Big 10 Season Predictions: The East

By Zachary Lutz @zachlutz6

Ohio State

Whether you like, dislike, love or hate the Buckeyes, there is no question over the past two decades the football program has earned the school the right to be deemed “The Ohio State University.” 

Notable scandals and suspensions within the program over the past few seasons cannot strip Ohio State’s status as the class of the Big Ten on the field. Since 2002, the Buckeyes have finished with under 10 wins only twice… twice! Winning seven conference championships and two national championships in that span.

Despite losing one of the most demanding and successful coaches in the sport in Urban Meyer, who stepped down after the 2019 Rose Bowl, Ohio State heads into the 2019 regular season with the same elite expectations.

It will be up to first year coach Ryan Day to manage those expectations in the wake of key departures to the NFL. The beauty in a program such as Ohio State, however, is depth, and Ohio State has plenty of depth and talent to make up for losing the likes of Nick Bosa, Dwayne Haskins, Parris Campbell, Mike Weber and Dre’Mont Jones among others. 

The offense should be electric as always, led by former No. 1 overall recruit, QB Justin Fields, the teams leading rusher, J.K. Dobbins, and key receivers such as K.J. Hill, Austin Mack, Chris Olave and Binjmen Victor. 

Fields is a rare talent who combines a rocket arm with lightning speed, a recipe for making opposing defensive coordinators head’s spin. The question will be whether or not Fields can play to his full potential on a weekly basis. Fields dominated in week one, but he will not be facing Florida Atlantic every week. The Big Ten is as deep as ever this season and the stiff conference schedule may prove to be a grind for the young QB, especially considering the question marks surrounding the offensive line this season. 

The defense has no clear weakness and should be adequate at the very least in every regard with potential to be truly devastating. 

After 45-21 win in week one over FAU, Ohio State remained #5 in the polls heading into another home game against a respectable Cincinnati team. 

With elite talent and depth, the sky’s the limit for this Ohio State team, but with a rookie head coach and QB, a potential slip on the road and, or loss to another elite Big Ten squad is in the cards. With Meyer gone, this could finally be the year Harbaugh defeats Ohio State. The final regular season game between the historic rivals will be at The Big House and may decide the Big Ten East and maybe even dictate a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Final Verdict: 10-2 or 11-1

Michigan

Could this be the year Harbaugh and the Wolverines finally exercise their demons and defeat Ohio State en route to a Big Ten title? It certainly could be.

Shea Patterson is back leading one of the deepest and most talented QB groups in the nation, so he and a new look Michigan offense will try and find a similar groove that led the Wolverines on a 10 game winning streak last season. 

Alongside Patterson is a talented and experienced group of pass-catchers in Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, Nico Collins, Ronnie Bell and Sean McKeon. McKeon, Collins and Black all caught long touchdown passes in Michigan’s week one win over Middle Tennessee State. 

This was a good sign for Michigan considering Peoples-Jones absence due to a foot injury, though he plans to be ready for week two. 

The running game has some big shoes to fill after losing the teams leading backs in Karon Higdon and Chris Evans. This leads Harbaugh and new offensive coordinator, Josh Gattis, with some fun options to experiment.

In week one, highly touted freshman, Zach Charbonnet, led the way in rushing yards while Christian Turner carried the ball effectively 11 times. QBs Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey also carried the ball a handful of times with McCaffrey scoring the team’s only touchdown on the ground. 

The Michigan defense, which was slightly underwhelming in week one, will be the biggest question surrounding the team’s success. The Wolverines lost some of the best front men in the sport to the NFL and is replacing players at many positions, albeit these are some talented players stepping in. 

Coming into another season with College Football Playoff aspirations, Harbaugh might have hoped for a more complete team in Ohio State’s first season without Urban Meyer at the helm, but there is still plenty of talent to make this Michigan team a top contender.

I cannot say they will beat Ohio State until I see it, however, and add to that two tough road tests at Wisconsin and Penn State, Michigan can only hope to reach 10 wins again.

Final Verdict: 9-3 or 10-2 

Penn State

Penn State may have lost some of the conference’s best offensive players, but do not underestimate the Nittany Lions offense in 2019. It’s one of the youngest, yet also one of the scariest if it clicks, and it sure clicked against a far inferior Idaho squad in week one.

Sean Clifford is the sophomore QB stepping in to fill Trace McSorley’s spot as one of the winningest in Penn State history. Clifford is a former four-star recruit with plenty of upside. It is not a question of if Clifford is capable, but when.

Fortunately for him, he will grow up with his offense as a quartet of uber talented underclassmen running backs will pace the ground game. Rick Slade, Journey Brown, Devyn Ford and Noah Cain will all carry the ball this year among others. 

The dynamic running attack should diminish the pressure on Clifford and open up the passing game. The receiving core is also quite young and inexperienced, but sophomore KJ Hamler will look to have a monster season after bringing in four catches for over 100 yards and two touchdowns in week one.

With such a young and inexperienced offense Penn State may be missing some consistency as the season comes to a grind, but the defense, which featured one of the best pass defenses in the country last year should be dependable once again this year. 

If the offense can catch up and prove consistent quickly then Penn State will be in the conversation for the Big Ten East. Even so, after losing to both Michigan and Ohio State last year, what makes you believe they can do it this year? In addition, Penn State has two tough road games against Iowa and Michigan State. The Nittany Lions are certainly a team that could pull off an upset or two this year but they could be very unpredictable. 

Final Verdict: Anywhere from 8-4 to 10-2

Michigan State

Nobody is seemingly talking about Michigan State as a Big Ten East contender in 2019, and maybe rightfully so, but they did come into the season ranked for a reason and if their week one win is not an indication of why, I do not know what is. 

The story with Mark Dantonio’s squad, as always, is his defense. While Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan all have areas of strength and plenty of talent on defense, none of their defenses compare to Michigan State’s. 

The defense came out swinging at home in week one, surrendering just seven points to Tulsa on 150 passing yards and -73 rushing yards. 

The Spartan rush defense was topps in all of college football last year and after that performance against Tulsa, we can see why all the returning front men will likely lead Michigan State to lead in this category once more. 

Mike Panasiuk, Raequan Williams and Kenny Willekes are all returning superstars on the defensive line, while one of the Big Ten’s best linebackers in Joe Bachie leads a trio of returners in the middle. Josiah Scott leads an experienced secondary with just one new starter in Xavier Henderson at strong safety. 

The offense does not need to do a whole lot this year if the defense continues to suffocate teams, but if the Spartans want to get back to the College Football Playoff, it needs to take the next step.

After missing the second half of last season, the dependable Brian Lewerke is back to lead the Spartan offense at QB, this time under a new scheme. 

The running game is nothing special without LJ Scott, so Connor Heyward will need to step up and provide balance to an offense that should be solid through the air. Darrell Stewart Jr., Matt Dotson, Cody White and Jalen Nailor make up a deep group of pass-catchers. 

The Michigan State offensive line is one of the most experienced in the conference with seven returners, although many of them will need to show improvement if they are going to give Lewerke and Heyward ample time to produce. 

Despite the new offense, you can still expect Michigan State to play in a lot of dog fights this season. Will Michigan State be the conference dark horse or will their offense prove only capable of winning the games they are supposed to?

Final Verdict: 8-4

Maryland  

Maryland will be looking for a fresh start under a new coaching regime and a lot of new players.

The Terps always have plenty of speed and love to spread the field. This year, the QB will be Virginia Tech transfer Josh Jackson, who showed promise for the Hokies before getting hurt and transferring. 

The question this season will be who Jackson is throwing too after Jeshawn Jones went down this summer with an ACL injury. Jackson’s three top targets this year will be D.J. Turner, Dontay Demus and grad transfer Tyler Mabry. Unfortunately, there is a severe lack of experience here with the receiving core as these three pass-catchers only combined for 40 receptions in 2018.

The playmakers will come from the backfield as Anthony McFarland and Javon Leake exploded onto the scene in 2018. McFarland is coming off of an impressive freshman campaign as he eclipsed 1,000 yards while Leake averaged just over nine yards per carry last season. 

The offensive line was terrific in run blocking last year and hopes to continue to lead the way for McFarland and Leake this season, however, they will need to improve their pass blocking as Terps QBs were sacked 30 times in 2018. 

The Terps defense continues to be the biggest point of focus as they have struggled mightily since joining the Big Ten. The Terps found most of their success in shootouts last year and will probably need to score a lot again this year to win with only five returning defenders.

To make things worse Maryland is playing in the Big Ten east with four powerhouse teams, and on top of that their non-conference features a matchup with #21 Syracuse. Thankfully, the Terps see mostly the bottom of the Big Ten West. 

There is a lot of unpredictability with this fresh-faced Terps team and they might have just enough to see bow season.

Final Verdict: 5-7 

Indiana

Maybe this is the year Indiana gets over the hump, beats Purdue and reaches a bowl, but maybe not. 

The Hoosiers are more skilled, quicker and more athletic on both sides of the ball than in year’s past, but those traits do not guarantee improved performance. 

Indiana’s defense will look to bounce back and make strides after a let down in 2018, and that could be the difference in whether or not they reach a bowl. 

The defense will need to play much better than it did in week one, however, after allowing 24 points to Ball State. 

The offense will have a new play caller in former Fresno State OC, Kalen DeBoer. DeBoer loves to throw the ball downfield and Indiana has the receivers and QB to pull this off. 

Nick Westbrook leads a receiving core consisting of Donavan Hale, Whop Philyor, Myles Marshall and Ty Fryfogle. 

Michael Penix Jr. will be throwing them the ball. Penix has a strong arm, but his accuracy is something to be desired. He threw for over 300 yards against Ball State, but also threw two interceptions. Penix is a dual-threat talent though, so he and two talented running backs in Stevie Scott and Ronnie Walker Jr. can provide balance on the ground. 

You can count on the offense putting up some points in conference and the defense improving upon its performance from last year, but you cannot count on any big upsets or even a bow appearance this year. Sorry, Hoosier fans.

Final Verdict: 5-7

Rutgers

Well Rutgers, if there is something to look forward to in 2019 its that the team cannot really get worse.

After finishing 1-11 in 2018 with some historically bad offensive numbers, the offense will come back with slightly more experience for what it’s worth. 

The defense also has some more experience and some nice depth at its linebacker core. 

Rutgers has already matched its win total from last year with a home win over Umass, and should beat Liberty later in the season at home as well!

Unfortunately, winning a conference game seems to be out of the cards once again. 

Final Verdict: 2-10

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