1. Wisconsin: 12-0 overall, 9-0 B1G
I don't know what to think about this prediction.
Do I think they're overrated? Yes. They're always overrated. Every. Single. Year. But they're pretty good. Alex Hornibrook is the quintessential Wisconsin QB, big and slow and effective. Corey Clement is fine. The Offensive Line is, as always, good. The defense loses a bunch, but they always seem to have someone ready to step up.
But the schedule is as Wisconsin-ey as you will find. A Week 3 visit to BYU is the only tricky road game until the finale at Minnesota. They miss Michigan State and Ohio State entirely, and get they Michigan and Iowa at home in weeks 10 and 11. This space says that on November 18 Jim Harbaugh and company will roll in to Madison for a titanic matchup between 10-0 teams. But the Badgers will get some hometown breaks and escape, 21-17. Yuck.
2. Minnesota: 9-3 overall, 6-3 B1G
The Gophers had a weird, strange, wonderful, terrible year. They won 8 games and a Holiday Bowl. They finished in the top half of the B1G West. Tracy Claes was able to solidify and even build on the foundation started by matthewriegler.com fave Terry Kill. They were good.
Then ten players were suspended for involvement in a sexual assault case. Some of their teammates decided (and even now this still seems incomprehensible) to boycott their bowl game in protest. Worse, Tracy Claes backed them up, defending their "first amendment rights." The boycott failed, the team beat Washington State in the Holiday Bowl, and Claes was promptly and justifiably shitcanned. Oy.
The Gophers were (surprisingly) able to lure hot prospect PJ Fleck from Western Michigan to the smoking remains of the Kill era. He comes with some serious recruiting chops - his success in Kalamazoo was due in no small part to the fact that he just killed the rest of the MAC on the trail, and he has already brought a talent boost to Bloomington. He's also young, energetic, and super-enthusiastic (it would be silly to suggest that these things are unrelated to his recruiting successes). The question is whether he can actually coach; WMU had a talent advantage over every team in the MAC by the time he left, so his tactical gameday work was less important. That said, WMU's Cotton Bowl (yes, I just typed that) was not a mismatch. They belonged. Row That Boat, man. This space says that Fleck will bump the Gophers up a notch - they may head to Ann Arbor at 8-0 (!) - but that they will fall just a couple of steps...um..."strokes" (boat...strokes...get it? Oh, never mind) short this time. They're coming, though.
3. Iowa: 7-5 overall, 5-4 B1G
See, the thing about Iowa is that they almost literally never change. The talent level is about the same every year - they always have a couple of NFL guys that didn't look like it coming out of high school, they always have a bunch of 3-stars that turn out just a little better than you expect, and they almost always both win and lose a game or two that they shouldn't. Sounds like a typical year is around 8-4, which as it turns out, is almost exactly Kirk Ferentz' average record, 19 years into his tenure. Sometimes they get a couple more breaks (like the cheap win they stole against Michigan in 2016) and go 10-2, sometimes the breaks go against them and they go 6-6. I'm betting that they were on the good side of the breaks in 2016 and that their lack of a QB or, really, any real playmakers on either side of the ball mean that they return to their usual level in 2017. Maybe a notch below.
4. Northwestern: 8-4 overall, 5-4 B1G
Once again, pundits are talking about Northwestern being a dark-horse B1G West contender. Once again, I'm not seeing it. Yes, the sched is marshmallow-ey soft (they open with three easy wins and miss Ohio State and Michigan entirely). Yes, most of the 2016 talent is back; with the obvious exception of their only NFL-caliber player, WR Austin Carr. But they just weren't all that good. They don't have a single player that makes you say, "whoa, we gotta account for that guy."
If this wasn’t Northwestern (who non-close observers seem to like because of some misguided "hey, they do it the right way" attitude), if they weren't coached by the vastly over-regarded Pat Fitzgerald, they'd look like 30 other programs that are...just fine. Usually not terrible. Adequate. Take off the accoutrements, and they look like your basic mediocre program that gets most of the mediocre starters back from a mediocre season, wins an extra game or two, and makes a mediocre bowl. Again.
5. Nebraska: 6-6 overall, 4-5 B1G
I underestimated the Huskers in 2016. Sorta. I expected them to be so-so and predicted 7-5. They started out 7-0, highlighted by a win over then-22nd-ranked Oregon and at Northwestern. But it was a house of cards - neither of those outfits were as good as people thought - and once Nebraska got into the meat of the schedule, they got fried. They missed Michigan and Penn State, but still lost 4 of their last 6, including a 62-3 shellacking in Columbus. Good teams don't lose 62-3 to anyone. Ever.
It's hard to see how 2017 will be any better. Tommy Armstrong is gone. The defense (not great in 2016) is in flux, with a new DC and a new scheme. The schedule is dicey - the non-conference slate is home against Arkansas State, at Oregon and back home for Northern Illinois. They might go 3-0, but 0-3 is not impossible for a young team, and if that happens, it's easy to imagine them really falling apart. Here's saying they come out of those first three games at 2-1, which drops them in 'blah' territory. As I said last year, they're just kinda there.
6. Illinois: 4-8 overall, 3-6 B1G
I was surprised at how truly lousy the Illini were in 2016. My expectation was that the presence of Lovie Smith - an actual, professional football coach - would, at the very least, lead to some on-field competency. Boy, was I wrong. The Illini got bombed early and often, beating only Morgan State, non-B1G member Rutgers 24-7 (by the way, sounds like that one was a real treat to watch), and the most dysfunctional Sparty team in a decade. I thought that Lovie would at the least patch together a defense from spare parts, but he didn't, and he shows no talent for recruiting. He may yet, but there aren't any glimmers of hope so far.
Looking at 2017, the offense has zero explosive players, and they've lost most of their only semi-competent component - their defensive line. I'm giving them 4 wins, but it wouldn't honestly surprise me to see them go 1-11.
7. Purdue 2-10 overall, 1-8 B1G
What a terrible program. The Darrell Hazell era left a gigantic smoking crater in West Lafayette. Jeff Brohm might be good - he has worked with and coordinated some fairly high-powered offensive outfits in the past, but the jury is out on whether he can create a program from scratch. Unlike his takeover from Bobby Petrino at Western Kentucky (undeniably a good couple of years), the cupboard is pretty bare.
1. Michigan: 11-1 overall, 8-1 B1G
2. Ohio State: 10-2 overall, 7-2 B1G
This. Is a great team. They lost a metric shit-ton of talent, but it's really hard to look at the team and think they can be taken advantage of at any spot. It's 4+ and 5-stars, all the way down, one of those teams has about 30 future NFL draft picks.
The exception, in my opinion, is at quarterback, and that's going to be their downfall. JT Barrett is an outstanding running QB but limited as a passer; keep him in the pocket, make him throw, and you've got him. That's very, very difficult, but a good defensive coordinator (let's just call this mythical DC "Don Brown") can scheme him.
So why do I think they lose two B1G games? Again, it's probably wishful thinking. But Urban Meyer, for all his gifts as a coach, does seem to have a tendency to give one back here and there (2013 and 2015 vs Sparty, 2016 vs Penn State) I think they come up flat somewhere. Maybe Iowa City in early November. The second loss is - obviously - in Ann Arbor.
3. Penn State: 9-3 overall, 6-3 B1G
Honestly? I still don't know how they did it. Last September, Penn State came to Ann Arbor at 2-1, having lost at Pitt and squeaked by Temple, and those were both alright outfits. But...well, you'll have to prove to me that they didn't miss their flight from Happy Valley entirely, because the team I saw that day bore no resemblance to the team I saw in the Rose Bowl. Michigan was rolling along, sure, but it was 28-0 before haftime. Early in the third, James Franklin kicked a field goal from the 4-yard line to edge back within 25 points. It was really, really hard to watch that and not write them off for 2017, and write off James Franklin permanently. Good coaches don't give up any game, EVER, right after halftime, and that was a give-up.
But somehow, improbably, they reeled off nine straight wins before losing an extremely entertaining Rose Bowl to USC. They did it two ways - by throwing the deep ball, extremely well, and...well, that's about it. The defense was middling, ranking about mid-pack against both the run and pass. The running game was not as good as its rep - Saquon Barkley is getting some run as a Heisman candidate, but he was not a day-in, day-out productive player. Against Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana, and Michigan State he had 80 carries for 194 yards. I'm not saying he's a bad player - I do think he's the best returning back in the B1G - but I don't think he's unstoppable. The Nits ended up 63rd in the country in rushing.
So what are we left with? A good quarterback, a very good running back, an average defense, and James Franklin. James Franklin, who went 7-6 in his first two seasons in Happy Valley and had a 16-14 record as Penn State HC until they got hot, who kicked a FG from the 4-yard-line, down 28 just after halftime, who waved a gigantic white flag to his own team. It's hard for me to see him sustaining the momentum from 2016 into 2017, but I guess it's possible. My money says he won't.
4. Michigan State: 6-6 overall, 4-5 B1G
I expected Sparty to take a step back last season. I didn't expect them to completely disintegrate. This wasn't one of those "they went 3-9 but should've been 6-6" years, either. This was a full-on, hide-your-eyes, "my GOD what's happening there" implosion. Sexual assaults. Their best player playing at about 50% effort all season long (i.e. before the wheels fell off...I completely saw that coming, by the way. Malik McDowell had all the earmarks of a Perles-era half-asser long before he got to East Lansing). Rumored racial unrest in the locker room. Dumb play on the field. Terrible quarterbacking.
And don't forget the usual season-long whinefest from the head coach. Mark Dantonio is not a pleasant person when Sparty wins. When they lose? Hoo, boy, what an asshole. First of all, he's not a great recruiter; when he gets lucky, when his 2- and 3-stars turn out to be the truly overlooked talents that sparked Sparty from 2010 to 2016, he looks like a genius. When those guys turn out to be either exactly as talented as their reputations, he's got nothing. When he does get a 4- or (rarely) 5-stars, lately those guys have, without exception, arrived with baggage. And that's where Sparty is now. His low-rated guys were rated just right, and his high-rated guys are miscreants or criminals. I will (very) grudgingly say that he's a good coach. Not great, just good. He's fine. But he took advantage of mediocre coaching in Ann Arbor for seven years. Those times are over, obviously, and I honestly can't envision a series of events that will allow Sparty to get back to the 10-win level. The talent deficit is just way too big, and that won't change anytime soon.
As for 2017, there just isn't enough talent in East Lansing for them to make too much of a jump back. They weren't as good as they appeared in 2015, but they weren't as lousy as they looked in 2016, either. Looking at the schedule, it's easy to find six losses (ND, at Minnesota, at Michigan, at Northwestern, at Ohio State, and home vs Penn State) and hard to find six sure wins.
5. Maryland: 5-7 overall, 3-6 B1G
Maryland had what can generally be described as an encouraging 2016, finishing the regular season at 6-6 and making a "bowl game." They beat most of the dregs of the conference (Indiana excepted), but got their doors blown off against good teams. They did it by running the ball well against those dregs, and most of that running game returns.
The signs are not all pointing up for 2017, though - the defense was execrable in 2016 (something of a surprise, given Durkin's defensive rep) and gets younger in 2017, and they don't know who will play quarterback. DJ Durkin is recruiting pretty well, however; while 2017 may be a step back in terms of record, they might be a better team. The schedule is not kind - they play literally every good team on the schedule away from College Park.
6. Indiana: 6-6 overall, 3-6 B1G
Poor Indiana. Team Chaos looked to be on the upswing going in to 2016, but by the time bowl season rolled around, things were...rickety. And strange. The terrifying, fire-drill offense had become inconsistent, and their previously also-terrifying (for a Hoosier fan, anyway) defense had stepped up to be...well, if not intimidating, at least not non-existent. But they struggled to beat a lousy, playing-out-the-string Purdue in a rivalry game in Bloomington to become bowl-eligible, and a couple weeks later Kevin Wilson - the architect of Team Chaos - got canned for player abuse. Oy. Then they promoted defensive coordinator and generic midwestern guy Tom Allen - who was around for 2016 and presumably knew about Wilson's...transgressions...to take over. Who then hired former Michigan and Tennessee effigy target Mike Debord to run the offense. Double Oy.
So, why do I pick them to go 6-6? Wishful thinking, I guess, but to be sure, the non-B1G schedule is easy-peasy, and they finish with Illinois, Rutgers and Purdue. Allen's defense should continue to improve (they return nearly the entire unit), and while Mike Debord hasn't had an original offensive thought in...EVER, they should be competent, with an okay QB (Richard Lagow) and a couple of good wideouts. It figures to be a consolidation year - by December we should have a real good idea of where things are going. Either they're on their way to 8-4 in the future, or it's back to the dungeons. I'm not hopeful that it's the former.
7. Rutgers: 1-11 overall, 0-9 B1G
Rutgers does not belong in this conference. Good thing they're not members.
So. Two weeks after Wisconsin and Michigan wage a huge, 1 vs 2 matchup in Madison, they meet again in Indianapolis...and Michigan emerges victorious, 19-16.