2022 college football: Big Ten preview, odds and predictions

·15 min read

Even though Michigan came up short in the College Football Playoff, Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines finally beating Ohio State to win the Big Ten was one of the biggest stories in college football last season.

Now the challenge is to do it again. Both teams are ranked in the top 10 in multiple preseason polls with Michigan State and Penn State also hoping to challenge in the Big Ten East. Meanwhile, the West looks wide open with Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Purdue and maybe Nebraska having hopes of making the trip to Indianapolis for the conference title game.

Below, Yahoo Sports details the outlook for each team in the Big Ten entering the 2022 season before providing title picks for both divisions and the conference as a whole.

Other conference previews: ACC, Big 12, Group of Five, Pac-12, SEC

(All odds via BetMGM)

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Ohio State Buckeyes (-225 to win the Big Ten)

  • 2021 record: 11-2 (8-1 Big Ten)

  • National title odds: +320

  • Over/under: 11

Last season, Ohio State lost to Michigan for the first time since 2011, did not win the Big Ten for the first time since 2016 and missed out on the College Football Playoff after appearances in 2019 and 2020. It was still an 11-win season with a Rose Bowl victory, but it fell below the standard that has been set in Columbus.

The main culprit for those setbacks was the defense. Ohio State led the nation in scoring at 45.7 points per game, but the defense was gashed over and over in losses to Oregon and Michigan. The loss to the rival Wolverines was especially ugly with OSU getting completely overpowered for four quarters. To address those deficiencies, Ryan Day brought in Jim Knowles, who had the Oklahoma State defense among the nation’s best.

Knowles worked with lesser talent at Oklahoma State and produced excellent results. He’s expected to make a big difference at OSU, even if the team may lack a dominant edge rusher in the mold of Chase Young or Nick Bosa. And if the defense improves, the sky's the limit for this team. With QB C.J. Stroud, RB TreVeyon Henderson and WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba back, the offense should again be among the nation’s elite.

This is a national championship-caliber roster.

Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) celebrates with Jaxon Smith-Njigba (11) after a touchdown during the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. (Brian Rothmuller/Getty Images)
Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) celebrates with Jaxon Smith-Njigba (11) after a touchdown during the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. (Brian Rothmuller/Getty Images)

Michigan Wolverines (+600)

  • 2021 record: 12-2 (8-1)

  • National title odds: +5000

  • Over/under: 9.5

On the heels of a disastrous 2020 season, Michigan broke through and won its first outright Big Ten title since 2003. What can the Wolverines do for an encore?

Based on returning personnel, Michigan’s offense should be quite good, perhaps even better than last year. There’s no glaring weakness for this unit. Whether it’s Cade McNamara or J.J. McCarthy who gets the bulk of the action at QB, the Wolverines have an excellent collection of backs, receivers and linemen. The return of top receiver Ronnie Bell, who went down with a knee injury in Week 1 last season, makes the group of pass-catchers even stronger.

Like Mike Macdonald before him, new defensive coordinator Jesse Minter comes to Ann Arbor from the Baltimore Ravens. The scheme won’t change, but Minter won’t have the luxury of having All-American defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo and all-Big Ten safety Dax Hill, all of whom are now in the NFL.

Those were difference-making players, especially Hutchinson, a Heisman finalist. Will anybody make that big of an impact in 2022? Mazi Smith at defensive tackle is viewed as a potential star with linebacker Junior Colson also looking very promising. A light early season schedule should help some new starters round into form before Big Ten play, but it won’t be a surprise if the defense takes a step back.

Contenders

Wisconsin Badgers (+1200)

  • 2021 record: 9-4 (6-3)

  • National title odds: +8000

  • Over/under: 8.5

Wisconsin got off to a disastrous 1-3 start in 2021 but then reeled off seven straight wins to be in position to get back to the Big Ten title game for the fourth time since 2016. Instead, the Badgers laid an egg in the regular-season finale at Minnesota and the West division crown went to Iowa.

It was a game emblematic of Wisconsin’s issues. With Braelon Allen unable to get things going on the ground, QB Graham Mertz and the offense struggled mightily in the 23-13 loss. The Badgers boasted one of the nation’s top defenses, but the offense didn’t give Jim Leonhard’s unit much help that day.

And unless there are some dramatic changes offensively, Wisconsin will count on its defense yet again in 2022. Leonhard has proven to be one of the top defensive coordinators in the country, but he has to replace seven starters. On offense, Allen looks like the Badgers’ next star at running back, but Mertz needs to cut down on the turnovers after tossing 11 interceptions and losing four fumbles last year. Mertz improved as the season progressed, but he’ll need competent targets to emerge on the outside for the Badgers to get back to Indianapolis. Perhaps new OC Bobby Engram will bring some more creative elements to the passing game.

Penn State Nittany Lions (+1600)

  • 2021 record: 7-6 (4-5)

  • National title odds: +8000

  • Over/under: 8.5

It’s easy to forget that Penn State was ranked No. 4 in the country at one point last season. The Nittany Lions were 5-0 but were never the same after QB Sean Clifford was injured at Iowa. In the end, PSU finished 7-6 with five of those losses coming by single-digit margins.

The lack of a running game plagued PSU in 2021, leaving a banged-up Clifford a sitting duck behind a leaky offensive line. PSU has more depth on the line in 2022, but offensive line play has been a constant issue during James Franklin’s tenure. The addition of five-star freshman RB Nick Singleton could provide a jolt to the running game, putting less of a burden on Clifford, now a sixth-year senior. At receiver, Jahan Dotson was a first-round NFL draft pick but Parker Washington, WKU transfer Mitchell Tinsley and KeAndre Lambert-Smith make up a fine trio.

Defensively, PSU is loaded in the secondary and has much more depth up front but is looking for somebody to emerge as a top-end pass rusher after Arnold Ebiketie left for the NFL. Linebacker is the biggest question mark for the defense, which is now headed up by former Miami head coach Manny Diaz.

PSU has road games against Purdue and Auburn in Weeks 1 and 3. If the Nittany Lions win those games, they could be back in the national picture headed into an Oct. 15 trip to Michigan.

Penn State QB Sean Clifford throws a pass during the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1. (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
Penn State QB Sean Clifford throws a pass during the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1. (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Nebraska Cornhuskers (+1800)

  • 2021 record: 3-9 (1-8)

  • National title odds: +12500

  • Over/under: 7.5

This is Scott Frost’s last stand at Nebraska. The former Huskers quarterback is 15-29 as the head coach at his alma mater after his team posted a miserable 3-9 record in 2021. Frost teams have been turnover-prone and terrible on special teams, leading to a 5-20 mark in one-score games during his tenure.

In an attempt to get things right, Frost brought in Mark Whipple from Pitt to run the offense while Texas transfer Casey Thompson is the new starting quarterback, replacing Adrian Martinez after four seasons. Thompson isn’t as mobile as Martinez, though he could be an upgrade as a decision-maker. He could have a lot on his shoulders as the skill position group looks uninspiring.

The 3-9 record hides how well Nebraska played defensively. The Huskers are really good at linebacker but will lean heavily on transfers on the line and in the secondary. This team has a favorable schedule and more than enough talent to get to a bowl game, but will getting to a bowl be enough for Frost to save his job?

Iowa Hawkeyes (+2000)

  • 2021 record: 10-4 (7-2)

  • National title odds: +15000

  • Over/under: 7.5

Iowa had one of the best defenses in the country in 2021 but its offense was terrible. The Hawkeyes couldn’t throw and there was no consistent run game to lean on like in years past. Despite the poor play on offense, the Hawkeyes managed to win the West and get to 10 wins.

The Hawkeyes may not produce the volume of turnovers they did last year, but Phil Parker’s defense should be just as good in 2022. And if the Hawkeyes can get a little more imaginative on offense, there’s no reason to believe they can’t be right back in contention for the division title.

Even if the offensive approach doesn’t change much, an improved offensive line and the use of downhill running backs Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams should at least make the running game more efficient on a down-to-down basis and limit some of the negative plays. The quarterback play will likely continue to underwhelm, but there is plenty of returning production among the team’s pass-catchers.

Michigan State Spartans (+2500)

  • 2021 record: 11-2 (7-2)

  • National title odds: +12500

  • Over/under: 7.5

Michigan State winning 11 games in Mel Tucker’s second season was a big surprise. Tucker and his staff hit it big in the transfer portal, particularly with running back Kenneth Walker III. Walker’s big-play ability was a huge difference-maker on an otherwise average offense.

MSU will again rely on an array of portal additions on both sides of the ball in 2022. To replace Walker, MSU added Jarek Broussard from Colorado and Jalen Berger from Wisconsin. Both have been productive at points in their college careers but lack the explosiveness of Walker. Elsewhere on offense, QB Payton Thorne and WR Jayden Reed are back but the line is a major question mark.

On the other side, MSU was one of the worst at defending the pass in 2021. Tucker is hoping to bolster the unit with transfers like pass rusher Khris Bogle (Florida) and cornerback Ameer Speed (Georgia). Will the staff hit a home run with its portal scouting again? Or will there be some regression?

Minnesota Golden Gophers (+2500)

  • 2021 record: 9-4 (6-3)

  • National title odds: +25000

  • Over/under: 7.5

Minnesota relied on a massive offensive line and was extremely run heavy in 2021. How run heavy? Only the three service academies attempted fewer passes than the Golden Gophers, who were able to overpower many teams en route to a nine-win season.

Despite closing the season by winning seven of nine, head coach P.J. Fleck decided the offense needed to go in another direction. Fleck fired Mike Sanford and brought back Kirk Ciarrocca, who was Minnesota’s offensive coordinator when the team won 11 games in 2019. Ciarrocca will reunite with veteran quarterback Tanner Morgan and work with an experienced group of backs and receivers. However, four starters must be replaced on the line.

The defensive line lost a lot too with six of the top eight in terms of snap count moving on. The Gophers also lost key pieces at corner and linebacker, but there is returning talent as well as some intriguing transfer additions ready to contribute to a team capable of contending for the Big Ten West title.

Purdue Boilermakers (+3300)

  • 2021 record: 9-4 (6-3)

  • National title odds: +25000

  • Over/under: 7.5

We’re going to find out just how much of a difference David Bell and George Karlaftis made for Purdue. While Bell caught 93 passes for 1,286 yards for the Purdue offense, Karlaftis was a game-wrecker off the edge for the defense who had 31.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks during his college career.

Aidan O’Connell is back at quarterback after an excellent season, but there doesn’t seem to be an obvious candidate to step into Bell’s shoes. That’s especially true with Milton Wright academically ineligible. Payne Durham is a stud at tight end but it will have to be more of a group effort at wideout.

On defense, the loss of Karlaftis will be felt. Every offense game-planned to take Karlaftis away, and now there is no one of his caliber on the defensive line. Losing DC Brad Lambert to Wake Forest could hurt too. Purdue has had some really bad defenses during Jeff Brohm’s tenure, but last year’s Lambert-led unit was quite good.

Long shots

Maryland Terrapins (+15000)

  • 2021 record: 7-6 (3-6)

  • National title odds: +25000

  • Over/under: 6

On the heels of the program’s first bowl win since 2010, the Maryland offense should be really good in 2022. Outside of Ohio State, the Terps might have the Big Ten’s best receiving group with Dontay Demus Jr., Rakim Jarrett and Jeshaun Jones all back. Additionally, Taulia Tagovailoa returns as the starting quarterback after throwing for 3,860 yards and 26 TDs.

For Maryland to take the next step — especially in a loaded division like the Big Ten East — the defense needs to be better. There’s some intriguing talent at linebacker and cornerback, but several key recruits transferred and the line tends to get pushed around. That’s again a concern.

The Terps will likely go as far as this passing game takes them. If they take care of their non-conference opponents, a bowl feels like a good bet.

Maryland QB Taulia Tagovailoa carries the ball during the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 29. (Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)
Maryland QB Taulia Tagovailoa carries the ball during the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 29. (Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)

Illinois Fighting Illini (+20000)

  • 2021 record: 5-7 (4-5)

  • National title odds: +100000

  • Over/under: 4.5

Bret Bielema brought some stability to Illinois and now he wants the Illini to take some steps forward, particularly on offense. Illinois had a steady rushing attack but couldn’t throw the ball at all in 2021, so Bielema brought in Barry Lunney from UTSA to implement a new system. With Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito the favorite to start at quarterback, the offense should feature more tempo and more creativity with RB Chase Brown and WR Isaiah Williams in place as the most-talented playmakers.

Ryan Walters is a highly acclaimed defensive coordinator and the Illini got much better over the course of the 2021 season. Entering 2022, five of the team’s top seven tacklers return and this unit could be solid even if it lacks top-end talent. With the difficulty of this schedule, Illinois reaching a bowl game would be a big step forward.

Indiana Hoosiers (+25000)

  • 2021 record: 2-10 (0-9)

  • National title odds: +25000

  • Over/under: 4.5

Indiana really fell back down to Earth. The Hoosiers had a breakthrough season in 2020 but went 2-10 without a single Big Ten victory in 2021 as injuries ravaged the offense.

The 2022 Hoosiers will look a lot different as Tom Allen replaced both coordinators and added ex-Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak. Another intriguing transfer is ex-Auburn RB Shaun Shivers. For those guys to make an impact, the offensive line must be significantly better after IU averaged 3.2 yards per carry and gave up 29 sacks.

Allen will return to play-calling duties on defense and is hoping to fill holes with a few transfers to couple with a veteran secondary in what could be a pivotal year for the Hoosiers. IU won an average of six games per season between 2015 and 2020. Will the Hoosiers get back to their competitive ways, or will they stay at the bottom of the pack in the Big Ten?

Rutgers Scarlet Knights (+50000)

  • 2021 record: 5-8 (2-7)

  • National title odds: +50000

  • Over/under: 4

In his two seasons back at Rutgers, Greg Schiano has significantly elevated the program’s level of competitiveness. Before last season, Rutgers hadn’t had a five-win campaign since 2014.

The Rutgers offense struggled mightily in 2021 and Schiano added a slew of transfers to try to increase the offense’s depth, particularly up front and at receiver. While veteran Noah Vedral and youngster Gavin Wimsatt return at QB, the line is a big concern and replacing longtime contributors WR Bo Melton and RB Isiah Pacheco will have to be a group effort.

Schiano also completely revamped his defensive staff and there are some promising young contributors returning on that side of the ball. While recruiting has improved, it still may be another year or two before the Scarlet Knights get back to .500.

Northwestern Wildcats (+50000)

  • 2021 record: 3-9 (1-8)

  • National title odds: +50000

  • Over/under: 3.5

Northwestern has alternated between first and last place in the Big Ten West over the past four seasons. Last season was a last-place year, but it does not seem like that pattern will continue in 2022. Pat Fitzgerald tends to do more with less, but getting this team to a bowl game would be surprising.

The defense has long been reliable in Evanston, but the Wildcats were terrible in 2021. Even if the defense improves, there are major concerns again on offense. Northwestern’s QB play has been a major weakness in recent years. In 2022, the Wildcats will go with either Ryan Hilinski or Brendan Sullivan. Hilinski had a four-star rating as a recruit, but hasn’t shown much since transferring from South Carolina.

The offensive line and the running back duo of Cam Porter and Evan Hull are strengths for this team, and those two could be forced to carry a heavy load to give the Wildcats a chance to string some wins together.

Who will win the Big Ten?

East: Ohio State

West: Minnesota

Big Ten champion: Ohio State