2017 Big Ten Football Predictions with Betting Odds and Expert Analysis
Here's how good the Big Ten was last year: the team that represented them in the College Football Playoff didn't even win their division. Ohio State lost a tiebreaker to Penn State in the Big Ten East and watched the Nittany Lions use an amazing comeback to take down No. 6 Wisconsin in the league championship game. And when the dust settled on the season, the Big Ten finished with four teams in the final Top 10 rankings, more than any league in the country.
The Big Ten could be even better this season and, according to the preseason rankings they are picking up where they left off. No. 2 Ohio State has almost everyone back, and they are on the short list of teams favored to win the national title. Penn State and Wisconsin both return a wealth of talent and experience and will not roll over for the Buckeyes. And Michigan, though in a clear rebuilding season, has enough skill and respect to find itself ranked in the Top 10 to open the year.
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Here are Doc's Sports 2017Big Ten Conference college football predictions (with Robert's projected odds to win the conference title in parentheses):
The Favorite: Ohio State (+100)
You shouldn't need me to tell you how good this Ohio State team is. Sure, a 31-0 whitewashing at the hands of Clemson in the playoffs was pee in the punch bowl of a successful 2016. But last year, with just six returning starters, was supposed to be the rebuilding season. Now Urban Meyer has 15 returning starters and uber-experienced quarterback, J.T. Barrett, to work with. Ohio State faces its two toughest opponents (Oklahoma and Penn State) at home, and they have an extra week to prep for that monster revenge clash with the Nittany Lions on Oct. 28. Urban Meyer is an unreal 61-6 in his five seasons at Columbus, and has Ohio State positioned to make another run at a national title. That is, as long as they can handle elite Penn State and Wisconsin squads.
The Challenger: Penn State (+400)
Penn State was able to rebound from a sluggish 2-2 start to the season to become one of the biggest surprises in college football last season. The Nittany Lions won nine of their last 10 games, knocking off Ohio State and then Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship before falling in a 52-49 shootout against USC. With Trace McSorley and hero runner Saquon Barkley back this season, and with Barkley one of nine three-year starters in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions are a true threat to Ohio State's dominance in the East. This is one of the most experienced and confident teams in the nation. And with four of their first five games at State College the Nittany Lions have a chance to build some major momentum heading into a season-defining late October stretch in which they host Michigan and then play at Ohio State in back-to-back weekends. This team should definitely win at least 10 games, and they are one upset away from potential back-to-back league titles.
The Dark Horse: Wisconsin (+500)
I'm all in on Wisconsin this year. While Ohio State and Penn State have gotten most of the preseason attention, I think that the Badgers somewhat quietly have their best team in a decade. The Badgers have 15 returning starters, the most since the 11-2 team in 2010, and are stacked across both the offensive and defensive lines. Wisconsin has four of five starters back on the offensive line, including a trio of three-year starters and future pros. They will pave the way for whoever is running the ball and help make life easier for quarterback Alex Hornibrook. Defensively, the Badgers have seven bros back from the No. 7 total defense and No. 4 scoring defense in the nation. These guys are loaded. They also get their toughest games (Northwestern, Michigan) in Madison. And if this team can win at BYU on Sept. 16 there's a great chance that they head into the Big Ten title game undefeated. The Badgers are no joke.
The X-Factor: Iowa (+3000)
Kirk Ferentz and Iowa have seemingly settled into their role as second-tier spoiler. And I think that is exactly what Iowa will be this season. Iowa doesn't have the offensive juice to be a real threat to the top tier in the conference. But they will be a major factor in who wins both the East and West this year because they get Penn State and Ohio State in Iowa City and they have to face Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska all on the road. Ferentz has eight starters back from a powerful Top 20 defense that shut down Michigan and Wisconsin (31 combined points) last year. Again, the Hawkeyes won't be able to overcome their tough slate to make a run at a title. But whoever wins the Big Ten will do so having wrestled with this granite-tough team.
The Disappointment: Michigan (+200)
Are you kidding me with these odds? There is no way in hell that Michigan is the second-best team in the Big Ten this year. Look, I thought that Michigan was the best team in the country last year. I truly believe that. Their three losses came by a total of five points, and they shouldn't have lost any of those three games. But this is clearly a rebuilding season for Jim Harbaugh, who was gifted a pretty stocked cupboard when he took over three years ago. Michigan has just five returning starters, they lost their three top receivers, top rusher, and a whopping seven of their top eight tacklers. Harbaugh is good enough to squeeze out eight wins and an upper-tier bowl game, even against this rough schedule. But Michigan is not a realistic competitor for the Big Ten title, so they are destined to underachieve. I have them at either 8-5 or 9-4 and not a national factor at all.
Indiana (+7500) - The Hoosiers took another heartbreaking loss in a bowl game last year, falling by just two points to Utah in the Foster Farms Bowl last December just one year after a tight OT loss to Duke in the 2015 Pinstripe Bowl. Those two losses might be tough to take for some programs. But considering that Indiana had made just one bowl game in the 25 years prior to those two losses, any bowl defeat is still a victory. So can they keep the bowl streak alive under new coach Tom Allen? Perhaps. The schedule is the most favorable aspect of this IU season. And with closing games against Illinois, Rutgers and Purdue, the slate sets up for IU to score an undeserved bowl bid.
Illinois(+15000) - It has been only one season, but in 2016 (and since) Lovie Smith didn't give a lot of indication that he knows what the hell he is doing in college football. Illinois, which has had just three winning seasons in the past 10 years, seems content to throw money at Smith to provide the credibility that their on-field performance can't produce. But how long will that façade hold up? Illinois has just 11 starters back from a team that lost their nine games by an average of 23 points per game last season. This is a young team, with as many as 10 potential freshmen or sophomore starters. So maybe Lovie is playing the long game. But after the opening two weeks, Illinois only has three winnable games on the slate. I wouldn't get my hopes up for that Illini resurgence any time soon. And I don't expect this group to be any more competitive than it was last season.
Michigan State (+2500) - I, like many others, have no idea what the hell is going on in East Lansing. Mark Dantonio built up Michigan State into the realm of the Top 15 programs in the country, winning 11 or more games in five of six years from 2010 to 2015. The bottom fell out last year as Sparty bumbled to a 3-9 mark. Hey, rebuilding years happen. But the problem is that things don't look any better this year with just eight returning starters and a slew of off-field issues plaguing this roster. Dantonio is fantastic. But the Spartans have the least experienced team in the league and a schedule that any powerhouse would struggle with. I think this group is going to miss a bowl game for a second straight year, and I would give the Spartans a wide berth in 2017.
Maryland (+15000) - D.J. Durkin sounds like the name of a used car salesman. But he actually did a solid job with the Terps last year, winning every game they were supposed to and getting to a bowl game. That's as good as it gets in College Park. So if you are expecting this team to dip its toe in the Big Boy Pond this year with 13 starters back, think again. The Terps have a brutal schedule this fall. And if they don't win their return game against Central Florida on Sept. 23 then this team has no chance to get back to a bowl game. In fact, I think they are a long shot to do so anyway, and this is a team to bet against all year long.
Northwestern (+2000) - Pat Fitzgerald is one of the most undervalued coaches in college football, and he's built Northwestern into a consistent winner in one of the toughest conferences in college football. This year's Wildcats should be Wisconsin's biggest impediment to the West title. But I think that this team is a bit overvalued heading into the season. They were No. 73 in the nation in offense and No. 60 in defense last year. So I don't know that they can find the same level the Badgers reside on, and Northwestern is just 2-6 straight up in its last eight games against Top 25 teams. They have to go to Wisconsin and to Nebraska, so I think it would be a major upset if this team were to take the West and go to the Big Ten title game.
Minnesota (+2500) - P.J. Fleck is now the third coach in three seasons at Minnesota and the fifth coach in the past 10 years. That is surprising turnover at a program that has steadily climbed back to respectability, making it to five straight bowl games. Fleck doesn't have a ton to work with, and this year's Gophers should take a step back after their nine-win season last year. The offense, which was No. 108 in the country in 2016, should improve. But I don't see the Gophers posting another Top 25 defense. This team is set to be perfectly replacement-level fodder for the better teams in the Big Ten this year. But another bowl bid isn't out of the question.
Nebraska (+1200) - The Cornhuskers were basically the Midwest's Tennessee last year - both experiencing a brief Renaissance that saw them return to the Top 10 before collapsing spectacularly and stumbling out of the rankings - so I guess it was perfectly fitting that the Vols beat the Huskers in their bowl game. This year's Nebraska team won't be as lucky. The Cornhuskers have just 10 returning starters, and Year 3 marks the true beginning of the Mike Riley Regime since he is now reshuffling the deck with his own young recruits. This is one of the least experienced teams in the nation, but they get somewhat bailed out by a somewhat favorable schedule. The Huskers get Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern and Iowa all in Lincoln, so they will have ample chances for upsets. But I don't see this team coming close to matching last year's nine-win campaign.
Purdue (+15000) - The Boilermakers have gone 9-39 straight-up over the last four seasons. But they scored their biggest win of the decade this offseason when they stole Jeff Brohm from Western Kentucky. Brohm's offense will give Purdue boosters flashbacks of Joe Tiller's pass-happy heyday. It will take a beat or two for Brohm to recruit players that fit his scheme. The transition could be ugly in the meantime. And yeah, obviously Brohm is using this job as a stepping stone to something bigger. But in the meantime I think Purdue is headed for better days. And by the time the schedule softens up in mid-October this group is going to be all kinds of feisty.
Rutgers (+25000) - This team is undervalued. I know, I know: that's crazy talk. But last year their odds to win the league were +20000 and now they are +25000 despite the fact that they are obviously a better team. Yeah, they were outgained by 230 yards and went 0-9 in league play. But they also had an absolutely brutal schedule - Washington, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State were four of the best six teams in the country last year - and a cluster injury issue. I'm telling you: this team will be better this season. I don't see nearly as many shutout losses and they should improve on their 8-16 ATS mark over the past two seasons.
Projected Big Ten Standings:
BIG TEN EAST
1. Ohio State
2. Penn State
5. Michigan State
BIG TEN WEST
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