Sun. Feb 25th, 2024

Big Ten football will look a lot different in 2024, and not just because it welcomes four new West Coast programs. Jim Harbaugh’s departure from Michigan to the NFL to coach the Los Angeles Chargers means the three-time reigning conference champions — and, you know, the reigning national champions as well — will have a new leader next season. While offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore was promoted to replace Harbaugh, the former Wolverines coach will be taking members of the Michigan staff with him to Los Angeles. So, not only will Michigan’s roster look significantly different (primarily on offense), but it will also deal with plenty of turnover on its coaching staff.

Now there’s even more pressure on Ohio State to end its Big Ten title drought next season. The Buckeyes were already feeling that heat before the Harbaugh left. With everything the Ohio State has returning next season, it’s already seen as the clear-cut favorite to win the conference.

But, is this an Ohio State or The Field situation in 2024? What better way to figure it out than by looking at The Field and breaking it down by tiers. 

Will be playing Big Ten football

Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, Rutgers

Do not jump down my throat because your school is listed here. While you may look at your team and think, “you know, if these thousand different things all go our way, we’ve got a shot,” nobody else is looking at these teams as legit threats to win the Big Ten in 2024. Of the seven schools in this tier, only Purdue, Northwestern and Indiana appear on Ohio State’s 2024 schedule. Ironically enough, they’re all in consecutive weeks between a road trip to Penn State and the regular-season finale against Michigan. So, it’s possible one of them could catch the Buckeyes slipping and throw a wrinkle in the conference race.

As for the other four, I’d set the odds of any of them meeting Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game between slim and none. None of which is to say these teams stink or won’t have good seasons. Of the seven, I think all but Indiana have a legit shot of going bowling, and I can’t even rule out the Hoosiers entirely. But Big Ten title contenders? Nope. Not happening.

The newcomers

Oregon, UCLA, USC, Washington

Of the four Pac-12 teams entering the Big Ten, Oregon looks like the one best-positioned to threaten Ohio State. We shouldn’t forget the Ducks beat Ohio State in Columbus a few seasons ago. They’re a different team in 2024, but while Oregon has to replace Heisman finalist Bo Nix, it did so with an experienced option in former UCF and Oklahoma quarterback Dillon Gabriel. The way Dan Lanning has recruited to Eugene since taking over means Oregon will be strong along the lines of scrimmage. I don’t care how much this sport changes, if you aren’t strong at the line of scrimmage in the Big Ten and SEC, you aren’t winning the league.

That’s why I’m not sold on USC as an immediate contender. There’s plenty of focus on losing Caleb Williams, and deservedly so, but there’s a lot of work to be done on both the offensive and defensive lines before this Trojans team is ready to deal with the upper echelon of the Big Ten.

Washington reached the College Football Playoff National Championship but has lost its head coach, quarterback, top three receivers and nearly the entire Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line. In my estimation, the Huskies will enter the Big Ten closer to the middle of the league than the top.

As for UCLA, the Bruins haven’t won a conference title since 1998. It’d be an absolute stunner for them to show up to the Big Ten and win the league.

While I only see Oregon as a threat next season, the presence of these four schools will make life more difficult for everybody. The easiest schedule in the Big Ten will never be easy, so there is an added element of chaos in play that will be new to Big Ten fans.

A year away from being a year away

Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin

I won’t be surprised if Nebraska takes a step forward in 2024, but I’ve been able to say that in what feels like 15 of the last 10 seasons. But, I mean it this time! I don’t know that five-star freshman Dylan Raiola is a ready-made Big Ten starter at QB, but if he shows up and plays to the recruit rating, he gives Nebraska an elite signal caller. That’s always worth a lot, particularly when I don’t know how many elite QBs the Big Ten will have in 2024.

I love the Jonathan Smith hire at Michigan State and expect it’ll pay dividends in the long run, and the Spartans have a high-ceiling QB of their own in Oregon State transfer Aidan Chiles. So, it’s possible they make noise in 2024, too, but the depth of this roster isn’t where it needs to be to compete at the top of the league yet.

Wisconsin may have disappointed in 2023, but the season went as well as I expected in Luke Fickell’s first year. It’s hard to change a team’s entire identity in one season, even in the age of the transfer portal. I expect things will be better in 2024. Bucky has upgraded at QB with Tyler Van Dyke and another offseason of roster overhaul

The end table on which you stub your toe

Iowa

The Hawkeyes sit in a bit of a gray zone. There’s no reason to think they’ll win the Big Ten next year, but there’s never any reason to believe Iowa will win the Big Ten, yet it routinely shows up and wins 10 games while scoring only 13 points per game. So, I’m putting them here between Michigan State, Nebraska and Wisconsin, but not with the next tier.

You may not like how Iowa goes about its business, but you have to respect it, and there’s plenty of reason to believe this team will be better in 2024. Yes, the offense stinks, but nearly everybody of importance is back. The entire offensive line returns and has depth. Cade McNamara returns at QB after missing most of the season with an injury, as does tight end Luke Lachey. There will also be a new offensive coordinator and perhaps a slightly more optimistic approach on that side of the ball. Sure, the defense loses some big names, but this defense always loses players and it’s one of the best in the league every year regardless.

The usual suspects

Michigan, Penn State

The Big Ten has been a two-team race that’s often viewed as a three-team race the last few years. The 2023 season was the one where I believed Penn State would present a real challenge to Michigan and Ohio State. It didn’t happen. I haven’t given up on Drew Allar, but he wasn’t helped last season by the absence of a playmaker on offense who could stretch the field vertically. Will Penn State have one in 2024? Julian Fleming transferred in from Ohio State, but he’s more of a threat underneath than over the top. Perhaps new offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki can scheme up the explosive plays this offense lacked, just as he did the last few years with Kansas. Without them, it’s hard to see Penn State breaking through.

As for Michigan … it’s Michigan. Things will look different next season, but I’m not writing off the Wolverines. Having one of the best defenses in the nation helped this team win a national title, and most of the key parts to that defense will be back next year. No matter who the coordinator is, Michigan will have one of the premier defensive lines in the country as well as a cornerback capable of erasing the opponent’s top option from the game. That will give them a chance against anybody. The key to this team will e replacing J.J. McCarthy at QB and retooling the offensive line. No matter what, there’s likely to be a step back at those spots. While that eliminates Michigan from winning a national title in my eyes, it doesn’t eliminate them from Big Ten contention. Ignore this team at your own risk.

The favorite

Ohio State

I could go on about why Ohio State is the favorite to win the Big Ten next season, but I’ll keep it short and sweet. It boasts the most talented and deepest roster in the league. Nearly the entirety of an elite defense returns, and it’s added more elite talent via the transfer portal in former Alabama star safety Caleb Downs.

The concerns are special teams and the QB position. Ohio State is changing its philosophy on offense and seems to be moving toward a ground-based attack under new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. There’s the two-headed monster of TreVeyon Henderson and former Ole Miss star Quinshon Judkins at running back and Will Howard replacing Kyle McCord under center. Howard is a greater threat with his legs than McCord could ever be, and I expect the offense will look more like it did in the days of J.T. Barrett than it did with Justin Fields and C.J. Stroud.

But, what happens if Howard gets hurt? Ohio State has one of the most talented QB rooms in the nation, but there’s minimal experience behind Howard. I trust Ryan Day to develop QBs, but it could get sketchy if the Buckeyes find themselves relying on a freshman in the race for a Big Ten title.

Still, that’s more of a break glass in case of emergency situation. Anything can happen when the games are played, but on paper and at full strength, the Buckeyes will be heavy favorites to win the Big Ten — and the first-round bye that comes with it in the new-look CFP — heading into the fall.

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