Big Ten: Ohio State Buckeyes
Freshman sensation J.K. Dobbins' 425 rushing yards through three weeks have already made it clear he’s too good to take off the field. Then again, so is Mike Weber, last season's Big Ten Freshman of the Year and one of three Ohio State freshmen ever to top 1,000 yards on the ground. So will coach Urban Meyer and his staff find ways to keep them both out there together?
“Oh yeah,” Meyer said Wednesday night. “I like those checkers.”
Dobbins’ whiff-inducing athleticism would have landed him in the limelight one way or another this season, but his introduction to college football has been sped along this September while Weber nurses a hamstring injury. Weber has carried the ball only seven times this season, and the Buckeyes likely won’t need to test his sore muscle this weekend against visiting UNLV. That hasn’t kept Meyer & Co. from thinking about when both guys are up to full speed.
“I don’t know how many times we’ve had that quality of player standing next to each other,” said Meyer, who never had a player break 1,000 rushing yards before he arrived at Ohio State for the 2012 season. “If they’re both 100 mph, if they’re both fresh and ready to go, I don’t know if I’ve ever really had that.”
While splitting touches will help keep both backs fresh, Meyer also wants to give defenses more to think about by using a two-back formation. He thinks Dobbins and Weber pair nicely together. Left tackle Jamarco Jones, who has cleared the way for both of them over the course of the past two seasons, agrees.
“Mike is more of a north-and-south guy,” Jones said. “He can make people miss, but he’ll run people over. J.K., he’s got that explosiveness to him. They complement each other really well.”
Jones marveled at the freshman’s ability to make tacklers miss. What sets Dobbins apart isn't just the ability to make pursuers look silly in the open field, but also to leave them empty-handed when he meets them in the hole or near the line of scrimmage. Dobbins ranks third among FBS-level backs with six carries that have gone for 20 yards or more. When he breaks loose, it usually starts with a sharp, lateral cut that doesn't slow him down and leaves defenders falling over themselves.
Dobbins said he’s been pulling that move since middle school in La Grange, Texas. He has the highlight reels to back it up, too. He said he doesn’t do anything special to sharpen that particular tool.
“I’ve been doing it for a long time so it just comes natural,” Dobbins said. “Everything happens on the go. It’s natural.”
Before he was breaking ankles at Ohio State, though, Dobbins missed his entire senior season of high school with his own injury problems. He broke his fibula on the first play of his first game last fall. Meyer said that originally gave him pause after watching Dobbins’ elite film from his junior season. Meyer wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from the Texan when he showed up on campus. Those doubts didn’t survive past the first few conditioning sessions in Columbus after Dobbins enrolled in January.
Even then, it would have been difficult for the Buckeyes staff to imagine the rising star getting off to as hot a start as Dobbins has this September, particularly as the excitement around Weber’s maturation built throughout the offseason. Only in the past few weeks have coaches started having conversations about how to make the most out of both backs in the coming months.
Dobbins said he’s not sure how those plans will play out on the field, but he’s looking forward to sharing a backfield with his new teammate.
“If that happens, it’s going to be great,” he said. “It’s going to cause a lot of problems for defenses.”
Big things happened in the Big Ten in Week 2, headlined by disappointment at the Horseshoe as No. 2 Ohio State fell to No. 5 Oklahoma in a premier Saturday night clash. The lowlights extended to Northwestern, Nebraska and Rutgers, which allowed a program from the MAC to reach a new high.
Ohio State's loss means Penn State is now secure atop the power rankings after dispatching Pitt, followed by an unclear picture at the next three spots as Wisconsin and Michigan played sluggishly at times in victories on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Maryland and Michigan State held serve. Minnesota, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois impressed, creating chaos in the bottom half of these rankings. And Iowa provided the most entertaining performance of the week.
1. Penn State (previous ranking: 2): The defending Big Ten champ is back on top after a 33-14 win over bitter rival Pitt in which Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley simply did their thing. Nothing spectacular was necessary in this win, though tight end Mike Gesicki caught a pair of touchdowns in the first quarter and the Nittany Lions benefited from three Pitt turnovers.
2. Wisconsin (3): Visiting Florida Atlantic hung around long enough to keep things interesting before freshman Jonathan Taylor’s third touchdown provided the final margin in a 31-14 win for the Badgers. Taylor rushed for 223 yards and Wisconsin held Lane Kiffin’s Owls to less than 250 yards in total offense.
3. Ohio State (1): The Buckeyes fell apart in the second half at home as Oklahoma rolled to a 31-16 win to avenge last year's loss to Ohio State in Norman. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield used Ohio Stadium as a platform to bolster his Heisman campaign, then planted the OU flag at midfield before the Sooners danced on the vaunted “O.” Ouch. Ohio State’s margin for error in 2017 is all but gone.
4. Michigan (4): The Wolverines led by just a field goal late in the third quarter before a decisive finish cemented a 36-14 win over Cincinnati at the Big House. Ty Isaac gained a career-high 133 yards on the ground, but expect coach Jim Harbaugh to work his team especially hard before a Week 3 visit from Air Force.
5. Maryland (5): There's not much to take away from a 63-17 rout of Towson, the Terps’ highest point total since 1954. If nothing else, they’re taking care of business under second-year coach D.J. Durkin. No letdown here after the upset win to open the season at Texas as freshman QB Kasim Hill played well in his starting debut and D.J. Moore scored three touchdowns.
6. Iowa (6): The Hawkeyes escaped Ames with a thrilling 44-41 overtime win over rival Iowa State. Iowa came back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter for its fourth victory in the past five games of the Cy-Hawk series. Defensive end Parker Hesse came up with a big interception late, and first-year QB Nathan Stanley threw for 333 yards and five scores.
7. Michigan State (9): The Spartans haven’t surrendered an offensive touchdown in eight quarters after a 28-14 win over Western Michigan, which found the end zone in East Lansing on a 67-yard fumble return and a 100-yard kickoff return. Michigan State QB Brian Lewerke threw for 161 yards and rushed for 81. The Spartans, one win from matching their 2016 total, get an open date before hosting Notre Dame in Week 4.
8. Indiana (10): Redshirt freshman QB Peyton Ramsey replaced struggling starter Richard Lagow in the second quarter and completed 16 of 20 passes for 173 yards and two scores as the Hoosiers rolled past host Virginia 34-17. Indiana was solid in all phases, scoring on a punt return by J-Shun Harris and holding the Cavaliers to 314 total yards.
9. Nebraska (8): Future performances will tell us if the Cornhuskers found themselves in the second half, nearly rallying from a 28-point deficit before falling 42-35 at Oregon. Nebraska held the Ducks scoreless after halftime, but Cornhuskers QB Tanner Lee threw the last of his four interceptions with two minutes to play after getting the chance to drive for a touchdown to force overtime.
10. Minnesota (11) The Golden Gophers routed Oregon State 48-14 on the road, an impressive feat despite the Beavers’ status among the worst teams in the Power 5. Minnesota forced three turnovers and rushed for 253 yards, led by Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, who combined to run for four touchdowns. In addition, Conor Rhoda appeared to take control of the quarterback spot.
11. Purdue (12): Purdue got a nice 44-21 win -- coach Jeff Brohm’s first with the Boilermakers -- over MAC contender Ohio on Friday night. David Blough took over for Elijah Sindelar at quarterback in the second quarter and led Purdue to points on four consecutive possessions en route to a 558-yard team offensive output.
12. Northwestern (7): Well, the Wildcats’ struggles with Nevada in Week 1 were apparently no fluke. Duke dominated Northwestern in a 41-17 win in Durham behind 305 yards passing and 108 rushing from QB Daniel Jones. The problems appear to run deep for Northwestern as Clayton Thorson threw a pair of interceptions and Justin Jackson rushed for just 18 yards on seven carries.
13. Illinois (14): Progress, for sure, from the Illini, who moved to 2-0 with a 20-7 win over favored Western Kentucky out of Conference USA. Illinois held the high-powered WKU offense, which led the nation in scoring last season, to 244 total yards and got 111 rushing yards from freshman Mike Epstein and an interception returned for a touchdown by Julian Jones.
14. Rutgers (13): If you needed confirmation that the Scarlet Knights aren’t progressing like other programs in the Big Ten, look no further than a 16-13 loss to Eastern Michigan on Saturday -- the Eagles' first win over a Power 5 foe in 59 tries, including 39 against Big Ten competition. EMU took the lead on a 24-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter and staged two defensive stands to secure the win.
The Big Ten enjoyed a successful opening week, with 10 wins in 12 nonconference games, losing by only respectable margins to returning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville (Purdue) and 2016 College Football Playoff participant Washington (Rutgers).
The stakes rise a bit in Week 2, headlined, of course, by a visit from Oklahoma to face Ohio State on Saturday night (7:30 ET, ABC) and rivalries are rekindled in Pennsylvania and Iowa.
Visit our college football PickCenter page for additional information on these games and many more. Here’s our forecast for Week 2.
Northwestern at Duke, Saturday, noon, ESPNU
Dan Murphy: Had to pick at least one upset this week, and this is the best candidate. Northwestern looked shaky at times in its opening win over Nevada. Duke quarterback Daniel Jones can go toe-to-toe with Clayton Thorson in what should be a fun one in Durham, North Carolina. Duke 35, Northwestern 31
Mitch Sherman: Don’t put too much stock into the details of an opener. Remember two years ago, when the Wildcats beat Christian McCaffrey and Stanford in early September? Teams change, and they change fast at this time of year. I still believe in the Cats as a serious contender in the Big Ten West. Northwestern 35, Duke 24
Tom VanHaaren: This one is tough because I thought Northwestern was going to surprise a lot of people this season. Week 1 against Nevada was a win, but it wasn’t very convincing. Duke just threw up 60 on N.C. Central and had a relaxing time doing it. I’m George Costanza when it comes to predicting things; the opposite usually happens, but I’m sticking with the Wildcats. Northwestern 31, Duke 24
Iowa at Iowa State, Saturday, noon, ESPN2
Sherman: This series often defies logic. And sometimes it defines seasons, such as in 2012, when Iowa State last played in a bowl game. The Cyclones won that CyHawk thriller 9-6 en route to a magical 6-7 finish, while the Hawkeyes dipped to 4-8. There’s more magic in store for the Cyclones this year. Iowa State 17, Iowa 14
VanHaaren: I underestimated the Hawkeyes' defense in Week 1 and chose Wyoming over Iowa. Hawkeyes fans let me know about it, so I’m not making the same mistake twice. I’ll take Iowa on the road as long as the turnovers are minimal. Iowa 24, Iowa State 13
Murphy: The Hawkeyes' defense showed last week that there is a legitimate reason to believe in Iowa this season. They'll hold the Cyclones to 100 or so yards on the ground and provide plenty of cushion for the offense to bring home a win. Iowa 20, Iowa State 9
Pittsburgh at No. 4 Penn State, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC
Murphy: Nothing in State College feels the same as it did a year ago, when the pitchforks were pointed at James Franklin after a loss to Pitt. The Nittany Lions are now the most entertaining offense in the Big Ten and have the firepower to blow past Pitt. Penn State 42, Pitt 24
VanHaaren: The last three home teams have won this game, and the last three teams with the most rushing yards have also won. Pitt won last season running behind James Conner. This season, it’s the Saquon Barkley show. The Nittany Lions are out to avenge last season’s loss. Penn State 38, Pitt 21
Sherman: Penn State is so much better than it was at this time last year. I have nothing else to add. Penn State 45, Pitt 17
Nebraska at Oregon, Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Fox
Sherman: Nebraska tried to play it safe last week, guarding against the big Arkansas State plays. Do that against the Ducks and Oregon will turn those short receptions into long touchdowns. I think Nebraska coach Bob Diaco’s defense will show up to play, but first-year QB Tanner Lee will wobble at a raucous Autzen Stadium. Oregon 37, Nebraska 27
VanHaaren: Oregon put up 77 on Southern Utah in the first week. I know it’s Southern Utah, but 77 is a lot of points. Nebraska won 43-36 against Arkansas State in its first game, so there are still some kinks to work out. This game is happening too early in the season for Nebraska. Oregon 52, Nebraska 41
Murphy: No need to overthink the math here. Oregon gained more than 700 yards in its season opener. The Huskers gave up 497. Lee won't be able to help them solve that problem. Oregon 44, Nebraska 36
No. 5 Oklahoma at No. 2 Ohio State, Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ABC
VanHaaren: Indiana attacked Ohio State’s corners last week, passing outside the hashes on 86 percent of QB Richard Lagow’s throws. Baker Mayfield ranks first in completion percentage, yards per attempt and touchdown percentage on throws outside the hashes, but I think Ohio State is going to learn from the first game and win this matchup with Oklahoma. Ohio State 42, Oklahoma 31
Murphy: The Buckeyes won this monster matchup a year ago thanks to their best deep-passing performance of the year. And while that's been a focus all offseason, it will be the uber-athletic front seven that helps them beat the Sooners this time around, doing just enough to contain Mayfield. Ohio State 30, Oklahoma 28
Sherman: The Sooners haven’t lost since Ohio State stormed Norman a year ago. Look for Oklahoma to start strong this time around. You might not see a college game this year that features better play in the trenches, especially when Oklahoma possesses the ball. Watch that matchup. I agree with Dan that the Buckeyes will eventually get to Mayfield. Ohio State 34, Oklahoma 31
- Purdue over Ohio
- Maryland over Towson
- No. 9 Wisconsin over Florida Atlantic
- No. 8 Michigan over Cincinnati
- Michigan State over Western Michigan
- Rutgers over Eastern Michigan
- Indiana over Virginia
- Western Kentucky over Illinois
- Minnesota over Oregon State
Moms are always a big part of football, and the Ohio State coaches are making sure it stays that way through college. The Buckeyes' staff and players made phone calls to tell each mother that her son was named a starter for the 2017 season.
Wide receiver Johnnie Dixon got to hear his mom's reaction as receivers coach Zach Smith told her Dixon would be a starter for Thursday's opener against Indiana.
— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) August 27, 2017
Shannon Mack, receiver Austin Mack's mother, tweeted out the news after she found out her son would be starting against the Hoosiers.
— Shannon Mack (@ShannonMack4) August 25, 2017
Diedra Peterson, receiver K.J. Hill's mom, would have tweeted out video of her son relaying the news, but she said Hill needed a haircut and didn’t want the video out.
— Diedra Peterson (@deedee11009) August 28, 2017
Natalie Bowen, offensive lineman Branden Bowen's mother, also took to Twitter to express her excitement about her sophomore son starting at right guard.
— Natalie Bowen (@NatalieOSUmom) August 26, 2017
Ohio State's Larry Johnson has a full library of former players at his disposal to use to convince top recruits that he can turn them from raw talent into college football’s next great defensive lineman.
Heading into his 22nd straight season coaching defensive linemen in the Big Ten, Johnson has produced six first-round draft picks (including Courtney Brown being the No. 1 overall selection in 2000), seven first-team All-Americans and more Big Ten defensive players of the year than any other coach in the past quarter century. His current roster in Columbus is full of players who could join at least one of those lists.
He can walk into a living room or a high school, sit down across from some freakishly large and athletic 18-year-old and say, ‘Hey, kid, how would you like to be the next Tamba Hali? Or Joey Bosa? Or Tyquan Lewis?’ It seems like a slam-dunk sales pitch, and Johnson says there’s no chance he would ever use it.
“I’m never going to do that,” Johnson said. “I don’t want two of the same guy.”
Johnson has built one of the country’s scariest defensive fronts in the four years since he left Penn State to join Urban Meyer in Columbus. The Buckeyes’ line is big, athletic and overflowing with potential star power. It may be the most important piece to what Ohio State is hoping will be another run at a national championship in 2017. And while much of the talk heading into the fall will be about the remarkable depth stockpiled in that section of the depth chart, Johnson says what sets this group apart is its diversity.
Stockpiling is a scoffed-at term in the recruiting offices in Columbus. Why, Johnson asks, fill the roster with three carbon copies of a great athlete waiting for their turn to fill in for the starter when you can find three different athletes who all have unique skills that he can use now?
“Depth helps,” he said. “You want to have the depth to play a lot of guys, but the most important thing is getting a lot of different pieces and getting them all to fit together to take advantage of their skill set.”
The need for diversity on the defensive line started to become more pressing a little more than a decade ago, around the time that Johnson was helping Hali terrorize quarterbacks in State College. At that time, the goal for most defensive line coaches was to find one dominant pass rusher and set him up to do as much damage as possible. Johnson noticed offenses were evolving to find more sophisticated ways to eliminate that one talented player. He needed more weapons in the arsenal to respond to double-teams, chip blocks and quicker three-step drops.
Ohio State’s current line was put together with that in mind. Everyone brings something a little bit different to the equation. Returning Big Ten defensive player of the year Tyquan Lewis is “a horse” and as good on a run-stopper as Johnson has seen, he says. Fellow defensive end Sam Hubbard can keep quarterbacks guessing by dropping into coverage or rushing the passer with equal efficiency. Jalyn Holmes is a “wild card” at 270 pounds who can power his way past offensive linemen at several different positions. The list goes on.
Instead of collecting talent by selling them the idea of taking over for one of his current All-Americans, Johnson said that he recruited his players by identifying a specific strength and showing them how he would develop it further. That approached has landed the Buckeyes at least one five-star defensive line recruit in each of the past two years. Two more -- Taron Vincent and Brenton Cox -- are expected to sign with the 2018 recruiting class.
Once they arrive on campus, construction continues by getting the best athletes as close to the ball as their size will allow. Johnson wants as much natural speed as he can get without sacrificing the player’s ability to hold his own physically. So a 270-pound, highly touted defensive end prospect like Dre'Mont Jones quickly becomes a 295-pound defensive tackle so he can slide down a couple feet closer to the snap. Jones, a redshirt sophomore, is now the Buckeye’s likely starter at the three-technique spot that Johnson thinks is the most important piece in a dominant, modern-day pass rush.
“That’s the guy that’s going to get most of the one-on-one matchups,” he said. “That guy has to be a dynamite pass rusher.”
Jones’ competition for reps at that spot comes from Jashon Cornell and Malik Barrow, who both have added 20 pounds since arriving in Columbus. Cornell also started his career as a defensive end prospect, and Barrow was an explosive defensive tackle out of the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Of course, there is a fine balance between bulking up your athletes to move them closer to the ball and packing on so much weight that it negates their athleticism. Johnson said his players all have body fat targets and jump on a scale for weigh-ins with strength coach Mickey Marotti every day to make sure they’re toeing that line without stepping past it.
Moving players into different spots keeps a crowded defensive line room happy by giving them all a role, Johnson said. It also keeps them fresh. Lewis managed to earn his Big Ten lineman of the year accolades by racking up eight sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss despite (or perhaps because of) playing only 42-45 snaps per game.
Ohio State’s coaching staff has found creative ways to keep their stars fresh and to get their increasingly deep and diverse group of talents onto the field. Last season they assembled a pass rush package that featured four defensive ends across the line of scrimmage. This year they’re looking for ways to add a fifth.
Good luck to the coaching staffs scheming to stop them. Johnson said that in his two-plus decades of coaching, he’s never had a defensive line with such a wide variety of athletic abilities. All five of them will be talented. And, more importantly, all five of them will be different.
No college football season goes completely as planned. Freak plays, off days and heroic performances are all capable of producing the yearly upsets that make the sport so compelling.
Upsets are, of course, tough to predict by nature. However, the Big Ten harbors plenty of opportunities for unlikely wins and losses this coming season. Let’s take a look at a few matchups that could result in unprecedented victories -- or losses --for the conference's East Division teams.
Darrell K Royal Stadium will be rocking for the debut of the Tom Herman era in Austin. Herman starts his tenure as Texas' coach against another up-and-coming Ohio native -- Maryland coach D.J. Durkin. Can the Terps ruin the party? While they’ll have a virtually unknown entity at quarterback operating a fast-paced offense, they have a well-kept secret: running back Ty Johnson, who averaged more than 9 yards per carry last season.
Texas, currently a three-touchdown favorite, will be playing for the first time under a new staff that is expected to deliver right off the bat. Maybe Herman will have ironed the wrinkles out of a very talented roster prior to kickoff. Then again, maybe not.
No matter how they perform the rest of the season, coach Mark Dantonio’s teams always seem to put up a good fight against Michigan. Last year, the floundering Spartans managed to stay within striking distance of a superior Michigan team despite losing their quarterback to a broken leg in the middle of the game. Given the rivalry with Michigan State, this young Wolverines team can expect to play in front of a revved up Big House crowd. While Michigan State remains well behind coach Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines in the talent department, the Spartans are no strangers to upsetting their Ann Arbor rivals at the Big House.
While Oklahoma, Penn State and Michigan will likely pose problems for the top-ranked Buckeyes, the Cornhuskers might have the best chance at tripping up Ohio State. This mid-October matchup will take place in Lincoln, which should provide Nebraska with a much-needed edge. The game is also scheduled one week before the Buckeyes face Penn State in what is likely to be the biggest Big Ten contest of the year.
The Hoosiers had a strong track record under former coach Kevin Wilson of giving top-10 teams a scare, even if Indiana typically lacked the firepower to come out on top after four quarters. Can new coach Tom Allen change that? His best chance may come against Wisconsin, a team that isn’t expected to win games by putting up a ton of points. Indiana’s defense made a big leap with Allen serving as a defensive coordinator last year, and the unit returns two potential All-Big Ten players. If the Hoosiers can stymie the Badgers' offense and get a few big plays from their talented receiving corps, IU could throw a wrench in the Big Ten standings in early November.
You know when to watch them. You know where to watch them. Now it's time to figure out which Big Ten games are going to be the most important ones to watch in 2017.
The cutthroat East Division has plenty of high-powered matchups slated for the coming fall both in league play and in nonconference games earlier in the season. Let's take a look at the high-stakes battles that will have the most impact on the divisional race in the East, and largely on the college football landscape at large.
Ohio State vs. Penn State, Oct. 28
Let's start with the obvious. The defending conference champions visit the likely preseason No. 1 team in late October. If anyone is going to go toe-to-toe with Urban Meyer's high-powered Buckeyes, the Nittany Lions are a good bet. Penn State will head to the Horseshoe one week after another monster matchup against Michigan.
For the sake of keeping this list from getting too repetitive, let's lump the meetings between those three programs (Michigan plays Ohio State on the final Saturday of the season in a game that is, as usual, one of college football's biggest of the year) together. Whoever comes out of that round robin looking the best will more than likely have a strong case for a slot in the College Football Playoff. The stakes won't get any higher.
Ohio State vs. Oklahoma, Sept. 9
The second week of the season is loaded with intriguing and potentially season-shaping games. None will be a bigger draw than the top-10 rematch in Columbus. Ohio State beat the Sooners last season in Oklahoma with four passing touchdowns. The Buckeyes' tweaked passing attack for 2017 will get a chance to shine in prime time. If it succeeds, a victory would help the Big Ten's reputation as early-season narratives start to pick up steam and provide an early bullet point for Urban Meyer's playoff resume.
Penn State vs. Pittsburgh, Sept. 9
A few hours before kickoff in Columbus, the Nittany Lions will be looking for revenge against in-state rival Pitt. The first meeting between these two programs in 16 years provided some drama a year ago when Trace McSorley drove the Penn State offense down to the 30-yard line before he was intercepted in the final minutes of a 42-39 loss. After a season opener against Akron, the Saturday afternoon game in Happy Valley will give McSorley & Co. a chance to prove that they are picking up where they left off at the end of last season.
Michigan at Wisconsin, Nov. 18
If both teams hold their form throughout the regular season, this will be the top cross-divisional game of the year. The Badgers -- favorites in the West -- will get a chance to prove they're worthy competition for the East Division and pick up an eye-catching victory on a schedule that doesn't have many other opponents that rise above pedestrian. Michigan has to make this trip one week before hosting the rival Buckeyes. A win over Wisconsin would give the Wolverines a little more wiggle room in their championship hopes if they end up splitting with Penn State and Ohio State.
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Last season we saw some outstanding defensive performances from Big Ten teams, especially when it came to pass defense. The conference had four teams in the top 15 for interceptions, four in the top 25 for sacks and five teams in the top 25 for pass breakups. Teams within the conference are hoping to duplicate that production this season and continue to disrupt opposing offenses.
Which team, though, will have the best pass defense in the conference? We continue our look at the best defensive groups within the Big Ten by answering that question.
The Badgers’ defense led the conference last season in interceptions, had the second-most pass breakups, the second-best third-down conversion percentage on passes, the second-best touchdown-to-interception ratio and the third-best opponent passer efficiency rating. Losing Shelton, Musso and linebacker T.J. Watt will sting, but there is still plenty to work with remaining on this defense.
Safety D'Cota Dixon and cornerback Derrick Tindal return, and Wisconsin is adding Hawaii cornerback transfer Nick Nelson. Outside of the secondary, the staff also has linebacker T.J. Edwards and defensive end Chikwe Obasih coming back and is adding junior college defensive end Andrew Van Ginkel.
Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard should have this unit rolling again this season.
Next in line: Ohio State lost a ton of production in the secondary to the NFL draft with Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore moving on, but there is still a ton of talent on this roster. Putting Ohio State in this spot is somewhat of a projection based on potential, but the staff has proven they can bring in new faces season after season without skipping a beat.
What will help the Buckeyes offset some of the losses in the secondary is how many returning starters they have along the defensive line. The pass rush next season should be outstanding, as most of the starting defensive line is back this season, as are as linebackers Chris Worley and Jerome Baker.
On top of that, Ohio State recruited some of the top defensive backs in the 2017 class, including five-stars Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade. The staff also added junior college corner Kendall Sheffield, and all three should be able to contribute this season to help keep this pass defense in top shape.
Don’t sleep on: Northwestern is in under the radar this season, but the Wildcats return a ton of starters on defense. Cornerback Montre Hartage led the team in interceptions last season and will be back to try to top his five picks from 2016. Safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro are also returning, along with cornerback Keith Watkins II, which should equate to a tough secondary on the field. Indiana is in a similar boat, returning five starting defensive backs as well as team sack leader Tegray Scales. The Hoosiers made some impressive leaps under now head coach Tom Allen, who was leading the defense in 2016. If Allen can continue to improve and develop his players, Indiana could have a solid pass defense in 2017.
In eight of the past nine college football seasons, at least one Big Ten program has held its opponents to less than an average of 100 rushing yards per game. No other league can claim that. Michigan State came up just shy of helping the conference make it nine out of nine when it allowed 100.5 yards per game in 2011. Will another group join the ranks of that elite accomplishment in 2017?
There are certainly some contenders. Last week we reviewed the most promising looking units the Big Ten has to offer on the offensive side of the ball. This week, we’ll examine defense and special teams. That starts with a look at the teams that should have the most success in what most coordinators think is the foundation of a good defense: stopping the run.
Best of the best: Wisconsin has held its opponents’ rushing average below the century mark in each of the past two seasons. The Badgers' front seven is loaded with depth, talent and experience again. The starting defensive line’s two-deep returns intact. There are at least three or four viable starters for the inside linebacker positions as well, including last year’s leading tackler, T.J. Edwards, and Chris Orr, who was expected to do big things before suffering a season-ending injury on the first snap in 2016.
The only questions about the Badgers' ability to build on their run-stopping reputation come from having to replace stars at outside linebacker and defensive coordinator. First-round draft pick T.J. Watt and newly-minted Green Bay Packer Vince Biegel were both game-changing players for the Badgers. New coordinator Jim Leonhard thinks he’ll have some answers at that position, especially with junior college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel.
Next in line: Ohio State doesn’t sit very far from the top in any phase of the game for 2017. The Buckeyes may end up with the best defensive line in college football, which should help the speed behind them clean up any ball carriers that slip past the line of scrimmage.
Tyquan Lewis is the returning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and there’s a decent chance he’ll be battling for a starting spot with the likes of Nick Bosa and Sam Hubbard. Behind them, linebackers Chris Worley and Jerome Baker provide a very athletic second line of defense. Michigan warrants some consideration here as well. The Wolverines lack depth and experience in the front seven, but coaches in Ann Arbor think this group (led by star defensive end Rashan Gary) could be even faster than the unit that allowed a league-best 3.22 yards per carry a year ago.
Don’t sleep on: Minnesota may not have faced offensive juggernauts in the West Division at quite the same frequency as some of those teams on the other side of the conference, but the Gophers allowed more than 200 yards on the ground only once -- against rival Wisconsin. Linebacker is the deepest position on the roster for first-year coach P.J. Fleck. That group has the potential to be one of the best in the league, especially if redshirt senior Cody Poock can stay healthy. There’s depth there, too, with a trio of young players who all saw significant playing time as true freshmen last season.
Lastly, it would be a mistake to talk about Big Ten front-seven strength without mentioning Iowa. The Hawkeyes return star linebacker Josey Jewell for a final season and have plenty of pieces around him to be stout against the run.
The Big Ten may not break its lengthy drought of sending a quarterback into the first round of the NFL draft with this year’s crop, but that doesn’t mean there’s any lack of talent at the position. Most of the league’s top teams return starters under center this fall -- and most of those starters have some healthy competition to keep them honest during the summer workouts.
This week we’ll be highlighting the best groups on the offensive side of the ball at several positions as well as some other teams and players that are worth watching closely. We start the week with a review of the best quarterback depth charts in the conference heading into 2017.
Best of the best: Ohio State returns the most productive quarterback in program history to operate an offense that promises to let him unleash some deeper throws this year. J.T. Barrett has accounted for exactly 100 touchdowns heading into his senior season. New offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, who previously had to stop Barrett when the Buckeyes played Indiana, said he thought the veteran leader made good strides on hitting longer throws in spring practice.
Barrett is a candidate to be the conference’s top player next season, but it’s Ohio State’s depth at quarterback that nudges them ahead of others to the top of this list. Backups Joe Burrow and Dwayne Haskins both have the skills to be starters. They threw three touchdown passes each in the spring game in Columbus, setting up what could be the most entertaining backup quarterback battle in college football this year.
Next in line: Penn State and Michigan both deserve mention here. Trace McSorley finished out his first year as a full-time starter with 12 touchdown passes in three games, including a conference title win and a trip to the Rose Bowl. He should have the weapons around him for another record-setting year in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions’ coaching staff also seemed pleased with the level of competition redshirt sophomore Tommy Stevens provided as McSorley’s understudy.
The situation isn’t much different in Ann Arbor. Wilton Speight remains the starter after helping lead Michigan and its offense to another 10-win season in 2016. Speight separated himself as the leader of a team that has a lot of pieces to replace next fall and a calm, confident presence on the field. He may not be the most physically talented quarterback on the roster, though. Redshirt freshman Brandon Peters showed he has both strength and touch during the spring season.
Don’t sleep on: Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson. The third-year starter made a significant jump forward between his first and second seasons leading the offense. If he can continue his upward trajectory again in 2017, the Wildcats will have as good a chance as any team to unseat Wisconsin as the West Division champions. Thorson threw for 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season. He also showed he has the potential to make plays with his feet, although he took off less often a year ago than during his rookie season. Top target Austin Carr is gone, but Thorson should get some help in replacing him from Oregon transfer Jalen Brown and the rest of a maturing receiver group.
The impact of a recruiting battle isn’t felt until the prospect hits the field for whichever team he chose. The team that missed out is often left with a void that the prospect could have filled and the team that won is left gloating if he pans out.
Since recruiting battles happen all the time within the Big Ten, there will likely be a few big names on the field this season that teams wish they could have landed. Here is a look at past recruiting battles within the conference and who they’re impacting.
RB Karan Higdon, Michigan
Higdon was headed to Iowa in the 2015 recruiting class until Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh swooped in and got him to commit to Michigan. Higdon was at the center of a few battles as Michigan was also pursuing running back Mike Weber, who eventually signed with Ohio State after debating between the Buckeyes and Michigan.
Iowa losing out on Higdon stings because the Hawkeyes ranked 64th in the nation in rushing yards last season and 71st in rushing touchdowns. The Hawkeyes also must replace Leshun Daniels Jr., who rushed for 1,058 yards last season.
Haskins and Jones both decommitted from Maryland and flipped to Ohio State during the 2016 cycle in what ended up being a big sting for the Terps. While Maryland is headed in the right direction, these two would have been huge additions to the roster.
Having Haskins in his second season at quarterback would have been a big help to Walt Bell’s offense and could have accelerated the process. The staff has landed some nice pieces, including ESPN 300 quarterback Kasim Hill in the 2017 class.
The Buckeyes have recruited well at quarterback and will have Haskins in the mix as the backup this season.
WR K.J. Hamler, Penn State
For quite some time in his recruitment, it seemed as though Hamler would be headed to Michigan State. An in-state prospect in the 2017 class, Michigan State was hot on his trail.
Needing receivers and playmakers on offense, Hamler would have been a big addition to the Spartans’ offense, but a late push by the Nittany Lions swung him in their favor.
Penn State coaches put in a lot of work to reel in Hamler and the staff eventually won out. While Michigan State did land a few other receivers in the class, none were as explosive as Hamler.
The shifty receiver sustained an ACL injury his senior high school season, but if he fully recovers, Hamler could be a big playmaker for the Nittany Lions.
WR Tyjon Lindsey, Nebraska
Lindsey’s recruitment in the 2017 cycle was a bit odd, to say the least. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound receiver was committed to Ohio State with Las Vegas (Nevada) Bishop Gorman teammates Haskell Garrett and Tate Martell until Lindsey abruptly decommitted and switched to Nebraska.
By all accounts, Lindsey seemed solid to the Buckeyes for most of his commitment. Nebraska started making a big push as the process got closer to signing day, ultimately leading to his commitment.
Ohio State has options on the roster, but Lindsey would have been a good fit and a big help on new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson’s offense.
ATH Ambry Thomas, Michigan
Thomas is a dynamic prospect who can play offense or defense and was heavily considering Michigan State as well as Michigan. He ultimately landed with Michigan, but would have been a much-needed addition to the Michigan State roster.
The Spartans could use help on both offense and defense, and Thomas is the type of player who realistically could have had an impact both sides in East Lansing. He is a local prospect and was one of the highest-ranked prospects in the state, so not only did it sting for Michigan State not to get him on the field on their side, but it also meant losing an in-state battle to their top rival.