The Big Ten is a gauntlet year after year. Is there any team who can rise above the rest?
Penn State has Sean Clifford under center in his sixth year at the program,but is it time to look to the future with top recruit Drew Allar waiting in the wings?
What about Minnesota, who had an up-and-down year that still resulted in a 9-4 finish. Can we expect more of the same from the Golden Gophers?
Here is how I'm playing Penn State and Minnesota's win totals this season:
Minnesota OVER 7.5 Wins (+100)
It was a strange, yet successful, year for P.J. Fleck and the Gophers last season. The team put a scare into Ohio State in Week 1, but lost star running back Mohamed Ibrahim for the year in that game and lost 45-31. However, the team proceeded to go 9-3 otherwise with two of those losses coming at home to Bowling Green (4-8) and Illinois (5-7) by a combined score of 28-16.
The team succeeded despite being run-heavy without their best back (running on more than 69% of plays). Tanner Morgan struggled at quarterback as the defense held the team together, allowing less than 18 points per game and under 100 yards per game.
The foundation of the team, the offensive line, lost four of five starters from the 2021 team, but do retain their starting center and the team hit the transfer portal to pick up Power Five transfers like Chuck Filiaga (Michigan) and Quinn Carroll (Notre Dame).
Morgan will hopefully find his 2019 form under center with Kirk Ciarrocca back as offensive coordinator. Ciarrocca was at the helm in that 2019 season when the Gophers went 11-2 and Morgan completed 66% passes with a sterling 30:7 TD:INT ratio.
Are Ciarrocca and Morgan bound to get rolling again? The team has a fully healthy Chris Autumn-Bell (26 starts, 1,250 yards) back in addition to the other four top receiver from last season.
The defense may not be as good, but the offense should take a step forward with better health.
The schedule gives the Gophers plenty of chances to get back to 9 wins. The team should start 3-0 with wins over New Mexico State, Western Illinois and Colorado.
They will be favored at Illinois and massive chalk over Rutgers and Northwestern. The rest of the games are difficult, including the remaining Big Ten home games against Purdue and Iowa, with road trips to Michigan State, Penn State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. To get over this number, I'm asking for 2-4, and I see Minnesota remaining competitive with better health and better late game variance to flirt with 9 wins yet again.
At even money, I'll back Minnesota to go over this total for the fourth time in Fleck's six seasons.
PICK: Minnesota OVER 7.5 Wins (+100)
Penn State UNDER 8.5 Wins (-125)
It seemed like James Franklin was destined for greatness in Happy Valley, but the team has gone 11-11 over the last two seasons. However, the administration still believes in Franklin, who inked a 10-year contract extension this winter. While Franklin has recruited at a high level, the results aren't there of late, and I believe 2023 is the year for the Nittany Lions, not this one.
So, I'm going under their win total.
Clifford is under center with second year offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. The team was hit or miss on offense, averaging just 25 points per game and was 83rd in success rate. Clifford can do a little bit of everything but the team was reliant on first round NFL Draft pick Jahan Dotson (91 catches, 1,182 yards and 12 touchdowns) to produce explosive plays.
The run game was non-existent, averaging 3.13 yards per carry and was 115th in explosive rush rate. While the team has a star freshman joining the backfield, Nicholas Singleton, the offensive line is unproven with three new starters.
The loss of Dotson is going to be felt early in the season and I can see this offense taking a further step back in 2022.
The defense is also green, returning only four starters to a unit that had five NFL Draft picks last season. Manny Diaz will take over as DC from Miami, but this may be a transition year for a team that brings in the third ranked recruiting class in 2023. We can see a youth movement this season as Franklin and co. prepares to be a contender next season with an influx of talent joining an already star-studded freshman class.
The schedule is tricky with an opener at Purdue and a road trip to Auburn. Not to mention they must go to Ann Arbor to face Michigan and face Ohio State at home. The rest of the schedule is not too difficult, but if the team starts slow, Franklin may use this as extra practice time and go to the inexperienced, but talented, Allar at QB. Don't sleep on a miserable sandwich spot in between the Michigan and Ohio State game with Minnesota coming to Happy Valley.
There's too much downside for me not to go 8.5 with enough tricky games on the schedule.
PICK: Penn State UNDER 8.5 Wins (-125)