The college football season is over, which can only mean one thing: it's WAY TOO EARLY TOP 25 SZN! Yes, there are still flames smoldering on Alabama after the torching that they received from Clemson on Monday night, and, yes, tons of players are still making NFL Draft early entry decisions (including Iowa's own T.J. Hockenson), but that hasn't stopped the Way Too Early Top 25 industry from rolling out a slew of new preseason polls for a season that's still *sob* eight months away.
The Big Ten is well-represented in these Way Too Early Top 25s, so let's break down the very early projections with the help of a table:
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No Urban Meyer? No Dwayne Haskins? No problem for OSU, apparently. They're still expected to be the class of the Big Ten and a potential Playoff contender (until they suffer their annual Inexplicable Blowout Loss to a Big Ten West Opponent, at least). In fairness, OSU didn't miss a beat under Ryan Day during Meyer's suspension to start the 2018 season and it's not like the cupboard is bare of talent in Columbus. Betting on OSU to be very good is a pretty safe bet, generally speaking.
Michigan was the most popular pick to be the next-best Big Ten team, though with a wider range of projections nationally, from #6 to #12. Michigan does return Shea Patterson, but they're losing a slew of key defensive players and they're going to have to answer questions about their ability to beat Ohio State until they, uh, actually beat them.
Penn State loses Trace McSorley, starting running back Miles Sanders, and 3/4 of their stout defensive line, so tabbing them as a fringe Top 10 team seems... optimistic? I think the projections that have them in the 17-21 range seem a bit more on-point. James Franklin has recruited very well at PSU, but reloading will still be tricky. Their crossover games include a visit from Purdue and trips to Iowa and Minnesota; they also have to play at Ohio State.
There's a slight consensus about Wisconsin being the top team in the Big Ten West, but it's far from overwhelming -- four of the Way Too Early Top 25s have them picked the highest among B1G West teams, while two others tab Iowa in that spot and two others are going with Northwestern. The case for Wisconsin is basically: they're Wisconsin, which means they have a two-decade track record of consistency (more or less) at this point, and they have Jonathan Taylor for one more year. They also return several receivers and might even be able to use them if stud QB recruit Graham Mertz lives up to the hype immediately.
Iowa's inclusion in the 16-18 range surprised me a bit, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see them move down (or out of the rankings entirely) once the departures of Nelson and (if it happens) Hockenson are factored in. Right now, Iowa's riding the benefit of a strong ending to the season, including a bowl win over a Top 20 opponent, having a returning senior QB (whether or not that's been a great thing for Iowa specifically in the past, generally experience at the QB position = good results in college football), and having a potential 2020 NFL Draft first rounder on defense (A.J. Epenesa). And, hey, realistic or not, it's January -- it's fun to dream a little and be optimistic.
Northwestern is the other team earning some Way Too Early love as the potential best team in the Big Ten West and generally that's because of what they share in common with Wisconsin and Iowa: fairly consistent results over the last 3-4 seasons. Those three teams have been the best and most consistent teams in the West recently and they've become pretty reliable. The 'cats (finally) lose Clayton Thorson at QB, but they have a former Clemson QB (Hunter Johnson) ready to replace him and they return their two best defenders (DE Joe Gaziano and LB Paddy Fisher). Northwestern also benefits from a schedule without Michigan and Penn State and they get Iowa and Ohio State in Evanston (though they do have back-to-back tricky road games at Wisconsin and Nebraska).
Speaking of... this is the start of the preseason hype for Nebraska and the buzz around them is only going to get louder (and more annoying) as the season nears. Nebraska's status as an ascending team is based on their finish to the season -- they won four of their last six after a rotten 0-6 start and came within a play or two of winning the games they lost against Ohio State and Iowa -- and a potential rising start at QB in Adrian Martinez. They also have a friendly schedule that includes no games against Michigan, Penn State, or Michigan State and has Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Ohio State all visiting Lincoln. On the other hand, they're losing their leading receiver and rusher and four of their top five tacklers; there are still a fair number of question marks about Nebraska heading into 2019.
Michigan State was listed in just two of the eight Way Too Early Top 25s and their inclusion at all after a 7-6 campaign is purely a reputation pick. The defense ought to be good (it always is), but until you see something from that offense, it seems like a giant stretch to put them in any sort of preseason Top 25. They scored two touchdowns in their final four games -- and those came against Rutgers. Mark Dantonio's response was to... play musical chairs with his offensive assistants.
Minnesota is the final Big Ten team to earn inclusion in the Way Too Early Top 25s, as Sporting News is ready to row the boat into heady territory for the Gophers. Minnesota did end the season with back-to-back blowout wins over Wisconsin and Georgia Tech and they do return almost every player of significance for next year, but... it's still Minnesota, you know? Definite "believe it when I see it" territory.
- Finally, they're not a Big Ten foe, but they are an annual opponent, and it's already clear that the preseason hype around Iowa State is gonna be bigger than it's been in a long time -- if not ever. The hype seems to be coming from back-to-back 8-win seasons (basically uncharted territory in Ames), the very solid defense that Matt Campbell has installed the last two seasons (as Iowa fans can attest, having a strong defense is a pretty great foundation to have), the return of Brock Purdy (who had a pretty great season as a true freshman once he took over a third of the way through the season), and a schedule that's front-loaded with home games (fast start potential). We'll see if they deal with preseason expectations any better than their hated rivals out east have done in the past.
Thoughts? Who seems too high? Who seems too low? Have any Way-Too-Early predictions of our own? Let's hear 'em.