Take a look at USA TODAY Sports’ projected top 10 teams ahead of the 2018 college football season.
USA TODAY Sports
Two months after Alabama beat Georgia for the national championship, teams from across the Football Bowl Subdivision are reconvening on practice fields and inside cold-weather bubbles to begin preparations for the 2018 season.
USA TODAY Sports’ overview of what to expect this spring from the five major conferences continues with the Big Ten Conference, where early projections have Ohio State and Wisconsin again on a collision course for the league title and College Football Playoff berth. Here’s are a handful of story lines to consider across the two divisions:
Can the running game improve? Last year’s offense averaged 139.2 rushing yards per game on a measly 3.8 yards per carry, Iowa’s worst totals since 2012. The slide came at an inopportune time: Nate Stanley was better than expected as a first-year starting quarterback, but the Hawkeyes lacked balance. So even as some question marks dot the defense – losses at linebacker and cornerback are concerning, though Iowa tends to reload – a bigger issue this spring is the growth of a young offensive line.
ACC: Clemson focuses on playoff, while Florida State looks to rebound
Iowa needs a new center, with senior Keegan Render headed to the middle from guard to replace NFL-bound James Daniels. Another senior, Ross Reynolds, is expected to move up into the starting role at left guard. What bears watching are the two tackle spots, both manned by sophomores: Alaric Jackson has enormous potential on the blind side and Tristan Wirfs will be better for last year’s trial by fire. This group needs to come together during the spring.
How is the arrow pointing? Pessimists point to Jim Harbaugh’s 1-5 record against rivals Ohio State and Michigan State, as well as last year’s fourth-place finish in the East, as evidence of Michigan’s unrealized expectations. A more optimistic take offers that the 2017 Wolverines were one of the youngest and most inexperienced teams in the country. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle – Michigan wasn’t up to the Buckeyes’ standard, for example, but neither should the Wolverines accept a two-win slide in the standings. Harbaugh is facing a crucial 2018 season.
There are no worries about Don Brown’s defense, which thanks a number of talented returning starters – Rashan Gary leads a very strong unit – should rank among the league’s best. The big question, once again, is quarterback play, and whether Harbaugh can finally solve a riddle that’s plagued his program from the start. Shea Patterson may be eligible. If not, the spring competition between Brandon Peters and Dylan McCaffrey will play a major role in determining who takes snaps in Harbaugh’s fourth season. Or could Wilton Speight back off his decision to transfer and return for his final season?
Is this a College Football Playoff sleeper? The Spartans return 19 starters, second-most in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Nine starters and a total of 23 contributors are back from a defense that ranked seventh nationally in total defense and second against the run. The only loss on offense is center Brian Allen. Junior quarterback Brian Lewerke is a strong all-conference contender after throwing for 2,973 yards and rushing for another 559. After going 10-3 last fall, Michigan State begins the spring as a legitimate contender.
Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke throws the ball against Penn State. (Photo: Mike Carter, Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports)
How are the growing pains? Scott Frost’s multiple-year project for rebuilding Nebraska is going to hit a snag in his first spring, as he revamps not just the Xs and Os behind the Cornhuskers’ offense and defense but the entire culture around the program. The offense in particular won’t be an overnight fix. Frost will have options at quarterback, if all young and unproven. The backfield landed an influx of speed from the recent recruiting class. The receiver corps has some nice options. Likewise with the offensive line. There are some pieces to work with. But it’s still going to be a struggle.
Keep an eye on the position battle under center. Tristan Gebbia has the makeup and skill set to be a success in this scheme. Sophomore Patrick O’Brien has the arm, though he may not have the athleticism to keep defenses honest. Incoming freshman Adrian Martinez was a major recruiting coup for Frost and his staff, but the Californian is coming off an injury. You only need to look at McKenzie Milton to see how a quarterback an shine in Frost’s system – but Milton scuffled as a true freshman before exploding onto the national scene a year ago.
Haskins or Burrow? Another competition begins this spring at Ohio State, where sophomore Dwayne Haskins and junior Joe Burrow battle for the right to replace program legend J.T. Barrett. Put your money on Haskins, who threw four touchdowns – shining in the win against Michigan – in a reserve role last fall. If the competition plays out in Haskins’ favor, look for Burrow to become one of the hottest names on the graduate-transfer market; he’d have two years of eligibility left after graduating this spring, and he’ll have no shortage of suitors.
How will the defense reload? So there should be no questions about an offense that brings back 10 of its 11 starters from the Orange Bowl, including an outstanding offensive line, a record-breaking running back and a two-year starting quarterback. The Badgers are going to manhandle teams. There’s a reason Paul Chryst’s team is projected to be one of the best in the country. But there are holes to fill on every level of the defense: Wisconsin needs new starters to step forward at end, outside linebacker and throughout the secondary.
Recent history suggests that Wisconsin’s defense won’t fall from the upper crust of the FBS, but that would demand a productive spring from those returning reserves set to occupy more substantial roles. Who are a few to monitor? Sophomore lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk could be an anchor up front. Senior linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel is an under-the-radar All-America contender on the outside. And sophomore Dontye Carriere-Williams is the only option with any notable game experience at cornerback.
SPRING GAME DATES
Saturday, Apr. 7
Friday, Apr. 13
Saturday, Apr. 14
Friday, Apr. 20
Saturday, Apr. 21
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