The East Is Loaded… Again « Detroit News Watch

Ryan Mayer

The conversation surrounding the Big Ten as a whole the past few years has been whether it has passed the SEC as the nation’s premier conference. The East Division is stacked, with its top four teams expected to win at least nine games by the Vegas oddsmakers, and the West features a strong Wisconsin team, solid Iowa squad and some potentially surprising units in Northwestern and Purdue. While we’ll never be able to settle the question of which conference is better, one thing’s for sure, the Big Ten is going to be brutally tough once again this season.

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East Division

Ohio State Buckeyes-

(O/U 10.5 wins)

The Buckeyes program is currently embroiled in turmoil, as head coach Urban Meyer has been placed on administrative leave after information came to light that he knew about assistant coach Zach Smith’s abusive behavior towards his ex-wife Courtney. The school is in the midst of its investigation, so no decision has been made yet. But if Meyer is canned, that could have a big effect on this team and how the conference plays out.

As for on the field, the Buckeyes lose long-time starter J.T. Barrett, and a bunch of starters from last year’s defense. But Meyer’s recruiting has been downright ridiculous, and there are former four and five-stars waiting to step in all over the defensive unit, to go along with stud DE Nick Bosa. On offense, former four-star recruit Dwayne Haskins steps in for Barrett. Lest you worry about first-year starter struggles, the Buckeyes can lean on a pair of stud running backs (J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber), and their entire receiving corps is back, along with most of the offensive line.

In all, the Buckeyes have the talent to run the table despite a tough schedule. But it depends how the Meyer situations plays out. Plus 10.5 wins is a high bar to clear. Under 10.5

Penn State Nittany Lions-

(O/U 9.5 wins)

The biggest hole to fill here is obviously all-world RB Saquon Barkley, who’s now with the Giants. But just because Barkley’s gone doesn’t mean you should expect a huge drop from this crew. The biggest reason is starting QB Trace McSorely is back. While he’ll be working with a new coordinator in Ricky Rahne, he’s got a potential breakout star in RB Miles Sanders, receivers Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins return, along with the best offensive line the school has had in years.

The defense needs to find some new stars, as eight starters depart from last year. But coordinator Brent Pry was liberal with playing time last year, getting 31 different guys onto the field last season who made at least five tackles. DE Shareef Miller is back, as is CB Amari Oruwariye, who was third on the team in passes defensed last year. In short, this defense could be better than expected given the departures. The schedule is also favorable, with Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa having to make the trip to Happy Valley, along with a road date to Michigan. The potential is there for a big year, but assuming 10 wins or more is tough with the departures. I’ll say 9-3. Under 9.5

Michigan Wolverines-

(O/U 9 wins)

Questions are starting to arise around Jim Harbaugh and when the Wolverines will become what they were expected to be when he was hired. Right now, Michigan is 1-5 against OSU and MSU in his tenure, and that can ratchet up the pressure. This season he has his best QB yet (Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson), both RBs (Karan Higdon and Chris Evans), top receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Grant Perry and four of five starters along the offensive line. This offense shouldn’t have the same struggles as last year’s group, but no offensive coordinator has been officially named yet, which is concerning.

On defense, Don Brown has led groups that have given up 14.1 (2016) and 18.8 (2017) PPG in his two seasons as coordinator. This group will be stingy too with nickel back/safety Khaleke Hudson, DEs Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, LB Devin Bush and basically the entire secondary back.

The big issue is the schedule. It’s not favorable, with the Wolverines making trips to Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State while hosting Wisconsin and Penn State. It comes down to success against those big programs, and with a better QB, that success could come this year. Over 9

Michigan State Spartans-

(O/U 9 wins)

Mark Dantonio’s Spartans got right back on track last year after a disastrous 2016. Sparty doesn’t really produce the starry names that you’ll hear week in, week out in national conversation, but they get the job done regardless. This year will be no different. A young team went 10-3 last year, and now basically everybody is back. That’s a recipe for a big season. QB Brian Lewerke has all of his top receivers back, making for a solid passing game once more. The biggest change that needs to come is in the run game, which struggled last year, with no back hitting a thousand yards and only LJ Scott (4.5 YPC) exceeding four yards per carry. The backs return as does the offensive line, so there’s potential to be much better.

Defense is Dantonio’s calling card, and the Spartans will likely be stellar there again, having to replace just two major contributors (DE Demetrius Cooper and LB Chris Frey) from last year’s unit. The schedule lays out nicely, without particularly difficult out-of-conference games and Ohio State and Michigan coming to East Lansing. They also avoid Wisconsin and Iowa out of the West. Another 10-win season seems possible, but we’ll play it safe and say nine. Push 9

Indiana Hoosiers-

(O/U 5 wins)

Now we get to the teams that, unfortunately for them, have to contend with the above stud four on a yearly basis. The Hoosiers could be quite fun this year, with QBs Peyton Ramsey and Brandon Dawkins, a talented receiving group that includes Luke Timian and Nick Westbrook, and a defense that returns a solid core of players and gets a pair (DB Marcelino Ball and DE Niles Sykes) back from injury.

But LBs Tegray Scales and Chris Covington, who were both big parts of stopping opponents running games last year, depart. Replacing them won’t be easy. On offense, the top two running backs return, but the team averaged just 130 yards per game on the ground last season. Against a tough Big Ten East, not being able to effectively run and create shorter third downs is a death knell.

The Hoosiers split trips to the big four and face OSU & Michigan on the road and PSU and MSU at home. That’s four likely losses not including toss-up games with Iowa, Minnesota and Purdue. Push 5

Maryland Terrapins-

(O/U 4.5 wins)

Maryland was ravaged by injuries to their QBs last season killing what could have been a fun offense that put up 51 in its opener against Texas. Now both Tyrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill are back from injury, along with RB Ty Johnson (2,000+ career yards) and its entire offensive line. The offense does need to replace stud receiver D.J. Moore, but everyone else is back. The offense also has a new coordinator in Matt Canada, who was explosive at Pitt and less so at LSU.

On defense, DE Jesse Aniebonam is joined by DE Byron Cowart, a former Auburn commit. Outside of them, though, the line and linebackers are a question mark. The secondary should be quite good, with basically the entire unit returning, but the front seven’s improvement (or lack thereof) will determine the level of success for this group.

Outside of the match-ups against the conference’s elite, the Terps face Texas, a tough Temple team and have to travel to Iowa. It’s a rough life in the Big Ten East and this year is no different for D.J. Durkin. Under 4.5

Rutgers Scarlet Knights-

(O/U 4 wins)

Rutgers has been the laughingstock recently, but there was a time not too long ago when this was an up-and-coming program. The Scarlet Knights have proven to be out of their depth in the Big Ten, but Chris Ash seemed to begin to get things going in the right direction, at least defensively.

The offense is still a problem. QB Giovanni Rescigno is back, but he’s completed just 50 percent of his passes in his career, and he’s going to be working with a largely new group of receivers, running backs and a young offensive line. That doesn’t seem to signal much improvement for a group that averaged just 18 PPG last season (13 in conference).

On defense, there’s more hope with basically all of the linebackers and secondary returning and solid linemen Kenny Wilkins and Jon Bateky back. That’s good-ish news, but there’s only so much this unit can do if the offense isn’t capable of sustaining drives. With a young group, it could be another long year.

The good news is Texas State, Kansas, Buffalo and Illinois are all on the schedule which could equal four wins. Push 4

West Division

Wisconsin Badgers-

(O/U 10 wins)

The Badgers went 13-1 last year and now return starting QB Alex Hornibrook, his top three receivers, stud RB Jonathan Taylor and three starters on the offensive line. The defense brings back most of the front seven. Yes, the Badgers should be quite good once again.

As a true freshman last season, Taylor averaged 6.6 yards per carry and came up just short of 2,000 yards (1,977). Now, entering his sophomore year, he has a good QB that can open things up in the passing game and an offensive line that features two All-Americans and two All-Conference team members. There’s only so much that can be said here. The Badgers will bludgeon you with Taylor until you can stop them. Good luck.

On defense, there are more question marks, particularly in the secondary, but if history is any indication, UW will figure it out. Wisconsin has been consistently dominant on defense under coach Paul Chryst (13.7, 15.6, and 13.9 PPG) and while those numbers will regress some with new faces, the offense can pick up the slack.

Here’s the downside. The Badgers go to Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern and Penn State. So double-digit wins is possible, but not necessarily likely. Under 10

Iowa Hawkeyes-

(O/U 7.5 wins)

The Hawkeyes have both positive and negative signs heading into 2018. Positive? QB Nate Stanley, two of the top three receivers and both tackles return on offense. On defense, they get safety Brandon Snyder back from injury and have a deep rotation on the defensive line.

Negative? The top two running backs and the entire interior of the offensive line departs on offense. Defensively, they have to replace tackle machine Josey Jewell and stud CB Josh Jackson. So where does that leave Iowa heading into this season? Well, depends on how the first four games go.

The Hawkeyes face NIU, Iowa State, Northern Iowa and Wisconsin at home to start the year. The back-half of the schedule features five away games as a result. A 4-0 or 3-1 start means the over is in play. Something other than that? Much less likely. Under 7.5

Nebraska Cornhuskers-

(O/U 6 wins)

There’s plenty of hype surrounding the Cornhuskers, with the hire of new head coach Scott Frost. But that hype is largely for the coming years ahead, not for 2018. This season is likely to be a bit of a reset for the program, because aside from a new head coach, there’s not a ton to get excited about.

The plus side on offense for Frost is that he has an experienced line to work with and a pair of good receivers in Stanley Morgan and J.D. Spielman. The problem is they’ll be breaking in a new QB, who’s either a walk-on (junior Andrew Bunch) or a freshman (redshirt Andrew Gebbia or true frosh Adrian Martinez). Any of those options isn’t going to be ideal, especially in a new offensive system. Granted, Frost’s up-tempo style is QB-friendly, but it’s likely to take a year before we figure out how great it can be here.

Defensively, the ‘Huskers should be solid, with nearly everyone returning for new coordinator Eric Chinander. Still, the offense will be a problem, not to mention a schedule featuring Colorado and MSU at home and trips to Michigan, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Ohio State and Iowa. Under 6

Northwestern Wildcats-

(O/U 6 wins)

The Wildcats won 10 games last season despite starting the year 2-3. They ripped off eight straight victories to end the season, leaving fans feeling good heading into the offseason. Then the Wildcats added Clemson transfer and former five-star recruit QB Hunter Johnson, who will be eligible in 2019. Things are looking up for this program, but this year will be interesting.

The offense loses star running back Justin Jackson, but does return QB Clayton Thorson, the top two receivers and a solid offensive line. Thorson will have to be better than his junior year output (60% 2,844 yards 15 TD 12 INT) for this offense to really get rolling and make up for the loss of Jackson. If Thorson is able to make the improvement that had one Bleacher Report writer tagging him as a 2019 1st round pick, this unit could be quite good.

Defensively, the Wildcats return the entire front seven, but must replace both safeties and a corner in the secondary. The schedule gets rough after the first three weeks, so a good start will be key here. Push 6

Minnesota Golden Gophers-

(O/U 6 wins)

P.J. Fleck enters Year 2 with the Gophers in an interesting spot. After just missing out on bowl eligibility last year at 5-7, Fleck has a solid supporting cast on offense but an open QB spot. On defense, the linebackers and secondary saw some young guys get experience last year, and they should see a solid step forward with more experience, but the defensive line depth is light.

On offense, RB Rodney Smith, WR Tyler Johnson and most of the line is back. But at QB, both Connor Rhoda and Demry Croft are gone, leaving a hole likely to be filled by a freshman. As with Nebraska above, that’s not an ideal way to win games in this conference.

On defense, LBs Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin return, plus a couple of young guys in the secondary who got experience last season. That’s the good news. And if some guys step up along the line, this could be a solid unit.

The schedule is favorable too, avoiding most of the big boys from the East (only face Ohio State) and getting Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue and Indiana at home. Still, with a freshman QB, a bowl may be tough to come by. Under 6

Purdue Boilermakers-

(O/U 6 wins)

Jeff Brohm engineered quite the turnaround at Purdue, with the Boilermakers going 7-6 last year and winning their first bowl game since 2011 after going 3-9 in 2016. That’s a great first year, but now things get tougher, as the senior-laden defense has graduated most of its members, and expectations are a little higher again in West Lafayette.

QB Elijah Sindelar returns after a solid sophomore season and with him are most of his weapons too, as the receiving corps, outside of Anthony Mahaoungo, returns. The top four running backs from last season are back too, as is the entire offensive line. Brohm was known for explosive offenses at WKU, and he has the man power to put something together here.

The offense will need to pick up, because the defense is going to be younger. LB Markus Bailey is back, and he’ll provide some good leadership for the young guys. But it will still take some time to come together. The schedule doesn’t feature a lot of clearly winnable games, which makes the record tough to predict. Based on the young defense and tough slate, I’m going just under bowl eligibility, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I’m wrong. Under 6

Illinois Fighting Illini-

(O/U 3.5 wins)

The Lovie Smith experiment has yet to bear fruit in Champaign. Through two years, he’s 5-19, and while there’s some upside for the future here, this season seems likely to be more of the same.

Sophomore QB Cam Thomas proved to have some dual-threat ability in limited action last year. Now, with Jeff George Jr. transferring and Chayce Crouch retiring, Thomas is the leading returnee. He has a new coordinator in Rod Smith and will have the top two backs, top receiver and four starting offensive linemen in front of him. The problem is we don’t know what Thomas can be since he played in small samples last season. Under a new coordinator from a spread background, we’ll find out this year.

On defense, Smith started freshmen at basically every level last year, so most of the unit is back, which should lead to some improvement. The problem is after games against Kent State and Western Illinois to open the year, the Illini will be favored in exactly 0 games in all likelihood. Under 3.5

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