UW favorite in West, three team race for East

Michigan's loss to Michigan State has opened up the Big Ten East division race.

Image By: Jessi Schoville

After then-junior Trace McSorley and his rocket arm catapulted the Penn State Nittany Lions to a 38-31 victory over the Wisconsin Badgers in the Big 10 Championship Game last season, crushing the Badgers’ last hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff or the Rose Bowl, many Wisconsin fans started uttering the familiar mantra of “there’s always next year.”

Well, the 2017 year is finally here, and No. 9 Wisconsin will look to bring back a conference title to Madison this year. Sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook is more experienced, and his additional reps during the offseason could potentially provide more consistency in UW’s passing game. Hornibrook has an experienced core of steady passing options in senior tight end Troy Fumagalli and senior wide receiver Jazz Peavy, but sophomore wide receivers A.J. Taylor and Quintez Cephus will likely be asked to step up to help out in the passing game, the weaker part of Wisconsin’s offense in recent year.

While the graduation of both Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale seemingly left big holes in Wisconsin’s backfield, the Badgers, unsurprisingly, have reloaded that very same position. Two years ago, senior Chris James transferred to Madison from Pittsburgh, reuniting with former Panthers Head Coach Paul Chryst. And after the mandatory redshirt last season, James will rejoin the offense, and likely split carries with sophomore running back Bradrick Shaw, who rushed for five or more yards on 43% of his carries last season.

One-time walk-on turned team captain, senior linebacker Jack Cichy tore his ACL during summer camp potentially weakening an otherwise experienced Badger defense front. But UW’s linebacking core still features the duo of juniors T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly, who will be forced to step up in Cichy’s absence. New defensive coordinator Jim Leonard brings a wealth of experience to the squad, and with a soft schedule to open the year, any major problems in his transition will likely be sorted out before the meat of UW’s schedule. Wisconsin’s toughest tests—Iowa and Michigan—are both at home late in the season, which helps make the Badgers the firm favorites in the Big 10 West Division.

Meanwhile, the Big 10 East is a three-headed monster that is much harder to solve. Each of the three contenders—Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State—all beat at least one of the other top teams. And eventually, due to end-of-season tiebreakers, Penn State ended up on top of the East division, and in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Under head coach James Franklin, the No. 6 Nittany Lions have become a fun offensive team to watch. Senior quarterback Trace McSorley is able to throw bombs downfield, while senior running back Saquon Barkley is one of the most fearsome running backs in the country. It is, however, tough to rely solely on explosive talent, and that could be a potential hazard for the Nittany Lions, as Penn State’s offensive line struggled last season. On defense, the Nittany Lions lost a lot of production from last season due to injury or graduation, meaning it’s likely Penn State will be in a lot of shootouts. Their credentials for the East Division title will be most tested at the Horseshoe against Ohio State Halloween weekend.

The No. 2 Buckeyes, on the other hand, snuck into the College Football Playoff last season without the Big 10 title. But OSU was shut out by Clemson, 31-0, in the Fiesta Bowl. Ohio State featured an elite running attack last year through the likes of their star quarterback J.T. Barrett, but the now-senior struggled in a passing game that, at times, lacked explosiveness. The top three receivers from last year, Curtis Samuel, Noah Brown and Dontre Wilson, are all gone as well. But Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer of Ohio State has quickly built an Alabama-esque machine that can seemingly produce elite players every year. OSU’s running game and defense will still be stellar this year, and Meyer hired former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson to run his offense. The Hoosiers were known for their explosive and exciting offense under Wilson, and the Buckeyes hope he’ll bring that big play ability to their offense this year. Ohio State faces Wilson’s old team to open the season, and then face a home test against the No. 7 Oklahoma Sooners later in the year.

The No. 11 Michigan Wolverines are the other team in the East with the best chance at the division title, and head coach Jim Harbaugh will be desperate to get his hands on an elusive conference championship. With all the bluster and enthusiasm from Michigan’s lightning rod head coach, the biggest surprise may be the fact that since he has returned to Ann Arbor to coach his alma mater, he has yet to even reach the Big 10 Championship Game. Junior quarterback Wilton Speight will likely need to improve his passing game if the Wolverines are going to get to that title game, but due to major roster turnover it would not be surprising if the Wolverines will have to wait another year for the East title.

While the focus of the Big Ten will be on these four programs, all ranked in the top-15 of the Preseason AP Top 25 poll, there are other interesting questions across the league. Will Michigan State bounce back after going 3-9 last season and losing lots of players for discipline reasons? Will Iowa have a flukey year like in 2015 and force all fans to have a frank discussion on what an undefeated Iowa means? Will P.J. Fleck be able to help improve what has been an underwhelming Minnesota program? Will Northwestern be able to come into Madison and potentially prove to be the best team in Big Ten West Division? And will Rutgers win a conference game? Thankfully, we’ll find out soon, because college football is back.

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