For the first time in quite some time, the Big Ten enters a football season with a level of uncertainty. The league is still reeling from being shutout of the College Football Playoff for the second year in a row and to top it off, one of its premier schools is facing a change at the top.
Heading into this season, here are three questions facing the Big Ten:
1. Can the Big Ten make its way back into the College Football Playoff?
After qualifying for the semifinals in each of the first three seasons of the College Football Playoff, the Big Ten has found itself two years removed from its last appearance. Ohio State finished fifth in 2017 and sixth in 2018 despite the fact the Buckeyes were conference champions.
If the Big Ten is going to make another push for the playoffs, it appears the best chance lies with either Ohio State or Michigan. The Buckeyes were 83-9 in the eight seasons under Urban Meyer including an incredible 54-4 record in conference. But with Meyer’s retirement and Dwayne Haskins’ departure for the NFL, the program opens 2019 with more questions than answers.
One person happy to see Meyer go is Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who was 0-4 against his rival. The Wolverines are 38-14 under their enigmatic coach but are still searching for the first conference championship since 2004. Quarterback Shea Patterson should benefit from the addition of new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, who looks to energize an offense that is keen on providing big play opportunities in 2019. For the fourth straight year, Michigan featured one of the best defenses in the country thanks to defensive coordinator Don Brown. The unit still features 5-star prospects that thrive on being disruptive.
2. Is the East Division wide open after Urban Meyer’s retirement?
Before Meyer’s decision to retire, you could make the case for Ohio State to be the preseason favorite going into 2019. But now, things are a little fuzzier in the East. The Buckeyes return 13 starters from a team that won 13 games but only four of those players are on offense. The quarterback position, once teeming with talent, now finds itself in flux. The arrival of Georgia transfer Justin Fields saw former 4-star prospects Tate Martell (Miami) and Matthew Baldwin (TCU) transfer. After struggling throughout much of 2018, the defense underwent an overhaul with new defensive coordinators Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison brought in to turn things around.
Michigan presents the biggest challenge but none of it will matter if the Wolverines can’t beat Ohio State on Nov. 30.
Penn State won the conference championship in 2016 but the Nittany Lions have five conference losses combined over the past two seasons, all against divisional rivals Ohio State (2), Michigan State (2) and Michigan (1). The program must replace not only another 1,000-yard rusher in Miles Sanders but also veteran quarterback Trace McSorley.
3. Who emerges from a crowded West Division?
Nebraska may be one of the most talked about teams heading into this upcoming season with sky-high expectations in Year 2 under coach Scott Frost. The personnel fits more into what Frost wants to accomplish especially offensively with sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez taking a larger role in 2019. The defense added some key pieces and along with some maturity which will be crucial with a schedule featuring home games against Ohio State, Northwestern and Wisconsin.
Iowa has been Mr. Dependable with the Hawkeyes finishing among the top three spots in the West each of the last four seasons including a divisional crown in 2015. Nate Stanley is one of the top returning quarterbacks in the Big Ten and he has the benefit of a physical offensive line in 2019.
Wisconsin has been the team to beat in the West with the Badgers claiming three of the last five divisional crowns but for some reason the team didn’t play up to expectations last season. While the quarterback position faces new challenges, one thing that hasn’t changed is Jonathan Taylor. The talented junior running back has rushed for more than 4,000 yards in his first two seasons. Once again, the defense was solid and it will need to do the same this year.
Northwestern surprised some by claiming its first trip to the conference championships thanks to a near-perfect conference record including wins over Michigan State, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Any chance for a repeat rests on an offense led by former Clemson quarterback Hunter Johnson and a defense that must retain the physicality it displayed in 2018.
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