Breaking down Ohio State's opponents in the 2019 season
When: Noon Saturday, Ohio Stadium
Coach: Lane Kiffin (third season)
Last season: 5-7 overall, 3-5 and fifth in Conference USA East
Star power: The Owls have talent, though their most promising players are their youngest, as Kiffin has cleaned up CUSA in recruiting in recent years. Among the veterans, linebacker Rashad Smith led FAU in tackles, and tight end Harrison Bryant averaged 14.7 yards on 45 receptions. He should be a reliable target for QB Chris Robison, an Oklahoma transfer who was inconsistent as a redshirt freshman.
Question marks: It looked like Kiffin might launch a New Year’s Six juggernaut in 2017, when Florida Atlantic sprung a surprising 11-3 season. But the Owls took giant steps backward as the 2018 offense scored 9.5 fewer points per game and the defense allowed 9.1 more points per game. Despite a difficult schedule, FAU has the skill to return to a bowl game.
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When: Noon Sept. 7, Ohio Stadium
Coach: Luke Fickell (third season)
Last season: 11-2 overall, 6-2 and third in American Athletic East
Star power: Fickell’s second Bearcats team improved by seven wins from his first, and he has plenty of talent in the cupboard for his third year, as well as momentum from UC’s first bowl win since 2012. Michael Warren, who had 1,329 yards and 19 touchdowns, leads a loaded group at running back. Cincinnati also returns a nucleus of key players, including play-making safety James Wiggins, from a defense that led the AAC in scoring defense and yards allowed.
Question marks: UC’s passing offense ran hot and cold last season and hopes for consistency from QB Desmond Ridder, who had 2,445 yards, 20 TDs and five interceptions a year ago. The Bearcats’ big season was kick-started by an opening-week win at UCLA, and they may need to duplicate that victory this season facing a tougher schedule.
When: Noon Sept. 14, Memorial Stadium, Bloomington, Ind.
Coach: Tom Allen (third season)
Last season: 5-7 overall, 2-7 and sixth in Big Ten East
Star power: Indiana will enjoy depth, which is not a statement usually made about it. The Hoosiers have returnees at all sorts of skill positions on offense — including RB Stevie Scott and WRs Nick Westbrook and Donovan Hale — and a veteran defensive unit. Indiana also hired Kalen DeBoer from Fresno State to coordinate the offense — and develop a downfield passing threat.
Question marks: Indiana elevated athletic sophomore quarterback Michael Penix Jr. to the starting spot over incumbent Peyton Ramsey and highly regarded Utah transfer Jack Tuttle. All have attributes, but Allen needs a leader who can get the Hoosiers over the hump that seemingly trips them every year. Over the past four seasons, Indiana is 8-4 in September but 10-24 in October and November.
When: Time TBA Sept. 21, Ohio Stadium
Coach: Doug Martin (sixth season)
Last season: 6-6 overall, 6-2 and tied for second in Mid-American East
On the right track: Martin, who came to Miami after coaching Grand Valley State to two Division II titles, inherited a 16-game losing streak that ballooned to 21 before it was stopped. In the past three seasons the RedHawks have won six, five and six games but haven’t quite busted the hump. They are 7-20 under Martin in games decided by a touchdown or less.
Question marks: Not only must Miami replace three-year starter Gus Ragland at quarterback, it must do so with an unforgiving opening schedule that includes games against Iowa, Cincinnati, Ohio State and Buffalo — a quartet that combined for 43 wins in 2018. The RedHawks have solid players, including defensive tackle Doug Costin and center Danny Godlevske, but will have to grow up fast.
When: Time TBA Sept. 28, Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb.
Coach: Scott Frost (second season)
Last season: 4-8 overall, 3-6 and tied for fifth in Big Ten West
Star power: Adrian Martinez was the most productive freshman quarterback in the country a year ago, averaging 295 yards of total offense, including 371 against Big Ten West opponents. Nebraska also returns a veteran offensive line and a receiving corps that includes JD Spielman and tight end Jack Stoll. The Cornhuskers should benefit from a schedule in which the tough outs play in Lincoln.
Question marks: As has been the case in recent years, how well the defense can perform will dictate Nebraska’s success. The Huskers have allowed 33.8 points per game the past two seasons, each ending with a 4-8 record. Nebraska also must determine whether off-the-field issues will prevent RBs Maurice Washington and Dedrick Mills from making an impact.
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5, Ohio Stadium
Coach: Mark Dantonio (13th season)
Last season: 7-6 overall, 5-4 and fourth in Big Ten East
Star power: Most of it is concentrated on defense, where returnees such as LB Joe Bachie, DE Kenny Willekes and DT Raequan Williams helped the Spartans lead the Big Ten in defense despite being only plus-1 in turnover margin. The offense was abysmal by the end of last season, in part because of injuries, but QB Brian Lewerke, RB Connor Heyward and WR Cody White are among those back.
Question marks: The anemic offensive numbers (18.7 points, 342.1 yards of offense per game) prompted Dantonio to shake up his staff, demoting co-coordinators Jim Bollman and Dave Warner and elevating Brad Salem to coordinator. Lewerke’s return to health and form will be key for the Spartans, who have games at Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin.
When: 8:30 p.m. Oct. 18, Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (14th season)
Last season: 9-5 overall, 8-1 and first in Big Ten West
Star power: The pieces are in place for Northwestern to make a run at a second straight Big Ten West title. Now all the Wildcats need to do is settle on a quarterback to replace Clayton Thorson, who left as their career leader in wins. Isaiah Bowers gives them a solid option at running back, and Bennett Skowronek headlines a deep receivers group. Nine starters return on defense.
Question marks: Fitzgerald must choose a QB among senior TJ Green, a career backup; junior Aidan Smith; and sophomore Hunter Johnson, a Clemson transfer who was a five-star recruit and is considered the favorite for the job. No matter who lines up under center, the Wildcats must improve their 3-6 nonconference record over the past three seasons.
When: Time TBA, Oct. 26, Ohio Stadium
Coach: Paul Chryst (fifth season)
Last season: 8-5 overall, 5-4 and tied for second in Big Ten West
Star power: Not much mystery here: RB Jonathan Taylor has 4,171 rushing yards in two years, the most by a major-college player in his first two seasons. Tyler Biadasz might be the best center in America, but he’s the only returning starter on Wisconsin’s usually dominant offensive line. On defense, LB Zack Baun and a veteran secondary will be leaned on, but the Badgers need to apply more pressure.
Question marks: The Big Ten did the Badgers no favors by scheduling crossover games against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. Inexperience at quarterback won’t help, but Wisconsin has few options after Alex Hornibrook’s transfer to Florida State. Junior Jack Coan and highly touted freshman Graham Mertz will compete for the starting job.
When: Time TBA Nov. 9, Ohio Stadium
Coach: Michael Locksley (first season)
Last season: 5-7 overall, 3-6 and fifth in Big Ten East
Star power: RBs Anthony McFarland and Javon Leake combined for 1,343 yards and 8.1 yards per attempt this season. The Terrapins’ passing game, on the other hand, was largely forgettable, and Virginia Tech transfer Josh Jackson is expected to solidify the quarterback position. Locksley brings a 3-31 career record as head coach, but that didn’t prevent his coordinating Alabama’s offense to great heights.
Question marks: Maryland is hoping to move in from a nightmare 2018 season that began with lineman Jordan McNair’s death from heatstroke and ended with four straight losses after a 5-3 start. Locksley, a Maryland native and former assistant, offers new blood, but there will need to be improvement, as well, especially in the passing game and putting defensive pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
When: Time TBA Nov. 16, Rutgers Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.
Coach: Chris Ash (fourth season)
Last season: 1-11 overall, 0-9 and seventh in Big Ten East
Bright spots: There are some, even on a team that finished last in the nation in scoring offense in 2018. RBs Raheem Blackshear and Isaiah Pacheco combined to top 1,000 yards, and defensive standouts Damon Hayes and Avery Young have all-conference potential. The Knights also return above-average specialists in kicker Justin Davidovicz and punter Adam Korsak.
On the hot seat: Ash received a vote of confidence from school administrators last season, but the calls for a change might be too loud to ignore if Rutgers endures a third winless Big Ten season in Ash’s four years. To that end, QB Artur Sitkowski might have a short leash: He ranked last nationally in passing efficiency, with four touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Transfer McLane Carter could be an option.
When: Time TBA Nov. 23, Ohio Stadium
Coach: James Franklin (sixth season)
Last season: 9-4 overall, 6-3 and third in Big Ten East
Star power: Penn State took a step back last season without stud RB Saquon Barkley, so what happens now that QB Trace McSorley has departed after three seasons as a starting sparkplug? It’s likely that the Nittany Lions embrace what should be a stellar defense led by rush specialists Yetur Gross-Matos and Shaka Toney, linebackers Micah Parsons and Cam Brown and cornerback John Reid.
Question marks: Penn State actually lost its top two quarterbacks, after Tommy Stevens transferred to Mississippi State after spring practice. That leaves the job in the hands of Sean Clifford, a third-year sophomore who has attempted seven passes in mop-up duty. The Lions also will need to do better closing out games; they let second-half leads disappear in losses to Ohio State and Michigan State.
When: Noon Nov. 30, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Coach: Jim Harbaugh (fifth season)
Last season: 10-3 overall, 8-1 and tied for first in Big Ten East
Star power: The Big Ten window is officially open for Michigan and Harbaugh, who is 0-4 against Ohio State and 1-3 in bowl games. QB Shea Patterson decided to return for his senior season and could thrive in new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ offense. Having Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and Nico Collins back at receiver should help Patterson.
Question marks: Michigan appears to be thin at running back with the departure of Karan Higdon and the suspension of Chris Evans. Youngsters will have to step forward. On defense, the big names (Devin Bush, Rashad Gary, Chase Winovich) are gone but other capable players remain. But will the Wolverines feel hangover effects after Ohio State and Florida scored 103 points in their final two games?
Next game vs. OSU: Nov. 21, 2020, Champaign, Ill.
Coach: Lovie Smith (fourth season)
Last season: 4-8 overall, 2-7 and seventh in Big Ten West
New strategy: After a four-win season in 2018, Lovie Smith received a two-year contract extension, then elected to travel the transfer route to try to bolster his team. Illinois brought in QB Brandon Peters from Michigan and three graduate transfers from Southern California — two receivers and a defensive end. Their success could propel Illinois to its first winning season since 2011.
Question marks: Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein give the Illini a potent 1-2 punch at running back, but whoever leads the offense — Peters or freshman Isaiah Williams — will have to deliver a passing game. Defense is the real issue; Illinois in 2018 ranked among the bottom eight teams nationally in run defense (245.3 yards per game), yards allowed (508.3) and scoring defense (39.4 points per game).
Next game vs. OSU: Oct. 10, 2020, Columbus
Coach: Kirk Ferentz (21st season)
Last season: 9-4 overall, 5-4 and tied for second in Big Ten West
Star power: The only thing better than a two-year starter returning at quarterback is a veteran offensive line to protect him, and Iowa has both. Nate Stanley, who has 52 career touchdown passes, should find plenty of time to throw behind a line that includes tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs. The Hawkeyes’ defensive front also is stout, including A.J. Epenesa, who led the Big Ten in sacks.
Question marks: Iowa must replace its top three receivers from last season, including two tight ends — T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant — who were among the top 20 picks in the NFL draft and Stanley’s most reliable targets. The Hawkeyes also face a tough schedule, especially with games at Iowa State, Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and resurgent Nebraska.
Next game vs. OSU: Sept. 4, 2021, Minneapolis
Coach: P.J. Fleck (third season)
Last season: 7-6 overall, 3-6 and tied for fifth in Big Ten West
Star power: Minnesota qualified for a bowl last year despite using 58 true or redshirt freshmen, the most in FBS. Some players whose injuries forced the use of youngsters return, including RBs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks and DB Antoine Winfield Jr. The Gophers have an abundance of skill players with holdovers such as RB Mohamed Ibrahim and WR Tyler Johnson.
Question marks: Zack Annexstad won the quarterback job as a true freshman and started seven games before an injury thrust Tanner Morgan into the role. They were expected to compete this preseason but Annexstad suffered a foot injury, leaving the job in Morgan’s hands. The Gophers could be a West darkhorse if their defense continues the improvement they showed last season after Joe Rossi’s elevation to coordinator.
Next game vs. OSU: Oct. 9, 2021, Columbus
Coach: Jeff Brohm (third season)
Last season: 6-7 overall, 5-4 and tied for second in Big Ten West
Star power: Purdue had one winning season between 2008 and '16, but the excitement is back behind Brohm, electrifying sophomore receiver and return man Rondale Moore and an improved defense led by tackle machine Markus Bailey of Hilliard Davidson. Elijah Sindelar, who started last season as the Boilermakers’ quarterback before an injury opened the door for David Blough, is expected to run the show.
Question marks: Purdue caught a scheduling break when it avoided Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in crossover games. But the Boilermakers do play Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin on the road, and their three nonconference opponents (Nevada, TCU and Vanderbilt) played in bowls last season. Beyond that, the offensive line is a potential problem spot if Purdue wants to contend.