The 2018 college football season doesn’t start until August, but the Big Ten is already making a strong case as the best conference in the nation. Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin each take a spot in the way-too-early top 25 college football rankings by Athlon Sports for 2018. The Buckeyes are the early favorite to win the league, but the next tier of teams isn’t far behind. Additionally, the Big Ten should have a solid second tier fill in over the 2018 season. Purdue, Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern and Maryland should each push for bowl bids next fall. Of course, all early rankings and predictions are subject to change by August. But barring any significant changes or personnel departures, the Big Ten could be the next conference to get two teams into the CFB Playoff.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2018 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Big Ten for 2018:
1. Ohio State
The Buckeyes begin 2018 in a familiar spot: At the top of the Big Ten’s East Division. The path to a College Football Playoff appearance starts by finding a replacement for quarterback J.T. Barrett. Sophomore Dwayne Haskins, junior Joe Burrow and redshirt freshman Tate Martell will compete this spring for the starting nod, with Haskins holding an edge after the 2017 campaign. Regardless of which quarterback starts, expect to see plenty of running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber. Additionally, the receiving corps returns its top six statistical options from 2017. The line loses standout left tackle Jamarco Jones and center Billy Price but returns two other starters, and guard Brandon Bowen is back after missing a chunk of last year due to injury. The addition of former Washington State coordinator Alex Grinch strengthens a defense that was already one of the best in college football. Ohio State limited opponents to 19 points a game in 2017 and will be led on defense by end Nick Bosa, tackle Dre’Mont Jones, linebacker Tuf Borland and cornerback Jeffrey Okudah. Ends Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard will be missed, but the unit’s biggest loss is likely cornerback Denzel Ward. Michigan comes to Columbus next year and games against Penn State and Michigan State take place on the road.
This pick/finish of No. 2 in the East Division may come as a surprise, but Jim Harbaugh’s team is a good rebound pick after a disappointing 8-5 record. Why? Michigan has reeled in two top-five recruiting classes over the last three years, and 2017 was supposed to be a rebuilding year after returning only six starters from a team that nearly made the playoff in 2016. The biggest concern for Harbaugh remains on offense. Will Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson be granted immediate eligibility? If so, he becomes the frontrunner to start over Brandon Peters and Dylan McCaffrey at quarterback. Regardless of who starts under center, Michigan’s skill talent should be in better shape at receiver than it was in 2017. Tarik Black returns after missing most of last season due to an injury, and Donovan Peoples-Jones should be more involved after catching 22 passes as a true freshman. Karan Higdon and Chris Evans are back to lead the way on the ground, but the offensive line must step up after giving up 36 sacks. The defense is one area Harbaugh won’t have any concerns. Michigan’s defense allowed 18.8 points a game in 2017 and returns standout end Rashan Gray, linebackers Khaleke Hudson and Devin Bush and cornerback Lavert Hill. Tackle Maurice Hurst is the unit’s biggest loss. The schedule is challenging with trips to Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State. Penn State and Wisconsin visit Ann Arbor next fall.
3. Michigan State
After improving its win total by eight games from 2016 to 2017, coach Mark Dantonio’s team has its sights set on contending for a Big Ten title in 2018. The Spartans won’t lose many key players from the 2017 team and key conference matchups against Ohio State and Michigan take place in East Lansing. Quarterback Brian Lewerke (257.8 yards per game) returns after a standout debut as the team’s starting signal-caller. Lewerke has a strong supporting cast in place. The line must replace starting center Brian Allen, but the rest of the unit returns intact. Additionally, running back LJ Scott returns, and the Spartans bring back their top five statistical wide receivers/tight ends from 2017. Even with the departure of coordinator Harlon Barnett to Florida State, the defense will be among the best in the Big Ten. Linebacker Chris Frey and lineman Demetrius Cooper are the biggest losses from this unit, while linebacker Joe Bachie, end Kenny Willekes, safety David Dowell and cornerback Josiah Scott provide a strong foundation.
4. Penn State
The Nittany Lions are fourth here, but coach James Franklin’s team is going to be in the mix for a spot in the top 10 once 2018 kicks off – that’s how deep this division is next fall. New coordinator Ricky Rahne had a strong showing in the Fiesta Bowl, but the Penn State offense is set to lose key playmakers in running back Saquon Barkley, receiver DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki. But with quarterback Trace McSorley returning, this offense shouldn’t slip too far from its 2017 level. Sophomore Miles Sanders should be a capable replacement for Barkley at running back, and five-star recruit Justin Shorter could play right away at receiver. The offensive line returns nearly intact but must perform better in clearing rushing lanes and providing protection for McSorley. A defense that allowed only 16.5 points a game in 2017 loses key cogs at each level in 2018. Linebacker Jason Cabinda, cornerback Grant Haley and safety Marcus Allen are the biggest losses for coordinator Brent Pry to replace. On the positive side for Pry, this team returns promising talent in the trenches, and cornerback John Reid is back after missing 2017 due to injury. Penn State catches Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin in Happy Valley next fall.
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Injuries wreaked havoc on Maryland’s quarterbacks in 2017, which prevented coach DJ Durkin’s team from building off a 3-1 start to the season. Assuming they are healthy, quarterbacks Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill should battle for the starting job this offseason. Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison return at running back to form an explosive ground game. The news isn’t as good at receiver for coordinator Walt Bell. Top target DJ Moore (80 catches) left College Park early for the NFL, and Taivon Jacobs (47) has finished his eligibility. The offensive line should be a strength with all five starters returning. Improving the defense has to be a priority after this unit gave up 37.1 points a game in 2017. But this unit will be revamped in terms of personnel, as seven of the top 14 tacklers are seniors, and cornerback JC Jackson is headed early to the NFL.
The Hoosiers just missed out on a bowl in coach Tom Allen’s first full season at the helm. Indiana went 5-7 but suffered four of its seven defeats by eight points or less. In order to return to a winning record and a bowl game, the Hoosiers have to reload from an underrated defense that allowed only 25.3 points a contest in 2017. Linebackers Tegray Scales and Chris Covington, safety Chase Dutra, cornerback Rashard Fant and ends Greg Gooch and Robert McCray have expired their eligibility, leaving big shoes to fill in 2018. One positive for Allen: Hybrid linebacker/safety Marcelino Ball is back after missing most of 2017 due to injury. The question marks for this team continue to the offense. Who will step up at receiver to replace Simmie Cobbs? And can the offense generate more production on the ground behind Morgan Ellison and Cole Gest after managing just 130.1 yards a game in 2017? Peyton Ramsey showed promise in a limited stint as the team’s starting quarterback and should build off that next fall.
The Scarlet Knights are heading in the right direction under third-year coach Chris Ash. Last season, Rutgers improved its win total by three games from 2016 and claimed three victories in Big Ten play after recording zero the previous year. The offense is a focal point for Ash once again this offseason after averaging only 18 points a game in 2017. Ash has to find a new play-caller after Jerry Kill retired at the end of the regular season, and the offense needs more out of its quarterbacks after Kyle Bolin, Giovanni Rescigno and Johnathan Lewis combined for seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Bolin has finished his eligibility, leaving Lewis, Rescigno and two incoming freshmen battling for the starting job this offseason. Question marks remain at the skill positions after running backs Gus Edwards and Robert Martin and two of the top statistical receivers have expired their eligibility. Sophomore running back Raheem Blackshear is a name to watch this spring. For the first time since joining the Big Ten in 2014, Rutgers allowed less than 30 points a game. The defense loses two key cogs in the trenches and needs to get stronger up front after giving up 181.8 rushing yards a game in 2017. Standout cornerback Blessuan Austin missed most of last season due to a knee injury but will push for All-Big Ten honors if he returns to full strength in 2018.
Once again, coach Paul Chryst’s team will be a heavy favorite to win the Big Ten’s West Division. The Badgers have lost only four Big Ten contests in Chryst’s three years in Madison, and with the returning talent in place, Wisconsin is poised to make another run at the CFB Playoff. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook will look to build off a strong performance in the Orange Bowl, and the junior returns a promising group of receivers on the outside. A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor are poised to take a step forward in their development, as the Badgers look to find a new go-to target at tight end with Troy Fumagalli out of eligibility. Running back Jonathan Taylor will be in the mix to win the Heisman Trophy after a strong freshman season, especially with a standout line leading the way. On defense, coordinator Jim Leonhard has holes to fill. The line loses ends Alec James and Conor Sheehy, linebackers Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs and both starting cornerbacks in Derrick Tindal and Nick Nelson. Even if the defense takes a small step back, Wisconsin’s offense could be even more dangerous than the 2017 version that averaged 33.8 points a game.
For now, let’s pencil Northwestern into the No. 2 spot in the Big Ten’s West Division. However, coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team will enter offseason workouts with uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position after Clayton Thorson suffered a knee injury in the Music City Bowl. If Thorson misses a good chunk of the season, Iowa, Nebraska or Purdue will surpass Northwestern in the West Division. In addition to Thorson’s status, the Wildcats must replace running back Justin Jackson and replace two out of their top four statistical receiving options from 2017. Jeremy Larkin (503 yards) impressed as Jackson’s backup and should emerge as the go-to back for Fitzgerald. The defense limited opponents to just 20.1 points a game in 2017 and returns two of the Big Ten’s top linebackers in Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall. End Joe Gaziano leads the way up front, while the secondary loses two standout safeties in Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro.
Kirk Ferentz’s team was a solid 8-5 in 2017, but this program wasn’t far from double-digit victories after losing four games by nine points or less. In order for Iowa to exceed eight wins in 2018, Ferentz and his staff will have to replace some key players on both sides of the ball. The offense loses standout running back Akrum Wadley, starting linemen Sean Welsh and James Daniels and receiver Matt VandeBerg. Quarterback Nate Stanley was quietly productive (26 TDs) in his first year as the starter. Look for the junior to take a step forward in his development, with tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson joining receiver Nick Easley as the key targets next fall. The question marks continue on defense for coordinator Phil Parker. All three starting linebackers depart, including All-American Josey Jewell. Cornerback Josh Jackson left early for the NFL, while tackle Nathan Bazata and safety Miles Taylor expired their eligibility. Iowa has to navigate some tough personnel losses, but the schedule is manageable. Iowa State, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska visit Iowa City next fall. Additionally, the Hawkeyes won’t have to play Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State in crossover play.
The Boilermakers showed marked improvement in coach Jeff Brohm’s first season in West Lafayette. With another offseason to work under this coaching staff, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Purdue jumped to second in the West Division in 2018. Quarterbacks David Blough and Elijah Sindelar are recovering from significant leg injuries and will resume their quarterback battle this offseason. The ground game should be solid with Markell Jones, D.J. Knox and Tario Fuller returning at running back. Additionally, the line should take a step forward with four returning starters, and left tackle Grant Hermanns is back in the mix after missing the second half of 2017 due to a knee injury. New playmakers must emerge at receiver after the departure of Anthony Mahoungou and Gregory Phillips. The defense allowed only 20.1 points a game in 2017 but faces a significant rebuilding effort. Coordinator Nick Holt has to replace ends Austin Lark and Gelen Robinson, linebackers T.J. McCollum and Ja’Whaun Bentley and cornerbacks Josh Okonye and Da’Wan Hunte. Just three of Purdue’s top 10 tacklers from 2017 will return next fall.
The Cornhuskers hit a grand slam with Scott Frost returning to Lincoln, and it’s only a matter of time before this program is back in the mix to win the West Division. Frost has some significant work ahead this offseason, but a bowl game should be a reasonable goal in 2018. The top priority for Frost in offseason workouts will be to find a quarterback. Tanner Lee left for the NFL, leaving redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia, sophomore Patrick O’Brien and incoming freshman Adrian Martinez to battle for the job. Martinez has the most upside and is the best fit for Frost’s offense. How fast can he pick up the scheme and adjust to the FBS level? Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman form a potent one-two punch at receiver, and running back Tre Bryant returns after missing nearly all of 2017 due to a knee injury. New coordinator Erik Chinander inherits a defense that gave up 36.4 points a game and did not feature a player selected to All-Big Ten honors last fall. The schedule features brutal road trips to Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State. However, Nebraska plays four out of its first five games in Lincoln.
As expected, coach P.J. Fleck is reeling in talent on the recruiting trail, but the Golden Gophers might be a year away from a bowl game. Fleck’s debut resulted in a 5-7 mark and just one win over the final five games. Additionally, offense should be a focal point for this team over the offseason. Minnesota was held scoreless in each of its last two contests and averaged only 22.1 points per game. Demry Croft will be pushed at quarterback by junior college recruit Victor Viramontes and redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan. Until the passing game gets on track, the Golden Gophers can build their offense around running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, who combined for 1,346 yards and eight scores in 2017. The offense also needs better play from its line. Minnesota only gave up 22.8 points a game last year, but this unit loses a couple of key seniors, including lineman Steven Richardson, linebacker Jonathan Celestin, safety Duke McGhee and cornerback Adekunle Ayinde. Rush end Carter Coughlin and linebacker Thomas Barber will anchor Fleck’s defense in 2018.
The Fighting Illini have struggled mightily in coach Lovie Smith’s two years in Champaign. Illinois is just 5-19 overall and 2-16 in Big Ten play in that span. Can this team take a step forward in 2018? In order for Smith’s program to double its win total, finding a spark on offense is a must. The offense averaged only 13.1 points a game in Big Ten contests and struggled to get consistent play at quarterback. The question marks remain under center once again next season, but the skill positions have promising players in place, including running back Mike Epstein, receiver Ricky Smalling and tight end Louis Dorsey. The offense will have a new play-caller after Garrick McGee was let go following the end of the season. While the offense is loaded with concerns, the defense is in better shape. Linebacker Tre Watson, safety Patrick Nelson and lineman Tito Odenigbo decided to transfer, but this unit doesn’t lose much in the way of seniors. Linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips and linemen Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay provide a foundation up front for coordinator Hardy Nickerson. Smith went with a rebuilding effort with youth in 2017 and some improvement should be noticeable in 2018.