2019 NCAAF Preview: Big Ten Conference

August 29, 2019
By K. Becks

As the Big Ten East Division continues to produce College Football Playoff contenders year in and year out, it has been some time since the West Division has been able to keep up. However, things are looking up for that side of the conference in 2019 as well.

Nebraska looks to build on its limited yet noted improvement in the second half of 2018, while Wisconsin will try to bounce back from a “disappointing” 8-5 campaign. Northwestern, despite winning the West in 2018, will look to disprove the critics that expect regression from the Wildcats this season.

Still, there is a reason why the conference holds a conference title game at the beginning of December. With Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State all in the East, you’re typically a damn good football team surviving that gauntlet.

College Football Playoff Contenders

Michigan

It feels as though these days the majority of the country is tired of the hype and only wants to see results from the Wolverines. Granted, Around The Corn

is based in the heart of Buckeye Country, but the sentiment is not entirely incorrect if you listen to the national media. On paper, Michigan appears to have everything necessary to make a run towards the CFP and, equally as important to the fan base, capture Jim Harbaugh’s first victory as a head coach against Ohio State.

Much of the optimism is centered around the offense, which brings in new coordinator Josh Gattis, who will run more spread looks and will likely increase the offensive tempo of the Wolverines. This approach suits the skillset of Shea Patterson, who ran that type of style at Ole Miss and has yet to truly show off the type of skills that have landed him on the preseason Heisman watch list. If Gattis can deliver and the defense fills holes created by departures on the line and at linebacker, Michigan may finally produce some results to validate the hype.

Ohio State

It’s never easy to follow in the footsteps of a legend, but at least Ryan Day got a head start. Fans in Columbus feel fairly confident about what they’ll get with Day, who served as interim head coach in 2018 during Urban Meyer’s three-game suspension. What is not as clear is how the Buckeyes will fare offensively with a talent though new quarterback and an offensively line that needs to be almost completely rebuilt. Defensively, the Buckeyes may actually improve and could have a key advantage in The Game with former Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison jetting Ann Arbor for Columbus.

The bottom line is, Meyer’s recruiting efforts have set Day up for a dream first head coaching position. There is talent and speed all over the field and the next man up mentality should translate to holes from last year’s team being filled relatively quickly. Keep in mind, the Buckeyes were arguably the most talented program left out of the Playoff the last two seasons, so if Day can avoid costly slipups against inferior opponents this is a still a championship caliber team.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Purdue

The Boilermakers made waves last season after making good on a super-fan’s prediction that Purdue would upset then No. 2 ranked Ohio State at home, but the offseason was arguably as big of a win for the program as anything done on the field in 2018. Purdue managed to fend off suitors for Jeff Brohm, one of the rising stars in the Big Ten coaching lineup, and inked a Top 25 recruiting class for the first time in a decade and a half. While the Boilermakers scratched and clawed their way to a bowl game last season, it won’t be long before that will be just the beginning of expectations for Brohm’s program.

It’s hard to imagine Rondale Moore being any more dangerous than he was last season as a true freshman, but with a more talented quarterback throwing to him it could happen. David Blough did more with less talent-wise, but Elijah Sindelar has a rocket arm and should keep Purdue in the Top 15 in terms of passing offense. If the defense improves, which it should based on returning experience, the Boilermakers could be legitimately competing in the West earlier than people expect.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player to Watch)

Adrian Martinez, Nebraska sophomore quarterback

Scott Frost has fans in Lincoln excited about the prospects of a real run at the West Division title, and a lot of that stems with what Frost has at his disposal at the quarterback position. A freshman All-American in 2018, Martinez grasped the offense almost immediately and only had one game in which he threw more interceptions than touchdowns.

The dual-threat option will put a lot of fear into opposing defenses this season, especially as a young cast of skill position players for the Cornhuskers starts to gain experience and provide more help. Around The Corn believes that Nebraska is poised to make a major jump in the conference standings this season, with Martinez serving as the catalyst in what was originally pegged as a multiyear rebuilding project for Frost.

Out-of-Conference Games to Watch

Northwestern at Stanford (August 31)

Both head coaches prefer to play hard-nosed, smashmouth football, so this is a “can’t miss” game for old-school fans. Both teams have their question marks on the offensive side of the ball heading into the season, but the quarterback play is underrated for each side.

This game is essentially an early evaluation of the depth of the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences. Neither Northwestern nor Stanford is expected to win its respective division in-conference, but a road victory by the Wildcats could signal that the Conference of Champions could again struggle to gain any traction in terms of national respect.

Army at Michigan (September 7)

The Wolverines have aspirations of being a Playoff participant this season, but Army has high ambitions of its own. If the Black Knights manage to make it through the regular season with only one loss, it will pose serious questions about whether they deserve one of the coveted New Year’s Six bowl bids.

Army is a handful to stop on the offensive end, as Houston found out in last year’s bowl game. And while Michigan will undoubtedly be favored in this game, it wouldn’t be the first time this century an underdog came into the Big House and shocked the Wolverines.

In-Conference Games to Watch

Wisconsin at Nebraska (November 16)

The Badgers are looking to get back to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game following a disappointing 2018, but the upstart Cornhuskers will have something to say about that. If this game isn’t in a primetime TV spot, it means one or both of these teams failed to live up to preseason expectations.

If Wisconsin wants to slow down the Nebraska offensive attack, the best way to do it is to hold onto the football. The tempo of this game will determine the winner.

Ohio State at Michigan (November 30)

Not surprisingly, The Game will be one of, if not the, premier game on the Big Ten slate this season. The Buckeyes have had unprecedented success in the series since 2004, but Michigan may have assembled its best squad since that time this year.

If fans are lucky, this one will decide both the East Division title as well as serve as a de facto CFP elimination game. That’s what happened in 2018, so it is definitely not out of the realm of possibilities.

Conference Predictions

East Division

1. Michigan (11-1, [8-1])

2. Ohio State (10-2, [7-2])

3. Michigan State (9-3, [6-3])

4. Penn State (8-4, [5-4])

5. Maryland (5-7, [4-5])

6. Indiana (5-7, [2-7])

7. Rutgers (2-10, [0-9])

West Division

1. Nebraska (10-2, [7-2])

2. Iowa (8-4, [6-3])

3. Wisconsin (8-4, [5-4])

4. Purdue (8-4, [5-4])

5. Northwestern (6-6, [4-5])

6. Minnesota (6-6, [3-6])

7. Illinois (4-8, [1-8])

Championship Game: Michigan vs. Nebraska

Winner: Michigan

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