan

Coach of the Year

Jim Harbaugh Michigan

Urban Meyer Ohio State

P.J. Fleck Minnesota

Jim Harbaugh Michigan

Coach on Hot Seat

Lovie Smith Illinois

Lovie Smith Illinois

Lovie Smith Illinois

Lovie Smith Illinois

Top Freshman

Adrian Martinez QB, Nebraska

Micah Parsons LB, PSU

Micah Parsons LB, PSU

Ricky Slade RB, PSU

Top Newcomer

Shea Patterson QB, Michigan

Shea Patterson QB, Michigan

Shea Patterson QB, Michigan

Shea Patterson QB, Michigan

Sleeper Team

Maryland

Maryland

Northwestern

Michigan State

Key Position to Watch

Michigan OL

Michigan OL

Wisconsin DL

Michigan OL

Best Coordinator Hire

Alex Grinch Co-DC, OSU

Alex Grinch Co-DC, OSU

Alex Grinch Co-DC, OSU

Alex Grinch Co-DC, OSU

Hardest Team to Evaluate

Penn State

Penn State

Nebraska

Wisconsin

Coach on the Rise

Alex Grinch Co-DC, OSU

Brent Pry DC, Penn State

Jim Leonhard DC, Wisconsin

Jeff Brohm HC, Purdue

Must-See Game

Michigan at Ohio State

Michigan at Ohio State

Michigan at Ohio State

Michigan at Ohio State

Breakout Player

Jeffrey Okudah CB, Ohio State

Donovan Peoples-Jones WR, Michigan

Dwayne Haskins QB, Ohio State

Brian Lewerke QB, MSU

Comeback Player

Tarik Black WR, Michigan

Kasim Hill QB, Maryland

Nick Westbrook WR, Indiana

Clayton Thorson QB, NW

Podcast: Athlon's Editors Discuss 2018 Conference Predictions