Penn State is getting some dark horse playoff hype. [Bryan Fuller]
While we've entered the darkest days of the offseason, there's a beacon of hope: programs not named Michigan State now have a good idea of how their roster and depth chart will look this fall. Since I penned the opponent previews (save Ohio State, which was put in the ever-capable hands of Ross Fulton) for HTTV 2017, which you can preorder right here (or grab the digital version here), I figured I'd run down the 2017 schedule by expected difficulty.
This takes into account opponent quality, location of the game, time of the season (i.e. it's better to catch Florida early while Malik Zaire is still getting the offense down), and whatnot.
TIER I: THE EAST ELITES
1. Ohio State (home, Nov. 25)
While serious consideration was given to Penn State, The Game is The Game, and Ohio State's talent level remains ridiculous even after considerable turnover from last year's squad. The JT Barrett-Mike Weber backfield will be among the best in the country, and the offense will feature new wrinkles with former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson combining his light-speed approach with Urban Meyer's power spread.
Ohio State's defensive strength also happens to coincide with Michigan's greatest offensive concern. The Buckeyes boast four defensive ends who'd start—and star—on just about any team in the country: Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, Nick Bosa, and Jalyn Holmes. Hopefully, Michigan has figured out their right tackle situation by Thanksgiving.
2. Penn State (road, Oct. 21)
I understand the inclination to dismiss Penn State based on last year's 49-10 win. I really do. That said, PSU's offense took off last year under first-year coordinator Joe Moorhead, and I'd probably have them first on this list if top wideout Chris Godwin didn't move on to the NFL. Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley may be as good, if not better, than the Barrett-Weber duo.
There are still reasons to doubt this team, chief among them an offensive line that remained awful at run-blocking last year and a defensive front seven that lacks star power. Also: James Franklin is still in charge of game management decisions. This offense is going to be tough to stop, though, and Michigan will have to do it in a road night game at Happy Valley.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the schedule.]
Wisconsin needs more consistency from QB Alex Hornibrook. [Fuller]
TIER II: TALENTED BUT FLAWED
3. Wisconsin (road, Nov. 18)
The Badgers were a cut below the top of the Big Ten last year, losing to the top three teams in the East by seven points each. Their defense should once again be excellent despite the losses of TJ Watt and Vince Biegel; if last year's defense showed anything, it's that the Badgers have a seemingly endless stock of good linebackers, led by Jack Cichy. The D-line is stout and the secondary boasts a couple underrated talents in Derrick Tindal and D'Cota Dixon.
The offense, however, has been mediocre in two seasons under Paul Chryst, and they must replace their top two backs and first-round tackle Ryan Ramczyk from an uncharacteristically poor rushing attack. While there's talent in the receiving corps, QB Alex Hornibrook must show he can hold his own against elite defenses after struggling mightily against Michigan and OSU last year before losing the job to Bart Houston. It's telling that the Badgers made a play for Notre Dame grad transfer Malik Zaire, who instead wound up at...
4. Florida (neutral, Sep. 2)
If Zaire had more time to get comfortable in Florida's system, I'd probably have the Gators above the Badgers, but Michigan is fortunate to catch them early in the season—plus, Wisconsin is on the road while Florida is a neutral-site Jerryworld game. The two teams in this tier are quite similar; like the Badgers, UF has leaned on a talented defense while poor QB and O-line play hold back the offense.
Florida lost a lot of talent off last year's team, including early NFL Draft entrants at each level of the defense. Their best offensive player, playmaking receiver Antonio Callaway, could miss the Michigan game after an offseason marijuana citation. I'd like Michigan in this game regardless, but getting the Gators in the opener makes me like their chances even more.
I'll stop here to note there's a chasm between the top four teams on the schedule and the bottom eight. OSU and PSU are likely to be favored in those games, while upsets by Wisconsin and Florida are well within the realm of possbility. It'd take some weird stuff for Michigan to lose to the teams below. This is college football, of course, so weird stuff happens with alarming regularity, but four losses still looks to be the absolute floor unless M is hit with some catastrophic injuries.
Indiana's Richard Lagow needs to stop throwing to the other team. [Eric Upchurch]
TIER III: POTENTIALLY FRISKY
5. Indiana (road, Oct. 14)
Like I said: chasm. Indiana could be tricky; their defense took a huge leap under Tom Allen, who's now the head coach after Kevin Wilson was let go. That unit returns eight starters, including excellent linebacker Tegray Scales. It's beyond bizarre to type this, but Indiana should be able to rely on a solid defense this year.
While the offense could bounce back from a down year, they'll have to do so while replacing Kevin Wilson with Mike DeBord, who—I swear I'm not making this up—was brought in to continue running IU's up-tempo spread. They've got a pair of dangerous, big-bodied receivers in Simmie Cobbs Jr. and Nick Westbrook, and the passing game could be electric if Richard Lagow puts it together. Being in the East means the Hoosiers will lose more games than a couple of the teams below them, but if things break the right way they could be an upset threat on the road.
6. Maryland (road, Nov. 11)
While DJ Durkin had a pretty rough debut, there are some intriguing pieces in place for a potential year-two leap. After two years of terrible quarterback play, UNC transfer and former four-star recruit Caleb Henderson could provide stability to the position, and the run game was already dangerous last year with Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison both cracking 7 YPC. The offensive line has plenty of young talent, most of which has some early playing experience.
The defense looks solid up front and potentially shaky in the secondary. That and lingering issues in the passing game—they're thin at receiver—will keep the Terps from competing with the top of the Big Ten East, but they'll battle with Indiana for fourth in the division and should look a good deal better than last year's team.
7. Minnesota (home, Nov. 4)
Replacing Tracy Claeys with PJ Fleck is a massive coaching upgrade, and while it may take a while for the total system overhaul to take hold, Michigan catches the Gophers relatively late in the year. With two quality running backs in Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, they have something to lean on while the rest of the team catches up. Fleck can't conjure a passing game out of thin air, though, so the Gophers project to be a limited offensive team this fall.
Last year's defense was good, but other than underrated DT Stephen Richardson, loses most of its top players. The secondary looks especially questionable after losing both starting corners and their top safety. Fleck started off slow at Western Michigan, and it's probably going to be a similar story at Minnesota, but he's working with more talent than before.
8. Michigan State (home, Oct. 7)
Even putting aside the legitimate, lingering questions about how this program will deal with a disastrous offseason, State has lost a good deal of its top-end talent and will be paper-thin at just about every position that isn't running back. The defense is down five of its top seven tacklers and could still lose its top returning D-lineman after Demetrious Cooper violated the terms of his plea deal. Brian Lewerke will be handed the keys to an offense that returns only one receiver with double-digit catches to his name. The O-line is a mess.
Honestly, MSU is only ranked this high because they'll treat the Michigan game like it's the Super Bowl. This team has significantly less talent and depth than last year's 3-9 squad, and a hopefully improved locker room culture can only go so far to make up for that.
TIER IV: NEVER SCHEDULE AIR FORCE
9. Air Force (home, Sep. 16)
Even by service academy standards, Air Force has a huge amount of turnover from last year's team; they return five starters on offense and just one on defense. On paper, Michigan should hardly break a sweat in this game.
But this is Air Force. They've spent decades refining a hurry-up option attack that best suits their personnel (and also endangers opposing defender's knees), and while they don't return much, they bring back two dangerous runners in QB Arion Worthman, whose insertion into the starting lineup turned last season around, and back Timothy McVey. Their chances of beating Michigan are slim; their chances of mounting a couple obnoxious scoring drives are high.
Oh wow I got through this section without mentioning this is another Dave Brandon scheduling special. Oh, crap, I'm still typing. Whatever.
Yep, still bad. [Patrick Barron]
TIER V: BODY BAGS
10. Cincinnati (home, Sep. 9)
Luke Fickell was a solid hire for Cinci; he's already recruiting at a level well above predecessor Tommy Tuberville. Tuberville let the team bottom out before his exit, however, and Fickell probably wishes he could add a couple of his 2018 commits to this year's team. The Bearcats were woeful on offense last year, especially on the ground, and I'm not sure they hit a home run with their hiring of Mike Denbrock, Notre Dame's primary playcaller the last two years, as offensive coordinator.
In a couple years, this program should be at a level where they put a scare into some high-level programs, but it's going to take some time.
11. Purdue (road, Sep. 23)
I'd probably have this game above Cincinnati if it came later in the year. Jeff Brohm is another huge coaching upgrade, and it didn't take him long to turn Western Kentucky into last year's best Group of Five team. There's a lot of new faces on offense, however, and the defense loses its linchpin in PFF All-American DT Jake Replogle. This is yet another game that'd be more worrisome if it occurred two or three years in the future.
12. Rutgers (home, Oct. 28)
Let's look at Rutgers' quarterback situation, from the HTTV preview:
Last year, Chris Laviano ceded the job midway through the year to Giovanni Rescigno, and the two posted equally terrible marks of 4.2 yards per attempt. When SBNation’s Bill Connelly created an overall percentile ranking for QBs in 2016 using weighted stats, both fell in the bottom eight out of 178 qualifying players.
While Laviano graduated, Rescigno exited the spring as the starter, but his hold on the job is tenuous. Ash said there will be a “complete, open competition” in the fall, and he’s adding plenty of competitors. Senior Zach Allen, the third-stringer last year, is rehabbing a torn ACL instead of undergoing surgery so he can play this year; three-star dual-threat true freshman Johnathan Lewis and Louisville grad transfer Kyle Bolin will make it a four-player race; Kill even added a walk-on transfer from Temple and a grad transfer from D-II Southern Connecticut State to bolster depth. The message is clear: Rutgers is trying anything they can to avoid even another half-season of Rescigno. Most alarmingly, it may not work.
Yup, still Rutgers.