Top contenders, sleepers and championship picks

Welcome to the final season with a relatively traditional-looking Big Ten before the conference’s Western contingent joins next season.

Michigan is the two-time reigning Big Ten champion and is set to compete with Ohio State in the Big Ten East yet again. Penn State should also have a say in the division race. Both Michigan and OSU reached the College Football Playoff last season, and PSU has similar goals this fall.

In the West, Wisconsin is the favorite under new head coach Luke Fickell but Iowa and Illinois should be tough competition for the Badgers.

After winning back-to-back Big Ten titles but falling in the CFP semifinals in both seasons, does Michigan have the talent to get through Georgia and win the national championship?

Offensively, Michigan returns the star RB duo of Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards and has one of the top offensive lines in the sport. At QB, J.J. McCarthy is back as the starter. Michigan leaned heavily on its running attack last year, so McCarthy wasn’t asked to throw downfield much.

The tools are there, but McCarthy needs to be more consistent as a passer for Michigan to reach its ceiling. McCarthy also needs some receivers to step up with Ronnie Bell in the NFL. Bell was McCarthy’s top target by a significant margin and now Cornelius Johnson, Roman Wilson and tight end Colston Loveland are the key returnees. There isn’t a star in that group, but it’s solid.

Defensively, the second outside CB spot opposite Will Johnson is the main concern. Mike Sainristil has excelled in the nickel role and could move outside, or UMass transfer Josh Wallace could earn the job. Otherwise, the defense is loaded despite some of the prominent players leaving for the NFL. Johnson, just a sophomore, could emerge as an All-American, as could DT Kris Jenkins and LB Junior Colson.

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy warms up before an NCAA college football game against Connecticut in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy warms up before an NCAA college football game against Connecticut in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Ohio State (+180)

It’s easy to forget how close Ohio State was to a national championship last year. Despite losing to Michigan, OSU earned the fourth seed in the CFP and was a missed field goal away from upsetting Georgia in the semifinals. Instead, another layer of pressure has been added to head coach Ryan Day.

OSU has three goals on a yearly basis — beat Michigan, win the Big Ten and win the national title. The Buckeyes went 0-for-3 in 2022, but there are reasons for optimism in 2023.

OSU is loaded at the skill positions with Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka at receiver and Miyan Williams and a healthy TreVeyon Henderson at RB. On the other side, the defense figures to continue improving in its second season under coordinator Jim Knowles. J.T. Tuimoloau highlights a stacked defensive line, the secondary is very deep and the linebacker group is solid.

The main questions for OSU come on offense. There’s a QB competition between Kyle McCord and Devin Brown to replace C.J. Stroud and three offensive line starters departed, leaving the Buckeyes exposed at both tackle spots. It’s not an ideal situation considering the level of defensive line play elsewhere in the Big Ten.

Penn State (+550)

Penn State won the Big Ten in 2016 but has not been able to replicate that success. Could this be the year?

The talent on defense is obvious with Abdul Carter flying around at linebacker, Chop Robinson rushing off the edge and Kalen King in lockdown coverage at corner. This offensive line could be the best of James Franklin’s tenure, and it will pave the way for star running backs Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen.

However, there are some questions, starting at QB where star recruit Drew Allar is set to step in for longtime starter Sean Clifford. Allar is more talented and gives the offense more upside, but Clifford had tremendous command at the line of scrimmage and was better than he was given credit for.

The WR corps is also quietly inexperienced. KeAndre Lambert-Smith is expected to be the No. 1 with Harrison Wallace (19 career catches) and Kent State transfer Dante Cephas also in the starting group. The tight ends will be a big part of the passing attack, but receiver play is the biggest concern with this team.

Penn State running back Nicholas Singleton (10) runs toward the end zone for a touch down during the second half in the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game against Utah Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Penn State running back Nicholas Singleton (10) runs toward the end zone for a touch down during the second half in the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game against Utah Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Wisconsin (+600)

Wisconsin was fading into mediocrity, so the school fired Paul Chryst and hired Luke Fickell from Cincinnati. Fickell, a longtime Ohio State assistant, led the Bearcats to the College Football Playoff in 2021 and is now back in the Big Ten.

Fickell hired Phil Longo as his offensive coordinator, meaning a major change is coming in Madison. Wisconsin has been known for a run-first attack, but Longo comes from the Air Raid tree. The Badgers return stud RB Braelon Allen, so they will still run the ball, but now it will be out of shotgun with SMU transfer Tanner Mordecai starting at QB. In addition to Mordecai, UW mined the portal for a new crop of receivers. There’s talent there, but most of the newcomers are inexperienced.

On defense, the Badgers should be pretty solid but the turnover in the front seven is significant, particularly with DT Keeanu Benton and LB Nick Herbig now in the NFL. There are also some questions at CB. Wisconsin is one of the better teams in the Big Ten West, but this could be more of a transition year than many realize.

Iowa (+1000)

Maybe it’s Iowa that should be the Big Ten West favorite, not Wisconsin.

Iowa’s offense has been an embarrassment the last two seasons, but the Hawkeyes have added enough upgrades to meet Brian Ferentz’s 25 points per game mandate.

The upgrades start with ex-Michigan QB Cade McNamara, who brings a baseline of competency to the position that hasn’t existed in several years. Elsewhere, Iowa added receiver Kaleb Brown (Ohio State), a few potential starting linemen and tight end Erick All, McNamara’s old Michigan teammate. All and Luke Lachey should be one of the better tight end duos in the conference.

Iowa’s offense just has to be average for the team to perform at a high level. The Hawkeyes have been excellent on defense and special teams, and there’s no reason to expect that to change — even with three defensive starters now in the NFL. The defensive line is deep, Cooper DeJean is one of the best DBs in the Big Ten and Virginia transfer Nick Jackson is a major addition at linebacker.

Minnesota (+3000)

Despite going 11-2, 9-4 and 9-4 in the last three full seasons, Minnesota is flying under the radar. That’s likely because of the departure of workhorse RB Mo Ibrahim and new personnel moving into major roles across the roster.

Athan Kaliakmanis is now the team’s starting QB and Western Michigan transfer Sean Tyler likely steps into the lead RB role. However, he won’t get the massive workload that Ibrahim received with the Gophers more talented at receiver. Chris Autman-Bell and TE Brevyn Spann-Ford are familiar names to Big Ten fans, but two transfers — Corey Crooms (WMU) and Elijah Spencer (Charlotte) — will have big roles.

On the offensive line, the Gophers have three starters to replace. That’s been a strength in the past but is now somewhat of a concern. There are also questions on every level of the defense. This is a bowl team, but the Gophers may struggle against the top teams in their division.

Illinois (+5000)

Bret Bielema has impressively turned things around at Illinois. The Fighting Illini went 8-5 and nearly won the West last year. Before that, Illinois hadn’t won eight games since 2007. There are major departures from last year’s team, but don’t be surprised if Illinois is in the thick of things in the division again.

Three Illini DBs were drafted (including Devon Witherspoon at No. 5 overall) and DC Ryan Walters landed the Purdue job. On offense, Illinois lost QB Tommy DeVito, RB Chase Brown and two longtime starters up front. That’s a lot to replace, but Bielema has assembled a quality roster for 2023.

Ole Miss transfer Luke Altmyer is the favorite to start at QB, and the returning skill position talent is decent. The biggest strength on this team is the defensive line with Johnny Newton, a projected first-rounder, and Keith Randolph leading the way. With a defensive line that good, the Illini can hang with everybody on their schedule.

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 02: Illinois Fighting Illini defensive lineman Jer'Zhan Newton (4) walks on the field during the ReliaQuest Bowl college football game between the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Mississippi State Bulldogs on January 02, 2023, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Chris Leduc/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Illinois defensive lineman Jer’Zhan Newton (4) is one of the best players in the Big Ten. (Photo by Chris Leduc/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Nebraska (+5000)

The Scott Frost era at Nebraska has finally ended and now Matt Rhule has taken over. The Huskers have gone six seasons without a bowl appearance, and it’d be an accomplishment for Rhule to take this roster to a bowl in Year 1.

Rhule brought in Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Sims to be his starting QB. The Huskers have a pretty good running back group, but the offensive line and the depth at receiver are concerns. On defense, there’s not much proven talent in the trenches, but Tony White’s 3-3-5 system could help offset some of the depth issues there. There is talent in the secondary and White is likely going to rely on a few transfers at linebacker.

There will be challenges ahead, but Rhule’s influence should have the Huskers playing with more poise and discipline. Compared to the Frost era, that alone is a step forward for Nebraska.

Maryland (+6000)

Maryland hasn’t fared well against OSU, UM or PSU, but the Terps have taken major strides under Mike Locksley by finishing with a winning record in the past two seasons. Expect similar results this season.

Maryland will have Taulia Tagovailoa back at QB with RB Roman Hemby, WR Jeshaun Jones and TE Corey Dyches all returning. However, four of five starters from the offensive line have departed and several transfers will be counted on to step into first-team roles.

Similarly, the line is a concern on defense and a few transfers need to contribute right away. It won’t be easy to replace NFL draft picks Deonte Banks and Jakorian Bennett at corner, but the safety duo of Beau Brade and Dante Trader is a strength, as is the linebacker group led by Jaishawn Barham and Ruben Hyppolite.

Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa (3) runs the ball against Michigan in the first half of an NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa (3) runs the ball against Michigan in the first half of an NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Purdue (+10000)

With Jeff Brohm returning home to Louisville, Purdue hired Illinois assistant Ryan Walters. Walters did a great job as the DC at Missouri and Illinois and is now a first-time head coach. He could be in for a rebuilding year.

At QB, Texas transfer Hudson Card was a big pickup, but the Boilermakers are lacking depth at receiver and don’t have much at RB behind Devin Mockobee. Purdue also lost three likely offensive line starters to transfer.

On defense, there is some pretty good depth in the front seven but inside linebacker is a question mark and Walters needs some transfers to hit in the secondary for the Boilermakers to have a chance to get to a bowl game for the third straight season.

Michigan State (+15000)

Mel Tucker’s time at Michigan State has been a whirlwind. The Spartans went 2-5 in 2020 and then were a major surprise in 2021 when they went 11-2 and won the Peach Bowl. MSU started the 2022 season with a lot of hype, but cratered with an ugly 5-7 campaign.

Things got worse this spring when top QB Payton Thorne (Auburn) and receiver Keon Coleman (Florida State) transferred out. Without Thorne, Noah Kim and Katin Houser are competing to start. And not only did Coleman transfer, the team’s other star wideout, Jayden Reed, is now in the NFL.

Things look bleak on offense, but the defense should improve. MSU dealt with a ton of injuries last year and brought in some high-profile transfers, particularly up front. With the team’s top four LBs returning, the front seven should be pretty solid and there are some intriguing young players in the secondary.

All in all, it’ll be a challenge to get to a bowl.

Rutgers (+20000)

  • 2022 record: 4-8 (1-8)

  • National title odds: N/A

  • Over/under: 4.5

It’s Year 4 of Greg Schiano’s second stint at Rutgers and this team could be pretty good on defense with pass rusher Mohamed Toure back from a knee injury, Max Melton back at CB and Tyreem Powell and Deion Jennings both returning at LB.

The offense, though, will struggle again unless it gets better QB play. Gavin Wimsatt graduated high school early to enroll at Rutgers last year and he was thrown into an unenviable position after expected starter Noah Vedral was injured. Wimsatt will benefit from a solid group of running backs, but the offensive line and receiver groups are not very talented.

Rutgers has some winnable non-conference games, but it’s going to be a stretch to get to a bowl game.

Indiana (+25000)

This could be Tom Allen’s final stand. Allen has done an admirable job, but the Hoosiers have gone a combined 6-18 (2-16 Big Ten) over the past two seasons. It probably won’t get much better in 2023.

The QB situation appears dire. IU played four QBs last season. Two have departed and one is injured. The other is Brendan Sorsby, who is competing to start with Tennessee transfer Tayven Jackson, the younger brother of former IU hoops star Trayce Jackson-Davis.

Jackson, a former four-star recruit, is considered the favorite and he’s got a few weapons with him on offense, namely RB Jaylin Lucas and WR Cam Camper. The defense experienced a major overhaul and could start a transfer at most positions. It should be a long year.

Northwestern (+25000)

  • 2022 record: 1-11 (1-8)

  • National title odds: N/A

  • Over/under: 3

Northwestern was coming off a 1-11 season and then saw longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald fired amid a hazing scandal. That left new defensive coordinator David Braun in charge as interim head coach.

Braun doesn’t have much to work with even with Cincinnati transfer Ben Bryant on campus as a veteran transfer quarterback. Four of NU’s offensive line starters are gone, including first-round pick Peter Skoronski at left tackle. NU also lost top RB Evan Hull and top WR Malik Washington.

The defense struggled mightily last fall and saw a few transfers after Fitzgerald was fired. The Wildcats are in the running for the worst Power Five team in the country.

Overrated team

Sam Cooper: Wisconsin.

Nick Bromberg: Minnesota

Sleeper team

Sam: Illinois.

Nick: Iowa

Title pick

Sam: Michigan. I weighed picking Penn State here, but I just don’t like the way the Nittany Lions line up with the Wolverines. PSU is little lighter on the interior of its defensive line and has had trouble stopping Michigan’s ground attack in recent seasons. And then I’m worried about Ohio State’s offensive line situation. Michigan is the pick.

Nick: Michigan. I think it’s a coin flip between the Wolverines and Ohio State and again believe the winner of that game will win the conference. I’m going with the team with the established quarterback and home-field advantage.