Big Ten wraparound: evaluating the conference in 2024

As the calendar turns to summer, the build-up for college football only intensifies. Spring ball has wrapped up and now football fans across the country get deep in the message boards to discuss somehow how their team is going to win the national championship. As the offseason has a little bit of time left, I thought I would do a whip around of the Big Ten to see what the Terrapins conference foes are up to.

The main storyline of the Big Ten is the expansion of the conference to 18 (Big 18?) teams with the addition of four PAC 12 schools: UCLA, Oregon, USC, and Washington. The Big Ten is now coast to coast and will now offer “classic” matchups such as USC vs Rutgers at 11 pm. Another change to the conference is the extinction of the east and west divisions. The teams are now grouped into one large pool similar to how Big Ten basketball operated. For Maryland, this is a sigh of relief as the Terps are not guaranteed the gauntlet of Michigan, Ohio St., and Penn St. every season. The conference has title contenders, teams on the rise, and some bottom feeders. We will take a look at every team in the conference as they stand heading into the season.

These are put in order of Pre-season rankings

Ohio State Buckeyes

This is THE season for the Buckeyes. After a disappointing season and three straight losses to Michigan, Ohio St. is all in. It all started a few mere minutes after Michigan clinched their national championship when Ole Miss star running back, Quinshon Judkins, announced his transfer to the Buckeyes. Judkins is arguably the best back in the country and he joins a backfield with TreVeyon Henderson, who is now slouch himself. The hits kept on coming when arguably the most sought-after non-quarterback transfer, Alabama safety Caleb Downs, announced his transfer to Columbus. Downs provides NFL ready talent to the secondary that already boasts one of the best corners in the conference in Denzel Burke. Speaking of Burke, he was a potential first-round pick in this year’s draft but decided to return to this national championship hungry squad. Another Buckeye had high draft stock but returns to this stacked squad.  Defensive end JT Tuimoloau is one of the best edge rushers in the country and he returns along with Jack Sawyer as arguably the best edge rushing duo in the country.

Yeah, pretty loaded right? Oh wait, they brought back Emeka Egbuka to. Perhaps the most important addition was the addition of Chip Kelly as the offensive play caller. Kelly just finished up coaching at UCLA and has a reputation for his offensive mind.

The biggest question mark that could hold this team back is their quarterback. Kyle McCord could not get the job done and is taking his talents to Syracuse. Enter Kansas St. transfer Will Howard. Howard has been a steady starter on a solid Kansas St. team for the past few seasons. His only job? Just be better than McCord. Ohio St. has been breeding NFL talent over the last few years including CJ Stroud and Justin Fields. Howard will not be that as he has some questions with arm talent but I think he is a discount JJ McCarthy, tries to not make mistakes and manages the game well. With the best running back duo in the country along his side as well as Emeke Egbuka and 5-star receiver Jeremiah Smith catching balls, Howard has all the tools to succeed. The offensive line has some potential holes but the interior is solid with returning starter Donovan Jackson and Alabama center transfer Seth McLaughlin.

As mentioned previously, the defense is loaded with Tuimoloau and Sawyer leading the front and Burke and Downs leading the secondary. Corner Davison Igbinosun, safety Lathan Ransom, and nickelback Jordan Hancock also are all returning starters. It is clear this team is loaded and if this team slips up (or even just loses to Michigan) Ryan Day could be shipped out of town.

My take: This is my national champion pick. The team is stacked to the gills with talent and should have the best defense in the country. I think Howard is a good enough option to get them to where they need to be. A tough challenge at Oregon in October is arguably their hardest game on the schedule. I predict a 12-0 Big Ten Championship for the Buckeyes.

Oregon Ducks

Perhaps the best team to come across from the Pac-12 (yes, that includes the reigning national finalist) is the Oregon Ducks. The Ducks have been a mainstay in college football for a while but have never broken through. This has potential to change under head coach, Dan Lanning. The Ducks were 3-points away from a college football playoff berth last season and while there is roster turnover, the pieces brought in and as well as homegrown talent bode for a big year.

The biggest departure was star quarterback Bo Nix, who went with the 12th overall pick in the NFL Draft. Nix threw for 4,508 yards and 45 touchdowns with only 3 interceptions. Enter Dillon Gabriel to try and replicate those numbers. This isn’t Gabriel’s first rodeo as he has started 49 games for both UCF and Oklahoma. For the Sooners he earned first team All-Big 12 honors last season. Oregon is hoping that Gabriel can come in and have similar success as Nix did from Auburn. The left-handed Gabriel will have some great targets. Former five-star recruit Evan Stewart comes over from Texas A&M, and Tez Johnson (who broke the single-season reception record at Oregon last season) combine for arguably the best receiving duo in the conference. Star receiver Troy Franklin also moved onto the NFL but Stewart and Johnson can definitely fill the void. Star running back Bucky Irving also left for the NFL, however; junior back Jordan James is ready to take the full workload. James flashed last year behind Irving with 759 yards and 11 touchdowns. You could argue the offensive’s biggest strength is on the offensive line with two all-conference tackles in Josh Conerly Jr. and Ajani Cornelius.

The defense sees a lot of turnover and question marks. The team is led by their linebacking core and four-year starter Jefferey Bassa. Jestin Jacobs is another senior linebacker from Iowa that could provide leadership to the unit. The defensive front has a lot of questions as four of last year’s five most used defensive lineman graduated. The youth movement is the name of the game as Oregon has signed 11 blue-chip defensive line prospects over the last two cycles and it may be time for these kids to step up early. Jordan Burch is the return starter on the line and Houston transfer Jamaree Caldwell will provide experience and size. The secondary will be led by Washington transfer Jabbar Muhammad. Muhammad was perhaps the best corner in the Pac-12 last year and flipped to the Ducks. UTSA transfer Kam Alexander will start opposite of him and Kansas State transfer Kobe Savage will start at safety. The turnover on defense could lead to question marks.

My take:

This team is really good and is most likely the toughest opponent on Maryland’s schedule. I think this is the most explosive offense in the conference and I am high on Gabriel to work in this system with stud wide receivers. The team as a whole has a lot of transfers in key roles so there could be some growing pains but I still expect a 10-win season and for Eugene to host a playoff game in the new 12-team system.

Michigan Wolverines

Michigan is coming off a national championship, and as much I hate to admit it; they deserved it. As we all know, gone are JJ McCarthy, Blake Corum, Roman Wilson, Cornelius Johnson, Zak Zinter, Drake Nugent, Mike Sainristil, and perhaps the biggest departure of all — head coach Jim Harbaugh. Talent has been ripped away from this team, but there are still pieces in place for Sherron Moore.

The quarterback to replace McCarthy will be junior Alex Orji. His style of play is a complete 180 from McCarthy as he is a mobile quarterback with a rocket for an arm but can be inconsistent. His receiving options will also be inexperienced with Tyler Morris (13 career catches) and Semaj Morgan (22 career catches) as the two top receiver options. Fortunately, running back Donovan Edwards returns and is poised to put video game numbers without Corum eating into his playing time. Tight end Coleston Loveland also returns as the best tight end in the conference. Gone are all five starters from last year’s offensive line. Northwestern transfer, Josh Priebe will lead the line that are all seniors and juniors. Not a lot of household names but I am sure we will know them by the end of the year.

The defense will be called by former Ravens defensive coordinator, Wink Martindale. Martindale has a pair of the best defensive players in the country in defensive tackle Mason Graham and cornerback Will Johnson. Both were first-team Big Ten last year and will be first-round picks in next spring’s NFL Draft. Kenneth Grant joins Graham to make the best defensive tackle duo in the country. Josiah Stewart and Derrick Moore will come off the edge, and while not starters last year; played a lot toward the end of the year. The elephant in the room is Maryland transfer Jaishawn Barham joining the Wolverines. We all know how good Barham is as he’s expected to start for this season. The aforementioned Johnson will lead the secondary with returning safety Makari Paige also back. Two-year starting safety Rod Moore suffered an ACL injury in spring ball and could leave a hole at the position. There are a lot of eyes on Zeke Berry to replace Sainristil at nickelback. With all the departures it is going to be hard to repeat the success of last year but a playoff season is still the expectation in Ann Arbor.

My take:

I just can’t trust Orji. In a couple of plays he entered the game last year I was not impressed. Combine that with the inexperience at receiver, I think this offense won’t be explosive enough to win the big games. Their size, athleticism, and defense will still hold valuable against most opponents but I could see them dropping games vs. Texas, Oregon, and at Ohio St. Talent is still sprinkled across the roster but I see this as a nine-win team. This could have been a great year for Maryland to pick off the Wolverines.

Penn St. Nittany Lions

It has been the same old song and dance for Penn St. They are one of the best teams in the country but can’t beat the big boys in Michigan and Ohio St. Last year, Nittany Lions fans thought it could be the year for a breakthrough with high expectations for quarterback Drew Allar. Allar ended up being pretty good but didn’t exactly reach his full potential and expectations yet. James Fraklin brings in Kansas offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki to bring some spark to that side of the ball.

Allar finished with 2,631 yards and an impressive 25 touchdowns to only 2 interceptions. Allar was great at taking care of the football last year but will perhaps take more risks this season with Kotelnicki calling the shots.  In losses to Michigan, Ohio St., and Ole Miss; Allar failed to complete 50% of his throws. He only amassed 191 yards vs. the Buckeyes and 70 yards against Michigan. Allar will have to step up against the top dogs if Penn St. wants to get over the hump. The Nittany Lions top target, Keandre Lambert-Smith transferred to Auburn but incoming transfer Julian Fleming comes in from Ohio St. Fleming was a former 5-star recruit and was even ranked as the #1 prospect in his recruiting cycle by ESPN. Fleming never reached his potential at Ohio St. but comes back home to Pennsylvania to be the number one target. Tight end Tyler Warren returns after being the team’s second leading receiver last season with 422 yards and 7 touchdowns. The true stars of the offense are the duo in the backfield of Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen. The pair both came on as freshman in 2022 and shined as a 1-2 punch. The pair combined for 1,654 yards and 14 touchdowns in what was regarded as a mediocre year for them. The kids, now in their junior year, are studs. Only two starters return to the offensive line and the line will be weaker than normal. Olu Fashanu was a beast and left for the NFL; there are no real studs on this unit besides guard Sal Wormley, but even then, he was not on Fashanu’s level.

Penn St. had one of the best defenses in the country last season as they ranked number 1 in rushing defense, number 2 in total defense, and number 3 in scoring defense. Abdul Carter is the star of the defense as he returns after a first-team All-Big Ten linebacker last season will now come off the edge. Dani Dennis Sutton also will come off the edge with some upside. The loss of Chop Robinson will be felt but these two could make up for him. The Nittany Lions are deep on the defensive front with two returning tackle starters in Zane Durant and Dvon Ellies. Penn St. will most likely rotate 6 ends and 5 tackles to keep body’s fresh to hopefully match last year’s nation leading 49 sacks. In the secondary, KJ Winston returns as the best player at safety. Jaylen Reed is also a returning starter at the other safety. Georgia transfer A.J. Harris will line up at corner opposite of Cam Miller. New defensive coordinator, former Indiana head coach Tom Allen, has a lot of depth to work with.

My take:

I just think this will be the same old Penn St. Talented mostly everywhere but just lack something that gets them over the hump of defeating one of the big boys. With the expanded playoffs they can, and probably will, make the playoffs but I do not see them as a contender for the national championship. I see a 10-win season, again really solid but Nittany Lions will wonder when its national championship time.

USC Trojans

The Big Ten goes Hollywood as Lincoln Riley and the Trojans enter the Big Ten. Generational quarterback Caleb Williams went first overall in the NFL Draft and now it is time for Lincoln Riley to enter a new era. The big question will be how their style of play translates to the Big Ten. They have been known to be a high-flying team with not much of a run game and suspect defense. Imagine a game vs. Iowa? Unfortunately, we will have to wait for that matchup. Lincoln Riley and defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn went out and got 111 combined career starts in the transfer portal on defense. Can these players come together to play “Big Ten Defense”?

The offense will now be led by Miller Moss, who threw an impressive six touchdown passes in the Holiday Bowl vs. Louisville. Although UNLV transfer Jayden Maiava was the better quarterback in the spring game, Moss will still get the nod. Moss is coming in as one of the conference’s most underrated quarterbacks but lacks experience. USC always has weapons and sophomore Zachariah Branch is no different. Branch can do it all with returning abilities, rushing abilities, and receiving abilities. He will be the Trojans #1 weapon but there is not as much behind as there has been at USC before. There is still potential in Ja’Kobi Lane to breakout at receiver too. Woody Marks comes in from Mississippi St. to fill in at running back, a solid runner who also has pass catching ability. Jonah Monheim is an outstanding center but the rest of the line is suspect at best and could be an issue in the new conference.

As mentioned previously, the defense has been completely revamped. From Oregon St. come linebacker Easton Mascarenas-Arnold and safety Akili Arnold. From Mississippi St. comes corner DeCarlos Nicholason, and UCLA brings safety Kamari Ramsey. Now, these players should help the identity of the defense but it remains to be seen how they mesh. Bear Alexander is the star of the unit and returns for his junior season on the Trojans defensive line. There is promise for freshman cornerback Marcelles Williams, who had an interception in the spring game and could start.

My take:

I do not see how USC’s style translates to the league, at least right away. I think they could struggle against classic Big Ten West team such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. Starting the season vs. LSU and at Michigan in week 3 could make for a poor start. The boosters are looking for a playoff berth, however; I see a 7-to-8-win team and no playoff berth. Potential hot seat for Lincoln Riley?

Iowa Hawkeyes

Oh Iowa, if only they could put an offense together. After another season where the Hawkeyes ranked last in yards per game, they were still able to find a way to win the Big Ten West. This year for the Hawkeyes, and stop me if you heard this before, have a mediocre offense with a solid tight end and have a tough defense led by stud linebackers and cornerbacks. It is the status quo for Iowa but out is offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and in is Tim Lester. Lester was a former head coach for Western Michigan and last season was an offensive analyst for the Green Bay Packers.

Iowa will return former Michigan transfer Cade McNamara at quarterback after he tore his ACL last year. McNamara is nothing special but is definitely one of the better quarterbacks Iowa has had recently. He has injury history and it is important that the offensive line keep him healthy. The line is solid and will be led by center Logan Jones and guard Connor Colby. Iowa returns four running backs including last year’s lead back, Leshon Williams. Luke Lachey may be the best weapon Iowa has on offense as the tight end went down in week 3 last year but has upside as one of the better tight ends in the conference. Iowa may be changing up their offensive identity, perhaps some RPOs being mixed in.

The defense is what Iowa is all about and will be led by linebackers Jay Higgins and Nick Jackson. Higgins is an all-American level talent who opted to use his COVID year. Higgins tied the Iowa record for tackles last season and Jackson has four straight seasons of 100 tackles. The front returns Deontae Craig and Yahya Black as starters. Cooper DeJean left for the NFL but the rest of the starters in the secondary return. “Cash” back Sebastian Castro is back to reprise his role as a do it all defender where he was an All-Big Ten player. An issue may come in that all-American punter, Tory Taylor, has moved on to the NFL and now Iowa will have to look for punting answers, which was a big part of their game last year.

My Take:

I don’t buy the offense improving at all. I know there is a new system coming but I just do not see McNamara leading an Iowa offense with Iowa level weapons to be a great offense. Maybe a slight improvement just based on how bad they were recently but the defense will still roll. It seems like another classic 8-win season from Iowa, the defense is that good that you will look up to an easy 8 to 9 wins.

Wisconsin Badgers

Wisconsin is coming off a pair of 7-6 seasons and expectations are higher than that in Madison. It is year 2 for Luke Fickell and more wins are expected. The quarterback carousel continues as Miami (FL.) transfer Tyler Van Dyke enters stage left. Wisconsin will always be good in the trenches and have a solid defense, but an Van Dyke be the answer to get Wisconsin into the playoffs?

Van Dyke had an up-and-down season for the Hurricanes in 2023. He struggled early where he had 11 turnovers in a four-game stretch. Once he regained his starting role late, he threw for 617 yards and no interceptions in the final two games. Van Dyke was regarded as a top-20 quarterback in the country heading into last season but his stock has fallen. Wisconsin is hoping this project works better than the Tanner Mordecai project last season. Van Dyke’s primary target will be Will Pauling who had 6 touchdowns and 74 catches last season. Senior running back Chez Mellusi is back for his 6th-season after suffering a leg injury last season. Mellusi has 2,000 yards in his career so far and will get to run behind a solid offensive line that returns 4 starters from last year. Jack Nelson at tackle reigns as the leader of the unit but look out for center Jake Renfro, the only non-returning starter but started on the college playoff Cincinnati Bearcats as a sophomore.

The defense will be led by two returning secondary players in cornerback Ricardo Hallman and safety Hunter Wohler. Wohler is one of the best safeties in the conference and is physical as he totaled 120 tackles last season. Hallman led the nation with 7 interceptions. The other spots in the secondary have stiff competition. James Thompson Jr. is the lone returner up front and Jake Haney returns at linebacker. Darrly Peterson returns as the team’s sack leader last year and Arkansas transfer Jaheim Thomas, who started his career with Fickell at Cincinnati, will look to bolster the pass rush.

My take:

I was high on Wisconsin last year and I am this year as well. I am a big fan of Tyler “Van Dyme” as he showed flashes of brilliance. Tanner Mordecai, who was fantastic at SMU, struggled to come in and run the Badgers offense. I am worried it may happen again but Van Dyke has played power conference ball. The defense will be good and it is rare that Wisconsin has a legit receiving threat like Pauling. Tough schedule that includes Alabama may knock them down a bit but 8 to 9 wins is doable. Most likely not good enough for a playoff berth.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

The nation is drinking the Cornhusker Kool-Aid with five-star savior Dylan Raiola set to be the quarterback that was promised for Nebraska. Raiola enters after flipping from Ohio St. and Georgia to eventually land in Lincoln, where his dad was an offensive lineman. The Cornhuskers offense has been an issue for a while and had the most turnovers in the nation last year. Combined with one of the best offensive lines in the conference, some upgraded weapons, and a solid defense, spirits are high in Nebraska.

Dylan Raiola is poised to be a star and could really go down as a legend that brings Nebraska “back.” He threw for 239 yards and 2 touchdowns in the spring game, which is quite impressive due to the rotation. He is the key to turning their favors around, but a freshman quarterback facing Big Ten defenses is cause for concern. The offensive line returns 4 starters including star right tackle Bryce Benhart. Wake Forest transfer Jahmal Banks will be Raiola’s prime target as the former Deamon Deacon had 107 catches and 13 touchdowns in his 4-year ACC career. Texas transfer Isiah Neyor will provide speed at the position and although not flashy names, Nebraska improved their weapons. Emmett Johnson will likely be the lead back in what is an injury-heavy room.

The 3-3-5 defense caused offenses fits last season and will be back for year two. The entire defensive line returns including studs Nash Hutchmacher and Ty Robinson who will be candidates for all-Big Ten teams. Jimari Butler will also get draft looks. The trio combined for 11 sacks and 20.5 TFLs. Nebraska’s starting linebackers moved on so there may be pressure on this position but the defensive line may hold their own. The secondary will be led by safety and leading tackler Isaac Gifford. Malcolm Hartzog and Tommi Hill return for the secondary that had up-and-down moments last year.  The secondary tends to be exposed when Nebraska sends their heavy 6-man blitzes.

My take:

I am not fully buying into Nebraska, although watching some Raiola at the spring game he moves exactly like Patrick Mahomes. The kid has potential no doubt and this could be a good start to the campaign. Rhule is a good coach and a program builder, I think this could be the start of “Nebraska is back” but that still means 6 or 7 wins and a bowl game. The schedule is light early that could be as good as 6-1.

Washington Huskies

A ton of turnover is in line for the Huskies after last season’s national title run. It may not get that good this year as 21 of 22 starters including the entire offense need to be replaced and head coach Kalen DeBoer left for Alabama. Good news is that Washington poached Arizona coach, Jedd Fisch who had a really strong year in Tucson. The biggest loss is QB Michael Penix, who left for the draft. In place will be Mississippi St. transfer Will Rogers. Rogers was putting up video gam numbers for the Bulldogs where he is the second all-time passing leader in the SEC and fourth all time in touchdowns. Rogers slowed down last year after the passing of MS. St. coach Mike Leach but will look to rebound as the Huskies signal caller.

With a proven QB in place, the Huskies also have to replace the rest of their lineup. Starting with running back, Cameron Davis and Jonah Coleman are going to be great options. Davis ran for 13 touchdowns in 2022 but missed last year with a knee injury and Coleman is an Arizona transfer with 1,154 scrimmage yards and 6 touchdowns last year. At receiver, Denzel Boston has patiently waited behind the stud trio of Odunze, Polk, and McMillan and has looked solid in spring ball. Jeremiah Hunter comes over from Cal where he has had a solid career with 2,084 yards and 13 touchdowns. The offensive line has some depth issues as it certainly won’t replicate the Joe Moore award winning (nation’s best offensive line) unit from last year. San Diego St. transfer Drew Azzopardi looks solid at right tackle but Gaard Memmelaar and Landen Hatchett are coming off knee injuries on the interior of the line.

The Huskies only return one starter on defense but it isn’t as bad as it seems. Carson Bruener was a main stay in the lineup and the team’s third leading tackler. He will slot in as one of the conferences best linebackers. Safety Kamren Fabiculanan also was a part-time starter on last year’s squad. The pass rush will consist of senior Zach Durfee leading the charge. The secondary, led by the aforementioned Fabiculanan, but a pair of Arizona transfers in Ephesians Prysock and Jordan Shaw will join the secondary. Prysock is a solid corner who could be one of the best in the conference.

My Take:

Just too much of the national runner-up identity has been stripped away for them to match or even come close to matching last season’s success. I am a believer in Jedd Fisch and what he did at Arizona was impressive so that could bode well for a quick turnaround. I also like Rogers as a player and he could work in a Washington like system. A good team just not a great one, 7 wins seems right.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

There is some optimism this offseason for Rutgers as many are predicting they will make a bowl for the first time in a decade. Rutgers has experience and depth at many key positions and are looking to push for a solid season.

In at quarterback is former Minnesota Golden Gopher Athan Kaliakmanis. Kaliakmanis has started 17 games including 12 last year with Minnesota with an unimpressive 1,735 yards 9 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. He has the potential to be an upgrade, at least in the pass game, from former QB Gavin Wimsatt. The big target will be Monmouth transfer Dymere Miller, who was the FCS leader in receiving yards with 1,295. His 90 receptions were second in the FCS and he poses a nice diamond in the rough for the Scarlett Knights. Perhaps Rutgers’ key piece is running back Kyle Monagai. The Big Ten’s leading rusher returns for another season and is arguably the best running back in the conference and in the country. The offensive line returns experience with 3 starters on the left side but depth has been proven to be an issue.

Experience is the name of the game for the Rutgers defense as all 12 projected starters are seniors. Aaron Lewis and Wesley Bailey are a solid pass rush duo who combined for 7 sacks. Florida St transfer Malcolm Ray is a run-stuffer up the middle. The team’s best defender, Tyreem Powell, may not be able to start the season with a torn Achilles that could sideline the linebacker for a bit. Rutgers implements a lot of nickel defense, so linebacker availability and athleticism is crucial with only two on the field at a time. Good news is linebacker Mohamed Toure is back after being the team’s leader in sacks, TFLs, and tackles. The defense lost star Max Melton, but returning Robert Longerbeam will be the first corner. Flip Dixon is a returning safety that hits hard.

My Take:

Like Maryland, Rutgers avoids the big boys and even misses Penn St. this season. I am not a believer in Kaliakmanis as he was pretty bad at Minnesota and just not an eye-opening talent. However, Monagai is the real deal and it will be interesting to see how Miller transfers to the next level. A better schedule helps and I again see them right on the bowl-eligible border at 5 or 6 wins.

Michigan St. Spartans

There is a lot of potential with this squad with new head coach Johnathon Smith coming from Oregon St. and bringing some help with him. Smith brought budding star quarterback Aiden Chiles with him to East Lansing. Chiles was highly recruited out of high school and has a lot of eyes on him to succeed. There are still holes throughout the roster and a lack of proven talent across the board.

Chiles is a dual-threat quarterback who has been featured in nine games where he threw for 309 yards on 24 of 35 passing with four touchdowns and zero interceptions, along with 79 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. In terms of weapons for the true sophomore will be one of the Big Ten’s most consistent runners in Nate Carter. Jack Velling comes over from Oregon State as one of the better receiving tight ends in the country, although the problem lies in unproven receiving options. The offensive line may be a major problem as only two spots are locked in with experienced players. Oregon State transfer center Tanner Miller comes in and returning guard Geno VanDeMark are the only two returners and a weak line.

It is time for Spartans recruiting classes of the old realm to step up, especially in the secondary. Safeties Jaden Mangham, Malik Spencer and Dillon Tatum as well as sophomore cornerback Chance Rucker return as starters and will need to progress from their recruiting status. Cal Haladay returns as a tackling machine at the linebacking position and Jordan Hall also comes back who was a former four-star. The defensive line was set but recent transfers of starters Simeon Barrow and Derrick Harmon in the spring hurt the unit heavily. The Spartans arguably have the best punter in the conference with Ryan Eckley and kicker Johnathon Kim is a stud.

My Take:

The Spartans have real potential but I don’t think they have enough talent across the board to be a real threat. Chiles could be the future but a lack of weapons could not help. A pretty favorable schedule could lead to bowl eligibility this season. I suspect a bounce-back six-win season after a tough 4-win season last year, Smith will get this program on the right path.

Northwestern Wildcats

Head coach David Braun was an interim coach for Northwestern but led the Wildcats to a surprising 7-5 season and now finds himself at the permanent helm. The Wildcats have a lot of returning starters but quarterback is a problem.

The problem starts with the quarterback. Jack Lausch has been named the starter but has been a wildcat quarterback throughout his career and only has 76 career passing yards. The Wildcats have some good playmakers at receiver with Bryce Kirtz and AJ Henning. Frank Covey is lined up in the slot to have a breakout season. The problem is can Lausch get them the ball. Cam Porter is a bruising running back that is back this season and tight end depth is apparent with Thomas Gordon leading the charge. The offensive line is solid with Caleb Tiernan at left tackle, and returning starters in Josh Thompson and Ben Wrater shifting positions to make room for grad transfers Matt Keeler and Jack Bailey.

The Wildcats have playmakers at all three levels. Upfront the sack leader is Aidan Hubbard and is back. Outside linebacker Xander Mueller will be a candidate for first-team All-Big Ten after leading the team in tackles. Theran Johnson is a bonafide number 1 corner and Coco Azema is one of the better safeties in the conference.

My Take:

I just can’t pick this team to repeat the effort with no real quarterback at the helm. A tougher schedule will also bring the Wildcats back to reality. There are some good players on defense, as there always is, but the offense lacks explosion. I see this team as a 4-5 win team.

UCLA Bruins

UCLA will be undergoing a rebuild after head coach Chip Kelly parted ways with the program. DeShaun Foster takes over on a program that needs revitalization. A former running back, Foster will try to implement ta heavy running game. Ethan Garbers is back as the starter for the Bruins after splitting duties with Dante Moore last season. The team lost a bunch of pass rushers that will cripple the identity of the defense.

An interesting factor about UCLA is the new offensive coordinator in Eric Bieniemy, who was the chosen one In Kansas City with Mahomes but flamed out with the Commanders last year. Ethan Garbers is back as a fifth-year and had 1,136 yards and 11 touchdowns in split time last year. He is a solid option at quarterback for the Bruins. Star running back Carson Steele left for the draft but T.J. Harden, who split time with Steele, will take the full role and have a chance to breakout after 8 touchdowns last season. At receiver J. Michael Sturdivant is a talented option but can be inconsistent. At his best he is one of the better receivers in the conference. Slot receiver Logan Loya was a prime option last year with 655 yards and returns. The offensive line returns 4 starters; however, the bad news is they allowed 42 sacks and are flipping positions around during spring ball. Chemistry could be an issue.

The UCLA defense was ruthless in pass rush last season as they ranked third in TFLs and 6th in sacks. Laiatu Latu was the first defensive player taken in the draft and he will be missed on the edge. Oluwafemi Oladejo will transfer from inside linebacker to edge and Jay Toia is one of the best run stuffers in the interior. More depth is at linebacker with Kain Medrano back after leading the team in tackles last season and Navy transfer Jacob Busic comes on board after being productive at his former team. Transfers are a plenty in the secondary with both safeties, Ramon Henderson (Notre Dame) and Bryan Addison (Oregon) will start and the top cornerback will be the returning Jaylin Davies. The group is young but has a lot to prove.

My take:

UCLA is pretty average in my opinion. Pretty good quarterback, couple solid weapons but nothing crazy and some holes on defense that need to be filled. They will probably be in the 6-win territory.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

PJ Fleck returns for another year in Minnesota where the temperature is neutral. The run game will be a strength again but worries about the pass game are prevalent again. Depth is also a concern for the Gophers so maintaining a clean bill of health is essential.

The offense will be run by University of New Hampshire transfer Max Brosmer. The passing game has struggled for a good while in Minneapolis. Brosmer looks to change that after being the FCS leader in passing yards last year. Daniel Jackson returns as the prime target after being Big Ten second team last season. Georgia transfer Tyler Williams will get a chance to play after being a 4-star recruit for the Bulldogs that didn’t touch the field. Darius Taylor will be the bell cow back. Expectations are high after he started the season on fire last year but injuries held him back. This is a veteran offensive line including All-Big Ten left tackle Aireontae Ersery and 3 other returning starters.

The Golden Gophers will bring in a new defensive coordinator after Joe Rossi left for Michigan St. Corey Hetherman will bring in a simpler scheme to help younger players and depth grasp the playbook. All-Big Ten linebacker Cody Lindenberg is back after injuries derailed his season. On the bright side this allowed Maverick Barnkowski and Devon Williams to gain experience at the other backer positions. The secondary may struggle with the departure of ball hawking safety Tyler Nubin to the NFL. Justin Walley is a certified #1 corner but the rest is spotty. Jah Joyner is one to watch on the edge and has NFL potential. Minnesota has the reigning Big Ten kicker of the year in Dragan Kesich.

My take:

Minnesota is pretty standard for what they have been recently. The offense will most likely struggle with poor quarterback play and the defense is physical but can still be beat with talent. A tough schedule could keep them out of bowl season. I can’t buy into an FCS quarterback translating to this level and there isn’t any wow talent around him. I predict a 4-win season for Minnesota and potential PJ Fleck hot seat season.

Purdue Boilermakers

Purdue is coming off a poor showing under year one for Ryan Walters. The Boilermakers will need to improve if Walters wants to stick around. There are questions at wide receiver, offensive line, edge rusher, cornerback depth, and even special teams. Holes for sure on the roster but some bright spots as well.

Hudson Card returns as the signal caller and has shown flashes on why he was such a high recruit for Texas. He plays a smart game and shows athleticism in the open field. The Boilermakers will go as he goes and a breakout season would be huge for Purdue. Devin Mockobee returns as a physical running back that has solid size. Jahmal Edrine will be the primary target as he was supposed to be the primary target last season but injuries got in the way. The FAU transfer has potential but will have to prove it on a team that needs answers at the position after Deion Burks transferred to Oklahoma. The line has 2 transfers coming in to start and Gus Hartwig may be the best center in the conference. The line struggled in short yardage and got pushed back a lot last season and this will need to improve.

On defense, Dillion Thieneman is one of the best safeties in the conference already after a stellar freshman campaign. The secondary will also feature Georgia transfer Nyland Green to be CB1. Purdue believes he is a hidden gem. The depth in the front seven is a little weak but Will Heldt will play edge as a sophomore and transfers will be played in the spot as well such as CJ Madden from Georgia. Kydran Jenkins shifted from rush edge to linebacker and can be athletic.

My Take

Purdue still has a lot of building to do under Walters. Card is a solid QB and one of the more underrated ones in the conference. Unproven weapons for him will not help and a line that had struggles getting the push they needed may cause some offensive struggles. The defense is also mostly unproven but has potential to have some studs on it including some Georgia transfers. I can see a slight improvement from last year with a 5-win season.

Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois had a breakout season in 2022 but fell back to reality with a 5-win campaign last season. Gone are Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph to wreak havoc on the interior and Luke Altmeyer is back to try and improve on his quarterback skills.

Altmeyer was benched for the last 3 games last season and returns as the starter. Altmeyer has issues turning the ball over as he had 10 interceptions in 9 starts with only 13 touchdowns. The former Ole Miss Rebel has the keys to try and make plays as he led the league in scramble yards last year. Hopefully better protection is on the way with New Mexico left tackle transfer J.C. Davis. Davis was a highly touted transfer who ranked high on PFF with solid pass blocking. The interior 3 on the offensive line returns. Kaden Feagin will take the reigns as lead back after 430 yards last season. Pat Bryant will take the reigns as #1 receiver as he had 7 touchdowns last season. Malik Elzy was highly touted recruit who can step in as a sophomore receiver.

After having one of the best defenses in 2022, the slip hit the Illini hard in 2023. Three starters were lost in the secondary last year and this year its three key starters up front. The defensive front has a lot of question marks with other potential starters hitting the portal. Matthew Bailey and Xavier Scott look to lead the secondary that has been atrocious as of recently. The linebacking core could be the strength of the defense with solid depth and Seth Coleman and Dylan Rosiek being All-Big Ten linebacker considerations.

My Take

I think Luke Altmeyer is not good. He is an interception waiting to happen and I am not high on a player that got benched to return and be solid. I think he is what he is and the mostly unproven weapons will not help his case. Hopefully the line can do a better job pass blocking. The defense has a lot of holes upfront with transfers and the draft taking most starters and depth while the secondary was brutal last season. A weakened defense and a shotty quarterback can lead this team to 4 or 5 wins.

Indiana Hoosiers

A new era in Bloomington as Tom Allen is out and Curt Cignetti is in from James Madison. As if with any new coach these days the roster turnover is apparent. The Hoosiers could have some dangerous weapons as they bring in transfers from James Madison. The defense could be an issue with 3 starters graduating and 14 players (5 starters) entering the portal.

Curt Cignetti wanted speed and athleticism to be the identity of the Hoosiers offense. He brought in some help from his former team at James Madsion. Kaelon Black was a 1,000 rusher at JMU, Elijah Sarratt was a 1,000-yard receiver, and Zach Horton was a first-team All-Sun Belt tight end. Donovan McCulley returns for the Hoosiers and was dominant and elusive towards the latter half of the season. So, who is throwing to them? Enter Ohio quarterback Kurtis Rourke. The former MAC player of the year has over 7,000 yards and 50 TDs in his four years with the Bobcats. The line has some continuity as center Mike Katic returns and promising left tackle Carter Smith was convinced by Cignetti to stay.  Nick Kidwell comes in as JMU’s highest rated lineman each of the past few seasons.

The defense is still a work in progress as two extra transfers left on the first workout day of spring. Lanell Carr is the only returning starter at edge. Two projected starters and JMU transfers; James Carpenter and Jalin Walker suffered injuries during camp. Aaron Casey is a promising player at linebacker after his transfer from JMU. Still the secondary is lacking any high-end players and the interior of the defensive line is still looking for starters. The defense will be a work in progress but has a chance to be the worst in the conference.

My take:

The offense has a lot of potential to be fun. Rourke is a gun slinger and JMU brought over some athletes as well as McCulley as gadget player. The defense is just not good enough to compete though. I like the culture that Cignetti is establishing early but I still expect the Hoosiers to struggle. Most of their best players are Sun Belt caliber stars that will be facing off against the Big Ten. I see 3-4 wins on the schedule.

Related Links

Quince Orchard four-star RB Iverson Howard commits to Maryland
In-state OL target Amory Hills recaps official visit to Maryland
Maryland basketball lands former Memphis guard Jayhlon Young
Florida DL Christian Hudson gives glowing review of Maryland OV, talks timeline
Maryland takes lead for four-star target after official visit