The 2023 football season concluded this month and with it, so did the conference structure we’ve known for the last decade. Gone are the East and West divisions, and in come UCLA, USC, Washington and Oregon.
The structure of the conference is advancing like the landscape of college football — into an environment nobody can accurately predict.
What we do know is the Big Ten is now an 18-school conference with several football powerhouses on the way in. If it was already tough for Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and Maryland to win conference titles, it just got nearly impossible.
So as we look forward to 2024 and the next 10 years of Big Ten football, it’s time to properly rank every program:
2023 Record: 8-5
2023 Team Talent Composite: No. 52
2024 Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 101
Then-interim head coach David Braun took Northwestern to an 8-5 record in 2023. It was the most impressive coaching job in the Big Ten this season, and maybe even in the nation.
Unfortunately, the long-term outlook isn’t especially bright. The program will no longer benefit from the Big Ten West, it will be the second-most-talented team on the field in every game and its general recruiting issues should only be accentuated by the current direction of the sport.
Northwestern went a combined 4-20 in the two years leading up to 2023. I’d expect that to be more in line with the future record.
2023 Record: 3-9
2023 Team Talent Composite: No. 47
2024 Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 60
Indiana is a bit more talented than Northwestern, but the same issues are present. The program is in a transition period after firing long-time head coach Tom Allen, and while the elimination of divisions won’t hurt the program, it is firmly entrenched as one of the worst programs in the conference.
The beacon of hope is whether former James Madison head coach Curt Cignetti can replicate what he did at his former job. If so, Indiana could reach its ceiling of being a pesky middle-of-the-road team in the conference.
2023 Record: 7-6
2023 Team Talent Composite: No. 61
2024 Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 37
Believe it or not, Rutgers actually has some momentum under Greg Schiano off a 7-6 2023 campaign. The team’s 2023 position was clear: better than the bad teams in the conference but clearly worse than the good teams — which feels like where the best Rutgers teams should lie.
Schiano has a top-40 2024 class, so maybe Rutgers is serious about staying out of the basement in the new era of the Big Ten.
2023 Record: 4-8
2023 Team Talent Composite: No. 48
2024 Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 30
A few things are true about the last few years of Purdue football. First, Jeff Brohm is a criminally underrated coach who may have had the program at its peak. Second, the program likely isn’t as bad as a 4-8 first season under Ryan Walters shows.
The good news: Walters does have a top-30 class entering as he works to rework the roster. The bad: top edge rusher Nic Scourton transferred out this offseason, which may unfortunately become the norm for programs on this tier.
Also, the elimination of the Big Ten West will hurt big-time. Copy and paste that into every blurb.
2023 Record: 6-7
2023 Team Talent Composite: No. 57
2024 Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 36
Minnesota’s 11-2 2019 season feels like a thing of the past for the program. Even good seasons in 2021 and 2022 always had the backbreaking loss that kept the program from winning the West. Now with the West gone and an average talent roster and average recruiting, Minnesota feels a big stuck in the second-to-bottom tier of the conference.
2023 Record: 5-7
2023 Team Talent Composite: No. 63
2024 Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 45
These days, a program is often only as good as the person in charge. While 2023 wasn’t great, I still believe in Bret Bielema’s long history of winning in the conference. Will Illinois contend for conference titles? No way. But Bielema can lift the group up into the Wisconsin/Nebraska tier if all goes well.
2023 Record: 8-5
2023 Team Talent Composite: No. 42
2024 Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 39
No program will benefit from the elimination of divisions as much as Maryland. The Terps seemed to always beat up the Rutgers and Indianas of the world while losing in blowout fashion to Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan. Now it can continue that trend but at least avoid having to play the top three programs every season.
Maryland will always be a sneaky-talented team capable of putting it all together for a 10 or 11-win season.
2023 Record: 8-5
2023 Team Talent Composite: No. 24
2024 Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 82
Bombshell news dropped that UCLA head coach Chip Kelly is leaving to take the vacant Ohio State offensive coordinator job. This leaves UCLA without a head coach for the time being, though that doesn’t completely change this ranking.
I think UCLA will enter the Big Ten on the tier directly below that of Michigan State, Nebraska Iowa and Wisconsin — good enough for a peak year or two but always around the middle of the standings.
The program’s next hire is critical because the new Big Ten is far different from playing only out West.
2023 Record: 10-4
2023 Team Talent Composite: No. 41
2024 Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 31
I admire Iowa’s dedication to its brand and approach despite (relative) struggles and an evolving sport. I can’t say it’s struggled if the program hasn’t had a losing season since 2012. But anybody who watched the Big Ten Championship could see where the team is deficient (offense).
Gone now is Brian Ferentz, with a new OC yet to be named. The unit will improve because it’s impossible to play any worse — how much it will improve is the question. But guarantee me the same exceptional defense and special teams and I’ll bet on Iowa to finish around 8-4 every season.
2023 Record: 4-8
2023 Team Talent Composite: No. 27
2024 Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 47
I had Michigan State down at No. 11 before the coaching carousel concluded. The hire of Jonathan Smith changes things for the better in my eyes, especially if transfer QB Aidan Chiles hits and is a game-changer for years to come.
The Spartans still need a consistent rebound, more consistent than Mel Tucker’s one year of success, before anybody takes the program seriously. But Smith is a great hire and should at least raise the baseline.
2023 Record: 5-7
2023 Team Talent Composite: No. 21
2024 Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 18
This is a ranking based on Matt Rhule’s reputation and Nebraska’s powerhouse ability, not on the recent track record of the program. Rhule at Temple (2-10, 6-6, 10-4) and at Baylor (1-11, 7-6, 11-3) traditionally struggles in year one before building to a crescendo in year three. I expect the same kind of progression entering 2024.
Don’t look now, but the Cornhuskers have the No. 18 class of 2024 group and are trending in the talent composite. Rhule has things moving there after only a year.
2023 Record: 7-6
2023 Team Talent Composite: No. 30
2024 Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 22
This may be unpopular, but this ranking is more about the excellence of the programs at the top of the conference than about where Wisconsin stands.
The Badgers and Nebraska may occupy the same spot in the conference: good enough to battle week-in and week-out, but only good for one or two peak years each decade.
The elimination of the Big Ten West hurts the general cause. And while I believe in Luke Fickell as a really good coach, the jury is still out on whether his vision will work — specifically his hire of Phil Longo at offensive coordinator.
2023 Record: 8-5
2023 Team Talent Composite: No. 8
2024 Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 17
USC has played horrid defense since Lincoln Riley arrived in 2022. But USC is still USC and talent is still talent. Riley is arguably the best offensive head coach in the nation, always has one of the nation’s best quarterbacks and has the pockets to recruit with the top programs in the nation.
Riley also fired former defensive coordinator Alex Grinch in mid-November and is at least showing a desire to fix that side of the ball.
Who knows what the transition to the Big Ten looks like, but don’t discount the Trojans just because of the last few years on defense.
2023 Record: 14-1
2023 Team Talent Composite: No. 26
2024 Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 42
This is one program I think will slide from its spot at No. 5, but this ranking is necessary after reaching the National Championship in 2023 and showing a long history of winning prior.
The biggest question is how Jedd Fisch does after Kalen DeBoer’s departure to Alabama. I think the program can continue to win at a high level, but whether it contends for conference titles is the bigger question.
2023 Record: 10-3
2023 Team Talent Composite: No. 13
2024 Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 14
Penn State fans are furious about the program’s current spot in the conference, while most of the rest of the country would love to be Penn State — I think that’s the best way to describe where the program stands. Domination against everybody not named Michigan and Ohio State, then continued losses against the top two.
Despite 2023’s losses to the two big programs, I’m actually quite bullish on Penn State’s place in the new Big Ten. It will be one of the 3-4 most talented teams in the conference and now isn’t hurt by playing in the East every year. Don’t be surprised if the Nittany Lions are perennial 12-team playoff participants.
2023 Record: 15-0
2023 Team Talent Composite: No. 14
2024 Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 16
Yes, a team that is fresh off three straight conference titles and a 15-0 National Championship season is down to No. 3 in the future power rankings.
Why? Program turnover.
Jim Harbaugh is off to the NFL and with him went several of Michigan’s top assistants. Sherrone Moore may prove to be a great coach, but he has to navigate coaching turnover at important spots while developing a roster that lost nearly every contributor from the championship-winning team.
In short: Moore will need to build the program more than many expect — even though he was an internal promotion. For that reason, the Wolverines’ long-term outlook falls short of two other programs in the conference.
2023 Record: 11-2
2023 Team Talent Composite: No. 3
2024 Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 3
Three straight 11-2 seasons and three straight losses to Michigan with the Big Ten on the line. Yes, the program was a field goal away from winning the National Championship in 2022. But if you listen to Ohio State fans it sounds like the program is in shambles.
Here’s what we know: It remains a top-3 talent team in the nation and top-3 recruiting team, and Michigan’s head coach just left for the NFL. The Buckeyes should enter the season either favored, or second behind our No. 1 team.
2023 Record: 12-2
2023 Team Talent Composite: No. 10
2024 Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 6
In the next 10 years, I’d pick Oregon to win more Big Ten titles than anyone else — that if conferences still exist over the next decade.
The program has the recruiting profile, it has the national brand, it has the coach (who just declined the Alabama job to remain at Oregon) and it has the history. Lanning had the Ducks in position to contend for last year’s national championship but fell a bounce short twice to a magical Washington team.
This ranking is a combination of current results and future projection. None are better positioned than Oregon.