Preseason Power Rankings: Big Ten Conference

Please note that power rankings are meant to rank teams based on current team strength on a neutral field. It is not necessarily a projection of where I think teams will finish or who has a better resume. It is forward thinking but does not factor in strength of schedule, schedule breakdown, etc.

ICYMI Other Conference Preseason Power Rankings:

Mountain West
Sun Belt
Conference USA
FBS Independents
Pac 12
Big 12

2022 Big Ten Preseason Power Rankings

  1. Ohio State: Most programs would be thrilled with an 11-win season that included a Rose Bowl championship & a Heisman finalist QB. But Ohio State is not most programs and an 11-2 season that includes a loss to Michigan & no appearance in the Big Ten Championship is a failure by Ryan Day’s standards. Fortunately for Buckeye fans, Day has been recruiting at an elite level and has a ton of talent returning. They won’t be “down” again this year. OSU was +191 in ypg in Big Ten play last year which was #1 in the conference. Their offense was absolutely electric averaging 45.7 ppg & 561 ypg. They may have the best QB, RB & WR in CJ Stroud, TreVeyon Henderson & Jackson Smith-Njigba respectively. If they don’t take their foot off the gas often with several big leads, it’s not unbelievable to imagine this team averaging 50 ppg this season. They lose two WR to the NFL in Chris Olave & Garrett Wilson, but they have an absolute embarrassment of riches at that position. Both those guys opted out of the Rose Bowl and they didn’t miss a beat. Smith-Njiba recorded a Rose Bowl record 347 receiving yards & Marvin Harrison Jr caught 3 TD. In addition to those two guys, they have Justin Fleming & Emeka Egbuke – the top WR in the 2020 & 2021 recruiting classes. The offensive line finished in the top 15 in rush push & sack rate and return 3 of those starters last year. Their offense played at an elite level last year and will again this year. It was their defense that let them down. Overall the defense allowed 22.8 ppg but it was a true Jekyl & Hyde defense. Against Oregon, Michigan & Utah they gave up 41 ppg & 7.3 yards per play. In the other ten games they allowed only 17 ppg & 4.7 yards per play. They got pushed around in the biggest games allowing 269 rushing yards (7.1 yards per carry) to Oregon & 297 rushing yards (7.2 yards per carry) to Michigan. That’s not acceptable at Ohio State so Ryan Day brought in a new defensive coaching staff highlighted by new DC Jim Knowles. Knowles will bring over the 4-2-5 defense that gave him incredible success at Oklahoma State. He just finished putting together a Top 3 defense in Stillwater that came within an inch or two of the college football playoff. He didn’t have talent like this at Oklahoma State either. His roster is loaded with highly touted recruits that has the highest defensive returning production in the Big Ten & the 6th highest of all the Power 5 teams. It’s hard to see this defense not showing significant improvement under Knowles which would put this team back in the playoffs in 2022. This is my #2 team in the country. Look out for the Buckeyes!
  2. Michigan: Jim Harbaugh finally broke through in 2021 and beat Ohio State to earn a Big Ten Championship. They finished the season +101 in ypg in Big Ten play and capped off Big Ten play with a 42-27 win over Ohio State (in which they ran the ball down their throats) & a 42-3 win vs Iowa in the Big Ten Championship. They lost to Georgia in the playoffs, but so did everyone else that played Georiga. The offense appeared to shift from the “speed in space” philosophy that OC Josh Gattis promoted in 2019 & 2020 to the old Jim Harbaugh power run approach that he had success with at Stanford. It appeared like Harbaugh was on the hot seat and if he was gonna go down he was gonna go down doing it his way. It worked! This year they return 8 starters on offense. The offense line won the Joe Moore Award in 2021 which is given to the best line in the Nation. They return 3 starters from that unit and added an All-ACC transfer C from Virginia. They should be really strong again this year. Starting QB Cade McNamara returns at QB. He got the job done last year & took care of the football. But they also have 5-star Sophomore JJ McCarthy on the roster. He has a higher upside and more athleticism than McNamara. It will be interesting to see how Harbaugh plays that. The defense was nasty in 2021 under new DC Macdonald, allowing 17.5 ppg & 331 ypg. But McDonald moved on to the NFL after one season so they are bringing in new DC Minter from the John Harbaugh, Baltimore Raven coaching tree. Minter has said that he wants to make this a “seamless transition” (translation: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it), but the problem is that he loses 7 starters from last year’s team. That includes pass rushers Hutchinson & Ojabo who combined for 25 sacks, 28.5 TFL & 7 FF in 2021. With the new DC and all the talent departing I think that the Michigan defense will take a slight step back this year. With that anticipated step back & my anticipated step forward for the OSU defense I think the Buckeyes reclaim their spot atop the Big Ten in 2022.
  1. Wisconsin: Wisconsin kind of wasted an incredible defensive season with bad offensive play & too many turnovers (particularly early in the season). They got off to a slow 1-3 start (despite having a 83-46 first down edge in those games… TO’s killed them) & then rallied to finish with a 9-4 season. All they had to do was beat Minnesota to get back to the Big Ten Championship game, but the Gophers got them in that one. This was a team that got better as the season went on, ranking 33rd among FBS in their first 6 games according to Brett Ciancia’s game grader but improving to 6th in their last 7. The biggest reason for this improvement was the improved play of QB Graham Mertz and the emergence of Freshmen RB Braelon Allen. This year they have brought in new OC Bobby Engram to hopefully infuse some more modern passing concepts into Wisconsin’s power run attack. QB Graham Mertz came to Madison highly touted but has really struggled at times. He started really slow last season before improving late in the season:
    Sept/Oct: 55%, 6.0 YPA, 3-7 TD-INT, last in Big Ten QBR
    Nov/Bowl: 66%, 8.3 YPA, 7-4 TD-INT, 4th in Big Ten QBR
    Mertz improvement also coincided with the emergence of RB Braelon Allen. Allen earned Freshmen All-American honors & rushed for 100+ yards in 7 straight games. He got his shot when Chez Mellusi went down with an injury & now they are both back to form a really strong RB duo. Wisconsin always has a really strong OL and this year they return a healthy 68.58% of the OL snaps from 2021. The defense was nasty in 2021, holding opponents to 16.2 ppg & 239 yph. They held their opponents to 150 ypg below their season average. They lose 7 starters (including their entire secondary) this season and return only 44.79% of their defensive production (117th in the FBS). But DC Jim Leonard has earned the benefit of the doubt as one of the stronger DC’s in the Nation. He has a lot to replace, but should be up to the task.
  1. Penn State: Penn State started the season 5-0 with wins @ Wisconsin & vs Auburn. They we’re #4 in the AP and had a 17-7 lead at #3 Iowa. Then QB Sean Clifford got hurt, the wheels fell off in that game and they we’re unable to get back on track. They limped their way to a 2-6 finish, losing close game after close game en route to a 7-6 season. The offense put up only 25 ppg & 376 ypg on the year with a banged up Clifford at QB. Clifford is back for his Senior season along with 6 other offensive starters from 2021. Unlike last year, if Clifford gets hurt again this year they should be in better shape with 5-star QB Drew Allar waiting in the wings. By far the biggest disappointment for PSU last season was their OL play. They ranked just #112 out of 130 in OL run push and they didn’t have a 100-yard rusher the entire season. OL will remain the biggest question mark this season as they return less than half of their snaps from 2021, but hopefully 5-star RB Nick Singleton can bring some life to the RB position. The defense was great last season holding opponents to 17.3 ppg, 352 ypg & recording two Big Ten shutouts. DC Brent Pry left for the Virginia Tech HC job, so former Miami HC Manny Diaz was brought in to run the defense. He will have one of the better secondaries in the conference to work with.
  1. Iowa: Iowa ranks 2nd in the Big Ten in returning production with 71.5% of the production returning from a team that went 10-2 in 2021. It was basically the same Iowa team we see every year – strong defense with an emphasis on creating turnovers, but bad offense. I do have concerns about the offense again this year. OC Brian Ferentz (HC Kirk Ferentz son) has struggled in that role and both QBs, Spencer Petras & Alex Padilla, struggled last season. They didn’t add a QB in the transfer portal so it will be one of those guys taking the snaps again this year. The OL loses Rimmington award winner Tyler Linderbaum but should still be strong. TE Sam LaPorta is the best in the conference at his position & they do return their Top 4 WR from 2021. But can anyone get them the ball? DC Phil Parker’s defense was really effective again last year, like usual placing a big emphasis on turnovers. Iowa led the Nation in INTs last year. They also lead the Nation in INTs over the last 3 year, last 5 years & last 7 years. Typically when you look at turnovers it something that isn’t sustainable and will regress to the mean. That’s not the case with Iowa. They have a proven track record of creating turnovers. They lose only one starter from their defensive front 7 so the defense should be strong again this year. If the offense somehow improves to above average then this could be a dangerous team.
  1. Michigan State: MSU was one of the biggest turnarounds in the Nation in 2022. Mel Tucker brought in a bunch of transfers and turned a 2-win team in 2020 (Kind of misleading, Covid year… small schedule) to a 11-2 team in 2021. Michigan State rewarded Mel Tucker with a big bag this offseason to entice him to stick around. While Michigan State did have a great season, that 11-2 record might be a little misleading. They we’re actually -63 yards per game in Big Ten play (11th in the conference). Their box score post game win expectancy had them at 9.16 wins on the year, with the biggest “lucky” wins being 17% vs Nebraska & 30% vs Michigan. Credit to them for figuring out a way to win those games though. This year they are #4 in the Big Ten in returning production. They will have to replace Doak Walker Award Winner Kenneth Walker Jr and his 1,636 rushing yards. Walker was a transfer, so Tucker is trying his luck again bringing in two more P5 transfers to compete for that job. Jarek Broussard was the 2020 Pac 12 Offensive Player of the Year at Colorado & Jalen Burger is a former Top 200 recruit who started at times for Wisconsin as a Freshmen. Both look like strong options to me. The OLine will be the biggest question mark on the offense with only 42% of the snaps returning from last year. QB Payton Thorne was Top 5 in the conference last year in yards, TD, yards/attempt & QBR and he returns this year along with his stud WR Jayden Reed. The defense was interesting last year. They led the Big Ten in sacks, but they also led the nation in passing yards/game (325). Seems like when the pressure didn’t get there the secondary was left on an island. It makes sense that the two games they lost last year we’re to the two best passing attacks in the Big Ten: Ohio State & Purdue. They added a couple key guys to try and improve this with CB Ameer Speed who actually started the opener with Georgia before going down with an injury & DE Khris Bogle who has started 3 seasons at Florida.
  1. Nebraska: The Cover 3 Podcast likes to joke about 2021 Nebraska being the “best 3 win team of all-time” but when you actually look at the stats it’s incredible how this team only won 3 games. They finished +63 in scoring & +1000 in yardage and somehow managed to lose 9 games. They finished +56 in Big Ten ypg (6th best in the conference) despite winning only 1 conference game. They lost 8 one score games. Their post-game win expectancy was 6.69 wins. The following loses all had better than a 40% chance they should have won the game according to the stats: Illinois (56%), Michigan State (83%), Michigan (62%), Purdue (56%), Ohio State (51%) & Wisconsin (41%). Obviously they need to figure out a way to close out games this year or HC Scott Frost’s time will be done in Lincoln. They are last in the conference in returning production with just 54.6% of the production returning. They did bring in a new OC in Mark Whipple who did a really good job at Pittsburgh (despite what Pat Narduzzi might say). He has a couple intriguing QBs to work with in Texas transfer Casey Thompson, who started most of their games last year and led the Big 12 in passing TD & Florida State transfer Chubba Purdy (Brock’s brother) who is a recent Top 200 recruit. The offensive line needs to get better to give these guys a chance. They ranked just #94 in pass protection in 2021 & just #68 in run push. That unit returns 52.9% of their snaps this year. The defense was Top 40 by most metrics last year and returns a lot of key pieces included both ILB who we’re #1 & #2 on the team in tackles with 208 combined.
  1. Minnesota: PJ Fleck and the Golden Gophers put together a strong 9-4 (6-3) 2021 season in which they finished 5th in the Big Ten in conference ypg at +59. This year they are 5th in the conference in returning production at 66.31%. Despite the strong season, they made a change at offensive coordinator. They had the fewest pass attempts in the country (aside from the service academies) and that style was too one-dimensional. As a result they brought back their OC from 2019, Kirk Ciarrocca. Ciarrocca runs an RPO offense that was really successful at Minnesota in 2019. As fate would have it, his starting QB in 2019 is his starting QB again in 2022 in Tanner Morgan. Morgan had the best season of his career under Ciarrocca’s tutelage in 2019 so it’s exciting to see them reunited. Morgan will have his Top 5 pass catchers back along with 2021 preseason All-American RB Mo Ibrahim. Ibrahim was off to an incredible start in the 2021 opening game against Ohio State (30-163-2 TD in 3 quarters) before suffering a season ending injury. He’s back this year and hopefully he’s 100% because when that guy is at his best he is really fun to watch. The OL will need to be rebuilt as it returns only 33% of its snaps from 2021. The defense was Top 20 by most metrics last year. Their strength was their front seven and while they must deal with a good amount of turnover there, the secondary looks like it could be strong.
  1. Purdue: Purdue put together a nice 9-4 (6-3) season in 2021. They finished 4th best in the conference at +67 ypg in Big Ten play. The “Spoilermakers” beat both #2 Iowa & #3 Michigan State. Their post-game win expectancy had them at just 6.2 wins: Oregon State 53%, Illinois 345, Nebraska 44% & Tennessee 17% all went their way. I’m still a little bitter about that Tennessee bowl game as we had the Vols and blew a big lead before getting hosed by a call in OT. In a Conference where we usually see mediocre QB play & teams that pride themselves on running the ball & playing good defense, Purdue has established themselves as an outlier. They threw the ball on 59% of the snaps in 2021 which is the 2nd highest in the P5 behind only Mike Leach’s Mississippi State. It’s a nice strategy as defenses in the conference aren’t very used to playing air raid teams. QB Aidan O’Connell is back after putting together a really strong season where he completed 71.8% of his passes for 3708 yards & 28 TD. The bad news for him is that he loses his Top 3 pass catchers who combined for 203 catches, 2592 yards and 18 TD last year. The good news is he had to play without these guys in the Music City Bowl last year and the offense still put up big numbers. They’re going to have to put up big numbers again in 2022 because the defense looks like one of the weaker ones in the conference to me. The do play a conference schedule that went only 32-49 in Big Ten play last year though, so they might be able to take advantage of some weaker offenses.
  1. Illinois: Illinois made nice strides in Brett Bielema’s 1st season as head coach. The Illini finished with a 5-7 (4-5) record with wins over Nebraska, Penn State & Minnesota. They finished -32 in Big Ten ypg which ranked them 9th in the conference. What is particularly encouraging, especially considering they had a first year coach, was that they showed steady improvement throughout the season. In August/September they went 1-4 and ranked 57/66 in Brett Ciancia’s Game Grader rankings. In October they went 2-2 and improved to 47/66 in those rankings. And finally in November they finished 2-1 and finished 15/66 power 5 teams in those rankings. It’s no secret that a Brett Bielema coached team is going to have the identity of a power run, ball control offense. It’s what he did at Wisconsin, it’s what he did at Arkansas & it’s what he did last year at Illinois. They ran for an impressive 357 rush yards @ Penn State last year and RB Chase Brown (who is back this year) had back-to-back 200 yard games. What’s more impressive is that they we’re able to have this success on the ground while also facing stacked defensive boxes. Because their QB play was so bad (Bottom 10 Nationally in QBR), defenses we’re able to focus on stopping the run and they still had success on the ground. In an effort to improve on this, Bielema made a switch and hired former UTSA OC Barry Lunney as the new OC. UTSA had a Top 10 scoring offense last year and will bring what he calls a “Tempro” offense to Champaign – an up temp, pro style offense. We saw glimpses of this in their Spring game as the offense didn’t huddle. They added QB Tommy Devito in the transfer portal and he figures to be the starter. He started 18 games at Syracuse and had a 28 TD-12 INT ratio there. His best season was 2019 when he threw 19 TD vs 5 INT. He has some nice receivers to work with. I’m particularly excited about slot WR Isaiah Williams. This is a guy that was recruited by several top schools out of high school to play WR, but chose Illinois because they gave him a shot at QB. QB didn’t work out for him and he’s now a full-time WR and has the talent to put up a big season. The defense improved significantly throughout the season, allowing 30.33 ppg in their first 4 games but improving to 17.7 ppg in their last 8. They return 55.6% of their defensive production this year.
  1. Maryland: The Terps got back to a bowl in 2021 finishing the year 7-6 (3-6). They were 10th in the Big Ten at -44 ypg. They we’re the definition of a “beat the teams you’re supposed to team” winning their 3 games as a favorite in the Big Ten and losing the 6 games in which they were an underdog. They are 3rd in the conference at 71.16% returning production and on offense they rank 15th in the Nation at 81.2%. To me they look like a fun team, that is going to score a lot and give up a lot and probably play in a lot of wild games. QB Taulia Tagovailoa put up big numbers last year throwing for 3806 yards & 26 TD. Lots of people remember his 5-INT Friday night game against Iowa, but that was an outlier on the season. His offensive line brings back 100% of their starts & 99.8% of their snaps from 2021 (they should be able to find a way to replace Evan Gregory’s 9 snaps). They look pretty loaded at pass catcher too, highlighted by Dontay Demus who was leading the conference in receiving before going down with an injury after 5 games. The defense struggled last season. They gave up 30.7 ppg, 404 ypg & 7.9 yards/attempt. They had no chance against good teams, surrendering 49 ppg against Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State & Penn State. The offseason was pretty chaotic too. They made a nice hire of Kevin Steele at DC, but a few days later when new Miami HC Mario Cristobal came calling he quickly bolted for South Beach. As a result, they ended up with their second choice, Brian Williams (an internal promotion). He has a unit that struggled in 2021 to work with and also lost 3 former Top 100 recruits to the transfer portal this offseason. I think stops will be hard to come by for the Terrapins this year.
  1. Indiana: Indiana followed up one of their best seasons in program history in 2020, with a pretty brutal one in 2021. They finished the season just 2-10 (0-8). They ranked 63rd out of the 66 power 5 teams in Brett Ciancia’s game grader rankings and we’re -144 ypg in Big Ten play. To make matters worse, they are just 11th in the conference in returning production. This will be a year with a lot of new faces as they bring in two new coordinators, replace a 3-year starter at QB & saw 23 players leave via the transfer portal this offseason. The offense was pretty terrible last year. Both starting QB Michael Pennix Jr & backup QB Jack Tuttle battled injuries & the offense finished the year ranking just 64th out of the 66 power 5 teams. They scored just 11 TD in 9 Big Ten games and failed to top 350 total yards in all 9 conference games. They brought in a new OC in Walt Bell who had formerly amassed a 2-23 record as the head coach at UMass. It doesn’t seem like the most exciting of hires. Starting QB Michael Pennix Jr left in the transfer portal and they added former Missouri QB Connor Bazelak in the transfer portal. He had a nice freshmen 2020 season, but disappointed me last year. It doesn’t look like he will get a ton of help from his receivers as they return only 35% of their receiving yards from 2021. The defense struggled last year, perhaps wearing down from the offense putting them in bad positions every week. They have a new DC in Chad Wilt (formerly the Minnesota Defensive Line coach), but HC Tom Allen will take over the defensive play calling duties. I don’t like when head coaches do this as it seems to rarely work out. There isn’t much on paper to get excited about with Indiana in 2022. I think it will be another tough year.
  1. Northwestern: After winning the Big Ten West and going to the Conference Championship game in both 2018 & 2020, the wheels fell off for the Wildcats in 2021. They went into the season near the bottom Nationally in returning production and it showed as they finished just 3-9 (1-8) on the season. They we’re last in the Big Ten in -152 ypg & we’re outscored by an average of 25 points in their 8 Big Ten losses. Even when Northwestern has been good in recent years, the offense has typically just been mediocre at best. They we’re a long way from mediocre last year as they finished outside the Top 100 in just about every stat. They haven’t recruited a successful QB since Clayton Thorson and it doesn’t appear like they have one on the horizon now either. The QB battle will be between former South Carolina starter Ryan Hillinski (who started 5 games for Northwestern last year) or the younger Brendan Sullivan. On paper it seems like Hillinski would be in line, but I’m hearing whispers out of camp that it might be Sullivan. I have my doubts that either one will be a Big Ten caliber starting QB in 2022. I think they should be able to run the ball though. RB Cam Porter finished the year strong in 2020 but a training camp injury forced him to miss the entire 2021 season. In his absence Evan Hull emerged and rushed for over 1,000 yards. Both those guys are back this year and will be running behind a pretty solid offensive line. T Peter Skoronski is a projected first round pick and the OL unit returns 87% of their snaps from 2021. Playing strong defense had always been Northwestern’s bread and butter under long-term DC Mike Hankwitz, but Hank retired after the 2020 season and new DC Jim O’Neil really struggled. He implemented a 4-2-5 defense to open the season and the results we’re pretty brutal. After a bye week they switched back to the 4-3 based & cover 4 that they had previously run and we did see some improvement (but not enough). They allowed 41 ppg & 576 ypg in their first 3 games vs Power 5 opponents, but improved to 30 ppg & 415 ypg after making the switch in their last 7 games against power 5 opponents. What kind of system they run is a bit of a mystery for 2022. O’Neil also has some experience with 3-man fronts so that’s not out of the question either. Whatever system they do end up with, they will have to run it without 2020 All-American S Brandon Joseph, who transferred to Notre Dame after the 2021 season. Northwestern is a team that usually thrives as an underdog when expectations are low, but until I see some sort of improved QB play & defense under O’Neil it’s hard to justify ranking them much higher than this.
  1. Rutgers: 2021 was a successful season for Greg Schiano and his Rutgers Scarlett Knights. Considering where Rutgers was before Schiano was re-hired a 5-7 regular season was step in the right direction. The offense struggled, finishing in the bottom 10 nationally in most metrics and finishing last in the Big Ten in Brett Ciancia’s opponent-adjusted rankings. Their QBs threw more INTs than TDs. Starting QB Noah Verdell, who returns this year, finished last in the Big Ten in QBR. The offensive line was a big weakness and Schiano hopes he addressed that by adding 4 FBS transfers this offseason. He also added two Power 5 starting WR in the portal in an effort to try and jump start the offense. The defense made notable improvements in 2021, but that was a veteran unit. This year they return only 54.9% of their total production and lose their top 4 LB’s. I think it’s reasonable to suspect the defense to take a step back and I have my doubts that the offense will be strong enough to pick up the slack to compensate for that regression.

Resources Used: Brett Ciancia’s Pick 6 Previews Magazine, Phil Steele 2022 Magazine, Athlon 2022 Preview Magazine, CFB Winning Edge Analytics & Projections

2 thoughts on “Preseason Power Rankings: Big Ten Conference

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