Saturday Tradition's Preseason B1G Power Rankings: Who starts at No. 1?
It’s a completely clean slate.
Preseason power rankings aren’t based solely on what happened in the past, or about what you expect to happen in the future. It’s about who has the best team today.
Some people might disagree with that criteria. This is NOT, I repeat, this is NOT a predicted order of finish. This is NOT factoring in perceived strength of schedule.
Power rankings, to me, are based on which team do you feel is the most likely to win any game against any given opponent right now. So if I told you that you had to bet the house on any given B1G team to go win a game for you, this is the order in which I’d pick those teams.
So having said that, here’s to enraging B1G fans everywhere:
The most experienced team in the B1G is still not the most talented team in the B1G. I think Markell Jones and David Blough both take steps forward, but I still can’t see a way in which this defense strings stops together against B1G offenses.
Despite the fact that the Knights did a complete overhaul of the program, they still return one of the B1G’s top weapons in Janarion Grant. I also think this defense has already made strides with the rugby-style tackling. Unfortunately, there is still a major question mark at quarterback and the offensive line is a work in progress.
The Terps have far more talent and experience at the skill positions than they did at this time last year. I think Walt Bell’s system will fit the personnel better and it won’t be the turnover fest it was last year. But there’s a lot of inexperience on the defense for DJ Durkin to work with. Right now, there are concerns about how they’ll fair against the run and if they can generate a pass rush.
I want to take a moment and appreciate the fact that Lovie Smith jokingly threw in a “Rex is our quarterback” line at practice. See, Lovie does have jokes! He also has a knack for diagnosing what’s wrong with a defense and making it go. That, coupled with the duo of Wes Lunt and Ke’Shawn Vaughn, should make Illinois more Day-1 ready than other B1G teams with first-year coaches.
If you’ve followed IU football for the last decade, you’ve probably heard “the defense is ready to pick up the slack” every offseason. With another new coordinator — Tom Allen was a surprising, but solid addition — that was said repeatedly again this offseason. I’m in wait-and-see mode with that. But the combination of IU’s experienced receivers, offensive line and running backs ease the concerns about a first-year starter at quarterback.
I know, I know. The Wildcats won 10 games last year, one of which was arguably the most impressive by ANY B1G team in 2015. And this team returns All-American linebacker Anthony Walker, not to mention underrated tailback Justin Jackson. So why not more love? The Wildcats lost more than people realize. Dan Vitale was vital — sorry for the pun — to that offense. Deonte Gibson, Dean Lowry and Nick VanHoose were all extremely valuable pieces who allowed Walker to pin his ears back and emerge. As of right now, I question how this defense avoids a step back and whether or not Clayton Thorson can throw against B1G secondaries in obvious pass situations.
As you know, I think the Gophers can compete for a B1G West title. But this isn’t about order of finish. This is about what kind of a team they are in August. If not for Shannon Brooks’ injury, the Gophers probably would’ve been ahead of Nebraska. Why? Only Purdue returns more starters than Minnesota. The place where departures should’ve hurt the most — the secondary — is being replaced by two All-B1G candidates. Outside of KJ Maye, all of the Gopher skill players are back, including a healthy (finally) Mitch Leidner. Say what you want about that, but Leidner averaged 232 yards and completed 60 percent of his passes after Tracy Claeys took over. Connor Cook averaged 241 yards and completed 56 percent of his passes all of last year. Just sayin’.
If you read Saturday Tradition regularly, you might’ve seen that we’re high on the Nebraska play-makers. Nebraska returns every basically pass-catcher who played a role in the B1G’s No. 2 passing offense last year. Perhaps more importantly, Nebraska finally has a steady group of linebackers to start the season. Marcus Newby is a popular breakout candidate. Josh Banderas finally emerged in the second half of last year after returning from a groin injury. Assuming Michael Rose-Ivey’s knee injury doesn’t linger, he could make a major step, as well. Still, there are questions about Nebraska’s secondary, especially if its young defensive line struggles to get a pass rush. Consistency on that end and an improvement Tommy Armstrong’s would result in the Huskers making the strides many think they will.
6. Penn State
There’s a lot to like with what the Lions have back. We know about Saquon Barkley, but I think some are forgetting how solid the Lions’ receivers are. Chris Godwin had more receiving yards than any returning B1G player, DaeSean Hamilton is an ideal fit in Joe Moorhead’s system and 6-4 Juwan Johnson is ready to take the league by storm. On top of that, I think Trace McSorley becomes this year’s version CJ Beathard. So yeah, I believe in Penn State’s new look on offense, even if the offensive line play still isn’t great. I do worry about their ability to replace three NFL guys on the defensive line, and one of the top defensive coordinators in the country. That, ultimately, could determine if the Lions make the step up many thought they’d make last year.
Again, this is not based on predicted order of finish. If Wisconsin finishes the season as a top-five team in the B1G with that strength of schedule, Paul Chryst deserves a raise. Yes, Dave Aranda is gone, but nobody in the B1G returns a better group of linebackers than Wisconsin. They can still lead that unit. The offensive line, which was held together by string and a paper clip last year, is healthy and more experienced. That, plus a wiser Corey Clement, should be a productive combination. If the Badgers didn’t have such an uncertain quarterback situation, they would’ve easily started the season as a top-25 team.
Iowa is a preseason top-15 team. CJ Beathard and Desmond King are household names. Kirk Ferentz is on the verge of signing another long extension. What’s not to love in Iowa City? Well, there are a couple of uncertainties with this team. Can the offensive line really be as good as it was in 2016? Losing Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh will definitely hurt. Also, who becomes Beathard’s big-play target? Tevaun Smith may not have been a high-volume guy, but he could stretch the field. Jerminic Smith and Jay Scheel are the likely replacements, but they have a combined six catches for 141 yards (all Smith) in their careers. Having said that, Iowa’s offensive concerns are minimal and I think the defense looks even better if teams choose to pass to only one half of the field. This team is ready for another B1G West title run.
3. Michigan State
I go back and forth on the Spartans’ personnel heading into 2016. On one hand, they return one of the top defensive linemen in the country in Malik McDowell. LJ Scott is also expected to become the next great MSU back. The linebackers are solid and the secondary can’t possibly be as banged up as it was last year. On the other hand, MSU will start an unproven quarterback, it lost two All-American offensive linemen and three multi-year starters on the defensive line are off to the NFL. Oh, and the B1G’s top receiver, Aaron Burbridge, is gone. But when I go back-and-forth on MSU, I always come back to one thing: Mark Dantonio is still on the sideline. As long as that’s the case, the Spartans have a good chance to win every game on their schedule.
2. Ohio State
We already know that Ohio State has two major things working in its favor — JT Barrett and Urban Meyer. If either one was not in scarlet and gray, the Buckeyes wouldn’t be sitting at No. 2. But OSU still has the guy who set the B1G record for touchdowns in a season and the guy who has three national titles under his belt. Why aren’t they No. 1? The Buckeyes have unknowns across the board, most notably in the secondary and at tailback. Talented they are, but as of right now, the Buckeyes are a bunch of four and five-star recruits without much game experience. Will they finish the power rankings ranked No. 2? That’s a different question.
Yes, I watched OSU dismantle Michigan in the final game of the regular season. Yes, I saw MSU leave the Big House with a win, too. And no, I haven’t seen Michigan hoist a B1G title since 2004. But right now, I think Michigan has the best team in the B1G heading into 2016. Jake Butt, Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers are all preseason All-Americans. The depth on the defensive line is off the charts. Michigan has arguably the B1G’s best 1-2 punch at receiver in Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. On top of that, the Wolverines rank first in the B1G and eighth nationally in returning offensive line starts. Whoever gets the quarterback job will have the full Jim Harbaugh experience, and a full arsenal to work with. The thing I like more about the Wolverines than any B1G team is that one injury wouldn’t hold them back. What would Ohio State do without Barrett? How about Iowa without Beathard? Can you picture Penn State beating a top-25 team without Saquon Barkley? Michigan has experience, talent and depth all over the place. That trio has been hard to come by in Ann Arbor since 2004.