We now return for the final portion of our Preseason B1G Football Power Rankings, having already gone through parts 1 and 2 over the past week. Today is the top five of the Midwest's premier football conference, starting with the team from Iowa City:
Last year: 9-4 (5-4)
Strengths: OL, QB, DB
Weaknesses: Rec., DT, inexperience
Big Question: Can TE Shaun Beyer pick up the mantle of Iowa TE?
Outlook: Iowa just keeps chugging along as Kirk Ferentz is now amazingly the longest tenured head coach in college football. The Hawkeyes won 9 games a year ago, finishing in the top 25 in S&P+ and now feel energized and ready to try and win their second division title in the now wide open B1G West. The reason for the optimism? They return QB Nate Stanley, who may have a claim to being the best QB in program history (Chuck Long stands in the way though) after a sparkling junior season in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes also return every notable running back and 3/5 of their offensive line, including All-B1G LT Alaric Jackson, who might play his way into a high selection in the NFL Draft, as well as RT Tristan Wirfs who could also be a high pick. The only snag offensively is about who Stanley will be throwing to, as Iowa loses his primary two targets, prolific TE’s TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant, both 1st round draft picks in the spring. While Iowa has a tremendous track record with TE’s (see: Kittle, George), it will be up to Shaun Beyer to pick up the mantle and become a weapon for Stanley. The offense finished 54th in S&P+ a year ago and will likely need to improve, but with a veteran QB back, I think that’ll happen.
The Hawkeyes lose considerable production defensively, returning just 4 starters from a team that was 11th in scoring defense and 18th in S&P+ overall defense. While they nominally “lose” all 4 DL starters, they return All-B1G DE AJ Epenesa and Chauncey Golston, who had 9 TFL’s a year ago. As a result, the pass rush will likely be just fine, but there are large looming questions about the run stuffers in the middle. They have just 1 returning LB and lose their star hybrid space player Amani Hooker, so the second level will also be tested. Iowa does however return 3 of 4 DB’s, which should be the strength of the defense outside of the pass rush. So, with inexperience all around defensively, it is reasonable to expect the defense to take a small step back. However, if the offense can improve, it can offset that defensive loss and keep Iowa firmly in the top 25, as they were a year ago. And in a division where 8-4 might win the whole damn thing, that’s not too shabby. While traveling to Wisconsin and Nebraska (in addition to @Michigan) are a problem, the Hawkeyes should be considered a top tier B1G West contender, and are my pick to win the division.
4. Michigan St.
Last year: 7-6 (5-4)
Strengths: the whole defense
Weaknesses: the whole offense
Big Question: Does Brian Lewerke still have the will to live?
Outlook: It’s fire and ice for Michigan State on offense and defense. The defense should be monstrous and could rival the 2013 unit as the best of Mark Dantonio’s tenure. DE Kenny Willekes is a certified Dude and could be the Big Ten’s 2019 DPOY. He’s joined by DT Raequan Williams and the Panasiuk brothers, who comprise the best DL in the B1G and a unit that was the best in college football against the run last season. But it’s not just the run defense: the overall defense was #2 in college football in S&P+ in 2018, thanks to a very solid #17 rank in passing defense. With 8 defensive starters returning, including LB’s Tyriq Thompson and the star Joe Bachie, the defense should once again carry the day for the Spartans. If there’s one weak spot on the defense, it’s probably the fear of the corners being beaten by athletically superior WR’s on the outside (you may remember Donovan Peoples-Jones on Tre Person last year). This is exacerbated by the fact that MSU’s defense relies heavily on corners in man coverage because they bring the safeties into the box so frequently, but that’s still a rather niche concern. For the most part, this defense is probably good enough to win the conference. It was last year.
But the offense? Oh boy. If they are blessed with significantly better health, this team could be a conference title favorite. But that’s a big, big “if” given just how injured the offense was last season. Yes, health can sometimes be construed as “luck” but when it happens to literally everyone on your team, there’s something deeper going on. Brian Lewerke is a good enough QB to win the conference with this defense behind him. If he’s healthy. Cody White and Darrell Stewart are a nice 1-2 punch at WR. If they’re healthy. There’s some decent talent on the offensive line. If they could stay healthy. And on and on. Just about everyone was hurt at one time for the Spartans last season and the most concerning areas are at QB and OL. Lewerke seemed to be his 2017 self before injuring his shoulder in Happy Valley in early October, but after that happened, he looked like 2014 Devin Gardner to me: broken and without the will to live. Can Lewerke come back refreshed and healthy? And even if he enters the season, is there any way this offensive line keeps him that way for a whole season? The reports from training camp do not sound positive, with LT Cole Chewins not healthy yet, despite having an offseason to recover. There are even murmurs about starting high 4* freshman G Devontae Dobbs on the OL, which is a very bad sign because true freshman OL should never, ever start. Michigan fans may remember the disaster it was when Ben Bredeson started as a true freshman in 2016. And he’s turned into a great college player! Dobbs is a tremendous prospect just like Bredeson, but again, you shouldn’t be starting a true freshman lineman, period. If you are, there are serious and debilitating issues going on. This offense was S&P+’s 112th best unit a year ago (read: awful) and while they have the pieces to take a huge jump forward, I need to see it to believe it. The defense alone should carry MSU to 7-8 wins but anything beyond that is up to the offense and it’s not an easy schedule, drawing Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio St. on the road. I think State is likely to finish a notch below Michigan and Ohio St., but they have real upside. If they can stay healthy.
3. Penn St.
Last year: 9-4 (6-3)
Strengths: Talent level, impact players on defense
Weaknesses: Inexperience, QB questions
Big Question: Can the defense carry PSU to a conference title?
Outlook: Much like Michigan State, Penn State is a team that is defense first in 2019, due to heavy losses on the offensive side of the ball. The Nittany Lions lost their illustrious starting QB, Trace McSorley, as well as starting RB Miles Sanders, both starting outside receivers, and 2 offensive linemen. Oh, and they also lost the guy who had been groomed for years to replace McSorley, Tommy Stevens, who transferred to Mississippi State. This means it’s go time for Sean Clifford, a RS So. who has only attempted 7 career passes in his two seasons in State College. Clifford was an excellent recruit out of high school, ranking in the top 200 nationally, so he’s got the talent. There are just an abundance of questions about how ready he is to handle the grueling B1G East slate. The good news for Penn State is that thanks to the tremendous recruiting that James Franklin has done, they have the raw talent on both sides of the ball to be firmly in the conversation with Ohio St. and Michigan atop the conference. Clifford will get to throw to explosive slot receiver KJ Hamler, as well as former 5* RS Fr. WR Justin Shorter, and former top 200 WR recruit Jahan Dotson. At RB, Clifford will be giving the ball off to either 5* So. RB Ricky Slade or top 200 recruits Noah Cain and Devyn Ford. Put simply, Penn State has elite athletes at nearly every skill position. It’s just a matter of whether Clifford can be the spark plug for the offense, especially whether he can seamlessly fit into the RPO-heavy offense, as he is not the rushing threat that McSorley (or Tommy Stevens) was. The sheer talent should make PSU a respectable offense, but they probably take a small step back from last year based on inexperience.
Defensively, Penn St. is in a very good spot. They return one of the best DE’s in a conference loaded with DE talent in Yetur Gross-Matos, who will likely be All-B1G First Team. They pair him with Shaka Toney off the edge and have returning starter Robert Windsor on the inside. At the second level, former 5* So. LB Micah Parsons is the focal point and should be the team’s leading tackler, as he is put next to two returning starters in Jan Johnson and Cam Brown. While PSU lost star CB Amani Oruwariye and S Nick Scott, they have a pair of returning starters, including the talented John Reid. With 6 overall returning starters on what was the nation’s #11 defense a year ago, this unit should be about the same, if not a tad bit better. The Nittany Lions are dripping with talent at nearly every position, but the overall inexperience of the team (123rd on Phil Steele’s experience chart) may mean that PSU has to wait another year before being considered a favorite in the B1G East, although they do draw Michigan at home (OSU, MSU, and Iowa on the road however). Thus, the most likely projection for Penn State is probably around 8-9 wins, like last season.
2. Ohio St.
Last year: 13-1 (8-1)
Strengths: Talent level, DE, DB
Weaknesses: Inexperience on offense, LB
Big Question: Is Justin Fields ready to carry the weight?
Outlook: Ohio State’s 2018 season is truly curious to look at. They were several plays from finishing 9-3 or even 8-4 in the regular season, which would have been a massive disappointment. Instead they finished 13-1 despite a year where the team never looked truly plugged in or well coached. That is, until The Game, when they pummeled Michigan in Columbus to win the B1G East and then were faced with a pair of walk-in-the-park opponents in the postseason in a vastly outmatched Northwestern team and a Washington team with a hapless offense. But despite the 13-1 record, it’s important to remember how close OSU was to disaster: a missed throw to a wide open receiver from Tyrell Pigrome; James Franklin being Frames Janklin and fumbling away a double digit 4Q lead in State College; the Buckeyes riding their punter to beat Michigan St. in East Lansing. If we’re going off the conventional indicators, everything is pointing at a regression for Ohio St.. They led the nation with 4 net close wins, which is a classic indicator for a regression to the mean. They also face a significantly tougher schedule in 2019 than 2018 (again according to Phil Steele), which also generally indicates regression. But then again, everything seems to always go right for Ohio State football, doesn’t it?
With a new head coach in charge, Ryan Day has huge shoes to fill: precisely the shoes of the best football coach in Ohio State history and (in my opinion) the second greatest college football coach in history, Urban Meyer. Day is an offensive-minded guy and he has his work cut out for him, with just 4 returning offensive starters off of a record breaking unit a year ago. As is usual, OSU has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to raw talent. They have former top 200 recruits at every skill position, like WR’s KJ Hill, Binjimen Victor, Austin Mack, and Luke Farrell, and returning RB JK Dobbins. Really the one position where they lack that talent on the starting unit is the OL, which has just 1 returning starter and has three 3* set to start. Otherwise, it’s insane talent all the time. The big question is about QB Justin Fields. Fields was considered a superstar recruit when signed by the Georgia Bulldogs, who then decided to transfer to OSU after it was clear his path to the starting job was blocked. Fields has the arm strength and athleticism to pick up where Dwayne Haskins left off, but we have not seen much of him in college play and Haskins’ shoes were also massive. Furthermore, while Fields was a big time recruit, 5* QB recruits are very hit-and-miss. Beyond Fields, Day will have to figure out a way to resuscitate OSU’s rushing game after they finished 54th in that category on S&P+ a year ago, despite being top 5 in pass offense. Fields seems to be a better runner than Haskins but is his arm as effective? Only time will tell.
Defensively, OSU rode the coordinator carousel and made some changes to a group that ranked 26th in S&P+ last year, getting gashed frequently, especially on the ground. Near dead last in preventing explosive plays, the Buckeye defense has a lot of work to get back up to par. DE Chase Young and CB Jeffery Okudah are stars, but they need to get better play from the LB’s and DT’s in order to improve in run defense. As mentioned at the top, the schedule is significantly tougher, having to go to Ann Arbor for The Game and to Lincoln to face the Huskers, not to mention getting Penn St., Wisconsin, and Michigan St. (all in Columbus). All together, the Buckeyes get to play 5 of the top 6 B1G teams in my power rankings not counting themselves. This will be a fascinating year as Ohio St. begins its time after Camelot.
Last year: 10-3 (8-1)
Strengths: OL, receivers, QB, DE
Weaknesses: Defensive depth
Big Question: Does Josh Gattis’s system jump start the offense?
Outlook: This feels like the year. In the past under Harbaugh, Michigan either had one position that felt like it was going to mean impending doom (QB, OL) or the schedule was incredibly unfavorable (both of the great Harbaugh seasons have had @MSU and @OSU). This time, there’s neither. The starters feel good to great at every position and Michigan gets all the big games at home. Oh, and all of the B1G rivals have real questions, either at QB or on the coaching staff, while Michigan has the same head coach and a returning starter. If not this year, when? That’s the mood in Ann Arbor. At long last, Michigan should have an elite offensive line under Jim Harbaugh, returning 4 starters from late season, all of whom should be locks for the All-B1G team. While Jon Runyan Jr. will always be slightly limited at LT due to his height and arm length, his growth last season under OL coach Ed Warinner was immense. Now, the OL and its QB Shea Patterson should be the strength of the team. But the offense needs to get more dynamic, which is why new OC Josh Gattis was brought in. A fresh offensive mind who studied under offense wizard Joe Moorhead at Penn St. and then oversaw the Alabama offensive transformation with Tua Tagovailoa, Gattis has the credentials and now the talent, to turn Michigan into a top 5 offense in college football. Patterson is a legit QB, there’s a stout OL in front of him, and the Wolverines sport two of the top 5 receivers in the conference in Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins, not to mention ridiculous depth in Tarik Black, Ronnie Bell, and new freshmen jitterbugs Mike Sainristil and Giles Jackson. If the Gattis system (spread offense) takes off, this offense will be absolutely electrifying.
And it may need to be for Michigan to win the conference, because they lost a lot of talent on defense, including the heart and soul, LB Devin Bush, as well as both DE’s and shutdown corner David Long. There still is a lot of talent on defense, between former high 4* DE Aidan Hutchinson and LB Josh Ross, returning All-B1G DB’s Lavert Hill and Josh Metellus, and the additions of elite 5* freshman S Daxton Hill and pass rushing machine DE Mike Danna from Central Michigan. But Don Brown will have to scheme around the loss of athleticism in the middle in Bush, in addition to drawing up a plan to shut down Ohio St. after the disaster in Columbus last November. No one is expecting the defense to crumble, but it’s going to take a step back, which is why expected offensive improvement stabilizes the ship and should put Michigan in position to play for the B1G East on the final Saturday of the regular season. With The Game in Ann Arbor this season, it feels like the year and Michigan simply has fewer questions than everyone else, which is why they start as a tenuous #1, but any one of the top 5 teams on this power ranking I could see winning the conference. (Yes I know I just violated the Karma gods by putting Michigan ahead of Ohio State and am expected my tires to be flat the next time I get in my car in addition to the impending suffering on Nov. 30, but this is where things are now).
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