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After previewing every Big Ten football team for 2018, here’s how I think the conference stacks up

You know the clear favorite, but let’s go through this top tier in detail.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Ohio State vs Wisconsin Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of each conference previews run-through, I take a look at how I perceive the conference’s balance of power heading into the season. This is in no way based on schedules, so they are not predictions. This is just how I would rank the teams after writing thousands of words about each of them. We have already completed the Sun Belt, C-USA, MAC, MWC, AAC, Pac-12, and Big 12.

Bill C’s Big Ten power rankings

Here’s a link to every team’s data, and each team’s name below is linked to its preview.

Tier 1

1. Ohio State
2. Wisconsin
3. Michigan
4. Penn State
5. Michigan State

I waffled on this a lot, and in two different ways: Is Ohio State superior enough to warrant a top tier to itself? And ... how the hell do I separate the other four teams?

To help myself out, I went with an old-school unit-by-unit ranking. I award one point for first place, two for second, etc., and the team with the fewest points is the best.

  • QB, where points are worth double: Penn State (2), Wisconsin (4), Ohio State (6), Michigan State (8), Michigan (10)
  • RB: Ohio State (1), Wisconsin (2), Michigan (3), Penn State (4), Michigan State (5)
  • WR/TE: Ohio State (1), Wisconsin (2), Michigan State (3), Penn State (4), Michigan (5)
  • OL: Wisconsin (1), Ohio State (2), Penn State (3), Michigan (4), Michigan State (5)
  • DL: Michigan (1), Ohio State (2), Michigan State (3), Wisconsin (4), Penn State (5)
  • LB: Michigan (1), Wisconsin (2), Michigan State (3), Ohio State (4), Penn State (5)
  • DB: Ohio State (1), Michigan (2), Penn State (3), Michigan State (4), Wisconsin (5)
  • Special Teams: Michigan State (1), Ohio State (2), Wisconsin (3), Michigan (4), Penn State (5)
  • TOTAL: Ohio State 19, Wisconsin 21, Michigan 30, Penn State 31, Michigan State 32

The conclusion: Wisconsin’s close enough to the Buckeyes to belong in the same tier, and the others, nearly bunched perfectly together, aren’t that far away. So there you go. Ohio State remains the obvious favorite to me in this conference, but there some impressive challengers.

Tier 2

6. Iowa
7. Northwestern
8. Purdue

Consider this the “Who best challenges Wisconsin?” tier.

I really like Iowa QB Nate Stanley, the Hawkeyes’ running game probably isn’t going to fall far despite turnover, and they’re a new set of linebackers away from a stout defense. And if Kirk Ferentz has earned our trust about anything, it’s producing good linebackers. (And good fullbacks.)

Tier 3

9. Indiana
10. Maryland
11. Nebraska
12. Rutgers
13. Minnesota

Any of these teams could break through to about 8-4 or so, and if the Big Ten ends up being college football’s best conference this season, it’s because this tier actually didn’t stink.

Tier 4

14. Illinois

There’s a chance that quarterback Cam Thomas and his new Rich Rod-ian offense find lightning in a bottle. Otherwise, I don’t see enough matchup advantages to avoid last place. Prove me wrong, Lovie Smith.

How does S&P+ see things?

Here’s how my statistical system has the Big Ten laid out for 2018, with zero equating to an average FBS team. (You can find full 2018 S&P+ projections here.)

2018 projected standings (per S&P+)

East Division

  1. Ohio State 7.6 (10.4)
  2. Penn State 6.5 (9.1)
  3. Michigan State 6.2 (8.9)
  4. Michigan 6.0 (8.2)
  5. Indiana 3.3 (5.5)
  6. Maryland 2.8 (4.2)
  7. Rutgers 2.3 (4.3)

Penn State, Michigan State, and Michigan are basically projected to equal levels in S&P+, but the schedule gives PSU the nod as “most likely Ohio State challenger.”

West Division

  1. Wisconsin 6.5 (9.3)
  2. Iowa 4.9 (7.2)
  3. Northwestern 4.5 (6.2)
  4. Minnesota 3.6 (5.4)
  5. Purdue 3.6 (5.3)
  6. Nebraska 3.1 (5.3)
  7. Illinois 2.1 (3.8)

S&P+ isn’t designed to predict out-of-nowhere surges like Purdue’s last year, and when they happen, regression to the mean often follows. I like Purdue’s offense enough to assume a bowl bid, but consider this a reminder that one good season does not a complete change in trajectory make.

How these teams looked in 2017

This was a heck of a defensive conference last year. Offensive, less so.

Big Ten offenses heading into 2018

Two offenses were head and shoulders above the rest. One is replacing its quarterback (Ohio State), and the other is replacing is all-world coordinator and running back (Penn State). And both still have plenty of star power.

Big Ten defenses heading into 2018

I really can’t wait to see what Michigan’s defense does with more experience and fewer massive glitches.

Best 2018 offensive players by team (best overall in bold):

  • Illinois: OG Nick Allegretti
  • Indiana: WR Nick Westbrook
  • Iowa: QB Nate Stanley
  • Maryland: RB Ty Johnson
  • Michigan: QB Shea Patterson
  • Michigan State: QB Brian Lewerke
  • Minnesota: WR Tyler Johnson
  • Nebraska: OG Tanner Farmer
  • Northwestern: RB Jeremy Larkin
  • Ohio State: RB J.K. Dobbins
  • Penn State: QB Trace McSorley
  • Purdue: QB Elijah Sindelar
  • Rutgers: OT Tariq Cole
  • Wisconsin: RB Jonathan Taylor

This conference has lots of solid quarterbacks but only one who has proven truly awesome.

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Penn State v Washington
Trace McSorley
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Best 2018 defensive players by team

  • Illinois: NB Cameron Watkins
  • Indiana: S Marcelino Ball
  • Iowa: DE Parker Hesse
  • Maryland: DE Jesse Aniebonam
  • Michigan: LB/NB Khaleke Hudson
  • Michigan State: LB Joe Bachie
  • Minnesota: LB Thomas Barber
  • Nebraska: DE Ben Stille
  • Northwestern: LB Nate Hall
  • Ohio State: DE Nick Bosa
  • Penn State: DE Shareef Miller
  • Purdue: LB Markus Bailey
  • Rutgers: CB Damon Hayes
  • Wisconsin: LB Andrew Van Ginkel

Khaleke Hudson had to replace Jabrill Peppers and might have actually raised the bar. Damn.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Maryland
Khaleke Hudson
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

How do you rank the 2018 Big Ten?