Ohio State has been the king of the Big Ten for most of the 21st century. They don’t ever seem to take much of a dip in the standings or in recruiting.
And while Jim Harbaugh has yet to clear the hump against them, his Michigan team looks as prime as ever to do so. These two teams seem to be as close as it gets in terms of talent and the balance of it on both sides of the ball.
But when it comes to betting on who will win the conference, is there anyone else worth even looking at?
Today, I hope to answer that question by looking at a slew of potential underdog wagers. I will determine not only the dark horse of the conference but also give a set number on what the chances are of them dethroning Ohio State and jumping Michigan in the standings.
Nebraska is getting a lot of hype. Michigan State has one of the most dominating defenses in the country. Penn State has recently won a conference title and has plenty of talent. Even Iowa and Wisconsin have some interesting pieces on both sides of the ball.
All of these teams’ odds and those in the other power-five conferences can be found on MyBookie. Articles for the other four conferences have or will be posted this week. But for now, here is a look at the Big Ten.
Nebraska Cornhuskers +1600
The two behemoths in the Big Ten are pretty familiar with one another. Once again, Ohio State and Michigan find themselves as the class of the conference.
But the question may not only be whether Jim Harbaugh can finally get past Ohio State with Urban Meyer gone. Another potential thing to ask is if there is finally a worthy opponent coming out of the West Division?
I’ll talk about two other teams in the East temporarily. But the team that’s getting a lot of talk behind the “big two” is Nebraska. They may be the most hyped team to only win four games the season before. And that’s because of Scott Frost at head coach and Taylor Martinez at QB.
Frost has found the perfect QB to run his system, and everyone remembers the sort of leap UCF took in a two-year span. Nebraska is in a much tougher conference, but they’re getting a pretty good shake this year in terms of their schedule.
Their toughest road games are at Purdue and Minnesota. Those aren’t guaranteed wins by any stretch with Rondale Moore powering the Boilermakers and P.J. Fleck growing his brand with the Gophers. But the Cornhuskers will essentially get to skip playing the six or seven best teams (besides themselves) in the conference on the road.
They have to cross over to play Ohio State, but getting them, Northwestern, Iowa, and Wisconsin all at home is tremendous. They also don’t have to play Michigan, Michigan State, or Penn State this year.
Still, people are getting a little ahead of themselves in their predictions. While Martinez might end up being an even better QB than Justin Fields (tOSU) or Shea Patterson (UM) this year, he doesn’t have the talent around him just yet.
Recruiting has picked up, but it’ll be another year before the playmakers are established to run this offense flawlessly against Big Ten opponents. Also, the defense is weak up the middle, where its black shirts at linebacker used to be the studs of the team.
Wisconsin Badgers +1600
Also in the West is Wisconsin, who seemed to have dominion over this side of the conference for some time.
They still have Jonathan Taylor leading the way, and he should be a Heisman finalist if healthy. There’s no bigger player in this conference than him, and he has a couple potential All-Americans on the offensive line to help.
The running game will steamroll some teams, but I’m worried the passing game once again won’t be up to snuff. With that said, if freshman Graham Mertz were to start at QB, that means there is a lot of confidence in him. It’s rare that a QB this highly recruited comes to the Badgers.
Whoever the QB is, he’ll have a decent assortment of talent out wide. He also shouldn’t get pressured too much with the best center (Tyler Biadasz) in college football snapping to him.
As far as the defense goes, the Badgers are most likely going to be taking a step back. Zack Baun at linebacker is probably the closest thing to a star on defense. The D-line, in particular, has a lot to prove coming into this season.
Michigan State Spartans +1000
Even though Hunter Johnson (Clemson transfer) is at Northwestern now and Minnesota is on the rise, I’m leaving both at seven or eight wins and moving on to the East.
That’s where I find Penn State and Michigan State.
Both of these teams will have killer defensive lines—and front-sevens in general—this season. The Spartans have a senior-laden squad on D that will have the chance to top the gaudy numbers they already posted last season.
LB Joe Bachie is the leader every team wishes they had on defense, and Kenny Willekes (DE) is probably a first night pick in next year’s NFL Draft. CB Josiah Scott and S David Dowell are going to be shutting down a lot of throwing lanes too.
This is probably the most stacked defense in the conference. It’s just too bad their offense has been futile over the past couple years and doesn’t look like they’re getting much better in 2019.
Brian Lewerke has had his moments at QB. But his inconsistencies last year may have shone his true colors. And there were losses along the line that make me think a lot of pressure from the great lines of this conference are going to disrupt him too much.
Penn State Nittany Lions +700
For the Nittany Lions, they are also looking for solid QB play after the graduation of Trace McSorley and the transfer of Tommy Stevens to Miss State.
In addition, they lose 1,200-yard RB Miles Sanders. So while they have numbers on defense that will allow them to steal a couple of big games, they’re also not on the same level as Ohio State and Michigan explosively.
If they didn’t have to play both of them and a ferocious MSU defense, I’d say maybe they could surprise one of them in a conference title game. But this team is muddled inside of this East Division now and doesn’t get much help having to go across to play Iowa on the road in the West.
Iowa Hawkeyes +2200
That Iowa team could be another sneaky unit this season.
Kirk Ferentz usually keeps them in a respectable territory and in semi-big bowl games. This year though, the West is the certainly the Wild Wild West. And Iowa is not only the best option in terms of value, but they might be the most equipped team in the division.
Nate Stanley might be the most consistent QB in the conference aside from Patterson and has an incredible comfort with the offense. His offensive line can man-handle almost any D-line and will suit them well against tough groups from Penn State and Michigan.
The only major concern I have is them having to go to Wisconsin and Nebraska. But seeing as Nebraska is being hyped a year too early and Wisconsin looks to be on a slight downward trend, the door is more than open for Iowa to get in the title game.
And at +2200, they are incredibly the 8th option in this conference. The Cornhuskers and Badgers are both at +1600.
Between the leadership at QB and the protection, Iowa’s offense could still make noise compared to most years. And they probably have the most underrated RB unit in the league too. Behind an O-line with all-conference tackle Aleric Jackson, I expect them to pound the rock too.
Mix that with an always-talented DB squad led by properly named safety Geno Stone, and this team has a lot of bright spots.
And they’ve been pretty good at pulling some good tight ends out of a hat recently, so don’t expect them not to find some reliable targets across the middle of the field. If they can get past not having any supremely talented perimeter weapons, they will at least win the West. And that gets them one game away from a conference title.
Prediction: Iowa Hawkeyes +2200
Chances of Happening: 2.5/10