2017 Big Ten Conference College Football Preview and Predictions

2017 Big Ten Conference College Football Preview and Predictions
By Mike M, NCAA Football Handicapper, Predictem.com

With the start of college football season just days away, below is a breakdown of the Big Ten Conference with projected standings, odds and picks for each team.

Big Ten East Predictions

1. Ohio State Buckeyes
Preseason ranking: 2

Odds to win Big Ten: -120
Odds to win Big Ten East: -175
Odds to win National Championship: +650
Over/Under regular season wins: 10.5

Head coach Urban Meyer has found great success in his five years at Ohio State, winning at least eleven games in every season while compiling a 61-6 record and winning a Big Ten title and BCS National Championship game in 2014. Their last two seasons have been derailed by a single conference letdown in each, losing to Michigan State late in 2015 and at Penn State in the middle of last year, which eliminated them from any chance of conference or national titles and made especially painful as they were favored to win by at least 14 points in both games. They suffered some heavy losses in the 2017 NFL Draft, but like every year previous are chock full of talent and a definite BCS contender.

Eight starters are back for a stacked offense that returns most of its pieces that helped the team finish nationally 13th in scoring, 11th in rushing and 31st in total yards per game. Quarterback J.T. Barrett returns for his senior season and its easy to see why he is third in Heisman odds at 8-1 after throwing for 2,555 yards and 24 touchdowns while also rushing for 845 yards and 9 additional scores. Sophomore Mike Weber returns at running back and should be considered a decent dark horse Heisman bet and certainly one people will be considering for the trophy next year, after eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark last season and scoring nine touchdowns, and will especially benefit from running behind one of the top lines in the country with four of five starters back highlighted by center Billy Price and left tackle Jamarco Jones.

The Buckeye defense returns seven starters back but they will greatly miss the four gone with all having been selected early in the 2017 NFL Draft defensive backs Marshon Lattimore (1st round ,11th pick), Malik Hooker (1st round, 15th pick), Gareon Conely (1st round, 24th pick) and linebacker Raekwon McMIllan (2nd round, 22nd pick). They still return ample talent and should be able to put up similar numbers to last season when they finished 3rd in scoring, 7th against the pass and 6th in total defense, and this season will feature star power players such as defensive ends Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, Michael Hill and DreMont Jones, linebackers Jerome Worley and Chris Baker and senior safety Damon Webb.

Ohio States first month is highlighted by a non-conference matchup In Columbus against Oklahoma in the second half of a home-and-home series after having beaten the Sooners last season in Norman 45-24. Depending on the outcome of the Oklahoma game, they will either be 5-1 or 6-0 before entering the heart of their Big Ten lineup with consecutive games at Nebraska, home against Penn State and than at Iowa. They as always end the regular season against Michigan, who they have dominated of late by going 12-1 in their last 13 games against them. The ultimate question will be can they avoid the upset pitfall and cost themselves another shot at championship success, which when you are a team the caliber as Ohio State, is the only success that matters.

O-Hi-Over-The Buckeyes Big Ten schedule will never be easy, but they certainly benefit this season by avoiding the best of the West Division with no Wisconsin or Northwestern on the docket. They will likely be favored in every game they play in, and with an over/under of 10.5 they can still afford one mulligan and clear the win total. If looking to preseason bet the Buckeyes, confidently go with the over in wins. Bet YOUR college football spreads, totals and futures using your credit card and receive a GIANT 100% bonus up to $250 FREE at one of the web’s biggest and best football betting sites: Bovada Sportsbook.

2. Penn State Nittany Lions

Preseason ranking:
Odds to win Big Ten: +550
Odds to win Big Ten East: +350
Odds to win National Championship: +1600
Over/Under regular season wins: 9.5

The Nittany Lions were able to far exceed even the loftiest of expectations in 2016, finishing the year with a 11-3 record including their first solo conference championship since 1994 after coming back to beat Wisconsin 38-31 in the Big Ten title game. That success combined with the return of 15 starters along with head coach James Franklin back for his fourth season in State College has many of the teams fans thinking even bigger for this season, including an opportunity to possibly earn their first ever BCS Playoff Berth.

The offense was able to come into its own last season with vastly overrated quarterback Christian Hackenberg finally off to the NFL where his only contribution for the remainder of his career will likely be for the comedic entertainment of those teams lucky enough to be playing the Jets that week. With the reigns handed to quarterback Trace McSorley the offense was able to finish in the top three in the Big Ten in scoring, passing and total yards per game, with McSorley setting school records in both passing yards (3,614) and touchdowns (29) while also throwing for 16.1 yards per completion, which was the top mark in the country. While the team found stability under McSorleys leadership, the true star of the team was running back Saquon Barkley, who earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors after ending the season with 1,496 yards rushing to along with 18 touchdowns scored and this year enters as a consensus 1st Team All American and looking to improve on last years totals behind one of the conferences best offensive lines headlined by senior guards Brandon Mahon and Andrew Nelson.

Defensively Penn State wasnt as fortunate last season, finishing in the bottom half of the Big Ten in every major defensive category (scoring, rushing, passing, total yards). They are expected to improve in most of those areas this season with six starters back including three seniors that are expected to headline each tier of the defense tackle Curtis Cothran, linebacker Jason Cabinda (spelling) and free safety Marcus Allen, who finished last season with the third highest total of tackles in conference with 110. Unfortunately for the team cornerback John Reid was injured in spring practice and is still currently not practicing, but a weak early season schedule should give him and the rest of the roster plenty of time to get up to full health before taking on the brunt of their opponents.

The schedule lines up reasonably well for Penn State, with their three non-conference games all at home and most certainly wins against Akron, Pittsburgh and Georgia State while also benefiting from avoiding Wisconsin from the Big Ten West Division. Their biggest test will be in October when they face road matchups against Northwestern and Ohio State sandwiched around a home game versus Michigan. How they handle that stretch will likely determine whether or they are not only conference contenders, but also BCS Playoff ones as well as they hope to become the 3rd team ever from the Big Ten to secure a spot in the final football four.

Lions Game-Penn State has been underdogs in seven straight bowl games and has gone 2-5 in that span. They dont seem to play their best against quality opponents when away from the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium, having put up a 1-5 record against the spread in their six games as a road underdog. I still cant imagine them winning anything less than nine games, and would likely take to them to take the over in wins in looking to make a wager.

3. Michigan Wolverines

Preseason ranking:
Odds to win Big Ten: +550
Odds to win Big Ten East: +350
Odds to win National Championship: +1600
Over/Under regular season wins: 9

Head coach Jim Harbaugh has been able to get the best out of his team in his first two seasons in Ann Arbor as the sideline leader, with a 10-3 record in consecutive years, and he will certainly have his work cut out for him in 2017 with only five starters back and having lost 11 players to the NFL Draft, the most of any team in college football. .

Their defense that ranked 1st nationally against the pass, 2nd in scoring and 1st in total yards allowed per game was especially hit hard, returning just one starter after having a total of eight players to the NFL Draft, with three coming from the line and the other four the defensive backfield. Despite the heavy losses up front the defensive line is still expects to be their strength in 2017, with Rashan Gray and Maurice Hurst Jr. the best of the group. Linebacker Mike McCray is the lone returning starter and leader in the middle, and the entire front seven as a whole will need to get pressure early in the season so the four new starters to the defensive backfield have time to form a more cohesive unit.

Quarterback Wilton Speight is back for his junior season to lead the offense after throwing for 2,538 yards and a 18-7 TD/INT ratio last season. Speight struggled late in the year, throwing an interception in each of their last five games as the team finished out with a 2-3 record, and may face difficulty early on as the team doesnt not return a single wide receiver that had either 200 yards or more than 16 catches last year. He will thankfully have a strong offensive line in front of him led by senior center Mason Cole and sophomore Ben Bededson, both of whom will also be looking to open things up for expected starter at running back Chris Evans, who will be looking to end a positional drought with no RB having eclipses the 1,000 yard mark at Michigan in the past five straight seasons after both Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint were able to pull it off back in 2011.

Michigan schedule isnt a friendly one, facing eight teams that went to a bowl last season and four that ended the year ranked in the top 25. They do benefit from only five road games, which is especially beneficial considering they are 13-2 over the last two seasons at home and just 7-7 in their last 14 road games A matchup against Florida in Arlington awaits them to start the season, which they at least catch a little of a break with multiple Gators being suspended for the game, and round out their non-conference slate with easy home games against Cincinnati and Air Force. The conference schedule is tough, getting a road matchup against Wisconsin from the Big Ten West, along with an especially tough lineup of East division matchups against Penn State at State College and their yearly finale against Ohio State, a team they have lost to five straight times and in twelve or their last thirteen chances. The Wolverines are double hurt in experience with not only just five returning starters but also only four seniors amongst their entire starting roster, and with that plus a difficult lineup of games awaiting them, Harbaugh and Michigan are likely a year away from truly being able to compete for a BCS playoff spot.

Go Blue Clues-If you are going to preseason prop bet on Michigan, unless you are the most ardent of supporters I would avoid Big Ten title props as I see little value in taking them at their current odds win either the conference as a whole or even just the East, as division mates Ohio State and Penn State both have a drastic edge in talent, experience and schedule strength.

4. Michigan State Spartans

Preseason ranking:
Odds to win Big Ten: +3300
Odds to win Big Ten East: +1600
Odds to win National Championship: +50000
Over/Under regular season wins: 6.5

Going into the 2016 season, Michigan State had won double-digit games in five of the previous six years and was coming off a Big Ten Championship and an appearance in the BCS Playoffs. All of which made last season such a surprise, when the Spartans went just 3-9, including a 1-8 record in the Big Ten, in what was a disastrous tenth year all around head coach Mark Dantonios program. Things have not gotten any better since, as the team has had six players arrested in a nine-month span, including four for sexual assault. With the on and off the field struggles and a team returning only eight starters, Dantonio definitely has his work cut out for him as he attempts to turn things back in the right direction in East Lansing.

Running back L.J. Scott will be the complete focal point of the offense, both due to his talent after rushing for 994 yards and scoring seven touchdowns last season but more importantly because they dont have much else with inexperience all over. Sophomore Brian Lewerke is expected to get the starting nod at quarterback after playing sparing in 2016 before breaking his leg against Michigan in late October, but unfortunately for both Lewerke and L.J. Scott the offensive line in front of them only has two starters back, consists of just one senior and is all around one of the weaker units in conference.

Defensively the Spartans have a severe lack of experience with only four starters back after having lost two players to the NFL draft and some more to graduation along with three of four arrested and then eventually thrown off the team due to their arrests for sexual assaults. They are unlikely to maintain their total defense ranking of 32nd in the nation and will desperately need returning players like senior linebacker Chris Prety and sophomore defensive end Raequan Williams to help offset the learning curve for the newcomers around them.

The Spartans schedule strength of 16th is the second most difficult in the conference behind Illinois, and features nine teams that went to a bowl last season and four that finished the year ranked in the top 25. They do get all three of their non-conference opponents (Bowling Green, Western Michigan and Notre Dame) at home but on the flip side of that have five Big Ten road games including tough draws again East Division powerhouses Ohio State and Michigan along with Minnesota and Northwestern from the West. With a coach like Mark Dantonio there is little chance they will struggle as bad as they did last season, but with a lack of all around experience and a difficult lineup of games, they are not looking close to achieving double digit wins like they have in years past and just getting back to the postseason will be an accomplishment.

Spartan race Even if Michigan State sweeps their non-conference schedule, which could be tough with Notre Dame on the docket, they would still need to get at least four wins in the Big Ten to get to seven victories on the season and clear their over. With games against Rutgers and Maryland the only two near locks in conference, I would recommend taking the under on Sparty for the season.

5. Indiana Hoosiers

Preseason ranking:
Odds to win Big Ten: +10000
Odds to win Big Ten East: +3300
Odds to win National Championship: n/a
Over/Under regular season wins: 6

After making back-to-back bowl games for the first time in 27 years, one thing you wouldnt expect would be for the Hoosiers to make a coaching change, but thats what they were forced to do in December when Kevin Wilson was fired from the university after widespread reports that he mistreated players during his tenure, and was replaced in the offseason by defensive coordinator Tom Allen, who was brought in before last season as a coordinator to fix the defense and improved their overall ranking from 120th in yards allowed per game to 35th.

Offensively they return six starters and there are major holes to fill in two spots, the backfield where they lose their top two in rushing and up front on the line where they return just two starters. With both areas expect be amongst the conferences worst, they will need improvement from quarterback Richard Lagow, who will have to improve on a disappointing 17 interceptions from last season that went a long toward the team finishing 106th nationally in turnover margin. Lagow will certainly benefit from a strong pair of wide receivers in juniors Nick Westbrook and Simmie Cobbs, with Westbrook returning after leading the team in yards and touchdowns last season and Cobbs back from injury that caused him to miss all of last season after catching 60 passes for 1,035 yards in 2015.

The better half of the team is their defense, which returns nine starters including 2nd Team All American linebacker Tegray Scales, who finished last season with 126 tackles and an NCAA leading 23.5 tackles for loss. He is far from alone amongst returning talent, with senior Greg Gooch the best of the lineman up front and the backs highlighted by safety Jonathan Crawford and cornerback Rashard Fant, who also finished last season amongst the nations best with his 17 passed defended ranking second in the NCAA.

Indianas strength of schedule of 110th ranks as the easiest in the Big Ten and they also benefit from three very winnable non-conference games against Virginia, Florida International and Georgia Southern. Matchups against Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin will all be challenging, and the Hoosiers are just 1-16 in their last 17 games against ranked conference opponents, but balance that against drawing all four of the teams ranked lower than them in conference(Maryland, Purdue, Illinois and Rutgers). For the Hoosiers to truly succeed this season they will have to take advantage of lesser opponents on the road and to do so they will need to improve a long standing terribleness in away games, having gone just 13-38 in such over the last decade, but with a talented group of players and a schedule they should be able to take advantage of, I think they are a near sure bet to get back to their third straight bowl game.

Indiover-The Hoosiers would need six wins to at least push on the their over/under and be bowl eligible, and as you can tell above I clearly they will do at least that this season, and would recommend taking their over in wins more than any other team in the division.

6. Maryland Terrapins

Preseason ranking:
Odds to win Big Ten: +10000
Odds to win Big Ten East: +3300
Odds to win National Championship: n/a
Over/Under regular season wins: 3.5

The 2016 season started in promising fashion for the Terps, opening things up with a 4-0 record to begin the year before eventually going just 2-7 the rest of the way and finishing things off with a 36-30 loss to Boston College in a Quick Lane Bowl that they were favored to win. A tough conference schedule awaits head coach D.J. Durkin in his second season as he looks to rebound from the disappointing end to last season while installing a culture of success in College Park.

Former UNC quarterback Caleb Henderson is expected to take over at quarterback for Maryland and unfortunately will inherit a receiving group that returns only one player that a had a catch last season, D.J. Moore, who Henderson will likely rely heavily upon as he and his new wideouts get used to their surroundings. The focal point of the offense is their ground game, led by running back Ty Johnson who is back for his junior year after rushing for 1004 yards with 6 touchdowns a 9.1 yards per carry in 2016 that helped the team rank 43rd in the nation in rushing, which was light years ahead of their scoring (88nd), passing (106th) and total offense (95th).

The defense returns seven starters including their top three players in tackles, most notably the senior linebacking duo of Jermaine Carter Jr. and Shane Cockerille, both of whom had over 100 tackles last season, though doubt remains about Cockerilles availability as he still remains under suspension for disciplinary reasons dating back to before their Quick Lane Bowl loss to BC. The best of the defense is likely up front with end Jesse Aniebonam, who is back for his senior season after leading the team in sacks (9) and tackles for loss (14), and will hopefully help his team turn around their difficulty against stopping the run, having finished ranked 99th in the nation a season ago.

Maryland has struggled against conference opponents since switching over from the ACC in 2014, putting up a record of 8-17 and never having once won back-to-back Big Ten games. They have been especially terrible against the better teams, going 0-9 against those ranked in conference with an average loss of over 30 points per game. Though to be fair, they are just as terrible against Top 25 teams out of conference as well, having lost their last seventeen consecutive matchups against ranked opponents. With a tough all around schedule they will struggle again in 2017, but there is room for hope with a coach like D.J Durkin pulling in one of the conferences top recruiting class in what is a positive sign for things eventually turning around for the Terps.

Pin your hopes Needing just four wins to clear their over/under doesnt seem like much, but Maryland has finished with under 4 wins three times in the past eight seasons, and faces an unlucky conference schedule that draws both Wisconsin and Northwestern from the West and their only chance for Big Ten wins will likely be against Indiana at home or a following week trip to the Bronx to take on Rutgers. If they cant go 2-1 in non-conference play, meaning they would have to beat UCF at home in September as they have no chance of winning at Texas in week one, they will stand next to zero chance of getting to four wins on the season.

7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Preseason ranking:
Odds to win Big Ten: +30000
Odds to win Big Ten East: +7500
Odds to win National Championship: N/A
Over/Under regular season wins: 3

As Chris Ash enters his second season as the Scarlett Knights head coach, he will look to offset a recent downward spiral in New Brunswick that has seen the program go just 6-18 over the past two seasons including a 1-16 mark in conference.

Who will start at quarterback for Rutgers still remains to be seen, with senior Kyle Bolin currently leading a three player race along with junior Giovanni Rescigno and true freshman Jonathan Lewis. The eventual winner will have their work cut out for them as the team returns only two players that had a reception in 2016, Jawwan Harris and special teams dynamo Janarior Grant, along with having to rely on a weak backfield and one of the conferences worst offensive lines. You wouldnt think the Scarlett Knights offense could put up worse stats than it did last season when they ranked 127th in scoring, 103rd in rushing, 122nd in passing and 128th in total yards per game, but with holes and questions marks all over, they could find themselves jousting with the same terribleness as least season.

Their defense looks to be in better shape with eight starters back including their top two in tackles, linebackers Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts, along with three returning starters to a defensive backfield that was their lone bright stop last season, helping the team to finish the year ranked 18th in the nation in passing yards allowed per game thanks in large part to cornerback Blessuan Austin and safety Saquan Hampton. The issue they face is that despite those back they still rank near the bottom of the Big 10 in most positional rankings and with the talented teams around them, they could struggle to improve on last years 126th ranked rushing defense that also finished 116th in points allowed per game.

Rutgers has been able to boost their record recently with a weak non-conference schedule, going 10-2 against such opponents over the past three years, and this season should be able to go 2-1 with likely wins against Eastern Michigan and Morgan State after a guaranteed blowout loss to Washington in week one. Once they start against their Big 10 opponents is when they have run into trouble of late, having gone a winless 0-14 in their last fourteen conference games, including a dismal 3-11 against the spread. This season they benefit by avoiding Wisconsin and Northwestern from the Big Ten West but also only have three true conference home games with their matchup against Maryland taking place at Yankee Stadium, and any real chance of breaking their Big Ten losing streak will likely come in a back-to-back week span when they play fellow conference bottom feeders Illinois and Purdue in mid-October.

Scarlett Fever Despite likely needing just two wins in conference to hit their over in wins mark, I still wouldnt recommend risking money on the Rutgers football team showing any sort of success this season.


Big Ten West Predictions

1. Wisconsin Badgers

Preseason ranking:
Odds to win Big Ten: +375
Odds to win Big Ten West: -125
Odds to win National Championship: +3300
Over/Under regular season wins: 9.5

Wisconsin started the 2016 season unranked only to upset 5th rated LSU in week one as an 11 point underdog, and from that point on stayed in or around then top ten for the remainder of the year before finishing with a 11-3 record. All three of their losses were by one possession and all were against teams ranked in the top eight. This was also the second straight year they finished with just three losses under head coach Paul Chryst, and what is made additionally impressive about his first two years combined record of 21-6 is that after each of those losses they have responded with a win, and are now 6-0 straight and 5-1 against the spread following games in which they were defeated.

The Badgers offense will be led by sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibroo, who is amongst eight returning starters that will hope to improve on last years team rankings of just 104th in passing and 89th in yards per game. He will rely on tight end Troy Mumaali and wide receiver Jazz Peavy as his primary targets, both because of their talent but also because they are the only players back with over 12 catches a season ago. Junior Chris James is expected to take the lead in the backfield with their top two from last season having since graduated, and will have a quality offensive line in front of him highlighted by right guard Beau Benzschawel and sophomore center Michael Deiter.

Defensively the Badgers look to be in good shape, though they took a major hit in early August when it was announced that their best player, senior linebacker Jack Cichy, would miss the season due to a torn ACL suffered during practice. They still return plenty of talent all over, highlighted by end Conor Sheehy, cornerback Derrick Tindal and last years leader in tackles, linebacker T.J. Edwards, but with a new defensive coordinator for the third straight season along with the losses of T.J Watt and Vince Biegel to the NFL and with the now-injured Cichy, it may be tough for them to reach last years defensive dominance that saw them rank nationally 4th in scoring, 3rd against the rush and 7th in yards allowed per game.

Three easy non-conference games greet the Badgers to start the year with a road trip to BYU the only remote challenge, before starting off a conference schedule that avoids both Ohio State and Penn State from the Big Ten East and gets two of their biggest challenges to the Big Ten West, Northwestern and Iowa, at home where they are 78-10 over the last thirteen seasons. Wisconsin has been to the Big Ten Championship Game in four of the six years of its existence with wins in 2011 and 2012, and thanks to their manageable schedule should find themselves back there again as the rightful strong favorite to win the conferences West division.

Badgering the schedule-Wisconsin has at least eight wins in eight straight seasons and double-digit victories in six of those eight. With Chryst at the helm, plenty of talent on both sides and mostly thanks to a schedule that will likely see them favored in every one of their games, I wouldnt hesitate in taking the Badgers to hit the over in wins this season.

2. Northwestern Wildcats

Preseason ranking:
Odds to win Big Ten: +1600
Odds to win Big Ten West: +500
Odds to win National Championship: +30000
Over/Under regular season wins: 8

With the most experienced team in the Big Ten with sixteen returning starters, all of which are also juniors and seniors, and a strength of schedule that ranks 94th in the country and second easiest amongst the conference, expectations are as high as most of the GPAs at Northwestern as they look to possibly reach the double-digit win plateau for what would be the third time in the past six seasons.

Plenty of talent returns with eight starters back, but none nearly as important as senior running back Justin Jackson, who led the Big Ten in rushing last season with 1,524 yards on the ground with 15 touchdowns and an additional 35 receptions in the passing game. His usage seemed to have a strong effect on their success rate last season, as games that Jackson carried the ball more than 23 times the Wildcats went 5-0 and in those in which he had under 21 carries they were 0-4. Joining Jackson in the backfield will be returning starter at quarterback Clayton Thorson, who is back for his junior season after throwing for 3,182 yards and an efficient 22/9 TD-INT ratio, and Thorson will be looking to make a quick connection with Oregon transfer Jalen Brown as the team looks to make up for the loss of last years star at wide receiver and now New England Patriot, Austin Carr.

The backfield will be the strength of the defense, with safety Godwin Igwebuike the teams leader in tackles a season ago with 108 joined by one of the best cornerback tandems in the country consisting of Keith Watkins and Montre Haritage. They have a clear weakness at linebacker with only one returning starters in the group, but should be able to offset that with a strong defense line led by senior Xavier Washington.

Northwestern should be 3-0 before starting their conference schedule, which begins in brutal fashion with games at Wisconsin followed by a homecoming showdown against Penn State. After that things get a lot easier and the Wildcats should be able to find success the rest of the way out and give themselves a chance to improve on an all-time school bowl record of 3-10, which they have at least started to do in recently having won two of the last three postseason games, and quite possibly be favored in one for the first time in what would be their 14th appearance.

Wild about the Cats With all their experience plus a beneficial schedule that should see them underdogs in possibly only two games, I am all about taking the over on wins for Northwestern in 2017.

3. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Preseason ranking:
Odds to win Big Ten: +2500
Odds to win Big Ten West: +600
Odds to win National Championship: +20000
Over/Under regular season wins: 7

Oddsmakers had the Cornhuskers pegged perfectly in 2016, with the team winning all nine of the games it was favored in and losing the four in which they were underdogs to finish the season with a 9-4 record. This was the fifth time in the past six seasons that Nebraska finished with just four losses and will look to maintain that level of success in 2017 in what will be Mike Rileys third season as the head coach in Lincoln.

They will look toward Tulane transfer Tanner Lee to lead the team at quarterback and with his skill set seems like more a fit for a Mike Riley offense than those who have tried before him. Lees weapons are lacking at wide receiver with three of their top four in receptions gone from a season ago but thankfully at least returns standout Stanley Morgan Jr., who is the son of the all-time New England Patriots leader in receiving yards. The Cornhusker backfield is surprisingly weak as well, and will look for sophomore Tre Bryant to help spark the running game behind a solid offensive line highlighted by left tackle Nick Gates.

The defense suffered losses as well with their top three in tackles from 2016 having since graduated, and will look mostly for a talented secondary to help even things out with weaknesses up front on the line and especially within a depleted linebacking group. Senior cornerback Chris Jones may be the best of the defensive backs and is joined by an experienced group of safeties that are also the top three returning tacklers on the team; Aaron Williams, Kieron Williams and Joshua Kalu.

Nebraskas schedule benefits from containing only five road games, which is always a good thing for a team that has gone 40-10 at home over the past seven seasons. They do have a tough road opener against Oregon in week two, which is an area they have struggled in recently with early non-conference losses to begin the season in 2015 against Miami and in both 2012 and 2013 versus UCLA. They will hope to also change a recent downturn against Big Ten competition, going a disappointingly mediocre 10-10 in their last 20 conference games, though that may not be so easy this season as they draw both Ohio State and Penn State from the Big Ten East along with the usual tough West division games against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa.

Lincoln Lowdown To hit the over in wins Nebraska would need at least eight on the season, which is something they have accomplished in 8 of the last 9 seasons. While I do think the team will be improved on offense, getting to eight wins may be too difficult a task even with getting four of their toughest five conference games at home.

4. Iowa Hawkeyes

Preseason ranking:
Odds to win Big Ten: +2500
Odds to win Big Ten West: +600
Odds to win National Championship: +30000
Over/Under regular season wins: 6.5

Entering his nineteenth season as the head coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes, Kirk Ferentz is the longest tenured sideline leader in all of college football with Bob Stoops having unexpected retired back in June. Ferentz has led his team to fourteen bowl trips in the past sixteen seasons and has ended a year with at least 8 wins in nine of the last past fifteen. With losses on the offensive side of the ball and a tough conference schedule awaiting them, Ferentz and his Hawkeyes will definitely have their work cut out for them in 2017.

Even with having quarterback C.J. Beathard, who has since picked in the 3rd round of the NFL Draft, the Iowa offense still struggled in the passing game, finishing 118th nationally and second to last in the Big Ten in yards per game through the air. This raises the question of just how bad they will be without not only Beathard, but also having lost tight end Goerge Kittle to the draft and expected to start at wide receiver Jeminic Smith is now no longer with the team as of May for this year after having previous issues with academics. This leaves just an injury prone Matt Vandeberg at receiver and senior Akrum Wadley as the only reliable skill position players on the team, and with all the difficulty amongst that part of the offense, they are incredibly beneficial to return all five starters to their offensive line that last season won the Joe Moore Award as the best in the country.

The Hawkeye defense looks to be in much better shape with eight starters back including their top four in tackles. Their strength is at the linebacker position, most notably with senior Josey Jewell, who led the team in tackles a season ago with 124 and end up making the 2nd Team All-Big Ten team. Surrounding Jewell at the position will be fellow seniors Bo Bower and Ben Niemann, and they will team up with lineman Nathan Bazata and Anthony Nelson in hopes of offsetting a defensive backfield that lost both of their starting cornerbacks from last season including NFL drafted Desmond King.

Part of Iowas recent success in the regular season is their ability to win on the road, going 16-4 over the last four seasons, 9-1 in their last 10 away conference games and putting up an especially impressive 11-1 mark against the spread in their last 12 as road favorites. The issue for them though seems to be once they get out of the comfort of the regular season, as they have lost five straight bowl games by an average of over 19 points per game and have finished a year ranked just once since 2009.

Hawkeye Down-Iowas schedule is not lined up well for elite conference success this season, having to face all three teams above them in the Big Ten West (Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska) on the road while also drawing Ohio State and Penn State from the Big Ten East. As such, I wouldnt consider taking them to win the Big Ten West, let alone the entire conference.

5. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Preseason ranking:
Odds to win Big Ten: +3300
Odds to win Big Ten West: +650
Odds to win National Championship: +50000
Over/Under regular season wins: 7.5

Last season Minnesota finished with a record of 9-4, which was just the second time since 1905 that they ended a campaign with at least nine wins. Regrettably with that success came controversy, with then coach Tracy Claeys eventually being removed from his job for publically supporting a team led boycott after the University had suspended ten players for their unfortunate role in a case involving sexual assault. With Claeys out Minnesota made a big splash in hiring away from P.J. Fleck from Western Michigan after he had led his former team to a 13-1 record in 2016 and now gives a huge boost of momentum the Gopher program as it attempts to maintain positive relevance within the Big Ten.

Despite returning seven starters, plenty of questions remain for Minnesota offense, most notably within a passing attack that ranked 111th last season in yards per game. Whoever wins the starting quarterback job between Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda will be both inexperienced and also throwing to a lacking group of wide receiver targets with the additional unfortunateness of being protected by a less than stellar offensive line. The one shining spot for the squad is running back Rodney Smith, who is back for his junior season after rushing for 1,158 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016 and is also the teams returning leader in receptions after catching 23 a season ago.

The defense faces experience issues with only five starters back and missing two of their top three in tackles from 2016. Their lone positional strength is amongst the linebackers, which are highlighted by returning leader in tackles Jonathan Celeston and sacks Blake Cashman, and they will need Steven Richardson up front and son of former NFL cornerback Antoine Winfield amongst the backs to help compensate for the newcomers around them.

With the addition of P.J. Fleck and a schedule that ranks just 102nd in strength, the Gophers outlook is a positive one despite the experience questions marks on both sides of the ball. A road trip to Oregon State is their only difficult non-conference game and they benefit from avoiding both Ohio State and Penn State from the Big Ten East, which is especially key for Minnesota as they are 0-29 in their last 29 games against teams ranked in the top 20. How they end their season in the final month will say a lot about how far they have come in their initial season under Fleck, as they will likely be underdogs in their final five with games at Iowa, at Michigan, Nebraska, at Northwestern and finishing at home against Wisconsin. They have found little to no success against some of those teams of late, recently having gone 1-4 against Iowa, 4-44 vs. Michigan and 0-13 against Wisconsin.

Going-pher it I do believe P.J. Fleck will have a strong effect on the Minnesota program both on and off the field this season, but with that tough end of the year schedule, general lack of experience and historic lack of success against quality opponents, I do not foresee them getting over 7.5 wins this season.

6. Purdue Boilermakers

Preseason ranking:
Odds to win Big Ten: +20000
Odds to win Big Ten West: +2200
Odds to win National Championship: n/a
Over/Under regular season wins: 2.5

Former Louisville quarterback and head coach at Western Kentucky Jeff Brohm takes over as the sideline leader in West Lafayette after Darrell Hazells was finally let go from the program. Hazell struggled mightily in his four years at Purdue, leaving with a 9-39 record overall (with four of those wins coming against FCS level opponents), which includes a 3-30 mark vs. the Big Ten, 2-17 on the road and especially disappointing 4-16 against the spread record at home, a double hurt for home town fans attempting to make the game more interesting to watch with some side action.

Quarterback David Blough is back for the Boilermakers after leading them to the top rated passing game in the Big Ten a season ago, but his weapons are lacking around him with four of their top five in receptions having moved on since last year. While Blough was tops in the conference with 25 touchdown passes, he also through threw the most interceptions with 21 which went a long toward Purdues unfortunate turnover margin of -17 that was 128th in the nation. Another issue facing the quarterback is the offensive line in front of him, which returns only two starters from an already lacking group that was the reason for their team finishing 91st in sacks allowed 125th in rushing yards per game.

The defense looks to be in better shape with eight starters back, including six of their top seven in tackles from 2016 including team leader with 97, linebacker Marcus Bailey, along with defensive lineman Galen Robinson, who is the son of Boilermaker basketball legend Glenn Robinson. More than anything the squad will need to improve on its points allowed, as they ranked l17th in the country and last in the Big Ten in that category in 2016 after allowed less than 24 points in a game only once all season and let up an average of over 43 points per game in conference play.

It is only up from here for Brohm and the Boilermakers, taking over a program that hasnt come close to making a bowl over the past four seasons and thinking even bigger has only won one conference championship in the past 50 years. The schedule isnt easy having to face nine teams that went to a bowl last season, but at least they avoid Ohio State and Penn State from the East and instead draw the divisions worst team in Rutgers. If they intend on building momentum for this season and next as well, they will need to learn to finish of their year in stronger fashion, having gone 0-17 in their last seventeen November games and not having won during that month since 2012.

Hard Boiled Purdues over/under of 2.5 is the lowest of any team in a Power 5 conference and tied for the lowest amongst all 130 FBS teams. The Boilermakers could be favored in as many as four games (on the road against Rutgers and at home against Ohio, Illinois and Indiana) and if forced to choose I would lean toward the over especially considering the lowest of thresholds needed to clear the minimal total.

7. Illinois Fighting Illini

Preseason ranking:
Odds to win Big Ten: +20000
Odds to win Big Ten West: +3300
Odds to win National Championship: n/a
Over/Under regular season wins: 3.5

Head coach Lovie Smith is back for his second year in Urbana-Champaign as he attempts to bring the Illini program out of the Big Ten basement and toward a return of relevance in the college football world after having made just one bowl in the past five years.

Illinois has had just one double-digit win season since 1989 when Jeff George led the team to a 10-2 record and went on to get chosen first in the NFL Draft before his rampant personality issues destroyed any chance of a successful pro career. His son, Jeff George Jr., is now currently on the roster and was originally expected to possibly start the season at quarterback, but now it looks like the job may go to Virginia Tech transfer Dwayne Lawson or junior Chayce Crouch, who has dual-threat abilities behind center and could provide additional options for the Illini behind center as they attempt to improve a dismal offensive showing in 2016 when they ranked 122nd in scoring and 123rd in yards per game. Thankfully for whoever wins the job they will have a strong group of receiving threats as the position is the lone strength of the Illinios squad, senior Malik Turner back after catching 48 passes for 712 yards and six touchdowns in 2016, but the major bolster is the return of Mike Dudek, who is two years removed from a 1,000 yard season and is expected to make a healthy return to the field after injuries derailed his recent future.

There are holes to fill on the defense with their top five in sacks gone along with six of their top ten in tackles, including their two best from a season ago, linebacker Hardy Nickerson and defensive end Dawuane Smoot, both of whom have moved on to careers in the NFL. The best of those remaining are linebacker Tre Watson, the returning leader in tackles with 102 and senior cornerback Jaylen Dunlap, who paced the team with 11 pass breakups in 2016, but there is not much else there and the squad as a whole should struggle mightily throughout the season.

A tough schedule awaiting the Illini, ranked 14th in strength and facing nine teams that went to a bowl in 2016. They at least have only five road games, which is good for them seeing as they have gone just 8-33 in their last 41 on away from home, and thankfully avoid Penn State and Michigan from the Big Ten East, another positive as they have struggled against conference foes of late with a record of 10-39 straight up and 18-31 against the spread in their last 49 Big Ten games. The biggest issue facing Illinois is their lack of both talent and especially experience with only six seniors amongst the 44 players on their first and second stringers on the depth chart, and that along with a non-conference schedule that includes Western Kentucky and South Florida followed by the usual array of tough Big Ten games means coach Smith and his squad will have a difficult time improving on last years disappointment and realistically have zero chance of getting back to the postseason.

Fighting chance-Illinois will likely be an underdog in a majority of their games, which is a role that hasnt suited them well of late, going 2-14 straight up and just 5-11 against the spread in their last 16 games when getting points. Their best chances at wins this season will be at home against Ball State, Rutgers or Indiana and on the road against Purdue. With only four decent opportunities and an over/under of 3.5, I would go toward the under in wins for Illinios.

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