College football betting preview: Big Ten

By Matt Youmans and Wes Reynolds  (VSiN.com) 

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The VSiN college football experts have been hard at work this summer, writing up team previews and predictions for all 131 FBS teams, including their favorite individual season win total and College Football Playoff bets.

Here are the team previews for the Big Ten:

East Division

Indiana

The Hoosiers looked like they were finally turning the corner after finishing the 2020 season ranked 13th in the AP Poll (reached as high as No. 7). Injuries mounted along with poor play in 2021, and Indiana dropped to 2-10 (0-9 Big Ten) for its worst season in 10 years. Five new assistant coaches and 12 transfers are in to help Tom Allen get this program back on track. 

Offense

The Hoosiers ranked last in the Big Ten in total offense last season, averaging fewer than 300 yards and 18 points per game. They had only four touchdown passes in nine Big Ten games. Allen fired offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan, replacing him with Walt Bell, who was a play-caller at Maryland and Florida State before three tough seasons as head coach at UMass. Oft-injured QB Michael Penix is now at Washington, reuniting with former IU OC Kalen DeBoer. Transfer Connor Bazelak had 20 starts in three years at Missouri (5,058 yards, 66% completions, 23-17 TD-INT) and looks to have the inside track over returning QB Jack Tuttle. Auburn transfer Shaun Shivers and North Carolina transfer Josh Henderson take over at RB for a running game that found very few holes (3.2 yards per carry) due to poor offensive line play (three starters return this year). At receiver, JUCO transfer Cam Camper, North Carolina transfer Emery Simmons and D.J. Matthews, a former Florida State transfer who missed most of 2021 after an ACL tear, will need to step up to give the Hoosiers some big plays that weren’t there last season. 

Defense

The defense’s scoring average rose from 20.3 to 33.2 points per game, last in the Big Ten. Defensive coordinator Charlton Warren left for North Carolina after one season. Allen hired Chad Wilt from Minnesota to run the defense but will be more involved in the defensive game plan and play-calling. As they did on offense, Indiana worked the transfer portal hard. On the defensive line, JH Tevis (37 tackles) started every game at Cal last year and Myles Jackson comes in after two years at UCLA. The primary issue will be replacing Micah McFadden, the Hoosiers' top tackler and a coach on the field since 2019. Bradley Jennings Jr. arrives from Miami, where he lost his starting position last year after starting all 11 games in 2020. A key performer will be the speedy Cam Jones, another fifth-year player who finished third on the team with 43 tackles in 2021. The secondary should be the strongest unit. Tiawan Mullen and Jaylin Williams are seniors and tenacious cover guys. Safeties Devon Matthews and Bryant Fitzgerald started multiple games last season. The Hoosiers must generate takeaways, as their interception total slid from 17 to five last season despite playing four more games than in 2020.

Outlook

Allen is not on the hot seat yet but questions are starting to be asked after there was a lot of turnover on the coaching staff. Indiana signed its highest-rated class ever (30th per 247Sports), but a lot of it was from the transfer portal. The first home game versus Illinois will be an indicator of where this season might go. Two of the three nonconference games will be wins (at Cincinnati could be dicey). The schedule was tough last year and doesn’t get any easier with Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State on tap. 

Pick: Under 4 (+ 100)

-- Wes Reynolds

Maryland

The Terrapins broke a six-year bowl drought in 2021 with an emphatic 54-10 win over Virginia Tech in the Pinstripe Bowl. Maryland has recruited well under Mike Locksley, who was extended for five more seasons in April, but the results hadn’t shown on the field until last year. The offense has most of its production returning, but the defense always seems to be rebuilding in College Park. 

Offense

Last year, Taulia Tagovailoa set Maryland single-season records for passing yards (3,860), completions (328), completion percentage (69.2%), passing touchdowns (26) and 300-yard passing games (7). While he did throw 11 interceptions, five of them were against Iowa (which led the nation with 25), and he only threw three in his final seven games. Tua’s younger brother has plenty of targets at receiver. Rakim Jarrett is a speedy, sure-handed threat who led Maryland with 62 receptions, 829 yards and five touchdowns. He's rejoined by senior Dontay Demus Jr., who was lost for the last seven games of 2021 with a knee injury. He was tops in the Big Ten and 11th nationally in receiving yards at the time. Transfer Jacob Copeland (41, 642, 4) was Florida’s leading pass catcher last year. At RB, Tayon Fleet-Davis has graduated. Colby McDonald (60 rushes, 325 yards, 2 TD) and Challen Faamatau (56, 235, 3) are the top returning backs, but true freshman Ramon Brown, a four-star prospect, is likely to get a lot of work behind an offensive line that returns four starters. 

Defense

Kevin Steele took the DC job for a week before leaving to join Mario Cristobal in Miami, so Brian Williams, who called the defense in the final two games of 2021, was promoted. Maryland held its final two opponents, Rutgers and Virginia Tech, to 16 and 10 points. While the Terps were better the last two games, this group still finished 13th out of 14 Big Ten teams in scoring defense (30.7 points per game) and 12th in total defense (404.3 yards per game). The secondary, specifically corners Jakorian Bennett, Deonte Banks and Tarheeb Still, are the strength of the group. Middle linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II (62 tackles) has moved to the outside, where his speed and size will help. West Virginia transfer Vandarius Cowan and four-star freshman Jaishawn Barham also join the linebacking corps and could make instant impacts. The front seven took a hit with the transfer of three top recruits from 2021, but tackles Ami Finau (40 tackles, 4 TFL) and Mosiah Nasili-Kite (37 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 TFL) return. 

Outlook

Maryland will score plenty of points with a third-year starter at QB, a loaded receiving corps and an experienced offensive line. They may have to unless another reshuffled defense improves. Locksley has always recruited well but does not have the most sterling reputation as an in-game coach. The nonconference schedule looks doable with Buffalo, a perhaps tricky trip to Charlotte and a likely high-scoring game with SMU. But the Terps have road trips to Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State. A 6-6 season is the most likely result. 

Pick: Over 6 (+ 100)

-- Wes Reynolds

Michigan

The Wolverines secured their first Big Ten title since 2004 and Jim Harbaugh finally beat Ohio State for the first time. Michigan reached the CFP and finished with a No. 3 ranking, its highest season-ending ranking since 1997. Harbaugh briefly flirted with the NFL and interviewed for the Minnesota Vikings job before returning to Ann Arbor. There are a number of questions with new coordinators on both sides of the ball. 

Offense

Michigan likely will use both Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy, who missed most of the spring with a shoulder injury, again at QB. McNamara got the bulk of the work (2,576 yards, 64.2%, 25-6 TD-INT), but McCarthy (516 yards, 57.6.%, 5-2) is more mobile and has the stronger arm. The offense has two new coordinators in Matt Weiss and Sherrone Moore, who replace the departed Josh Gattis (Miami). The entire receiving group is back including star Ronnie Bell, who was lost in the opener last year with a torn ACL. In the backfield, Hassan Haskins and his 1,327 yards and 20 touchdowns are gone, but Blake Corum (143 rushes, 952 yards, 10 TD) is back along with former five-star prospect Donovan Edwards, who should get more than the 35 carries he received last year. While the Wolverines lose two starters from the nation’s top offensive line in 2021, three starters return including sixth-year graduate transfer Olusegun Oluwatimi, a finalist for the top center award last year.

Defense

Michigan has its third DC in as many years in Jesse Minter (DC at Vanderbilt last year), who takes over for the departed Mike Macdonald, now the DC with the Baltimore Ravens. The scheme will not change much but Minter will experiment with more blitzes and dime packages. Minter will have to be a bit more creative because Michigan lost some key players to the NFL. Up front, the Wolverines must replace Heisman Trophy finalist Aidan Hutchinson and All-Big Ten edge rusher David Ojabo. Junior Colson (61 tackles), who Minter calls the next great Michigan linebacker, and Nikhai Hill-Green (50) are the leading returning tacklers. The Wolverines must replace three starters in the secondary, including star safety Daxton Hill, but they might have found an answer at nickel with converted receiver Mike Sainristil. 

Outlook

Michigan got back to old-school football last year. The Wolverines were quicker than i0n recent years and won games by being more physical than their opponents. Just ask Ohio State. Last year, the offense led the Big Ten in rushing and fewest sacks allowed. This year, they should be more explosive throwing the ball but just as effective running it. The schedule is favorable early with four likely nonconference wins at home. They should at least split their four Big Ten road games. Harbaugh flirted with the NFL and there was a sense he was looking for an exit while going out near the top. Is he here for the long haul? Was 2021 the exception? Or is it now the rule?

Pick: Under 9.5 (+ 105)

-- Wes Reynolds

Michigan State

The Spartans were picked to finish last in the Big Ten East last year. All they did was become the nation’s most improved team with an 11-2 record, capped off by Peach Bowl victory over Pittsburgh and a final ranking of No. 9. All of that earned Mel Tucker a 10-year, $95 million extension. They like it in East Lansing when you beat Jim Harbaugh and Michigan, and Tucker is 2-0 against the maize and blue. 

Offense

First-team All-American RB Kenneth Walker takes his 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns to the NFL, but Tucker went back to the transfer portal as he did in 2021. Jarek Broussard (Colorado), the 2020 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, and Jalen Berger (Wisconsin) transfer in to go along with returning backs Elijah Collins, Harold Joiner, Jordon Simmons and Davion Primm. QB Payton Thorne (3,233 yards, 60.3%) threw for a school record 27 touchdown passes last season. Ten of those TD passes were to star receiver and returner Jayden Reed (59 receptions, 1,026 yards, 10 receiving TD, 2 punt-return TD). Also returning at receiver are Tre Mosley (35, 530, 3) and Keon Coleman, who should see more reps this season. Maliq Carr moves from WR to TE. Just two starters return on the offensive line, so the rushing production could be down and there might be some growing pains early in pass protection.

Defense

Michigan State faced three of the nation’s top five passing attacks (Western Kentucky, Ohio State, Purdue) and two more in the top 13 (Miami, Maryland). It’s a borderline miracle that the Spartans finished 11-2 considering they ranked last in the country in passing yards allowed (324.8 yards per game). Nevertheless, all five starters return in the secondary, including safety Xavier Henderson (94 tackles, 7 TFL, 3 sacks). Linebacker is the strength of this group, a position that is bolstered by transfers Jacoby Windmon (UNLV) and Aaron Brule (Mississippi State). Leading tackler Cal Holaday (96 tackles) clinched the Peach Bowl victory with a pick-six. DTs Jacob Slade and Simeon Barrow were the major reason MSU ranked 15th nationally in run defense (117.2 yards per game), but the Spartans’ pass rush, which led the Big Ten in sacks, loses its top three DEs. 

Outlook

Tucker has made the roster bigger, faster and stronger in his three years. However, this team still needs to upgrade its talent on the defensive line and in the secondary. The new offensive line starters also need to grow up in a hurry. The schedule is a bit tougher this year with a road trip to Washington and drawing two of the top teams in the West Division in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Aside from road games at Michigan State and Penn State, the Spartans will get tests at Illinois and at Maryland, two teams that should be improved. 

Pick: Over 7.5 (-135)

-- Wes Reynolds

Ohio State

Such is life in Columbus when an 11-2 season, a top-5 final ranking and a Rose Bowl victory is considered a disappointment. The Buckeyes lost to “the school up north” for the first time in nine years and missed out on the CFP. The offense has been a juggernaut and will continue to be for Ryan Day, but Day realized his defense must be better and he brought in three new defensive coaches including DC Jim Knowles.

Offense

C.J. Stroud is the latest Ohio State signal-caller to flourish in Day's system following Justin Fields and the late Dwayne Haskins Jr. In 2021, Stroud lit up opponents with both accuracy (71.9%) and big plays (4,435 yards, 44 TD) while throwing just six interceptions. Stroud is a preseason Heisman favorite. Ohio State lost two receivers to the first round of the NFL draft and might not lose a step. Jaxon Smith-Njigba returns after setting school records in receptions (95) and receiving yards (1,606) last season. He had nine touchdown receptions and capped the season with 15 catches for 347 yards and three touchdowns in a 48-45 Rose Bowl victory over Utah. Marvin Harrison Jr. as well as Julian Fleming and Emeka Egbuka were all five-star recruits, so the Buckeyes are more than fine at wide receiver. TreVeyon Henderson is a premier back and had a stellar season as a true freshman (183 rushes, 1,248 yards, 15 TD). The offensive line was a tad inconsistent and loses Nicholas Petit-Frere and Thayer Munford to the NFL.

Defense

The Buckeyes ranked in the top five of the Big Ten in sacks and interceptions but were ninth in points allowed (22.8 per game). That’s why Knowles comes in from Oklahoma State, where led one of the nation’s top 10 defenses (18.1 points per game). The Buckeyes allowed more than 30 points five times last season. Up front, they are loaded with talent. Jack Sawyer didn’t start one game in his freshman year but should break out in 2022. J.T. Tuimoloau is another potential sophomore pass-rushing specialist to accent incumbent starters Zach Harrison and Javontae Jean-Baptiste. The Buckeyes need improvement in the middle, and junior LB Tommy Eichenberg, who had 17 tackles in the Rose Bowl, could be the man to provide it. In the secondary, veteran starting corners Denzel Burke (36 tackles, 12 PBU) and Cameron Brown (24 tackles, 7 PBU) return. Safety Ronnie Hickman (100 tackles) was the leading tackler in 2021. Josh Proctor is also back from a leg fracture that ended his 2021 campaign. Transfer safety Tanner McCalister started 16 games for Knowles at Oklahoma State.

Outlook

While celebrating the 100-year anniversary of Ohio Stadium, Ohio State will embark on an eight-game home schedule that begins with a visit from Notre Dame and ends with Michigan in the season finale. The Buckeyes stumbled early at home last year against Oregon, so expect them to be focused against Notre Dame. The offense might be unstoppable and good enough to carry the team to the CFP, but the defense must hold up its end as well. Ohio State should be double-digit favorites in every game. Michigan State and Penn State are never easy on the road, but the Buckeyes are too talented not to roll through this conference. The win total is 10.5 with heavy juice to the Over, so laying this much on a win total isn’t recommended, but do you see two losses on this schedule?

Pick: Over 10.5 (-240)

-- Wes Reynolds

Penn State

The Nittany Lions had a terrific start to 2021, going 5–0 and beating ranked teams in Wisconsin and Auburn to reach No. 4 in the AP poll. However, quarterback Sean Clifford was injured against then No. 3 Iowa and a once-promising season ended up 7-6 with an Outback Bowl loss to Arkansas. Penn State has gone a combined 11-11 in its last two seasons, not good enough in Happy Valley. 

Offense

Penn State has one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the country in super senior Clifford. He has had his ups and downs during 33 career starts but is one of three players in school history with more than 8,000 yards of total offense. WR Jahan Dotson moves on to the NFL, but other targets return, such as Parker Washington (64 receptions, 820 yards, 4 TD), KeAndre Lambert-Smith (34, 521, 3) and TE Brenton Strange (20, 225, 3). Also, Mitchell Tinsley, who had 87 catches, 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns in Western Kentucky’s Air Raid offense, transfers over. The problem with the offense has been the running game. Despite boasting a trio of former four-star recruits, the Nittany Lions didn’t have a single 100-yard rushing performance (118th nationally in rushing) last year. Keyvone Lee led the team in rushing as a sophomore with 530 yards -- only 57 more than he gained in 2020 despite playing three more games. Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen are both five-star freshmen and will push Lee for time. The offensive line loses three starters and needs to grow up in a hurry for an offense that finished 82nd in total offense, 90th in scoring offense, 94th in sacks allowed, 96th in red-zone offense and 106th in tackles for loss allowed. 

Defense

First-year Lions defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, former head coach at Miami, takes over for Brent Pry, now the head coach at Virginia Tech. There are some holes in this front seven with three starters being replaced. But the Lions are also getting back a couple of key players who suffered season-ending injuries a year ago: run-stuffing DT PJ Mustipher and DE Adisa Isaac. The Lions will need someone to step up at the other DE spot, as Arnold Ebiketie is off to the NFL after ranking third in the Big Ten with 9.5 sacks last year. Curtis Jacobs (61 tackles) is the only starter returning at linebacker. The secondary, which helped PSU rank sixth nationally in points allowed and seventh in pass defense efficiency, should be in good hands with CB Joey Porter Jr. (51 tackles, 4 PBU, 1 INT) and safety Ji’Ayir Brown (73 tackles, 6 INT, 5 PBU) back. Brown’s six interceptions were tied for the top spot in the nation. 

Outlook

Clifford coming back for an extra year is massive and he should put up the best numbers of his career. The Lions must find a running game soon, though. Like last year, Penn State opens with a conference game on the road (beat Wisconsin in 2021, travels to Purdue in 2022). They also visit Auburn two weeks later. PSU will be favored in three of its four Big Ten road games and gets Michigan State and Ohio State at home. The Lions have slipped the last two years, but if healthier, they will post a better result than last year.

Pick: Over 8.5 (+ 105)

-- Wes Reynolds

Rutgers

Greg Schiano is in Year 3 of his second act at Rutgers. Although the Scarlet Knights were only 5-8 last season, they did reach a bowl game due to a strong Academic Progress Rate score. They lost 38-10 in the Gator Bowl to Wake Forest, but it still speaks to Schiano installing a strong culture with not only the APR but the fact that a short-handed bunch with little practice time was willing to play a game when the season was long over.

Offense

The Scarlet Knights offense regressed in 2021, finishing 120th in scoring and total offense. However, Schiano and OC Sean Gleeson found their QB in Gavin Wimsatt, who will likely unseat two-year starter Noah Vedral, though it could be a platoon under center. Rutgers hit the transfer portal hard to bolster its offensive line. Mike Ciaffoni (Colorado State), Willie Tyler (Louisiana), Curtis Dunlap (Minnesota) and J.D. DiRenzo (Sacred Heart) all have been starters at their previous programs. It was not just the offensive line that got a makeover via the portal. WR Taj Harris arrives after four years and 32 starts at Syracuse, and Sean Ryan joins him after starting 22 games in three years at West Virginia. Chris Long is moving back to WR from DB, and Aron Cruickshank returns after missing 2021 with a torn ACL. Kyle Monangai (62 rushes, 235 yards, 4 TD) and Aaron Young (293 yards from scrimmage, six total TD) will be the lead backs. 

Defense

Rutgers’ defense ranked 10th or worse in the Big Ten in the four major categories. New DC Joe Harasymiak comes in from Minnesota and his first order of business is to improve the pass rush. DE Aaron Lewis (30 tackles, 2.5 sacks) could break out. Kyonte Hamilton (22 tackles) can play inside or out. Mayan Ahanotu (18 tackles) and Ifeanyi Maijeh (19 tackles) return at DT. The Knights will be very young and not very deep at linebacker after losing 96 combined starts to the NFL draft. Tyreem Powell (20 tackles) started three games and will lead the group. Star freshman Moses Walker suffered a season-ending ACL tear in spring practice, and Mohamed Toure will also miss the season after a spring injury. Secondary is an area of strength. The Scarlet Knights are deep at cornerback with returning starters Kessawn Abraham (44 tackles, 9 PBU) and Max Melton (28 tackles, 6 PBU, 3 INT), and they will get Christian Braswell back after he missed last season with a torn ACL. Safeties Avery Young (81 tackles) returns along with Christian Izien (75 tackles, 9 TFL, 4 PBU) and Desmond Igbinosun.

Outlook

Rutgers is still a major work in progress, especially on offense. The goal this season is to reach a bowl game without having to use the APR. The road to doing that will not be easy. They should go 2-1 in nonconference play. If they can win at Boston College in Week 1, then there’s a realistic chance at bowl bid. Road games at Ohio State and Michigan State are not winnable, but they can compete at Minnesota and Maryland. This team will be better, but it might not show in the win column. 

Pick: Under 4

-- Wes Reynolds

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West Division

Wisconsin

It’s usually easy to pick Wisconsin as the favorite in the West, but the Badgers fell short last year and it’s obvious the gap has closed. It’s getting tougher now. There are four other teams with a legitimate shot to win the division this year, so the heat is on coach Paul Chryst.

Offense: When Aaron Rodgers is out, the Packers’ offense is painful to watch. The Badgers face that type of predicament every week. Graham Mertz arrived in Madison as a hyped five-star recruit, but he’s not developing into the next Russell Wilson. Mertz has totaled only 19 touchdown passes the last two seasons, with five of those coming in his debut against Illinois in 2020. He threw more picks (11) than TD passes (10) last year and was nearly benched after Wisconsin started 1-3 with losses to Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan. Wisconsin scored more than 30 points in only four games last year and did so against the weakest teams (Eastern Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern, Rutgers) on the schedule. Only five starters return on offense -- three linemen, Mertz and running back Braelon Allen, who rushed for 1,268 yards and 12 TDs as a freshman. Improvement from Mertz is imperative, but the Badgers’ strength will be their running attack, as always.

Defense: How did Wisconsin win nine games last year? The defense did the heavy lifting. The Badgers ranked No. 1 in the nation in yards allowed (240.8 per game) and No. 6 in scoring (16.4). Even after losing eight starters from that unit, coordinator Jim Leonhard will plug in new players and put another strong defense on the field, though not on last year’s elite level. Nick Herbig will be one of the Big Ten’s best linebackers, and Keeanu Benton will anchor the interior line. In a six-game span in the middle of last season, the Badgers held four opponents to seven points or fewer and did not allow more than 14 points in any game. There will be more new faces than usual, but there’s plenty of talent on the depth chart and Wisconsin still will win with its typically tough defense. 

Outlook: The Badgers are no longer dominant in the West. Iowa won the division last year while Wisconsin finished in a three-way tie for second with Minnesota and Purdue. It was not a bad year -- capped by a victory over Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl -- but Chryst is feeling pressure to turn things around on offense. Mertz has been a below-average quarterback and there’s no guarantee that Chryst can count on significant improvement from him. The running attack will carry the load and keep Wisconsin in the hunt while a young defense matures. The Badgers are fortunate to open with easy home games against Illinois State, Washington State and New Mexico State before a Sept. 24 trip to Ohio State. There is a path to nine wins in the regular season, but road games against Michigan State, Iowa and Nebraska will make it challenging for a Wisconsin team with lots of holes to fill and questions to answer.

Pick: Under 8.5

-- Matt Youmans

Minnesota

With 20 starters returning a year ago, Minnesota had the most potential to rise and surprise favored Wisconsin in the West. It sort of played out that way. The Gophers upset the Badgers 23-13 in the regular-season finale, putting both teams in a three-way tie for second with Purdue and clearing the path for Iowa to win the division. The Gophers will again be a major factor in the race.

Offense: Tanner Morgan should be one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks. He passed for 30 touchdowns in 2019 before his production slipped the past two years. Morgan threw for only 10 touchdowns with nine interceptions last season, but the Gophers still scored 20 points or more in eight of their nine conference games. He will have a chance to get off to a hot start with three consecutive home games against soft defenses (New Mexico State, Western Illinois, Colorado) in September. There is plenty of talent and depth at the running back position with Mohamed Ibrahim, Trey Potts and Bryce Williams. Ibrahim rushed for 163 yards in last year’s opener against Ohio State but went down with a season-ending injury. Six starters return, but only one on the offensive line, so that’s a concern. The line has been a strength for the Gophers in recent years, and this is a rebuild up front.

Defense: Six starters return from a unit that was outstanding last year, when Minnesota held seven of its Big Ten opponents to 23 points or fewer -- only Ohio State (45) and Iowa (27) scored more. The Gophers featured NFL talent on both lines and will miss star defensive end Boye Mafe, a second-round draft pick by the Seahawks. Now it’s time for 300-pound tackle Trill Carter and senior end Thomas Rush to lead the pass rush and run defense. After ranking ninth in the nation in scoring defense (18.3 points per game), Minnesota is expected to regress. The defense carried the team for the most part last year, but don’t expect a repeat performance.

Outlook: Like him or not, coach P.J. Fleck has earned a lot of respect in his five years in Minneapolis. Fleck went 11-2 in 2019 and 9-4 last year, capping each season with a bowl win. He’s cocky and displays an arrogance toward many of his Big Ten colleagues, something that makes Minnesota a target for some opponents. Fleck is 0-5 against Iowa, and he’s far from friendly with Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz. The Gophers host the Hawkeyes on Nov. 19 in a game that should mean a lot on both sides. Minnesota’s road games in league play are against Michigan State, Illinois, Penn State, Nebraska and Wisconsin, and it would not be surprising if the Gophers lose four of those five. This might not be the team that gets Fleck to the top of the West, mostly because the defense will not be as dominant. The offense is expected to be better behind Morgan and Ibrahim. The schedule is especially tricky on the road and too difficult overall to predict an eight-win season.

Pick: Under 7.5

-- Matt Youmans

Iowa

Some might say Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz does it with smoke and mirrors. He actually does it with defense, strong line play and a power ground attack. It’s seldom a sexy style but fundamental football still works. The Hawkeyes rose to No. 2 in the nation last year before getting exposed in losses to Purdue and Wisconsin. But guess what? Iowa still won 10 games and the West Division.

Offense: Spencer Petras returns as the starting quarterback, and we’ll call that good news, although some would disagree. Petras completed only 57.3% of his passes with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season, so he needs to be better. He’ll no longer have help from Tyler Goodson, who rushed for 1,151 yards. But Ferentz always builds a solid line and always finds talented running backs. Gavin Williams will take over for Goodson. Seven starters return on offense, including Sam LaPorta, arguably the top tight end in the conference. Iowa was held to seven points in each of its losses to the Badgers and Boilermakers, and the Hawkeyes were humiliated 42-3 by Michigan in the Big Ten title game. There are more questions about this offense than there were at this time last year, so that’s the bad news for Ferentz. Petras must step up.

Defense: The Hawkeyes finished in the nation’s top 15 in scoring defense (19.2 PPG) and run defense (114 YPG), and seven starters are coming back. Jack Campbell and Seth Benson are among the conference’s top linebackers, with Campbell compiling a team-high 143 tackles last season. Campbell’s style of play is similar to former Iowa linebacker stars Chad Greenway and Josey Jewell. Senior cornerback Riley Moss has the eyes of NFL scouts. This defense has playmakers and a chance to improve, and the defense will be the main reason if Iowa overachieves again. Last year, the Hawkeyes were an opportunistic plus-12 in turnover margin, a statistical category that tends to help stuff the win column.

Outlook: Ferentz enters his 24th year at Iowa as the longest-tenured FBS head coach in the nation, fooling skeptical prognosticators in many of those seasons. Look at the Hawkeyes’ records the past five years -- 10-4, 6-2, 10-3, 9-4 and 8-5 -- and it’s clear an eight-win regular season is considered a down season. The schedule sets up for another fast start with South Dakota State, Iowa State, Nevada and Rutgers in September. Iowa will be favored in four or five of its first six games, with an Oct. 1 home date against Michigan being by far the stiffest test. The schedule is not easy overall because the Hawkeyes will face Ohio State, Purdue and Minnesota on the road. It’s interesting to note Ferentz is 1-4 in the last five versus the Boilermakers and 5-0 in the last five versus the Gophers. Petras’ play could make or break this team in terms of topping its win total of 7.5. The defense will play its part. It has not been a profitable strategy to predict Ferentz will fall short.

Pick: Over 7.5

-- Matt Youmans

Nebraska 

Remember when Scott Frost was supposed to coach Nebraska back to relevance? He’s 15-29 in four years, so that has not come close to happening. But this could be the year, believe it or not. The Cornhuskers have reloaded through the transfer portal and their talent level is up. The quarterback position, a big problem in recent years, is where the turnaround should begin.

Offense: The Adrian Martinez era was an error. The turnover-riddled quarterback transferred to Kansas State, and Frost has upgraded by adding Texas transfer Casey Thompson. In 10 starts for the Longhorns last year, Thompson passed for 24 touchdowns. His backup will be Chubba Purdy, a Florida State transfer. The Thompson-led offense is creating a lot of hype and not solely due to him. The running back position is stocked with Rahmir Johnson, Markese Stepp and Gabe Ervin, and senior Omar Manning returns to lead the receiving corps. Three starters also come back on the offensive line, so more pieces are in place for a puzzle that’s coming together. Frost hired a new coordinator, Mark Whipple, who had a lot of success at Pittsburgh the past two years. Nebraska scored more than 30 points in only two games last season, but that’s about to change for the better.

Defense: Ten starters returned for last year’s defense, and the results were generally positive as the Cornhuskers allowed only 22.7 points per game. This defense brings back only five starters, so that’s a negative, but Frost knew he needed to reload in a hurry and has recruited well. Pass rusher Garrett Nelson and linebacker Luke Reimer are among the top defensive players in the conference. All of Nebraska’s nine losses last season were by single-digit margins, but offensive shortcomings attracted most of the blame. While this defense is not expected to be one of the Big Ten’s best, it should be good enough to give the Cornhuskers a shot to win more close games.

Outlook: If the Cornhuskers win the games they are expected to win, they should be 4-1 in early October, and that would mark significant progress. Victories over Northwestern, North Dakota, Georgia Southern and Indiana would be no reason to plan a parade. But with an upset of Oklahoma on Sept. 17, Frost could have the big-time signature win he has been chasing for five years. Ohio State and Penn State are not on the Big Ten schedule, so Nebraska catches a bit of a break in that regard. There are only two so-called certain losses on the schedule -- road games against Michigan and Iowa -- but the Cornhuskers were competitive last year in a 32-29 loss to the Wolverines and a 28-21 loss to the Hawkeyes, who have won seven straight in the rivalry. Thompson was an emerging star at Texas, so his arrival is expected to trigger a turnaround season. Nebraska’s records under Frost (3-9, 3-5, 5-7 and 4-8) make it difficult to forecast an eight-win regular season. The Cornhuskers look improved on paper yet must prove it on the field.

Pick: Under 7.5

-- Matt Youmans

Purdue

When expectations have been low, Purdue coach Jeff Brohm’s teams have overachieved. In 2017, he took over a program that hit rock bottom and went 7-6 with a bowl win. Last year, the Boilermakers upset Iowa, Michigan State and Tennessee to finish 9-4 with a bowl win. Expectations are elevated now, so how will Purdue perform in more of a favorite’s role?

Offense: Brohm is an innovative play caller and his pass-first offense has the right guy pulling the trigger. Aidan O’Connell threw for 3,712 yards and 28 touchdowns last season, including 534 yards and five TDs in the Music City Bowl. O’Connell’s passing accuracy (71.8% completions) makes him arguably the second-best quarterback in the Big Ten. O’Connell is a former walk-on who has had to earn everything. His top three receivers must be replaced, but wide receiver is Purdue’s deepest position group and star tight end Payne Durham does return. The Boilermakers always have trouble running the ball, yet three starting linemen return and Brohm probably has his most talented stable of running backs. Even after losing two NFL draft picks -- wideout David Bell and running back Zander Horvath -- this offense will reload. Purdue averaged 39 points in the final five games last season and should again post big numbers. 

Defense: The star power that’s missing is obvious. George Karlaftis was a first-round pick by the Chiefs, and the pass-rushing force will be tough to replace. Brohm made changes to his defensive staff last year and ordered a more aggressive approach that paid off. The Boilermakers allowed 22.4 points per game, the second-lowest average in Brohm’s five years. The defense pitched a shutout at Connecticut and held Iowa and Indiana to seven points each. On the downside, the Boilermakers were blasted for 59 points at Ohio State, but the Buckeyes fall off the schedule this year. This unit is not as strong without Karlaftis, but Purdue brings back seven starters and has a few potential stars in linebacker Jalen Graham, tackle Branson Deen and safety Cam Allen.

Outlook: Brohm’s signature win at Purdue was a blowout of No. 2 Ohio State in 2018. He knocked off another No. 2-ranked team, Iowa, on the road last year. The Boilermakers have an impressive track record of pulling upsets, and Brohm is best in the underdog role by going 20-6 ATS as a dog of four points or more. Purdue is a 3.5-point home dog in its Sept. 1 opener against Penn State and that game could set the theme for the season while going a long way in determining if the Boilermakers go Over or stay Under their win total of 7.5. The win total was only 5 last year, and that was a buy-low opportunity, but now the adjustment is significant. With a relatively soft schedule and an experienced quarterback in O’Connell, Purdue has the potential to win eight or nine games, but that’s probably too optimistic. In the most realistic scenario, the Boilermakers win seven games and contend in a competitive West Division.

Pick: Under 7.5

-- Matt Youmans

Illinois

It appears Bret Bielema, who coached Wisconsin to three Big Ten titles, is the right man for Illinois’ rebuilding job. After leaving Madison, Bielema was a bust at Arkansas and was booted from the SEC, but he knows how to win in this conference. He won four league games last year, his first in Champaign, and nearly got the Fighting Illini to a bowl with a 5-7 record. Six wins is a realistic goal for his second season.

Offense: A power running attack is Bielema’s calling card. The Illini return their top three rushers from a year ago, led by Chase Brown (1,005 yards) and Josh McCray (549). Brown rushed for 223 yards in Illinois’ 20-18 win at Penn State. Bielema knows he can count on the ground game and hopes he can get better quarterback production. Tommy DeVito, a Syracuse transfer, is the favorite to win the starting role with Artur Sitkowski, a Rutgers transfer, also in the mix. Isaiah Williams, a former quarterback, is a versatile athlete who switched to receiver and led the team with 47 receptions. When the lllini won three of their final five games last year, the offense was on the upswing and a 47-point outburst against Northwestern was the grand finale. Bielema has put together one of the league’s biggest, most imposing offensive lines. Brown, McCray and Williams are exciting playmakers who give the Illini a fighting chance. The quarterback will be the key if this team is to overachieve.

Defense: An offense that moves the ball on the ground and chews up clock is always beneficial to the defense, and that’s Bielema’s game plan. The Illinois defense was solid last year while holding eight of nine league opponents to 24 points or fewer. Six starters return, with junior linebacker Tarique Barnes and senior safety Sydney Brown being the headliners. The improvement in Illinois’ defense was evident by the results of two games against Penn State. In 2020, the Nittany Lions dropped 56 points on the Illini. In 2021, the Lions scored only 18 in a nine-overtime loss to the Illini. Minnesota presents one more example: Illinois allowed 41 points to the Gophers in 2020 and only six last year.

Outlook: Illinois might be the trickiest team in the league to predict. It’s possible almost everyone is sleeping on the Illini and they ride an outstanding running attack to surprisingly positive results. It’s also possible the quarterback play is below average, the defense declines and this is the worst team in the West. Bielema’s rebuilding project could be a year away. Still, there’s enough offensive talent to suggest Illinois can win five or six games. The first third of the schedule is weak -- Wyoming, Indiana, Virginia, Chattanooga -- and a 4-0 start is within reach. Expect the Illini to pull a home upset or two in league play. Illinois was a 24-point underdog in its win at Penn State last year, so Bielema is onto something after the five-year Lovie Smith era produced no winning seasons.

Pick: Over 4.5

-- Matt Youmans

Northwestern

In two of the last three seasons, Northwestern finished 3-9. In the middle of the three-win sandwich was the 2020 season, when the Wildcats went 7-2 with a West Division title and Citrus Bowl win. Pat Fitzgerald, who enters his 17th year as coach of the Cats, has been good at bouncing back from bad years, but the odds are stacked against him.

Offense: There was nothing good about Northwestern’s offense last year. It was all bad and ugly. The Wildcats never found a capable quarterback and failed to score more than 14 points in any of their final six games -- all six were losses and five were blowouts. Ryan Hilinski, a South Carolina transfer, is expected to win the starting quarterback job in his second year in the program. If Hilinski falters, Fitzgerald has three prospects who are ready to step up and compete, so the QB picture is more promising. Sophomore running back Evan Hull is back after rushing for 1,009 yards and seven touchdowns, and junior wideout Malik Washington is a proven playmaker. Nine starters are back, including five on the line, so the Wildcats are stronger up front and should be able to run with more success. Don’t expect a fireworks show, but the offense looks much improved from last year’s fiasco.

Defense: Fitzgerald is a former linebacker and an old-school coach who wins when he has an effective running attack and blue-collar defense. A miserable offense put the defense in too many tough situations last year, when Northwestern allowed an average of 37.4 points in its eight conference losses. The Wildcats did beat Rutgers 21-7, so there was one positive. Only five starters return, but the defense should be stronger with linebacker Bryce Gallagher leading the way. Aside from Gallagher and edge rusher Adetomiwa Adebawore, who are among the Big Ten’s best defenders, Fitzgerald will need to find some answers with new faces. He’s got some time to figure it out because the first month is the softest part of the schedule.

Outlook: The Wildcats’ wins last year came against Indiana State, Ohio and Rutgers, so there was little to brag about. The good news is Northwestern could equal or top that three-win total by the end of September, with nonconference home games against Duke, Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio). Don’t assume Northwestern will lose to Nebraska in the Aug. 27 opener in Dublin, Ireland, considering the Cornhuskers’ tendency to disappoint. The schedule gets considerably tougher in October and there are no soft spots until the Wildcats host Illinois in a November finale. The program appears to be on a downward spiral and the decline has a lot to do with poor quarterback play. Hilinski, who looked good in his freshman year at South Carolina, could solve the problem. Four is the right win total for Northwestern and it takes courage to bet Over that number. Fitzgerald might have a couple surprises up his sleeve, so this is a slight lean to call for five wins.

Pick: Over 4

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