2019 Big Ten Power Rankings: Is this the year Michigan finally beats Ohio State?

Sam Cooper

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 conference power rankings. With the official start of the college football season just days away, we’re power ranking the teams in each FBS conference. Next up is the Big Ten.

Other Power Rankings: ACC, Big 12, Group of Five, Pac-12, SEC

14. Rutgers (2018 record: 1-11, 0-9 Big Ten)

Does any program feel like it’s treading water more than Rutgers? The Scarlet Knights are 7-29 in three years under Chris Ash, including a miserable 1-11 mark in 2018. It’d be hard to be much worse than that, but there still isn’t much reason for optimism entering 2019. Rutgers had the nation’s third-worst offense last year, putting up an average of 266.3 yards per game. Only 132.2 of those yards came through the air. The only non-option team worse was Wyoming (131.3 ypg).

True freshman Artur Sitkowski saw the most action at QB last year. He struggled mightily, and he’s got competition for the starting job this year from two transfers: McLane Carter (Texas Tech) and Johnny Langan (Boston College). Carter, who began the 2018 season as TTU’s starter, is more of a threat to win the job than Langan.

13. Illinois (4-8, 2-7)

Unlike Rutgers, Illinois seemed to take some steps forward in its third season under a new coach. The administration is committed to giving Lovie Smith time to build and the Illini showed some signs of life and even managed to win two Big Ten games. Compared to the ineptitude of Smith’s first two seasons, the Illini were much-improved on offense in 2018.

With RB Reggie Corbin and transfer QB A.J. Bush, the Illini were able to run the ball effectively. Corbin is back for his senior year but Bush has graduated, leaving Michigan transfer Brandon Peters as the starter for 2019. Peters is a pocket passer, so the Illini will have to make some adjustments. All three of the team’s non-conference games are winnable, but it would be a surprise if the Illini played in a bowl for the first time since 2014.

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12. Maryland (5-7, 3-6)

Maryland, amidst the turmoil that followed the tragic death of Jordan McNair, managed to enter November with a 5-3 record before losing their last four games. The Terps now enter 2019 with a new head coach: Mike Locksley. Locksley, most recently the offensive coordinator at Alabama, had two previous stints as a Maryland assistant and has been able to replenish the roster with transfers from the DMV area.

One transfer who’s not a local is QB Josh Jackson, who started 16 games for Virginia Tech. If he can avoid the Maryland QB injury curse, the offense should be pretty solid. Losing WR Jeshaun Jones to an ACL injury was a tough break, but Anthony McFarland has all-Big Ten potential at running back. It’ll take a few upsets, but the Terps reaching a bowl game isn’t far-fetched.

11. Indiana (5-7, 2-7)

Indiana hasn’t finished with a winning record since 2007 and hasn’t won a bowl game since 1991. After starting 4-1 in 2018, it looked like both of those streaks could be snapped. Instead, the Hoosiers lost six of their final seven games to finish 5-7. Three of those losses came by seven points or less. Life is tough in the Big Ten East.

IU enters 2019 with a new offensive coordinator in Kalen DeBoer, who has some talent to work with. Peyton Ramsey (provided he beats Michael Penix for the starting job) is back at QB and has RB Stevie Scott and four of his top six receivers returning. After previously handling defensive coordinator duties himself, Tom Allen promoted LBs coach Kane Wommack. Wommack’s defense brings back seven starters, but really needs to improve on third down. IU allowed opponents to convert 42 percent of the time in 2018.

10. Purdue (6-7, 5-4)

Jeff Brohm took over a bleak-looking situation left by Darrell Hazell and somehow coached Purdue into a bowl game in his first two seasons. After a rough 0-3 start a year ago, the Boilermakers won five of their next six, including upsets over Ohio State and Iowa, and beat rival Indiana in the season finale to get back to a bowl.

On offense, Brohm — who turned down a chance to coach Louisville, his alma mater, to stay in West Lafayette — brings back Elijah Sindelar at QB, Brycen Hopkins at tight end and star receiver Rondale Moore, who had a ridiculous 114 catches as a true freshman. Otherwise, you’ll see a lot of new faces. The defense, on the other hand, brings back nine starters, including its top three tacklers. That group is led by linebacker Markus Bailey, who was third in the Big Ten in tackles.

Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore (4) makes a catch in front of Wisconsin cornerback Rachad Wildgoose (5) on his way to a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. Wisconsin defeated Purdue 47-44 in overtime. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore was a first-team All-Big Ten selection as a true freshman. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

9. Minnesota (7-6, 3-6)

P.J. Fleck is building something pretty interesting at Minnesota. Fleck played mostly underclassmen last year and the Gophers went and won a bowl game. They played their best ball late in the year with blowout wins over Purdue (41-10), Wisconsin (37-15) and Georgia Tech (34-10) in the Quick Lane Bowl.

Fleck’s team returns 16 starters entering 2019. The Gophers are stacked at running back with seniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks both coming back from injury, coupled with a pair of freshmen (Mohamed Ibrahim and Bryce Williams) who combined for 1,662 yards and 15 touchdowns. Senior wideout Tyler Johnson is also back in the fold after putting up 75 receptions for 1,169 yards and 12 TDs a year ago. If sophomore QB Tanner Morgan takes a step forward, Minnesota has a chance to be very dangerous and even be in the mix to win the West.

8. Northwestern (9-5, 8-1)

Fun fact: Northwestern has won 15 of its last 16 regular season Big Ten games. Last year, the Wildcats closed the regular season by winning eight of nine (the loss was to CFP-bound Notre Dame) en route to their first Big Ten West title. They dropped the Big Ten title game to Ohio State, but knocked off Utah in the Holiday Bowl — the program’s third straight bowl win.

Northwestern returns 12 starters, including six on offense and six on defense. The offense will have a new starting QB, likely five-star Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson. The skill talent around Johnson is not particularly explosive. The offensive line will break in three new starters, too. The defense, however, returns its top five tacklers, including linebackers Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher. Those two combined for 243 tackles a year ago. It’d be a shock if Northwestern didn’t return to a bowl in 2019, but that same kind of success in conference play may not be in the cards. The Big Ten West is a much-improved division.

7. Wisconsin (8-5, 5-4)

Expectations were sky-high for Wisconsin entering 2018. Some had the Badgers penciled in to the College Football Playoff, but things went off the rails quickly with a Week 3 loss to BYU. By the time the Badgers were destroyed in Ann Arbor by Michigan, it was clear that UW was wildly overrated entering the season. Later on, the team’s third-year starting QB, Alex Hornibrook, dealt with concussion issues late in the year and ultimately decided to transfer.

This year, Jack Coan is going to open the season as the starter, but heralded freshman Graham Mertz is looming. There is one certainty about the Badgers’ offense: Jonathan Taylor. The star running back has an absurd 4,171 rushing yards in just two seasons of college football. He enters 2019 as one of the favorites for the Heisman Trophy despite the fact that UW must replace four starting linemen. On defense, the Badgers need to replace a lot at linebacker, but the secondary should be significantly better.

For a more in-depth look at Wisconsin, No. 25 in our preseason top 25, click here.

FILE - In this Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, file photo, Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor (23) breaks the tackle of Purdue safety Navon Mosley (27) on his way to scoring a game-winning touchdown during overtime of an NCAA college football game in West Lafayette, Ind. The sophomore is a finalist for a second straight year for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s best running back. He’s 131 yards short of his first 2,000-yard season as the Badgers get ready to play Minnesota this weekend in the annual rivalry game for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)
Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor has an absurd 4,171 rushing yards in just two seasons of college football. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)

6. Nebraska (4-8, 3-6)

When you saw what Scott Frost did at UCF, it’s hard not to believe that Nebraska can take a big jump in his second year. The Huskers started 0-6 in 2018 but won four of six down the stretch, and those two losses (to Ohio State and Iowa) came by a combined eight points. Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez is the main reason to be optimistic.

Martinez threw for 2,617 yards and 17 touchdowns while completing 64.6 percent of his passes. He also rushed for 629 yards and eight scores. This year, he’ll have WR JD Spielman to throw to and JUCO transfer Dedrick Mills next to him in the backfield. Mills rushed for 771 yards and 12 TDs at Georgia Tech as a freshman. The defense loses five of its top six tacklers from a year ago. But the leading tackler, LB Mohamed Barry (112 tackles), is back for his senior year. The Big Ten West is wide open, and the Huskers have as good a chance as anybody.

For a more in-depth look at Nebraska, No. 23 in our preseason top 25, click here.

5. Iowa (9-4, 5-4)

Iowa started 2018 with a 6-1 record, but a three-game losing streak (with a combined margin of defeat of 12 points) cost the Hawkeyes the chance to play for the Big Ten title. Even after the West was out of reach, Iowa finished the season with three straight wins to reach the nine-win mark for the seventh time in Kirk Ferentz’s tenure in Iowa City. That created some optimism entering 2019, even though Iowa must replace two first-round picks at tight end and return only four starters on defense.

One player back on defense, though, is defensive end A.J. Epenesa. Though he was in a rotational role behind two seniors, Epenesa led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks and was fourth with 16.5 tackles for loss. On offense, Nate Stanley is back for his third season as the starting quarterback. If the team can find production at receiver to go with a nice trio of running backs and a stellar offensive line, the Hawkeyes will be the best all-around team in the West.

For a more in-depth look at Iowa, No. 20 in our preseason top 25, click here.

4. Michigan State (7-6, 5-4)

Michigan State was horrific on offense and outstanding on defense in 2018. Let’s start with the offense. QB Brian Lewerke was a breakout player in 2017, but a shoulder injury made things miserable for him in 2018. The fact that Lewerke couldn’t competently throw the ball only exacerbated the inefficiency of the MSU running game. This year, Lewerke is healthy, his offensive line should be better and most of the skill position talent around him is back. The Spartans’ offense will be better.

If the offense shows even marginal improvement, it would help a defense that was one of the best in the nation. With all four starters back, including Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Kenny Willekes, the defensive line should be excellent. All-Big Ten linebacker Joe Bachie is back in the fold as well. In the end, though, Michigan State’s ceiling will depend on some semblance of explosiveness on offense.

For a more in-depth look at Michigan State, No. 18 in our preseason top 25, click here.

3. Penn State (9-4, 6-3)

This is a really talented Penn State team, but all eyes are on the replacement for Trace McSorley as we enter Week 1. That replacement is Sean Clifford, a redshirt sophomore who the coaching staff is very high on. If Clifford proves to not be much of a drop-off from McSorley, the Nittany Lions could be very, very good. James Franklin has been saying all preseason that this is the fastest team he’s ever had. And most of that speed is showing on defense. Guys like defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos and sophomore linebacker Micah Parsons could end up being high draft picks.

Much of the offense around Clifford is young. The top receiver, K.J. Hamler, is a redshirt sophomore. The top running back, Ricky Slade, is a true sophomore. So is tight end Pat Freiermuth. The offensive line is a little bit of a concern. Three starters up front are back, but a redshirt freshman, Rasheed Walker, is stepping into the top spot at left tackle. Penn State may be a year away from returning to the top of the Big Ten.

For a more in-depth look at Penn State, No. 12 in our preseason top 25, click here.

2. Michigan (10-3, 8-1)

This has to be the year, right? With Urban Meyer out of the picture at Ohio State, Penn State still young and Michigan State underwhelming on offense, Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines should sense a big opportunity to finally win the Big Ten East. It’s something Michigan hasn’t done. The Wolverines haven’t beaten the Buckeyes under Harbaugh, either.

The key to Michigan in 2019 is a new-look offense led by coordinator Josh Gattis. Harbaugh says he’s going to give Gattis the freedom to install a hurry-up, spread offense. If that comes to fruition, the Wolverines will be able to get the ball to their talented receivers in space while putting QB Shea Patterson in more positions to use his playmaking abilities. The offense is key because you should expect Don Brown’s defense to be formidable yet again. Brown is reeling from late-season losses to OSU and Florida in the Peach Bowl. He’ll have his unit motivated and ready for 2019.

For a more in-depth look at Michigan, No. 7 in our preseason top 25, click here.

1. Ohio State (13-1, 8-1)

Urban Meyer is gone and Ryan Day is in. And maybe that’s a good thing. There was so much drama surrounding Meyer last year that it could be a nice change of pace to have some calm and stability with a sharp offensive mind like Day running the show. Day showed his offensive acumen by tutoring Dwayne Haskins into a first-round pick and picking apart Michigan for 62 points in a Big Ten East-deciding game.

In 2019, he’s expected to do the same with Justin Fields, the five-star Georgia transfer. Fields is young and more of a dual-threat than Haskins, but with such little QB depth behind him it’s going to be risky to subject Fields to hits when using him as a runner. Fields will have a ton of talent around him, too. In 2018, OSU’s defense was surprisingly inconsistent. The Buckeyes gave up a ton of big plays, but with nine starters back, it’d be a shock if the unit wasn’t much-improved.

For a more in-depth look at Ohio State, No. 5 in our preseason top 25, click here.

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields drops back to pass during NCAA college football practice, Friday, Aug. 2, 2019, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Justin Fields, a five-star recruit in 2018, steps into the starting role at Ohio State after transferring from Georgia. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

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