(AP) — If the Big Ten’s final season with a 14-team, two-division setup plays out the way it has since the conference expanded in 2014, an East team will win the championship and it will be Michigan or Ohio State.
The preseason No. 2 Wolverines and No. 3 Buckeyes have flip-flopped as the team to beat now that Michigan has won two straight years over its bitter rival. No. 7 Penn State is also expected to be a factor.
No. 19 Wisconsin, under first-year coach Luke Fickell, is the preseason media poll choice to win the West over No. 25 Iowa, where Kirk Ferentz begins his 25th season.
The conference expands from 14 to 18 teams next year with the additions of Oregon, Southern California, UCLA and Washington, and divisions will go away.
Jim Harbaugh, who has taken his last two teams to the College Football Playoff, said he believes the 2023 Wolverines will be his best group since he took over in 2015.
Michigan returns running backs Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards, an offensive line ranked best in the nation by Pro Football Focus and a defense that could be better than a year ago despite the departures of some elite linemen. J.J. McCarthy will be in his second year as quarterback.
“I searched my memory for someone who has been a first-time starter and had a better first year and I can’t come up with one,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a once-in-a-generational type of quarterback at Michigan. His progress continues to grow. Daily he’s at the top of his game right now really in all aspects.”
The closest teams chasing Michigan will have new quarterbacks.
Ohio State coach Ryan Day was deciding between Kyle McCord and Devin Brown as his starter. Penn State is set with Drew Allar, who appeared in 10 games in relief of Sean Clifford last year and is the highest-ranked quarterback in James Franklin’s 10 seasons.
Offense: Michigan’s Corum ran for almost 1,500 yards and 18 touchdowns before a knee injury kept him out of the Big Ten title game and CFP. Ohio State WR Marvin Harrison Jr. caught 77 passes for nearly 1,300 yards and 14 touchdowns, and all 10 of his catches against Penn State resulted in first downs. Maryland QB Taulia Tagovailoa owns school career records for passing yards and touchdowns, and his 67.4% completion rate is the best of any Big Ten quarterback all-time with a minimum of 875 pass attempts.
Defense: Iowa CB Cooper DeJean picked off five passes and broke up eight, and he ran back a school-record three interceptions for touchedowns. Illinois DL Jer’Zhan Newton had 14 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hurries and was the only Big Ten defensive lineman to play 400 snaps. Minnesota S Tyler Nubin is a projected NFL first-round draft pick after leading the Gophers with four interceptions, and he allowed only 35% of the passes thrown his way to be completed.
COACHES COMING AND, MAYBE, GOING
All the coaching turnover occurred in the West Division, where Fickell takes over at Wisconsin, Matt Rhule at Nebraska, Ryan Walters at Purdue and David Braun in an interim role at Northwestern following Pat Fitzgerald’s summer firing amid the program’s hazing scandal.
The hottest seats belong to Indiana’s Tom Allen and Rutgers’ Greg Schiano.
Allen’s team has lost 13 of his last 16 games against FBS opponents and 16 of his last 18 against Big Ten foes. Schiano’s only Big Ten win last season was against Allen’s Hoosiers, and he’s 6-21 in conference games since 2020.
Six teams in the West probably will have transfers as their starting quarterbacks: Illinois’ Luke Altmyer (Mississippi), Iowa’s Cade McNamara (Michigan), Nebraska’s Jeff Sims (Georgia Tech), Northwestern’s Ben Bryant (Cincinnati) and Wisconsin’s Tanner Mordecai (SMU).
Tayven Jackson (Tennessee) has been in a tight battle with Brendan Sorsby for the job at Indiana.
MARK YOUR CALENDARS
Nebraska at Minnesota, Aug. 31; Wisconsin at Purdue, Sept. 22; Ohio State at Notre Dame, Sept. 23; Iowa at Penn State, Sept. 23; Michigan at Nebraska, Sept. 30; Michigan at Minnesota, Oct. 7; Iowa at Wisconsin, Oct. 14; Penn State at Ohio State, Oct. 21; Ohio State at Wisconsin, Oct. 28; Michigan at Penn State, Nov. 11; Iowa at Nebraska, Nov. 24; Wisconsin at Minnesota, Nov. 25; Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 25.
East: Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, Maryland, Rutgers, Indiana.
West: Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue, Northwestern.