Today marks the opening day of the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. There are plenty of story lines to follow with much of the national media attention rightfully being placed on the conference’s traditional powers of Ohio State and Michigan. Both programs look poised for success in 2018 and Ohio State appears on course for another push toward the College Football Playoff.
Others in the media will, of course, be following the new shiny objects in the conference. Nebraska has all but been anointed the kings of the future, despite being nothing but the kings of the past since the conference. The slightly less new, but always shiny/flashy/hashtag-y PJ Fleck will surely garner some attention as well.
But in general, the media is focused on one team and one team only in the Big Ten West: Wisconsin.
The attention is certainly warranted. As BoilerHawk so aptly pointed out in his preview of the Iowa/Wisconsin matchup in week 4, this Wisconsin team should be very, very good. They return 9 of 11 starters on the offensive side of the ball, including the entirety of their mammoth offensive line, QB Alex Hornibrook and their star RB Jonathan Taylor. That’s from a team that finished 2017 13-1, undefeated in the Big Ten regular season and ranked in the top 10 nationally.
So it seems reasonable to expect them to repeat as the West’s representative in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis. In Cleveland.com’s unofficial, official pre-season media poll, every single media respondent chose the Badgers to win the West. For comparison’s sake, 4.5 voters chose someone other than Ohio State to win the East (I’m not getting into how one splits a vote, but that is the ultimate cop out).
Here’s the full poll result from Cleveland.com:
BIG TEN EAST
1. Ohio State, 191.5 points (23.5 first-place votes)
2. Michigan State, 142 points (2)
3. Penn State, 141.5 points (1)
4. Michigan, 140.5 points (1.5)
5. Maryland, 75.5 points
6. Indiana, 60 points
7. Rutgers, 33 points
BIG TEN WEST
1. Wisconsin, 196 points (28 first-place votes)
2. Iowa, 155 points
3. Northwestern, 138 points
4. Nebraska, 104 points
5. Purdue, 98.5 points
6. Minnesota, 64.5 points
7. Illinois, 28 points
No complaints about spots 6-7 in either division for me. A couple reasons. First, it’s the bottom third of the division and nobody cares. Second, there isn’t a ton to be upset about with a bunch of teams that simply aren’t good.
I do have some issue with the 4-5 spot in the West. Purdue is on the rise and as great as Scott Frost might be, he isn’t coaching with his players and that schedule isn’t super welcoming. Nebraska belongs below Purdue and I’m shocked anyone outside the local Nebby media picked it otherwise.
In the East, I don’t have many qualms in spots 1-5 either. I think Maryland is locked into the 5 hole for the rest of time. I might flip the two Michigan schools, but I don’t have a problem with it. Ohio State is the clear 1 in my opinion.
And on the surface, I would say the same about the top of the West. If I’m choosing the most likely outcome, it plays out just like above with Purdue coming in 4th and take your pick between Nebraska and Minnesota for 5th. I’ll give Frost the benefit of the doubt because I honestly think Frost is a better actual coach than Fleck and he’s going to have nicer toys.
What really has me scratching my head is that not a single soul picked anyone other than Wisconsin to win the West. Not one. Two people think Michigan State is winning the East, but nobody thinks Wisconsin comes in second in the West. Somebody thinks Penn State manages to overcome the loss of a generational talent like Saquon Barkley and their star offensive coordinator to win the East, but nobody thinks Wisconsin trips up. One and a half people think Michigan catches lightning in a bottle with a QB transfer who preemptively left the SEC because his school signed the top QB in the country to replace him, but nobody thinks someone can do that in the West with Wisconsin on the throne.
Again, I get it. Wisconsin is good. They’re damn good. That offense is going to lethal. But has anyone taken a look at their schedule? I have.
Not scary in the non-con. That’s where the cake walk ends. There’s 5 Big Ten road games, all to teams who should be bowling at bare minimum this season. In the crossover games, you’ve got trips to Ann Arbor and State College, both homes to teams receiving votes to win the Big Ten East. Within the division, the Badgers draw road games for each of the teams the media picked to finish closest to them (Iowa and Northwestern) with a third to the team that will in reality likely end the season behind the top three.
It’s not a friendly schedule. Perhaps the only way to make it more difficult would be to swap out a home game with rutger for a road trip to Columbus.
I expect Wisconsin to be very good, perhaps even better than a year ago. But I also see them much like our friends in Ames. Even with a better team, the schedule is much more difficult for Wisconsin. Despite having 9 returners on offense, I don’t see them taking the offensive output to another level if only because the schedule is significantly more difficult than a season ago, when the Badgers faced a total of 2 ranked teams in the regular season, one of which was the Hawkeyes.
The defense will be filled with newcomers as only 4 starters return from a season ago. We all know what to expect from a Wisconsin defense at this point and 7 new starters, while certainly not a good thing, likely won’t result in a major drop-off in output. But it seems reasonable to expect the offense to be roughly what it was a year ago given the returners and the more difficult schedule, and the defense to be slightly worse given the turnover and schedule.
Given that, doesn’t it seem reasonable to expect this year to be slightly worse than a year ago, even if the talent is better? How then, do we not have a single member of the media picking anyone other than the Badgers to win the West?
Aside from the divisional champions, the media members also made their picks to win the whole conference. A whopping 14 had Ohio State over Wisconsin. 13 chose Wisconsin over either Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State. One member had Michigan State over Wisconsin.
The media also made some selections for players of the year in the conference. There were no real surprises at the top of the defensive elections:
PRESEASON BIG TEN DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
1. Nick Bosa, Ohio State DE, 74 points, (20 first-place votes)
2. Rashan Gary, Michigan DE, 38 points, (6)
3. T.J. Edwards, Wisconsin LB, 24 points
4. Devin Bush, Michigan LB, 14 points (1)
5. Paddy Fisher, Northwestern LB, 8 points (1)
6. Joe Bachie, Michigan State LB, 5 points
7. Chase Winovich, Michigan DE, 2 points
8. D’Cota Dixon, Wisconsin S, 1 point
8. Olive Sagapolu, Wisconsin DT, 1 points
8. Khaleke Hudson, Michigan LB, 1 point
No Hawkeyes on the list isn’t terribly surprising, though the local media sure seems to love them some Anthony Nelson this year and we all seem to agree that AJ Epenesa is poised for a breakout year, as well as a very good rotation of safeties for Iowa. No qualms from me on the list above.
Shockingly, however, I don’t totally agree with the list for offense.
PRESEASON BIG TEN OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
1. Trace McSorley, Penn State QB, 66 points, (14 first-place votes)
2. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin RB, 61 points, (11)
3. JK Dobbins, Ohio State RB, 28 points, (2)
4. Brian Lewerke, Michigan State QB, 7 points, (1)
5. Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State QB, 3 points
6. Noah Fant, Iowa TE, 2 points
7. Shea Patterson, Michigan QB, 1 point
Trace McSorley is a fine QB. He will win Penn State some games this season. But as I state above, I have some questions about how productive he may be without Saquon Barkley or Joe Moorehead. Beyond McSorley, I think we all agree that Taylor could rush for a million yards, especially if nobody is picking Wisconsin to finish anything other than first in the West.
Going on down the list, we see...
That’s Iowa TE Noah Fant with two votes for Offensive Player of the Year in the Big Ten.
I’m going to ignore the fact that some homer voted for Shea Patterson to walk in and win the award and say “maybe these people know what they’re talking about!” If Noah Fant walks out of this season with an OPoY award, this is going to be a very, very good season for the Hawkeyes.
Full conference predictions aside, things set up very nicely for Iowa. The schedule is pretty forgiving and despite some key losses in Wadley, Daniels, Jackson and the linebackers, I expect the wins and losses to look better in a mirror image of the likes of Wisconsin and Iowa State. Even if the talent isn’t as good, the schedule will give this year’s Hawkeys more wins than a season ago.
I, for one, am looking forward to the fall when we’re beyond all the media predictions, watch lists (oh baby have there been watch lists) and speculation and we’re on to actually watching some football.
Happy Monday, ya’ll. Enjoy the added media attention on the conference this week, but take it for what it is: a side show designed to draw eyeballs where we likely learn nothing. Football season will be here soon enough. Let’s take it one week at a time.