In consecutive seasons, Michigan has bludgeoned its way to wins over Ohio State, secured back-to-back Big Ten titles and frequented the College Football Playoff for the first and second times in school history.
The only program with a better résumé during that stretch is Georgia, the two-time defending national champions.
With the amount of talent head coach Jim Harbaugh returns in 2023 — headlined by quarterback J.J. McCarthy and tailbacks Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards — there’s little reason to think the Wolverines won’t repeat those feats for the third season running.
Harbaugh believes his roster is so deep that Michigan could have 20 players drafted next April, a number that would shatter the NFL record for the most from one school in a single year.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is why the Wolverines will win the Big Ten again this season.
Here’s a breakdown of every team in the league, listed in predicted order of finish:
BIG TEN EAST
Coach: Jim Harbaugh
Last year: 13-1 overall, 9-0 Big Ten
Postseason: Lost to TCU in national semifinal
Key players: QB J.J. McCarthy, RB Blake Corum, RB Donovan Edwards, DT Kris Jenkins
What we’re watching: The Wolverines are seeking a third consecutive Big Ten title for the first time since the early 1990s. They’re also chasing a third straight outright league title for the first time in school history.
What success looks like: After back-to-back losses in the national semifinals — first to Georgia in 2021, then to TCU in 2022 — Michigan is fighting to get over the hump and make its first championship game appearance in the CFP era.
Achilles’ heel: On offense, the Wolverines have plenty of depth at wide receiver but lack an elite playmaker at that position. On defense, the cornerback depth is suspect behind Freshman All-American Will Johnson and savvy veteran Mike Sainristil.
X-factor: Can McCarthy develop into a high-level passer? Will the coaching staff let him given the potency of Michigan’s running game? The only Wolverine quarterbacks to throw for 3,000 yards in the Harbaugh era were Shea Patterson in 2019 and Jake Rudock in 2015.
Why Michigan is ‘deeper than they have ever been’ Ohio State
Coach: Ryan Day
Last year: 11-2 overall, 8-1 Big Ten
Postseason: Lost to Georgia in national semifinal
Key players: WR Marvin Harrison Jr., RB TreVeyon Henderson, EDGE JT Tuimoloau, LB Tommy Eichenberg
What we’re watching: After two incredible seasons from quarterback C.J. Stroud, who threw for more than 8,000 yards and 85 touchdowns, the Buckeyes are welcoming a new starter into the mix after a lengthy battle between Kyle McCord and Devin Brown stretched across the spring and into fall camp. Whoever wins will be under significant pressure this season.
What success looks like: In a micro sense, Ohio State is aiming to avoid a third consecutive loss to Michigan, which hasn’t won three straight games against the Buckeyes since 1995-97. In a macro sense, Day would love to match his predecessor, Urban Meyer, by bringing a national title to Columbus.
Achilles’ heel: As ever, there are questions about the defense after the Buckeyes allowed 87 points and 1,063 yards in their final two games against Georgia and Michigan last season. It falls to second-year coordinator Jim Knowles to eliminate big plays.
X-factor: The health of Henderson, the team’s star running back. He appeared in just eight games last season due to a lingering foot injury that eventually required surgery and never looked comfortable.
Coach: James Franklin
Last year: 11-2 overall, 7-2 Big Ten
Postseason: Beat Utah in the Rose Bowl
Key players: QB Drew Allar, RB Nicholas Singleton, CB Kalen King, LB Abdul Carter
What we’re watching: After nine seasons in Happy Valley, where nearly 94,000 season tickets were sold by the end of July, Franklin has assembled the most talented roster he’s ever had. This might be Penn State’s best chance to topple Michigan and Ohio State to reach the Big Ten title game for the first time since 2016.
What success looks like: The Nittany Lions beat every Big Ten team they faced last season outside of Michigan and Ohio State. Upending the hierarchy in what’s expected to be a loaded Big Ten East would be a major step forward for the program.
Achilles’ heel: Other than the schedule, which is out of Penn State’s control, the biggest impediment over the last few seasons has been the passing game. Questions abound regarding Allar, the former five-star prospect, and which players will step forward after losing three of the top four receivers from 2022.
X-factor: It’s all about what Allar can do. Seven combined seasons of quarterbacks Trace McSorley and Sean Clifford have given way to the kind of bona fide NFL prospect Penn State lacked at that position.
Coach: Mike Locksley
Last year: 8-5 overall, 4-5 Big Ten
Postseason: Beat N.C. State in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl
Key players: QB Taulia Tagovailoa, RB Roman Hemby, TE Corey Dyches, CB Ja’Quan Sheppard
What we’re watching: The final season for Tagovailoa, who already holds 11 school records and has more statistical accomplishments than any quarterback in the Big Ten. He’ll try to get the Terrapins to a third straight bowl game for the first time in over a decade.
What success looks like: The arrow continues pointing up for Maryland under Locksley. He’s improved the Terrapins from two wins in 2020 to seven wins in 2021 and then eight wins last season. Finishing above .500 in conference play, which the program has never done since joining the Big Ten, is a logical next hurdle.
Achilles’ heel: An offensive line that ranked tied for 121st with 43 sacks allowed last season is being completely rebuilt in 2023. The Terrapins lost four starters who had more than 130 combined starts. The lone holdover, Delmar Glaze, is moving from right tackle to left tackle.
X-factor: The health of Tagovailoa, who routinely battles injuries because of questionable offensive line play and his scrambling style. If the Terrapins can keep him upright, the outlook is bright in College Park.
Coach: Mel Tucker
Last year: 5-7 overall, 3-6 Big Ten
Key players: RB Jalen Berger, WR Tre Mosley, LB Jacoby Windmon, LB Cal Haladay
What we’re watching: How Tucker responds to the pressure following a dreadful 2022 campaign. Tucker, who is entering his fourth season at Michigan State, has posted a losing record in three of his four years as a head coach dating to his brief stint at Colorado.
What success looks like: Getting the Spartans to six wins and a bowl game would indicate that Tucker can still right the ship, that his 11-win season in 2021 wasn’t simply lightning in a bottle. A difficult non-conference game against No. 10 Washington puts an even greater emphasis on avoiding slipups in Big Ten play.
Achilles’ heel: Two years ago, Michigan State ranked last among FBS schools in passing defense by allowing 324.8 yards per game. Last year, the secondary jumped to 87th nationally and cut that average to 239.4 yards per game. But that still placed the Spartans 13th in the Big Ten ahead of lowly Indiana. They need to take another step in 2023.
X-factor: Newcomers from the transfer portal. Once again, Tucker swung big in the portal by adding 15 players to his roster. Former Texas A&M defensive tackle Tunmise Adeleye (No. 35 overall in the 247Sports transfer rankings) was this year’s crown jewel.
Coach: Greg Schiano
Last year: 4-8 overall, 1-8 Big Ten
Key players: QB Gavin Wimsatt, TE Johnny Langan, DE Aaron Lewis, CB Max Melton
What we’re watching: During Schiano’s first stint with the Scarlet Knights, from 2001-11, it took four losing seasons before he finally posted a winning record in Year 5. But that was in the now-defunct Big East. Life is tougher in the Big Ten, where Schiano has averaged just two conference wins per season since returning to Rutgers in 2020.
What success looks like: Anything north of four wins would be impressive considering a tricky non-conference slate that features games against Virginia Tech, Temple and Wagner. The Scarlet Knights haven’t won more than five games in a season since 2014.
Achilles’ heel: Finding consistency at quarterback remains one of the biggest challenges for Schiano, who added veteran offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca to his staff for 2023. Rutgers ranked 124th nationally in passing offense last season, one spot behind lowly Iowa and last in the Big Ten.
X-factor: The jury is still out on Wimsatt, a former four-star prospect at quarterback and the 14th-best recruit in program history since 247Sports began tracking data in 2000. He completed just 44.8% of his passes last season and threw more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (five) in six starts.
Coach: Tom Allen
Last year: 4-8 overall, 2-7 Big Ten
Key players: RB Jaylin Lucas, WR Cam Camper, DE Andre Carter, LB Aaron Casey
What we’re watching: Can Allen rally the troops after back-to-back deflating seasons zapped the momentum he gained from finishing 8-5 in 2019 and 6-2 in 2020? A massive contract extension signed after the pandemic-shortened ’20 campaign — and the corresponding massive buyout — is one of the only things keeping Allen afloat.
What success looks like: Anything better than last place in the Big Ten East would be a decent finish for the Hoosiers, who open the season against No. 3 Ohio State. Non-conference games against Indiana State and Akron present two surefire chances for victories, but it’s hard to find many other spots on the schedule where Allen’s team will prevail.
Achilles’ heel: Ever since Michael Penix Jr. transferred to Washington following the 2021 season, the Hoosiers have been searching for an answer at quarterback. Former Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak lasted just one season at Indiana before entering the portal a second time, and former four-star prospect Donaven McCulley has been converted to wide receiver.
X-factor: Diminutive tailback Jaylin Lucas (5-foot-9, 170 pounds) is one of the better weapons in the Big Ten. He returned two kicks for touchdowns to earn All-America honors last season and averaged 5.5 yards per carry on 49 attempts.
BIG TEN WEST
Coach: Luke Fickell
Last year: 7-6 overall, 4-5 Big Ten
Postseason: Beat Oklahoma State in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl
Key players: QB Tanner Mordecai, RB Braelon Allen, CB Ricardo Hallman, LB Maema Njongmeta
What we’re watching: The debut of offensive coordinator Phil Longo, formerly of North Carolina, who is overhauling the traditional run-heavy Wisconsin system and replacing it with an Air Raid scheme built around Mordecai, the highly productive transfer from SMU.
What success looks like: Only once in Fickell’s career has he won fewer than nine games in a season, and that was during his first year at Cincinnati in 2017. Since then, Fickell has averaged 10.6 wins per season and exceeded 10 wins three times. He has more talent at Wisconsin than he did when taking over the Bearcats, so nine wins feels like a reasonable threshold for his debut with the Badgers.
Achilles’ heel: Traditionally, the biggest detractor at Wisconsin has been shoddy quarterback play and limited weapons at wide receiver. Fickell and Longo addressed those concerns by bringing in Mordecai and several talented wideouts from the portal: C.J. Williams from USC, Will Pauling from Cincinnati and Bryson Green from Oklahoma State to name a few. The question now is whether they can produce for the Badgers.
X-factor: Hallman was one of the top performers during spring practice. He snagged a handful of interceptions — including three during Wisconsin’s equivalent of a spring game — and appears to have the necessary moxie to become a lockdown corner.
Coach: Kirk Ferentz
Last year: 8-5 overall, 5-4 Big Ten
Postseason: Beat Kentucky in the Transperfect Music City Bowl
Key players: QB Cade McNamara, TE Luke Lachey, CB Cooper DeJean, DE Joe Evans
What we’re watching: All eyes will be on offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, the head coach’s son who had his base salary lowered and contract revised after a disastrous showing last season. The Hawkeyes must average at least 25 points per game and win at least seven games for him to return to his previous two-year rolling contract.
What success looks like: Success for Brian Ferentz is outlined above, but a successful season for the Hawkeyes would mean a return to the Big Ten Championship game for the second time in three years. The defense and special teams should be steady as ever, while the addition of McNamara at quarterback might prove to be the missing piece on offense.
Achilles’ heel: Not unlike Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes have been plagued by inconsistency at quarterback and questionable talent on the perimeter. Iowa doubled down on its reputation as Tight End ‘U’ by adding former Michigan standout Erick All in the transfer portal and former blue-chip recruit Kaleb Brown from Ohio State. Is that enough to inject some life into the passing game?
X-factor: Safety Xavier Nwankpa, a former five-star recruit, played sparingly as a true freshman last season but turned the first interception of his career into a pick-6 in the Music City Bowl. He’s expected to play a pivotal role this season after losing All-American Kaevon Merriweather to graduation.
Coach: Bret Bielema
Last year: 8-5 overall, 5-4 Big Ten
Postseason: Lost to Mississippi State in the Reliaquest Bowl
Key players: WR Isaiah Williams, LT Julian Pearl, DT Jer’Zhan Newton, LB Gabe Jacas
What we’re watching: The Illini enjoyed their best season in 15 years by finishing 8-5 in 2022 and coming within a whisper of the Big Ten title game. Can that momentum be carried forward in 2023? Or was Illinois’ success the product of catching lightning in a bottle with elite running back Chase Brown (fifth-round pick) and the defensive back trio of Devon Witherspoon (first-round pick), Jartavius Martin (second-round pick) and Sydney Brown (third-round pick) all peaking at the right time?
What success looks like: Illinois hasn’t had back-to-back winning seasons since Ron Zook was prowling the sideline in 2010-11. The Illini haven’t had back-to-back eight-win seasons since John Mackovic was in charge in 1989-90. Bielema will be a hero if he can orchestrate a repeat of last year’s performance.
Achilles’ heel: The Illini are preparing to introduce a third starting quarterback in as many seasons after Bielema dipped into the transfer portal for Luke Altmyer from Ole Miss. Perhaps Bielema hits again the way he did with former Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito in 2022, but eventually, Illinois needs to find a potential multi-year starter.
X-factor: Running back Josh McCray carried 112 times for 549 yards and two scores as a true freshman in 2021 before suffering an injury early last season. Without Brown, who rushed for 1,643 yards and 10 touchdowns, the Illini need McCray to return to form.
RJ’s Preseason Top 25 revealed: Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State on top Minnesota
Coach: P.J. Fleck
Last year: 9-4 overall, 5-4 Big Ten
Postseason: Beat Syracuse in the Bad Boy Mowers Pinstripe Bowl
Key players: QB Athan Kaliakmanis, RB Sean Tyler, TE Brevyn Spann-Ford, S Tyler Nubin
What we’re watching: The Gophers enter the season with plenty of questions to answer on offense after two long-time staples of the Fleck era moved on in running back Mohamed Ibrahim (three 1,000-yard seasons) and quarterback Tanner Morgan (50 career appearances). How will Minnesota replace them?
What success looks like: A non-conference game at North Carolina on Sept. 16 coupled with crossover matchups with Michigan and Ohio State make this a complicated schedule for the Gophers. It’s hard to see Fleck putting together his third consecutive nine-win season, but getting to a bowl game is definitely within reach.
Achilles’ heel: Finding perimeter threats has been challenging for Minnesota, which has only had four wide receivers drafted in the last 25 years: Ron Johnson in 2022, Eric Decker in 2010, Tyler Johnson in 2020 and Rashod Bateman in 2021. The Gophers return their top two receivers from last season in Daniel Jackson and Brevyn Spann-Ford, but they only combined for 1,054 yards and seven scores between them. Western Michigan transfer Corey Crooms Jr. (814 yards in 2022) could be an important addition.
X-factor: Tyler is the player tasked with replacing Ibrahim after joining Minnesota from Western Michigan, like Crooms. The fifth-year senior ran for 1,000 yards each of the last two seasons and has 26 career touchdowns.
Coach: Matt Rhule
Last year: 4-8 overall, 3-6 Big Ten
Key players: QB Jeff Sims, WR Billy Kemp, CB Quinton Newsome, CB Malcolm Hartzog
What we’re watching: It’s a new era for the Cornhuskers, as Rhule strives to reinvigorate a proud but wayward program. Rhule was the architect of impressive turnarounds at Temple and Baylor before stumbling through a brief stint with the Carolina Panthers. Most believe he’s better suited for the college game.
What success looks like: Nebraska hasn’t had a winning season since 2016 and hasn’t won a bowl game since 2015. If Rhule comes anywhere close to a postseason bid, the Big Red fans should be elated. Opening the season with road trips to Minnesota and Colorado will offer a firm early test.
Achilles’ heel: The Huskers ranked outside the top 100 in total offense last season and scored 17 points or fewer six times. New offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield joined Rhule’s staff after two seasons in the same position at South Carolina, having previously worked with Rhule at Baylor and Temple. Satterfield’s offense ranked 72nd a year ago and 110th in 2021.
X-factor: Sims transferred to Nebraska after three seasons as the starter at Georgia Tech. He’s a true dual-threat quarterback with 1,152 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns for the Yellow Jackets. An impressive showing from Sims during spring practice was enough to force last year’s starter, Casey Thompson, into the transfer portal.
Matt Rhule sets expectations for first year at Nebraska Purdue
Coach: Ryan Walters
Last year: 8-6 overall, 6-3 Big Ten
Postseason: Lost to LSU in the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl
Key players: QB Hudson Card, RB Devin Mockobee, S Cam Allen, LB Nic Caraway
What we’re watching: After guiding the Boilermakers to a Big Ten West crown and a berth in the league’s championship game, head coach Jeff Brohm bolted to take over at Louisville, his alma mater. In steps Walters, the 37-year-old making his head coaching debut after serving as Illinois’ defensive coordinator the last two years. Can Walters keep Purdue, which has won 17 games over the last two seasons, on an upward trajectory?
What success looks like: A very difficult non-conference schedule could make things dicey for Walters, who will face Fresno State, Virginia Tech and Syracuse to open the season. The Boilermakers also have crossover games against Ohio State and Michigan. Five wins or more would be a reasonable start for the new regime.
Achilles’ heel: What does an athletic director do when Purdue hasn’t finished among the top 40 in total defense since 2004? In the case of Mike Bobinski, he hired a defensive-minded head coach. Walters oversaw the No. 3 defense in the country last season at Illinois and brought most of his assistants with him to West Lafayette.
X-factor: Card transferred to Purdue after making five starts at Texas. He was a highly coveted four-star prospect coming out of Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas, and finished as the No. 59 overall player in the 2020 recruiting cycle. Early reports out of fall camp suggest Card has been excellent.
Coach: David Braun (interim)
Last year: 1-11 overall, 1-8 Big Ten
Key players: RB Cam Porter, WR A.J. Henning, LB Bryce Gallagher, LB Xander Mueller
What we’re watching: Northwestern’s program was rocked earlier this summer when numerous hazing allegations led to the firing of Pat Fitzgerald, who had been with the Wildcats since 2001 and served as head coach for the last 17 seasons. How the players and remaining coaches respond will be among the most polarizing storylines in college football as lawsuits against the athletic department continue to mount.
What success looks like: After winning just a single game last season, anything resembling forward progress will be a welcome sight for the Wildcats. They have winnable non-conference games against UTEP and Howard while avoiding both Michigan and Ohio State in crossover games. Three or four wins would be a job well done for Braun, who is coaching at a Power 5 school for the first time.
Achilles’ heel: The offense was truly anemic last season as Northwestern ranked 128th in scoring (13.8 points per game) and managed just 22 points over their last four games combined. The Wildcats added Cincinnati transfer Ben Bryant to provide more stability and experience at quarterback. Bryant threw for 2,732 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2022.
X-factor: Braun arrived at Northwestern earlier this year after a successful stint as defensive coordinator at North Dakota State from 2019-22. But he’s never been a head coach at any level and made the wise decision to add the highly experienced Skip Holtz as his special assistant. Holtz won 55.7% of his games across 22 seasons at UConn, East Carolina, South Florida and Louisiana Tech before winning back-to-back USFL titles with the Birmingham Stallions in 2022-23. His poise and leadership will be invaluable resources for Braun.
BIG TEN STANDINGS PREDICTIONS:
MichiganOhio StatePenn StateMarylandMichigan StateRutgersIndianaWest Division
WisconsinIowaIllinoisMinnesotaNebraskaPurdueNorthwesternMichael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.
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