Southern California and UCLA won’t join the Big Ten until 2024giving the Trojans and Bruins two years to prepare for the difference in college football styles with the move from the Pac-12.
At that point, USC may be ready to roll into a New Year’s Six bowl under coach Lincoln Riley. UCLA has made progress under coach Chip Kelly and may have achieved permanent Top 25 status.
There’s always a chance the Big Ten isn’t done expanding and adding two or more teams to the mix by the 2024 season.
But let’s say USC and UCLA entered the conference in August. How would the Trojans and Bruins stack up against some of the top heavyweights in the Football Bowl Subdivision?
Here’s a glimpse of the Big Ten rankings with the new entrants included, weighing factors such as recent success, the program’s current prestige, and the odds of winning the conference championship in 2022.
1. Ohio State
There are two teams that can step right into the Big Ten and take the Buckeyes off the conference. Those teams: Alabama and Georgia. The Trojans and Bruins won’t do that in 2022. (And maybe never.)
The defending conference champions are going to control things along the line of scrimmage on the offensive. Keep an eye on quarterback: Cade McNamara is the incumbent starter, but the younger JJ McCarthy may be too good to stay on the sidelines. Even if the defense takes a step against the run, the Wolverines are good enough to repeat on top of the Big Ten and make it to the College Football Playoff.
3. Penn State
The Nittany Lions will bounce back and compete for first place among the league’s powerful second-tier teams. Bringing in former Miami (Fla.) coach Manny Diaz as defensive coordinator is one of the most influential offseason hires in the Power Five.
4. State of Michigan
After taking a big leap in the playoff battle under Mel Tucker, the Spartans are looking to build on last year’s breakthrough. Quarterback Payton Thorne is the most underrated passer in the Big Ten and the new face of the offense with Kenneth Walker III returning to the NFL.
The Badgers must upgrade a mediocre passing game to compete in the top four of the league. But Wisconsin looks like the best team in a deep and likely competitive Big Ten West, where at least five teams can expect seven or more wins in the regular season and at least three can be a valid argument for reaching the conference championship.
6. Southern California
USC could very well win the Pac-12 in Riley’s debut if the offense clicked behind star quarterback Caleb Williams and wide receiver Jordan Addison. Depth is a big deal though, and the lack of experienced bodies across the board would be a big problem in the Big Ten game grind. The gamble: USC would win seven or eight games as a member of the conference, feasting on the bottom half of the league, but not quite matching Ohio State, Michigan and the best of the best.
Iowa is a lock for bowling and should at least spend much of the year on the fringe of the USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll. That could fail the Hawkeyes. Like Wisconsin, the offense needs to turn more at quarterback to take advantage of potential All-America tight end Sam LaPorta and promising young receiver Keagan Johnson.
Look for the Bruins to start the year on many preseason Top 25 lists. Like the rival Trojans, UCLA is poised to make a strong push for the Pac-12 South Division crown, conference championship and a New Year’s Six bowl. Admittedly, it’s been a tough job to get here: Kelly won three, four and three games in his first three seasons before finishing with eight wins last year. The Bruins should match that total in the Pac-12. The gamble: They would land more in this year’s run of seven wins in the Big Ten.
The boom-of-bust Cornhuskers are confident in some Power Five transfers to change the trajectory of the program under coach Scott Frost. The biggest addition is former Texas quarterback Casey Thompson, who could be closing the runway in preseason camp. If everything works, this team can win the West; if it’s more of the same, look for four or five wins.
Minnesota has to rebuild up front without four of last season’s entry-level offensive linemen. (Although the only returning starter, center John Michael Schmitz, is a fantastic building block.) While those staff losses are worrying, the Gophers will be given a boost with the return of former offensive coach Kirk Ciarrocca, who previously held the position from 2017-19.
Purdue won’t rise to the top of the Big Ten West without taking a big step forward on defense, which seems unlikely. Aidan O’Connell and the Boilermakers’ attack will take this team to six or seven wins, though, and it’s not hard to see Purdue beat Iowa or Wisconsin during the regular season and shake up the division race.
A brutal November — starting with Wisconsin and Penn State down the road and Ohio State at home — means Maryland will have to get off the ground in September and October to land another bid. Good thing the schedule allowed a 6-2 start.
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The defense still has miles to go before they simply rejoin the center of the pack in the Big Ten. Last year’s group gave up 7.1 yards per game against opponents with a winning record, the fourth worst of teams in the Power Five. Greg Schiano could take six wins out of this group, but it will be close.
It is still early in the reconstruction process for trainer Bret Bielema. But there were very positive signs from his debut: Illinois won four games in conference play, including an epic overtime win against Penn State and a physical road win against Minnesota. His second team could improve, but still make it to the top with four or five wins.
Pat Fitzgerald has only lost one season in a row since he took over at Northwestern in 2006. Three times in the past decade, he has brought a losing team to a Top 25 finish the following year – in 2012, 2015, and 2020. Serious staff questions on both sides of the ball make a similar jump highly unlikely this season. So is the schedule, which includes crossover games against Penn State and Ohio State.
Any of the bottom four teams could end up as the Big Ten’s galley. Let’s go for Indiana, even though the Hoosiers and coach Tom Allen are not far off from one of the pinnacle seasons in modern program history.
Follow college reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Big Ten college football power rankings: how USC, UCLA would fare in ’22