College football conference media days are underway, which means the sport’s preseason has officially started.
With the Big Ten set to hold its annual media gathering later this week, here is a look at the conference.
1. A familiar pair are expected to be at the top.
Early preseason picks have Ohio State and Michigan as the best teams in the Big Ten this season, but there is some dispute about which will be better when all is said and done.
Athlon and Street & Smith’s have the defending champion Buckeyes No. 4 and 5, respectively, in the nation with the Wolverines No. 5 and 11. Lindy’s (No. 5) and Phil Steele (No. 3) both have Michigan higher than Ohio State (7th and 6th).
The two rivals are in interestingly opposite situations heading into the preseason as each team could end up leaning on a unit that was the weaker of the two last season. The Wolverines offense has been re-imagined by new coordinator Josh Gattis and will be led by senior quarterback Shea Patterson while a once-proud defense replaces six starters.
Ohio State has nine starters back on defense, but that unit is being overhauled after struggling most of last season. Only four starters return from an elite Buckeye offense.
2. After that, there is not a consensus.
At least one of those four preseason magazines included Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan State and Penn State in their top 25s, but their regard for each team varies.
The Badgers, coming off a rare down year, are 19th at Athlon and 16th at Lindy’s but missed the top 25s of Phil Steele as well as Street & Smith’s.
S&S also left out Iowa while the Hawkeyes are as high as 14th (Lindy’s) elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Penn State also missed a top 25 (Lindy’s) but is 14th at Athlon and 20th at the other two.
Nebraska ranks between 17 (Athlon) and 24 (S&S) while Michigan State rates between 13 (Phil Steele) and 20 (Lindy’s).
3. Advanced stats like the Buckeyes and Wolverines, too.
Football Outsiders advanced stats project Ohio State to be No. 7 nationally followed by Michigan at No. 9.
They are much higher on Wisconsin than the human preseason prognosticators, placing the Badgers 11th.
Penn State (14th) is also higher in the Football Outsiders projections than its average human rank while Nebraska is much lower.
The Cornhuskers, who were just 4-8 last season in Scott Frost’s first year as head coach in Lincoln, are 45th in S&P+ but as high as 17th in the preseason magazines released so far.
4. 2019 could be a wild year.
Aside from little consensus existing on the hierarchy after Ohio State and Michigan, the schedule may result in a lot of drama.
Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State all have to play at least one of the Big Ten West teams getting early top 25 recognition.
The Buckeyes (Wisconsin at home and Nebraska on the road) and Wolverines (at Wisconsin and Iowa at home) both play two while the Spartans must go to Wisconsin and the Nittany Lions have to play at Iowa.
This of course also means none of the West frontrunners has a cakewalk, though the schedule could also explain why Nebraska is trendy pick to win the West. The Huskers, who return star quarterback Adrian Martinez and linebacker Mohamed Barry, play the Buckeyes but their other crossover games are Indiana and Maryland.
Northwestern and Iowa both get a pair of Big Ten East heavyweights while Wisconsin has to take on three.
5. There are two new head coaches.
Ryan Day replaces Urban Meyer at Ohio State while Mike Locksley is the new man in charge at Maryland.
A Washington, D.C., native, Locksley has long been considered an ace recruiter and was named Broyles Award winner as the top assistant coach in the country last season as offensive coordinator at Alabama.
Aside from his ability as an offensive coach, he could hurt Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State if he is able to keep more of the best players on the East Coast closer to home in College Park.
6. Several big names are back.
The players named the Big Ten’s best punter (Will Hart of Michigan), defensive lineman (Michigan State’s Kenny Willekes), receiver (Purdue’s Rondale Moore) and running back (Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor) are all back. Moore is also the reigning freshman of the year.
They are among 60 players returning who earned All-Big Ten recognition last season.
That group also includes first-team all-conference picks Minnesota receiver Tyler Johnson, Wisconsin Center Tyler Biadasz, Michigan offensive tackle Jon Runyan, Penn State defensive lineman Yetur Gross-Matos, Michigan State linebacker Joe Bachie, Michigan cornerback Lavert Hill and Michigan State kicker Matt Coghlin.
7. Returning starters may or may not tell us anything.
Among the reasons the league could be hard to predict in 2019: Indiana (18) and Michigan State (17) have the most returning starters combined on offense and defense while Iowa has only 10 and Penn State, Michigan State and Wisconsin have 11 apiece.
Ohio State and Michigan both have 13 starters back.
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