2018 Big Ten Power Rankings: Is it Ohio State or Wisconsin at the top?

Yahoo Sports

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 conference previews. With the official start of the 2018 season just days away, we’re doing things a little differently this year. We’re power ranking the teams in each FBS conference. Like our preseason top 25, these rankings will undoubtedly be wrong. Let’s get into the Big 12.

Previously: Group of Five conferences, ACC, Pac-12, Big 12

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14. Illinois (2017 record: 2-10)

The first two seasons of the Lovie Smith era haven’t gone too well (5-19, two Big Ten wins), but the Illini should be more competitive in 2018.

A.J. Bush will be running the offense, giving the Illini a semblance of stability at quarterback for a change. A fifth-year senior, Bush has had stops at Nebraska, junior college and Virginia Tech before landing in Champaign for his final season. He was given the starting nod this week, and will pilot an up-tempo attack under new coordinator Rod Smith, a longtime assistant under Rich Rodriguez.

Perhaps even a conference win could be in the cards this year.

13. Rutgers (4-8)

Rutgers seems to be on an upward trajectory under Chris Ash.

Now in his third season, Rutgers went from zero to three Big Ten wins from 2016 to 2017. Defense is Ash’s calling card, and that side of the ball — with eight starters returning — should be the team’s strength in 2018. Offensively, the program will turn to a true freshman, Artur Sitkowski, at QB. He has some decent, mostly young, talent around him at the skill positions and an offensive line with experience.

If the Scarlet Knights win three conference games again, there’s a decent chance they actually make a bowl, provided they take care of Texas State, Kansas and Buffalo in the non-conference slate. Buffalo is one of the better teams in the MAC, so that won’t be a given.

12. Minnesota (5-7)

Based on the number of underclassmen who played and the lack of skill at quarterback, it’s impressive that Minnesota was able to win five games in P.J. Fleck’s first season. The Gophers will have to scratch and claw to surpass that total in 2018.

Like Rutgers, Minnesota is rolling with a true freshman QB this year. For the Gophers, it’s Zack Annexstad, a teammate of Rutgers’ Sitkowski at IMG Academy. Annexstad, a Minnesota native, accepted a preferred walk-on offer from Fleck over a few FBS scholarships. He has two potential all-conference players — running back Rodney Smith and receiver Tyler Johnson — to distribute the ball to and a solid line to play behind.

On defense, there’s good production back at linebacker and two sturdy safeties, but the rest of the unit is underwhelming.

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11. Maryland (4-8)

The offseason has been chaotic for Maryland to say the least. The death of Jordan McNair and subsequent fallout has been a black cloud over the program. The Terps will play football soon, likely without their head coach, D.J. Durkin, who was placed on leave as the McNair investigations continue.

In the meantime, the well-traveled Matt Canada is running the show. He transformed the offense at Pitt but sputtered at LSU. With Kasim Hill or Tyrrell Pigrome at QB, the speedy Ty Johnson at RB, and a steady offensive line, Canada’s offense could be one the rest of the Big Ten dreads facing. The Terps were explosive last fall until they were besieged by injuries. Things got so bad that Ryan Brand, once fifth on the depth chart, started a game at QB.

With improved health, the Terps could pull out a few upsets — provided the events of the offseason don’t become too much of a distracting force.

10. Indiana (5-7)

Indiana is treading water. In all but one season since 2009, the Hoosiers have won between four and six games. It’s hard to see IU taking any sort of sizeable step forward this year. That’s just the reality of their place in the Big Ten East.

Sure, an offense with an intriguing young QB (Peyton Ramsey), its top two running backs, two potential all-conference receivers and its entire starting line back is going to put up numbers, but will it really be enough for the Hoosiers to tussle with the likes of Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State? Unlikely, especially given the amount of production Tom Allen needs to replace at linebacker.

The good news is that IU avoids Wisconsin out of the West. Maybe the Hoosiers can finish on the positive end of that 4-6 win spectrum and reach a bowl.

9. Nebraska (4-8)

With native son Scott Frost in place as head coach, excitement for Nebraska football is sky-high — and rightly so. Frost did an unbelievable job at UCF, inheriting a program that was 0-12 in 2015 and transforming it into one that went undefeated in 2017.

Expecting that quick of a turnaround at Nebraska would be unrealistic, but Frost has clearly injected some energy into what has been a lifeless program. That’s gotta count for something in 2018, right? The Huskers will trot out true freshman Adrian Martinez at QB with a pair of stellar receivers. Provided Martinez doesn’t make too many mistakes, the Huskers should move the ball fairly well.

But offense wasn’t the problem for the Huskers in 2018. It was defense. Eight starters from last year’s defense are back, and Frost brought safety Tre Neal with him from UCF. With such a tough conference schedule, the defense must improve for the Huskers to reach a bowl.

Scott Frost is entering his first season as Nebraska’s head coach. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)
Scott Frost is entering his first season as Nebraska’s head coach. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

8. Purdue (7-6)

After three Big Ten wins over the course of Darrell Hazell’s four-year tenure, nobody expected Purdue to get to a bowl in Jeff Brohm’s first season. Entering 2018, Purdue has two starting-level quarterbacks, Elijah Sindelar and David Blough (both back from injury), and most of their weapons from 2017 back in the fold, plus an experienced offensive line. Brohm is an offensive guy, and the Boilermakers should not have much trouble putting points on the board.

The defense, however, returns just four starters. That side of the ball made a big improvement last fall, and now there’s only four returning starters to build upon in 2018. One of them is Markus Bailey, an outside linebacker coming off a very productive year: 89 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks.

To get back to a bowl, the Boilermakers will need to win their close games.

7. Iowa (8-5)

You usually feel like you know what you’re getting from an Iowa football team. Aside from the 55-point explosion vs. Ohio State, that was pretty much true in 2017.

Nate Stanley’s completion percentage (55.8) wasn’t where you wanted, but he showed flashes of promise in a season where he threw 26 TDs and only six interceptions. With Nick Easley and Noah Fant, a potential All-American tight end, back in the fold, Iowa could be compelled to throw the ball more than it traditionally does, especially as the offense figures out how to replace RB Akrum Wadley.

Losing household names like Josh Jackson and Josey Jewell is concerning on defense, but the line should still cause its fair share of pressure. Iowa, like Purdue and Northwestern, will be in the mix to be Wisconsin’s top contender in the Big Ten West.

6. Northwestern (10-3)

With 38 starts under his belt, Clayton Thorson is the most-experienced quarterback in the Big Ten. But will he be ready for the start of the season? Thorson, who has 7,548 yards and 44 TDs in his career, suffered a torn ACL in the Music City Bowl and the program hasn’t said whether he will be back for the opener at Purdue.

Beyond Thorson, the main positions to replace are running back, vacated by the prolifically productive Justin Jackson, and the two safeties, Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro, in the defensive backfield.

If Thorson is healthy, Jeremy Larkin (503 yards in 2017) capably fills in at running back for Jackson and a poor start is avoided, Northwestern could have another big season (for Northwestern standards). But if those issues don’t get sorted out, the Wildcats could end up on the losing end of a lot of close games.

5. Michigan (8-5)

Is this the year Michigan returns to the top of the Big Ten? The Wolverines haven’t finished higher than third in the East during Jim Harbaugh’s first three seasons, but now he has a quarterback who could be a real difference maker.

That quarterback, of course, is Shea Patterson, the transfer from Ole Miss. When he was healthy, the former five-star recruit put up big numbers. He is expected to elevate Michigan’s offense from the land of ordinary. He’ll have help, too, with Karan Higdon and Chris Evans back at running back. Though the loss of Tarik Black at receiver hurts, but UM has depth there, too.

The Michigan defense returned one starter entering 2017, yet was still one of the better units in the country. Now with nine starters returning, the star-studded Wolverines could be even better on defense. But the difficulty of the schedule — six games against teams in our top 15 — could put a cap on the season’s potential.

[Yahoo Sports Top 25: No. 15 Michigan]

Jim Harbaugh is 28-11 since taking over the Wolverines. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)
Jim Harbaugh is 28-11 since taking over the Wolverines. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

4. Michigan State (10-3)

MSU’s 2016 season was ugly, but the Spartans rebounded in a big way last fall with 10 wins. Entering 2018, 19 starters return and many have the Spartans coming out of the Big Ten East. It’s easy to see why. Quarterback Brian Lewerke is back. Running back LJ Scott is back. The team’s top three receivers are back. On defense, 10 of the top 11 tacklers are back. That’s a ton of continuity.

Lewerke goes under the radar a bit, but he shouldn’t. He threw for 2,793 yards and 20 touchdowns while rushing for 559 yards and five more scores. MSU’s rushing attack was pretty pedestrian for a lot of the season, so the coaches allowed Lewerke to let it fly, usually with positive results. Felton Davis (55 catches, 776 yards, 9 TDs) was his top target.

If it’s possible to get a good draw in the Big Ten East, MSU got it. The Spartans get Michigan and Ohio State at home, and Penn State on the road. MSU also avoids Wisconsin and Iowa out of the West.

[Yahoo Sports Top 25: No. 11 Michigan State]

3. Penn State (11-2)

Even though Saquon Barkley and Joe Moorhead are no longer with the program, Penn State should still have a very explosive offense. Without Moorhead calling plays, PSU put up 545 yards in its Fiesta Bowl win over Washington, a win led by Trace McSorley. McSorley is back for his senior season and enters the season as a Heisman candidate. He threw for 3,570 yards and 28 TDs while completing 66.5 percent of his passes. He also ran for 491 yards and 10 TDs. Though he won’t have Barkley to feed, he has junior Miles Sanders, one of the top RB recruits in his class. McSorley also has a deep group of receivers, led by junior Juwan Johnson.

There’s some reason for concern on the defense, but this should be where PSU’s strong recruiting should be able to move up the depth chart and fill the gaps. The secondary should be fine, but linebacker and the interior of the defensive line are definite question marks, linebacker especially. Look for five-star freshman Micah Parsons to have an impact at the position.

[Yahoo Sports Top 25: No. 8 Penn State]

2. Wisconsin (13-1)

Wisconsin is far and away the class of the Big Ten West. The Badgers have the best offensive line in the country and one of the best running backs, sophomore Heisman candidate Jonathan Taylor, running behind it. That rushing attack is Wisconsin’s bread and butter, and it will allow for the continued progression of Alex Hornibrook at quarterback. Hornibrook was up-and-down in 2017 and was miserable in the Big Ten title game loss. But he showed the other side of the coin with four touchdown passes in the Orange Bowl win over Miami. If the Orange Bowl version of Hornibrook plays all year, the Badgers are legitimate national title contenders.

The defense has quite a few holes to fill, but Jim Leonhard, in his first year as defensive coordinator, had the unit playing at a very high level last fall. He’ll need to find some new contributors at defensive end and cornerback, especially given the schedule. This year, Wisconsin will travel to both Michigan and Penn State. From a national perspective, those games will be make-or-break for the Badgers.

[Yahoo Sports Top 25: No. 6 Wisconsin]

Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor rushed for 1,977 yards as a true freshman. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)
Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor rushed for 1,977 yards as a true freshman. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

1. Ohio State (12-2)

Ohio State will play its first three games without Urban Meyer on the sideline for his handling of Zach Smith over the years. That saga is seemingly over, and now the Buckeyes will move forward with Ryan Day running things for the time being. OSU has to get through Oregon State, Rutgers and TCU without Meyer. The first two shouldn’t be much trouble, but the TCU game could get tricky. Then Meyer is back for one last non-conference cakewalk before a trip to Penn State.

The TCU game will be the first major test for Dwayne Haskins’ as OSU’s starting quarterback. If his play against Michigan in relief of J.T. Barrett last year is any indication, he should do just fine. Haskins won’t be a drop-off from Barrett, especially with the talent around him. J.K. Dobbins is back at running back and the depth at wide receiver is ridiculous.

The talent on defense is even more ridiculous. You’d think a team returning only five defensive starters could have some holes, but the way Ohio State has consistently recruited means there is no loss of talent at really any spot, just another set of stars to fill the void. The Buckeyes are the Big Ten’s most talented team.

[Yahoo Sports Top 25: No. 3 Ohio State]

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