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2017 Big 10 Football Preview: East Division

Ryan Mayer

College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, bowl teams, non-bowl teams and rebuilding. The tiers are fairly self-explanatory. Contenders means these teams will push for the division/conference title. Bowl teams are expected to be in the conversation for a bowl bid, non-bowl teams aren’t. Rebuilding teams are in the process of attempting to get into contention/the push for a bow bid. At the end, we’ll give you our thoughts on the team’s wins based on Bovada’s Win Totals for the season.

Entering last season, all of the conversation was about the three traditional powers from the last five years: Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. Instead, James Franklin and Penn State rose up to take the division crown and the Big Ten title thanks to a nine game winning streak after a 2-2 start. This season, the Nittany Lions have supplanted the Spartans in preseason talk of contenders, but they’ll once again have to battle the behemoths in Columbus and Ann Arbor.

Contenders

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J.T. Barrett #16 of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Credit: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Ohio State Buckeyes

Despite Penn State winning the conference, the Buckeyes earned a spot in the College Football Playoff by virtue of their 11-1 record. Those who didn’t agree with the decision got plenty of further ammunition after the Buckeyes were blanked, 31-0 by Clemson in the semifinal. This season, despite the usual early departures for the NFL, Meyer has a group once again capable of double-digit wins and a Big Ten title.

QB J.T. Barrett returns for his senior season and his production should increase after tailing off over the final three games of last season. He’s complimented in the backfield by sophomore running back Mike Weber, who capably filled the shoes of Ezekiel Elliott in his freshman season carrying 182 times for 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns. Barrett was the No. 2 rusher, but the Buckeyes do lose versatile RB/WR Curtis Samuel, who led the team in receiving, along with their other top two receivers. There are still plenty of highly talented youngsters waiting to step into the limelight so I wouldn’t expect much of a drop in production from the passing game. The line does lose its leader in Pat Elflein, but the other four starters return and Ohio State should be right around Meyer’s usual 35+ points and 400+ yards per game.

On defense, the secondary saw the heaviest losses in terms of departures this offseason as the Buckeyes had three first round picks (Gareon Conley, Marshon Lattimore, Malik Hooker) and they also lost LB Raekwon McMillan (2nd round pick). Everybody else is back which means the highly talented and deep defensive line is back intact with key pass rushers Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis and Nick Bosa. At linebacker, Jerome Baker and Chris Worley return and while the secondary will likely take a small step back due to the loss of so much talent, this unit should still be one of the best in the country.

The schedule opens with a pair of interesting games with the Buckeyes traveling to Indiana and hosting Oklahoma back-to-back. Then, there’s a bit of a break before home games against Penn State and Michigan State in late October-early November and the always heated rivalry game against Michigan in Ann Arbor. I think this veteran laden group is even better than last year’s team and will make the playoffs again. Over 10.5 wins

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Running back Saquon Barkley #26 of the Penn State Nittany Lions. Credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Penn State Nittany Lions

As mentioned in the intro, the Nittany Lions were the surprise team of the conference last year. This season, they go from being the hunter to the hunted. The offense has most of last year’s group back while the defense has some holes to fill. Still, James Franklin and company should be right in contention again for the division crown.

The offense loses one starter on the offensive line and top wide receiver Chris Godwin. That’s it. They get back junior QB Trace McSorely, Heisman-candidate running back Saquon Barkley and the entire rest of their receiving corps outside of Godwin. In year one under coordinator Joe Moorhead, the Lions rolled up 37.6 PPG and 433 yards per game. This season with the explosive McSorely-Barkley combination back, the Lions should once against be a dominant offense.

On defense, things are a little more murky. The top two pass rushers from last year’s team, DEs Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels, both depart as does No. 2 tackler LB Brandon Bell and No. 4 tackler S Malik Golden. The Lions lost an expected starter in corner John Reid when he tore his ACL in the spring. There are some stars returning as No. 1 tackler Marcus Allen and No. 3 tackler Jason Cabinda are back for their senior seasons and should provide solid leadership on this unit. One thing to keep in mind is that the linebacking corps was ravaged by injuries last year with all three starters out in the blowout loss to Michigan. That means that a lot of guys got playing experience, which provides better depth in the absence of some of last year’s leaders. All in all, the Lions should at least match last year’s 25.4 PPG and 368 YPG.

The schedule is the obstacle to contention however as in a three week stretch, the Lions face Michigan (10/21), hit the road to Ohio State (10/28) and face Michigan State in East Lansing (11/4). That stretch will be key to winning this division and if they sweep it, they’ll likely accomplish that goal. I don’t see that happening, but I still have them pegged for double-digit wins. Over 9.5 wins.

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Wilton Speight #3 of the Michigan Wolverines. Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Michigan Wolverines

Jim Harbaugh’s raised the expectations of Wolverines fans from the moment that he stepped on campus. After back-to-back seasons with 10-3 records, the Michigan fans are dreaming of playoffs and title games. But, this is a lightly experienced group this year which could be a year away from national title aspirations.

Wilton Speight is back at QB after a sophomore season in which he completed 61.6 percent of his passes for 2,538 yards with 18 TDs and 7 INTs. Speight, along with a pair of senior offensive linemen and sophomore guard Ben Bredeson are the lone starters back from last year. And the offense is actually the more experienced group. Harbaugh has done very well in recruiting, so there’s plenty of talent, it’s just young. The No. 2, 3, and 4 rushers are back in Chris Evans, Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac (1,456 yards 15 TD combined) so the running game should be okay with three veteran linemen in front of them. The passing game is more uncertain, though the additions of freshman Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones (four and five-star respectively) should provide instant impact. The numbers will likely be down from last year’s 40 points and 425 yards per game.

The defense was one of the most dominant units in the country last year allowing opponents just 14.1 points and an astounding 262 yards per game. Those great numbers are unlikely to happen again as 10(!) starters depart, eight of which had their names called in April. There is good news as there are a plethora of top recruits on this side of the ball too. Last year’s top prospect, Rashan Gary, returns for his sophomore season and alongside DTs Bryan Mone and Maurice Hurst should make for a solid defensive line. LB Mike McCray is back as the lone returning starter and he has former three and four-star recruits Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson likely joining him in the starting group. The secondary is a bigger question mark with the top five guys from last year departing. This unit is still talented, but it’s very young.

Unlike the Buckeyes and Lions, the Wolverines draw Wisconsin out of the West and it’s on the road in Madison. In addition, they have to play Penn State on the road and a very good Florida team at a neutral site in Arlington to open the season. While super talented, the schedule has me looking right at nine regular season wins. I could be wrong, I just think they’re one year away. Push 9 wins.

Bowl Teams

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Quarterback Richard Lagow #21 of the Indiana Hoosiers. Credit: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Indiana Hoosiers

The Hoosiers have made back-to-back bowl appearances, losing both, and finishing with 6-7 records the past two seasons. Head coach Kevin Wilson was let go in the offseason, and the administration elevated defensive coordinator Tom Allen in his place. That maintains the continuity in the program and, with 15 starters back, the Hoosiers could make some noise in the East.

New offensive coordinator Mike DeBord takes over a group that averaged 25.8 PPG last season and has six starters back. Senior QB Richard Lagow returns, and if his accuracy improves (57.8%) and he cut down on the interceptions (17), he’ll be even more dangerous this year with top receiver Nick Westbrook (955 yards 6 TD 18.4 avg) back. The running game and offensive line are a bit of a question mark as RB Devine Redding left early for the NFL and the line loses three starters. The line was pretty banged up last year, so the backups who are now starters did see playing time and, overall, the numbers should improve.

Under Allen last season, the defense cut their points per game allowed from 37.6 in 2015 to 27.2 last season with the yards dropping from 509 to 380. As Allen moves to head coach, Mark Hagen takes his place as coordinator, and there are nine starters back from that solid unit last year. The star is Tegray Scales who racked up 126 tackles, 16.5 TFL, and seven sacks last season. Along with Scales, keep an eye on CB Rashard Fant who had 17 PBU last season with three interceptions. This unit should make another leap forward with so many veterans returning.

The Hoosiers could make noise right out of the gate when they host Ohio State, but that game is likely a loss. They then have to face Penn State and Michigan State on the road with home games against Michigan and Wisconsin. I think they’ll improve in the win column, just not enough to contend. Over 6 wins.

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LJ Scott #3 of the Michigan State Spartans. Credit: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Michigan State Spartans

The Spartans were expected to take a step back last season with the number of departures they had, but the 3-9 record was surprising. Mark Dantonio has done a nice job of contending with a lower-level of recruits than Ohio State and Michigan in the past, but this season could be another challenging one due to the dismissal of multiple players this offseason after allegations of sexual assault surfaced.

The Spartans have just eight returning starters overall, four on each side of the ball. At QB, they lose last year’s starter in Tyler O’Connor, but sophomore Brian Lewerke saw some time last season and seems likely to step into the full-time starting role. He’ll have a trio of returning backs in LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes, and Madre London with him in the backfield and all three are capable of big plays with Scott falling just short of 1,000 yards last season. The receiving corps is going to be almost brand new as the top four guys from last year are gone and Felton Davis is the top guy returning with just 12 catches for 150 yards and 1 TD last season. The offensive line loses four guys who started six or more games last season and returns just one full-time starter in center Brian Allen. This unit will have a tough time improving on last year’s 24.1 PPG.

Defensively, the Spartans lose three starters along the line, All Big 10 LB Riley Bullough, and three starters from the secondary. The good news is, they return top tackler Chris Frey (96) and fellow linebacker Andrew Dowell (67 tackles). Also, they get corner Vayante Copeland back from injury, which should help the young secodary led by sophomore Justin Layne. Dantonio usually has stingy defenses, last year’s 27.8 PPG allowed was the highest of his era, but this group could struggle to improve on those numbers.

The schedule is no help with road games against Michigan, Northwestern, and Ohio State and home games against Notre Dame, Indiana and Penn State. Under 6.5 wins.

Non-Bowl Teams/Rebuilding

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Ty Johnson #6 of the Maryland Terrapins. Credit: Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Maryland Terrapins

DJ Durkin did a great job getting the Terrapins to a bowl game in his first season, but this year he’s got a more difficult task ahead of him. The schedule is much more difficult, and a bowl game looks unlikely this season.

The offense was decent last season, putting up 25.8 points and 378 yards per game, but last year’s starting QB Perry Hills is gone. Durkin did add UNC transfer Caleb Henderson, and he’ll battle true freshman Kasim Hill for the job. Whoever wins the job will have a veteran line with three starters back in front of him, and last year’s top running back Ty Johnson (1,004 yards 6 TD) and wide receiver (DJ Moore, 637 yards 6 TD) back. Despite the loss of Hills and breaking in a new QB, the Terps should improve on this side of the ball in 2017.

On defense, things looked good early against a bad out of conference slate when Maryland allowed just 17 points per game and then they opened up conference play with a 50-7 blowout against Purdue. After that? things took a downturn, with the Terps allowing 37.5 points per game over the final eight games. This year, they return their top three tacklers, and lose just four starters. Linebackers Shane Cockerille and Jermaine Carter are the leaders and they should get this unit to better numbers this season. At the very least, they shouldn’t be blown out against Michigan and Ohio State again (59 and 62 points respectively).

The schedule, which was fairly easy last year, is much more difficult this season with out of conference games against Texas and UCF. Then, in conference, they face road games against Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State with home games against Northwestern, Indiana, Michigan and Penn State. By the way, those conference games come in an eight week stretch that’s only broken up by a game against Rutgers in the Bronx. It’s a brutal slate. Under 3.5 wins.

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Janarion Grant #1 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Credit: Elsa/Getty Images

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Rutgers had a disastrous 2016 season going 2-10 with those two wins coming against Howard and New Mexico. In conference play, the Scarlet Knights were outscored by an average of 30(!) points per game en route to an 0-9 conference record. Chris Ash’s group should be improved in 2017, but they’ll likely still be in the basement of the conference.

The offense was one of the worst in the country last year averaging just 15.7 points and 283 yards per game. It didn’t help that their biggest weapon, wide receiver Janarion Grant, was lost for the year after four games. QB Giovanni Rescigno returns, but he’ll be challenged by Louisville transfer Kyle Bolin and freshman Johnathan Lewis. Top running back Robert Martin is back (625 yards 2 TD), but the offensive line loses three starters from last year’s group. In addition to getting Grant back healthy, sophomore wide receiver Jawuan Harris returns after leading the team in receiving last year. New offensive coordinator Jerry Kill should get improvement from this group and, it’s difficult to be less productive than last year.

Defensively, Rutgers allowed 40 points per game in conference play and were shutout four times by Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State with a combined score of 224-0. Yeah, that’s….not ideal. This season, the biggest losses are on the defensive line where a pair of starters are gone as is safety Anthony Cioffi. The top two tacklers return and the linebacker corps should hopefully be healthier and will be more experienced. Again, the numbers should improve, the question is by how much.

The schedule offers a couple more opportunities to get wins as Purdue jumps on the schedule replacing Minnesota. But, the Knights still face Washington, Ohio State, and Michigan State at home. And they have road games against Nebraska, Michigan, Penn State and Indiana. They could certainly improve in the win column though the deficit against Big 10 teams was huge last year. Push 3 wins.

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