Urban Meyer has turned the Buckeyes into the Alabama of the Big Ten. A perennial powerhouse that recruits at an astronomic level, they can reload despite losing multiple first-round draft picks. Ohio State is loaded on defense and boasts a fearsome—and potentially underrated—twosome in quarterback J.T. Barrett and running back Mike Weber. If Barrett can complete the long ball in 2017, look out.
Week 1: at Indiana (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN)
The tide is turning in Happy Valley as the Nittany Lions have a chance to anoint themselves as “back” in 2017. Returning almost its entire roster, Penn State will be led by the nation’s most explosive QB/RB combo: Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley. An experienced o-line and a defense littered with talent gives James Franklin legitimate College Football Playoff ambition.
Week 1 matchup: vs. Akron (Saturday, 11 a.m., ABC)
The Maize and Blue will need to replace 16 starters (!!) in 2017, which would induce a panic attack for most Big Ten fan bases. Yet most Big Ten fan bases don’t have the luxury of having Jim Harbaugh as their head coach. Ol’ Khaki Pants has turned Michigan into a recruiting juggernaut and the Wolverines reload with a boatload of talent including the top high school player in the class of 2016. They will need it as they take on Florida in Week 1.
Week 1 matchup: vs. Florida (in Arlington, Texas; Saturday, 2:30 p.m., ABC)
Despite losing All-American candidate and defensive leader Jack Cichy, there is substantial hype around the 2017 Badgers. Media and fans alike are having trouble finding a weakness on this team—the defense is stacked at each position group, while the offense appears ready to resemble the classic units of the Bielema/Alvarez era. A lot will depend on how quickly quarterback Alex Hornibrook develops, but word on the street is that he’s made significant strides since the Cotton Bowl. The Badgers will be good enough to play with the Big Ten’s elite, but there is a sense that this team might have a lower ceiling than the three teams above them on this list. Still, Paul Chryst has his team in place to do big things this season. Expectations won’t be met until Bucky takes home more than the Big Ten West crown.
Week 1 matchup: vs. Utah State (Friday, 8 p.m., ESPN)
2017 appears to be the year of strong QB/RB backfields in the Big Ten, and Northwestern follows suit with the top combo in the West division. Clayton Thorson is a proven dual-threat quarterback, while Justin Jackson is as consistent as they come in the conference. Combine those two playmakers with a defense that will be as tough as the admissions department, and you get a Pat Fitzgerald-led squad that will push Wisconsin for the division title.
Week 1 matchup: vs. Nevada (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., BTN)
The Tommy Armstrong era is over in Lincoln, and the entire Big Ten is not quite sure if that is good or bad (including Nebraska). Tulane transfer Tanner Lee has been given the keys to the Big Red offense and Husker Nation is excited to have a pass-first starting quarterback again. The defense is expected to be fantastic, but there are legit questions regarding the offense’s ability to keep up.
Week 1 matchup: vs. Arkansas State (Saturday, 7 p.m., BTN)
2016 was a letdown on expectations for Hawkeye fans. To the outside world (and realists), it was a regression to the mean. As for 2017, Iowa will be stout on defense—as always—but the loss of C.J. Beathard will stagger the offense. The gritty Akrum Wadley will be leaned on heavily and is primed for a monster season.
Week 1 matchup: vs. Wyoming (Saturday, 11 a.m., BTN)
The most shocking story on the 2016 Big Ten season was Michigan State’s fall—er, plunge—into the dumpster of the conference. The Spartans went 3–9 and then made headlines with a tumultuous off-season scandal. This might be a generous spot for a team with descending momentum and an apparent departure of talent, yet Mark Dantonio has earned the benefit of the doubt.
Week 1 matchup: vs. Bowling Green (Saturday, 11 a.m., ESPNU)
New head coach Tom Allen (the former defensive coordinator under Kevin Wilson) will have a talent-rich defense to lead the Hoosiers in 2017. The offense is a bigger question, specifically at running back and offensive line, but their dynamic quarterback, Richard Lagow, gives Indiana a decently high ceiling.
Week 1 matchup: vs. Ohio State (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN)
For better or worse, P.J. Fleck has brought his spotlight to Minneapolis. The Gophers return a solid defense and an impressive rushing attack, yet there are legit concerns surrounding the QB situation. The Gophers could be a few spots higher on this list a few weeks into the season, but this appears to be a safe bet to start things off.
Week 1 matchup: vs. Buffalo (Thursday, 6 p.m., BTN)
Head coach D.J. Durkin is a force on the recruiting trail, yet the Terrapins seem to be a year off from truly competing at a high level. Maryland will score points with a strong rushing attack in its spread offense, but the defense will give up too many points to win close games.
Week 1 matchup: at Texas (Saturday, 11 a.m., FS1)
Lovie Smith inherited a team without an identity in 2016, and unless there is a massive change during the 2017 campaign, expect more of the same for the Illini. Chayce Crouch provides some hope at QB and running back Kendrick Foster is a potential star, but they are where the positives end for Illinois.
Week 1 matchup: Ball State (Saturday, 11 a.m., BTN)
Jeff Brohm is the new coach in West Lafayette, and his help is desperately needed. Purdue will be improved on defense, which is saying a modest amount, yet there are serious concerns on the offensive line, which is probably the worst in the conference. A talented QB/RB tandem gives Purdue the potential to finish higher.
Week 1 matchup: vs. Louisville (Saturday, 6:30 p.m., FOX)
Janarion Grant is one of the Big Ten’s most dynamic players, although he’s returning from a serious injury. The Scarlet Knights will need his playmaking in order to climb out of the depths of the Big Ten cellar. Given their lack of talent in 2017, expect said climb to be on the slower side.
Week 1 matchup: Washington (Friday, 7 p.m., FS1)