Michigan claimed the Big Ten title in 2021, but Ohio State is the very early favorite to win the conference for the '22 season. The Buckeyes rank among the way-too-early picks to win it all next year, as quarterback C.J. Stroud and a talented group of playmakers are set to lead the way. The Wolverines should still be a factor in the Big Ten and College Football Playoff mix, but a November road trip to Columbus looms large. Wisconsin and Iowa top the list of favorites in the West Division, but don't overlook Purdue or Minnesota. Elsewhere in the Big Ten, some of the top early storylines surround a critical year for Scott Frost at Nebraska, Penn State's chances of a rebound and how far can Indiana and Northwestern improve in '22.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2022 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Big Ten for 2022:
Early Big Ten Football Predictions for 2022
1. Ohio State
The path to a Big Ten title should go through Columbus in 2022. The Buckeyes return quarterback C.J. Stroud and a cast of talented receivers to replace Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Also, running back TreVeyon Henderson is back. The defense has struggled over the last two years, but coach Ryan Day hired Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State to fix this group. There are concerns at every level, but the Buckeyes should benefit from Knowles’ arrival. The annual showdown against Michigan takes place in Columbus next fall.
The 2021 season marked a breakthrough year for Michigan under coach Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines defeated Ohio State, won the Big Ten and made the CFB Playoff. The encore in ’22 could be just as successful. Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy will battle to start at quarterback, and the skill talent should be set with Donovan Edwards and Blake Corum at running back, along with Ronnie Bell, Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson. Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis have a few gaps to plug up front. Michigan’s defense showed marked improvement under new coordinator Mike Macdonald in 2021, but this unit won’t have ends Aidan Hutchinson or David Ojabo and safety Dax Hill in ’22.
3. Michigan State
Thanks to a handful of key additions through the transfer portal and the development of those already on campus, the Spartans were one of the most-improved teams in the nation last year. Continuing that progress is going to hinge on the right arm of quarterback Payton Thorne and receiver Jayden Reed with star running back Kenneth Walker III off to the NFL. The Spartans gave up 27.3 points a game in Big Ten games in ’21 and need to show more improvement on this side of the ball to challenge Ohio State and Michigan for the division crown.
4. Penn State
The Nittany Lions dropped six out of their last eight games in 2021. Getting this program back on track in ’22 starts with the offense. Quarterback Sean Clifford returns, but five-star freshman Drew Allar might be tough to keep on the sidelines. Penn State has to get better along the line of scrimmage and find a spark for a ground game that managed only 108 yards per game. Despite losing Jahan Dotson, the receiving corps is still in good shape with Parker Washington returning. A good foundation remains in place on defense for coordinator Manny Diaz but restocking the front is a key offseason storyline.
The Terrapins are coming off their first winning season since 2014. Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa should rank among the top returning signal-callers in the Big Ten next year, while receiver Rakim Jarrett is back as the main target on the outside. The offense should get a boost with Dontay Demus returning at receiver after missing seven games due to injury. Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for coach Mike Locksley’s team, but if the Terrapins want to move up the pecking order in the Big Ten East, fixing a defense that allowed 38.8 points a game in conference action is a must.
Greg Schiano has Rutgers on the right track entering ’22. But there’s still work to be done after a 5-8 mark last year, especially with an offense that averaged only 13.7 points a game in Big Ten matchups. The development of quarterback Gavin Wimsatt is crucial, and offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson must find more playmakers after running back Isaih Pacheco and receiver Bo Melton departed for the NFL. The defense has a new coordinator (Joe Harasymiak) and plenty of room to improve after giving up 6.5 yards per snap in conference games last year.
The Hoosiers started 2021 in the top 25 but ended at 2-10 with no conference victories and at the bottom of the Big Ten East. Both sides of the ball were a problem for coach Tom Allen’s team. In conference games, the offense averaged only 10.4 points a game in Big Ten action and surrendered 35.1. As a result, there’s a new offensive play-caller (Walt Bell), and the defense is under the direction of Chad Wilt after Charlton Warren left for North Carolina. A handful of transfers will improve the team’s depth and talent right away, including quarterback Connor Bazelak. Indiana should improve in ’22, but a return to the postseason is a tough climb.
Every team in the Big Ten West enters with significant question marks for 2022, but it’s hard to pick against Wisconsin in the very early predictions. The Badgers return one of the nation’s top running backs in Braelon Allen, and coordinator Jim Leonhard will restock a defense that allowed the fewest yards per play (4.1) of any team in college football. Quarterback Graham Mertz has to develop after an uneven second year as the starter, and coach Paul Chryst needs to restock a receiving corps losing a couple of key targets.
Despite losing cornerback Matt Hankins, the defense will be the strength of the Hawkeyes once again next season. However, Iowa needs more out of its offense after averaging 4.5 yards per play and 23 points a game in Big Ten matchups last fall. Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla are set to battle at quarterback, and Gavin Williams is the front-runner to replace Tyler Goodson at running back. The line has to play a lot better in ’22 and could lose center Tyler Linderbaum to the NFL.
The Golden Gophers rebounded from a 3-4 mark in the abbreviated 2020 season to finish 9-4 overall, capped by wins over Wisconsin and West Virginia in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl to close the year. Winning the West Division could be within reach next fall, especially if the offense improves behind the return of coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who spent the ’21 season as an analyst at West Virginia. Quarterback Tanner Morgan and a deep stable of running backs lead the way on offense, but four key starters are gone up front. Minnesota gave up only 17.3 points a game in ’21, but this unit will have key cogs to replace at every level.
The nine-win season in 2021 was Purdue’s highest victory total under coach Jeff Brohm. With quarterback Aidan O’Connell returning, and a favorable schedule (no Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State in crossover play), the Boilermakers could threaten that mark again. Brohm has to replace receivers David Bell and Jackson Anthrop and fill a few voids up front, but Purdue’s offense should rank among the best in the Big Ten. After giving up 29.8 points per game in ’20, the Boilermakers held teams 22.4 a contest in ’21. Building on that strong finish starts with a new coordinator after Brad Lambert left for Wake Forest, and this group must fill the voids left behind by linebacker Jaylan Alexander and end George Karlaftis.
It’s no secret the 2022 season is a make-or-break year for Scott Frost in Lincoln. A revamped staff provides some optimism, especially with the arrival of veteran play-caller Mark Whipple. Texas transfer Casey Thompson is slated to battle Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg for the starting nod under center. Gabe Ervin’s return from injury is a boost to the backfield, but center Cam Jurgens will be missed after leaving early for the NFL. After giving up 29.4 points a game last season, Nebraska’s defense cut that total to 22.7 in ’21. This unit needs to create more pressure (20 sacks), but coordinator Erik Chinander should have another solid group once again next fall.
The Fighting Illini just missed on a bowl in coach Bret Bielema’s debut, finishing 5-7 with four losses coming by one score. Bielema has key question marks to address going into ’22, but this team should push for six victories again. A strong backfield led by Chase Brown and Josh McCray is in place for new offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr., with Artur Sitkowski and Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito set to battle for the starting quarterback job. A couple of starters must be replaced up front. After giving up 6.5 yards per play, Illinois’ defense cut that total to 5.2 last year. Maintaining (or improving) on that total will hinge on how quickly coordinator Ryan Walters can fill a few voids up front and replace safety Kerby Joseph.
The Wildcats went 3-9 in 2021, but the last time this program (’19) finished with that record, the following year produced a Big Ten West Division title. Asking coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team to make a similar leap is probably unrealistic, but Northwestern is also unlikely to struggle as much as it did last season. Contending for a bowl is going to hinge on an answer emerging at quarterback to team with running back Evan Hull to jump-start a sluggish offense (13.0 points a game in Big Ten action). The priority list for improvement continues to a defense that surrendered 6.6 yards a snap in conference games. The front seven has a few holes to fill, and safety Brandon Joseph transferred to Notre Dame.
Related: Recapping the National Championship and What's Next for the CFB Playoff