Big Ten college football preview: Breaking down the conference's best storylines, games and more

ByAdam Rittenberg and Tom VanHaaren via ESPN logo
Thursday, August 18, 2022
ESPN

After a summer of significant news -- the expansion additions of USCand UCLA, followed by a record new media rights deal -- the Big Ten swaggers into the season. The league has proven it can compete with the SEC in revenue and realignment. National championships? That's a different story.

Ohio Statehas been the only Big Ten program to win a national title during the College Football Playoff era, and the only one to win a playoff game. Although the Buckeyes missed the CFP and saw their Big Ten title streak end at four last season, they are the overwhelming favorites to win the league. Anything short of a national championship -- and perhaps a Heisman Trophy for quarterback C.J. Stroud -- would be deemed disappointing. Michiganisn't getting as much respect as the defending league champ, but coach Jim Harbaugh's team returns a lot on offense and should start strong. Michigan Statealso aims to reload after a top-10 finish, and Penn Stateenters a key season after struggling since 2019. The West Division should be very competitive as top contenders Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesotaand Purduereturn quarterbacks and other key pieces.

Storylines to watch

1. Will Ohio State end its national title drought?

When Ohio State won the inaugural CFP eight years ago, the Buckeyes looked likely to pile up titles. While they've continued to dominate the Big Ten, they have just one CFP victory -- and only three playoff appearances -- since winning it all. Ohio State has a title-worthy team, led by an offense that could score at will. Stroud returns alongside top wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, running back TreVeyon Henderson and a host of other playmakers. Coach Ryan Day wisely hired coordinator Jim Knowles from Oklahoma Stateto improve a defense that didn't consistently threaten opponents. Ohio State has enough talent and motivation after last year to reach SoFi Stadium on Jan. 9 and win it all.

2. What will Michigan do for an encore?

Michigan finally has reference points for what it can achieve, both in the Big Ten and nationally. Last fall, the Wolverines beat Ohio State for the first time since 2011, won the Big Ten outright for the first time since 2003 and reached their first-ever CFP. They return quarterback Cade McNamara, explosive running back Blake Corum, a host of receivers and several pieces from the Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line. Still, Michigan isn't a popular pick to repeat, as it lost two first-round draft picks (Aidan Hutchinson, Daxton Hill) and a second-round pick (David Ojabo) on defense, plus coordinator Mike Macdonald. This fall, the Wolverines get a chance to show they will be regular CFP contenders -- and a problem for their archrivals.

3. Which quarterbacks will step up to propel their teams?

Starting quarterbacks return at all the projected Big Ten division contenders, but there are questions about who will join Ohio State's Stroud on the elite tier. Purdue's Aidan O'Connell has a good case after completing a team-record 71.8% of his passes last season. Penn State's Sean Clifford has records but wants to cement his legacy with a title run as a senior, while Michigan State's Payton Thorne set a team record for touchdown passes in his first season as the starter. Maryland's Taulia Tagovailoa has steadily improved and will throw to a gifted group of receivers. Will Michigan's Cade McNamara keep his job, or is J.J. McCarthy the answer in Ann Arbor? Minnesota's Tanner Morgan reunites with playcaller Kirk Ciarrocca. Iowa and Wisconsin each could win the West Division if they get marginal improvement from quarterbacks Spencer Petras and Graham Mertz.

Power Rankings

Defending champ Michigan should rightfully feel disrespected, but Ohio State returns too much sizzle on offense -- plus a defense we see upgrading significantly under Knowles -- not to occupy the top spot. Things get interesting afterward, as four or five teams could make a case for the No. 3 spot.

Michigan State must improve significantly on defense, while Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State and Minnesota are looking for a jolt on offense. Purdue and Maryland both return dynamic quarterbacks and could be sleepers if they get enough on defense. Nebraska likely must rise for coach Scott Frost to keep his job.

1. Ohio State2. Michigan3. Michigan State4. Iowa5. Wisconsin6. Penn State7. Minnesota8. Purdue9. Maryland10. Nebraska11. Illinois12. Northwestern13. Indiana14. Rutgers

Five must-see games

Michigan State at Michigan, Oct. 29

Michigan State handed Michigan its only regular-season loss last season, a 37-33 Spartans victory. Running back Kenneth Walker III scored five touchdowns in the game while running for 197 yards. Walker is no longer on the roster, and Michigan is going to be looking for revenge at home. This is always a pivotal game for both teams, and this season will be no different.

Ohio State at Penn State, Oct. 29

The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions have been part of some of the more exciting Big Ten games in recent years. The Buckeyes are going to have College Football Playoff aspirations, and Penn State is hoping to rebound from its 7-6 season to prove that was more anomaly than the norm.

Michigan State at Penn State, Nov. 26

This feels like a battle for position within the Big Ten. Both teams are trying to prove themselves and trying to get back to the conference championship. Ohio State is the clear leader in the conference, but the winner of this game could show us who is on the rise.

Minnesota at Wisconsin, Nov. 26

Both teams are coming off of 9-4 seasons, and both teams are hoping to take a step forward in 2022. This game could end up being the deciding factor on which team represents the Big Ten West. Iowa will be in the conversation as well, but the winner of this game could either propel themselves into the game or play spoiler.

Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 26

This will be one of the most nationally anticipated games of the entire season. Michigan beat Ohio State in 2021 to put itself into the Big Ten championship game and eventually the College Football Playoff. The Buckeyes have focused on that loss all offseason and have vowed it won't happen again. This is gearing up to be one of the best games to end the season if both teams collide with everything on the line.

Preseason All-Big Ten team

The Big Ten is returning some household names that have already proven to be stat leaders for their teams and all-conference players. Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud leads that list as a Heisman finalist last season, returning to try to duplicate his success from 2021. There are some new faces, though, and some potential breakout stars, including Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen, who came on strong late in the season, and Michigan defensive lineman Mazi Smith, who is poised for a big year. In what might be the most Big Ten thing the conference could do, one of the strengths within the conference will be at punter. If it weren't for number constraints, there very well could be more than one punter on the all-conference team with Rutgers'Adam Korsak, Iowa's Tory Taylor, Michigan State's Bryce Baringer and Michigan's Brad Robbins. Only one will survive, though, so may the best leg win.

OffenseQB C.J. Stroud, Ohio StateRB Braelon Allen, WisconsinRB TreVeyon Henderson, Ohio StateWR Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio StateWR Jayden Reed, Michigan StateWR Rakim Jarrett, MarylandTE Sam LaPorta, IowaOTPeter Skoronski, NorthwesternOGJ.D. Duplain, Michigan StateCJohn Michael Schmitz, MinnesotaOGZak Zinter, MichiganOTParis Johnson Jr., Ohio State

DefenseDL Mazi Smith, MichiganDLJacob Slade, Michigan StateDL P.J. Mustipher, Penn StateDL Ochaun Mathis, NebraskaLBJack Campbell, IowaLBNick Herbig, WisconsinLBGarrett Nelson, NebraskaS Ji'Ayir Brown, Penn StateSRonnie Hickman, Ohio StateCBRiley Moss, IowaCBDJ Turner, MichiganCB Joey Porter Jr., Penn State

Special teamsP Adam Korsak, RutgersKJake Moody, MichiganREmeka Egbuka, Ohio State

Championship game prediction

Ohio State over Wisconsin.

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