1 – Michigan Wolverines (2022 Record: 13-1) (2023 Projection: 11-1)
- Biggest Question: Can the Wolverines breakthrough to a Playoff win? Michigan has won back-to-back Big Ten titles and have ridden that into the playoffs the past two seasons, but a stomping at the hands of Georgia in ’21 and a shootout upset to TCU in ’22 has left Michigan fans naturally wanting more. A breakthrough is certainly possible if they make it for a third straight year. If quarterback JJ McCarthy can take another developmental step by becoming more consistent in the passing game, it’ll give this offense another leg up. Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards returning give this team the best one-two punch out of the backfield in the country as well. Defense shouldn’t be a problem, and up and coming star corner Will Johnson should become a household name this fall.
- Biggest Game: Ohio State (November 25th, Season Finale) – I thought about putting the Penn State game here because its a tough road contest (and the one loss I projected onto the record), but as always its Ohio State. The chance to win three straight over the arch rivals and put opposing head coach Ryan Day on the ropes with his fan base has Michigan faithful giddy.
- Preseason MVP: RB Blake Corum – The star running back surprisingly returns thanks to the benefit of NIL and will look to top his eye popping numbers from 2022. Corum ran for 1,463 yards and 18 touchdowns as the primary weapon for the Michigan offense, and will benefit greatly after the breakout of Donovan Edwards late last season.
- Breakout Watch: TE Colston Loveland – Loveland is poised to replace tight end Luke Schoonmaker as the starting tight end in the offense and he was impressive in limited action down the stretch. He finished with 16 catches for 235 yards (14.7 YPC) and 2 touchdowns. He’s a tall, lanky receiver that McCarthy will look for regularly (Schoonmaker finished 3rd on team in receiving last year)
2 – Ohio State Buckeyes (2022 Record: 11-2) (2023 Projection: 11-1)
- Biggest Question: Can the Buckeyes get over the Michigan speed bump? Ryan Day has been one of the best coaches in college football since he took the reigns from Urban Meyer, but unfortunately he has struggled mightily with nemesis Michigan after losing the last two in a rivalry that’s been lopsided in the Buckeyes favor for my entire adult life. The Buckeyes made the playoffs last season without beating Michigan and could probably do it again this season, but if he loses a 3rd straight it’s going to ignite even more of the fan base. Assuming the quarterback position is just as good as it always is, the Buckeyes should have a shot, but they’ve gotta be more physical to matchup with the thumper style Harbaugh employees up north.
- Biggest Game: @ Michigan (November 25th, Season Finale) – See: paragraph above. It’s a must win game for Ryan Day.
- Preseason MVP: WR Marvin Harrison Jr – Harrison is the best receiver in college football already after a 2022 season where he posted 77 receptions for 1,263 yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s nearly unguardable already and expectations are that he could still get better.
- Breakout Watch: QB Kyle McCord – This feels like cheating because quarterbacks are just…always good at Ohio State, but nonetheless I’m picking McCord. He’ll be throwing to Harrison, who was his high school teammate, along with a dearth of other talented skill position players (Brian Hartline the GOAT). Almost assured he’ll end up being successful.
3 – Penn State Nittany Lions (2022 Record: 11-2) (2023 Projection: 10-2)
- Biggest Question: What does Penn State need to do to win the East? The obvious answer is to beat Michigan, but on a more nuanced scale I think Penn State need a game changer at the quarterback position to compete with Michigan and Ohio State atop the division/conference. James Franklin has built solid rosters during his time in State College, but aside from a season from Trace McSorley, has rarely gotten the play from the most important position that puts fear into opposing defenses. Insert Drew Allar, a former top prospect from Ohio who will take the wheel. If Allar lives up to the hype, it’ll make Penn State a certified top 10 team and a viable threat to the legacy programs hovering above them.
- Biggest Game: Michigan (November 11) – Penn State plays host to Michigan late in the season and will be out for blood after the Wolverines thrashed them last season at the Big House. If Penn State hopes to challenge for the Big Ten East, this is a must win.
- Preseason MVP: RB Nicholas Singleton – A stellar true freshman campaign for the running back saw him post 1,061 yards (6.8 YPC!) and 12 touchdowns on the ground as well as 24.9 yards per kickoff return and a touchdown on the special teams unit. A former five star recruit, Singleton will lead another impressive backfield and likely run up even better numbers for this offense in 2023.
- Breakout Watch: QB Drew Allar – Again, cheap to go the quarterback route here, but Allar is one of the best prospects at the position Penn State fans have ever seen, and after years of middling play from Sean Clifford, the Nittany Lions offense should see an uptick in production.
4 – Maryland Terrapins (2022 Record: 8-5) (2023 Projection: 7-5)
- Biggest Question: Can Maryland finally break through against the top of the conference? Since Maryland joined the Big Ten a decade ago, they only have 3 combined wins over Ohio State-Michigan-Penn State and are seemingly non-competitive in most contests. They did manage to put Ohio State on the ropes last season before ultimately losing, but its clear that this program needs a big win to try and cement themselves as a threat as the program builds through solid recruiting classes. Maryland gets both Michigan and Penn State at home this season, so the chance is there, but I won’t be betting on them.
- Biggest Game: @ Michigan State (September 23rd) – A very easy front half of the schedule should see Maryland end up at least 4-1, but a road matchup with a questionable Spartans squad could put the Terrapins at 5-0 when they head to Columbus to face the Buckeyes in early October.
- Preseason MVP: QB Taulia Tagovailoa – In this house, we support & defend the Tagovailoa boys. Taulia has come into his own as the signal caller for Maryland, and returns for one last season after throwing for 3,008 yards and 18 touchdowns on a 67% completion rate. He’ll lose some skill position weapons, but the early schedule should give runway for new names to establish a report with Tagovailoa.
- Breakout Watch: LB Jaishawn Barham – The former four-star recruit had a good freshman season for the Terrapins in 2022 with 58 tackles and 4 sacks and is prime for a breakout season in 2023 in the middle of the defense.
5 – Michigan State Spartans (2022 Record: 5-7) (2023 Projection: 5-7)
- Biggest Question: Can Mel Tucker right the ship back into bowl season? Mel Tucker’s first season at Michigan State gave everyone in the fan base high hopes that the Spartans could be something special. He followed it up with a dismal 5-7 season in 2022 and expectations are for him to fix that quickly after receiving a massive payday. The Spartans roster isn’t overly good, so I would limit the thought on 8 or more wins, but if Tucker is worth the money, he should absolutely get this team to 6 wins bare minimum.
- Biggest Game: Michigan (October 21) – I personally don’t believe the Spartans will win this game, but nonetheless it’s a big moment for Tucker and the program. A win over in-state rival at home and playing potential spoiler to their playoff aspirations could be a massive win as Tucker continues to build the program on the recruiting trail in state.
- Preseason MVP: LB Cal Haladay – The Spartans linebacker led the team in tackles with 120 last season and added 9.5 tackles for loss. His presence as a playmaker in the middle of the defense will be key for how good the rest of the unit performs in 2023.
- Breakout Watch: QB Noah Kim – Kim received a little playing time in 2022 but will take over the helm in 2023, and he’s garnered rave reviews around the program as a potential game changer at the position. Time will tell if that’s the case, but it should serve as hope for the fan base.
6 – Rutgers Scarlet Knights (2022 Record: 4-8) (2023 Projection: 4-8)
- Biggest Question: What’s the status of the program? Unfortunately, this program just might be *this* as a whole as long as its in the Big Ten. Greg Schiano coming back charged hope into the program and they made a bowl game quickly, but it’s going to be hard to ever get past 6-6, especially once USC and UCLA join the league. For money reasons, staying in the league is worth it, but it’s hard to ever envision any coach getting this program above 7 wins consistently.
- Biggest Game: Maryland (November 25th) – I doubt that Rutgers gets to 6 wins, but if things line up right and they sneak a few upsets in, then this finale against Maryland could be for a bowl appearance for the Knights.
- Preseason MVP: CB Max Melton – Not a whole lot to choose from here, but Melton is a stud in the secondary with 33 tackles, 10 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions last season as a Big Ten All-American.
- Breakout Watch: DE Wesley Bailey – The young pass rusher posted 3.5 sacks as a reserve last season and will step into a full time role this season.
7 – Indiana Hoosiers (2022 Record: 4-8) (2023 Projection: 4-8)
- Biggest Question: How hot is Tom Allens seat? It feels like it should be very hot. After a stellar COVID season that seemed poised to bring Indiana out of the dumpster of the Big Ten, the past two seasons have showed it was simply a mirage. It feels as though the program is directionless, and it’s going to be another rough season for the Hoosiers that should force change next offseason.
- Biggest Game: @ Purdue (November 25th, Season Finale) – Rivalry week. A big opportunity for the Hoosiers to get a win over a retooling Purdue squad.
- Preseason MVP: LB Aaron Casey – The linebacker posted 86 tackles and 9 tackles for loss in 2022 for the Hoosiers and is one of the few players returning in the defense.
- Breakout Watch: CB Jamier Johnson – The transfer from Texas is expected to get plenty of playing time in a retooled Hoosiers defense and could become a standout in the secondary.
1 – Wisconsin Badgers (2022 Record: 7-6) (2023 Projection: 8-4)
- Biggest Question: Can Luke Fickell right the ship in year one? 2022 was a bit of a disaster for the Badgers, as they got off to a slow start and shockingly fired head coach Paul Chryst. Alumnus Jim Leonhard took over in interim status but wasn’t impressive enough to secure the job full time, and the Badgers made the move to bring Luke Fickell on after a superb run at Cincinnati. I don’t expect everything to be fixed in year one, but it’s a very winnable division and that should be the expectations. New offensive coordinator Phil Longo is bringing an unfamiliar style of football to Madison that will take some adjusting too, but this is a massive win for Wisconsin to be the ones to pry Fickell away from the Bearcats program he built into a playoff program, and that will be the longterm expectation for this school moving forward.
- Biggest Game: Ohio State (October 28th) – The first matchup as a conference opponent for Luke Fickell against his alma mater, the game is smack dab in the middle of the season so Wisconsin should be fully operational by this point. If the Badgers can pull off the home upset against the Buckeyes, it’ll send a clear message to the rest of the conference about what this program can ultimately become.
- Preseason MVP: RB Braelon Allen – Alot has been made about Phil Longo and this new version of Badger football, but unlike Leach-esc passing offenses, Longo does still like running the ball and Allen will still be a major part of that. He posted 1,242 rushing yards last year along with 11 touchdowns, and should hit higher numbers if he stays healthy in 2023.
- Breakout Watch: S Kamo’i Latu – The young safety had a stellar season last year for the Badgers with 55 tackles and 2 interceptions, and will step into a larger role in 2023 for what should be a great Badgers defense.
2 – Iowa Hawkeyes (2022 Record: 8-5) (2023 Projection: 7-5)
- Biggest Question: Can the offense move the ball this year? Much was made this offseason of the Hawkeyes inability to move the ball on offense last season, and instead of relieving his son Brian of duties as playcaller, they slapped incentives for him to hit. The goal? 25 points per game from the offense. Iowa brought on two former Wolverines in quarterback Cade McNamara and tight end Erick All, and while neither are true game changers, McNamara should give the offense above average play at a position that was well below average all last season. Whether they can muster 25 a game is to be seen, but the offense should be moderately improved on last seasons woeful performance.
- Biggest Game: @ Wisconsin (October 14th) – If the Hawkeyes want to win the West Division, they’ll need to beat the Badgers in Madison in a pivotal mid-October matchup.
- Preseason MVP: CB Cooper DeJean – Tory Taylor is an honorable mention here as the star punter, but DeJean is one of the best cornerbacks in the country. He’s the leading returner at tackles from last season (75), and made 5 interceptions along with 8 pass breakups.
- Breakout Watch: RB Kaleb Johnson – A good sign of how bad Iowas offense was in 2022: even the running game suffered. Johnson should see marked improvement this season with a capable quarterback at the helm to build off his 779 yard season.
3 – Illinois Fighting Illini (2022 Record: 8-5) (2023 Projection: 7-5)
- Will the defense see regression after several key losses? Illinois had a breakout season last year with 8 wins, but several key components to that team have departed. Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters left to take the head job at Purdue, and nearly all of the secondary is off to the NFL, including star cornerback Devon Witherspoon. I expect this unit to see some natural regression, but the front seven is still littered with talent and Illinois shouldn’t see a steep decline in overall team performance.
- Biggest Game: Penn State (September 16th) – The Nittany Lions come to Champaign early in the season and it gives Illinois a great chance to get an early season upset victory.
- Preseason MVP: DL Jer’Zhan Newton – Newton has already gained plenty of Draft buzz as a rising star and he’ll be counted on even more up front this season after the secondary departures. He racked up 62 tackles with 5.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles of loss in 2022, and his explosiveness and size are lethal combination that should only get better with continued reps.
- Breakout Watch: EDGE Gabe Jacas – Jacas had a bit of a breakout campaign last year as a freshman, but added playing time in 2023 will likely springboard him into Big Ten All-American discussions. He managed 35 tackles and 4.5 sacks, and I think he’s capable of getting close to double digit sacks in 2023.
4 – Nebraska Cornhuskers (2022 Record: 4-8) (2023 Projection: 7-5)
- What are the expectations in Matt Rhules debut season? Misery. That’s all its been in recent years for Nebraska fans after alumnus Scott Frost failed to bring prominence back to the program. They wen’t out and hired Matt Rhule this offseason, a move that, much like Frost, was pretty universally praised. He has a track record of turning around programs pretty quickly, and that seems to be the expectations here as well. Winning the West is probably out of the discussion, but I do think he’s done enough in the portal to get this team back to bowl season, and that should be a massive win for the fan base heading into next offseason.
- Biggest Game: @ Minnesota (August 31st, Season Opener) – Picking this because I’ll be interesting to see what the team looks like out of the gates. Will growing pains be super noticeable, or will the team be gelled quickly? These teams are viewed on a similar level to me this season.
- Preseason MVP: QB Jeff Sims – Very rare that this pick is a player who wasn’t on the team last year, but Sims is a decent quarterback who transfered from a bad Georgia Tech program and will look to rebuild himself at Nebraska. He’s intrigued Draftniks for a few years, so if Rhule and this team can bring out more potential, it could be a huge victory to the Huskers 2023 campaign.
- Breakout Watch: LB M.J. Sherman – The former highly touted recruit saw very limited action at Georgia but comes to Nebraska with a chance to breakout with what is expected to be plenty of laying time on this rebuilt defense.
5 – Minnesota Golden Gophers (2022 Record: 9-4) (2023 Projection: 6-6)
- Biggest Question: Is regression expected? I’m not sure what Minnesota fan expectations are for 2023, but I see plenty of regression this year. The offense is transitioning from the Tanner Morgan/Mo Ibrahim era and I’m not impressed with what the Gophers have in the quarterback room at the moment. Sean Tyler is a nice pickup via the portal to lead the running back room though, so the offense shouldn’t be Iowa levels bad. I’m projecting regression from 9 wins down to 6, but I still see this team bowling unless the wheels really fall offon both sides of the ball.
- Biggest Game: Wisconsin (November 25th, Season Finale) – When you play for a giant axe, it’s always the biggest game on the schedule.
- Preseason MVP: S Tyler Nubin – Rubin racked up 55 tackles and 4 interceptions from the secondary for the Gophers last season. He’ll be counted on to replicate those stats as the star in this unit.
- Breakout Watch: EDGE Danny Striggow – Striggow has all the measureables you’d want from a pass rusher at 6’5″ 250 lbs and he made 3.5 sacks last year from a reserve role. He’ll see more playing time, likely as a starter, and could certainly become the best player on this defense by seasons end.
6 – Purdue Boilermakers (2022 Record: 8-6) (2023 Projection: 4-8)
- Biggest Question: What are the expectations for Purdue this year? Head coach Jeff Brohm left to take the Louisville job this offseason and the Boilermakers brought in Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters to takeover. I’m projecting a rough season for Purdue considering Walters is new to being in this role and I don’t love this defense. Hudson Card comes in from Texas, though, and could lift this team into bowl season if his play matches the past hype.
- Biggest Game: Indiana (November 25th, Season Finale) – A win over their in-state rival would be the perfect ending for Walters first season as head coach.
- Preseason MVP: DB Cam Allen – Allen was a stellar player in the secondary for Purdue last season with 3 interceptions and is the best player on this years Purdue defense.
- Breakout Watch: RB Devin Mockobee – You could argue Mockobee broke out last season as he nearly eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards and 9 touchdowns, but I think the new system will benefit him greatly and improve those numbers a considerable amount.
7 – Northwestern Wildcats (2022 Record: 1-11) (2023 Projection: 2-10)
- Biggest Question: Is this a lost season? Short answer: yes. After a poor 2022 season, Northwestern lost several key players to the NFL. Months later, a scandal broke that sent Pat Fitzgerald out of one of the most secure jobs in the country. The program is in a bad place at the moment and it’s going to take time to fix it, especially with academic policies preventing any quick transfer portal turn around. Next offseason, when a decision is made on who the long term head coach will be, the Wildcats will be able to start moving forward, until then this feels like a lost season.
- Biggest Game: UTEP (September 9th) – I’m picking this because it feels like the only true chance for Northwestern to best its 2022 record. They’ll play FCS Howard a few weeks later and should win that game, but a win over UTEP could secure a 2-10 record and a small step in the right direction.
- Preseason MVP: LB Bryce Gallagher – This team is devoid of talent in a lot of areas, but one bright spot is linebacker Bryce Gallagher, who posted 100 tackles last season for this defense and will be counted on to eclipse triple digits again in 2023.
- Breakout Watch: RB Cam Porter – Porter had marginal success in limited time last season but will inherent the starting role for an offense that is going to run the ball plenty.