As the Big Ten seeks to put a team into the College Football Playoff for the first time in three years, what’s the pecking order heading into 2019? The Sun-Times’ predicted order of finish (head-to-head tiebreakers in effect):
1. IOWA (9-3, 7-2 Big Ten)
Predictions: Quarterback Nate Stanley has his best season. It helps to have decent wide receivers to throw to. … A rivalry loss at Iowa State hurts, but clutch wins at Wisconsin and Northwestern make up for it.
Bottom line: The Hawkeyes’ offensive line happily pushes a blocking sled all the way to Indianapolis.
2. WISCONSIN (9-3, 6-3)
Predictions: Jonathan Taylor becomes one of college football’s top 10 all-time rushers before skipping his senior year. … Jack Coan isn’t able to hold off stud freshman QB Graham Mertz past the Michigan game, which the Badgers lose.
Bottom line: Another winning season in Madison. Rinse. Repeat.
3. NORTHWESTERN (8-4, 6-3)
Predictions: How does an upset of Nebraska in Lincoln sound? … Quarterback play is good enough, but former starter Clayton Thorson is missed. … Another late-season streak: Wildcats win their final five.
Bottom line: Isn’t it time Pat Fitzgerald’s name surfaced in some more coaching rumors?
4. NEBRASKA (9-3, 6-3)
Predictions: Sophomore QB Adrian Martinez sets himself up for a Heisman Trophy campaign in 2020. … A subpar defense has a few decidedly non-championship-like days. … Watch out for that league opener at Illinois. (Yes, really.)
Bottom line: Don’t forget how good the Huskers were throughout the second half of last season.
5. PURDUE (6-6, 4-5)
Predictions: The nonconference schedule is too tricky to navigate without a loss. … Rondale Moore doesn’t get as many total touches as he did in an amazing freshman season, but he’s still be the league’s most entertaining player.
Bottom line: The Boilermakers are a year away.
6. ILLINOIS (6-6, 3-6)
Predictions: You want to get nuts? Let’s get nuts — Illini start 5-0. But then the wheels come off. … Lovie Smith’s defense is one of the league’s worst again.
Bottom line: Any bowl will do.
7. MINNESOTA (4-8, 2-7)
Predictions: What, an early loss at Fresno State? … What, a loss at home to Illinois? … What, no more America’s sweetheart status for P.J. Fleck?
Bottom line: Somebody has to be the most disappointing team in the Big Ten.
1. PENN STATE (11-1, 8-1)
Predictions: It’s the defense’s turn to lead the way in Happy Valley. … Linebacker Micah Parsons blows up into the breakout defensive star of the league. … Michigan or Ohio State? Ohio State or Michigan? Too many people are sleeping on the Nittany Lions.
Bottom line: It’s time to see some new blood in the playoff. (No, Jim Harbaugh, not yours.)
2. OHIO STATE (10-2, 7-2)
Predictions: QB Justin Fields is a step back from Dwayne Haskins. … A regular-season-ending victory at Michigan puts a smile on every last Buckeyes fan’s face.
Bottom line: Urban Meyer’s successor, Ryan Day, fails to deliver a division title. The Michigan thing works, though.
3. MICHIGAN (10-2, 7-2)
Predictions: Shea Patterson ascends to first-team all-league at QB. … How long is offensive coordinator Jim Gattis’ rope, really? Harbaugh’s impulse to simplify things eventually interferes.
Bottom line: Those friggin’ Buckeyes.
4. MICHIGAN STATE (7-5, 4-5)
Predictions: A defense led by Kenny Willekes and Raequon Williams up front keeps the Spartans in every game. … Where have all the offensive skill players gone? QB Brian Lewerke is just OK again.
Bottom line: Things don’t always end well anymore for Close Game U.
5. MARYLAND (4-8, 2-7)
Predictions: Virginia Tech transfer QB Josh Jackson has some exciting moments, but his own defense is his worst enemy. … Mike Locksley’s “dream job” doesn’t seem dreamy at all with Michigan, OSU, Nebraska and MSU all in November.
Bottom line: Happy recruitin’, Locks!
6. INDIANA (4-8, 1-8)
Predictions: Third-year coach Tom Allen can’t possibly lose any more in-state mojo to Purdue, can he? … A third straight Old Oaken Bucket loss to the Boilermakers won’t go over well at all.
Bottom line: Oh, well, at least there’s Rutgers.
7. RUTGERS (1-11, 0-9)
Predictions: Not one, not two, but three QBs see significant action. It’s not a good thing. … As Mr. T said: “Pain.”
Bottom line: Whose big idea was it to join this league, anyway?