It is with great regret that I must inform you all that another season of Big Ten (B1G) football is upon us. This is the part where you all run away. For those of you willing to stay, you’ve been warned.
But yes, we have another season of B1G, which is very exciting if you get the Big Ten Network as part of your standard cable package.
It’s difficult to describe the 2016 B1G football season. Four teams finished the season in the top 10 of the AP Poll.
By comparison, only four teams in the Pac-12 finished in the top 25 (only two cracked the top 10).
Ohio State made the College Football Playoff, but didn’t even make the Big Ten Championship game.
Penn State won the B1G Championship and defeated Ohio State in the same season. However, they wound up with a Rose Bowl berth because of the Michigan and Pittsburgh loss.
While Michigan did beat Penn State, they inexplicably lost in Kinnick to Iowa, followed by another loss a couple weeks later to Ohio State. This kept Michigan at least an arms-length from the playoff and forced them into the Orange Bowl.
Wisconsin won its division, despite close losses to both Michigan and Ohio State. They lost the B1G title game to Penn State. The Badgers also stood outside looking in and wound up in the Cotton Bowl.
So what happened?
First of all, Ohio State played the eventual national champions, Clemson, in the Fiesta Bowl. That ended poorly for the Buckeyes as they were shutout for the first time since 1993.
Penn State played USC in what was perhaps one of the best games in Rose Bowl history, or at least the highest scoring one in Rose Bowl history. However, that resulted in a loss for the Nittany Lions.
Michigan rallied back, but Florida State scored late, to knock off the Wolverines in the Orange Bowl.
The only top 10 team to win out of B1G was Wisconsin, which defeated Western Michigan.
Of the 14 teams in B1G, 10 of them clinched bowl berths in 2016. How many of them won? Three to be exact!
Wisconsin, Northwestern and Minnesota all got bowl victories, while the other seven teams…well, they lost.
B1G had a much better showing in the 2015 bowl season, winning five games.
If there’s one certainty about the 2017 season, it’s that the East division will be very top heavy with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan all competing there. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Sparty fighting for the top again.
Wisconsin seems like the hot favorite in the West Division once again this year. However, they will have Northwestern and Iowa to contend with. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Nebraska try to enter the fight, or even Minnesota.
Team to beat: Ohio State Buckeyes
Why Ohio State? Who made the playoff last season without winning their conference championship?
Yes, even though they got shutout and embarrassed and humiliated by Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State is still somehow the team to beat in B1G.
The Buckeyes return 15 starters, eight of which are on offense, including quarterback J.T. Barrett.
Defensively, the Buckeyes return seven starters, including defensive end Tyquan Lewis, who led the team in sacks with eight.
Team Most Likely to Surprise: Northwestern Wildcats
The media in the Cleveland.com poll predicted Northwestern to finish second behind Wisconsin in the Big Ten West.
It’s fair to say that the media is high on the Wildcats for 2017. Therefore, since I like Northwestern, and enjoy picking on Medill, I think this is a good candidate to surprise in the Big Ten.
The Wildcats have eight starters on offense returning this season, including their top running back Justin Jackson. Last season, Jackson rushed for 1,524 yards to lead B1G.
Junior quarterback Clayton Thorson is also back for the Wildcats as he has a chance to make an even bigger impact.
Thorson threw for 3,128 yards and and 22 touchdowns (both fourth in B1G).
Team Most Likely to Disappoint: Michigan Wolverines
The Wolverines also lost Jabrill Peppers, who likely played every position last season.
The reality is, Michigan went 2-2 in its true road games last season. Yeah, Blue defeated Rutgers and Michigan State, but also lost at Iowa and Ohio State (say whatever you want about the latter, you still lost in an ugly game to the former).
Michigan has Florida, Cincinnati and Air Force in its non-conference schedule, and all but Florida are home games. The Florida opener will be played at Jerry World. I could see the Wolverines stubbing their toe in Arlington against the Gators.
It might not be as easy of a conference schedule for the Wolverines as it has been in past years, though.
They have road games at both Penn State and Wisconsin. Those won’t be easy, and losses to either or both teams could really hurt their chances with making the playoff.
Offensive Player to Watch: Saquon Barkley, Penn State RB
A case could’ve been made for Jackson or Iowa’s Akrum Wadley. However, Barkley is arguably the best running back in the Big Ten, and possibly one of the best players.
Barkley is your reigning B1G offensive player of the year. He’s rushed for more than 2,500 yards and 25 touchdowns in his first two seasons at Penn State.
The 2017 season might be a Heisman-candidate type of season for the junior. He’s the clear catalyst for the Nittany Lions. I don’t know that Trace McSorely has the same year without Barkley.
Additionally, Barkley is a reliable receiver out of the backfield for McSorely. In 2016, Barkley caught 28 passes for 404 yards with four touchdowns.
Penn State needs Barkley if it want to get anywhere close to the College Football Playoff.
Defensive Player to Watch: Josey Jewell, Iowa LB
Josey Jewell didn’t quite have the same success in 2016 as he did in 2015 when the Hawkeyes went to the Rose Bowl.
Jewell’s numbers might have been down from year-to-year, but not by very much. He still finished second in B1G in tackles.
Now more than ever, Jewell is the anchor of that Hawkeyes defense, especially after the loss of cornerback Desmond King to the NFL.
During the offseason, the team pulled back on his reps to keep him healthy going into his senior season.
Don’t be surprised to see Jewell do some awesome work at linebacker this season.
Punter to Watch: Blake Gillikin- Penn State
Since some associate punting with B1G, let’s do a punter to watch feature. For this instance, Wade Lees of Maryland seems like a solid pick.
Gillikin, a sophomore, made the Ray Guy Award watch list this season. Last season, Gillikin finished third in B1G in yards per punt with 42.8.
Punting matters, especially in B1G. Field position is a sick and twisted game that teams in this conference love to play.