Even though the Big 10 is coming off one its best regular season performances in quite some time, it feels as though 2016 was a disappointment for the conference following poor execution from Big 10 teams in bowl season. Ohio State University led a controversial charge to the College Football Playoff, only to see it all crumble against the eventual National Champions from Clemson University. Penn State University returned to glory under Coach James Franklin as the surprise conference champions, yet put forth a losing effort in what is easily the greatest played Rose Bowl of my lifetime. Michigan State fell to 3-9 under Coach Mark Dantonio, leading some, including me, to question whether their magic has run dry.
Despite the unwanted outcomes during the bowl season, there is a vast array of accomplishments from 2016 that the Big 10 should be proud of. For starters, the Big 10 East Division saw three teams reach 10 wins, while the Big 10 West Division saw three more achieve at least nine victories. Additionally, the conference as a whole was strong against non-conference opponents. Ohio State did what was thought at one time to be impossible and routed the University of Oklahoma on their home field. Wisconsin took down Preseason Top 5 team Louisiana State at Lambeau Field on their way to an 11-win season. Finally, Nebraska was a Top 10 team deep into the season for the first time under Coach Mike Reilly, even if their success was not sustained for the entire season.
I see this season as one of the most wide-open Big 10 Championship races in history. Without further ado, here are my teams to watch in the Big 10 for 2017.
Ohio State University Buckeyes (OSU) – How can they not be the favorites? The Buckeyes were the favorites to win the Big 10 East Division last season, and while Ohio State failed to win their division, they were nonetheless awarded a place in the 2016 College Football Playoff. Ohio State returns nearly everyone on offense, including four-year starting Quarterback JT Barrett. While the defense saw some key figures bolt for the NFL, Defensive Lineman Nick Bosa returns with aspirations of following in the footsteps of his brother, NFL Defensive End Joey Bosa. The only challenging non-conference matchup on the schedule is once again the University of Oklahoma; much to the delight of OSU the 2017 matchup will take place under the lights in Columbus, Ohio. Penn State University must also make the trip to Columbus, but the schedule balances out with difficult tests on the road at Northwestern University, the University of Iowa, and the University of Michigan. Nevertheless, the Buckeyes are once again a formidable foe, seeking yet another Big 10 Title. If they succeed in capturing the Big 10 Championship, it will likely include being one of the four teams to make the College Football Playoff in 2017.
Penn State University Nittany Lions (PSU) – One year ago, I sat here and declared that the Nittany Lions would be the Sleeper team to win the Big 10. One year later, Penn State enters the 2017 season as the defending Big 10 East Division and Conference Champions. Eleven wins in 2016 was the most for a Nittany Lion squad since 2005, when Joe Paterno led his team to a Top 3 finish and an Orange Bowl victory over Florida State University. Similar to the Buckeyes, nearly everyone returns on offense for Penn State, including an unlikely Heisman Trophy candidate in Quarterback Trace McSorely, as well as the dynamic Running Back Saquon Barkley. While the University of Pittsburgh, Michigan, and University of Nebraska all have to travel to Penn State, trips to Iowa, Northwestern, and Ohio State loom large over this talented team. Is another miracle run at the Big 10 title in store for Penn State? It sure looks plausible, as does the potential for this team to make a run at a College Football Playoff spot.
University of Wisconsin Badgers (Wisc) – A top-notch Badgers team won the Big 10 West Division in 2016, and it is hard to find a reason to think that 2017 will be much different. With Quarterback Alex Hornibrook taking over the position full time after splitting playing time last year with Bart Houston, the potential for Wisconsin to have a dynamic offense is sky high. Along with playing in the weaker Big 10 West Division, Wisconsin does not have to play the top East Division teams, Ohio State and Penn State, this season. Trips to Brigham Young University, Nebraska, and the University of Minnesota will be the challenges on this year’s schedule, as well as a late season home tilt against the Michigan Wolverines. While it is a near certainty that the Badgers will make yet another trip to contend in the Championship Game as the winners of the Big 10 West, it is less likely to see Wisconsin win their first Big 10 Championship since 2012.
University of Michigan Wolverines (UM) – The Wolverines were mere inches from making an appearance in the 2016 Big 10 Championship Game. Many thought 2016 was the best chance for Michigan, who was fielding one of the most Senior laden teams in the entire country, to return to prominence and win the Big 10 East Division. For 2017, the opposite is the case, as Michigan is fielding one of the youngest squads in all of Division 1 Football. The Wolverines face one of the toughest schedules on paper in the entire country, starting with a neutral-site game against the University of Florida. Michigan’s difficult opener is followed by road games at Wisconsin and Penn State, finishing with their annual war against the Buckeyes at home. Still, I find it hard to believe that the Wolverines will falter much with Jim Harbaugh in charge. The Wolverines are too deep and too talented to take a step back from 2016, as their young talent should keep them in the Big 10 Title picture. Look for Michigan to keep right on rolling, certain to stay in contention for a trip to the Big 10 Championship Game.
University of Nebraska Cornhuskers (Neb) – The Cornhuskers were back on top in 2016, marking their return to the Top 10 of the polls. Nebraska had the country thinking that they may be back on their way to the Promised Land. Such high expectations came to be before the massacre in primetime at Ohio State, when they seemingly forgot how to play defense. From there, Nebraska’s nine-win season ended with three more losses. The Huskers have plenty of holes to fill in 2017 on both sides of the ball. If you are looking for a positive aspect, Nebraska does welcome several key opponents to their home field, as Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Northwestern all must travel to them to play. I do not like the chances for Nebraska this year, especially considering the amount of talent lost from a season ago. A bowl game for the Cornhuskers is the expectation in 2016. A bowl appearance alone is not considered a successful season for Nebraska, who will add another year to their now 16 years absence from the National Championship Game.
Northwestern University Wildcats (NW) – If the Big 10 Football Championship was decided by cumulative GPA every year, I have little doubt that Northwestern would be a perennial powerhouse. Unfortunately, the game is contested on the field, not in the classroom. The Wildcats make a surprise run of success now and then, remaining dormant for several years, followed by a year or two of successfully competing with the giants of college football. The 2017 season has the potential to be the beginning one of those runs. Northwestern will boast one of the best secondaries in the nation, led by Defensive Back Keith Watkins II, as well as a dynamite tandem to run the ball, starring Running Backs Justin Jackson and John Moten IV. The downside in trying to play David to Goliath is that it often has to take place on Goliath’s home turf. In this case, the 2017 schedule for the Wildcats includes the home fields of Wisconsin, Penn State, and Nebraska. If the Wildcats can come together and play the mistake free football they are capable of, there is a chance that Northwestern will represent the West Division in the Big 10 Championship Game.
If the Wild West were a football conference in 2017, it would be the Big 10. Both Ohio State and Penn State have to be considered favorites to win the Big 10, with their showdown at Ohio State likely determining the champion of the Big 10 East Division. Wisconsin and Michigan must be mentioned as contenders as well, with both schools boasting the talent to take down the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions. If anyone is to shock the conference and steal the crown, there is no question the team to do it would be Northwestern.
Who will win the West? Who will win the East? Will a surprise team emerge from the Big 10 Championship Game? Spoiler Alert: This will be the most complicated, exciting, and divisive conference championship reveal of them all!
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