2023 college football outlook: Breaking down the Big Ten

ByAdam Rittenberg and Tom VanHaaren ESPN logo
Thursday, August 24, 2023

The Big Ten essentially has come down to Michigan and Ohio State the past few years, and 2023 may well be more of the same.

That said, there's plenty of intrigue elsewhere, including a pair of big-name new coaches at Wisconsin (Luke Fickell) and Nebraska (Matt Rhule), and sure-fire contenders at Penn State and Iowa. And then there are the big changes ahead as USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington join the Big Ten's ranks next season.

Adam Rittenberg and Tom VanHaaren take a look at the conference's top newcomers, MVP candidates, September games to watch, power rankings, conference championship picks and more.

Three transfers to know

Iowa QB Cade McNamara: After helping Michigan to a Big Ten title and a CFP appearance in 2021, McNamara slipped behind J.J. McCarthy and transferred to Iowa, which desperately needs a quarterback boost for a historically inept offense. -- Adam Rittenberg

Michigan edgeJosaiah Stewart: Michigan maintained its strong defensive trajectory in 2022 without an elite pass-rusher, but Stewart could fill a clear need there. The undersized edge (6-foot-1, 237 pounds) set a Coastal Carolina single-season record with 12.5 sacks in 2021 before being limited to 3.5 last season. --Rittenberg

Wisconsin QB Tanner Mordecai: The SMU transfer and projected starter is one of several notable imports brought in to operate the Air Raid offense under coordinator Phil Longo, a dramatic departure from Wisconsin's traditional system. --Rittenberg

Three key positions to fill

Ohio State quarterback: C.J. Stroud was the No. 2 overall pick in this year's NFL draft and leaves a big hole for the Buckeyes to fill on offense. Kyle McCord and Devin Brown are competing for that starting role in 2023. -- Tom VanHaaren

Penn State secondary: The Nittany Lions lost Joey Porter Jr. and Ji'Ayir Brown to the NFL, but they already have some good options to step in. Kalen King returns at corner, as does Zakee Wheatley and Keaton Ellis among others who should keep Penn State's defense stout. -- VanHaaren

Wisconsin quarterback: The Badgers have a new coaching staff with a new offensive system and lost Graham Mertz and Chase Wolf to the transfer portal. The coaches brought inMordecai, Nick Evers and Braedyn Locke to help fill that void, with Mordecai leading the way for this season. -- VanHaaren

Three instant-impact freshmen

Nebraska WR Malachi Coleman: The Cornhuskers will need playmakers at receiver with a new staff coming in, and Coleman has a shot to make an impact. Coleman is a 6-foot-4, 190-pound receiver who will be a big target for new quarterback Jeff Sims. -- VanHaaren

Ohio State WR Carnell Tate: The Buckeyes have a deep receiver room, with Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka ranked as a couple of the top receivers in the conference and the country. Tate was a highly recruited prospect, though, and has been drawing rave reviews this offseason. -- VanHaaren

Rutgers WR Famah Toure: Rutgers lost the top three receivers from last season and is going to need to find replacements this season. Toure is a 6-4, 200-pound receiver and has every opportunity to make an impact for the Scarlet Knights. -- VanHaaren

Three must-see September games

Ohio State at Notre Dame, Sept. 23: The Buckeyes' new quarterback (McCord or Brown) gets his first major test against a Notre Dame team that limited Ohio State to 21 points last season and has an excellent cornerback tandem in Benjamin Morrison and Cam Hart. -- Rittenberg

Iowa at Penn State, Sept. 23: This series has produced several close, compelling matchups (not 6-4; get your minds out of the gutter), and these teams project as the most realistic challengers to Michigan and Ohio State. Both defenses project very well, but Iowa's offense must handle the Whiteout environment and find ways to score. -- Rittenberg

Nebraska at Colorado, Sept. 9: The spectacle likely will surpass the quality of teams as the Deion Sanders era begins in Boulder with a rivalry renewal against Nebraska, which is trying to find stability and success under its own notable new coach in Matt Rhule. -- Rittenberg

MVP pick

Rittenberg: Ohio State WR Marvin Harrison Jr.

Harrison might end up as the best in a run of elite-level Buckeyes wide receivers, and he will ease the transition for Ohio State's new quarterback after recording 77 receptions for 1,263 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. Harrison had five or more receptions in all but two games in 2022.

Tom VanHaaren: Michigan RB Blake Corum

I agree the league MVP is very likely going to be Harrison, but Corum is going to be in the mix. He was injured at the end of last season and spurned the NFL to return to Michigan for another season. The run game will always be featured in this offense and Corum has another really good offensive line to run behind. He had 1,463 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2022 and there's no reason he can't have similar success in 2023.

On the hot seat

Adam Rittenberg: Tom Allen, Indiana (kind of)

There really aren't any true hot-seat candidates in the Big Ten this season. Allen would be if Indiana's recent performance doesn't turn around, as he's 6-18 the past two seasons after a No. 12 finish in 2020. But Indiana still would owe Allen more than $20 million if it fires him this year.

Tom VanHaaren: Allen

I agree there aren't really any coaches on the hot seat, including Allen. If we have to answer, then I'd go with him for all the reasons Adam stated. But thinking about this question puts into perspective where the Big Ten is at as a whole. There are a lot of positives for the conference going forward.

Sleeper team

Adam Rittenberg: Maryland

The Terrapins might have shed sleeper designation when coach Mike Locksley proclaimed at Big Ten media days they're ready to contend. But Maryland has one of the league's few veteran quarterbacks (Taulia Tagovailoa), a formidable overall offense and enough talent to make a push, especially while avoiding Iowa and Wisconsin in crossover games.

Tom VanHaaren: Iowa

Can we consider Iowa a sleeper given they're in the West division? I'm going to call them a sleeper because of how bad the offense was last season and the low expectations for the Hawkeyes nationally. Adding quarterback Cade McNamara and tight end Erick All from Michigan should help this offense become competent at a minimum, and if the defense can continue to be as suffocating as usual, the Hawkeyes could have a good season.

Conference title game

Adam Rittenberg: Ohio State 35, Iowa 17

I've gone back and forth a lot with Michigan and Ohio State, but the Wolverines have never won three straight outright conference titles and the Buckeyes still boast so much high-end talent. Iowa might have the league's best overall defense and simply needs non-terrible quarterback play to become a respectable-ish offense.

Tom VanHaaren: Michigan 35, Iowa 17

I flipped a coin between Michigan and Ohio State, and Michigan won best two out of three. I could see arguments for both teams with Ohio State focusing this offseason on competition because of the two losses to end the season and wanting to exact revenge on Michigan. But the Buckeyes are breaking in a new quarterback, and Michigan returns a ton of starters from last season. I'm going with the Wolverines taking their third straight Big Ten title for the first time in their history.

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