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College football 2018: Big Ten preview

Leading up to the kickoff of the 2018 college football season, The Game Haus will be previewing each FBS conference and those independent teams. As we continue today with the Big Ten, we’ll offer league predictions and look at the top performers while also highlighting key games from each conference.

Here we go.

Predictions

EAST DIVISION

1. Ohio State
The Urban Meyer situation is the talk of college football, but the reality is no matter who coaches the Buckeyes this season, their talent level is still better than any other team in the Big Ten. How the Ohio State players handle things mentally could be a concern, but that talent will keep the program from any immediate derailment.

Big Ten
Trace McSorley (Photo by spokesman.com)

2. Penn State
Consecutive 11-win seasons and the return of quarterback Trace McSorley (3,570 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2017) should have the Nittany Lions feeling good about things. Replacing Saquon Barkley is obviously huge, but Penn State gets Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin at home.

3. Michigan State
Quarterback Brian Lewerke returns and so do a host of starters from a defense that yielded 20 points per game last season. It doesn’t hurt that both Michigan and Ohio State must make the trek to East Lansing.

4. Michigan
All eyes will be on Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, who could be the arm the Wolverines have needed for some time. Eight starters return from a defense that ranked third nationally in 2017. However, Michigan must travel to Notre Dame, Northwestern, Michigan State and Ohio State.

5. Maryland
The Terps are a popular sleeper pick among Big Ten pundits, mainly because their quarterback play should be better. Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill are back from knee injuries to battle for that job, but there must be improvement from a defense that was last in the Big Ten giving up 37.1 points per game.

6. Indiana
Following two straight bowl appearances, the Hoosiers went 5-7 last season. But with significant departures on defense and talented receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr. gone, Indiana likely will have a hard time reaching six victories.

7. Rutgers
Rutgers has won 10 games since going 8-5 in 2014, but did double its victory total of two from 2016 by going 4-8 last season. The Scarlet Knights averaged just 18 points in 2017, so the focus will be on an increase in production.

WEST DIVISION

1. Wisconsin
The Badgers are again the class of the weaker of the two Big Ten divisions. Jonathan Taylor might be a Heisman-caliber running back while linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly return from the nation’s No.1 ranked defense (253 yards per game).

Big Ten
Nate Stanley (Photo by hawkeyenation.com)

2. Iowa
Nate Stanley (26 touchdowns, six interceptions) is a solid quarterback, but the Hawkeyes were held to fewer than 20 points six times during Big Ten play last season. If the offense can improve in the league, Iowa could seriously challenge for the top spot in the West.

3. Nebraska
The return of former Cornhusker Scott Frost to Nebraska as coach has the Lincoln faithful feeling optimistic. While the culture and attitude of the program might revert back to the days of Tom Osborne, getting a defense that allowed 36.4 points per game to play better could be a chore.

4. Purdue
In his first season as coach, Jeff Brohm guided the Boilermakers to their first bowl game since 2012. With home games against Northwestern, Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin, Purdue could pull off an upset or two en route to another bowl appearance.

5. Northwestern
The Wildcats’ success likely hinges on quarterback Clayton Thorson (7.548 career passing yards 44 touchdowns, 30 interceptions). More specifically, how he is able to rebound from a knee injury. Northwestern also must replace star running back Justin Jackson.

6. Minnesota
The Gophers just missed a bowl in P.J. Fleck’s first season as coach. Minnesota is still rowing the boat, but the quarterback position will be the X-factor. Getting Iowa, Purdue and Northwestern at home should help the cause.

7. Illinois
With five victories through his first two seasons in Champaign, Lovie Smith faces a make-or-break campaign. Injuries and inexperience have plagued the Illini during Smith’s reign as he’s still searching for that difference maker.

Players to watch

OFFENSE
Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin: Taylor’s 1,977 rushing yards ranked third in the nation last season. His 6.6 yards per carry average wasn’t too shabby, either. Should Taylor enjoy similar success in 2018, then expect him to earn Heisman consideration.

Big Ten
Nick Bosa (Photo by sportingnews.com)

DEFENSE
Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State: Perhaps the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL Draft, Bosa is the gold standard for Big Ten defenders. He recorded 8 1/2 sacks and 16 tackles for loss while disrupting offenses in 2017.

 

 

Key Games

Sept. 22: Wisconsin at Iowa. What potentially could be the Badgers’ biggest test in the West, comes early. Good news for Wisconsin, it’s won four straight in Iowa City.

Sept. 29: Ohio State at Penn State. It’s uncertain what Ohio State’s coaching situation will look like then, but this still has the makings of another classic between the two Big Ten powers.

Oct. 20: Michigan at Michigan State. The Spartans have won eight of the last 10 meetings between the rivals. However, the Wolverines won the last at East Lansing in 2016.

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