The battle to win the Big Ten Championship in 2022 begins in the East Division once again, as Michigan and Ohio State top the list of CFB Playoff and title contenders. The Wolverines toppled the Buckeyes in the division last year, but coach Ryan Day's team is Athlon's pick to win the Big Ten in '22 behind quarterback C.J. Stroud and a high-powered offense. Michigan has major holes to fill on defense to get back to the conference title game, but a loaded offense gives coach Jim Harbaugh's team time to rebuild and make another run at Ohio State in late November. Look for Michigan State and Penn State to headline the next tier, while Maryland ranks ahead of Rutgers and Indiana in the East.
The outlook for contenders is significantly more unsettled in the West. Iowa won the division last season and is still in the mix, but Wisconsin, Purdue and Minnesota all could make a claim for the No. 1 spot this preseason. Nebraska seems due for better luck after a disappointing and unlucky 3-9 season last fall, but coach Scott Frost's team is a step behind the top contenders. Illinois and Northwestern are likely to be fighting to get bowl eligible.
How does Athlon Sports project the Big Ten for 2022? Steven Lassan predicts and ranks the East and West Divisions in the Big Ten for this fall:
Big Ten 2022 Predictions
1. Ohio State
The Buckeyes should return to the top of the Big Ten behind a high-powered offense (7.96 yards per play in ’21) led by quarterback C.J. Stroud, running back TreVeyon Henderson and receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba. An offensive line returning tackles Dawand Jones and Paris Johnson Jr. should be among the best in college football. Scoring points won’t be a problem for coach Ryan Day’s team, but Ohio State’s defense has room to improve after allowing 22.8 points a game and 5.3 yards per play last fall. Jim Knowles was hired to coordinate this unit after a successful stint at Oklahoma State, and talent isn’t in short supply with end Zach Harrison, linebackers Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers and defensive backs Denzel Burke and Ronnie Hickman in the lineup. Whether or not this defense is better in the trenches and takes a step forward overall is likely to determine if the Buckeyes can play for it all in ’22.
Jim Harbaugh got Michigan over the hump last season by defeating Ohio State, winning the Big Ten title for the first time since 2004 and earning a trip to the CFB Playoff. However, the Wolverines have some retooling to do in order to reach that level once again this fall. A defense that limited teams to 17.4 points a game and 4.93 yards per play lost coordinator Mike Macdonald to the NFL and several key players, including ends Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo and defensive backs Brad Hawkins, Dax Hill and Vincent Gray. Filling the voids up front and replacing the lost pass rush by Hutchinson and Ojabo remains the team’s biggest concern going into the fall under new play-caller Jesse Minter. Although the defense is likely to take a small step back, Michigan’s offense should be among the best in the Big Ten. New co-coordinators Matt Weiss and Sherrone Moore have two proven quarterbacks in J.J. McCarthy and Cade McNamara, one of the top backfields in the nation with Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards and a deep group of receivers that includes Ronnie Bell back from injury. Two starters are gone up front, but Virginia transfer Olusegun Oluwatimi should contend for All-America honors and ease any concerns about transition at center.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2022
3. Michigan State
Mel Tucker’s Spartans took a huge step forward last season, jumping from 2-5 in the abbreviated ’20 campaign to 11-2 with a No. 9 finish in the final top 25 last fall. Replicating double-digit wins again will hinge on how well Michigan State can replace running back Kenneth Walker III (1,636 yards and 18 TDs) and improve a defense that struggled mightily against the pass (11th in Big Ten in pass efficiency defense). Transfers Jalen Berger (Wisconsin) and Jarek Broussard (Colorado) will handle the bulk of the carries with Walker departing, and the offense will ask more of quarterback Payton Thorne (27 TDs) and receiver Jayden Reed. The addition of transfer Ameer Speed (Georgia) should help to bolster last year’s leaky secondary, but the Spartans should have optimism about their defensive front with the return of end Jeff Pietrowski, linebacker Cal Haladay and Florida transfer Khris Bogle (edge). Road trips to Michigan and Penn State won’t be easy.
4. Penn State
It’s a crucial year for Penn State to get the program back on track after an 11-11 mark over the last two seasons. Also, after a 5-0 start last fall, the team went 2-6 over the last eight matchups. Reversing that trend starts on offense. Quarterback Sean Clifford has to play with more consistency, but the senior also needs more help from a shaky offensive line that surrendered the most sacks (44) of any team in the Big Ten. In addition to better pass protection, the line has to improve its run blocking after the Nittany Lions failed to have a 100-yard rusher and managed just 2.96 yards per carry in ’21. Assuming Clifford takes a step forward and the line improves, the skill talent – receiver Parker Washington and talented true freshman running back Nick Singleton headline the key returning playmakers – is there for the offense to improve (25 points a game last fall). New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has to retool a bit up front after the losses of linebackers Brandon Smith and Ellis Brooks, along with linemen Arnold Ebiketie, Jesse Luketa and Derrick Tangelo. However, the return of end Adisa Isaac and tackle PJ Mustipher from injury is a huge boost. Cornerback Joey Porter Jr. and safety Ji’Ayir Brown lead the way in the secondary.
Related: Big Ten 2022 All-Conference Team
After winning five games in coach Mike Locksley’s first two seasons (2019-20) at the helm, the Terrapins posted seven last fall. Also, the 7-6 record marked the program’s first winning record since ’14. While progress was evident, Maryland’s six losses – all to teams with a winning mark – came by a combined score of 281-100. Taking the next step in the Big Ten’s East Division will require better play out of a group that allowed 38.8 points a game, 6.23 yards per play and ranked near the bottom of the conference in rush and pass efficiency defense in league play. Seven starters return, but there are holes to fill up front for new coordinator Brian Williams. The unquestioned strength of Locksley’s ’22 squad is an offense featuring quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa (26 TDs to 11 INTs) and one of the nation’s top receiving corps with Rakim Jarrett, Dontay Demus and Jacob Copeland out wide. All five starters return up front. Talented true freshman Ramon Brown could become the team’s No. 1 running back after Tayon Fleet-Davis departed.
Greg Schiano’s return to Rutgers hasn’t netted a winning season yet, but the Scarlet Knights have showed progress by winning five games in Big Ten play over the last two years after recording seven from 2014-19. Contending for six wins and a bowl trip isn’t out of the question this fall but marked improvement on offense is needed. Rutgers struggled to generate big plays (just five of 40-plus yards) and averaged 13.7 points and 4.4 yards per play in Big Ten contests last year. Settling (and getting more consistency) the quarterback battle between Noah Vedral and talented redshirt freshman Gavin Wimsatt would go a long ways to help this offense on track. There’s also some turnover at the skill talent with running back Isaih Pacheco and receiver Bo Melton departing. A couple of transfers will be counted upon to bolster an offensive line returning only two starters. The Scarlet Knights are also dealing with significant turnover on defense with just five returning starters. This unit limited teams to 25.6 points a game but ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten against the run and was last in pass efficiency defense. Despite the statistical struggles, the secondary should be the strength of the ’22 unit, as cornerback Kessawn Abraham and safety Avery Young headline the list of returners.
The Hoosiers seemed to be trending up after going 14-7 from 2019-20 under coach Tom Allen. However, the program took a massive step back last season with a 2-10 finish and an 0-9 mark in Big Ten games. Allen took steps to rectify last year’s disappointment, appointing new coordinators on both sides of the ball and taking over the play-calling duties on defense. New offensive coordinator Walt Bell inherits a group that averaged only 10.4 points a contest in Big Ten action last year. Former Missouri signal-caller Connor Bazelak should provide much-needed stability under center, with fellow transfers Shaun Shivers and Josh Henderson (RB) and Emery Simmons (WR) helping to add options at the skill talent spots. The rebuilding effort on defense probably isn’t as steep, but there’s no doubt linebacker Micah Fadden will be missed after the Hoosiers allowed 35.1 points in Big Ten matchups last fall. A few transfer portal additions should help, along with the return of cornerback Tiawan Mullen (missed six games) to full strength.
There’s no clear favorite to win the Big Ten West in ’22 and a strong case could be made for a couple of teams here. The Badgers return only eight overall starters, but the guess here is the defense remains among the best in the conference with a quick reloading effort behind coordinator Jim Leonhard, and the offense does just enough behind rising star running back Braelon Allen. Wisconsin isn’t without question marks, however. Quarterback Graham Mertz averaged only 6.8 yards per attempt and tossed eight touchdowns to six interceptions in conference play last fall. Complicating efforts to spark the passing game is the turnover at receiver (Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor are gone), and tight end Jake Ferguson is off to the NFL. The schedule features crossover matchups at Ohio State and Michigan State, with a trek to Iowa also on tap.
Related: Big Ten 2022 All-Conference Team
Last year’s 9-4 record was Purdue’s highest win total under coach Jeff Brohm and the program’s best season since 2003. The Boilermakers have a few concerns to address, namely how the defense improves under a new coordinator, but contending for the Big Ten’s West Division title is within reach. A favorable schedule sees Purdue miss Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan in crossover play, and Penn State visits West Lafayette in the season opener. Aidan O’Connell ranks among the Big Ten's top signal-callers after throwing for 3,708 yards and 28 touchdowns last fall. A better rushing attack (2.8 yards per carry) is needed, and some retooling is needed in the trenches with two starters departing. O’Connell’s supporting cast at receiver is in transition after David Bell went to the NFL and Milton Wright was ruled academically ineligible. Iowa transfer Charlie Jones and Broc Thompson are likely to be the go-to options on the outside. New defensive signal-caller Ron English inherits a group that limited teams to 5.5 yards per play and 22.4 points a game last season, but ends DaMarcus Mitchell and George Karlaftis, safety Marvin Grant and linebacker Jaylan Alexander departed.
A repeat of last year’s Big Ten West Division title will hinge on one thing for Iowa: Offensive improvement. In conference games last season, the Hawkeyes averaged only 4.5 yards per play and 23 points a game. Also, this unit struggled to generate big plays and ranked near the bottom of the league in third-down and red-zone offense. Adding to the challenges of generating improvement is the departure of running back Tyler Goodson and standout center Tyler Linderbaum, along with an ongoing quarterback battle between Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla. Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams should be a capable one-two punch on the ground, and there are capable options in the receiving corps, including tight end Sam LaPorta and receivers Nico Ragaini and Keagan Johnson. Even with Linderbaum leading the way last season, Iowa’s line was not a strength in ’21 and needs to play a lot better this fall. Despite a few departures, the Hawkeyes should have one of the top defenses in college football. Jack Campbell and Seth Benson lead a strong linebacker unit, while Riley Moss is one of the top cornerbacks returning in college football. Logan Lee, Noah Shannon and Lukas Van Ness are back to anchor one of the Big Ten’s top defensive lines. Forcing 31 turnovers again is a tough ask for this defense, adding to the urgency of finding improvement on offense in preseason practices this fall. Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska come to Iowa City next year, but coach Kirk Ferentz’s squad gets Ohio State, Purdue and Minnesota away from home.
Although the Golden Gophers are picked fourth here, not much separates coach P.J. Fleck’s team from the top three in the division. The return of Kirk Ciarrocca as coordinator provides optimism for improvement on an offense that averaged only 5.45 yards per play and 25.5 points a contest last fall. Ciarrocca's return is also good news for quarterback Tanner Morgan, who threw for 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns under his watch in ’19. A deep stable of running backs has been trimmed due to transfers, but the return of Mohamed Ibrahim from a torn Achilles gives Minnesota one of the top rushers in the Big Ten. The top five statistical receiving options are back, including Chris Autman-Bell (36 catches last year) and Dylan Wright (20.3 per catch). Center John Michael Schmitz is one of the top interior linemen in college football, but he’s the only returning starter up front. Restocking the trenches is also a concern on defense following the departure of Boye Mafe, Esezi Otomewo, Nyles Pinckney and Micah Dew-Treadway. The rest of the defense is in better shape, especially with Mariano Sori-Marin at linebacker and the secondary led by cornerback Justin Walley and safeties Tyler Nubin and Jordan Howden. Minnesota ranked second in the Big Ten in scoring defense (17.3 points a game) and fourth in yards per play (4.86). Some retooling is obviously needed, but a good foundation is in place.
The 2022 season is a make-or-break year for coach Scott Frost in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers are 15-29 and have yet to earn a winning season or reach a bowl under his watch. Last year’s 3-9 record sparked major changes in hopes of a turnaround in ‘22, including the arrival of a new play-caller (Mark Whipple) on offense. Whipple is highly-regarded for his work in developing signal-callers, and that acumen will be tested right away with Texas transfer Casey Thompson (24 TDs last year) exiting spring as the frontrunner to replace Adrian Martinez under center. Omar Manning and Trey Palmer headline the weapons for Thompson in the receiving corps, while a backfield-by-committee approach is likely with Rahmir Johnson, Anthony Grant and Jaquez Yant in place. However, improvement on offense is unlikely without better play up front and fewer turnovers lost (18 last year). The defense has been a strength in each of the last two seasons and returns a strong linebacker unit anchored by Garrett Nelson and Luke Reimer. The rebuilding process up front was expedited by the transfer arrivals of Ochaun Mathis (TCU), Devin Drew (Texas Tech) and Stephon Wynn (Alabama). Coordinator Erik Chinander also has to rebuild a secondary that lost three starters, including All-Big Ten cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt. Special teams have also been a major issue in recent years, but the arrival of transfers Timmy Bleekrode (Furman) and Brian Buschini (Montana) could provide instant help.
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The Fighting Illini just missed a bowl in coach Bret Bielema’s first season in Champaign, but there was considerable progress in last year’s 5-7 record. Illinois knocked off Nebraska, Penn State and Minnesota, while also losing four games by one score. Getting over the hump in ’22 requires more out of an offense that averaged only 20.2 points a game and ranked last in the Big Ten in passing. Bielema made a change at coordinator, hiring Barry Lunney Jr. from UTSA to run an attack featuring balance between the run and pass and more tempo. Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito is expected to win the starting nod at quarterback over Artur Sitkowski, and the New Jersey native will be looking to finish his career on a high note after an up-and-down stint with the Orange. The overall play from the QB room and how fast the offensive line can be rebuilt (three new starters) could decide whether or not this team gets to six (or more) wins. The ground game led by Chase Brown and Josh McCray is the strength of the offense. Receiver Isaiah Williams is an underrated weapon on the outside. After allowing 34.9 points a game in ’20, Illinois showed marked improvement on defense last year. Coordinator Ryan Walters guided this group to hold opponents to 21.9 points per contest and 5.24 yards per play. Safety Kerby Joseph and edge rushers Isaiah Gay and Owen Carney will be missed. However, six returning starters, along with linebacker Calvin Hart Jr. returning from injury, provide a good foundation for ’22.
If recent trends hold, an even year (2022) could be a good one for Northwestern. After all, the Wildcats won the Big Ten West Division in ’18 and ’20 but had identical 3-9 records in the last two odd-year campaigns (’19 and ’21). Returning to the conference title game is going to be a heavy lift in '22, however. Northwestern’s offense struggled mightily last fall, averaging only 4.4 yards per play and 13 points a game in Big Ten play. Left tackle Peter Skoronski and the backfield tandem of Evan Hull and Cam Porter headlines the strength of the offense. The Wildcats threw only 10 touchdowns in conference action last season and major questions remain under center with Brendan Sullivan pushing Ryan Hilinski for the starting job. The defense held teams to 15.5 points a game in ’20 but took a major step back last fall (34 a contest allowed) after the retirement of coordinator Mike Hankwitz. Stopping the run (213.3 rushing yards allowed) was a major problem. End Adetomiwa Adebawore (8.5 TFL) is underrated, and the secondary could be a strength with Cameron Mitchell and A.J. Hampton back at cornerback. Although the offense is likely to be a work in progress all year, getting the defense back on track would help Northwestern push for a bowl this fall.
Big Ten Championship: Ohio State over Wisconsin
Big Ten 2022 SUPERLATIVES AND SEASON PREDICTIONS
Offensive POY: QB C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
Defensive POY: LB Jack Campbell, Iowa
Coach of the Year: Ryan Day, Ohio State
Top Freshman: RB Nick Singleton, Penn State
Top Offensive Newcomer (Transfer): Olusegun Oluwatimi, C, Michigan
Top Defensive Newcomer (Transfer): Ochaun Mathis, DL, Nebraska
Sleeper Team: Purdue
Key Position to Watch: Michigan DL
Best Coordinator Hire: Jim Knowles, DC, Ohio State
Hardest Team to Evaluate: Penn State
Coach on the Rise: Jim Leonhard, DC, Wisconsin
Must-See Game: Michigan at Ohio State (Nov. 26)
Breakout Player: WR Marvin Harrison Jr., Ohio State
Comeback Player: RB Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota