When it comes to preseason previews, the gold standard is easily the work of Bill Connelly at SB Nation, and I’m not saying that because he’s a coworker and friend. Bill’s previews, which draw heavily on S&P+ and advanced stats, are a product of exhaustive research, and are generally very fair and reasonable. Any fan looking to better understand the rosters, and the major storylines of the coming season would do well to read them.
Recently, Bill finished his previews for every Big Ten team, and gave a conference power rankings based on his findings. And where does he slot Ohio State?
Third. And, for what it’s worth, he says he “regrets it already” right in his headline.
Atop the leaderboard sits Michigan, and while us fans might rail against that, it isn’t hard to see the argument. Michigan returns perhaps the best secondary and wideout corps in the Big Ten, along with an elite tight end. They have questions at quarterback (and maybe elsewhere), but weirdness aside, this coaching staff has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to QB development. Add that to one of the easiest schedules for a contender in the country, and you have a completely sensible argument for having Michigan as your preseason Big Ten favorite.
But Connelly also had Michigan State ahead of Ohio State. Is everybody — wait for it — disrespecting the Spartans?
To be fair, it’s not like Connelly is drawing a line in the sand, passionately arguing that Michigan State will be superior next season; he’s hedging right there in the dang headline. And his decision to put Michigan State ahead of the Buckeyes appears to be more about the Buckeyes than Michigan State. After all, Ohio State is returning less production from last year than nearly anybody, especially in position groups where that tends to matter more (like wideout and defensive back). And their matchup next season? It’s at Michigan State.
Still, let’s not forget that the Spartans are not without major personnel losses too. Connor Cook, one of the best QBs in program history? Gone (although it’s not like Michigan State needed him to beat Ohio State last year). Top two pass catchers? Gone. Two All-Americans on the offensive line? Gone. Two of their best corners from last year? Gone. And unlike Ohio State, the Spartans don’t have a bevy of blue-chippers along the two deep at every position.
I probably wouldn’t pick Michigan State over Ohio State next year, but given the fact that the game is at Michigan State, and that the Buckeyes will be exceptionally young, I don’t think slotting them over Ohio State in power rankings is a outrageously hot take. In terms of pure, unmitigated talent, Ohio State will have an advantage in virtually every Big Ten game they play next season. But it will be young, unproven talent, and there will likely be bumps in the road. It’s entirely possible they lose multiple Big Ten games next season, and the world wouldn’t end. In fact, Ohio State is probably a good bet to compete for a 2017 Big Ten title, if not a playoff spot, especially if J.T. Barrett returns.
Other thoughts from the power rankings?
For one, Penn State is much higher than many observers might have guessed. They sit at number four, ahead of every single Big Ten West team. That might seem ambitious, given their coaching changes, and replacements at QB and massive attrition up front, not to mention years of bad offensive line play. But the Nittany Lions might have the best running back in the conference, some potentially solid options in the secondary, and a manageable league schedule. Happy Valley is not devoid of talent.
If you’re looking for a team that seems surprisingly low in the rankings, it’s Iowa. Despite forcing parents across the country to have uncomfortable conversations with their kids about the prospect of an undefeated Iowa, the Hawkeyes are projected eighth, behind Nebraska, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Minnesota (!) in the Big Ten West. That’s despite the fact that they return a good QB, the best defensive back in the conference, and most of their defense.
A lot of football fans, including yours truly, thought Iowa wasn’t quite as good as their record last season, as they rode a strong defense to close wins over not-great competition. The advanced stats seem to agree, and think a regression is probable. If you believe in the power of the numbers, shorting Iowa stock seems smart.
Other than that, there doesn’t appear to be anything especially controversial in the numbers. I wouldn’t personally slot Ohio State at third this year, but it wouldn’t shock me. And if you’re going to look for something to base your opinions of this year’s teams, these previews aren’t a bad place to start.