Outside of Ohio State and Michigan, what goes up must come down in the Big Ten.

Each of the past 4 seasons, there’s been a breakthrough team in the B1G — Minnesota (2019), Indiana and Northwestern (2020), Michigan State (2021), and both Penn State and Illinois last year. Each of those teams shaved at least 3 losses off their total from the previous season.

But there’s another side to that story.

In each of those seasons, a B1G team has also stumbled in a major way.

Northwestern fell from 9-5 in 2018 to 3-9 in 2019. Penn State and Minnesota both won 11 games in 2019, then finished below .500 in the shortened 2020 schedule. In 2020, Indiana won more games against 8 opponents (6) than it did against 12 opponents in 2021 (2).

Last season was Michigan State’s turn to stumble. After finishing 9th in the country with an 11-2 mark in 2021, the Spartans were a disappointing 5-7 last year.

With that being the trend, you can just about guarantee a 2023 B1G team will have at least 3 fewer wins than it did a year ago. And that might be a best-case scenario given how dramatically the previous teams have fallen.

So, who are the prime candidates for a 2023 regression?

Penn State

2022 record: 11-2

Why the Nittany Lions could stumble:

This is bound to be a controversial theory, but bear with me: What if Sean Clifford is actually a pretty good quarterback, and replacing him will be harder than anyone thinks?

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After all, he is the guy who twice beat out NFL Draft darling Will Levis for the starting job. And the guy who finished 2nd in the Big Ten with 24 touchdown passes last season.

Clifford bears an unfair share of the blame for Penn State’s mediocre 2020 and 2021 seasons and not enough credit for the 2022 rebound. (The bigger story: In ’20 and ’21 the Nittany Lions couldn’t block anybody, and last year they could.)

Drew Allar is a former 5-star recruit fans have been pining for since he committed to Penn State. But he’ll be working with a pretty inexperienced receiving corps. Penn State lost 3 of last year’s top 4 targets: Parker Washington, Mitchell Tinsley and tight end Brenton Strange.

Defensively, the Nittany Lions have to replace cornerback Joey Porter Jr., safety Ji’Ayir Brown and defensive tackle PJ Mustipher. That’s definitely not an easy task — Porter is going to be the first Penn State defensive back ever selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.

The talented but youthful makeup of Penn State’s roster gives reason to believe the Nittany Lions could be the Big Ten’s team to beat in 2024. But it would not be surprising if we see some growing pains this season.

Recent history tells us an 11-win team is bound to take a step back the following year. It’s incredibly unlikely Michigan or Ohio State will be that team. Both return more production than the Nittany Lions.

Penn State is unlikely to be bad. There’s too much talent involved for that to happen. But an 8-5 final record would still qualify as a slip-up.


2022 record: 8-6

Why the Boilermakers could stumble:

If you watched the first game of the post-Aidan O’Connell era, you saw plenty of reason to be concerned about what comes next for Purdue.

For those who have rightfully blocked it from memory, it was a 63-7 Cheez-It Bowl loss to an LSU team that had even more starters sitting out than the Boilermakers. Though at least the Bayou Bengals still had their head coach, which cannot be said for Purdue.

Frankly, there’s little way of knowing what the Boilers will look like under first-time head coach Ryan Walters. He figures to learn a thing or two the hard way as he grows into his role. That won’t mean he’s not the right guy for the job — even if Jeff Brohm was still around, this was going to be a transition season for Purdue. It’s part of the reason it was the right time for Brohm to leave.

It will not be surprising if this team doesn’t reach a bowl game.


2022 record: 9-4

Why the Golden Gophers could stumble:

PJ Fleck’s program has posted back-to-back 9-win seasons, making this Minnesota’s most successful multi-year stretch by winning percentage since 1960-62.

But Minnesota’s past 2 teams were veteran-laden squads, and the 2023 Gophers are 87th nationally in returning production. Simply getting back to a bowl game might be closer to this team’s ceiling than another 9-win campaign.

Like Penn State, Minnesota has youthful talent that might be a year away from meeting its full potential.

The young Gophers also have some challenges early in the season.

Minnesota opens with Nebraska, which is going to be perhaps greatly improved under new coach Matt Rhule. The Gophers travel to North Carolina to face Heisman contender Drake Maye and the Tar Heels. A Week 5 matchup against a Louisiana-Lafayette program that’s been among the best in the Group of 5 in recent seasons won’t be a walk in the park, either.

The Gophers could very well struggle early before rounding into shape late in the season.