Ohio State enters 2019 as the Big Ten's No. 1 team
The Big Ten should be one of the deepest conferences in college football for 2019. In the way-too-early top 25, the conference has seven teams ranked among the top 25, and as indicated in the early predictions, there's a wide-open battle atop the West Division and another Ohio State-Michigan showdown for the No. 1 spot in the East. New coach Ryan Day will keep the Buckeyes in the mix for a playoff berth next fall, while the Wolverines look to take the next step and win the division for the first time under coach Jim Harbaugh. Iowa is Athlon's early favorite to win the West Division in early Big Ten predictions, but Wisconsin, Nebraska, Northwestern and Minnesota aren't far behind.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2019 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Big Ten for 2019:
1. Ohio State
The Ryan Day era officially begins in 2019. However, despite the transition from Urban Meyer to Day, the Buckeyes are still the favorite to win the Big Ten East next fall. Day wasted no time putting his stamp on the program with a handful of staff changes following the Rose Bowl. A revamped defensive staff should address some of the shortcomings on that side of the ball, while the addition of Mike Yurcich adds another sharp mind on offense. Day’s biggest challenge will be replacing quarterback Dwayne Haskins, but the answer could come in the form of former five-star prospect Justin Fields. After a year at Georgia, Fields decided to transfer to Ohio State and is seeking a waiver to play right away. If Fields is unable to get eligible for 2019, Tate Martell or Matthew Baldwin would compete for the starting job. The offensive line must replace center Michael Jordan and tackle Isaiah Prince, while the receiving corps lost big-play threat Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon. However, the cupboard certainly isn’t bare at the skill positions. J.K. Dobbins is back to lead the ground game with Mike Weber off to the NFL, and K.J. Hill, Austin Mack, Binjimen Victor and Chris Olave return at receiver. Ohio State has to do a better job of preventing big plays on defense next fall, and new co-coordinators Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley inherit plenty of talent to utilize. End Chase Young should be one of the Big Ten’s top defenders in 2019, Kendall Sheffield, Damon Arnette and Jeffrey Okudah are a solid trio to cornerback, and safety Jordan Fuller passed on the NFL for one more year in Columbus. Additionally, only one senior (Dante Booker) ranked among the top 25 tacklers this season. The Buckeyes have to make the trek to Ann Arbor next fall, and there’s two intriguing road trips in September against Cincinnati (Sept. 7) and Nebraska (Sept. 28).
The Wolverines hit 10 victories for the third time in four years under coach Jim Harbaugh in 2018 but fell short of a Big Ten East Division title. With Ohio State transitioning from Urban Meyer to Ryan Day and the annual showdown in Ann Arbor next fall, the door is open for Harbaugh’s team to make another run at the top spot. Quarterback Shea Patterson returns after throwing for 2,600 yards and 22 touchdowns to seven picks in his first season with the Wolverines. With Tarik Black back at full strength from a foot injury, along with Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones returning next fall, Patterson will have one of college football’s top receiving trios at his disposal. Will Harbaugh tweak the offense to let Patterson use tempo and distribute the ball to playmakers in space more often? Chris Evans, Christian Turner, Tru Wilson and Zach Charbonnet will handle the workload at running back after Karan Higdon finished his career with a standout 2018 season (1,178 yards). The offensive line took a significant step forward under assistant Ed Warinner and should be even better in ’19 with four starters back. Michigan’s defense struggled against Ohio State and Florida but still finished the year by holding opponents to 4.6 yards a play. Coordinator Don Brown has to replace ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, linebacker Devin Bush and cornerback David Long, but a strong foundation remains in place. Lavert Hill, Josh Metellus and five-star prospect Dax Hill will anchor the secondary, with Josh Uche, Khaleke Hudson, Kwity Paye and Carlo Kemp returning in the defensive front. In addition to the home showdown versus Ohio State on Nov. 30, Michigan takes on Notre Dame in Ann Arbor on Oct. 26.
3. Penn State
As if replacing quarterback Trace McSorley wasn’t going to be difficult enough in 2019, the Nittany Lions lost five players early to the NFL, including running back Miles Sanders and two starters on the offensive line. Coach James Franklin has recruited well in recent years, so there’s plenty of talent waiting to step into major roles in Happy Valley. Senior Tommy Stevens and sophomore Sean Clifford are the frontrunners to replace McSorley, while Ricky Slade and incoming freshmen Devyn Ford and Noah Cain should ensure there’s not a major drop in production on the ground. KJ Hamler (42 catches for 754 yards) and tight end Pat Freiermuth (26) are rising stars to watch in the passing game, but the Nittany Lions need more consistency out of their receiving corps. Despite the loss of Kevin Givens and Shareef Miller early to the NFL, Penn State’s defensive line should rank among the best in the Big Ten next fall. That’s largely due to the continued development of end Yetur Gross-Matos (20 TFL) and tackle Robert Windsor (11). Micah Parsons is back after a standout freshman campaign to anchor the linebacker unit, while the secondary heads into spring practice looking to restock its starting group after cornerback Amani Oruwariye and safety Nick Scott finished their eligibility. Penn State hosts Michigan next season, but Franklin’s team has a tough road slate ahead. The Nittany Lions play at Ohio State, Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa in 2019.
4. Michigan State
With most of the depth chart returning from a 10-win season in 2017, Michigan State had hopes of contending for the Big Ten East Division title in ’18. Instead, the Spartans fell to 7-6, largely due to an offense that averaged only 4.6 yards per play and 18.7 points a game. Coach Mark Dantonio has to get this unit back on track in 2019. Quarterback Brian Lewerke should return to full strength after dealing with a shoulder injury in ’18, and there’s talent at receiver with Cody White, Darrell Stewart and Cam Chambers back in the mix. Connor Heyward returns after leading the team with 529 rushing yards, but Michigan State has to generate more out of its ground game (3.5 yards per rush). More push and consistency out of the offensive line certainly wouldn’t hurt next fall, and Dantonio is slated to return every player from the trenches on the bowl depth chart. While the offense was sluggish, the defense led the Big Ten by holding opponents to 17.2 points a game and 4.5 yards a play. This unit should be dominant once again in 2019. Safety Khari Willis, cornerback Justin Layne and linebacker Andrew Dowell are the biggest departures on defense, but end Kenny Willekes, tackle Raequan Williams and Joe Bache passed on the NFL for another season in East Lansing. Cornerback Josiah Scott is among the Big Ten’s best at his position going into 2019. Unless the offense shows marked improvement, a road schedule featuring matchups at Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern could prevent big improvement in the win column.
The Hoosiers just missed out on a bowl game for the second consecutive year under coach Tom Allen. However, the news wasn’t all bad for Allen in 2018. Indiana’s offense found a rising star at running back in Stevie Scott (1,137 yards), and quarterback Peyton Ramsey threw for 2,875 yards and 19 touchdowns in his first full year as the starter. Coordinator Mike DeBord retired at the end of the regular season, so there will be some transition on this unit next fall. However, with Ramsey and Michael Penix back at quarterback, along with Nick Westbrook and Donavan Hale at receiver, the offense – provided the line is restocked – has a chance to take a step forward on the stat sheet. After the defense gave up six yards a play in 2018, Allen is handing the defensive play-calling duties to Kane Wommack. The good news for Wommack? Most of the defense is slated to return for 2019. Safety Jonathan Crawford, linebacker Dameon Willis and linemen Mike Barwick and Nile Sykes are the biggest losses to address this offseason. Wommack has to find ways to get more pressure on the quarterback after Indiana generated only 22 sacks and ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in third-down defense. The Hoosiers’ quest for a bowl is helped by missing Wisconsin and Iowa from the West Division, and there’s three winnable non-conference games against Ball State, Eastern Illinois and UConn.
New coach Mike Locksley is known for his recruiting connections, but there’s some risk with this hire considering he went 2-26 at New Mexico from 2009-11. Locksley had a standout 2018 season as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, and his arrival in College Park should be good news for quarterbacks Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill. Running back Anthony McFarland averaged 7.9 yards per rush on just 131 carries last year and is primed for an even bigger role next fall. Locksley will have to restock the offensive line and develop Jeshaun Jones and Dontay Demus to replace the production lost by the departure of Taivon Jacobs at receiver. After giving up 37.1 points a game in 2017, Maryland showed improvement by cutting that total to 28.7 in ’18. Building off that progression could be difficult. The Terrapins are set to lose linebacker Tre Watson, defensive back Darnell Savage and linemen Jesse Aniebonam and Byron Cowart. The cupboard isn’t completely empty for the new staff, as linebacker Isaiah Davis (94 stops), defensive back Antoine Brooks and nose tackle Adam McLean provide a foundation at every level. If Maryland is going to get to a bowl in 2019, it will need to make up some ground early in the year. The last five games for the Terrapins next season: at Minnesota, Michigan, at Ohio State, Nebraska and at Michigan State.
The Scarlet Knights seemed to be moving in the right direction following a 4-8 record in coach Chris Ash’s second year in 2017. However, Rutgers took a step back in ’18. While continuity at this program is needed, Ash will find himself on the hot seat with another one-win season. The Scarlet Knights have to jumpstart an offense that averaged a paltry 13.5 points a game, 4.14 yards a play and had only four plays of 40 or more yards in 2018. Improvement on offense has to start with a better year out of quarterback Artur Sitkowski (4 TDs to 18 INTs) and more punch from a ground game that averaged just 3.8 yards per carry. Raheem Blackshear and Isaih Pacheco are a talented tandem to build around at running back, and four starters return from a line that allowed only 16 sacks in ’18. In addition to better quarterback play, the offense needs more production out of the receiving corps. Former Maryland assistant Andy Buh is slated to take over as defensive coordinator in 2019. Rutgers held opponents to 5.7 yards a play but surrendered 31.4 points a game last season. Buh and Ash will have their hands full with this group, as the Scarlet Knights have to replace six of their top 10 tacklers, including linebacker Trevor Morris and safety Saquan Hampton. Cornerback Avery Young collected 67 stops as a freshman and is one of the unit’s key cogs for next year. Ends Elorm Lumor and Mike Tverdov are two players to watch in the trenches.
Iowa gets the early nod as Athlon’s favorite to win the Big Ten West next season, but there’s not a significant gap between No. 1 and No. 5 going into spring practice. An offense that averaged 31.2 points a game in 2018 is slated to return quarterback Nate Stanley (26 TDs), and the team’s top three running backs from last season. Coordinator Brian Ferentz has to rebuild Stanley’s pass catchers after tight end Noah Fant left for the NFL, and receiver Nick Easley expired his eligibility. Additionally, tight end T.J. Hockenson (49 catches) could also join Fant at the next level. The pieces are in place for another solid offensive line in 2019, especially with the tackle duo of Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs leading the way. Iowa’s defense lost end Anthony Nelson and safety Amani Hooker early to the NFL, but rising star end A.J. Epenesa is back after leading the team with 10.5 sacks, and only three seniors ranked among the top 13 tacklers from 2018. There are holes to fill for coordinator Phil Parker, but there’s also enough returning experience to prevent a major drop on the stat sheet after holding teams to 17.8 points a game. If Iowa is going to win the West Division, it will have to do so with a brutal road slate. In addition to the showdown versus Iowa State in Ames, the Hawkeyes take on Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska away from Iowa City.
The Badgers didn’t record a double-digit win total for the first time under coach Paul Chryst, as the program finished 8-5 after a victory against Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl. Injuries and roster turnover largely contributed to Wisconsin’s inability to win the Big Ten West Division title. There’s some uncertainty in the injury department once again for 2019, as quarterback Alex Hornibrook missed the bowl game with concussion symptoms, leaving his status for spring practice unsettled. If Hornibrook is sidelined, Jack Coan and true freshman Graham Mertz are the frontrunners for the starting job. Regardless of who starts under center, the Badgers are going to give a hefty workload to running back Jonathan Taylor. As a sophomore, Taylor rushed for 2,194 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2018. He will be among the leading candidates to win the Heisman Trophy next fall. The offensive line lost tackle David Edwards early to the NFL, and guards Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel expired their eligibility. However, center Tyler Biadasz is back to anchor the unit in 2019. The offense also brings back its top four statistical receivers, including A.J. Taylor (32 grabs) and tight end Jake Ferguson (36). After holding teams to 4.4 yards a play in 2017, Wisconsin’s defense allowed 5.5 in ’18. Coordinator Jim Leonhard had to replace a handful of key players from the standout unit in 2017, so a regression on the stat sheet wasn’t a surprise. Leonhard will have his work cut out for him again this spring, as the Badgers are set to lose linebackers T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly and Andrew Van Ginkel. Safety D’Cota Dixon and lineman Olive Sagapolu also depart Madison. Wisconsin catches three out of the top four from the East – Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State – and plays at Minnesota and Nebraska.
Nebraska started the Scott Frost era with an 0-6 record, but this program was considerably better in the second half of 2018. The Cornhuskers finished 4-2 over their last six games, picking up victories against Minnesota and Michigan State in that span. Of Nebraska’s eight losses, four came by five points or less, including defeats to Ohio State (36-31) and Iowa (31-28). Look for the Cornhuskers to take another step forward in 2019. Quarterback Adrian Martinez ranked second in the Big Ten by averaging 295.1 total yards a game in 2018 and will only get better with an offseason to work under Frost as a sophomore this offseason. Leading rusher Devine Ozigbo (1,082 yards) departs, but the ground game should be in good shape with Maurice Washington primed to take over the No. 1 role. Receiver Stanley Morgan departs after eclipsing 1,000 yards (1,004), with JD Spielman sliding into the go-to role for Martinez. Four-star prospect Wandale Robinson is an impact addition as a hybrid running back/receiver for 2019. The line has to replace two starters (Jerald Foster and Tanner Farmer) on the interior, but left tackle Brenden Jaimes is back after earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. After allowing 6.34 yards a play and 36.4 points a game in 2017, Nebraska’s defense cut those totals to 5.81 a snap and 31.3 a contest in ’18. More improvement is needed for the Cornhuskers to reach the Big Ten title game, and Frost is slated to replace six out of his top 10 tacklers. Linebacker Mohamed Barry returns after pacing the team with 112 stops, and the cornerback duo of Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle should help to alleviate the loss of safeties Tre Neal, Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed. Oklahoma State graduate transfer Darrion Daniels will help right away in the trenches. The 2019 schedule is favorable. Nebraska has winnable non-conference games versus Northern Illinois and Colorado, while Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa all visit Lincoln next year.
The defending West Division champs rank No. 4 in Athlon’s way-too-early Big Ten predictions for 2019, but there’s not much of a gap between the top five teams in this division. Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team used a stingy defense (23.2 ppg) and steady offense to book the program’s first trip to Indianapolis for the conference title game. That formula should be in play once again next fall, but the offense could be more explosive with the addition of Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson at quarterback. The former five-star prospect is slated to replace Clayton Thorson under center and will be working with an offense that returns promising running back Isaiah Bowser (866 yards) and two starters up front. The receiving corps returns nearly intact, but No. 1 target Flynn Nagel (68 catches) will be missed. As mentioned previously, Northwestern’s defense was instrumental in guiding this program to a division title. Fitzgerald’s group held opponents to 5.6 yards a play and 23.2 points a game. Additionally, the Wildcats didn’t give up much in the way of big plays and tied for second in the Big Ten with 26 forced turnovers. The secondary has to replace standout cornerback Montre Hartage, but the front seven features difference makers in Joe Gaziano and linebacker Paddy Fisher. The schedule features a non-conference trip to Stanford to open 2019, but Northwestern catches Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Purdue and Minnesota at home next fall.
Minnesota enters coach P.J. Fleck’s third year as a program on the rise for 2019. The Golden Gophers closed out the 2018 campaign by winning three out of their last four games, including a rivalry matchup against Wisconsin and the bowl contest versus Georgia Tech. Fleck’s 2019 team features one of the Big Ten’s deepest backfields. Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith return from injury to team with a promising freshman tandem from ’18 in Bryce Williams and Mohamed Ibrahim. Receiver Tyler Johnson might be one of college football’s most underrated players after catching 78 passes for 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. He’s joined outside by a trio of talented receivers who saw major snaps as freshmen in 2018, including Rashod Bateman (51 catches). Quarterbacks Tanner Morgan and Zack Annexstad showed promise as freshmen and will compete for the job in spring practice. Left tackle Donnell Greene and center Jared Weyler leave big shoes to fill up front, but freshmen Daniel Faalele and Blaise Andries provide a foundation to build around in 2019. Minnesota’s defense played better after Joe Rossi assumed the play-calling duties in November and will have a chance to build off that finish next fall. Linebacker Blake Cashman is the biggest loss on this side of the ball, but Carter Coughlin (15 TFL) is back, and safety Antoine Winfield returns after missing nearly all of 2018 due to injury. Minnesota has a favorable crossover with home games against Penn State and Maryland, along with a road trip to Rutgers on tap. Road matchups at Purdue, Iowa and Northwestern are slated for next fall, but Wisconsin and Nebraska come to Minneapolis.
As evidenced by Purdue ranking No. 6 in the Big Ten West, this division should be deep in 2019. This program scored a big victory in the offseason when coach Jeff Brohm passed on an opportunity to return to Louisville and decided to remain in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers finished 2018 ranked fifth in the Big Ten by scoring 30.5 points a game, but Brohm’s group will have to retool along the offensive line and must replace their top two running backs (Markell Jones and D.J. Knox). However, the offense returns dynamic all-around playmaker Rondale Moore, and Elijah Sindelar should provide a seamless transition from David Blough under center. After holding teams to 20.5 points a game in ’18, Purdue’s defense took a step back on the stat sheet. Coordinator Nick Holt’s group allowed 30 points a game, surrendered nearly 170 rushing yards a contest and 5.99 yards a play. A big reason for the regression was roster turnover from the previous year, as the defense returned only four starters. However, the outlook is better going into 2019. Leading tackler Markus Bailey passed on the NFL for another year of college. Also, only two seniors – Jacob Thieneman and Antonio Blackmon – ranked among the top 14 tacklers. Cornel Jones (69 stops) will join Bailey as a key contributor at linebacker, while Lorenzo Neal has all offseason to recover from a knee injury suffered against Indiana in the season finale. This defense has to do a better job of limiting big plays in the passing game after giving up 12 completions of 40 yards or more in 2018.
The Fighting Illini took a step forward in Lovie Smith’s third season. After winning only five games in his previous two years, Illinois finished 4-8 and won two contests in Big Ten play. In order for Smith’s team to challenge for a bowl trip next fall, the offense has to find a quarterback after AJ Bush expired his eligibility. MJ Rivers, Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor are the early frontrunners, with Rivers playing in eight contests as Bush’s backup in 2018. With the quarterback situation unsettled, the Fighting Illini can lean on a talented backfield. Leading rusher Reggie Corbin is back after recording 1,085 yards and nine scores on just 128 carries. The receiving corps added two transfers in January, as Oklahoma graduate transfer A.D. Miller is eligible in 2019, and former Miami receiver Jeff Thomas is seeking a waiver to play right away. The additions of Miller and Thomas bolster a unit slated to return No. 1 target Ricky Smalling (33 catches), but no other receiver caught more than 30 passes. Guard Nick Allegretti is the only departure from a promising offensive line that cleared the way for rushers to average 5.9 yards per carry. Smith took over the play-calling duties on defense after Hardy Nickerson resigned during the season, but Illinois plenty of room to improve on this side of the ball. The Fighting Illini gave up 39.4 points a game and 7.04 yards per play last season. The staff for 2019 is still unsettled, but Smith’s group returns largely intact. Linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips (95 tackles) was the only senior among the top 20 tacklers. Additionally, end Bobby Roundtree (12.5 TFL) and linebacker Jake Hansen (95 stops) are back, while defensive backs Nate Hobbs and Tony Adams provide a good foundation in the secondary. A non-conference schedule featuring games against Akron, UConn and Eastern Michigan provides an opportunity for a 3-0 start. However, the Fighting Illini catch Michigan and Michigan State in crossover play and hit the road for matchups against Minnesota, Purdue and Iowa.