One must look all the way back to the 2011 season to find the last time Michigan beat Ohio State on a college football field, but this is the year that both oddsmakers and sports bettors bettors agree that the Wolverines are the team to beat in the Big Ten. This will be the dawning of a new era for the Buckeyes, with Urban Meyer calling it quits after seven seasons, finally leaving the door open for Jim Harbaugh to assert he and his Wolverines as the new class of the conference.
Penn State has been another perennial powerhouse as of late – a team in the National Title hunt the last two seasons, but the departure of the school’s all-time leading passer, Trace McSorley has expectations tempered a bit. James Franklin will look to prove to naysayers that McSorley is a product of his success and not the other way around, in 2019, with a new quarterback, and a very young team.
It’s easy to forget that Michigan State is just three years removed from being crowned Big Ten Champions, but Mark Dantonio is the most experienced coach in the conference by far, with one of the more experienced teams in the country, and this is a team that could surprise people this season. Don’t sleep on Sparty.
Aside from the “Big Four” in the East, the rest of the division is in another tier if you will, with Indiana, Maryland, and Rutgers being programs to which a bowl appearance is considered a successful season. That doesn’t mean we can’t find some value in these teams from a Season Win Total perspective, and that’s exactly what I’ll look to do in this conference preview – zoning in on the East Division of the Big Ten for quick glimpse into season long expectations for all seven teams.
Starting with the best bet, I’ll give a play for every team in the division, from top to bottom, summarizing some angles to consider for each respective team as part of a mini preview for this 2019 college football season in the Big Ten East.
Big Ten East Win Total Best Bet
Michigan State Over 7.5 (-175 BetOnline) – As alluded to in the introduction, Michigan State has the feel of a team hiding quietly under the radar.
Ravaged by injury last season on offense, Sparty only 18.7 points per game; but with injuries comes depth of experience, and now, with 17 starters returning in total, they are one of the more experienced teams in the entire country. And not only is the team experienced, but the Head Coach, Mark Dantonio, is the most experienced in the conference, approaching his 13th year in East Lansing, and 18th overall.
Brian Lewerke, the first freshman to start at quarterback for Michigan State since 2004, in his junior campaign last season, was completing 64% (20 TDs, 7 INTS) of his passes before injuring his shoulder in Week Six, which caused a regression in statistics (60%, 8 TDS, 7 INTS) and eventually led to him missing three games. Now healthy for his senior season, Lewerke figures to be one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten behind what should be one of the most improved offensive line’s in the conference, which is laden with upperclassmen, and returns seven players total who started games last season.
As improved as the offense could be in 2019, it is the Spartan defense, that will inevitably carry the load; in returning eight starters, including Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, Sr. NT Raequan Williams, to a unit that was the number one rush defense in the nation last year, by far. And while allowing 305 passing yards per game in the first five games of the season, the secondary morphed into one of elite Pass defenses in the country as well, giving up only 175 pass yards per game in the last eight games. 5th year defensive coordinator, Mike Tressel, and Michigan State, have the potential to finish 2019 with the best defense in the nation.
The schedule won’t be easy, with games on the road at Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan; but with Penn State being the only game at home in which that they won’t likely be over touchdown favorite, according the Adam’s Power Ratings, six wins seem inevitable. With an away game at Rutgers, make it seven wins; and with seven, they’ll just need one win out of those four other road games to make it eight, and Sparty should be a favorite at Northwestern.
The -175 is a high price to pay, but for good reason, seven wins is a near foregone conclusion, while getting to eight may not even require an upset.
Michigan Over 9.5 (-210 BetOnline) – In what will be his fifth year here at Michigan, Jim Harbaugh has yet to bring home a Big Ten Championship, but with Ohio State formulating a new identity given the departure of Urban Meyer, and Penn State losing its all-time leading passer, this may be the year.
Eight starters, including senior quarterback Shea Patterson will return to an offense that will bring in a new up-tempo Pro Spread No Huddle style with newly acquired offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, from Alabama. A style more suited to Patterson, the offense should improve, and with four All-Big Ten starters returning to the offensive line, it has the potential to be dangerous.
The defense is always elite under four-year defensive coordinator, Don Brown, and if it weren’t for the final two games last season – one of which was the 62-39 blowout @ Ohio State, Michigan would’ve easily finished with the best defense in the country. The Wolverines will have to cope with some big losses such as MLB Devin Bush (1st Team All-American), DE Rashan Gary (1st round draft pick), and DE Chase Winovich (3rd round draft pick), and will only return five starters, but Brown will likely have this defense in its usually place – among the best in the country.
While the schedule will be top 10 in difficulty as far as Phil Steele is concerned, Michigan will get some of its most difficult games on the schedule at home: Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State. And according to Burke’s Power Ratings, Michigan will be favored in every single game this year, with the Penn State game being the only one lined at less than a field goal.
The stars seem to be aligning for Michigan and Harbaugh to make a run at, not only a Big Ten Championship, but a Playoff appearance, and double digit wins for the 4th time in six years for Harbaugh doesn’t seem like much of a stretch.
Ohio State Lean Under (10 +100 BetOnline) – The big story for the Bucks, of course, is the departure of Urban Meyer; with 40-year old, first-year head coach Ryan Day attempting to replace the three-time National Champion. The effects of losing Meyer are already being felt, with Ohio State ranking 14th in the country per 247sports in recruiting for 2019, with 17 commits, and 3 five stars down from 2nd overall last year, with 26 commits, 3 being five-star. Day did go 3-0 last year during Urban’s suspension, but these are big, Hall of Fame level, shoes to fill for a young coach.
Kevin Wilson will be back to coordinate an offense that will only return four starters, and will have to replace quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who finished third in Heisman voting and broke nearly every OSU passing record in 2018. Justin Fields, a true sophomore transfer from Georgia who was a top-three prospect coming out of high school and played in 12 games as a freshman, completing 69.2% of his passes will take over. JK Dobbins (230 ATT, 1079 YDS, 10 TD) will be expected to carry a heavier load this season, behind an offensive line that returns four upperclassmen with starting experience. The offense will be fine; but it is regression is the expectation from the 536 ypg and 42.3 ppg achieved last season.
The defense, under newly acquired co-defensive coordinators Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley, returns nine starters from a unit that was the worst in 50 years, in terms of yards allowed per game, for the Buckeyes, in 2018. With not one Underclassmen expected to start, that experience on defense should result in better numbers this year for a unit that died by the big play last season.
Ohio State, per Phil Steele’s Magazine, will play the 17th most difficult schedule in the country this year, but will still likely be favored in every game except the Big One, in Ann Arbor, on the last week of the season. Aside from the game in Michigan, The Bucks will get their biggest games in the Big Ten at home: Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Penn State. So, while some things set up favorably in terms of schedule, a win total set at 10 doesn’t give much margin for error, especially if we think this may be the year Harbaugh gets the monkey off his back. The games: at an up-and-coming Nebraska, and at Northwestern, who will be off a bye, are dangerous and the Michigan State, Penn State, and Wisconsin games, while likely lined in the touchdown range – per Adam’s PR’s – are certainly losable games. I’d rather take the even money bet (Under), instead of hoping for near perfection with a young coach, young quarterback, and an altogether inexperienced team.
Penn State Under 8.5 (-105 BetOnline) – After two 11-win seasons, one of which resulted in a Big Ten Championship and a Rose Bowl appearance (2016), Penn State came into the 2018 season as a top-ten team, and a National Title Contender. Back-to-back close losses to Ohio State and Michigan State midseason derailed their dreams and a 9-3 finish was a step back for the program, and a major disappointment, considering it was their All-time leading passer Trace McSorley’s senior season. Now with a new sophomore quarterback, Sean Clifford, and only 12 returning starters, they are one of the youngest teams in the country (123rd Phil Steele Mag) and James Franklin’s coaching acumen will assuredly be put to the test.
Ricky Rahne will assume offensive coordinator duties for another year for an offense that will only start one senior in total, and a sophomore quarterback who has never started a game. Granted, McSorley took a pretty big step back in 2018, completing only 53% of his passes for 2530 yards, but I don’t see how there isn’t a significant dropoff on offense in losing all of the experience they have.
The defense, co-coordinated by Brent Pry and Tim Banks for the last four years, will be a lot more experienced, however, starting all Upperclassmen aside from one sophomore at linebacker. With 1st team All-Big Ten DE Yetur Gross-Matos, #1 overall high school LB prospect So. Micah Parsons (83 tackles 2018), and senior CB John Reid all returning, this figures to quite possibly be the best defense in the Big Ten, and maybe even the country. They can be expected to improve upon an impressive 20.5 ppg allowed in 2018.
The schedule is quite soft for Penn State this year (42nd Overall Phil Steel Mag), but they still figure to be underdogs in four out of 12 games according to Adam’s PR’s (@ Iowa, vs. Michigan, @ MSU, and @ Ohio State). With a season win total set at 8.5, and such a young, unproven offense, I’d be hesitant to rely on them pulling off one of these upsets or even them not getting upset as a favorite at some point during the season. Under seems to be the much safer bet, especially at a cheap -105.
Indiana Under 6 (+130 BetOnline) – Indiana made it to their second straight bowl game in 2016, but since Tom Allen over as head coach of the Hoosiers, they have missed by one game in two consecutive years. The season win total would suggest that this is the year they are expected to get back to a bowl, and with 14 returning starters in full, they are the 26th most experienced team in the nation per Phil Steele’s Magazine.
With a newly hired offensive coordinator, Kalen DeBoer – out of the Jeff Tedford camp at Fresno State – the offense is hoping to get back to its 2015 form, in which it was the best offense in the Big 10. And even though junior Peyton Ramsey through the 2nd most completions in school history, it may be Redshirt freshman Michael Penix who leads the offense, who looked primed to take Ramsey’s job last season before tearing his ACL vs. Penn State. He’s an athlete, with a strong arm, and could take this O to the next level behind a senior-laden offensive line.
Bringing in Tom Allen as defensive coordinator, Indiana went from the 120th best defense in 2014 to the 28th best in 2017. Last year, with a young team, the D regressed a bit; but this year, with seven returning starters and a new DC, it’s possible they get back to 2017 form. Kane Wommack, last year’s LB coach will take over as defensive coordinator, but it’s Allen’s defense nonetheless.
While Indiana may be improved in 2019 with all its experience, their schedule is difficult enough that they’ll likely only be favored in five games per Adam’s PR’s and would need to pull off a couple of upsets to get to seven wins. One of those games in which they will be favored is at Maryland, and in that game they’ll be less than a field goal favorite, so it’ll essentially be a coin flip. They may go 4-2 in the first half of the schedule, but down the stretch they’ll play four away games with Northwestern and Michigan being tough outs at home.
Maryland Under 4 (+115 BetOnline) – Last year was one of tragedy and tumult for the Terps, having suffered the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, and subsequently dealing with the suspension and eventual firing of their Head Coach, DJ Durkin, midway through the season. Last year’s interim Head Coach, Mike Locksley, from the Nick Saban tree, went 1-5 in taking over for Durkin, but will assume his role as Head Coach of a Maryland team returning just 10 starters. Adding Virginia Tech’s starting quarterback, junior Joshua Jackson via transfer was the huge news in the offseason and does give this team a fighter’s chance in achieving their goal of getting back to a bowl game.
Jackson started 16 games for VA Tech, throwing for 3566 yards with a 25-10 ratio and a 60% completion rate; his talent and experience will be needed on a young offense returning just five starters from a season ago. One of those starters returning is sophomore running back, Anthony McFarland, who broke Maryland’s single season freshman rushing record (1077 yards) and became the first 1st RB in school history to rush for back-to-back 200-yard games. They have some talent, but are young, with only six upperclassmen expected to start, and will also be introducing a new offense, with Scottie Montgomery joining the team from ECU as coordinator.
The Terps will also bring in a new defensive coordinator, Jon Hoke, who spent 16 years coaching DB’s in the NFL and two season coordinating Florida’s defense from 1999-2001. The defense is also young, returning only five starters and expected to start five underclassmen, so there will be a learning curve. They may put up similar numbers to 2018’s 28.6 points allowed per game, which was middle of the pack in the Big Ten.
Unfortunately for Maryland, they draw one of the toughest schedules in the country (11th most difficult, Phil Steele Mag) so getting back to a bowl game may be a bit of a stretch. Adam’s PR’s have them favored in only three games (Howard, @ Temple, @ Rutgers), so getting over four would require multiple upsets, and considering how young of a team they are, I wouldn’t bet on that happening. With new coaches, young players, and a brutal schedule, this has the feel of a rebuilding year for Maryland.
Rutgers Under 2.5 (+160 BetOnline) – 2018 was a season to forget for the Scarlet Knights, who after starting the season off on a high note with a 35-7 win over Texas State, lost the remaining 11 games. They did play Northwestern (15-18) and Michigan State (10-14) tough, but in the end, made it four straight losing seasons for head coach Chris Ash.
The offense was atrocious in 2018, and after that 35-point output vs. Texas State, did not muster more than 17 points in a single game. There will be some continuity for once on offense for the Scarlet Knights, however, as John McNulty will be the first offensive coordinator to return for a second season in over a decade. Quarterback Art Sitkowski will also return, but as a true freshman last season, threw for only 1158 yards, completing just 49.1% of his passes, with a 4-18 ratio. His 18 INT’s were the worst in all of FBS, so the offense should improve in 2019, if not for the simple fact that it is hard to be much worse than it was last season.
Andy Buh, Maryland’s defensive coordinator for the past three seasons, will takeover a defense that allowed 31.4 ppg last year and will return just five starters. The offense certainly didn’t set the defense up for success by any means, but the 31.4 ppg allowed was still pretty bad considering the pace with which their offense played. They did get better as the year went on last season, allowing 36.3 ppg the first half of the season and 26.5 ppg the second half, so there is a glimmer of hope heading into 2019.
Despite facing a rather difficult schedule (26th Phil Steele), Rutgers will actually be favored in two games per Adam’s PR’s (UMass & Liberty). Therefore, getting to three wins would require just one upset; but the question is, who are they capable of upsetting on their schedule? The obvious answer is Illinois, but they will be a 5.5-point underdog (Adam’s PR’s) in this game on the road. There next best chance for a W would be getting Boston College at home, off a bye, but this still be lined at over a touchdown. I wouldn’t lay -185 to take a chance on one of these upsets happening.