2018 Big Ten football team capsules: East

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With teams in the midst of their summer workouts, college football season is almost back. Although there are still a couple months until teams kick off the 2018 season, it’s never too early to go through each Big Ten team and give an outlook on their seasons and what fans can expect from each team.

Ohio State Buckeyes (2017 record: 12-2, 8-1 Big Ten)

After losing out on the final CFP spot to defending champs Alabama last season, the Buckeyes finished their year 12-2 after rolling USC 24-7 in the Cotton Bowl. Although OSU loses a couple key defensive linemen, some playmaking defensive backs and its school’s all-time winningest quarterback, J.T. Barrett, Urban Meyer will yet again have another Playoff contender in 2018.

J.K. Dobbins, who rushed for 1,403 yards last season as a true freshman and was the league’s No. 2 rusher, will return with redshirt junior Mike Weber as part of one of the nation’s most productive backfields. Showing some flashes last year, Dwayne Haskins seems poised to take over the reigns as the team’s signal caller and will have no shortage of playmakers to throw to in 2018. Receivers Parris Campbell, Johnnie Dixon, Terry McLaurin and K.J. Hill all return to Columbus after combining for 20 touchdowns a season ago.

With Tyquan Lewis, Jalyn Holmes and Sam Hubbard departing for the NFL, the front four will pose a different look still littered with talent, as the team’s sack leader Nick Bosa returns with Dre’Mont Jones and sophomore defensive end Chase Young, who’s playing his way into a starting role for the fall.

The Buckeyes have an intriguing Week 3 matchup with TCU and have two tough road games filled with divisional implications, heading to Michigan State and Penn State, so there’s a good chance they don’t make it to Indianapolis with an unblemished record. Urban Meyer’s squad will be the favorites to come out of the Big Ten East and make their third Playoff appearance in the last five years.

Michigan State Spartans (2017 record: 10-3, 7-2 Big Ten)

Following a sound Holiday Bowl win over Washington State, Mark Dantonio’s crew seems poised for a big year in 2018. The Spartans bring back 19 of their 22 starters and will be among one of the nation’s youngest teams.

Michigan State should have one of the deepest secondaries in the league, if not the country, with senior safety and probable captain Khari Willis anchoring the back end. Having thrown for 2,793 yards and running for 559 in 2017, junior quarterback Brian Lewerke could play his way into the conversation as the league’s top quarterback. The Spartans’ top three receivers from a year ago all return in addition to Cam Chambers and C.J. Hayes quickly turning heads in spring ball, positioning themselves to be solid contributors come fall.

While they do travel to Penn State, MSU hosts Ohio State and Michigan. Considering its favorable schedule, the Spartanscould position themselves for another Big Ten title and a chance to get to Santa Clara for its second Playoff appearance in five years.

Penn State Nittany Lions (2017 record: 11-2, 7-2 Big Ten)

Penn State was a couple possessions away from playing in the CFP a year ago and with the departure of a generational talent in Saquon Barkley, many college football pundits have already written the Nittany Lions off in 2018. Not so fast. Trace McSorley, the Big Ten’s passing leader a year ago, returns for his senior year after throwing for nearly 3,600 yards last season.

The Nittany Lions lose great production at wide receiver and especially in their secondary, but of the 51 players listed on PSU’s Fiesta Bowl depth chart, 24 of them are either sophomores or freshmen that are more than ready to produce in 2018. True freshman Micah Parsons has emerged as a strong candidate for one of the starting linebacker roles and Lamont Wade, after a solid year under his belt, should be ready to take over at one of the starting safety spots.

Penn State’s schedule is favorable, with Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin all coming to Happy Valley. James Franklin definitely needs to fill some holes at multiple positions this year, but he has more than enough talent to work with to position the Nittany Lions for another Big Ten East title.

Michigan Wolverines (2017 record: 8-5, 5-4 Big Ten)

After consecutive 10-win seasons in his first two years in Ann Arbor, Jim Harbaugh took a big step back in 2017, with losses to rivals Michigan State and Ohio State and getting heavily out-coached in Happy Valley to Penn State.

Much of the Wolverines’ success in 2018 hinges on quarterback play, a position that accounted for just 10 touchdowns in all of 2017. Shea Patterson will definitely make Michigan a much-improved team, but there are still some question marks along the offensive line that need to be shored up. Before going out with an injury in Week 3, sophomore Tarik Black emerged as the team’s leading receiver as a true freshman. Black, along with Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins should provide good production in the passing game. Karan Higdon was one of the Wolverines’ bright spots offensively last season, finishing the season with 994 yards and 11 touchdowns, which was sixth-best in the conference.

Michigan will yet again boast one of the nation’s top defensive units, bringing back a bulk of the starters from last season’s No. 3 ranked defense nationally, allowing just 271 yards per game. To alleviate some of the public pressure, realistically, Harbaugh’s team is going to need to win the Big Ten East. If that doesn’t happen, that would suggest losses to either Penn State, Michigan State or Ohio State, losses most Michigan fans are beyond tired of seeing.

Its schedule is going to be stacked against them, as they open the season in South Bend against Notre Dame and travel to Michigan State and Ohio State, as well as hosting a CFP-caliber Wisconsin club. Not an easy slate as the Wolverines will play the nation’s toughest schedule, according to 247Sports.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights (2017 record: 4-8, 3-6 Big Ten)

Two years ago, Chris Ash inherited a total mess when he got on campus in Piscataway right at a time when the Big Ten East was turning into the nation’s toughest division. But after the past two seasons, Ash is finally starting to get some talent to work with, and while Rutgers will still be viewed as the bottom-feeder in the Big Ten, Year 3 could be the best one yet for Ash and the Scarlet Knights.

The offense will be the area for improvement in 2018, as it was a major issue in 2017, putting up just 13 points in an ugly loss to Eastern Michigan. New offensive coordinator John McNulty will have a tall task this year, as he tries to jumpstart a stagnant unit. McNulty will have six quarterbacks to weed through to find the right one under center to fix the passing game — an area that was the least efficient in all of college football last year. The speedster Raheem Blackshear and Boston College grad transfer Jon Hilliman should be more than productive running behind a primarily veteran offensive line. On the outside, Bo Melton should emerge as the No. 1 guy with lots of other talent ready to step up and show why the receiving corps could be the most improved unit in 2018.

The linebacking corps should be the team’s biggest strength, with Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts returning, a linebacking-duo that combined for 222 tackles last year. Isaiah Wharton is one of the more experienced, veteran corners on the roster, and after missing time hurt last year, Blessuan Austin should be a solid compliment as the other starting cornerback. Saquon Hampton will lead an impressive group of safeties that could end up even better than the corners. The Scarlet Knights’ biggest project in 2018 will be taking a significant step forward in the passing game. With a good crop of talent slowly starting to stockpile, Chris Ash should have a solid group to at least hang around for the fifth spot in the Big Ten East.

Maryland Terrapins (2017 record: 4-8, 2-7 Big Ten)

Maryland had a strong team in 2017, and after stunning Texas in Austin in the season opener, it looked like it could be due for a special season. The biggest key for the Terps this year is keeping a healthy quarterback.

Head coach DJ Durkin saw his starting gunslinger Tyrell Pigrome go down with a season-ending knee injury in the season opener and lost his backup Kasim Hill for the year two games later with an ACL injury. Entering that season, the Terrapins had an exciting offense that could stretch opposing defenses, but just three games later was decimated by season-ending injuries. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada, with his seventh team in the last eight years, will have to decide between Pigrome and Hill for the starting gig. After rushing for 875 yards last season, good for eighth in the Big Ten, senior tailback Ty Johnson returns alongside Lorenzo Harrison as part of a talented, yet undervalued backfield.

Illinois linebacker transfer Tre Watson and Auburn defensive end transfer Byron Cowart will give the defensive side of the ball plenty to be excited about. Antoine Brooks returns in the secondary as one of the Big Ten’s top safeties, and thanks to an impressive stretch of recruiting from Durkin, the defense should have the rising talent to be a whole lot better in 2018. Having a healthy quarterback will make a world of differences for the Terrapins, and they’ve got a schedule made to get back to the postseason for the third time in their five years in the Big Ten.

Indiana Hoosiers (2017 record: 5-7, 2-7 Big Ten)

In Tom Allen’s debut season in Bloomington in 2017, he wasn’t dealt the most favorable hand. The Hoosiers battled significant injuries on both sides of the ball and had some tough luck late in games, losing four contests by eight points or less. After playing a difficult slate last season, 2018’s schedule is a bit more forgiving, but after losing a host of playmakers, including standout linebacker Tegray Scales, the Hoosiers will need to see some new playmakers rise to the top on both sides of the ball.

Allen dealt with plenty of quarterback inconsistencies last year, and his QB situation became even muddier after Brandon Dawkins, former Arizona Wildcat, transferred in just four days before the Hoosiers’ spring game. Peyton Ramsey is coming off a decent year as a part-time starter, accounting for 1,252 yards and 10 touchdowns in just eight games as a true freshman. True freshman Nick Tronti and Michael Penix also enter the mix as viable backups, although neither of them have taken a college snap. Allen is a coach that loves mobile quarterbacks, and this is a group that should see significant improvement in 2018. IU also gets back its top-receiver in Nick Westbrook, who missed all of last season after going down on the opening kickoff. After leading the team with 995 yards and six touchdowns in 2016, and now with Simmie Cobbs gone, Allen would love to be able to get the same type of production from Westbrook in 2018.

Defensively, the Hoosiers ranked sixth in the Big Ten last year in terms of yards allowed, but they’ll need to find a way to maintain that production after graduating eight starters in the offseason. With Scales and Chris Covington gone, one of the more forceful linebacking pairs in the program, linebackers will be the biggest liability. After graduating in the spring, fifth-year backer Dameon Willis should provide great experience and depth to a position group that needs it the most. With those eight starters graduated, the return of Marcelino Ball, Allen’s most talented defensive player, will be as important as ever for his defense. Ball, Allen’s hybrid Husky, missed nine games in his sophomore season due to injury, but absolutely stuffed the stat sheet in 2016, tallying 75 tackles, two interceptions, eight pass breakups, 4.5 tackles for loss and one fumble recovery — all as a true freshman.

Allen was able to lasso IU’s best recruiting class in years and should see a total upgrade in terms of talent and athleticism. Facing uncertainties at quarterback, and some holes to fill defensively, Indiana could be looking at a 6-6 season at the very best.

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