The Big Ten East will be one of college football's most loaded divisions again this year. Which team has the best chance of pulling ahead of Michigan or Ohio State?
The college football season is approaching, so that means it’s time to get ready with some win totals. SI Gambling will be rolling out our favorite over and under bet for each power conference using current win totals available at New Jersey sportsbooks (FanDuel, DraftKings, William Hill). After sharing our thoughts in the Pac-12, ACC, Big 12 and SEC, we conclude with the Big Ten.
Penn State: 8.5 (Over -115, Under -105 at FanDuel)
Let’s start by taking a look at Penn State’s offense the past four seasons using some data from college football stats guru Bill Connelly.
2015: 71st in offensive S&P+, 99th in success rate, seventh in IsoPPP (explosiveness)
2016: 23rd in offensive S&P+, 43rd in success rate, first in IsoPPP
2017: Fifth in offensive S&P+, sixth in success rate, fourth in IsoPPP
2018: 36th in offensive S&P+, 56th in success rate, 57th in IsoPPP
Penn State had a major drop-off in offensive explosiveness in 2018 compared to 2015-17, and certainly some of that can be attributed to Saquon Barkley’s jump to the NFL. But even with Barkley in the fold in 2015 as a freshman, the Nittany Lions still ranked in the bottom half of the country in offensive S&P and success rate.
The other big departure after the 2017 season was offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead leaving to become the head coach at Mississippi State. Moorhead was Penn State’s play-caller in 2016 and 2017, where there are clear discrepancies compared to 2015 and 2018. Ricky Rahne took over the gig once Moorhead left for Starkville, but his first season as OC was filled with ups and downs—and that was with senior dual-threat quarterback Trace McSorley and second-round NFL draft pick Miles Sanders at tailback.
With McSorley graduated and projected replacement Tommy Stevens transferring to reunite with Moorhead at Mississippi State, the quarterback is now sophomore Sean Clifford. Clifford has a strong arm, but he’s not nearly as mobile as McSorley was. Not having that kind of escapability in the pocket is a potentially big issue playing behind an offensive line that finished 90th in adjusted sack rate (and 116th in passing downs sack rate) last season. That unit returns three starters, but lost two of its most versatile linemen in Connor McGovern and Ryan Bates.
Clifford also has major questions with his skill players. Outside of budding sophomore star pass-catcher KJ Hamler, there isn’t a single proven commodity with the rest of this group. The second-leading returning wideout has 13 career catches and the leading returning rusher (and projected starter), sophomore Ricky Slade, has 45 career carries.
The defense will be the strength of this team. Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos and linebacker Micah Parsons are legitimate All-America candidates. But there’s also some big names that will be difficult to replace, most notably defensive lineman Shareef Miller, defensive tackle Kevin Givens, cornerback Amani Oruwariye and safety Nick Scott. Will this unit be good enough to carry the offense week in and week out? Possibly, but I’m not betting on it, especially since Penn State resides in the same division as Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State.
Speaking of those three teams, Penn State is listed as an underdog in Game of the Year lines in all of them—the Nittany Lions are +3.5 vs. Michigan at FanDuel, +2.5 at Michigan State at Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, and +13.5 and +9.5 at Ohio State at Westgate and FanDuel respectively. They also have to travel to Iowa and Minnesota, two contenders to win the Big Ten West this season (though to be fair, you can make an argument about every team in that division besides Illinois).
I really think the offense is in for a rude awakening this season. James Franklin is a tough coach to trust in-game as well—just look at the Nittany Lions’ losses in 2018 against Ohio State and Kentucky. It’s hard to see four Big Ten East teams winning at least nine games this year, and Penn State is clearly the odd one out to me.
PICK: UNDER 8.5 Wins
Michigan State: 7.5 (Over -175, Under +150 at FanDuel)
Michigan and Ohio State are getting all the buzz in the preseason, but Michigan State is the team that is capable of leapfrogging either of them in the Big Ten East standings.
The Spartans not only have the best defense in the conference, they might have the best one in the country. Eight starters are back, and all of them are upperclassmen. Michigan State led college football in Bill Connelly’s rush defense S&P+ in 2018, and was also first in stuff rate (opponent carries stopped either at or behind the line of scrimmage). Senior defensive tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk are absolute handfuls for interior offensive linemen to handle. Kenny Willekes is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, and a well-deserving one at that after recording 20.5 tackles for a loss and 8.5 sacks.
Besides that ridiculous defensive line, there are game-changers at linebacker and in the secondary, too. Senior Joe Bachie was first-team All-Big Ten last season and is a true all-around middle linebacker. Losing cornerback Justin Layne and safety Khari Willis hurts, but the Spartans really improved in pass coverage once cover man Josiah Scott returned from injury after missing eight games. Scott and third-team All-Big Ten safety David Dowell headline a deep backend of the defense. This is also a defense that excels in limiting big gains: Michigan State allowed just 13 plays of at least 30 yards last season, which was the fourth-fewest in the nation.
So why is the win total at 7.5 despite Michigan State fielding an elite defense? As you can probably guess, the offense struggled mightily in 2018. The Spartans scored a combined 32 points in their final four games, resulting in a 1-3 record with the only win being a 14-10 victory over lowly Rutgers.
The turning point of the offense’s season came in Happy Valley. The Spartans pulled out a 21-17 win, but Brian Lewerke suffered a right shoulder injury that caused him to miss three games and throw ineffectively in four others. After the Penn State victory, Sparty averaged 12.3 points per game. In the rest of the games before Lewerke got hurt? 26.2.
The offensive line was also a mess last season, and injuries played a large part there as well. According to the Detroit Free Press, five of Michigan State’s offensive linemen missed a combined 16 games. Four starters are back, though, and the entire line consists of upperclassmen. If this group and Lewerke can stay healthy, a bounce-back season is a strong possibility. It also helps that Lewerke has a nice arsenal of targets to throw to in wideouts Cody White, Darrell Stewart Jr. and Jalen Nailor (that trio missed a combined 11 games due to injury last season).
Michigan State starts off the year at home for four of its first five games. Two of them (vs. Arizona State and at Northwestern) are revenge games against teams that are due for some regression after overachieving last season.
In October, the Spartans have a three-game stretch that will make or break their season: road affairs at Ohio State and Wisconsin along with a home date with Penn State. They face the Nittany Lions at a very opportune time: Michigan State will be coming off a bye and it’s the week after Penn State plays its biggest home game of the season against Michigan. Having one of the best run defenses in the country is the easiest way to shut down Wisconsin and star tailback Jonathan Taylor.
The final month of the season includes games against the three teams with the lowest Big Ten win totals: Illinois, at Rutgers and Maryland. Sandwiched in between Illinois and Rutgers is a road contest at Michigan. The Spartans will be big road underdogs against Ohio State and Michigan, but Mark Dantonio has certainly pulled off upsets against those two teams before.
I do think Michigan (gulp) should be considered the favorite to win the Big Ten, and I think Ohio State and Michigan State are neck-and-neck for the Wolverines’ biggest challengers. The juice is a heavy price, but over 7.5 seems like an obvious play with how much talent is returning and against a schedule that will likely see Michigan State as an underdog just three times.
PICK: OVER 7.5 Wins