Last year’s Big 10 season was full of surprises, will 2017 bring the same drama?
While we at SQ finish up our top-25 previews, we dive into our annual conference previews. Today we look at the B1G Ten Conference.
2016 In Review
Conference Champion: Penn State Nittany Lions 11-3 (8-1)
Coach of the Year: Paul Chryst, Wisconsin (Coaches) James Franklin Penn State (Media)
In this second year as Wisconsin’s head coach, Paul Chryst won the Hayes-Schembechler award which is voted on by the conference coaches. The Badgers finished 10-2, 7-2 in the conference, and won the Big Ten West division. Chryst created a defense that finished 13th in total yard allowed (3,939) and fourth in opponent points per game at only 15.5.
Penn State’s James Franklin took home the honors of the Dave McClain award which is voted on by the media. Franklin, in his third season, turned a 7-6 program into an 11-3 Big 10 champion. The Nittany Lions started off 2-2 before rattling off eight straight wins to end the season, including a huge win against Ohio State. Penn State finished 28th in total yards (6,056), 21st in points per game (37.6), and 35th in opponent points per game (23.4).
Offensive Player of the Year: Saquon Barkley RB, Penn State
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley made himself a household name on his way to being named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Barkley finished 14th nationally with 1,496 rushing yards and 10th with 17 rushing touchdowns. He was also part of the Nittany Lion passing attack, hauling in 28 receptions for 402 yards while also scoring four receiving touchdowns, third on the team.
Defensive Player of the Year: Jabrill Peppers LB, Michigan
Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers was listed at linebacker but played all over the field during his final season with the Wolverines. At some point in time, Peppers lined up at 11 different positions on both offense and defense. Primarily a hybrid linebacker/safety, Peppers was responsible for 66 total tackles, 13 for loss, three sacks, and one interception. Not only did he win Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, he was also a consensus first-team All-American and won the Ronnie Lott Impact Defensive Player Award.
What To Expect In 2017
Conference Favorite: Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes didn’t even make it to the Big Ten Championship game last season yet still found a way into the College Football Playoffs. That created controversy that will likely leak into the discussion this year. Even so, the Buckeyes open up 2017 not only as Big Ten favorites, but also rank second in the preseason AP Poll.
On offense, Ohio State gets quarterback J.T Barrett back for his final season in Columbus. He struggled in last year’s CFP matchup with Clemson, but coach Urban Meyer has all the confidence in the world in his fifth-year senior to lead the team once again. Mike Weber had a quiet, yet productive, freshman year replacing Ezekiel Elliott and should build off his 1,000-yard rushing campaign and take pressure off Barrett and an inexperienced receiving core.
Starting DE: Tyquan Lewis #59— #GoBucks (@LetsGoBuckeyes) August 2, 2017
16.5 Career Sacks
27.5 Career Tackles for Loss
92 Career Total Tackles pic.twitter.com/QqISrD67ve
If the offense struggles, don’t worry, the defense is dominant. The team gave up only 3,338 total yards (fourth in the country) and 14.2 points per game (third). They’ll have to replace last year’s corners, safety, and middle linebacker, but the Buckeyes always have talent. Their defensive line is arguably the best unit in the country and gotten heavy praise from the defensive coordinator. The stars of the unit are ends Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard who combined for 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss a year ago.
Conference Darkhorse: Wisconsin Badgers
It’s weird to think of Wisconsin as a dark horse to win the Big Ten, especially since they played in the title game just a season ago. Yes, they’re the best team in the Big Ten West division, but they’re the fourth best team overall. The Badgers will more than likely win the division, but whoever comes out of the east, whether it be Ohio State, Michigan, or Penn State, will most likely be the favorites in the championship game.
The Badgers will again rely heavily on the running game. They lost leading rushers Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale, who accounted for 66 percent of the team’s yards on the ground. Replacing them will be sophomore Bradrick Shaw, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry and added five touchdowns in a limited role.
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook will have to play substantially better if the Badgers want to take this season to the next level. He threw for 1,262 yards, only nine touchdowns, and seven interceptions. While his struggles are typical of a freshman, with another year at the helm he should make the necessary leap.
On defense, Wisconsin will have to replace NFL draftees T.J Watt and Vince Biegal. Luckily the other five starters up front from last season are returning, and should continue the good work they did in 2016. The secondary returns two stars in D’Cota Dixon and Derrick Tindal (seven interceptions combined), but it’s Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson that has the potential to be the best defensive back on the team.
Team That Will Disappoint: Michigan Wolverines
Much like Wisconsin, it’s so hard to think a team like Michigan, that has so much talent, could be considered a disappointment. The Wolverines could easily be seen as the dark horse candidate to win the Big Ten while also having bust potential. In the preseason AP Poll, Michigan comes in at 11th, fourth best ranking among conference teams.
The offense has never been a strength in Ann Arbor, and having some major question marks coming into 2017 don’t instill confidence. The Wolverines find themselves in the midst of a quarterback battle between incumbent Wilton Speights and John O’Korn. Speights probably has the upper hand after starting all last season, but an up-and-down year opened up the door again for O’Korn. It’s a safe bet to say fans won’t know the starter until they take the field against Florida in week one.
Even after finding a starting QB, Michigan will have to find some targets for him. The top three receivers from last season all left to the NFL. It will take a few weeks but top-prospect Donovan Peoples-Jones should be able to separate himself from the rest of the pack and become a true number one receiver for years to come.
The nation’s top-ranked defense lost a lot of talent, but replaces them with even more talent. Former top-ranked prospect Rashan Gary should build off his freshman year and be the force everyone expects up-front. Linebacker Mike McCray will continue his impressive career as one of the best linebackers in the country after picking up 73 tackles and 13.5 for loss.
Never before has a team with only two losses really been considered a disappoint, but in a loaded Big Ten East division, losing to Ohio State and Penn State will be all it takes to derail the Wolverines.
Three Players to Watch
1. Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State- The impact that Barkley has on the Nittany Lion offense is well documented, but the quarterback position makes just as much an impact. Trace McSorley had a big year for Penn State, finishing the season 13th in passing yards (3,614), 18th in touchdowns (29), and 13th in passer rating (156.9). Defenses will game plan heavily to stop Barkley, but if that happens McSorley will pick them apart through the air.
2. Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern- Wisconsin is the trendy pick to win the Big Ten West, and rightfully so, but Northwestern is the trendy pick as the team to watch. Leading the way for the Wildcats is senior running back Justin Jackson. In 2016, the three-year starter had his best season, finishing 13th in the country with 1,524 yards and added 15 touchdowns. Over his career, Jackson has rushed for over 4,100 yards and 30 touchdowns. If the Wildcats want to compete in the Big Ten, Jackson will play a major part.
3. Josey Jewell, LB, Iowa- Offenses all across the Big Ten know about Josey Jewell, but casual fans might not know the name. Jewell finished second in the conference with 124 total tackles and was named a Butkus Award finalist. Despite lack of ideal size, Jewell is widely considered one of the best linebackers in the country and getting some early draft hype. The Hawkeye defense finished 21st last season in opponent total yards, and if they want to return to the Big Ten title game the defense will have to step up again. Jewell is the heart and soul in Iowa and the Hawkeyes will need all they can get out of him.
Most Important Conference Matchup
Penn State at Ohio State, Oct. 28
Last season’s Penn State-Ohio State matchup was an instant classic that shook the college football season. The Buckeyes went into the game undefeated and controlled most of the game after building a 21-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The Nittany Lions, though, rattled off 17-straight points, including a game-winning blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown. Penn State went on to win the Big Ten, but Ohio State made it into the CFP. 2017’s matchup has the same stakes with the Buckeyes looking for revenge.
The biggest matchup of the night will be Penn State’s offense against Ohio State’s defense. The Nittany Lions finished last year ranked 28th in total offense and have stars in Barkley and McSorley, but Ohio State’s defense finished fifth, allowing only 282 total yards per game. McSorley and Barkley make a dynamic duo and will be a handful for almost every team that’s not Ohio State. The Buckeyes boast one of the best defensive lines in the nation and should be able to make life hard on the Nittany Lions. Winner most likely goes on to win the Big Ten and a CFP berth.
The Big Ten is a very top-heavy conference with Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Michigan all ranked in the preseason top-15. The Buckeyes look to send long-time QB J.T Barrett out with another national championship. Running back Mike Weber is a great compliment to Barrett after a promising first season as the team’s go to runner. Penn State is the darling of the nation after many believed they were the rightful conference representative in the CFP. The Nittany Lions have tons to prove and live up to after a surprising 2016.
Michigan has its own questions to answer before they are ready to compete in the Big Ten. Quarterback and defense are the biggest questions after losing 10 of their 11 starters on defense. Trying to fix a young and inexperienced defense isn’t ideal when competing with elite offenses like Penn State and Ohio State. Wisconsin is the forgotten team out of the top tier. The Badgers always have a talented defense and 2017 is no different. They’ll most likely win the Big Ten West, but all the talk is about the East Division.
Big Ten Title Game: Ohio State vs. Wisconsin
Big Ten Winner: Ohio State
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