Leistikow: Predicting every Big Ten team's 2017 record
A year ago at this time, 32 out of 39 Big Ten Conference media members in a Cleveland.com poll predicted that Iowa would win the league's West Division.
In the East Division, 31 of 39 picked Ohio State to rule the roost.
Another potentially unpredictable college football season is almost here, as signaled by Monday's kickoff of Big Ten Media Days in Chicago.
With that come my annual predictions. I misfired, too, with my Big Ten title-game pick of Ohio State over Minnesota.
This year, I'm going chalk in the West. A year after being chosen on just two of 39 media ballots, Wisconsin is the odds-on favorite to beat out the likes of Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern and Minnesota. And I agree.
Even though they're breaking in a new defensive coordinator for the second straight year, the Badgers will remain stingy. Combine that with a friendly schedule, and they could even be sniffing the College Football Playoff in Madison.
In the East, I'm going against conventional wisdom. Most of the hype is around J.T. Barrett and the annually beloved Buckeyes. There's some left over for Penn State, last year's surprising league champion that brings just about everyone back.
But for reasons outlined below, I think both those teams will come up short. It'll be Michigan that snaps a five-game losing streak in the Ohio State series, winning an East tiebreaker for a berth in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.
By the end of the season, the inexperienced Wolverines should be peaking. And they'll win a rematch of their Nov. 18 game against Wisconsin at Lucas Oil Stadium and represent the Big Ten in the College Football Playoff.
As for Iowa? It's almost proven fact that when expectations are tempered for the Hawkeyes, big things can happen. Las Vegas has Iowa's over-under win total at 6.5.
Give me the over. (Albeit barely.)
My 2017 picks:
Crossovers: Purdue (road), Minnesota (home), Wisconsin (road)
Why No. 1?
The Wolverines aren’t as thin as their five returning starters (including just one off a No. 1-ranked defense in 2016) suggest. That list doesn’t include defensive lineman Rashan Gary, the nation’s top recruit two cycles ago, or a slew of other highly-rated prospects such as wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones. With a proven, returning quarterback in Wilton Speight, this team’s young-but-talented makeup resembles Ohio State’s from a year ago — and those Buckeyes reached the playoff. If this team can win the neutral-site season opener against Florida, watch out.
The lack of experience is staggering; Michigan saw 11 players chosen in April’s NFL Draft. The biggest position-group question mark is at offensive line, and that’s never ideal. Jim Harbaugh must prove he can get Michigan over the hump against Ohio State, which has won 12 of 13 in that legendary series.
Leistikow’s 2017 record prediction
2. Ohio State
Crossovers: Nebraska (road), Iowa (road), Illinois (home)
Why No. 2?
The Buckeyes are strong at perhaps college football’s two most important positions — at quarterback (with fourth-year starter J.T. Barrett) and defensive line (which returns all four starters, including the Big Ten’s top pass-rusher in Tyquan Lewis). And maybe the most important piece of the Buckeyes’ attack will be wearing a headset. I love the addition of former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson as offensive coordinator. This team might start a little slow — I've got them losing at home Sept. 9 to Oklahoma — but should be primed for a strong finish.
Those of us in Iowa saw what the lack of a potent passing game can do against elite defenses, with the Hawkeyes getting thumped by Florida 30-3 in the Outback Bowl. The same was true for Ohio State against Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, in a 31-0 loss. And now the top two receivers from a year ago (Curtis Samuel and Noah Brown) are gone. As was the case a year ago for Michigan, Ohio State's two toughest road tests come in November: in Iowa City and Ann Arbor.
3. Penn State
Crossovers: Iowa (road), Northwestern (road), Nebraska (home)
Why No. 3?
By the end of last season, Penn State was the best team in the Big Ten. Iowa fans would like to forget the 599-yard explosion on Nov. 5. And in 2017, most key players from that offensive juggernaut return. That list includes dynamic producers at quarterback (Trace McSorley) and running back (Saquon Barkley, who has 2,572 rushing yards and is still just a junior). The offense should be humming under second-year coordinator Joe Moorhead. It’ll just be a matter of whether the defense can slow down the other team.
If the defense remains hit-or-miss, the Nittany Lions’ chances at a Big Ten title repeat will fizzle. The Nittany Lions yielded point totals of 42, 49 and 52 in their three losses a year ago. And without an unlikely blocked field-goal return touchdown against Ohio State, the 2016 narrative would have been much different. After middling success for years, Penn State is back to being the hunted again — a new dynamic to confront. There are a ton of land mines along the way (at Iowa, at Northwestern, at Michigan State), not to mention a trip to the Horseshoe and the revenge-seekers in Columbus.
Crossovers: Wisconsin (home), Illinois (road), Purdue (road)
Why No. 4?
Hoosier football hasn’t been relevant for a while, but there are signs pointing toward a breakthrough. Five of Indiana’s seven losses a year ago came by 10 points or less. A whopping 16 starters return. And the schedule couldn’t have gotten much friendlier, with eight opponents that had losing records a year ago (including 2-10 Virginia). The Hoosiers are solid at quarterback with Richard Lagow. The defense is surprisingly decent. And they have one of the league’s top placekickers in Griffin Oakes.
Tom Allen, the former defensive coordinator, is taking over for Kevin Wilson as the head coach, and he’s added former Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord to direct the offense. So there could be an adjustment period — and it’s not exactly a soft launch into the season, with an Aug. 31, Thursday-night opener at Ohio State.
5. Michigan State
Crossovers: Iowa (home), Minnesota (road), Northwestern (road)
Why No. 5?
There’s no way a Mark Dantonio team can go 3-9 again, right? Who knows where this team is headed after an offseason sexual-assault scandal that resulted in the dismissal of three highly rated Class of 2016 recruits. Three factors will be telling in what happens with the Spartans: 1) How completely they can move past a tumultuous spring; 2) Whether new quarterback Brian Lewerke can build on a crisp, promising spring game (25-for-44, 305 yards); and 3), How they fare in three crossover toss-ups against Big Ten West competition.
A rugged nonconference schedule includes Western Michigan (the group of five BCS representative last year) and Notre Dame, then comes Iowa and Michigan — all by the first weekend of October. Only seven starters return, and last year’s pass rush was abysmal (11 sacks for the season). The ceiling is probably fourth in the Big Ten East.
Crossovers: Minnesota (road), Northwestern (home), Wisconsin (road)
Why No. 6?
Second-year coach D.J. Durkin deployed 15 true freshmen a year ago and still got to a bowl game. This program is trending up, and there’s optimism swirling around quarterback Caleb Henderson, a junior transfer from North Carolina. And how about this stat: Maryland rushed for 360 more yards a year ago than Iowa did, ranking fourth in the Big Ten at 199.5 yards a game. But there is still a long way to go, considering the results against Big Ten heavyweights last season (with losses by 24 points to Penn State, 56 to Michigan and 59 to Ohio State).
The schedule is far tougher than a year ago, starting with a season-opening trip to Texas, not to mention there’s a very real chance the Terps will go 0-3 against a tough Big Ten West draw. Despite bringing a defensive reputation from Michigan, Durkin will need to engineer a major turnaround on that side of the ball (Maryland ranked 12th in the Big Ten a year ago in total defense) to be competitive.
Crossovers: Nebraska (road), Illinois (road), Purdue (home)
Why No. 7?
The Scarlet Knights have lured a familiar name to run second-year coach Chris Ash’s offense: Jerry Kill. The former Minnesota head coach has been impressive at every stop, but his challenge is significant after Rutgers was shut out in four Big Ten games a year ago and held to seven points in two others (including against Iowa). There’s optimism at quarterback, where Louisville grad transfer Kyle Bolin could be an impactful upgrade.
Sure, eight defensive starters return. But what does that really mean? The defense was terrible a year ago, allowing an average of 56 points a game to Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. The schedule softens, but it’s still going to be a tough climb for a team that’s gone 4-21 in conference play since joining the Big Ten.
Crossovers: Maryland (home), Indiana (road), Michigan (home)
Why No. 1?
The Badgers are widely thought to be the Big Ten West favorites for a good reason. They return 19 starters from last year’s team that went 11-3 against a gauntlet of a schedule. This year, the slate is much softer — trading crossovers Ohio State and Michigan State for Maryland and Indiana. Five offensive linemen with starting experience return, as does the team’s leading receiver in tight end Troy Fumagali (47 catches) and nine-game starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook.
High expectations can be a dangerous trap. Last year, Iowa was the overwhelming Big Ten West favorite and came up short. Although there’s confidence in returning inside linebackers Jack Cichy and T.J. Edwards, the losses of defensive stalwarts T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel have to be felt. If Hornibrook, the left-handed sophomore, gets hurt, there’s not much insurance behind him as there was last year with Bart Houston.
Crossovers: Penn State (home), Maryland (road), Michigan State (home)
Why No. 2?
There’s a lot to like about what Northwestern brings back from a team that started horribly last season but finished strong. It starts with running back Justin Jackson, a workhorse who has an incredible 855 career carries (for 4,129 yards) and 78 receptions (for another 582) entering his senior year. Junior Clayton Thorson begins his third season as a starting quarterback, and a defense that allowed 22.2 points a game last year (sixth in the Big Ten) should keep the Wildcats competitive week to week.
With Anthony Walker Jr. off to the NFL a year early, the linebackers are a huge question mark for an otherwise experienced defense. Replacing Biletnikoff Award finalist Austin Carr (who burned Iowa for three TDs) won’t be easy. A Sept. 30 game at Wisconsin will dictate whether 12th-year coach Pat Fitzgerald has his team positioned for a Big Ten West breakthrough.
Crossovers: Penn State (home), Michigan State (road), Ohio State (home)
Why No. 3?
Despite stability at the top of the program with Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes enter uncertain waters in 2017. There are serious question marks at key positions — quarterback (with Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers duking it out), defensive tackle and safety. Plus, the offense delivered a rough showing in the spring game as it tries to learn new coordinator Brian Ferentz's offense. That said, there’s little doubt Iowa should be able to generate its annually strong rushing attack behind an experienced offensive line. Electric senior Akrum Wadley, senior graduate-transfer James Butler and freshman Toren Young should be able to potent a 1-2-3 punch out of the backfield.
This is Iowa’s toughest schedule since 2013, with a brutal batch of Big Ten East crossovers. The ACL injury to Iowa’s best safety, Brandon Snyder, makes Iowa vulnerable to an over-the-top passing attack — something to watch in Week 1 against potential top NFL Draft pick Josh Allen of Wyoming. The Hawkeyes will likely be involved in a lot of close games. They’ll have to win several of them to return to a bowl game for the fifth straight season.
Crossovers: Maryland (home), Michigan State (home), Michigan (road)
Why No. 4?
With all the bluster surrounding P.J. Fleck – and this was a home-run hire for the Gophers – the “Row the Boat” coach arrives to a program that is trying to move past a sexual-misconduct scandal involving 10 players. Five of those players are gone. A running game that includes the return of juniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks (combined 1,808 rushing yards and 21 TDs) gives Fleck a decent starting point. With 14 returning starters there’s reason to believe this team will be competitive — and certainly interesting — on a weekly basis.
Like Iowa, the Gophers have an uncertain quarterback situation with a battle between career backup Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft. The soft schedule of 2016 gets tougher in 2017. It's tough to find more than one win in the final five games: at Iowa, at Michigan, vs. Nebraska, at Northwestern, vs. Wisconsin.
Crossovers: Rutgers (home), Ohio State (home), Penn State (road)
Why No. 5?
Oddsmakers set Nebraska’s over/under win total for this season at seven — hardly a vote of confidence for Year 3 of the Mike Riley era. Tanner Lee, a transfer from Tulane, is the exciting new quarterback, and as usual Nebraska seems to have weaponry at wide receiver in Stanley Morgan and De’Mornay Pierson-El (yes, he’s still around). A tough schedule that includes a road trip to Oregon in Week 2 has expectations tempered after a 9-4 campaign in 2016.
Nebraska is still looking to regain its salty “Blackshirts” defensive reputation, and it’ll try to get there with new coordinator Bobby Diaco, a former Hawkeye linebacker. Blowout losses last season at Ohio State (62-3) and Iowa (40-10) leave lingering concerns that this program is several steps away from returning to its glory days.
Crossovers: Michigan (home), Rutgers (road), Indiana (home)
Why No. 6?
Purdue seems to have the pieces in place to rebound ... at some point. New coach Jeff Brohm is considered an offensive mastermind — perhaps the administration's attempt to re-discover the Joe Tiller and Drew Brees air-it-out days. Also, the Boilermakers are about to open a $65 million football facility that should help recruiting. There’s nowhere to go but up, with Purdue having won a total of nine games in the past four seasons. Sixteen starters are back, including quarterback David Blough.
Though nine starters return on defense, it’s a defense that ranked 115th against the run a year ago (giving up 238.4 yards a game). That’s where improvement must be made. A nonconference schedule that includes two Power Five opponents — Louisville and Missouri — won’t help the adjustment period. The Boilers have enough intrigue that they might be able to pull and upset somewhere along the way. But the talent isn’t there yet.
Crossovers: Rutgers (home), Indiana (home), Ohio State (road)
Why No. 7?
Check out this stat: Illinois has 64 wins since 2002, an average of 4.27 a season. What happened in 2002? Iowa broke through in Kirk Ferentz’s fourth season. The Hawkeyes, by comparison, have 124 wins in that same span for an 8.27 average. That’s a notable piece of evidence that the longer the Illini can be kept down, the better it is for Iowa. Illinois seems to be a program without an identity under second-year coach Lovie Smith. It looks like 6-foot-4, 230-pound Chayce Crouch is the next man in at quarterback.
The Illini lost almost its entire front seven on defense, including top pass rushers Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot. And though the non-conference schedule doesn’t have any Power Five names, stern tests will come from two 11-win teams a year ago in Western Kentucky (home) and South Florida (away). Getting to a bowl game is going to be a long shot; Vegas has the Illini over/under win total at 3.5.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
Accountability: Revisiting 2016
A look at what columnist Chad Leistikow predicted last year at this time ... and what happened (regular season only).
East Division – Actual (predicted)
Penn State – 10-2, 8-1 (7-5, 5-4)
Ohio State – 11-1, 8-1 (10-2, 8-1)
Michigan – 10-2, 7-2 (11-1, 8-1)
Indiana – 6-6, 4-5 (6-6, 3-6)
Maryland – 6-6, 3-6 (6-6, 3-6)
Michigan State – 3-9, 1-8 (8-4, 6-3)
Rutgers – 2-10, 0-9 (3-9, 1-8)
West Division – Actual (predicted)
Wisconsin – 10-2, 7-2 (5-7, 3-6)
Iowa – 8-4, 6-3 (9-3, 6-3)
Nebraska – 9-3, 6-3 (7-5, 5-4)
Minnesota – 8-4, 5-4 (9-3, 6-3)
Northwestern – 6-6, 5-4 (8-4, 5-4)
Illinois – 3-9, 2-7(6-6, 4-5)
Purdue – 3-9, 1-8 (2-10, 0-9)