Big Ten East Could Be As Strong As It's Ever Been In 2018

By Dan Hope on July 18, 2018 at 8:35 am
Penn State vs. Michigan in 2017

Matthew O'Haren – USA TODAY Sports

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If Ohio State is going to repeat as conference champions, make the College Football Playoff and compete for a national championship this season, the Buckeyes are going to have to get through college football’s toughest division first.

With four teams who all have a real chance to be among the best teams in the country, the Big Ten East is poised to be the most competitive division in college football this season – and as strong as it’s ever been.

Ohio State is widely considered the frontrunner to win the East, and the conference as a whole, with a roster that is once again one of the most talented in the country. The Buckeyes are replacing starting quarterback J.T. Barrett, but Dwayne Haskins could prove to be an upgrade. J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber could be the best running back tandem in the country. The Buckeyes are loaded with experience at wide receiver and expected to be strong once again on the offensive line. Nick Bosa leads a star-studded defensive line, and while there are question marks at linebacker and in the secondary, there’s plenty of players with the potential to emerge as stars in the defensive back seven.

Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State, however, all look like legitimate contenders whose own potential to win the division and the conference – and potentially even make the playoff – shouldn’t be discounted.

Penn State, of course, defeated Ohio State for the Big Ten East crown in 2016 – and ultimately won the conference title – by virtue of upsetting the Buckeyes in Happy Valley that year. If not for a 19-point fourth quarter by Ohio State to come back against the Nittany Lions at Ohio Stadium last year, Penn State would have won the Big Ten East again in 2017.

The Nittany Lions could take a step back in 2018 with the departures of three of their top offensive playmakers – running back Saquon Barkley, wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki – and eight starters on defense. That said, they still have Trace McSorley at quarterback and have recruited enough talent around him – including Miles Sanders, the nation’s top recruit at his position in the class of 2016, at running back – to avoid a major drop-off.

Michigan, on the other hand, appears poised to take a step forward. The Wolverines’ first three seasons under Jim Harbaugh have been somewhat disappointing, as they have lost at least two conference games each year and went just 5-4 in Big Ten play last year. Last year, however, the Wolverines were replacing the majority of their starters after having 11 players selected in the 2017 NFL draft. This year, the Wolverines return most of their top players on both sides of the ball, and are expected to upgrade in a big way at quarterback with the addition of Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson.

The Wolverines have won just three out of nine combined games against Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State over the last three years, so questions remain about whether Harbaugh can lead Michigan to wins in big games. That said, the Wolverines’ defense has the talent to be as great as any defense in the entire country, while improved quarterback play should also enable the offense to make a big leap.

Michigan State, meanwhile, is the conference’s quietly dangerous team that shouldn’t be overlooked. The Spartans don’t have as many stars as the Buckeyes, Nittany Lions or Wolverines, but they are loaded with experience – returning 10 starters on offense and nine on defense – and Mark Dantonio’s teams typically play above their talent level.

As such, the expectations for each of the Big Ten East’s top four teams are high going into the 2018 season. Phil Steele ranks Ohio State third, Michigan 11th, Penn State 12th and Michigan State 13th in his College Football Preview magazine's preseason top 40, and he had more praise for each of those four teams during a radio interview with 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland on Tuesday.

It’s nothing new for Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State to all be expected to be good – and it’s not a huge statement to say the Big Ten East could be better than ever before, considering the Big Ten’s East and West divisions have only been a thing since 2014 – but if all of those teams finish the season in the top 25 like they are expected to, it would be the first time all four schools did so (per the AP poll) since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993.

Even the bottom half of the Big Ten East looks poised to be as competitive as it’s been this year. While it would be a major upset if Indiana, Maryland or Rutgers beat any of the division’s top four teams this year, let alone contended for a division title, all of them have the potential to be better in 2018.

Maryland and Rutgers haven’t been competitive since joining the conference in 2014, but as former Urban Meyer assistant D.J. Durkin enters his third season coaching the Terrapins and former Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash enters his third season coaching the Scarlet Knights, both of their teams are expected to make strides. The Hoosiers, entering their second season coached by Tom Allen, add an intriguing dual-threat graduate transfer quarterback in Brandon Dawkins and will look to get back above .500 after finishing 5-7 last season.

Ultimately, though, the Big Ten East race is likely to be determined by how the Buckeyes, Nittany Lions, Wolverines and Spartans perform in their head-to-head games with one another.

Head-To-Head Games Between The Big Ten East's “Big Four”
Date (Time) Visiting Team Home Team
9/29/18 OHIO STATE PENN STATE
10/13/18 MICHIGAN STATE PENN STATE
10/20/18 MICHIGAN MICHIGAN STATE
11/3/18 PENN STATE MICHIGAN
11/10/18 OHIO STATE MICHIGAN STATE
11/24/18 MICHIGAN OHIO STATE

Winning the Big Ten East, of course, is just one step to winning a conference title. The Big Ten West doesn’t have the depth of contenders that the East does, but the division’s prohibitive favorite – Wisconsin – is also considered to be a playoff contender, ranked sixth in Steele’s preseason top 40 and as high as No. 3 overall in preseason rankings by USA TODAY’s Paul Myerberg.

Ohio State and Michigan State have the advantage of not having to play the Badgers during the regular season, while Michigan and Penn State will both host Wisconsin for regular-season games, but it’s likely the path to a conference title for the Big Ten East winner will ultimately go through the Badgers in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis.

Altogether, the Big Ten looks as though it could be college football’s most competitive conference – at least at the top – in 2018.

“I think the conference is really strong, probably the strongest it’s been that I can remember being a fan of the Big Ten,” former Ohio State linebacker and current Big Ten Network analyst James Laurinaitis told Eleven Warriors in an interview last week.

The division that has often been regarded as college football’s best, the SEC West, could certainly make a case for that throne once again this year, as well. Beyond Alabama being the obvious favorite at the top, Auburn could be a playoff dark-horse with returning quarterback Jarrett Stidham leading the way; Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow could make LSU a contender; Texas A&M has a talented roster with an accomplished new head coach in Jimbo Fisher; and Mississippi State is projected to be a top-25 team as well.

There’s still a level of separation between Alabama and the rest of those teams, however, that would make it a surprise for anyone but the Crimson Tide to prevail. If another team manages to best them to win the division title – which Auburn did last year, even though Alabama went on to win the national championship – it would still come as a shock if Alabama finished any lower than second in the division standings.

In the Big Ten East, however, it’s realistic that the division’s top four teams could finish the season in any order, and no outcome should come as a shock. That should make for an exciting season once again as the Buckeyes, Wolverines, Spartans and Nittany Lions battle for a chance to compete for a conference championship and potentially, a national championship.

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