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Big Ten order of finish prediction: Athlon releases 2024 projections

Alex Weberby:Alex Weber07/06/24

The 2024 college football season is closer than we all may think, which means the annual predictions magazines are starting to hit shelves.

One of the reliable annual manuals for CFB comes from Athlon Sports, which publishes full-page profiles of each FBS program. As part of the magazine, Athlon also ranks each conference from top to bottom. In 2024, with an expanded 18-team Big Ten, that task was quite an undertaking.

CLICK HERE TO BUY ATHLON’S 2024 EDITION

So below, you can take a look at Athlon’s full 1-18 ranking of the brand new Big Ten:

1. Ohio State

ohio-state-head-coach-ryan-day-shares-adopted-military-approach-after-being-named
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Few teams in recent college football memory have loaded up like Ohio State this offseason, setting the stage for an all-or-nothing year on the field in 2024-25. With the roster they have in place, the Buckeyes are the presumptive Big Ten favorites, and Athlon agrees.

OSU found star transfers at running back, safety and quarterback to go along with a roster that was already stacked with talent. Jim Harbaugh is no longer there and a win vs. the Wolverines is a must for Ryan Day, as is a College Football Playoff appearance.

2. Oregon

© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Dan Lanning has started out about as strong as possible in two years with the Ducks — if only he could have nabbed one win against Washington last season. But for a defensive coach, it’s the Oregon offense that’s loaded.

Evan Stewart comes over from Texas A&M, a former blue-chip wideout and rising junior who put up 1,100 combined yards as a true freshman and sophomore for Texas A&M. 1,100-yard receiver in 2023, Tez Johnson, returns alongside Traeshon Holden and Gary Bryant as well to give Oregon three of their top four receivers back. And at QB? Reliable sixth-year senior Dillon Gabriel.

3. Michigan

Michigan Wolverines football's Sherrone Moore was acting head coach during four games in 2023. (Photo by Dominick Sokotoff / TheWolverine.com)
(Photo by Dominick Sokotoff / TheWolverine.com)

Of course, the Wolverines summitted the mountain last winter to win the national title. But since lifting the trophy, the landscape in Ann Arbor has changed quite a bit.

Jim Harbaugh is obviously gone, leaving a first-time head coach in Sherrone Moore. Meanwhile, Moore has to find a new quarterback and running back after JJ McCarthy and Blake Corum both departed following the 2023 season. The talent on defense and along the line of scrimmage is still strong enough to warrant a top-three ranking in the Big Ten, though.

4. Penn State

Penn State head coach James Franklin (Photo credit: Steve Manuel/BWI)
Penn State head coach James Franklin will face his ninth ‘Big Noon’ test to open the 2024 season. (Photo credit: Steve Manuel/BWI)

If the College Football Playoff had been at 12 teams since its inception, Penn State likely makes the field at least a handful of times. Instead, they’re still searching for their first appearance. The good news? If they perform as they did in 2023, the Nittany Lions will play for a title.

Junior running back tandem Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen are likely to be dominant once again, and Drew Allar is a year older under center. If James Franklin can’t get this group to the CFP, then people will question if it will ever happen.

5. USC

USC Trojans quarterback Miller Moss (7) throws a pass against the Louisville Cardinals during the first half at Petco Park
USC Trojans quarterback Miller Moss (7) throws a pass against the Louisville Cardinals during the first half at Petco Park (Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports)

The big story is Caleb Williams’ departure after two seasons of elite quarterback play for the Trojans. In fact, you could make the statistical argument Williams was even better in 2023 with a worse team than he was in 2022 as a Heisman winner.

His loss is a clear concern, but Lincoln Riley has proven over and over again that he can manufacture excellent quarterback play. There’s evidence of that yet again, as Miller Moss came in and performed spectacularly in the Holiday Bowl win vs. Louisville to cap off last season.

6. Iowa

Plenty to discuss regarding Kirk Ferentz and Iowa football. (Photo: Dennis Scheidt)

The opposite of USC, Iowa and Kirk Ferentz are about as predictable as it comes. The Hawkeyes will be elite defensively, certainly one of the five best units in the nation, as they have been for quite a while now.

On offense, change is coming and that’s a good thing after Brian Ferentz couldn’t reach the 25-point-per-game threshold required to maintain his employment as offensive coordinator. If Iowa has a pulse on that side of the ball under the new OC, CFP dreams are very realistic.

7. Nebraska

on3.com/matt-rhule-reflects-on-time-in-nfl-how-it-prepared-him-to-coach-at-nebraska/
Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

Many are justifiably high on what Nebraska is going to be in 2024 under Matt Rhule after signs of improvement were obvious in his first season. Now, it’s all about making a bowl game for the first time since 2016 and snapping the longest active power conference bowl drought.

Heck, Nebraska could even be 7-0 entering the Ohio State game. Just look at that schedule: UTEP, Colorado, Northern Iowa, Illinois, at Purdue, Rutgers, at Indiana. It’s not implausible this could finally be the “We’re Back!” year in Huskerland.

8. Wisconsin

Wisconsin HC Luke Fickell
Mark Hoffman | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | USA TODAY NETWORK

Life in the Big Ten for Luke Fickell began with a 7-6 season that was pretty middle of the road. Badger fans may not believe they have the next Nick Saban, but Fickell’s first team showed enough flashes to believe in a small step up in 2024.

Speaking of Saban, Fickell will have an early test against Alabama in a post-Saban world, and a win over the Tide could put Wisconsin among the feared contenders in the Big Ten before conference play gets going. If they can somehow get out to that 3-0 start, the Badgers will be the toast of September in the league.

9. Rutgers

penn-state-rutgers-matchups-newsletter
(Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

Ranking in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten is never a bad thing for this Rutgers program. After years spent trying to climb out of the basement, Greg Schiano is leading an inspired program that really takes a bite out of its opponents on defense.

Gavin Wimsatt is gone. But perhaps that could be for the better if Minnesota transfer Athan Kaliakmanis, who’s been named starter already, can provide more stability for a ball-control style of team.

10. Washington

Jedd Fisch, Washington-college football
Jedd Fisch, Washington – © Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Woof, Washington fans won’t be thrilled to see their program go from national title runner-up to a predicted 10th-place finish in the Big Ten. But with a new conference, new head coach and new quarterback, ’24 looks like a real challenge for Jedd Fisch.

Of course, Fisch comes over from Arizona, but he was unable to bring his top offensive stars with him. Plus, with no Michael Penix and 10 Huskies who just got picked in the NFL Draft, a rebuild is in order.

11. Maryland

Maryland HC Mike Locksley
(Tommy Gilligan | USA TODAY Sports)

The 2023 season was a tale of three seasons for the Terrapins. They opened the year magnificently, winning five straight games before losing four in a row. However, they salvaged the end of the season, winning three of four and closed the year with a 31-13 beatdown of Auburn in the Music City Bowl.

Heading into 2024, Mike Locksley would love to see another 8-5 sort of mark. Hopefully, this time around, they can avoid a four-game swoon.

12. Minnesota

Minnesota Golden Gophers, PJ Fleck
© Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

As noted, Minnesota lost their starting quarterback to Rutgers. Meanwhile, PJ Fleck rated in the top five of On3’s ranking of Big Ten coaches under the most pressure this coming fall.

The Golden Gophers have a tough conference slate having to face Iowa, Michigan and Penn State. Plus, they also face pesky North Carolina and Nevada teams out of conference to give Fleck quite the challenge in a huge year for him.

13. Michigan State

Michigan State's head coach Jonathan Smith walks to the sideline during the Spring Showcase on Saturday, April 20, 2024, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing - Nick King, USA TODAY Sports
Nick King, USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Smith made the jump following the 2023 season from Oregon State to Michigan State. With that, he’s begun the process of rebuilding the football program in East Lansing.

And what a rebuild it will be after a pretty tough year of news all the way around for MSU last fall. However, there’s reason for belief after Smith turned Oregon State into a two-season powerhouse before the fall of the Pac-12.

14. UCLA

ucla-head-coach-deshaun-foster-reveals-acl-injury-hudson-habermehl-troy-leigber-donavyn-pellot
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

UCLA is in a complete transitionary period changing conferences and head coaches after things just weren’t working out in 2024. Now, it’s a new day in Westwood.

DeShaun Foster takes over, and by the look of the land, he’s going to need some time before any real expectations can be applied. This coming season could certainly go south quickly as the Bruins face LSU, Oregon and Penn State in consecutive weeks in the first half of the season.

15. Illinois

Penn State will face Illinois September 16
(Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports)

The Illini enter the new Big Ten without much of a profile after going 5-7 last season. They had a tremendous defense and solid team in 2022 which got several players drafted, but 2023 was a step back.

To get back in the green, Illinois has to take care of business against the lower foes on their team. They face several squads in the bottom third of these rankings but also have to play Kansas out of conference and get Oregon, Michigan and Penn State in a three-game span.

16. Northwestern

Northwestern hosts Iowa at Wrigley Field during the 2023 season. (David Banks-USA TODAY Sports)
Northwestern hosts Iowa at Wrigley Field during the 2023 season. (David Banks-USA TODAY Sports)

The Wildcats’ 2023 campaign took a strange and most unexpected turn when longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald was suspended and then fired over hazing allegations. However, Ryan Braun saved the day.

He captained the ship en route to a surprising 8-4 regular season finish given the craziness that went down just before the season. Northwestern was even competitive in a 14-7 bowl loss against another terrific Utah team. As for why they’re so low in these rankings? Ask Athlon, who has little confidence in year two of Braun’s leadership.

17. Indiana

Indiana HC Curt Cignetti
(Bobby Goddin | Herald-Times | USA TODAY NETWORK)

Indiana is yet another program featuring a new head coach this coming season in Curt Cignetti. The 2020 season was Tom Allen’s high-water mark, but in the years since, he’s won two games in 2021, four in 2022, and just three in 2023. It was a time for change.

In comes Cignetti, who has absolutely no pressure to perform in year one. Perhaps he can surprise, but more likely, IU is a multi-year rebuild process.

18. Purdue

(Chad Krockover)

Don’t get your hopes up for good football in the Hoosier State this season, says Athlon Sports. They ranked both Indiana-based teams at the very bottom of the expanded 18-team Big Ten.

For the Boilermakers, Ryan Walters is just hoping for any improvement on the 4-8 mark from a year ago. That feat is going to be very difficult with non-conference games vs. Notre Dame and Oregon State leading into nine straight Big Ten matchups.