The parties bring order; Badgers are collected in the West

The Big Ten shook up college athletics this summer with the announcement that Southern California and UCLA will join in 2024 and strike a media rights deal.

When it comes to what’s expected on the football field, the narrative is the same as usual.

Everyone is chasing Ohio State.

Michigan and Iowa moved up and advanced to the 2021 Big Ten Championship, ending the Buckeyes’ streak of four straight conference titles. But coach Ryan Day appears to have fixed what ailed his team last year by hiring a new defensive coordinator and has playmakers everywhere on offense.

Now add the motivation gained from losing to Michigan for the first time since 2011.

“I’m excited about what this team is,” Day said, “and I’d describe it as sharp this offseason.”

With quarterback C.J. Stroud, running back TreVayon Henderson and receiver Jackson Smith-Njigba as the top players, the Buckeyes should reach their national best mark of 45.7 points per game.

The defense was ranked in the bottom half of the Big Ten and returns most of its personnel. Difference: Jim Knowles was hired from Oklahoma State after assembling the best defense in Cowboys program history.

“We’re expecting a top-10 defense,” Day said.

No. 8 Michigan, which won its first Big Ten title since 2004, must rebuild a defense that lost seven starters and has a new coordinator in Jesse Minter. The Wolverines have experienced running backs in Cade McNamara and JJ McCarthy, a breakout threat in Blake Corum and what coach Jim Harbaugh says could be his best receiving group in eight seasons.

Penn State has a known number of quarterbacks in sixth-year quarterback Sean Clifford, but questions abound about the offensive and defensive lines now coordinated by Manny Diaz.

No. 15 Michigan State will have a tough time repeating its 11-win season with road games against Michigan and Pennsylvania and a home crossover game against Wisconsin.

No. 18 Wisconsin hasn’t been to the Big Ten title game since 2019, but is the preseason favorite in the West for the third straight year and seventh time in the nine years of the East-West format.

The Badgers have third-year starting quarterback Graham Mertz, who has yet to meet his recruiting standards, and a rising star in running back Braelan Allen. But the defense lost eight of its top 10 players, and the Badgers have to play Ohio State on the road.

Iowa, the defending Western champion, won the ball on defense and won 10 games for the second time in three years, and some of that team’s biggest stars are back. However, there is no evidence that the Hawkeyes have done anything to improve their lackluster offense.

Purdue and Minnesota are in position to make runs. The Boilermakers posted their first nine-win season since 2003 and the return of quarterback Aidan O’Connell. The Gophers have a veteran offense led by quarterback Tanner Morgan.

The best players

Crime: Stroud was a Heisman Trophy finalist who threw for 44 touchdowns. Smith-Njigba was the nation’s second-leading receiver and set a Rose Bowl record with 15 catches for 347 yards and three TDs against Utah. Northwestern’s Piotr Skaronski is a first-round draft pick.

Protection: Iowa LB Jack Campbell led the nation with 143 tackles. Wisconsin’s Nick Herbig’s nine sacks are the most among any returning Big Ten quarterback. Michigan S RJ Moten becomes a full-time starter and is ready to step up on a defense with plenty of holes to fill.

A feeling of warmth

No coach faces more pressure than Nebraska’s Scott Frost. The equity he built after his perfect season at Central Florida in 2017 is long gone. His alma mater is 15-29, and there’s no consolation in the fact that 20 of those losses have come by eight points or less. Anything less than a 5-1 start against a manageable schedule is a bad sign.

Indiana’s Tom Allen and Rutgers’ Greg Schiano are safe for now but need to be stepped up.

After a breakout 2020 season, the Hoosiers were mired in injury woes, resulting in a 2-10 season that ended with nine straight losses.

Two years into Scheano’s second stint at Rutgers, his most notable accomplishments are leading Michigan to a seven-point deficit on the road last year and leading the Wolverines to three overtime games in 2020.

Mark your calendars

Penn State at Purdue, Sept. 1; Wisconsin at Ohio State, Sept. 24; Michigan at Iowa, Oct. 1; Ohio State at Michigan State, Oct. 8; Penn State at Michigan, Oct. 15; Ohio State at Pennsylvania, Michigan State at Michigan, Oct. 29; Wisconsin at Iowa, Nov. 12; Iowa at Minnesota, Nov. 19; Minnesota at Wisconsin, Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 26.

AP Elections

East: Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, Michigan State, Maryland, Rutgers, Indiana.

West: Wisconsin, Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Northwestern.

Champion: Ohio State.

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