The traditional blood-and-guts, blue collar conference of college football proved to be it's most exciting last season. The Big Ten didn't go according to the script. Off the field, eyebrows were raised as USC and UCLA announced they were leaving the Pac-12 Conference to join the Big Ten for the start of the 2024-25 season.
On the field, Michigan upset the bookmakers and ended a ten-year losing run against Ohio State to gain their first ever College Football Playoff place, routing Iowa 42-3 to land the Big Ten title. The Buckeyes stumbled against Oregon in Week Two and spent the season chasing Michigan. In East Lansing, Michigan State made a remarkable turnaround, rising as high as No.3 in the Top 25 rankings.
One game has already taken place, in Dublin. It should be a fascinating season, who will come out on top in the Big Ten?
No.2 Ohio State
The Buckeyes are loaded this year and start the season as favourites to wrestle the conference title back from their old rivals in Ann Arbor. C.J. Stroud returns for his second season at quarterback as the preseason Heisman favourite. He will be throwing to record-setting receiver Jaxson Smith-Njigba, who will partner Marvin Harrison, Jr. and Emeka Egbuka in a talented receiving trio. TreVeyon Henderson has the potential to add 1,500 yards at running back behind a strong offensive line that includes former five-start recruit Paris Johnson, Jr. at left tackle.
Jim Knowles was hired from Oklahoma State as coordinator to upgrade the Buckeyes' defense, which conceded over 30 points five times last season. To reach and have a chance of winning the Playoff, they will need to be stingier. Word from camp is that C.J. Hicks has looked impressive at linebacker. Expect him to make an instant impact.
Having flirted briefly with the NFL in the off-season, top of Jim Harbaugh's to-do list in defending Michigan's Big Ten title is to choose a starting quarterback. At time of writing, he had opted to select senior Cade McNamara for the season opener vs. Colorado State and sophomore J.J. McCarthy for the following game vs. Hawaii.
The Wolverines have lost some top talent. The absences Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo will weaken most teams' pass rush and Hassan Haskins, who ran riot against Ohio State has moved on. Both coordinators have also left, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis to the University of Miami and defensive counterpart Mike MacDonald returned to NFL's Baltimore Ravens. Returning, however, is talented running back Blake Corum and last year's No.1 receiver Ronnie Bell who was injured in the first game. Michigan's schedule is favourable and should give them enough momentum to get to the end of November showdown with Ohio State in Columbus.
No.15 Michigan State
An 11-2 record last year prompted the Spartans to cough up a cool $95 million to keep coach Mel Tucker in East Lansing for the next ten years. Payton Thorne returns at quarterback, having thrown for a school-record 27 touchdowns last season. His favourite target, Jayden Reed, is also back and will be a contender for the Biletnikoff Award for the best receiver in college football. Star running back Kenneth Walker III left for the NFL, but Jarek Broussard comes in from Colorado to add balance to Michigan State's attack.
To have a chance of repeating the success of last season, Michigan State willl need to strengthen an offensive line that lost three starters and a defense that ranked last in the Big Ten, conceding an average 441.9 yards per game. The appropriately named cornerback Ameer Speed transferred from Georgia to boost the Spartans' secondary alongside former Alabama transfer Ronald Williams.
Having started 0-5, the year before, Penn State leapt to a 5-0 start last season and climbed as high as No.4 in the national rankings. Quarterback Sean Clifford's injury vs. Iowa set the tone for a mid-season slump, with the Nittany Lions losing four of their next six. Clifford is back for a sixth season but will hope that the one of the weakest offensive lines in the Big Ten improves significantly on the 34 sacks conceded.
New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz comes in from Miami, where he was head coach. He favours an aggressive style of defense in which cornerback Joey Porter, Jr. and linebacker Curtis Jacobs can thrive. A season opener against a promising Purdue team will shape their start this year in a decent schedule that sees them face conference rivals Minnesota, Maryland, Northwestern, Michigan State and Ohio State at home, and an interesting non-conference game at Auburn.
Returning junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa broke school records with 26 passing touchdowns and 3,860 passing yards and has an exciting set of receivers to throw to. Florida transfer Jacob Copeland and four-star freshman Shaleak Knotts join leading wideouts Rakim Jarrett and Dontay Demus, Jr. in an offense that will stretch opposing defenses.
To continue rising up the Big Ten standings. the Terrapins must tighten up a defense that conceded 66 points at Ohio State, 59 to Michigan and 51 to Iowa. Tagovailoa must remain healthy so outstanding left tackle Jaelyn Duncan will be one to watch as he protects his talented quarterback's blind side.
Fifth year senior Jack Tuttle and Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak will battle for the quarterback spot in Bloomington. Head coach Tom Allen has picked his starter under center, but won't name them publicly until the season opener vs. Illinois. Shaun Shivers (Auburn) and Josh Henderson (North Carolina) transfer in to bolster the running game. Tiawan Mullen, at cornerback, and linebacker Cam Jones are the standouts of a robust defense.
Indiana took a big step back last year, winning just two games, and will look to bounce back. They will need to build momentum early in the season, as a rough November sees them host Penn State and travel to Ohio State and Michigan State in consecutive weeks before the Old Oaken Bucket showdown with state rival Purdue.
The Scarlet Knights have improved consistently in the last four seasons in one of the toughest divisions in college football. Redshirt freshman Gavin Wimsatt could push Noah Vedral for the starting quarterback job. Head coach Greg Schiano, at time of writing, hadn't committed to a decision ahead of the season opener at Boston College.
A tough schedule including early matches with Iowa and Ohio State at a time when a new offensive line will be knitting together suggests this might be a season of consolidation in Piscatawny. Incoming receiver transfers Taj Harris from Syracuse and Sean Ryan from West Virginia will add flair to Rutgers' offense.
The key to the Badgers' success this season will be determined by the improvement in a lacklustre offense. Bobby Engram comes in from the Baltimore Ravens as offensive coordinator and will be relying on a robust offensive line that can release the supremely talented back Braelon Allen. Allen goes into his sophomore year hoping to emulate the likes of Jonathan Taylor, now starring for the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL. Allen ran for 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns in an outstanding freshman season.
Graham Mertz returns for a third year at quarterback and the defense, which lost eight starters, has a skilled set of linebackers led by junior Nick Herbig, who recorded nine sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss.
Iowa returns 16 starters to a team propped up by a dominant defense that held opponents to just 19.2 points per game last season. Cornerback Riley Moss and linebacker Jack Campbell lead a defense that will ensure the Hawkeyes are competitive all season.
Their offense, by comparison, were 10th in the Big Ten, scoring just 23.4 points per game, allowing 32 sacks. Spencer Petras is likely to return at quarterback and will need to inspire a relatively conservative offense to keep Iowa close. Running back Gavin Williams and receiver Keagan Johnson could be the sparks to Iowa's attack.
The Boilermakers are coming off a bright season which saw them beat Tennessee in the Music City Bowl and break out Aidan O'Connell at quarterback. O'Connell threw for 2,494 yards, 21 touchdowns and just three interceptions last season. He inspired Purdue to win five of their last six games and could be in the NFL Draft conversation this year.
A strong defense featuring NFL prospect Jalen Graham and safety Cam Allen gives O'Connell the platform to be aggressive on offense. Continued improvement and a favourable schedule that doesn't include Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State could make Purdue a dark horse.
Key to the Golden Gophers returning to success could lie in the rehire of former offensive coordinator of Kirk Ciarrocca, who made a huge contribution to their outstanding 2019 season. Ciarrocca will be reunited with "The Encore Four", as head coach Kirk Ferentz describes the group of players back for their sixth season. Tanner Morgan returns at quarterback, joined by receiver Chris Autman-Bell, prolific running back Mo Ibrahim and the outstanding John Michael Schmitz at center.
If the Minnesota defense, in the top 10 nationally last year, can repeat their form and the offense can return to a free-scoring unit under Ciarrocca, Minnesota could be in the conversation for the Big Ten West.
The Wildcats are off to great start already by upsetting Nebraska in Dublin. The outstanding left tackle Peter Skoronski will be high on most teams' draft boards in April. Quarterback Ryan Hilinski will sleep well knowing Skoronski is protecting him and will hope to build on a promising opening day showing that saw him complete 27 of 38 passes for two touchdowns.
Highly regarded coach Pat Fitzgerald will hope for more consistency from Northwestern, who seem to go from boom to bust, a 9-5 season in 2018 followed by 3-9 in 2019, and a promising 7-2 Covid-affected 2020 season was followed by another 3-9 year in 2021. On that basis, they're due a good one this year. Improving an awful defense and an offense that averaged just 16.2 points per game will help. 31 points scored against Nebraska is a good start.
Coach Scott Frost is firmly on the hot seat. A shocking first game loss to Northwestern has put the already under pressure coach firmly on the radar. Texas transfer Casey Thompson showed promise at quarterback and is joined by fellow former Longhorn Marcus Washington.
The Cornhuskers added over 30 new players so it is likely it will take time to gel. Unless a shaky defense and poor special teams improve significantly, Frost could be gone after Week 4's visit of Indiana in Lincoln.
The Fighting Illini go into the new season likely to be the bottom team, but with a solid foundation to build on. Two promising quarterbacks in Tommy DeVito and Arthur Sitkowski will battle for the starting job and former signal caller Isaiah Williams could have a breakout season in his second year at wide receiver.
A dramatically improved defense could help Illinois climb the Big Ten. Safety Sydney Brown leads a high-energy unit. His brother Chase lines up at running back. Both will be potential NFL draft picks in April.
Sept 24th - Wisconsin @ Ohio State - the preseason favourites for the West and East divisions square off at The Shoe.
Oct 29th - Michigan State @ Michigan - a critical game for the Wolverines to keep them in the hunt for the Big Ten title as they look to avenge last year's loss to Michigan State
Nov 12th - Wisconsin @ Iowa - arguable the showdown to determine the winner of the West and who plays the winner of the game below for the Big ten title.
Nov 26th - Michigan @ Ohio State - Revenge. East title. Potential place in the Playoff. This game has it all. One of THE must-see games of the season.
Michigan will be reluctant to lose their grip on the Big Ten championship and there are a number of teams - Minnesota, Maryland and Michigan State that will continue to improve, it looks like the November 26th showdown in Columbus will determine the Big Ten winner. Given the sheer amount of talent on their roster, and a Michigan-sized chip on their shoulder, it's hard to look past Ohio State.