As part of its annual Big Ten preview, The Lantern caught up with four sportswriters from around the conference for their predictions on the upcoming season. The four panelists are Max Bultman, who covers Michigan for The Athletic Detroit; Jill Beckman, who covers Penn State for the Philadelphia Inquirer; Cameron Drummond, who covers Indiana for the Indiana Daily Student; and Derek Peterson, who covers Nebraska for Hail Varsity.
Who will be the Big Ten Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year?
Max Bultman – Offense: Is [Penn State running back] Saquon Barkley too obvious a choice? I don’t care. That’s who I’m going with. The slight hesitation would be that he plays in a division with two of the top defensive lines in college football, but even then it’s hard to pick anybody else. Barkley’s electric, and he contributes to both the running and passing games. He could have a legit Heisman case with big games against Michigan and Ohio State, and, even if that doesn’t happen, he’s gotta be the man to beat in the Big Ten.
Defense: Well, the conference’s reigning defensive lineman of the year is a tempting option. [Ohio State defensive end] Tyquan Lewis is a disruptive force, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he makes a big play or two to seal whatever close game Ohio State finds itself in this season. My only hesitation is that I kind of want to pick one of his teammates. [Junior linebacker] Jerome Baker is the kind of do-it-all linebacker that can put together a compelling resume come awards season. Nevermind the actual impact he has on games — and it will be immense — think about all the boxes Baker will likely check by season’s end. Multiple sacks. Multiple interceptions. Potentially a defensive touchdown. I just don’t know if anyone else is going to be able to put together that kind of candidacy. I’m going Baker.
Jill Beckman – There’s no doubt Penn State’s Saquon Barkley will be the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. A Heisman candidate, Barkley has recorded four touchdowns in two games so far in his junior year. Last season, he rushed for 1,496 yards and had 402 receiving yards. Expect another stellar season before he likely declares for the 2018 NFL draft.
On the defensive side of the ball, Iowa’s Josey Jewell has a shot at the title. In his first two games this season, the senior linebacker recorded two sacks and 21 tackles against Wyoming and Iowa State. In 2016, he recorded 10 or more tackles in seven games. Expect him to have an even bigger year in 2017.
Cameron Drummond – It’s not unprecedented for the same player to earn consecutive Offensive Player of the Year honors, as Braxton Miller did in 2012 and 2013, and there’s a chance of it happening again with Penn State junior running back Saquon Barkley.
The Heisman-hopeful has benefitted from lesser opponents, but he’s still averaging almost 10 yards per carry and is worth the price of admission to any Penn State game.
Defensively, Indiana senior linebacker Tegray Scales is a serious player of the year contender. A season after earning second-team All-American honors, Scales already has 13 solo tackles and 20 tackles overall. Indiana’s defense is decent, and Scales’ numbers should be enough to put his name into the conversation, especially if he records another 120-plus tackle season.
Derek Peterson – Offensive Player of the Year will be [Penn State] running back Saquon Barkley from Penn State. For me, that’s the easiest answer of the bunch. I think he’s already an NFL tailback playing against collegiate defenses. Through two weeks he’s got almost 400 yards from scrimmage and four scores. I also have Penn State being in the thick of the CFP discussion at the end and that will help his case.
As for the Defensive Player of the Year, it’s a little more tricky. Ohio State has one of, if not the best, front lines in the country with Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard anchoring it, but I think that hurts both of those guys in voting on individual awards. The guy I think takes the award is Iowa’s Josey Jewell. He’s a preseason All-American, he’s on too many watch lists to keep track of and he’s got the name recognition within the conference to do it. He’s also just really stinking good.
Who will be in the Big Ten Championship and who will win?
MB – Ohio State and …. Wisconsin. I don’t really want to pick the Badgers, but the schedules decided this for me. The other team I considered in the West, Northwestern, goes to Wisconsin and also has to play Penn State. The Badgers get to host the Wildcats and their only real crossover test, Michigan, is also at Camp Randall. That said, these teams are playing for second place in the conference. Ohio State wins it by two scores.
JB – I predict a rematch of last year’s Big Ten Championship between Penn State and Wisconsin — with the same outcome. Before Week 2, I would have predicted Ohio State would clinch the Big Ten East, but after the Buckeyes’ loss to Oklahoma, I see Penn State claiming the title once again. The Big Ten is a competitive conference, and you can make the argument that the Big Ten East is the strongest division in all of college football. Because of this, it’s hard to tell this early on. But from what I’ve seen, I’ll pick the Nittany Lions winning back-to-back championships.
CD – For the record, the idea of divisions for Big Ten football is archaic and should be done away with. Putting only one of Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State in the championship game prevents the championship game from featuring the conference’s two best teams.
That being said, I like Ohio State to emerge from the East because the Buckeyes have a more forgiving conference schedule than Penn State.
In the West, Iowa could pull road upsets against Wisconsin and Nebraska late in the season to reach the title game.
An Iowa-Ohio State title game would be a rematch of a Week 10 matchup in Iowa City, and I like the Buckeyes to win both meetings, and therefore the conference title.
DP – Penn State will be the East’s winner. They’re the top team out there in my opinion and I don’t think it’s as close as others think. Despite the Oregon loss, I still think Nebraska makes it out of the West. I picked them to lose to Oregon before the season so I’m not going to overreact to that first half, and I think they finally take down Wisconsin at home. I’m a little more worried about the Minnesota game than I was before the season started, but Northwestern doesn’t appear as good as expected and Nebraska and Wisconsin should be the top two teams.
Penn State wins the championship game easily. I think Nebraska’s good enough to get to the game but they won’t be able to contain the Nittany Lions’ offense.
Who will be the breakout player of the 2017 Big Ten season?
MB – Michigan linebacker Devin Bush. He got off to a huge start against Florida, and I think it’s going to continue. Bush is fast, hits hard and plays in a defense that’s going to let him be as aggressive as possible. It’ll be interesting to see Bush against an offense that’s, uh, better than Florida’s, but it seems like he’s in the perfect spot at the center of Don Brown’s defense.
JB – Expect Wisconsin’s Alex Hornibrook to have a breakout year. While we’ve already seen the kind of success the quarterback can have, this year will be the true test, as he’ll have to step up in a starting role with former [quarterback] Bart Houston gone. Hornibrook, an NFL-style quarterback, stands at 6-foot-4 and 213 pounds. The redshirt sophomore will continue to impress and lead his team to secure the Big Ten West title.
CD – Purdue football has been bad for a long time, but new head coach Jeff Brohm is changing things in West Lafayette, Indiana, and that change is evident in the play of junior quarterback David Blough. The early returns on Blough have been promising, as the Texan has completed nearly 75 percent of his passes, an almost 20-percent improvement from 2015 and 2016.
If Blough can avoid multiple-turnover games and keep his completion percentage high, the path might exist for the Boilermakers to reach six wins for the first time since the 2012 season.
DP – I feel like this kind of honor comes down to opportunity. So, it’s got to be freshman running back J.K. Dobbins, I would think. He was phenomenal in the week one win over Indiana and just really didn’t get the same chances late against Oklahoma with the Buckeyes falling behind. Meyer likes to be balanced offensively and the first two weeks have sort of exposed J.T. Barrett’s ability as a passer, both things I think will lead to Dobbins getting every chance to pile up the carries.
What will be the most interesting game of the Big Ten schedule?
MB – There’s a few ways to approach this one. The game that will decide the East Division is my first instinct, which means it would be Ohio State vs. the winner of Michigan-Penn State. But does that actually make Michigan-Penn State more interesting? I don’t know! The Nittany Lions and Wolverines could both be in the top 5 when they meet Oct. 21, but so could the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions (if Penn State wins) one week later.
Of course, if Michigan and Ohio State end up playing for the division title, it would supersede every other scenario. See how tough this is? By season’s end, I think we’ll look back and say it was probably Penn State-Ohio State. But with everything still ahead of us, Penn State-Michigan seems like the game where dominoes will start falling. So maybe it’s that one. Right?
JB – As it is many years, the most interesting game on the Big Ten schedule will be Ohio State vs. Michigan in the Big House. The teams are on a close playing field this year, and while the Buckeyes will come into the game as the better team, playing at Michigan isn’t easy and will give the Wolverines an edge. The rivalry game is always entertaining, but the level of competitiveness this year will make it the game to watch.
CD – The answer to this question should be Ohio State versus Penn State, a game that has a good chance of deciding who wins the East Division, but I’m going in a different direction.
I’m scared for Rutgers on Sept. 30. That’s the day the Scarlet Knights welcome Ohio State to Piscataway, New Jersey, and it could get ugly. Last year, Rutgers received a 78-0 home smackdown courtesy of Michigan, and with the Buckeyes entering that game after home matchups with Army and UNLV, the Kevin Wilson-led offense should be firing on all cylinders.
The Scarlet Knights looked okay against Washington before last week’s home loss to Eastern Michigan. I’m afraid how out-of-hand their meeting with Ohio State will get.
DP – It should probably be the Penn State-Ohio State game because I see that being for the division, but given how things ended last season, it will probably end up being Michigan-Ohio State. It’ll have all the hype because it’ll be the final game of the season, it’ll be between two teams that are ranked somewhere near the top 15 and it’s THE game.