The first days of summer and the first days of college football preview magazines: Two great things that go great together.
Phil Steele’s annual is out now with it’s usual array of rankings, stats and predictions to provide hours of diversion for the discerning college football fan who can’t wait for teams to report for preseason camp in late July.
Here are a few takeaways from a first perusal of the 2018 edition:
1. Phil’s top five are familiar.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Washington and Georgia form the top five of Phil Steele’s preseason top 40.
All of those teams have made the College Football Playoff in the last two seasons, and Steele does not envision any new party-crashers in 2018.
2. Schedule could be a huge in the Big Ten East race.
Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State are all in Steele’s preseason top 13, but only one will make the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis.
Michigan and Penn State have less margin for error because both have to play Wisconsin in the regular season while Ohio State and Michigan State do not.
3. Ohio State’s chance to avenge its embarrassing loss at Iowa last season could come in the Big Ten Championship Game.
(It won’t come before because they don’t play in the regular season.)
Iowa probably isn’t as good as Wisconsin but has an easier schedule.
The Hawkeyes get PSU, Indiana and Maryland out of the East while Wisconsin plays PSU, Michigan and Rutgers.
The winner of the Sept. 22 matchup between Iowa and Wisconsin in Iowa City will be in the driver’s seat regardless.
4. How far the Badgers go will be largely determined by the development of their quarterback.
In his third season, the heretofore inconsistent Alex Hornibrook should have the easiest job in the Big Ten if not the country.
Wisconsin figures to have a great offensive line and one of the best running backs in the country (Jonathan Taylor).
The Badgers always have reliable tight ends, but the receiving corps (including Springfield’s Danny Davis) should be deeper and more talented than usual.
They have some losses to cover on defense, but the parts on that side of the ball have seemed virtually interchangeable for a few seasons now.
If Hornibrook takes the next step in his development, Wisconsin could be a true national championship contender. If not, the Badgers will probably be just good enough to get their doors blown off by another elite team.
5. Nebraska probably won’t be a contender, but the Cornhuskers could have a big impact on the race.
New coach Scott Frost may need some time to get Nebraska up and running in his image, but the Huskers ought to be good enough to beat a good team on the right day in year one.
They get a shot at just about all of them (Michigan State at home, at Michigan, at Wisconsin, at Ohio State, at Iowa) so they will have plenty of opportunities to pull an upset.
6. In the last 10 years, Ohio State has lost 11 Big Ten games.
That’s half as many as the next-best team, Wisconsin, and it is even more remarkable considering it spans a coaching change and includes a lost season under interim coach Luke Fickell.
In the same span, Michigan has lost 40 conference games.
The Wolverines are eighth in the league in winning percentage since 2008 when Rich Rodriguez replaced Lloyd Carr as head coach.
7. What’s my take?
Ohio State is the favorite to win the Big Ten and make it back to the playoff, but it could be a long and bumpy road.
Aside from starting spots that must be refilled in Columbus, the schedule has potential potholes at Penn State and Michigan State plus visits from Nebraska and Michigan. Purdue and Maryland (both on the road) are on the upswing, too.
Good news for the Buckeyes: Everyone else has an even tougher schedule.
Michigan could be pretty good and still lose four or five games. However, I wouldn’t bet on the latter.
Let’s assume Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines take care of PSU and MSU, which probably puts it all on the line again when they head south to Columbus.
In the West, Wisconsin should be pretty good but has virtually no chance of replicating last year’s 13-1 mark because they have to play Penn State and Michigan should be better.
As long as the Badgers beat Iowa, they should cruise back to Indy anyway.