Saturday Tradition way-too-early 2022 Big Ten football power rankings
Is it too early to start thinking about the 2022 Big Ten football season?
Given the orbit of the transfer portal universe, probably so.
But is that going to stop us from looking ahead?
A lot will change between now and September. Indeed, things may look much different in just a month’s time. Think of this as the 10-day weather forecast — we’ve got a pretty good idea what might happen, but you’ll want to check again when the 3-day comes out.
1. Ohio State
The Buckeyes had a boatload of opt-outs in the Rose Bowl, which taught us that the guys coming back are pretty darn good.
Quarterback CJ Stroud, wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba and running back TreVeyon Henderson are all potential Heisman candidates. Ohio State needs to replace both starting offensive tackles, but you’d think they’ll find a solution whether internally or through the portal.
The defense will make or break this team, which is why former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles was hired to clean up the mess. If he does, the Buckeyes will be back in the CFP.
2. Michigan State
This is a lofty spot for the team which featured the nation’s worst pass defense in 2021. But that’s also part of the reason we’ve put the Spartans here.
If this was a top-10 team with that defense, what will they be if they improve to something as modest as 60th nationally in that category next year?
Kenneth Walker III is a big loss, but with Payton Thorne and Jayden Reed returning the passing attack should be pretty potent.
The Badgers were the most-improved team in the Big Ten over the course of the season, rebounding from a 1-3 start.
Jim Leonhard’s defense should again be very good, but it’s the improvement that Wisconsin’s offense showed over the course of the season that bodes well for next year. Braelon Allen is poised to be the best running back in the B1G, which fits Wisconsin’s M.O. when the Badgers are clicking. And Graham Mertz might actually be the guy at quarterback, though it feels like Paul Chryst should step away from juggling head coach/offensive coordinator/QB coach duties for everyone’s sake.
2021’s victors drop to the No. 4 spot in the way-too-early 2022 power rankings.
Why? The defense is losing too much. Michigan’s 3 best defensive players — edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, as well as safety Dax Hill — are all headed to the NFL.
The offense should be potent, but we won’t know whether Cade McNamara or JJ McCarthy will run the show at quarterback until spring at the soonest.
There’s also another very big question looming — will Jim Harbaugh still be around? Rumors of a return to the NFL are flying, but they require jobs to actually become available. That hasn’t happened yet.
Riley Moss’ decision to return for another senior season assures that Iowa will once again have the Big Ten’s saltiest secondary.
But about that offense …
Without a change in offensive play-caller or a standout quarterback arriving in the portal — or both! — this feels like Iowa’s ceiling.
6. Penn State
James Franklin signed the nation’s 6th-best recruiting class, but it probably won’t be until 2023 that the Nittany Lions make a true jump as a result of that group’s impact.
Penn State’s defense will miss coordinator Brent Pry, who was hired for Virginia Tech’s head coaching vacancy. But with PJ Mustipher returning to anchor the defensive line, that will still be a stout unit.
It is imperative that Penn State improve the Big Ten’s 13th-best rushing offense, and that might not be possible without getting help up front in the portal.
If everything plays out as expected next season, the Boilermakers are what I would consider the Big Ten’s median team. But Purdue certainly has potential for upward mobility.
Aidan O’Connell has blossomed into the real deal at quarterback. Much like Ohio State, Purdue was shorthanded in its bowl game and ended up putting on a scoring display. There’s a lot of talent returning.
But if Purdue plans on cracking into the Big Ten’s top tier, it has to improve the nation’s least-effective rushing attack.
No one ended the season hotter than Maryland, which combined to outscore its final 2 opponents 94-26.
That Taulia Tagovailoa and the Terps offense put up so many points wasn’t a surprise. That Maryland’s defense could stop anyone, however, is reason for hope. Granted, those performances were against Rutgers (120th in scoring) and Virginia Tech (97th), so don’t get too overworked.
A step forward to 7-5 seems likely next year, and if enough correct buttons are pushed defensively the Terps could get to 8-4.
I think Minnesota fans will look back on 2021 and think of it as the year that could have been. The Gophers had the pieces in place to win the West, but starting with Mohamed Ibrahim’s season-ending injury in Week 1 they never managed to catch a break.
Ibrahim will be back next year along with a host of running backs who earned experience before also getting injured. And the return of former OC Kirk Ciarrocca gives fans hope that he can unlock Tanner Morgan’s dormant talent like he did in 2019.
The question is how the Gophers replace their monster, mostly NFL-bound offensive line. That will be much easier said than done.
The Scarlet Knights are pretty good at school, as evidenced by earning a Gator Bowl bid thanks to their APR scores. But can they take the next step on the field?
Greg Schiano seemed to have his defense coming together nicely until the final 3 games of the season, when opponents averaged 35.3 points per game. And Rutgers was completely absent offensively, averaging 8.6 points in those same games.
If the Scarlet Knights don’t find a way to upgrade from Noah Vedral at quarterback, their arrow is pointing the wrong way.
In Year 1, Bret Bielema guided an Illinois team that looked to have 3-9 talent on paper to a 5-7 record. The Illini will probably have 5-7 talent next season, so we’ll see if they continue punching above their weight or regress to their probable mean.
Chase Brown, who finished third in the B1G with 100.5 rushing yards per game, will definitely lead the way. There are holes and question marks aplenty on both sides of the ball, however. Bielema will at least have time to build it the right way after a solid first season.
Scott Frost has made some great additions to his offensive coaching staff, adding offensive coordinator Mark Whipple (Pitt), wide receivers coach Mickey Joseph (LSU) and offensive line coach Donovan Raiola (Chicago Bears).
But the Cornhuskers still haven’t named a new special teams coordinator after being terrible in every phase of special teams in 2021.
Also, they haven’t added talent. Quarterback Adrian Martinez departed for Kansas State, and no obvious replacement has come to Lincoln to replace him. Furthermore, Nebraska has the Big Ten’s 14th-rated recruiting class.
There’s no reason to think this is about to get better for Nebraska.
Every ounce of mojo that accompanied Indiana into a preseason top-25 ranking in 2021 is vaporized.
The Hoosiers don’t know who their quarterback is. And a Tom Allen defense is always going to be solid, but perhaps no one in the Big Ten leaves bigger shoes behind than linebacker Micah McFadden. He was every bit as impactful to Indiana’s defense as Aidan Hutchinson was to Michigan’s, but had the misfortune of playing for a much worse team.
A mere 2 years after contending to win the B1G East, the Hoosiers best-case scenario will be jumping Rutgers to avoid a repeat in the basement.
The other Big Ten team to fall hard from its 2020 grace also looks light-years away from competing.
The Wildcats had their doors blown off by Nebraska, which didn’t win another Big Ten game. Their best player, safety Brandon Joseph, is in the transfer portal. When you look up and down the roster, running back Evan Hull is the only thing to feel good about.
Northwestern operates a little differently than the rest of the Big Ten, so Pat Fitzgerald may just be focused on doing what it takes for the Cats to contend for a West title come 2024. But next year is going to be brutal.