Watch out for Northwestern
It was a good regular season in 2016 for the Big Ten, but the conference came up short in its three biggest bowl games. Ohio State proved to be no match for Clemson in the College Football Playoff while Penn State (Rose Bowl) and Michigan (Orange Bowl) lost close matchups.
Looking ahead to this season, the Wolverines lost a ton of players, but you can never count out a Jim Harbaugh-coached team. The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions will try to continue their success. Can someone else step into the playoff conversation from the B1G?
Note: Over/under odds courtesy of the South Point Casino sports book
Big Ten East
(Over 6.5 -105...Under 6.5 -115)
Tom Allen takes over the team after Kevin Wilson was let go. Poor timing potentially after the school made a bowl game in 2016 despite falling in two of its last three games. Richard Lagow returns under center to throw to Nick Westbrook and Simmie Cobbs. The running back position won't be as strong and the offensive line is rebuilding. Nine starters return from a defense that took a big step forward. Linebacker Tegray Scales returns after racking up nearly 130 tackles and seven sacks in 2016. The schedule opens up with a bang with a Thursday night home game against Ohio State. Things lighten up with Virginia, FIU and Georgia Southern after that. I lean to the over as the schedule lines up favorably. The Hoosiers have winnable road games at Illinois and Purdue to go with a home tilt against Rutgers to close out their campaign.
(Over 3.5 -110...Under 3.5 -110)
Once again the Terrapins will be at a disadvantage in most of their conference games as the team just isn't that good. Each side of the ball returns six starters, but also has their share of questions. Caleb Henderson takes over at quarterback and a lot is expected of him as the team runs a speed-based offense. D.J. Moore figures to be his top receiver with Ty Johnson back at running back. The front four will be strong on defense, but the secondary could have some issues. The school was done no favors with a road trip to Texas to start out the season. Maryland should find a way to win at least two of its non-conference games with Towson and UCF both at home, although the Knights from the American Athletic Conference are improved. Because there are so many winnable games on the conference slate, I think the over could be worth a look. No official play though.
(Over 9 +105...Under 9 -125)
With any other head coach, this would probably be a long season. The Wolverines return just six starters and only one on defense. Jim Harbaugh gives Michigan fans hope with years of strong recruiting paying off. On defense, Rashan Gary could be an All-American and coordinator Don Brown will do his best to get the most out of his talented, yet inexperienced unit. The offense will have to do the legwork early with QB Wilton Speight and RB Chris Evans providing the leadership and production. Get to know Eddie McDoom, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Kekoa Crawford because they will likely end up being the primary targets in the passing game. The schedule eases up after opening against Florida in Arlington, Texas. Three of the next four are at home and the yearly battle with Ohio State is in Ann Arbor too. No official play here as I think nine is a good number.
(Over 5.5 -110...Under 5.5 -110)
These are weird times in East Lansing following a surprising and disappointing 3-9 showing. Only five total starters return, adding to the uncertainty. The offense will be led by Brian Lewerke although Damion Terry may see some time under center as well. Running back LJ Scott should be able to find some holes on offense although teams will probably stack the box and force the Spartans to beat them through the air. The defense has not been the same since Pat Narduzzi left for Pittsburgh. They will need to find a new secondary. There's potential for a fast start with four straight in East Lansing to open things up. I think I like the over for Sparty as they have a shot at six wins and a bowl game.
(Over 10.5 -150...Under 10.5 +130)
The Buckeyes have a ton of pieces in place to return to the College Football Playoff. J.T. Barrett is a Heisman Trophy contender after throwing 24 touchdown passes to just seven interceptions. Mike Weber will keep teams honest on the ground while a young, but talented wide receiver group will be fun to watch. Defensive backs Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Malik Hooker were all first-round picks in the NFL draft, so the secondary will need to be rebuilt. The front seven is nasty so QBs may not have a ton of time to survey the field, which should help the back end get on the same page. Ohio State gets Oklahoma and Penn State at home but will have to make the trip up north to face Michigan. I don't know of an easier four-game stretch then playing Army, UNLV, Rutgers and Maryland. The over is the right play, but not at this price. If you can find two losses then take the under.
(Over 9.5 -135...Under 9.5 +115)
If there's a team that can challenge Ohio State, it's Penn State, which returns almost its whole offense and some good pieces on defense as well. Quarterback Trace McSorley really grew in 2016 and will have his major weapons back in WR DaeSean Hamilton and TE Mike Gesicki. Saquon Barkley has the potential to be a dark horse in the Heisman race after rushing for nearly 1,500 yards and 18 touchdowns. The injury to cornerback John Reid this offseason will hurt, but safety Marcus Allen is back to erase mistakes and make tackles. The Nittany Lions have a tough stretch to start October with road games at Northwestern and Ohio State sandwiching a big one at home against Michigan. I think there's a chance the under could be worth a look. Iowa, Northwestern, Michigan and Ohio State are potential losses if you want the +115 value.
(Over 3 -110...Under 3 -110)
The jokes involving Rutgers will continue as this is a team that was outscored 175-0 by Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State last season. Former Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill will try to resuscitate an offense that managed 15.7 points per game in 2016. The problem is that there's not a ton of talent outside of wide receivers Janarion Grant and Jawuan Harris. Eight starters are back on defense which means improvement could come, but that’s not saying a lot either. Washington, Ohio State and Michigan State all come to New Jersey. Luckily there’s the potential for two early wins early with Eastern Michigan and Morgan State, but not many appealing matchups after that. Three is a good number so pass.
Big Ten West
(Over 3.5 EVEN...Under 3.5 -120)
It figures to be another long year in Champaign for head coach Lovie Smith. There's not a lot to like about an offense that could see Chayce Crouch or Jeff George Jr. running the group. Wide receiver Mikey Dudek has had two ACL tears, but is a game-changer when healthy. On the other side of the ball, the experience level is low with just three returning starters. Special teams also co uld be rough for this team so the low number is not unwarranted when it comes to win total. Home games against Ball State and Western Kentucky are no layups so the Illini could be in for a slow start. I think they could be in for a two-win season, but not with enough confidence to make it an official play.
(Over 7 +105...Under 7 -125)
C.J. Beathard is gone meaning Nathan Stanley or Tyler Wiegers is under center and the storylines say that the race is so close with no one really leading. Matt VandeBerg leads an inexperienced wide receiver group while Akrum Wadley takes over at running back. Josey Jewell is the leader on defense and he's bringing back 124 tackles from 2016. The middle is very stable while the secondary will need to be retooled. The schedule lines up favorably with both Penn State and Ohio State coming to Kinnick Stadium. There are a lot of questions still to be answered here. I lean with the money on the under. Iowa will be a tough out, but won't have enough firepower at times to keep up.
(Over 7.5 +115...Under 7.5 -135)
P.J. Fleck comes over from Western Michigan and optimism couldn't be higher for this team. There are some pieces to work with including Rodney Smith at running back and a pretty good offensive line. The questions start at quarterback where it's Conor Rhoda vs Demry Croft. The defense was a strong point last year, but only four starters return. Emmit Carpenter is back at kicker and he was a difference- maker. A fast start is expected with three of four at home to start. I think the under is definitely the way to go, but not at this price. The wins need to come early, because the back end of the schedule is tough.
(Over 7 +110...Under 7 -130)
Tommy Armstrong Jr. is gone so it's Tanner Lee under center for the Huskers. He’s a transfer from Tulane and should be able to run the offense, which is expected to be a balanced attack. The offensive line is pretty much intact but the skill positions are not. Finding a stable running back will be key to keeping teams honest. Bob Diaco takes over at defensive coordinator after he failed at UConn as head coach. He's got seven starters back. The secondary lost top cornerback Chris Jones to surgery so the group won't be as good but will have Kieron Williams back. Outside of a road game at Oregon, Nebraska plays five of its first seven at home. Seven is the number I came up with after several runs through the schedule.
(Over 8.5 +115...Under 8.5 -135)
Pat Fitzgerald is one of the best coaches in the country and Northwestern will be sneaky good in 2017. The offense is pretty much intact and will rely on Justin Jackson on the ground to complement Clayton Thorson. He'll rely a lot on superback Garrett Dickerson considering wide receiver Austin Carr graduated. Wide receiver Jalen Brown, an Oregon transfer, brings some intrigue as well. The defense carried the team at times in 2016 and has seven starters back including most of the defensive line. I like this secondary, which adds junior Keith Watkins II coming back from injury. I like the over for the Wildcats, who get the right games at home and don't really have too many tough road trips. Consider them a sleeper to win the West.
(Over 2.5 -125...Under 2.5 +105)
Jeff Brohm inherits a Purdue bunch that won just three games last year and was pretty porous on defense. There could be some help there now with the infusion of several transfers. A familiar name to some will be Gelen Robinson, son of former Boilermaker basketball legend Glenn Robinson. Offensively, it'll be the Markell Jones show once again as the wide receiver group lacks playmakers and experience. David Blough needs to cut down on the turnovers after 21 throwing interceptions in 2016. Purdue’s final game against Indiana on Nov. 25 could be the difference in the over or under in this one. If the Boilermakers win, I think they get their three wins, but a loss puts them under in my opinion.
(Over 10.5 -110...Under 10.5 -110)
Running backs Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale are gone so the workload falls to Bradrick Shaw and Chris James. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook wasn't asked to do a ton as evidenced by the nine touchdown passes to seven interceptions. He figures to rely on tight end Troy Fumagalli as well as wide receiver Jazz Peavy. The defense has eight starters back and Jim Leonhard becomes the Badgers’ third defensive coordinator in as many seasons. The majority of the 3-4 returns intact although the losses are pretty big, namely linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel. I think 10 wins is to be expected as the schedule is really easy. The question is if Wisconsin can get to 11.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.