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The time has come. The 2022 Big Ten football season officially kicks off on Saturday as Nebraska and Northwestern face off in Dublin, Ireland. 

Here’s how the 14 Big Ten Football teams rank as they prepare to begin the season. 

1. Ohio State

The Buckeyes are not settling for anything less than a National Championship this year. Ohio State head coach Ryan Day has been clear: Last year’s 11-2 record and Rose Bowl victory was a disappointment. 

It’s a reasonable goal; the Buckeyes are returning the nation’s most explosive offense. Senior quarterback C.J. Stroud is the Heisman front runner and, barring injury, should have another incredible season. 

Despite losing star wide receivers Garett Wilson and Chris Olave to the NFL, the Buckeyes wide receiver room is arguably stronger this year. Junior Jaxon Smith-Njigba returns to the team and may be the nation's best wide receiver. Despite being the third receiver on the depth chart last year, Njigba led the team in receptions and total yards. 

Sophomore wide receiver Emeka Egbuka was the No. 1 ranked receiver recruit in 2021, but was buried on the depth chart last season. He, along with highly-ranked sophomore wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., will both be excellent weapons for Stroud to utilize. The Buckeyes offense is rounded out by sophomore running back TreVeyon Henderson. Combined with a solid offensive line, the Buckeyes’ running attack should be one of the nation’s best. 

On the defensive side of the ball, the Buckeyes brought in defensive coordinator Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State. In 2021, he led a Cowboys defense that ranked fifth in the nation in yards allowed per game. If Ohio State’s defense can come anywhere near that ranking this season, combined with their already dominant offense, the rest of the Big Ten is in for a tough ride. 

2. Michigan

The reigning Big Ten Champions are hungry after suffering an embarrassing loss in the College Football Playoff semifinal to end their 2021 season. The Wolverines will aim to repeat the success of last year, including another victory over rival Ohio State. 

The uncertainty at the quarterback position is the biggest storyline heading into the season. Last year, senior quarterback Cade McNamara led Michigan to their best season in over a decade.

However, sitting right behind him was the future of the program: five-star then-freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy. McNamara, nevertheless, just kept winning. 

Heading into this year, head coach Jim Harbaugh has a tough decision to make. McNamara has proven to be more consistent, but McCarthy has a much higher ceiling. Either way, the Wolverines’ offense will be dangerous, as they also return junior running back Blake Corum, who rushed for 11 touchdowns and nearly 1,000 yards last year despite sharing carries with Hassan Haskins. Highly-ranked sophomore running back Donovan Edwards will also assume some of Haskins’ carries this season. Michigan also brings back star senior wide receiver Ronnie Bell, who missed last season with an injury, to pair with last year’s three leading pass catchers. 

Michigan’s defense may take a step back from its top-20 status last year. The Wolverines’ defensive unit lost three stars to the NFL in defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, cornerback Daxton Hill and defensive lineman David Ojabo.

They may also struggle with the turnover at the assistant coaching positions. Last season’s offensive and defensive coordinators, Josh Gattis and Mike MacDonald, both found new jobs. Harbaugh will need to maintain the energy of last season if the Wolverines want to challenge Ohio State for the Big Ten East title again. 

3. Michigan State

Last season was one to remember for Spartan fans. Head coach Mel Tucker completely reversed the downward trajectory of the program, leading the team to an 11-2 record and a Peach Bowl victory. This year, Michigan State should expect much of the same. 

Junior quarterback Payton Thorne returns fresh off a 27 passing touchdown season, an MSU record. His favorite target, senior wide receiver Jayden Reed, also returns for the Spartans. Reed is one of the nation’s premier receivers and is set for another spectacular season.

In 2021, most of the Michigan State buzz revolved around running back Kenneth Walker, who dominated nearly every defense he faced. Walker was drafted in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft, so the Spartans will need to find a way to replace his production. In the only game that Walker left with an injury, the Spartans were embarrassed by Ohio State 56-7.

Michigan State will attempt to fill that hole with two transfer running backs, senior Jarek Broussard and sophomore Jalen Berger. Both have promising upsides and should mitigate the loss of Walker.  

If the offense fails to perform at the same level as it did last season, the defense will need to pick up the slack. The Spartans’ pass defense was horrendous in 2021, ranking dead last in the entire nation. They will not repeat another 11-win season without significant defensive improvement. 

4. Wisconsin

The Badgers’ offense needs to step up this season. In 2021, Wisconsin's offense consistently let down their defense, which was one of the nation's best. Despite allowing the least yards and third-least points in the country, the Badgers still finished third in the Big Ten West. Why? Their offense simply struggled to put points on the board.

The running game certainly wasn’t the issue. Sophomore running back Braelon Allen burst onto the scene as a true freshman and will certainly be among the nation’s top backs in 2022. Senior running back Chez Mellusi will also return after an injury ended his 2021 season early. The two will combine to form one of the best rushing duos in the nation.

If the passing game is anything like last season, they’re going to need the dependable duo. The Badgers finished 13th in the Big Ten for passing yards last season, averaging a measly 160 yards per game. Junior quarterback Graham Mertz will get his final chance to live up to the hype. The formerly high-ranking recruit has been average at best in his first two seasons, and has no doubt held the Badgers’ offense back. 

Nonetheless, the defense should still be one of the nation's best, even if it takes a small step back. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard returns and should have no problem finding pieces to fill the holes left by former starters. Combine a national championship-level defense with an explosive rushing attack, and Wisconsin should get back to contending for a Big Ten West title. 

5. Minnesota 

Last season was an odd one for the Golden Gophers. They didn’t receive any preseason hype, were riddled with injuries, and somehow lost to Bowling Green. However, they also put themselves in a position to win the Big Ten West by beating rival Wisconsin — and would have, if not for a come-from-behind Iowa victory in the final week of the season. 

This year, Minnesota should once again be in the mix for the Big Ten West title. Senior quarterback Tanner Morgan is back for his fifth season and will provide a strong veteran presence for the Gopher offense. Since his incredible season in 2019, Morgan has been average; however, he does provide stability at the quarterback position for an offense that will be designed primarily around the rushing attack. 

All of the Gophers’ top wide receivers will return, including senior Chris Autman-Bell. Autman-Bell had his best season yet in 2021, and should improve even more with another year under his belt. 

In 2021, the Golden Gophers’ running back room was decimated by injury. They lost five backs during the season, which forced players lower on the depth chart to step up. This didn’t seem to impact their productivity; they still managed to finish third in the Big Ten in rushing yards, mostly thanks to dominant offensive line play. The Golden Gophers lost a few key pieces on that unit, but should expect another strong year at the line of scrimmage. 

Most of the hype around the run game revolves around the return of senior running back Mohamed Ibrahim. He is back after a torn achilles in the season opener ended his 2021 season on the same night it began. Before his injury, Ibrahim was tearing through the Ohio State defense and had given the Golden Gophers a lead over the highly-ranked Buckeyes. Minnesota will hope for more of the same this year — and a full 12 game slate of it. 

Regardless of potential offensive improvement, the defense is the true star of this team. Last year, it was one of the nation's premiere units, finishing top ten in the country in passing yards allowed and rushing yards allowed. Most likely, the unit will not be as strong this season. If they can repeat some of the success of last year, though, an improved offense could put Minnesota in a position to win the Big Ten West.

6.  Penn State

Penn State will always struggle in the Big Ten East Division. With recent national powers Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in their division, the Nittany Lions must be nearly perfect in order to reach the Big Ten Title. 

Head coach James Franklin signed a massive extension in 2021, but for the majority of fans in Happy Valley, he still needs to prove himself after going 11-11 from 2020 to 2021. For a program that takes pride in its history, challenging schedules are not an excuse for continuous mediocrity in the Big Ten. 

Senior Sean Clifford returns at quarterback after a solid season last year, but will need to stretch the field more than he has in the past. His number one target, wide receiver Jahan Dotson, has graduated to the NFL, and his production will be hard to replace. The offensive line returns just two starters, but based on last year’s performance, that might be a net positive. 

The Nittany Lions had one of the Big Ten’s better defenses last year, ranking third overall in points allowed. They will need to, at minimum, repeat that effort if they have any hope of competing in a loaded Big Ten East. 

7. Nebraska

Another 3-9 record from the Huskers might see Scott Frost banished from Lincoln. Regardless of how close their losses were last year, the lack of wins put the entire Nebraska coaching staff in the flaming hot seat. To save himself, Frost was forced to revamp much of his staff. 

The most notable addition can be found in former Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. Whipple led the Panthers’ 2021 offense to their best season in over a decade, and coached quarterback Kenny Pickett during his impressive Heisman finalist season. Frost also brought in wide receivers coach Mickey Joseph from LSU, whose resume includes coaching NFL stars Justin Jefferson and Ja'Marr Chase in college.

Somehow, the coaching staff isn’t the area of the team with the most new faces. Nebraska capitalized on the transfer portal, bringing a top-10 transfer class to Lincoln. The group is highlighted by junior quarterback Casey Thompson, a fresh face under center after four up-and-down years behind Adrian Martinez. The Huskers also brought in junior wide receiver Trey Palmer — Thompson’s presumptive top target — from LSU, and All-Big 12 junior defensive end Ochaun Mathis from TCU. 

Will all the new faces bring a winning record to Lincoln? That’s still to be determined. The offensive line is a huge concern. Last season, the Huskers were completely unable to protect the quarterback, which in turn halted the offense's productivity. With the loss of center Cam Jurgens to the NFL, Nebraska will need a new leader of the unit. It’s not all negative though, as sophomore Teddy Prochazka will return at left tackle. He flashed last year before his season ended early due to injury. 

If the Huskers can avoid ill-timed turnover and sloppy special teams play, this team has a chance to be special. However, until they actually show improvement on the field, there’s no reason not to expect the struggles to continue. 

8. Purdue

Last season, the Boilermakers exceeded all expectations. Head coach Jeff Brohm did an excellent job of installing an underdog spirit in his locker room, one that Purdue may need to adopt once again this year despite raised expectations. 

Senior Aidan O’Connell is back at quarterback, but he will be without his top two targets from last year, wide receivers David Bell, who was drafted into the NFL, and Milton Wright, who is academically ineligible. However, even without them, O’Connell did put on a show against Tennessee in last season’s Music City Bowl, throwing for 534 yards and 5 touchdowns. This season will answer the biggest question about O’Connell — whether he can perform at a high level without an elite wide receiver at his disposal.

The running game has nowhere to go but up. Last season, as a unit, the Boilermakers averaged less than three yards per carry. While they break in new receivers, that average may need to significantly improve if the Boilermakers want to repeat last season’s success. 

Losing defensive end George Karlaftis to the NFL will hurt the pass rush, but the defense returns eight starters. In a Big Ten West where no one team stands out, the Boilermakers could make some noise if they play like scrappy underdogs once again. 

9. Iowa

Can the defense carry the Hawkeyes again? Last season, Iowa’s offense was abysmal and looks to be set for another tough year. Neither quarterback options, senior Spencer Petras and junior Alex Padilla, flashed much last season and both have struggled to move the ball down the field. 

Star center and leader of the offensive line, Tyler Linderbaum, is gone to the NFL. Iowa will struggle to replace him on a unit that was, even with him in command, average at best. The leading running back in 2021, Tyler Goodson, is also gone. The Hawkeyes will still need to establish a strong rushing game given the mediocrity at the quarterback position. 

But then again, there is that defense. Last year, they seemingly bailed their offense out repeatedly, even taking them all the way to the Big Ten Championship. Seven starters return for the Hawkeyes, so they can expect a similar performance this season. 

While the front seven should be excellent again, the secondary is a more wait-and-see situation.  Just one starter returns to that unit, but it’s a crucial one in All-American senior Riley Moss. Beyond him, the secondary should be able to rebound with plenty of depth and should be just fine. The Hawkeye defense needs to be a turnover machine once again if they have hopes of returning to the Big Ten Championship. 

10. Maryland

Up to this point, almost every team mentioned could feasibly reach the Big Ten Championship if they play their cards right. Maryland would need a miracle to do that. The harsh reality for the Terrapins is that the Big Ten East is nearly impossible to win unless you are also a national title contender. 

The improvement of the program has been steady, and the team actually has the most hype surrounding them in recent memory. Last year, they managed their first winning record since 2014, as head coach Mike Locksley made Maryland somewhat relevant again. He received a contract extension this offseason as his reward.

Junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa often gets overhyped because of his last name, but he performed at a high level for the majority of last season. In 2021, the Terrapins finished third in the Big Ten in both passing yards and passing touchdowns. The defense must improve, however, as Maryland also gave up the second most passing yards in the Big Ten in 2021. Without a better defensive season, Maryland will struggle to compete with the big dogs in the conference. 

11. Illinois

Head coach Bret Bielema put together a surprisingly competitive team in his first year at the helm for the Fighting Illini. While the offense struggled to put more than 20 points on the board, the defense kept Illinois alive on their way to a 5-7 record. 

Simply put, the offense can’t rank dead last again in the Big Ten if they want to be competitive. Illinois has had a constant revolving door at quarterback, a trend that will continue this year with the addition of senior Tommy Devito, a transfer from Syracuse. 

12. Rutgers

The Scarlet Knights somehow tripped their way into a bowl game appearance last year, and even if it wasn’t fully deserved, it was a huge step in the right direction for the program. Head coach Greg Schiano, in his second stint at the helm in Piscataway, is certainly the right man for the job and has the tools to build off of last year’s success. 

The team brought in a great transfer class and a solid recruiting class, both rarities for Rutgers football. However, this is still Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights will likely struggle to compete in the Big Ten East, especially with the improvement of their rival Maryland. A bowl game is the goal, a legitimate one this time, and that will take a lot of improvement on both sides of the ball. 

13. Indiana 

Former quarterback junior Michael Penix Jr. brought so much hope to this program in 2020, before it all came crumbling down last year. After an injury forced him to miss nearly the entire 2021 season, Penix is gone to Washington

Last year was a complete and utter disaster. The Hoosiers ranked dead last in the Big Ten in offensive yardage and near the bottom in defensive efficiency. This prompted a fire sale on the coaching staff, so some new faces on the sideline could provide some semblance of optimism, but more than likely, the Hoosiers will struggle to win games once again. 

14. Northwestern 

Northwestern is always a wild card. The Wildcats are just two years removed from a Big Ten Championship appearance, but now find themselves at the bottom of most rankings. The academic standard that players are held to is certainly a barrier for entry, but Northwestern seemingly has one strong season every other year. 

That trend would indicate they are due for another great year after last season’s disappointing 3-9 outing. However, other than that trend, there aren't many signs that Northwestern will be improved this season. 

The offensive line returns most of its starters, but the quarterback position is still up in the air, the running game isn’t anything special and the defense lost its best secondary piece, junior safety Brandon Joseph, to Notre Dame. Maybe Northwestern will bounce back with another Big Ten West title, but that is highly unlikely. For now, they sit at the bottom of the Big Ten. 

sports@dailynebraskan.com