USA TODAY's Big Ten preseason power rankings: Can Iowa Hawkeyes challenge at the top?
To get ready for the upcoming season, USA TODAY Sports is ranking each of the Power Five leagues from its best team through its worst. Up next: the Big Ten Conference.
The rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State lost one of its central players in Urban Meyer but figures to remain as meaningful a regular-season game to be found across the Bowl Subdivision. As of the summer, the finale promises to be a winner-take-all matchup with seismic postseason implications.
That’s if Michigan State doesn’t upset expectations with its every-odd-year rise into New Year’s Six bowl contention. (The Spartans are 46-8 in odd years and 39-25 in even years this decade.) Parity reigns in the West, where every team but Illinois can make a realistic preseason claim for a shot at the conference title.
(Each team is followed by projected regular-season record. Number in parenthesis represents the team’s place in USA TODAY Sports’ summer rankings of the Bowl Subdivision.)
1. Michigan: 11-1 (No. 4)
Here are the ingredients for a Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff berth: Michigan has a senior quarterback, an updated offense, a motivated and talented defense and games at home against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State. Now it is up to the Wolverines to go out and win their first Big Ten title since 2004.
2. Ohio State: 10-2 (No. 7)
Picking the Buckeyes to finish second in the East seems strange, not to mention potentially inaccurate, but Michigan’s offseason improvements, the unknown commodity of new head coach Ryan Day and no clear answer at quarterback knocks OSU down one peg. That said, there's plenty of talent make the season finale unforgettable.
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3. Michigan State: 9-3 (No. 19)
The defense seems vintage, quarterback Brian Lewerke is set for a rebound season after being plagued by injury and the offensive line has the bones of a fantastic group. But getting both the Wolverines and Buckeyes on the road is a concern for the Spartans.
4. Iowa: 8-4 (No. 21)
Senior quarterback Nate Stanley, an experienced crop of running backs and a strong defensive back seven outweigh the daunting hole at tight end and the need for multiple defensive linemen to step up and join likely All-America pick A.J. Epenesa.
5. Nebraska: 9-3 (No. 23)
This is a program back on the rise with a quarterback, Adrian Martinez, set to begin an inevitable charge toward prime Heisman Trophy consideration. Pegging the Cornhuskers to leap from back-to-back four-win seasons into New Year’s Six contention seems premature — even if coach Scott Frost has done it before.
6. Penn State: 8-4 (No. 28)
There simply aren’t enough wins in the East to go around for Penn State, which has the talent and coaching to stick in the Top 25 but is not as solidly constructed as the division’s top three. A lot will depend on how sophomore quarterback Sean Clifford handles his role as the starter after Trace McSorley's departure.
7. Wisconsin: 8-4 (No. 34)
The presence of All-America running back Jonathan Taylor should keep the running game humming even as the team retools on the offensive line. That will be enough to keep the Badgers in contention despite a very difficult conference schedule and the increasing likelihood that Paul Chryst goes with a true freshman at quarterback.
8. Minnesota: 8-4 (No. 36)
With 16 returning starters and realistic hopes for carrying over last year’s midseason improvement on defense, the Golden Gophers must be taken seriously as an option to win the West. An injury to Zack Annexstad puts he quarterback job in the hands of Tanner Morgan with no experience behind him.
9. Northwestern: 6-6 (No. 50)
Pat Fitzgerald’s team draws Stanford in the opener, gets Ohio State and Michigan State from the East and plays Wisconsin and Nebraska on the road, leaving little room for error as the Wildcats aim to once again exceed preseason expectations after reaching the conference title game in 2018.
10. Purdue: 6-6 (No. 72)
Wide receiver Rondale Moore is worth the price of admission but the sophomore can’t do it alone, as an underclassmen-heavy roster and concerns on defense should have the Boilermakers scratching and clawing to claim bowl eligibility. If quarterback Elijah Sindelar can stay healthy, the offense looks to be good enough to get the job done.
11. Indiana: 6-6 (No. 83)
Indiana will struggle against the league’s elite, as expected, but the Hoosiers’ increased depth nearly across the board, very solid offensive backfield and options at quarterback will lead to a return to bowl play after a two-year absence.
12. Maryland: 4-8 (No. 102)
New coach Mike Locksley’s recruiting prowess is already paying dividends and will eventually lead Maryland to bolster its depth chart. Unfortunately, it won’t help the Terrapins navigate a bruising 2019 schedule while adapting to new offensive and defensive schemes.
13. Illinois: 3-9 (No. 111)
If you squint and look closely you might be able to identify Illinois’ general plan under Lovie Smith — to win a few recruiting battles at skill positions and then load up on top-rated transfers — but even last season’s subtle improvement did little to alter the perception that the Illini are a sinking ship.
14. Rutgers: 2-10 (No. 116)
Outside of unreasonable optimism, there’s no rationale for budging the Scarlet Knights out of a place at or near the bottom of the Big Ten, let alone the entire Power Five.