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Big Ten preview: Badgers, Buckeyes lead typically East-heavy list of contenders

Northwestern's Paddy Fisher (42) could be one of the most productive players in the Big Ten in 2018. (AP/Jim Young)

Remember where you read this. The information is ironclad. The analysis is golden. Every last prediction is … OK, well, it’s not inconceivable that one or two of them could be slightly off. But just slightly!

Enough preamble. We’re on the doorstep of a new college season. Here: our Big Ten predicted order of finish (with regular-season and league records in parentheses).

WEST DIVISION

1. WISCONSIN (11-1, 8-1)

Predictions: RB Jonathan Taylor will soar over 2,000 yards on the ground. … Best bet to beat the Badgers? Michigan, in Ann Arbor on October 13. … Defense plays its game of the year in division-clinching victory at Penn State on November 10.

Bottom line: Book those tickets for Indy right now — another appearance in the league title game is a lock.

2. NORTHWESTERN (7-5, 5-4)

Predictions: The offense will sputter in Thursday’s opener at Purdue and take a while to get on track. … Sophomore LB Paddy Fisher will lead the conference in tackles. … The Wildcats will win more league games on the road than they do at home.

Bottom line: NU could be a better team this season without coming close to the 10 wins it had in 2017.

3. MINNESOTA (7-5, 4-5)

Predictions: Zack Annexstad — who will be the first true freshman walk-on QB to start an opener since Baker Mayfield at Texas Tech in 2013 — will remind no one of Mayfield. … Annexstad will, though, benefit from playing behind an outstanding line. He’ll come along slowly.

Bottom line: The P.J. Fleck Effect will turn up in the form of a few close losses becoming close wins.

4. PURDUE (7-5, 4-5)

Predictions: David Blough or Elijah Sindelar at QB? Eventually, it’ll be Sindelar. … After a 4-0 start, the Boilers will edge into the Top 25 for the first time since 2007. … A late-October back-to-back against Ohio State and Michigan State will be the momentum killer.

Bottom line: Jeff Brohm is building a winner.

5. IOWA (7-5, 4-5)

Predictions: The Hawkeyes will rank in the top half of the league in passing yards for only the second time since 2012. … The losses of several top defensive playmakers over the last couple of years will be felt all season.

Bottom line: Seven or eight victories is standard operating procedure in Iowa City.

6. NEBRASKA (6-6, 3-6)

Predictions: A lopsided loss at Michigan in the league opener won’t dampen enthusiasm over new coach Scott Frost. … Starting a true freshman QB, Adrian Martinez, will make Frost miss UCF only a little bit.

Bottom line: The Huskers will be closer to Mike Riley’s 2017 record (4-8) than Frost’s (13-0).

7. ILLINOIS (5-7, 2-7)

Predictions: Turnovers will lead to the benching of QB A.J. Bush on at least a couple of occasions. … Better-than-average special-teams play will enable the Illini to steal at least one victory. … Coach Lovie Smith’s magnificent beard won’t see the end of September.

Bottom line: We already told you about Smith’s beard, didn’t we?

EAST DIVISION

1. OHIO STATE (10-2, 8-1)

Predictions: New QB Dwayne Haskins will be solid enough to hold on to the job from wire to wire. … After early losses to TCU (in Arlington, Texas) and at Penn State, the Buckeyes will claw their way back into the playoff picture. … Coach Urban Meyer hasn’t had his last uncomfortable press conference of 2018.

Bottom line: The league’s top talent still lives here.

2. MICHIGAN STATE (10-2, 7-2)

Predictions: Game 2 at Arizona State is dangerous, but the Spartans will own the fourth quarter. … MSU will be in the league’s top five in total offense for only the second time since 2011. … When Ohio State visits in November, first place in the East will be on the line for both teams.

Bottom line: It’s a good Sparty offense, a good Sparty defense and a great Sparty schedule.

3. MICHIGAN (9-3, 7-2)

Predictions: A riveting defeat at Notre Dame in the opener will sting for weeks. … New QB Shea Patterson will be the breakout star of the conference. … Jim Harbaugh will coach his way out of any danger (not that he’s actually in any).

Bottom line: The Wolverines are one year away from being Big Ten favorites.

4. PENN STATE (9-3, 7-2)

Predictions: With all due respect to RB Miles Sanders, he won’t make anyone forget Saquon Barkley. … Pittsburgh on the road in Game 2 is an upset waiting to happen. … The pass rush will be as wicked as any in the league.

Bottom line: Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin all visit the Nittany Lions — that’s opportunity.

5. INDIANA (5-7, 2-7)

Predictions: A 4-1 start will create a temporary buzz. … After two years of improvement, the defense will slide back toward the bottom of the league. … Losing at home to rival Purdue in the finale will cost the Hoosiers the Old Oaken Bucket and a bowl bid.

Bottom line: It’s an annual tradition to ask, “When does basketball season start?”

6. MARYLAND (4-8, 2-7)

Predictions: Texas will get its payback for last season’s shocking opening loss to the Terrapins. … Coach D.J. Durkin, hanging by a thread on administrative leave, isn’t long for his job. … The biggest on-field problem: the inability to stop the run.

Bottom line: The Terps seemed to be headed in the right direction, but now? Yikes.

7. RUTGERS (2-10, 0-9)

Predictions: If the Scarlet Knights can keep true freshman QB Artur Sitkowski upright, maybe we’ll see what he’s capable of. … A loss at Ohio State in Game 2 will be perfectly acceptable. Another one in Game 3 at Kansas will send the season right off the rails.

Bottom line: See: the Kansas game.

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