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Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz discusses the benefits of the staff's visit to the Patriots and how his Hawkeyes want to deploy their approach. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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Whenever the preseason college football polls are released, there's a good chance the Big Ten Conference will be able to boast five teams in the national top 15.

Whether all five — Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin — can finish that high is another story. Because with the exception of Wisconsin vs. Michigan State and Wisconsin vs. Ohio State, these teams will go head to head at various points throughout what should be an eventful 2018 regular-season gauntlet.

Picking the winner of the Big Ten West was easier than picking the East.

Wisconsin — coming off a 13-1 campaign with most of its key components back — was understandably voted to rule the West on 28 of 28 media ballots, mine included.

In the East?

Michigan State won it in 2015; Penn State emerged in 2016; Ohio State in 2017.

So, of course, it’s Michigan’s turn in 2018.

For all his quirks, Jim Harbaugh can coach. And this year, he’s got the salty defense and proven quarterback to finally get the best of Urban Meyer and Ohio State. It’ll be tough to win in the Horseshoe on Nov. 24; it always is.

But, at last, the “Team Up North” will get it done.

After that happens, Michigan will have already played five opponents worthy of top-10 stature — starting at Notre Dame in the season opener. That march will leave some physical marks. And the Wolverines will arrive with the worst possible matchup in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. They'll be facing a well-rested Badger team (after a comfy win vs. Minnesota in the regular-season finale) that's also seeking revenge from its lone loss (Oct. 13 in Ann Arbor).

After previous tight losses to Penn State and Ohio State in Indy, the third straight trip will be a charm for the Badgers — who will win the Big Ten title, then hear their name called to join the College Football Playoff.

As for the entire Big Ten regular season? Here’s how I see it shaking out:

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EAST DIVISION

1. Michigan 

Crossovers: Nebraska (home), Northwestern (road), Wisconsin (home)

Why No. 1?

There won’t be a better defense in the Big Ten — and that includes Wisconsin — or maybe the country. Michigan returns nine starters off a unit that ranked No. 3 nationally under defensive coordinator Don Brown. A year ago, Michigan dealt with bad fortune (a borderline monsoon contributed to a minus-five turnover ratio in a pivotal 14-10 loss to Michigan State) and inconsistency at quarterback (three average starters took their turns). The latter shouldn’t be a problem this year, as potential first-round NFL Draft pick Shea Patterson arrives as an immediately-eligible transfer from Ole Miss. Patterson (who completed 63.8 percent of his passes last fall) should give Harbaugh the quarterback he's lacked the past two seasons to get over the top.

Potential issues

A rugged schedule, from start to finish, could take a toll come November. The Wolverines open at Notre Dame — expected to be a preseason top-10 team — and finish at Ohio State. In between, they’ve got two stiff road tests in Northwestern and Michigan State, and they welcome Wisconsin and Penn State to the Big House. But as long as the Wolverines find a play-making receiver or two (here’s your courtesy reminder that Iowa City native Oliver Martin is coming out of his redshirt) and Patterson is legit, they’ll be tough to beat.

Leistikow’s 2018 record prediction

11-1, 8-1

2. Ohio State

Crossovers: Minnesota (home), Purdue (road), Nebraska (home)

Why No. 2?

The Buckeyes are the overwhelming media pick to win the East. They’re always loaded. This year is no exception, especially on offense. Some think dual-threat sophomore Dwayne Haskins will actually be a quarterback upgrade over Big Ten record-setter J.T. Barrett. (We'll see.) But there’s no doubt Ohio State will have an explosive running game with J.K. Dobbins (1,403 yards as a freshman) and junior Mike Weber (6.1 career yards per carry). The schedule also plays out nicely for the Buckeyes, who despite playing 11 Power Five opponents have the biggies — TCU, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan — nicely spread apart. Playing at Iowa last year between divisional giants Penn State and Michigan State proved to be a trap.

Potential issues

Ohio State this week fired a wide receivers coach who had a history of domestic abuse. Any offseason tumult can get a bad sign. Just four starters return from a defense that allowed 55 points vs. Iowa; although 38 of those came after 2018 preseason defensive player of the year Nick Bosa’s ejection. Young players will be counted upon to conquer college football’s toughest division. Road trips to East Lansing and State College are always challenging.

Leistikow’s 2018 record prediction

11-1, 8-1

3. Penn State

Crossovers: Illinois (road), Iowa (home), Wisconsin (home)

Why No. 3?

The Nittany Lions lost two linchpin pieces from the program re-emergence of the last two seasons — running back Saquon Barkley (the No. 2 overall NFL Draft pick) and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead (now Mississippi State’s head coach). Still, they have the Big Ten preseason offensive player of the year in quarterback Trace McSorley, and that fact alone will help Penn State be consistently competitive. It’ll be interesting to see how highly acclaimed recruits Miles Sanders (junior) and Ricky Slade (true freshman) backfill Barkley's otherworldly skills. The Nittany Lions get almost every key game at home — Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin. So there’s definitely opportunity for a third straight 11-win season.

Potential issues

James Franklin’s defense returns just three starters, underscoring the uncertainty on both sides of the ball. Though most of the heavyweights travel to Happy Valley, there’s a chance for a big step-back season without some key wins. A Week Two game at Pat Narduzzi-coached Pittsburgh (which, if you recall, spoiled Miami’s unbeaten record in the 2017 season finale and beat Penn State two years ago at Heinz Field) offers a stiff early challenge.

Leistikow’s 2018 record prediction

9-3, 6-3

4. Michigan State

Crossovers: Northwestern (home), Purdue (home), Nebraska (road)

Why No. 4?

Some think Michigan State could be back on top in the Big Ten East for the second time in four years. The Spartans were a surprise last fall, delivering a 10-win season with almost no returning experience. But quarterback Brian Lewerke emerged as a potential star (he’s back), and the defense was stout as it almost always is under Mark Dantonio. The Spartans also get one of the friendliest crossover schedules (they are one of two teams that don’t face the West’s predicted top two, Wisconsin and Iowa) and have a clear path to opening the season 5-0.

Potential issues

Ten starters return on offense, but the Spartans don’t have their usual depth. Michigan State's roster resembles Iowa's — strong first-wave players, but thin to the point where a few key injuries would make for a rough season. The Spartans were spanked twice a year ago (by a combined 65 points vs. Notre Dame and Ohio State) and won a slew of one-score games (Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana and Penn State), suggesting they might have been luckier than great in 2017.

Leistikow’s 2018 record prediction

9-3, 6-3

5. Maryland

Crossovers: Minnesota (home), Iowa (road), Illinois (home)

Why No. 5?

There’s no doubt Maryland has recruited well under D.J. Durkin (his first two classes in College Park have ranked 17th and 29th nationally, according to Rivals.com). Now it’s time to see the on-field payoff. Having healthy quarterbacks would be a good start. The Terrapins were decimated at that position a year ago, derailing a 3-1 start that included an impressive road win at Texas. QBs Kasim Hill and Tyrrell Pigrome return from ACL injuries. The climb is steep — Maryland has been outscored by a combined 322-47 against Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State under Durkin — but the Terrapins have the talent to reach a bowl game.

Potential issues

The loss of first-round NFL Draft pick D.J. Moore at receiver chokes horsepower from the offense, and the defense returning five starters (and bringing in several transfers who are expected to start) loses some luster when you realize the Terps were a rush-defense sieve a year ago (yielding nearly 200 yards a game). The opener against Texas at nearby FedEx Field will provide early clues to Maryland’s on-field fortunes.

Leistikow’s 2018 record prediction

6-6, 4-5

6. Indiana

Crossovers: Iowa (home), Minnesota (road), Purdue (home)

Why No. 6?

Second-year coach Tom Allen's Hoosiers were competitive a year ago (one-score losses against Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue) but fell short of bowl eligibility despite having the nation’s No. 27-ranked defense. Now, the Indiana offense looks to take the next step behind an offensive line that returns all five starters and welcomes graduate-transfer quarterback Brandon Dawkins. At Arizona, Dawkins was a run-pass threat who racked up 1,582 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns in addition to decent passing numbers (2,418 yards, 15 touchdowns, 12 interceptions) over three years. He and Peyton Ramsey will battle to be QB1. A 3-0 start in non-conference play (FIU, Virginia, Ball State) is attainable and would help launch the Hoosiers toward a bowl despite its brutal division.

Potential issues

While the defense is Allen’s calling card, that’s the unit that needs rebuilding in 2018 with star linebacker Tegray Scales among the eight departed starters. The loss of talented wide receiver Simmie Cobbs will also sting. Talent isn’t flowing, so it’ll take a lot of elbow grease to claw to six wins. And with Purdue’s in-state program under Jeff Brohm trending up, the Hoosiers can’t afford a step-back year.

Leistikow’s 2018 record prediction

5-7, 2-7

7. Rutgers

Crossovers: Illinois (home), Northwestern (home), Wisconsin (road)

Why No. 7?

Talk about a mind-blowing statistic: The Scarlet Knights are on their ninth offensive coordinator in nine years, with Jerry Kill again forced into coaching retirement with health issues. The program’s lack of consistency hopes to find some in Year Three with Ottumwa, Iowa, native Chris Ash at the helm. Rutgers is 3-15 in league play under Ash, with six losses by shutout. Finding a quarterback would be a good start to reversing things, and it looks like 6-foot-5 Artur Sitkowski is the front-runner. He’s a true freshman.

Potential issues

I mentioned “true-freshman” quarterback, right? Add that to the gauntlet division, and there is little hope for Rutgers to gain much program steam. While 15 starters are back, it’ll be hard to repeat last year’s 3-6 Big Ten mark that included a nice win against Purdue.

Leistikow’s 2018 record prediction

4-7, 1-8

BIG TEN WEST

1. Wisconsin

Crossovers: Michigan (road), Rutgers (home), Penn State (road)

Why No. 1?

Any Big Ten division winner usually controls the trenches. And behind an offensive line that returns all five starters (including three guys that could've turned pro but returned to school), it seems pretty safe to pick Wisconsin. Jonathan Taylor (1,977 rushing yards last season) is impressive enough at running back to trigger thoughts of Saquon Barkley. And what's extra scary about the Badgers' offense is that they might have their best wide-receiver group (led by Quintez Cephus) in a long time, not to mention a third-year starting quarterback (in Orange Bowl MVP Alex Hornibrook) is throwing to them.

Potential issues

The Badgers' defense has ranked in the top seven nationally in each of the past five seasons, but even with possible all-Americans T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly at linebacker, they'll have to prove themselves. Wisconsin's got three difficult road trips spread across its schedule — at Iowa (Sept. 22), at Michigan (Oct. 13) and at Penn State (Nov. 10).

Leistikow's 2018 record prediction

11-1, 8-1

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2. Iowa

Crossovers: Indiana (road), Maryland (home), Penn State (road)

Why No. 2?

I detailed my thinking about Iowa's West Division placement last week, but I'll re-iterate it here in one paragraph. I think the Hawkeyes will have a terrific quarterback in Nate Stanley. I think Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson are good enough to be the first- and second-team all-Big Ten tight ends. I think the schedule sets up nicely for them to make a serious run for a spot in the Big Ten title game. But I don't that's enough to overcome one of Wisconsin's best teams ever. The Sept. 22 game at Kinnick could very well decide the West champion.

Potential issues

Can Iowa stuff the run? That's my biggest concern entering 2018, considering Iowa couldn't consistently contain top running backs last year — and now its top four linebackers, including consensus all-American Josey Jewell, have departed. If Stanley gets hurt, the season could unravel in a hurry with two freshmen behind him. Iowa's offensive line and back seven on defense might struggle in September but should get markedly better as the season goes on.

Leistikow’s 2018 record prediction

8-4, 6-3

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The Cornhuskers' first-year head coach addresses the Iowa rivalry and how to make Big Red great again. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

3. Nebraska

Crossovers: Michigan (road), Ohio State (road), Michigan State (home)

Why No. 3?

Much is made about the Cornhuskers' difficult schedule (see the crossovers above), but it's quite friendly at home. A soft non-conference slate of Akron, Colorado and Troy should provide the launching pad new coach Scott Frost needs to get renewed credibility for a program that saw its team go 2-5 at Memorial Stadium last season. Frost isn't declaring a quarterback winner yet, but true freshman Adrian Martinez was dazzling in the spring. The Cornhuskers are intent on improving their play in the trenches; if they can, a bowl game will be in the cards.

Potential issues

The "Blackshirts" defense needs an overhaul after a dismal 2017 campaign under former Iowa player Bobby Diaco. Now another former Hawkeye, Erik Chinander, takes over the defense that gave up a gaudy 6.34 yards per play (112th in FBS) a year ago. It'll take time to fully grasp Frost's system, but once they do, they'll be a force in the West. I've got them upsetting Michigan State in their home finale Nov. 17.

Leistikow’s 2018 record prediction

7-5, 4-5

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Purdue coach Jeff Brohm was inspired by his defense last year, and feels it could be quite good again Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

4. Purdue

Crossovers: Ohio State (home), Michigan State (road), Indiana (road)

Why No. 4?

Purdue football is trending up. Jeff Brohm was a winning hire. The program finished last season with a three-game win streak, which included a road upset (Iowa), rivalry win (Indiana) and bowl victory (against Arizona in the Foster Farms). Add to that, both Boilermaker quarterbacks (David Blough and Elijah Sindelar) return. Nine offensive starters return, indicating Brohm's offense could be ready to take off. 

Potential issues

While the defense was vastly improved in 2017, look for a step back this fall. The Boilermakers also face a rugged schedule, which includes non-conference home games against Missouri and Boston College (both likely bowl teams) for a total of 11 Power Five opponents. A Thursday-night opener (Aug. 30) vs. Northwestern could set the tone for the season.

Leistikow’s 2018 record prediction

5-7, 4-5

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Northwestern coach Pat FItzgerald on quarterback Clayton Thorson's health Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

5. Northwestern

Crossovers: Michigan (home), Michigan State (road), Rutgers (road)

Why No. 5?

While many folks have the Wildcats picked as high as second, I'm bearish on Pat Fitzgerald's 13th team in Evanston. The season may well ride on the health of senior quarterback Clayton Thorson, who Fitzgerald hopes can be ready for the opener against Purdue. Coming off a torn ACL, Thorson has compiled 7,548 passing yards and 62 total touchdowns (including 18 rushing) in his stellar Northwestern career. The Wildcats have made it a habit under Fitzgerald to prove outsiders wrong, as evidenced by their 27 wins in the past three seasons.

Potential issues

Who makes the big plays? Program stalwart Justin Jackson is gone at running back. And the receiver group doesn't seem to have an answer. The 'Cats gutted out close wins against Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska a year ago, but they'll be hard-pressed to go just 1-2 against those teams this fall. Plus, they've got Duke and Notre Dame sprinkled on top of an already-difficult conference schedule.

Leistikow's 2018 record prediction

5-7, 4-5

6. Minnesota

Crossovers: Maryland (road), Ohio State (road), Indiana (home)

Why No. 6?

At Big Ten Media Days, even energetic coach P.J. Fleck wasn't able to pump up expectations for his second year in Minneapolis (even if he is calling this Year One, after categorizing last fall's 5-7 campaign as "Year Zero"). The program has just 23 scholarship upperclassmen (nine seniors, 14 juniors) and no obvious solution at quarterback. Rodney Smith should be one of the Big Ten's best running backs, and the offensive line returns four starters.

Potential issues

Fleck's rebuild at Western Michigan saw some early struggles, too (he went 1-11 in his first season there). A second-week home game vs. Fresno State (10-4 last year) will be a challenge. Going into a season with major quarterback questions — two freshmen, Tanner Morgan and Zack Annexstad, are competing — seems problematic. 

Leistikow’s 2018 record prediction

4-8, 2-7

7. Illinois

Crossovers: Penn State (home), Rutgers (road), Maryland (road)

Why No. 7?

Illinois finished the 2017 season with 10 straight losses. I've got them repeating that dubious feat in 2018. It's good to see wide receiver Mike Dudek back in the fold after missing the past two seasons with ACL tears. But it's hard to think the Illini will climb out of the West cellar. Coach Lovie Smith did say at Big Ten Media Days that "Year Three will produce results" after he started 16 freshmen a year ago. Stay tuned.

Potential issues

Cameron Thomas was the program's only scholarship quarterback in the spring, and that position is unsettled going into the season (graduate transfer A.J. Bush, formerly of Nebraska, Iowa Western and Virginia Tech, is expected to join the competition). The Illini have a strong start to the 2019 recruiting class ... but that's 2019.

Leistikow’s 2018 record prediction

2-10, 0-9

 

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

 

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