2022 Big Ten Football Conference Season Preview and Best Bets: Can anyone stop Ohio State?
After a COVID-shortened 2020 season, the Big Ten was back in full force last year. The conference finished the season with 3 teams ranked in the top 10 and was highlighted by Michigan’s first conference championship since 2004. In addition to the Big Ten championship, the Wolverines finally beat Ohio State after an 8-game, 3,653-day losing streak – which could have added fuel to the Buckeyes’ fire coming into this season.
Ohio State finished 6th in the final rankings after a win over Utah in the Rose Bowl, but I cannot help but think the Michigan loss will be added motivation for CJ Stroud and the Buckeyes. Mel Tucker’s Spartans went from 2-5 in the COVID-19-shortened season to 11-2 last season and finished 9th in the country. Iowa, who lost to Michigan in the Big Ten championship, was the final team in the Big Ten to finish in the top 25. Purdue, Wisconsin, and Minnesota each finished 9-4 overall, and it was especially impressive for the Boilermakers – who surpassed 8 wins for the first time since 2003 and just the fourth time in 40+ seasons.
While Michigan and Penn State should make some noise, the Big Ten East runs through Columbus this season. The Buckeyes are heavy favorites to make it back to Indianapolis after a year removed. The West should make for a more exciting race than the East, as there is not a clear-cut favorite in the division. Can Iowa defend their Big Ten West title? Or will Wisconsin, Purdue, Nebraska, or, perhaps, Minnesota have something to say about it?
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Big Ten winner odds
Ohio State is predictably a heavy favorite to win the conference, thanks to the return of Heisman favorite CJ Stroud, wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, running back TreVeyon Henderson, and an improved defense under new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. The Buckeyes are listed anywhere between -200 and -250 to win the Big Ten, which does not represent much value from a betting perspective.
Because the Buckeyes are so heavily favored, the prices of the other teams in the conference are more appealing. For example, Michigan has the second-best odds to win the Big Ten with a juicy price of +800 (FanDuel). After winning the conference, these odds seem appealing. But keep in mind, Michigan ranks in the bottom 10 in the nation in returning defensive production after sending a plethora of talent to the NFL, and the Wolverines lost their defensive coordinator to the NFL as well.
Behind Ohio State and Michigan, things get interesting. Wisconsin at +1200 and Penn State at +1400 both have upside if they can find some offensive consistency, while Iowa at +2000, Nebraska at +2000, and Michigan State at +2500 round out the teams with odds under 30/1. Minnesota and Purdue could be viewed as dark horses with their returning QBs, but both programs must replace a lot on the defensive side of the ball. The rest of the teams have odds of 150/1 or worse, and it is hard to see any of them competing for the conference championship.
With the Buckeyes heavily tilting the odds of the Big Ten, there are some unique opportunities to find value from a betting perspective if you think a team other than Ohio State will win the conference. Full disclosure, I do believe Ohio State will win the conference, but I am not one to bet -200 odds. If you are, then go for it! Otherwise, these are some other options that should have a good chance at getting to the window this season (odds courtesy of FanDuel).
We have picks in our BIG 12 conference preview — can the Bears win again?
Big Ten best bets
Purdue Boilermakers to win the Big Ten West +600
Purdue? Yes, Purdue! The Boilermakers made huge strides last season, winning 9 games for just the 4th time since the 1980s and beating the Big Ten West champion Hawkeyes in Iowa and top 10 Michigan State along the way. The Boilermakers lost their best player on both offense and defense when wide receiver David Bell was drafted by the Cleveland Browns and defensive end George Karlaftis was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs. They also lost their highly regarded defensive coordinator. However, Purdue brings back a lot of talent and has a clear identity as a deep-throwing, pass-heavy, high-scoring offense under coach Jeff Brohm. In fact, Purdue had the second-best offensive efficiency in the Big Ten when passing last season – behind only Ohio State.
Quarterback Aidan O’Connell returns to Purdue for his 6th season of college football, which is huge for this offense. O’Connell is an accurate pocket-passer who showed he is a great fit in Brohm’s system, as he boasts a 123.0 passer rating on deep passes. Last season, he threw for 3,712 yards and 28 touchdowns with 11 interceptions and a 71.6% completion percentage. The Boilermakers will have to replace 51% of his targets and 59% of his caught passes, but the passing game should remain a strength.
Broc Thompson and transfer Charlie Jones are poised to lead the receiving corps with TJ Sheffield and transfer Tyrone Tracy operating in the slot. Purdue also has a great duo of pass-catching tight ends in Payne Durham and Garrett Miller, who combined for 65 receptions, 641 yards and 6 touchdowns (all scored by Durham). The run game leaves a bit to be desired, as King Doerue and Dylan Downing each averaged 4.0 yards per rush or less last season behind a poor run-blocking offensive line. However, Brohm brought in Central Michigan transfer Kobe Lewis in an attempt to improve the run game, who ran for 468 yards and 6 touchdowns on 105 attempts in the MAC. The offensive line returns its starters on the left side as well as its center, but will have competition for the starting spots on the right side of the line.
The defense lost its coordinator to Wake Forest in the offseason, but Brad Lambert, who was technically listed as a co-defensive coordinator last year, is replaced by Ron English and Mark Hagen – both of whom were on the staff last season and also carried the title of co-defensive coordinator. In addition to losing Karlaftis, Purdue loses its top 2 tacklers in Jaylan Alexander and Marvin Grant, who combined for 189 total tackles and 11 tackles for loss last season. There is still reason to be excited for this unit though!
Purdue brings back Kieren Douglas and Kydran Jenkins to lead the linebackers, while Cam Allen returns after leading the Boilermakers in interceptions to headline a veteran secondary that ranked 5th in the Big Ten against the pass. There is plenty of experience on the defensive line as well with Jack Sullivan, Lawrence Johnson, and Branson Deen manning the trenches. The trio of seniors combined for 7 sacks and 15 tackles for loss last season. Purdue will have to improve its run defense in order to take the next step, as the Boilermakers ranked 12th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten.
The Boilermakers’ schedule is extremely favorable as they do not have to play Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State – 3 of the East’s 4 best teams. They also play on the road in back-to-back weeks just once this season when they travel to Maryland after a game in Minnesota. Their non-conference schedule is nothing to lose sleep over with home games against Indiana State and FAU and a road game against Syracuse. Furthermore, Purdue benefits greatly from the fact that it will host Penn State and Iowa at home. The Iowa game comes after Purdue’s road trip to Wisconsin (arguably their most difficult game on the schedule), but there is a bye week in between those two games.
The West has a handful of teams that have a realistic shot to win the division, but Purdue appeals to me most with its returning talent and favorable schedule. Wisconsin lacks offensive firepower and has massive holes to fill on defense, Iowa struggles to score points despite an elite defense, Minnesota has too much to replace on both the offensive and defensive line, and Nebraska is Nebraska. I like Purdue to represent the West in the Big Ten Championship Game against Ohio State from the East, and I would not hate a sprinkle on the Boilermakers to win the conference at 40/1 if you are feeling frisky. Anything can happen in a high-scoring conference championship game.
Read our Pac-12 conference preview, which includes a couple of best bets
Wisconsin under 9 wins -130
I know, I know. Purdue to win the West and Wisconsin to win less than 9 games? What is this guy thinking? Well, Wisconsin’s offense was hard to watch last season, ranking 8th in the Big Ten. Quarterback Graham Mertz threw 5 touchdowns and 13 interceptions against teams with winning records, and the Badgers ranked 13th in the conference in passing offense. The run game was a strength, as it typically is with Wisconsin. The Badgers return star Braelon Allen as well as backup Chez Mellusi, so their rushing attack should be potent again this year.
The issue is, that Wisconsin does not have an elite offensive line for which it is historically known. Last season, Wisconsin’s offensive line ranked 51st in average line yards, 68th in passing down sack rate, and 81st in opportunity rate per Football Outsiders. The Badgers return just two of their starting offensive lineman from last season, but one of them is switching from RG to LT, so there is a lot of uncertainty around his group.
The pass-catching unit leaves a lot to be desired as well, considering Chimere Dike is the most experienced pass-catcher on the team despite only 19 receptions, 272 yards, and 1 touchdown last season. With a new offensive coordinator, offensive line coach, running back coach, tight end coach and quarterback coach, the Wisconsin offense might be just as ugly to watch this year as it was last year.
The Badgers built their identity on their defense last year, but return just 3 of those starters. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonard is one of the nation’s best, but there will likely be some regression from a unit that led the Big Ten in scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. This year’s defense will be led by linebacker Nick Herbig, who accumulated 61 total tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, and 9 sacks last season. However, outside of him, safety John Torchio is the most productive returning piece with 35 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and 3 interceptions.
Wisconsin should start the season 3-0 with easy non-conference matchups against Illinois State, Washington State and New Mexico State. After that, the going gets tough for the Badgers. Not only do they have to play Ohio State and Michigan State from the East, but they have to play them both on the road. The Badgers have two sets of back-to-back road games — the first being Northwestern and Michigan State, with the second being Iowa and Nebraska. Wisconsin’s conference home games are winnable, but the Badgers could have trouble matching the firepower of Purdue and Maryland’s offense if they do not figure out their own offensive issues and cannot replace their defensive production.
In all, I see wins against Illinois State, Washington State, New Mexico State, Illinois, Northwestern, Maryland, Nebraska and Minnesota. That is 8 wins, but a few of those games are losable for the Badgers. I count games against Ohio State, Michigan State, and Iowa as losses, so the road game against Nebraska could be the deciding factor in a push or a win if all things go according to plan.
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