Southern California and UCLA won’t be joining the Big Ten until 2024, which gives the Trojans and Bruins two years to get ready for the difference in college football styles with the move from the Pac-12.
By that point, USC might be ready to roll into a New Year’s Six bowl under coach Lincoln Riley. UCLA has made progress under coach Chip Kelly and may have cracked into permanent Top 25 status.
There’s always the chance the Big Ten isn’t done expanding and adds two or more teams into the mix by the 2024 season.
But let's say USC and UCLA were stepping right into the conference this August. How would the Trojans and Bruins fare against some of the top heavyweights in the Football Bowl Subdivision?
Here's a glimpse at the Big Ten power rankings with the newcomers included, weighing factors such as recent success, current program prestige and the odds of winning the conference championship in 2022.
1. Ohio State
There are two teams capable of stepping right into the Big Ten and unseating the Buckeyes from atop the conference. Those teams: Alabama and Georgia. The Trojans and Bruins aren’t doing that in 2022. (And maybe not ever.)
The defending conference champions are going to control things along the line of scrimmage on offense. Keep an eye on quarterback: Cade McNamara is the incumbent starter, but youngster J.J. McCarthy may be too good to keep on the sidelines. Even if the defense takes a step against the run, the Wolverines are good enough to repeat atop the Big Ten and reach the College Football Playoff.
3. Penn State
The Nittany Lions will bounce back and contend for the top spot among the league’s potent second tier of teams. Bringing in former Miami (Fla.) coach Manny Diaz as defensive coordinator is one of the most impactful offseason hires in the Power Five.
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4. Michigan State
Having taken a big leap back into playoff contention under Mel Tucker, the Spartans look to build off last year’s breakthrough. Quarterback Payton Thorne is the most underrated passer in the Big Ten and the new face of the offense with running back Kenneth Walker III off to the NFL.
The Badgers must upgrade a middling passing game to contend along the league’s top four. But Wisconsin does look like the best team in a deep and likely competitive Big Ten West, where at least five teams are anticipating seven or more wins in the regular season and at least three can make a valid argument for reaching the conference championship game.
6. Southern California
USC could very well win the Pac-12 in Riley’s debut should the offense click behind star quarterback Caleb Williams and wide receiver Jordan Addison. Depth is a major problem, however, and the lack of experienced bodies across the board would be a big issue in the grind of Big Ten play. The guess: USC would win seven or eight games as a member of the conference, feasting on the bottom half of the league but not matching up well with Ohio State, Michigan and the best of the best.
Iowa’s a lock for bowl play and should spend much of the year at least on the fringes of the USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll. That might be selling the Hawkeyes short. Like Wisconsin, the offense has to get more at quarterback to take advantage of possible All-America tight end Sam LaPorta and very promising young receiver Keagan Johnson.
Look for the Bruins to start the year on many preseason Top 25 lists. Like the rival Trojans, UCLA is poised to make a strong push for the Pac-12 South Division crown, the conference championship and a New Year’s Six bowl. Admittedly, it’s been a slog to get here: Kelly won three, four and three games in his first three seasons before last year’s eight-win finish. The Bruins should match that total in the Pac-12. The guess: They would land more in the seven-win range in this year’s Big Ten.
The boom-or-bust Cornhuskers have put faith in a number of Power Five transfers to change the program’s trajectory under coach Scott Frost. The biggest addition is former Texas quarterback Casey Thompson, who can lock down the starting job in preseason camp. If everything works, this team could win the West; if it’s more of the same, look for four or five wins.
Minnesota needs to rebuild up front without four of last season’s starting offensive linemen. (Though the one returning starter, center John Michael Schmitz, is a fantastic building block.) While those personnel losses are concerning, the Gophers will get a boost from the return of former offensive coach Kirk Ciarrocca, who previously held the position from 2017-19.
Purdue won’t rise to the top of the Big Ten West without taking a big step forward on defense, which seems unlikely. Aidan O’Connell and the Boilermakers’ offense will carry this team to six or seven wins, however, and it’s not hard to see Purdue knock off Iowa or Wisconsin during the regular season and shake up the divisional race.
A brutal November — starting with Wisconsin and Penn State on the road and Ohio State at home — means Maryland needs to hit the ground running in September and October to secure another bowl bid. Good thing the schedule could allow for a 6-2 start.
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The defense has miles to go before simply joining the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. Last year’s group gave up 7.1 yards per play against opponents with a winning record, fourth-worst among teams in the Power Five. Greg Schiano might coax six wins out of this group, but it’ll be close.
It’s still early in the rebuilding process for coach Bret Bielema. But there were very positive signs coming out of his debut: Illinois won four games in conference play, including an epic overtime win against Penn State and a physical road victory against Minnesota. His second team could improve but still top out at four or five wins.
Pat Fitzgerald has suffered back-to-back losing seasons just once since taking over at Northwestern in 2006. Three times in the past decade he’s taken a losing team to a Top 25 finish the following year — in 2012, 2015 and 2020. Serious personnel questions on both sides of the ball make a similar leap this season highly unlikely. So does the schedule, which includes crossover games against Penn State and Ohio State.
Any one of the bottom four teams could end up as the caboose of the Big Ten. Let’s go with Indiana even if the Hoosiers and coach Tom Allen are not far removed from one of the top seasons in modern program history.
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Big Ten college football power rankings: How USC, UCLA would do in '22