Written by: John Stocco
I feel like we say this every year about the Big Ten conference, but in 2019 it’s one of the deepest conferences in football. Because of this, I can see about five teams coming out as B1G Champions when the season is said and done. In the Big Ten you have your elite teams, middle class teams, and your teams in poverty. In the B1G, you have some teams middle class that can graduate to elite status, and you have some teams in poverty that could make a strong push in the middle class. This will be the beginning of a series of pieces going through each of the five power conferences in college football. I will preview each team and the players to keep a close eye on during the season who are both underclassman and draft-eligible. So without further ado, let’s dive into the B1G.
Key losses: Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich, David Long, Devin Bush, Karon Higdon, Zach Gentry.
Players to watch: Shea Patterson, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black Jr, Ben Mason, Ambry Thomas.
Last year, Michigan looked like the best team in the Big Ten Conference. Even after the Week One loss to Notre Dame, the Wolverines were dominating teams; Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State, it didn’t matter. Every team was getting ran over by the Jim Harbaugh revenge bus, and it looked like it was finally the year they would beat Ohio State, get to the College Football Playoff, and finally compete for a National Championship. Boy oh boy was everyone wrong, because they were absolutely demolished by Ohio State. After that, they were smoked by Florida in the Peach Bowl, the spirit of the Wolverines was broken, and Harbaugh had to enter the offseason looking to put out a thousand fires. According to 247Sports, Michigan has the 8th best recruiting class coming into the 2019 season, best in the B1G. They lost key players to the NFL, but they’re also walking into the season with another year of Shea Patterson and the second best receiving core behind Alabama. There’s enough talent on this offense to outscore any opponent. On the defensive side, however, there’s a lot of holes left from the draft. Their secondary is electric but young. Ambry Thomas will fill the shoes of David Long, and they’ll need to rely heavily on defensive coordinator Don Brown, who’s one of the best in the game. I still believe in Jim Harbaugh. He’s my ride or die.
2. Ohio State
Key losses: Nick Bosa, Dwayne Haskins, Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin, Dre’Mont Jones, Mike Weber.
Players to watch: Chase Young, Justin Field, Garrett Wilson, Marcus Crowley, Josh Proctor, Teradja Mitchell.
Last year was full of distractions, most notably the whole Urban Meyer and Zach Smith disaster. It looked like a mess from the outside, and when you saw them play you just knew something was off. Every single week the pundits on television said “Ohio State has yet to play their best game”; they were saying that for like 10 weeks in a row, and then I wondered maybe they’re just not that good. Again, I was wrong -- they were the opposite of Michigan. All year they scraped by games, and then the last two games of the season they once again proved why they’re still the best in the conference. This year there are no more distractions. Ryan Day is the head coach, Justin Fields is their new star quarterback, and Chase Young is now the man on defense that will keep making headlines in the scouting world. Ohio State isn’t going away anytime soon.
3. Michigan State
Key losses: Justin Layne, LJ Scott, Felton Davis.
Players to watch: Kenny Wilkies, Raequan Williams, Joe Bachie, Mike Panasiuk.
After talking about two offensive heavy teams, we finally get to what the Big Ten is known for: tough and smash mouth defense. Michigan State on paper has the best defense in the conference. Defenses win football games, so I wouldn’t be shocked if the Spartans go into a game against Michigan or Ohio State and pull out the win in one of those. On the other hand, their offense needs to answer a lot of questions. There were coaching adjustments made on the offensive side of the ball, and those adjustments need to be shown in a big way. Can Brian Lewerke make a big leap? Who’s their running back? What’s the depth look like in the receiving room? Too many question marks on the offensive side of the ball, but their defense will keep them in a lot of games.
4. Penn State
Key losses: Trace McSorley, Tommy Stevens, Miles Sanders, Juwan Johnson, Shareef Miller, Amani Oruwariye.
Players to watch: Yetur Gross-Matos, Noah Cain, Micah Parsons, Brandon Smith, Sean Clifford.
Penn State is back, folks. No, I’m not saying the Nittany Lions will be playing for a National Championship, but they’re back to being an elite program. People thought they’d fall apart after losing Saquon Barkley and Mike Gesicki, but then they came back the next year and played a New Year's Six Bowl. This time, they’ve lost more talent to the NFL, and Penn State looks young and inexperienced at all positions. 2019 might be James Franklin’s most important year as a head coach.
Key losses: Darnell Savage, Ty Johnson, Derwin Gray, Tre Watson.
Players to watch: Javon Leake, Jeshaun Jones, Antoine Brooks, Rayshad Lewis.
Maryland has a new head coach, former Alabama OC Mike Locksley, and a new quarterback. Locksley is not going to bring in the same talent he had at Alabama, but he could bring over the same culture. This man can make a difference in the locker room and in the living room, bringing over three, four, and maybe five star recruits. The first plan of attack was getting a quarterback, and Virginia Tech transfer Josh Jackson will be a significant upgrade. Maryland could shock the world by pulling off a few upsets, but the 2019 season will overall be a work in progress.
Key losses: None.
Players to watch: Donavan Hale, Bryant Fitzgerald, Cameron Williams, Juan Harris, Michael Penix Jr.
The Hoosiers won’t be a good team, but here’s a team with NFL talent and NFL size. Their wide receiving core is stacked, and young safety Bryant Fitzgerald will be on a lot of front offices radar with his play on the field and his leadership abilities off the field.
Key losses: Bleassaun Austin, Saquan Hampton, Jonah Jackson.
Players to watch: Michael Maietti, Matt Alaimo, Drew Singleton.
I sure hope the New York market is paying off for the Big Ten… The Scarlet Knights are what they are and will stay at the bottom of the Big Ten for the next decade.
Key losses: Clayton Thorson, Nate Hall, Montre Hartage.
Players to watch: Hunter Johnson, Paddy Fisher, Joe Gaziano, Trae Williams, Bennett Skowronek.
Remember when I said there will be middle class teams that push their way up to elite status? Northwestern does that this year. Last year was the beginning when they competed for the B1G Championship. The talent gap between the Cats and Ohio State was clear, but now they bring along a five-star quarterback transfer from Clemson, Hunter Johnson. Johnson can bring Northwestern to heights we’ve never seen, and I believe these next two seasons are huge for Pat Fitzgerald. This is their window to set their program up for future five-star recruits and many New Year’s Six bowls.
Key losses: Michael Dieter, Beau Benzschawel, David Edwards, TJ Edwards, Ryan Connelly, Andrew Van Ginkel.
Players to watch: Jonathan Taylor, Tyler Biadasz, Graham Mertz, Logan Brown, Spencer Lytle.
It was a disappointing season for the Badgers, but 2019 could be an even bigger comeback. They’re walking into this season with five-star recruits and NFL prospects on the offensive line, one of the best running backs in college football, and FINALLY a quarterback! Alex Hornibrook was a trainwreck, but now Graham Mertz takes center stage behind center and looks to be the Badgers best quarterback since the Russell Wilson and John Stocco days (not me). If Mertz lives up to potential, the Badgers are back to competing for a final four spot in the playoffs.
Key losses: TJ Hockenson, Noah Fant, Amani Hooker, Anthony Nelson.
Players to watch: Nate Stanley, AJ Epenesa, Tyler Linderbaum
Iowa has set themselves up nicely and has built a solid program, but can they get over the hump? Nate Stanley will be highly regarded in the 2020 draft, and AJ Epenesa looks to compete with the Buckeyes’ Chase Young as the Big Ten’s best edge rusher. Iowa has some holes to fill on their depth chart, but if Stanley can separate himself from the rest of the quarterbacks in the conference, they can make some noise that actually matters.
Key losses: Stanley Morgan Jr, Devine Ozigbo,
Players to watch: Adrian Martinez, Ben Stille, Khalil Davis.
If you stopped watching Nebraska after the first four games of the season, I don’t blame you, but you missed the Cornhuskers play better overall football. You saw Scott Frost and his crew get more comfortable. You also saw an offensive explosion: 31 in an overtime loss to Northwestern, 53 in a win against Minnesota, 31 in a tough loss to Ohio State, and 54 against the Illini. I’m predicting big things for Nebraska in 2019. I think we’ll see Scott Frost put together a Coach of The Year campaign, a Heisman season from Adrian Martinez, and a late bowl game appearance for the Cornhuskers. Frost builds success, and you’re starting to see it at Nebraska.
Key losses: David Blough, DJ Knox, Markell Jones.
Players to watch: Rondale Moore, Elijah Sindelar, Markus Bailey.
The Boilermakers were a team that shocked many last season. Jeff Brohm finally broke through and delivered a winning season. It was a feel good story, but it didn’t have a happy ending as they got smoked by Auburn in the final game of the season. Purdue is expecting another highly touted recruiting class coming in 2020 and 2021. Can you believe it? Purdue football is bringing in top high school football stars. They already have one of the most exciting players in college football (Rondale Moore). I expect this team to be good, but I also expect them to have some clunkers because of their youth and inexperience.
Key losses: Emmit Carpenter, Blake Cashman.
Players to watch: Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks, Antoine Winfield Jr, Tyler Johnson.
Minnesota falls under the same category as Maryland. They’re a decent team that could be a really good team in any other conference. PJ Fleck has done a good job of taking the Gophers to a place where you have to take them seriously every week. They might not be a powerhouse anytime soon, but they’re a team that can put you on upset alert every week. With an offense that has NFL caliber talent and a secondary that can create turnovers, I expect Minnesota to be back in a bowl game.
Key losses: Nick Allegretti.
Players to watch: Isaiah Williams, Marquez Beason, Bobby Roundtree, Calvin Avery.
This one hurts. Lovie Smith is the coach of my childhood, and Illinois is a team I so desperately want to be good again. Same goes for basketball. I miss the days of Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn, but those days seem like they’re gone forever. Illinois is with Rutgers in Big Ten hell, and it’s going to take awhile for the Fighting Illini to get out of there. They must give Lovie Smith time to develop the players and the culture, but he must start winning recruiting battles in his own state if he wants to win battles on the football field.
This is how the Big Ten Conference stacks up for the 2019 season. If teams like Nebraska, Purdue, and Northwestern take that next step and show the college football world that they can compete with their conference and other Power Five schools in bowl season, the Big Ten can really put themselves ahead as college football’s best conference.