As recent years have shown, you can count on someone in the Big Ten to make an unexpected leap in the coming football season.

In 2018, Minnesota had what has been a typical Minnesota season over the course of the past several decades, finishing 7-6. The following season, the Golden Gophers finished 11-2.

Depending on your measuring stick, it was the most successful season for the program since 2003 (total wins) or 1967 (winning percentage).

In 2020, only the COVID-shortened schedule prevented Indiana from winning 9 games for the first time since 1967. And only a midseason rule change kept Indiana from playing for the Big Ten championship.

As it was, the Hoosiers had their best winning percentage and highest finish in the final AP poll (12th) since those revered ’67 Hoosiers.

In 2021, Michigan State improved from 2-5 in Mel Tucker’s first season to 11-2 and the No. 9 national ranking.

Last year, a couple of programs made significant leaps.

Penn State jumped up from a recent run of mediocrity, finishing 11-2 with a Rose Bowl victory. And Illinois climbed out of a decade-plus of pure misery, moving up from 5-7 to 8-5 in Bret Bielema’s second year.

Suffice to say, it’s somebody’s turn to do the same thing in 2023. But whom?

First, our measuring stick: an improvement of 3 or more wins over last season. With the exception of Indiana’s altered season, that’s the standard for all of these teams, whether you wish to categorize them as “most surprising” or “most improved.”

These 3 teams stand out as capable of the task this fall.

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2022 record: 7-6

Why the Badgers can break through: Outsiders may not yet comprehend that everything you know about Wisconsin football is no longer valid. But they’ll know by the end of September.

If it were as simple as upgrading from Paul Chryst to Luke Fickell, there would already be reason to believe in a Wisconsin resurgence. No team in the Big Ten has underachieved more than the Badgers the past 2 seasons. A minor reset would likely be enough to get the Badgers to 8 or 9 wins this year by itself.

But this is no minor reset.

Fickell hired North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo, who ran one of the nation’s most explosive and up-tempo offenses last season. And there will be passing. Lots of passing. New quarterback Tanner Mordecai threw for 7,000 yards and 70 touchdowns the past 2 seasons at SMU.

It’s not as if Wisconsin will be abandoning the run in the process. Longo has never had a running back like Braelon Allen, and Allen will be even more dangerous with Wisconsin actually possessing a passing threat.

Plus, this is still a Wisconsin defense, and that remains Fickell’s primary strength as a coach.

It’ll be disappointing if the Badgers can’t make their way to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game.

Michigan State

2022 record: 5-7

Why the Spartans can break through: Pretty much every lucky bounce or break went Michigan State’s way on its path to 11-2 in 2021. The opposite was true last season. Whatever could go wrong did. And that was already true well before the fiasco in the Michigan tunnel made matters even worse.

Injuries ravaged Michigan State’s defense from Week 2 onward. For a thin unit, that had disastrous consequences. The Spartans were 13th in the B1G in total defense, though remarkably that was still 25 yards per game better than their 2021 defense.

If Michigan State’s defense can keep bodies on the field, it should be better this year — at least better than a nation-low 2 interceptions.

On offense, there is upside with third-year starter Payton Thorne returning at quarterback. But a running game that lost its way without Kenneth Walker III must get back on track.

Like Illinois a year ago, there’s a path for Michigan State to move from 5 wins to 8 in 2023 — though it’s easier said than done in the cutthroat Big Ten East.


2022 record: 4-8

Why the Cornhuskers can break through: We make these lists in 3s. And when it came to finding the 3rd team for this exercise, the debate boiled down to whether it’s more likely Nebraska will win 7 games or Northwestern will win 4 games this year.

I’m giving it to the Huskers by a nose. Because 6-6 with a win in a lower-tier bowl game feels pretty doable for Matt Rhule in his first season, even if his turnarounds at Temple and Baylor didn’t take root until Year 2.

Nebraska has an unusual amount of quarterback experience for a program in its current position — on a new coach and without a bowl appearance in 6 years.

Casey Thompson has been a starter the past 2 seasons at Texas and Nebraska. Transfer Jeff Sims comes in with 23 starts in the past 3 years at Georgia Tech. Rhule gets results from his quarterbacks, with the obvious exception of his stint with the Carolina Panthers. If either quarterback eliminates problematic turnovers, Nebraska can take a step forward.

The concern lies in the trenches.

Last year’s Huskers were 11th in the B1G in yards per carry and 12th in tackles for loss. Both lines were pushed around with regularity. And that’s something that’s hard to change in just a year.

Still, those baby steps to respectability feel more likely for Nebraska than Northwestern bouncing back with very little help from the transfer portal.