Big 10 Conference East Division Season Preview
The Big 10 Conference is usually one of the most entertaining of all the conferences and this year should be no different. I have but one question heading into this season… Can anyone knock off the Buckeyes? I am tired of seeing them in the playoffs, just as much as I am tired of season Alabama there. I will get to the Tide when I do my SEC preview in a few days. Well, let’s dig in and find out how the Big 10 East will stack up this year.
All Team & Player Rankings Are Courtesy Of Phil Steele’s CFB Preview
Teams are in predicted order of finish.
Ohio State Buckeyes: The Ohio State Buckeyes have won three Big 10 Titles in a row and they have made it to the Playoffs in each of the last two seasons. Last year, they lost to Alabama in the NCAA Title game by a score of 52-24. The Buckeyes have some rebuilding to do as they have just 11 starters back from last year and must replace QB Justin Fields, who was the 11th overall pick by the Chicago Bears in the last draft. They also lose top RB Trey Sermon, but their top two receivers are both back, and Ohio State’s receiving corps rates as tops in the nation. The offensive line is 2nd and the running backs are 8th in the land. QB is a weak spot and will be taken over by freshman CJ Stroud, who was the 13th ranked QB recruit a couple of years ago. Ohio State’s QBs rank 31st in the nation, so there could be some growing pains for the offense in the early part of the season. The Buckeyes could have trouble topping the 41 ppg and 519 ypg that they hung up a year ago.
The defense was not great as they allowed 25.8 ppg on 402 ypg a year ago. Ohio State has just five starters back from that group, but still, the defense ranks as one of the best in the big 10. Ohio State has recruited well along the line with two defensive ends in Zach Harrison and Jack Sawyer, who ranked 3rd and 2nd in the nation at their position when they came out of high school. The line rates as 4th best in the nation and is clearly the strength of the defense as the linebackers rate at 30th and the secondary is 19th. They have highly touted recruits all over this defense so we should see them improve on last year’s numbers. Ohio State has tough road games against Indiana and Michigan, but they should win both of those as they are later in the year when their young players will have plenty of experience. The Buckeyes also get Penn State at home, which could be their toughest challenger in the Big 10 East. All-in-all, I look for Ohio State to win this division and most likely go undefeated overall, which should again land them in the NCAA Playoffs.
Penn State Nittany Lions: After going 42-11 from 2016 to 2019, the Nittany Lions went just 4-5 last year. However, they have momentum after winning their final four games of the season and have 16 starters back this year. The Lions are a mission team this year, and that makes them very dangerous. The offense was not bad as they put up 430 ypg and 29.8 ppg last year, and PSU should improve on those numbers as nine starters are back on that side of the ball. Sean Clifford threw for 1883 yards with 16 TDs and nine INTs last year, and you can expect much more from him this year as 7 of his top eight pass-catchers all return. Penn State’s receivers do rate as 13th best in the nation. Their top two running back return as well, and they are ranked 2nd in the Big 10, but the offensive line could be a problem as it ranks as 7th best in the league.
Penn State went from allowing just 16.0 ppg in 2019 to 27.7 ppg last year. They should improve on last year’s numbers with seven starters back and one of the best defensive lines in the Big 10. That is even though just one of four starters return along the line. James Franklin has recruited well upfront and at LB as the Lions have the 15th rated linebacker corps in the nation. Penn State did allow just 329 ypg last year, but they gave up some points due to being 112th in the country in turnover margin. If the offense can protect the ball, then PSU’s defense will shine this year. Road games against Wisconsin, Iowa, and Ohio State are challenging and the reason why the Lions will not be in the Big 10 Title game this year. They will get a nice bowl bid, though, as the Lions should sweep their home schedule.
Michigan Wolverines: Michigan played in just six games last year, and they went 2-4. It was not a memorable season, but they should bounce this year with 17 starters back and another solid recruiting class that ranks 2nd in the Big 10 and 11th in the nation. The offense was mediocre last year, averaging 28.3 ppg, but Michigan has ten starters back on that side of the ball. Their lone loss is QB Joe Milton. Alan Bowman will take over after transferring from Texas Tech. Bowman threw for 5620 yards with 33 TDs and 17 INTs over 19 games with the Red Raiders in his career. The receivers and running backs rank near the middle of the pack in the Big 10 while the offensive line ranks 4th. I like what Bowman brings to the table for Michigan, and I think the skill players are better than advertised on this team. Michigan will top last year’s numbers easily.
It was a shock to see a Michigan defense allowed 34.5 ppg last year, especially after allowing 20.7 ppg or less in their previous five seasons. I expect Jim Harbaugh to get his defense back on track this year with seven starters back. The strength of this unit is a defense line that rates as 4th best in the Big 10. In 2016, Michigan allowed just 14.1 ppg, and the next year they have just one starter back from that group. The Wolverines allowed only 18.8 ppg in that next year. This defense is more than capable of knocking off at least a TD per game more than they allowed last year. Road games against Wisconsin and Penn State plus a home date with Ohio State will keep Michigan from finishing higher than 3rd in the division, but make no mistake, this team will not struggle as they did a year ago, and they will be back in a bowl game this year.
Indiana Hoosiers: Indiana has a shot at being a surprise team, and they could very well finish higher than where I have them. Indiana went 6-2 a year ago, and they have 60 lettermen, including 17 starters back from that team. The Hoosiers are the 4th most experienced team in the Big 10. The offense will be led by QB Michael Penix, who played in just six games last year before being lost for the season. Indiana was 5-1 in those games. The lone loss was at Ohio State by seven points, but Penix threw for 491 yards in that game. He rates as the top QB in the league heading into the season and will be playing catch with the 2nd best set of receivers in the Big 10. The Hoosiers will have to rely on its passing game as their top running back from last year is gone, and the offensive line is weak. Still, they will top the 28.9 ppg and 360 ypg that they produced a year ago.
The defense played very well last year as they allowed just 20.3 ppg, despite giving up 378 ypg. Indiana was 10th in the nation in defensive yards per point at 18.7, and with nine starters back on that side of the ball, they have a shot at being even better this year. The secondary does rank 11th best in the nation, so teams may be able to throw on the Hoosiers, but their linebacking crew is dynamite. The Middle of the Indiana defense has all three starters back, and the group rates as the 5th best in the nation. Micah McFadden (6 Sacks, 4.5 TFL, 2 INTs LY) could be the best linebacker in the league. I expect the secondary to be better than expected, and I expect the Indiana defense as a whole to be one of the better in the Big 10. Road games against Iowa, Michigan, and Penn State, plus a home game against Ohio State, should keep the Hoosiers in the 4th slot, but don’t be surprised if they pull some big upsets and finish higher.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights: Rutgers went just 306 last year, and they have not been to a bowl game since 2014, but that skid should end this year. The Scarlet Knights have 21 starters back from last year, and they rank as the 19th most experienced team in the nation. Rutgers will be one of the most improved teams in the nation. The offense put up 26.7 ppg a year ago, after averaging just 13.3 ppg the year before. They should improve on last year’s numbers with all 11 starters back, including QB Noah Vedral. One puzzling bit of info is that Phil Steele has all four of their offensive units ranked 10th or worse in the big 10. Still, I expect the offense to improve on last year’s numbers.
The defense is where the Scarlet Knights could make some noise this year. They struggled on this side of the ball last year, giving up 32.1 ppg and 449 ypg, but Rutgers should see some solid improvement with ten starters back. The defensive line and linebacking corps are nothing special but the secondary rates as one of the best in the league. All four starters are back from that unit, and they will improve on the 245 ypg passing they allowed last year. The key will be improving on a run defense that allowed 204 ypg last year, and with 10 of their top 11 tacklers back from last year, they should improve upfront. The schedule is a real issue for Rutgers as they have road games against Michigan, Indiana, Northwestern, and Penn State while facing Ohio State and Wisconsin at home. However, I still see six wins and an end to their bowl drought for the Scarlet Knights this year.
Michigan State Spartans: Sparty went just 2-5 last year, but they have 16 starters back this year and could be in the mix for a bowl game. Sparty is not used to missing bowl games, so they will be a mission team this year. The offense has been terrible the last few years, and they averaged just 18.0 ppg a season ago. Nine starters are back for the offense, but they will have a new signal-caller as Rocky Lombardi is gone. Anthony Russo will take over after transferring from Temple. Russo played in just three games last year, but in his first two seasons with the Owls, he threw for 5424 yards with 35 TDs and 26 INTs in 24 games. State has their top three receivers back, and their top three running backs, plus they have 146 career starts along the offensive line, which is 4th in the nation. I fully expect this offense to hang up at least 24 ppg this year.
The Spartans are usually a tough defensive squad, but last year they allowed a whopping 35.1 ppg. They gave up just 22.5 ppg in 2019. Michigan State has seven starters back on defense, and they are in the 2nd year of Mel Tucker’s schemes, so we should see vast improvements from this side of the ball. Sparty has a weak defensive line, but the back seven is serviceable and has added LB Ma’A Gaoteote, the 24th rated recruit at his position this past season. The schedule does pose a big problem for Sparty as they have roadies against Northwestern, Rutgers, Indiana, and Ohio State while having to face Michigan and Penn State at home. They also have a road game against Miami early in the year. The Spartans will be improved on both sides of the ball, but it will not translate into a bowl invite.
Maryland Terrapins: The Terps played in just five games last year, and they went 2-3. They have 17 starters back from that team, so we should see a couple of more wins from the Terps this year. Maryland has 23 of 27 lettermen back on the offensive side of the ball, and that should help them top last year’s numbers of 23.6 ppg and 409 ypg. The passing game was solid behind Taulia Tagovailoa, younger brother of Tua (Dolphins QB). Maryland ranked 35th in the nation in passing at 264.0 ypg, and they could improve on that as Taulia with be throwing to one of the best receiver corps in the Big 10. The running game will struggle with a weak offensive line and the fact that the Terps lost their top RB from a year ago. Peny Boone will take over, and he was the 2nd leading rusher last year, but with just 86 yards.
Maryland had just four starters back on defense in each of the last two years, and they struggled on that side of the ball. The Terps should be improved on defense this year as they have nine starters back. Their front seven is not all that strong, but Maryland has one of the league's best secondaries. All four starters return to that unit, but still, it is the run defense that needs work. Last year, the Terps allowed 230 ypg on the ground, compared to just 200 ypg through the air. If the run defense doesn’t improve, Maryland will struggle on this side of the ball again. The Terps won’t be able to run the ball, and they won’t be able to stop the run. That is a bad combination, and then we add in a demanding schedule, and you can see why the Terps are picked for last in the division.