Will quarterback Sam Darnold be able to help the USC Trojans avoid a road upset versus the California Golden Bears?
Z-Ohio State Buckeyes 12-1 (9-1)
It has not taken head football coach Urban Meyer that much time to restore order for the Ohio State Buckeyes as in his five years in Columbus, they’ve only lost six games while claiming one national championship. The Buckeyes didn’t win the Big Ten Conference last season, but they still went 8-1 within the conference. Ohio State’s strong regular season saw them qualify for the College Football Playoff. However after a 31-0 shellacking at the hands of the Clemson Tigers in the Fiesta Bowl, it’s back to the drawing board for Ohio State as they look to win the Big Ten and return to the College Football Playoff.
J.T. Barrett is back for his senior season at Ohio State and he’s looking to leave on a strong note. Barrett has been able win numerous big games as the starting quarterback of the Buckeyes which included going undefeated as a freshman in 2014, along with a Fiesta Bowl victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and getting a road win over the Oklahoma Sooners last year. However Barrett did falter in Ohio State’s last three games of the 2016 college football season which gives him something to work on heading into a new campaign.
Barrett is still one of the better play makers at the quarterback position in the Big Ten Conference, but the Buckeyes will need him to become more efficient as far as making plays in the pocket goes. As the defenses that Ohio State faced towards the end of the season in 2016 got better, Barrett struggled as he never had a completion percentage higher than 57.6 in their last three games. And Barrett’s play could be the determining factor in whether or not that the Buckeyes will be able to win the Big Ten.
Meyer’s spread offense is predicated on the ability to run the football and the Buckeyes have themselves another dynamic tailback in sophomore Mike Weber. Last year as a freshman, Weber averaged 6 yards per carry as he totaled 1,096 yards on the ground. Weber has that explosiveness in the mode of former Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliot and he could be a dark horse to win the Heisman Trophy, while also being in the mix to be the Big Ten Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Barrett and Weber will have the luxury of being protected by an experienced offensive line which includes senior center Brady Taylor. This offensive line has the ability to lean on opposing defenses as the Buckeyes offense tends to get better as the game goes along.
Defensively the Buckeyes will have to replace key talent that helped the unit be sixth in the nation in total defense last season. But under Meyer the cupboard is never bare in Columbus.
After recording 5 sacks last year as a freshman, defensive end Nick Bosa could be ready for a breakout performance here in 2017. And Junior linebacker Jerome Baker was second on the team in tackles last season with 83 as he should continue to be one of the better coverage linebackers in the Big Ten.
After Ohio State went on the road last year and defeated the Oklahoma Sooners, they’ll get an extra motivated team that will travel to Columbus on September 9th for the rematch. The Penn State Nittany Lions were the only team to defeat the Buckeyes in the regular season last year; however this time around Ohio State will get them at home on October 28. And of course there is regular season finale with the Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor on November 25th as these two games will go a very long way in determining who wins the Eastern Division of the Big Ten this year in order to qualify for the conference title game.
Y-Penn State Nittany Lions 10-2 (7-2)
It’s safe to say that the Penn State Nittany Lions are back as far as being a football power. After not finishing ranked in the Associated Press Poll since 2009, the Nittany Lions roared through the competition last year as they won the Big Ten Conference for the first time since 2008. Penn State had the luxury of sneaking up on teams last season which included a victory at home over the Ohio State Buckeyes. And although that Penn State head football coach James Franklin has a very talented team to work with, the element of surprise is gone. But luckily for Franklin, he has arguably the top backfield combination in the Big Ten at his disposal.
At 6’1″, junior quarterback Trace McSorley doesn’t have the prototypical size for a signal caller, but he fits Franklin’s system to a tee. McSorley has tremendous mobility and agility which makes him so difficult for opposing defenses to stop. Last year McSorley threw 29 touchdown passes to just 8 interceptions which can traced back to his ability to improvise and create when the initial play breaks down. And whereas most mobile quarterbacks tend to take off, McSorley gives his wide receivers the opportunity to get open for the big play down the field.
And if dealing with McSorley isn’t enough, teams that face Penn State must also account for junior running back Saquon Barkley. Barkley rushed for 1,496 yards last year to go along with 18 touchdowns on the ground as he was the Big Ten Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year. At 5’11”, 223 lbs., Barkley is a load for defenders to tackle as he has a thick lower body, while also becoming a better runner as the game progresses. Had it not been for a rule which requires players to be out of high school for three years before entering the National Football League, Barkley would be playing pro ball right now. But the NFL’s rule works out immensely for Penn State as they arguably have the best ball carrier in the nation in their backfield this season.
Senior tight end Mike Gesicki was a little under appreciated last year after he was the Nittany Lions second leading receiver with 679 receiving yards and 5 touchdown grabs as he can get the job done. Gesicki is like a swiss army knife for the Penn State offense as he can be used as an H-back, a blocker in pass protection, a run blocker, and he also has the ability to stretch the field vertically in the passing game by keeping opposing safeties and linebackers honest. McSorley won’t have a problem getting Gesicki the football this season and thus he could be an All-Big Ten performer.
Aside from Gesicki, senior wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton has the potential to be a breakout performer in the Nittany Lions passing game. At 6’1″, 211 lbs., Hamilton has size and speed, while being the perfect compliment to the play making ability of McSorley and Barkley in Penn State’s offense.
Penn State had a young offensive line last year, but led by junior center Connor McGovern, this is now a veteran offensive line that could be the best that the Big Ten has to offer.
The Nittany Lions were a young team on both sides of the ball last year which led to them getting plenty of seasoning. Senior linebacker Jason Cabinda and junior linebacker Manny Bowen are solid tacklers, while defensive back Marcus Allen is a play maker and an enforcer in the secondary. And this will be vital for Penn State as they will be seeking to improve being the 37th ranked defense in 2016.
The Nittany Lions were the kings of the comeback in 2016 which could once again work in their favor in 2017. However Penn State must deal with a daunting schedule that will see them travel to face the Iowa Hawkeyes who are never an easy squad to secure a road win against. In three consecutive weeks the Nittany Lions will face the Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Michigan State Spartans as this stretch will decide their fate as to whether or not that they’ll be able to get back to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Title Game in December.
Y-Michigan Wolverines 10-2 (7-2)
It hasn’t taken head football coach Jim Harbaugh that long to turn around the fortunes of the Michigan Wolverines program. After the Wolverines only had one 10-win season in the previous eight years, they’ve gone 10-3 in each of the last two campaigns under Harbaugh. Harbaugh is taking Michigan back to being a national brand as they are once again a perennial top-10 program. But will 2017 be the year that Harbaugh will be able to bring the maize and blue a Big Ten Championship?
Under Harbaugh there hasn’t been anything that has been pretty about the Wolverines as they are an old-school, lunch pale crew, but it has been effective. Senior quarterback Wilton Speight is set to begin his second consecutive year as the starting quarterback for the Wolverines. Speight needs to show that he is more than just a game manager as in Michigan’s three losses last season, he threw a combined 4 interceptions. However Speight has good size for a quarterback at 6’6″, while he weighs 243 lbs., and being under the tutelage of Harbaugh should once again help him to get prepared for the riggers of playing in the Big Ten Conference.
Harbaugh is in the process making the Wolverines a more physical football team which means being able to run the football effectively. In 2015, Michigan averaged 4.2 yards per carry, while last year it was 4.8. However the Wolverines need to find a game changing play maker at the tailback position. With just 88 carries last year as a true freshman, running back Chris Evans showed his potential as he averaged 7 yards per carry, and he’ll be vital to the success of Michigan’s offense in 2017.
Senior offensive tackle Mason Cole will anchor a Michigan offensive line that is truly a lunch pale crew as they could be the engine of this squad.
It will be tough for Michigan to duplicate their success on defense from last year as they were ranked second in the nation in total defense. Don Brown is set to begin his second year as Michigan’s defensive coordinator as he looks to make sure that his unit remains stingy. However the Wolverines must replace their top eight tacklers from last season, along with defensive end Taco Charlton.
The Wolverines will be a work in progress as the season goes along, but they will get better as their regular season finale against the Ohio State Buckeyes should once again decide who’ll win the Eastern Division of the Big Ten Conference.
X-Indiana Hoosiers 7-5 (5-4)
For the first time since 1992, the Indiana Hoosiers enter the college football season looking to make their third consecutive bowl appearance. The Hoosiers have been able to survive some of the stiff competition within the Eastern Division of the Big Ten Conference to become bowl eligible, but things will be slightly different in Bloomington heading into a new college football season.
After nearly six years as Indiana’s head football coach, Kevin Wilson is out. The school and Wilson agreed to mutually part ways last December due to his mistreatment of players. Indiana didn’t look to far to find Wilson’s replacement as defensive coordinator Tom Allen was promoted. Allen has never been a head coach at the collegiate level as he must now learn on the fly in the Big Ten which will not be easy.
Quarterback Richard Lagow is set to be under center for his senior campaign and he needs to build off of what he did in 2016. Lagow was up and down at time as he threw 19 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions. And as Lagow goes, so does the Indiana offense as 11 of his interceptions came in losses last season.
Junior wide receiver Nick Westbrook was Lagow’s go-to-guy in the passing game last year and you can expect more of the same this time around. Last season Westbrook tallied 54 receptions and he was just five yards shy of reaching the coveted 1,000-yard mark. At 6’3″, 215 lbs., Westbrook is a big receiver that is a matchup problem for opposing cornerbacks and he and Lagow should be able to wreak some havoc on defenses in the Big Ten this fall.
There will be plenty of experience on Indiana’s offensive line as they’ll have a pair of seniors in right tackle Brandon Knight and left guard Wes Martin as well as juniors in left tackle Coy Cronk, center Hunter Littlejohn, and right guard Simon Stepaniak as this offense could be one to keep your eyes on.
Last year the Hoosiers were 45th in the nation in total defense and they should be able to improve in 2017. Led by senior linebackers Tegray Scales and Marcus Oliver, Indiana’s top nine tacklers from last season are returning on defense. Defensively the Hoosiers were also able to tally 13 interceptions last season and they should be able to set up their offense with solid field position via the turnover.
The schedule makers weren’t kind to Indiana as their first game right out of the chute will be at home versus the Ohio State Buckeyes, while they’ll also have road games against the Penn State Nittany Lions and Michigan State Spartans. But if the Hoosiers can handle their business versus the teams in which they are expected to defeat, they could once again be ready to go bowling.
X-Michigan State Spartans 7-5 (4-5)
During Mark Dantonio’s tenure as the head football coach of the Michigan State Spartans, the level of expectations have changed in East Lansing. Five of the last six seasons have seen the Spartans finished ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll which included them making the College Football Playoff in 2015. Michigan State has claimed two outright Big Ten Championships under Dantonio as well, but they took a huge step backwards in 2016.
After beginning the 2016 college football season with a record of 2-0, Michigan State would lose nine of their remaining ten contests for their worst campaign since 1991. Things never clicked for Sparty as last year marked the first time that they lost to the Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Penn State Nittany Lions in the same season. Aside from struggling against conference powerhouses, Michigan State also lost to the Rutgers Scarlet Knight and Illinois Fighting Illini who were a combined 5-19 last season. And after Dantonio worked so hard to build Michigan State into being one of the better teams within the Big Ten, he needs to have a bounce back campaign in the worst way here in 2017.
For the Spartans to turn things around this season, their offense is going to have to pick up the production. Last season Sparty was 75th in the nation in total offense which included them being held under 20 points five times. Dantonio is a firm believer in having an effective rushing attack which means that you can expect a heavy dose of junior running back LJ Scott. Scott was able to improve in his sophomore year in East Lansing, but he was still unable to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark on the ground. This was in part due to the fact that Michigan State lacked talent on that side of the football around Scott. However any success that Michigan State intends to have this year will rely on the running ability of Scott.
Michigan State was 32nd in the nation in defense last season as there is room for improvement for this unit under defensive coordinator Mike Tressel. Senior linebacker Chris Frey led the Spartans in tackles last year with 96 and she should be a leader for this team. But where the Spartans must improve the most in is their ability to force turnovers and put pressure for opposing quarterbacks. Last year Sparty was only able to tally 11 sacks, while only grabbing 8 interceptions which are two areas that they must improve in if they want to once again be a player in the Big Ten Conference.
I don’t see the Spartans being able to contend for the Big Ten Title here in 2017 as Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State are light years ahead of them. It also won’t help the Spartans cause that they have some difficult road games on tap which includes meetings with the Buckeyes and Wolverines and Buckeyes, along with a contest in Evanston, Illinois versus the Northwestern Wildcats. But Michigan State should be an improved team as I simply do not see Dantonio having consecutive bad seasons.
X-Maryland Terrapins 6-6 (3-6)
In D.J. Durkin’s first year as the head football coach of the Maryland Terrapins, he got the most out of his team by getting them to a bowl game. But after Maryland began the season with a record of 4-0, they went 2-7 the rest of the way as Durkin was indoctrinated into life in the Big Ten Conference. And as Maryland was only able to go 3-6 within the Big Ten last season, will they be able to build off of that mark in 2017?
After junior quarterback Caleb Henderson began his collegiate career with the North Carolina Tar Heels, he decided to transfer to Maryland. And after Henderson had to sit out last year, he is expected to be Maryland’s guy under center this season. Junior running back Ty Johnson provided plenty of explosiveness coming out of the backfield for the Terrapins and you can expect more of the same this time around. Last season Johnson averaged 9.1 yards per carry as he is Maryland’s home-run hitter on offense.
There will be plenty of experience on the offensive line for the Terps as led by left tackle Derwin Gray, you’re looking at an offensive line that has four seniors in the starting lineup which should make Henderson’s transition to be the starting quarterback in College Park a bit smoother.
Durkin’s specialty is defensive football and after the Terrapins were only 77th in the nation in total defense last season, this year should see them as an improved unit. Maryland’s top three tacklers from last season are returning which includes senior linebacker Shane Cockerille. Senior defensive end Jesse Aniebonam is a solid pass rusher coming off of the edge which should help to keep Maryland in games, while also potentially forcing turnovers. But the Terps needs to improve in the secondary as they were only able to force 5 interceptions last year.
Whereas last year’s non-conference schedule was easy for Maryland, that won’t be the case this time around as they’ll travel to take on the Texas Longhorns of the Big 12 Conference, while hosting the Central Florida Knights of the American Athletic Conference. And the Terps Big Ten slate isn’t easy either which includes road games versus the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Minnesota Golden Gophers and home dates with the Michigan State Spartans and Penn State Nittany Lions.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights 3-9 (1-8)
It has been a steady decline for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights since they joined the Big Ten Conference in 2014. That year would see Rutgers go 8-5 which included a bowl game victory. However since then the Scarlet Knights have lived up to their expectations in the Big Ten as they’ve become the whipping boys for the conference powerhouses. In three years in the Big Ten, Rutgers is a combined 1-11 versus the Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan State Spartans, and Penn State Nittany Lions. And if the Scarlet Knights have any chances of being a contender within the conference, these are the teams that they are going to need to get past.
Chris Ash is set to begin his second year as the head football coach of Rutgers. And after Ash and the Scarlet Knights were only able to go 2-10 last year, there is only one way for them to go which is up.
The talent pool for Rutgers isn’t deep as this is a team that was 97th in the nation in total defense last season, while they were dead last in total offense which isn’t going to cut it in the Big Ten. Rutgers calls the State of New Jersey home. And even though that the Garden State is littered with quality football talent, the Scarlet Knights has not been able to keep those players home as they are consistently losing out in the recruiting battle to the Big Ten powerhouse schools.
However two names to look out for this season for Rutgers are linebackers Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts who are both solid tacklers. And the ability of Morris and Roberts will be on display this year as they should be on the field a ton due to a lackluster offense.
Rutgers wanted the money of the Big Ten which they’ve gotten. But now the Scarlet Knights have to accept the reality of life for them in the Big Ten as they are now everyone’s homecoming game.
X-Wisconsin Badgers 9-4 (7-3)
Six of the last eight years have seen the Wisconsin Badgers win at least 10 games. But since Wisconsin is a program that lacks national sizzle, they tend to get lost in the shuffle. The Badgers are coming off of an 11-win season and a victory in the Cotton Bowl over the Western Michigan Broncos. Things could have been ever better for the Badgers had they not blown a 21-point lead in the Big Ten Championship Game to the Penn State Nittany Lions as they would have been Rose Bowl bound. However for Wisconsin head football coach Paul Chryst, he will head into the 2017 college football season looking to keep his program near the top of the Big Ten.
Last year saw quarterback Alex Hornibrook gain valuable time as a freshman and now he can hopefully build off of that. Hornibrook will now need to be more than just a game manager as he no longer has the protection of running back Corey Clement who is in the National Football League. The Badgers also have a young offensive line which includes a pair of sophomores in left tackle David Edwards and left guard and Jon Dietzen as this unit will have to get their feet under them in a hurry in order to keep up in the Big Ten.
Last year the Badgers were seventh in the nation in total defense and they’ll have some key components that will be returning. Junior inside linebacker T.J. Edwards led the team in tackles last season with 89, while senior inside linebacker Jack Cichy was fourth with 60. The Badgers lost 15.5 sacks when linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel went to the National Football League, but their departure could open the door for senior defensive end Alec James and senior outside linebacker Garrett Dooley to emerge. The Badgers pass rush also opened things up for their secondary and I anticipate senior strong safety D’Cota Dixon to have another big season. In 2016, Dixon had 4 interceptions, and his range will be important if Wisconsin intends on hanging tough in the Big Ten West.
The Badgers have never been known to take it easy in the non-conference portion of their schedule as a September 16th trip to face the BYU Cougars will be telling. And when the Big Ten portion of Wisconsin’s schedule begins, road meetings with the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Minnesota Golden Gophers, as well as home affairs with the Northwestern Wildcats, Michigan Wolverines, and Iowa Hawkeyes will show us a ton about the character of this team.
X-Northwestern Wildcats 9-3 (6-3)
Under head football coach Pat Fitzgerald, the Northwestern Wildcats are enjoying their best stretch in program history. After being a two-time Big Ten Conference Defensive Player of the Year during his playing career at Northwestern, Fitzgerald has brought the same hard working ethic to his team in Evanston, Illinois. Fitzgerald’s record with the Wildcats is 77-62 which is nothing to sneeze at. But can Fitzgerald do something which hasn’t been done at Northwestern since 1995 which is to lead them to the Big Ten Conference Title?
Whereas the Wildcats were only able to go 7-6 last season, led by their offense they have the ability to be a sleeper here in 2017. Senior running back Justin Jackson has the ability to frustrate defenders with his elusiveness coming out of the backfield. Last season saw Jackson gain 1,524 rushing yards to go along with 15 touchdowns on the ground and he has the potential to once again be one of the better running backs in the Big Ten.
Accuracy is the name of the game for Northwestern junior quarterback Clayton Thorson. After Thorson was only able to complete 50.8% of his passes as a freshman in 2015, he got that number to nearly 60% last year at 58.6. Now the key for Thorson as a junior is to get that number above 60, and he can do it by complimenting the rushing ability of Jackson which means utilizing the play-action pass in order to be efficient.
Led by left tackle Blake Hance, the Wildcats have three seniors that will be starting on their offensive line as they will not only be responsible for opening up holes in the run game for Jackson, but to also protect Thorson as this unit will be a big part of any chance that Northwestern has of getting to the Big Ten Title Game.
However as the old saying goes, offense might win games, but defense wins championships. And although that Northwestern might have a prolific offense on their hands, they are going to need a strong effort on the defensive side of the football in 2017. Last year the Wildcats were 60th in the nation in total defense, and on top of that they lost three of their top four tacklers from 2016 as well as their leading pass rusher.
But Fitzgerald knows a thing or two about strong linebacking play in the Big Ten and a player to watch out for at Northwestern this year is junior outside linebacker Nate Hall. After grabbing 5 interceptions last year as a sophomore, junior cornerback Montre Hartage should once again be one of the better corners in the Big Ten as it will be interesting to see how much that opposing offenses will be willing to test him.
The Wildcats should benefit from an easy non-conference schedule, but when Big Ten play begins they must hunker down for a pair of road games against the Wisconsin Badgers and Nebraska Cornhuskers which will more than likely decide who wins the Big Ten West.
X-Minnesota Golden Gophers 7-5 (5-4)
It might be hard to believe, but the Minnesota Golden Gophers have claimed a share or have outright won 15 Big Ten Conference Championships on the gridiron. Minnesota’s 15 titles are third most in conference history behind the 42 of the Michigan Wolverines and the 35 of the Ohio State Buckeyes. But unlike Michigan and Ohio State who are regularly atop the Big Ten standings, the Golden Gophers have not won the conference crown since 1967. Since then the Gophers have been an up and down program with just one appearance in a New Year’s bowl game. Each of the last five years have seen Minnesota reach a bowl game, but they’ve been unable to take that next step in the Big Ten. The Golden Gophers program dealt with their fair share of off-the-field issues last season which saw the school part with Tracy Claeys as their head football coach, but they may have struck it big in finding his replacement.
In January, Minnesota would name P.J. Fleck as their new head football coach. Fleck became a hot commodity on the coaching scene as in four years as the head football coach of the Western Michigan Broncos, he compiled a record of 30-22 which included leading the Broncos to their first undefeated regular season in school history. Fleck is a 36-year old that is full or energy, and now it will be interesting to see if he’ll be able to turn Minnesota into an upper echelon program within the Big Ten. But as Fleck is set to take over a new program, he can have solace in knowing that he inherits a team that won nine games last season, while three of their four losses came by a touchdown or less.
Conor Rhoda’s time with Minnesota has been in the role of being a backup quarterback. And as Rhoda is set to begin his final season in Minneapolis, he’ll be eager to show what he can do. But whereas Rhoda is inexperienced, he can lean on junior running back Rodney Smith. Last year Smith was the heart and soul of the Minnesota as he carried the football 240 times for 1,158 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns. And you can expect Smith to once again get his opportunity to show what he can do under Fleck.
Defensively in 2016, the Gophers amassed 37 sacks with junior linebacker Blake Cashman and senior defensive tackle Steven Richardson combining for 14.5 of those. The front seven of the Golden Gophers already had played with a solid level of intensity which will now only be magnified under Fleck.
The first half of Minnesota’s schedule is very manageable, but when the competition will pick up in the second half as they’ll have road games against the Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan Wolverines, and Northwestern Wildcats, Fleck will get a healthy dose of life in the Big Ten.
X-Nebraska Cornhuskers 7-5 (4-5)
The Nebraska Cornhuskers are coming off of their eighth 9-win season in the last nine years. But will the Huskers be able to build off of what they did last season in order to win the Big Ten Conference which is something that they’ve been unable to do since they joined the league in 2011?
Mike Riley is set to begin his third season as Nebraska’s head football coach. Riley is known for his offensive football, but the first two years of his regime in Lincoln has seen both he and the Cornhuskers offense in limbo. When Riley took over for his predecessor in Bo Pelini, he had to convert from a run oriented offense to a passing system that had philosophies of the West Coast offense. Riley was attempting to do this with players that Pelini had recruited and in year three he can potentially get some semblance of order.
The outlook for the Cornhuskers offense in 2017 will begin with junior quarterback Tanner Lee. Lee sat out the 2016 college football season after he transferred from the Tulane Green where he didn’t exactly light it up. In two years at Tulane, Lee 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions as he was on one of the worst teams in college football. And whereas Lee could get lost in the shuffle with the Green Wave, he will now have to contend with the “Sea of Red” at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln where they expect their team to contend for the Big Ten Title.
Defensively Nebraska must replace a ton of production as their top three tacklers from 2016 have graduated, but senior safety Kieron Williams who led the team in interceptions last season with 5 has the potential to be the best safety in the Big Ten.
The Huskers should once again be a bowl team here in 2017, however after finishing one win shy of winning the Big Ten West last season, they will more than likely take a step back this time around.
X-Iowa Hawkeyes 7-5 (4-5)
With the stunning retirement of Bob Stoops as the head football coach of the Oklahoma Sooners in June, Iowa Hawkeyes head football coach Kirk Ferentz is now the current longest tenured head coach at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. In 18 seasons at Iowa, Ferentz has a record of 135-92 which includes getting his team to a bowl game in 14 of those years in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes are coming off of consecutive New Year’s Day bowl games for the first time since 2005, but will they be able to avoid getting lost in the shuffle this year in the Big Ten Conference?
After C.J. Beathard spent the last two years as the starting quarterback for Iowa, it is now Nathan Stanley’s opportunity to take over the reigns. Stanley saw limited action last year as a freshman, and he should be another in a long line of game managers that Ferentz has relied on to keep his offense going. Last year saw running back Akrum Wadley split carries in the backfield with LeShun Daniels Jr. But with Daniels now in the National Football League, Wadley will have a bigger workload here in 2017 as he has a chance to be the best running back in the Big Ten in this his senior season.
The Hawkeyes offense will benefit from having one of the most experienced offensive lines in the nation that features three senior starters which includes left tackle Boone Myers. One of Ferentz’s specialties is developing quality offensive lineman and this group of big uglies could have a stellar season for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa was 23rd in the nation last year in total defense, and although that they lost some talent on the defensive side of the football, they still have have middle linebacker Josey Jewell. Jewell recorded 124 tackles last year as a junior and with his senior campaign set to begin, he should be in the running to win the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker.
The Hawkeyes have the potential to be a force in the Big Ten West, but they face a daunting journey. After a pedestrian like non-conference schedule, Iowa has home games within the Big Ten against the Penn State Nittany Lions, Minnesota Golden Gophers, and Ohio State Buckeyes, while they’ll also have road affairs with the Wisconsin Badgers and Nebraska Cornhuskers as this could be the conference’s tough schedule.
Purdue Boilermakers 2-10 (1-8)
In the expansion of the Big Ten Conference, the Purdue Boilermakers have been an afterthought. You have to go back to 2011 to find the last time in which Purdue was able to finish with a winning record, while they haven’t finished a season ranked since 2003. The last four seasons have seen the Boilermakers win a combined nine games which has resulted in a change of leadership in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Jeff Brohm is set to begin life in the Big Ten as the new head football coach of the Boilermakers. Brohm spent the last three years as the head football coach of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers where he compiled a record of 30-10 which included winning a pair of Conference USA Championships. Brohm is known for production on the offensive side of the football as Western Kentucky was fifth in the nation last year in total offense in 2016 and he will need to input some life into the Purdue offense.
As Brohm is taking over, he has a quarterback in place in junior David Blough. Last season Blough passed for 3,352 yards, but the majority of that was due to the fact that Purdue constantly attempting to play catch up. Blough threw 25 touchdowns, but he was also intercepted 21 times and that must change in order for the Boilermakers to be competitive in the Big Ten. However it will be tough for Blough to get that interception total drastically down in 2017 being that Purdue doesn’t have a ton of talent at the skill positions around him, while there aren’t any seniors on the offensive line which hurts; especially since Brohm will be instilling a new blocking system.
Defensively Purdue must become more competitive after they were 91st in the nation last year in total defense. The Boilermakers surrendered 44 points or more in a game last year six times which simply won’t cut it. Anthony Poindexter and Nick Holt will be co-defensive coordinators this year as they look to ignite a fire under Purdue’s defense. However last year saw the emergence of middle linebacker Markus Bailey who led the team in tackles (97) and interceptions (4) as a true freshman, and he’ll be a building block as well as a leader for this unit here in 2017.
Brohm will begin his time at Purdue by facing his alma mater in the Louisville Cardinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference as they’re led by head football coach Bobby Petrino who also happens to be his coaching mentor. And when Big Ten play begins, it will be simply about attempting to compete for Purdue as up is the only way for them to go.
Illinois Fighting Illini 2-10 (1-8)
The football program of the Illinois Fighting Illini currently finds themselves in a rut that they cannot get out of. 2010 was the last time that Illinois finished a college football campaign with a winning record as they’ve been taking a beating since then in the Big Ten. Former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith is coming off of a 3-9 campaign his first time around in Champaign as he was fighting an uphill battle. Smith wasn’t named as the head football coach until March 2016 which put him behind the eight-ball as far as recruiting and being able to put together a coaching staff as he set out to instill discipline and have a culture change for this team. And as a new college football season is on the horizon for the Illini, will they be able to show any signs of life?
It’s still unclear if Smith will go with junior Chayce Crouch or sophomore Jeff George Jr. as the Illinois starting quarterback, but this is a team that needs a leader. The Illini were 123rd in the nation in total offense last season as they were limited to 10 points or less five times. The inability of the Illinois offense didn’t make things better for their defense that spent too much time on field. And like the offense of the Fighting Illini, the defense needs to find some impact players as well.
Smith and his team are still fighting an uphill battle in the Big Ten, and until they are able to reverse the tide, they are going to keep watching the parade pass them by.
Big Ten Championship Game:Lucas Oil Stadium-Indianapolis, Indiana: Ohio State vs. Wisconsin
Conference Champion: Ohio State
Y-New Year’s Six
Sources: Sports-reference.com, Cfbstats.com, Ourlads.com
Ohio State Buckeyes 11-2 (8-1)
If you want to see a dominant college football program, just look at what the Ohio State Buckeyes currently are under head football coach Urban Meyer. In four years under Meyer, the Buckeyes are 50-4 with an undefeated season and a national title to their credit. Meyer has sent a blistering amount of talent to the National Football League which included five players being drafted in the first round this year alone. Meyer’s ability to send talent to the next level, along with the tradition at Ohio State has meant that Columbus is a hotbed for talent which will once again be the case here in 2016.
The questions that surrounded Ohio State this time last year in regards to the quarterback position have dissipated with both Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller having moved on to the National Football League, and that leaves redshirt junior J.T. Barrett entrenched as the guy. In 2014, Barrett led the Buckeyes to 11 wins before before a broken ankle ended his season. Prior to the injury Barrett had thrown 34 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. But last year with Barrett constantly looking over his shoulder with Jones lurking, he didn’t have the quality season that he needed. However that is no longer the case which means that he and the Buckeyes should benefit equally.
The Buckeyes will have to replace a ton of talent on the offensive side of the football as there will only be one senior on the offensive line in senior guard Pat Elflein. The Buckeyes are going to have to develop a running game as Ezekiel Elliot accounted for nearly 60 percent of their rushing yards last year. Now with Elliot in the National Football League, the next leading rusher that is returning to the team is Barrett. But senior running back Bri’onte Dunn is expected to get the bulk of the carries after just getting just 17 carries for 132 yards in 2015.
The Buckeyes will have some new faces on their starting defense, but there will be a strong presence at middle linebacker in the form of junior Raekwon McMillan who led the unit in tackles last season with 119.
On September 17th, the Buckeyes will step out of conference to face the Oklahoma Sooners from the Big 12 Conference in a game that will have plenty of ramifications as far as the College Football Playoff goes. But whereas Ohio State should be able to smoothly navigate through the majority of their Big Ten Conference schedule, their season will come down their final two games of the regular season where they’ll meet the Michigan State Spartans and Michigan Wolverines in consecutive weeks as these two contests will have a big bearing in who advances to the Big Ten Championship Game out of the Big Ten East.
Michigan Wolverines 10-2 (7-2)
With just one year under his belt as the head football coach of the Michigan Wolverines, Jim Harbaugh has succeeded in putting this program back on the map. Michigan is coming off of their first 10-win season since 2011, and after being on the cusp of reaching the Big Ten Conference’s Title Game, they are hopeful for bigger and better things in 2016.
You knew that once Harbaugh came to Michigan that he was going to put an emphasis on being a physical football team. And whereas Michigan didn’t have a ton of household names in 2015, they were tough in the trenches on both sides of the football.
This year I expect senior running back De’Veon Smith to be Michigan’s feature back as at 5’11”, 228 lbs., he has the ability to lean on opposing defenses which could be important in the Wolverines ball control game in the fourth quarter this fall.
Smith will be running behind an experienced offensive line that includes senior right tackle Erik Magnuson. And that experience on the offensive line along with the running ability of Smith will be important for Michigan this year as Harbaugh currently finds himself holding an open competition at quarterback with former Houston Cougars quarterback John O’Korn being the best option.
Defensively the Wolverines were fourth in the nation last season in total defense which included three consecutive shutouts. The Wolverines are returning five starters from 2015 with their biggest impact player potentially being sophomore strong safety Jabril Peppers who has the ability to be an All-American in 2016.
It’s clear that Michigan is back as they are ready to once again contend for the Big Ten Championship.
Michigan State Spartans 8-4 (6-3)
Under head football coach Mark Dantonio, the Michigan State Spartans have won 65 games in the last six years as they are in the midst of their best run in program history. The Spartans have won the Big Ten Conference Championship in two of the last three seasons as this program is now vilified as a national power. And even though that the Spartans could be taking a step back in 2016, this will once again be tough team on the gridiron.
This will be the first in time three years that Michigan State will begin the college football season without Connor Cook as their starting quarterback as he is now in the National Football League as a member of the Oakland Raiders. Senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor has spent the last three years as Cook’s understudy, but now it is his opportunity to keep the Spartans machine going.
Last year as a true freshman, running back LJ Scott gained 699 rushing yards while scoring 11 touchdowns on the ground. At 233 lbs., Scott is a handful to tackle while he gets stronger as the game goes on. And with Scott expected to have a bigger role in Michigan’s State offense this fall, he could be one of the best running backs in the Big Ten.
There’s only one senior on the Spartans offensive line, but I don’t expect Dantonio to shy away from his commitment to running the football; especially since O’Connor does not have a wealth of experience as a starting quarterback.
Like the Spartans offense, Dantonio must replace plenty of talent on the defensive side of the football as he’ll only have one senior in the starting lineup in the form of defensive tackle Damon Knox, but the young Spartans should be up for the challenge.
The Spartans should take a step back this year, but don’t expect them to not have a say in who wins the Big Ten Title.
Penn State Nittany Lions 8-4 (6-3)
The NCAA sanctions that were handed down to the Penn State Nittany Lions in 2012 are still affecting this football program as they’ve had a winning record, but they have been unable to be a player for the Big Ten Conference Title. James Franklin is set to begin his third season as the head football coach at Penn State and he’s now beginning to get more recruits, but will it result in the Nittany Lions once again becoming an upper echelon team in the Big Ten in 2016?
Last year as a redshirt freshman, Trace McSorley did get some playing time behind Christian Hackenburg at quarterback. But with Hackenburg now in the National Football League, it is McSorley’s job to lose in Happy Valley. At 6’1″, 200 lbs., McSorley is the athletic quarterback that Franklin prefers for his offensive system as he can be a passer and a runner. McSorley might lack the experience, but he will have a pair of seasoned wide receivers in juniors Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton to get the football to.
Sophomore running back Saquon Barkley is looking to build off of his freshman campaign that saw him gain 1,076 rushing yards. But it could be more difficult this time around for Barkley if Penn State is unable to get consistency out of their passing game. Barkley should be able to able to benefit from the Nittany Lions possessing three seniors on their offensive line which is led by senior center Brian Gaia who could be an All-Big Ten performer this fall.
Last year for Penn State, there were plenty of impact plays that were made by freshmen and sophomores who gained valuable experience. After leading the Nittany Lions in tackles as a sophomore, junior linebacker Jason Cabinda is back to anchor this defense as he looks to add to the school’s reputation as “Linebacker U.”.
On September 10, Penn State will look to rekindle an old rivalry when they clash with the Pittsburgh Panthers from the Atlantic Coast Conference, while they will be seeking revenge on September 17 when they take on the Temple Owls from the American Athletic Conference who upset them last year. But when the Big Ten Conference schedule begins, the Nittany Lions will have their hands full with a road game versus the Michigan Wolverines, while they’ll be hosting conference title contenders in the Iowa Hawkeyes, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Michigan State Spartans.
Indiana Hoosiers 7-5 (4-5)
The Indiana Hoosiers were 6-7 in 2015, but things are looking up for them on the gridiron in spite the reputation of being a basketball school. Indiana’s school administrators have been patient with head football coach Kevin Wilson as he now has five years under his belt with the Hoosiers. Wilson has yet to finish a college football season with a winning record, but he did get the Hoosiers to a bowl game last year for the first time since 2007. And with the talent that is returning to Bloomington, it isn’t out of the realm of possibilities that Indiana could make a bowl game in consecutive years for the first time since 1991.
Indiana’s offense will miss the play making ability of quarterback Nate Sudfeld who is now in the National Football League, but they are hopeful that junior quarterback Zander Diamont is ready to fill his shoes. Diamont won’t have to go at it by himself as senior wide receiver Ricky Jones and junior wide receiver Simmie Cobbs combined for nearly 2,000 receiving yards last season. And led by offensive tackle Dimitric Camiel, Indiana will have four seniors starting on the offensive line as things are set up for Diamont to have success this fall.
But for the Hoosiers to be a legitimate team in the Big Ten East, they are going to need improvement on defense. Last year Indiana was ranked 121st in total defense and defensive coordinator Tom Allen must find a way to get more out of his unit in 2016.
If the ball bounces in the favor of Indiana, they could be in line for their best season in over 20 years.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights 3-9 (1-8)
In 2014, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights made a name for themselves in their first go round in the Big Ten Conference as they went 8-5. But a reality check was waiting for Rutgers last year as they went 4-8 which is what most people expected from them in their new conference. And once you couple the 8-loss campaign by Rutgers, along with numerous misconduct issues by players, it resulted in head football coach Kyle Flood being dismissed last November.
The Scarlet Knights would stay within the Big Ten to find their next head football coach as they hired former Ohio State Buckeyes co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash as the school is hopeful that some of the winning tradition in Columbus will make its way to Piscataway, New Jersey.
At Rutgers, Ash will look to implement the spread offense that has been successful at Ohio State, but he doesn’t have the same talent level in New Jersey that was with the Buckeyes. Junior quarterback Chris Laviano is the favorite to be the Scarlet Knights starting quarterback, but there will be a learning curve for him as far as getting adjusted to the spread. The saving grace for the Scarlet Knights is that led by senior offensive tackle J.J. Denman, they’ll have three senior starters on the offensive line as they will more than likely attempt to lean on the rushing game.
Rutgers was abysmal on the defensive side of the football as they were ranked 112th in the nation in total defense which included surrendering 30 points or more in eight games. Senior linebacker Steve Longa led Rutgers in tackles last year with 117 and he’ll be looked at as being a leader for a unit that must get tougher in order to compete in the Big Ten.
Rutgers doesn’t have that many soft spots in their schedule in 2016 which will give followers of the football program nightmares of what the Scarlet Knights were in the 1990’s as members of the Big East Conference.
Maryland Terrapins 1-11 (0-9)
Like the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, the Maryland Terrapins finished their first year in the Big Ten Conference with a winning record. But the Terps had a harsh reality check waiting for them in 2015 as they stumbled to a 3-9 mark. Midway through the 2015 college football season, Randy Edsall was fired as Maryland’s head football coach and the school began to search for his successor. Like Rutgers, Maryland would tab an assistant coach from a rival Big Ten school as they hired Michigan Wolverines defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin to become the school’s next head football coach.
Durkin’s apprenticeship as an assistant coach has seen him work under Jim Harbaugh with Michigan and the Stanford Cardinal, while briefly working under Urban Meyer with the Florida Gators. At the age of 38, Durkin is one of the youngest Division-I head football coaches this year, while he’ll also look to keep the tradition of quality coaches from Youngstown, Ohio going. And going forward, Durkin must find a way to get the quality recruits from the States of Maryland and Virginia, while he’ll also be fighting an uphill battle in 2016 as the Big Ten East is a gauntlet.
Durkin won’t be inheriting a very talented Maryland team in 2016, but he needs to find a way for his squad to compete as six of their nine losses last season came by 17 points or more.
Iowa Hawkeyes 11-2 (8-1)
Although that the 2015 college football season ended on a bad note for the Iowa Hawkeyes, there is plenty of optimism in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes won their first 12 games in 2015 before the competition got stiffer as they lost a heart breaker to the Michigan State Spartans in the Big Ten Title Game, while getting obliterated by the Stanford Cardinal in the Rose Bowl. But the same blue-collar effect that worked so good for Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz and his team last year should once again be in effect this time around.
Iowa has a solid field general in senior quarterback C.J. Beathard as he is a player that stays within the realm of Ferentz’s offense. You can expect senior running back LeShun Daniels Jr., and junior running back Akrum Wadley to split the carries which should give Iowa one of the best running tandems in the Big Ten as they’ll be protected by an offensive line that only has one starting senior in left tackle Cole Croston.
The Hawkeyes were ranked 22nd in the nation in total defense last season and they once again have the chance to be a solid unit as their leading tackler from 2015 in junior middle linebacker Josey Jewell will be in the conversation to be the Big Ten Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Just like last year, the Hawkeyes will embark on a very soft schedule as the Big Ten West is nowhere near as strong as the Big Ten East which sets up for Iowa to make their second consecutive trip to Indianapolis for the conference title game.
Northwestern Wildcats 9-3 (6-3)
After consecutive 5-7 seasons, the Northwestern Wildcats rebounded in 2015 to win 10 games for the second time under head football coach Pat Fitzgerald. Northwestern’s game plan was very simple as they ran the football effectively while playing solid defense, while winning the field position battle on special teams. And you can expect more of the same from Fitzgerald and his crew this fall in Evanston, Illinois.
Last year as a redshirt freshman, quarterback Clayton Thorson emerged as the starting signal caller for Fitzgerald at Northwestern. Northwestern doesn’t specialize in the forward pass, but at 6’4″, 210 lbs., Thorson does have solid size. And if Thorson is able to develop enough consistency in the passing game to keep opposing defenses honest, the Wildcats offense can become very dangerous.
But Northwestern does have a solid feature back in junior running back Justin Jackson who could flirt with gaining 1,500 yards on the ground this season which should symbolize another productive campaign for the Wildcats.
Last year as a sophomore, all that Northwestern middle linebacker Anthony Walker did was tackle anything that moved to the tune of 120 tackles. At 6’1″, 235 lbs., Walker has speed and range to be a solid Mike linebacker in the Big Ten while also having his defensive teammates naturally gravitate to him due to his solid leadership.
Northwestern’s schedule in 2016 will be tougher as it features road games against the Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans, and Ohio State Buckeyes as they look to make the Big Ten Title Game for the first time in school history.
Wisconsin Badgers 7-5 (5-4)
The Wisconsin Badgers have recently had a revolving door at the head coaching position, but they are hopeful that they are ready to sustain some consistency with Paul Chryst. Chryst is entering his second year at Wisconsin and after leading the Badgers to 10 wins last season, he is hopeful that he’ll be able to add to the program’s success in 2016.
Bart Houston has spent the past three years as the backup quarterback at Wisconsin to Joel Stave. But with Stave now in the National Football League, Houston will have his opportunity under center in Madison. At 6’4″, 228 lbs., Houston has solid size to be a collegiate quarterback, while Chryst is one of the best quarterback gurus in the business as he’ll definitely coach the youngster up.
In recent years the Badgers have gotten away from the power running attack that helped to put their program on the map. As a senior, running back Dare Ogunbowale is looking to become the workhorse running back that Chryst will be able count on as Houston gets his feet wet as the starting quarterback. And Ogunbowale should benefit from running behind an offensive line that is returning four starters; including senior center Dan Voltz.
Last year the Badgers were second in the nation in total defense as eight of their 13 opponents were limited to 13 points or less. You can expect more of the same this year as the Badgers have eight defensive starters returning which includes sophomore middle linebacker T.J. Edwards who led the team in tackles last season with 84.
The Badgers want to prove that they can hang with the big boys of college football, and on September 3, Wisconsin will clash with the LSU Tigers of the Southeastern Conference at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. But the Badgers Big Ten Conference schedule won’t be a walk in the park either as they have road games against the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans, Iowa Hawkeyes, and Northwestern Wildcats that could derail their chances of winning the Big Ten West.
Nebraska Cornhuskers 7-5 (5-4)
In 2014, the Nebraska Cornhuskers decided to fire head football coach Bo Pelini in spite of the fact that he had a 67-27 record at the school. Pelini never had a losing season at Nebraska, and the Cornhuskers never won fewer than 9 games on his watch. But Pelini was fired because he didn’t win enough big games at Nebraska as he was replaced by Mike Riley. And all Riley did in his first year at Lincoln was to lead Nebraska to their first losing season since 2007. But hope does spring eternal in 2016.
There’s always a transition period in dealing with different coaching styles as Nebraska is shifting from an option attack to a pro-style offense under Riley. Senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong is attempting to do that now and become more of a pocket passer. Last year under Riley, Armstrong passed for 3,030 yards while also throwing 22 touchdown passes. However Armstrong was picked off 16 times, and that is a number that cannot be that high in order for the ‘Huskers to have a good season.
Unfortunately for old-school Nebraska fans, the current defense isn’t going to remind folks in the heartland of the infamous “black shirts defense” that had become a staple there. With the exception of senior free safety Nate Gerry, the Cornhuskers don’t have that many play makers on the defensive side of the football which could make for a long autumn in Lincoln.
The last thing that Riley needs is to have another mediocre year in Lincoln as the chants will begin for his dismissal.
Minnesota Golden Gophers 7-5 (5-4)
2015 was an up and down year for Minnesota Golden Gophers football, but they still managed to make a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season. Health issues forced Jerry Kill to retire as Minnesota’s head football coach. Kill has been replaced by former Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys who worked under him for more than 20 years. But now it is time for Claeys to write his own chapter.
Claeys is going to need senior quarterback Mitch Leidner to take the next step as a signal caller. In each year at Minnesota, Leidner has progressed. But in order for the Gophers to contend in the Big Ten West, Leidner needs to have a great season in the pocket.
Defensively Minnesota will be paced by junior linebacker Cody Poock and senior linebacker Jack Lynn. Last year Poock was second on the Golden Gophers in tackles with 99, while Lynn was fourth with 76. And in 2016, both Poock and Lynn have the potential to be on the All-Big Ten team.
Minnesota will avoid the gauntlet that is the Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Michigan State Spartans. But the Gophers road schedule still won’t be easy with road meetings against the Penn State Nittany Lions and Wisconsin Badgers.
Illinois Fighting Illini 2-10 (1-8)
This will be an interesting year for the Illinois Fighting Illini as they have their third head football coach in the last three years. Lovie Smith is the new head football coach at Illinois, but he wasn’t hired until March 7 which put the him and the program at a huge disadvantage as far as recruiting, and putting together a coaching staff. It’s also been 21 years since Smith was around the collegiate game as he has spent the last two decades in the National Football League which has included him being the head coach of the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Smith is known for what he can do on the defensive side of the football, and now he is also charged with turning things around for an Illini program that hasn’t won more than 7 games in each of the last eight seasons.
The first order of business is to get his Illini squad to finish out the season strong. Last year Illinois began with a record of 4-1, only to finish the season 5-7. Smith does have a couple of play makers to work with in senior quarterback Wes Lunt and senior linebacker Dawuane Smoot, but two guys alone cannot make up for the lack of football talent in Champaign.
2016 will be a year of transition for the Illini which should result in that many victories.
Purdue Boilermakers 2-10 (0-9)
For the past three years the Purdue Boilermakers have been an afterthought in the Big Ten Conference. Over that stretch the Boilermakers have compiled a record of 6-30 and they haven’t won more than three games in a season in any of those campaigns. Darrell Hazel has been Purdue’s head football coach over that stretch, and surprisingly he was given a fourth year by the school to turn things around.
Last year Purdue was 95th in total offense and 111th defense as they lost six games by 18 points or more. And without the improvement of the talent pool in West Lafayette, don’t expect that much to change this year for Purdue.
Wins will be few and far between once again this year for the Boilermakers, and I highly doubt that Hazell will finish out the year.
Big Ten Championship Game: Iowa vs. Ohio State
Conference Champion: Ohio State
Coach of the Year: Urban Meyer-Ohio State
Offensive Player of the Year: J.T. Barrett-Quarterback-Ohio State
Defensive Player of the Year: Anthony Walker-Middle Linebacker-Northwestern
Sources: Sports-reference.com, Cbbstats.com, Ourlads.com, NationalChamps.net
1. Clemson Tigers
2015 was indeed a magical year for Clemson Tigers Football. Clemson won 14 games which was a single-season school record, but they were just short of winning their first national championship since 1981. And as good as 2015 was for the Tigers, 2016 can actually be better.
Last year as a sophomore, quarterback Deshaun Watson was healthy and he showed his ability as an impact player by passing for 4,104 yards while also rushing for 1,105 yards. And as a junior, Watson will be one of the early favorites to win the Heisman Trophy while National Football League scouts are also drooling at his play making ability.
Running back Wayne Gallman had the opportunity to leave school last year for the NFL Draft, but he decided to return to Clemson and the combination of him and Watson will be tough on defenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Led by junior wide receiver Artavis Scott and redshirt sophomore Hunter Renfrow, Watson has an array of talented wide receivers to throw the football to while he’ll be protected by an offensive line that will be returning three starters from last season.
Defensively the Tigers were ranked tenth nationally last year and they will return six starters. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has changed the culture on that side of the ball at Clemson as they are now consistently sending players to the National Football League. And led by senior cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, the Tigers have a defensive unit that can set the tone for their team.
Clemson has a non-conference that’ll see them dip into the Southeastern Conference as they will be on the road against the Auburn Tigers, while finishing up their regular season slate at home against the South Carolina Gamecocks. As for Clemson’s Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, their road meeting with the Florida State Seminoles on October 29 will more than likely determine who will get to the conference title game, while also having an impact on the College Football Playoff scene. But for Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney, his team should be up for the challenge.
2. Oklahoma Sooners
After surviving the gauntlet that is the Big 12 Conference schedule last year, the Oklahoma Sooners took their place in the College Football Playoff. But in the Orange Bowl, the team speed of the Clemson Tigers was too much for Oklahoma too deal with. The Sooners will come into the 2016 college football season with some unfinished business that they are hopeful to attend to. And luckily for Oklahoma head football coach Bob Stoops, he has a team that will once again be in contention to win the national championship.
In his first season as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback, Baker Mayfield displayed a solid blend of running and passing ability that made him one of the most dynamic play makers in the country. As a senior, Mayfield comes into 2016 as the reigning Big 12 Conference Player of the Year, and after finishing fourth in the Heisman voting last year, he’ll once again be in the conversation.
But the engine that makes the Sooners offense go is junior running back Semaje Perine. In two years at Oklahoma, Perine has gained 3,062 yards on the ground. And barring an injury, Perine is in line to surpass Adrian Peterson this year as Oklahoma’s all-time leading rusher. At 5’11”, 237 lbs., Perine has a very thick lower body that it makes it tough for defenders to tackle him.
Led by senior wide receiver Dede Westbrook, Mayfield will be throwing to experienced receivers while also being protected by a offensive line that has three returning starters as they’ll be led by sophomore left tackle Orlando Brown. Led by senior middle linebacker Jordan Evans, the Sooners are returning seven defensive starters as they will once again look to contain the high octane offenses in the Big 12.
The upcoming schedule won’t be an easy one for the Sooners as they’ll begin the campaign against the Houston Cougars who are the defending American Athletic Conference Champions. Also in non-conference play, the Sooners will welcome the Ohio State Buckeyes out of the Big Ten Conference to Norman for a game that could go a very long way in determining who’ll make the College Football Playoff. Most of Oklahoma’s toughest conference games will be at home while they’ll also have to worry about their annual tilt with the Texas Longhorns at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. But the Sooners could be one of the final teams standing come January.
3. LSU Tigers
With all of the controversy that swirled around the LSU Tigers in 2015, you would have thought that they had a bad season. But the Tigers did manage to go 9-3. At the beginning of November, LSU was 7-0 with an eye on the College Football Playoff. However the Bayou Bengals would suffer three consecutive losses, including a 14-point defeat to the eventual national champion in the Alabama Crimson Tide which put head football coach Les Miles on the hot seat. LSU appeared headed to firing Miles, until they began to see the negative backlash that they were facing and thus Miles is returning to Baton Rogue for 2016.
Led by junior running back Leonard Fournette, the Tigers will return 10 starters on the offensive side of the ball as they look to build some cohesion. And barring injury, Fournette should be in the running to win the Heisman Trophy.
The Tigers were ranked 25th in the nation last season in total defense and with six starters returning on that side of the ball, led by on all four starters on the defensive line, the Bayou Bengals will be a force to be reckoned with in the Southeastern Conference.
The schedule in 2016 won’t be an easy one for LSU as they have road games against the Wisconsin Badgers, Auburn Tigers, and Florida Gators. But the Tigers season will be defined by what they’ll be able to do on November 5 when they host Alabama whom they have not defeated since 2011.
4. Tennessee Volunteers
After finishing the 2015 college football season with a record of 9-4, it appears that the Tennessee Volunteers are back. In three years at Tennessee, head football coach Butch Jones has been in the process of building something special as the folks in Knoxville believe that this team is once again ready to contend for the Southeastern Conference Title. Whereas the better teams in the SEC typically have to worry abut players leaving school early for the National Football League, the Vols didn’t have to concern themselves with this as they’ll have nine starters returning on offense and eight on defense.
Senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs is entering his fourth year as Tennessee’s starting quarterback and he has plenty of expectations that will be heaped onto his shoulders. Dobbs is more of a dual-threat quarterback, but if he is able to become a more consistent passer, the Vols offense will be difficult to deal with.
The Volunteers offense will lean heavily on Dobbs and junior running back Jalen Hurd who at 6’4″, 240 lbs. is in the mode of former New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs.
Tennessee has eight returning starters on defense and there is plenty of pro talent on this unit. Junior defensive end Derek Barnett has the ability to be one of the best pass rushers in the Southeastern Conference, while senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin has what it takes to win the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker. And the Vols also have a ton of experience in their secondary that features senior cornerback Cameron Sutton, junior cornerback Justin Martin, junior strong safety Todd Kelly, along with junior free safety Evan Berry.
The Volunteers season will be defined four-week stretch that begins in late September where they’ll host the Florida Gators, which will be followed by road games against the Georgia Bulldogs, and Texas A&M Aggies before returning home to face the defending national champions in the Alabama Crimson Tide on October 15.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
It might be a new college football season, but that hasn’t prevented the Ohio State Buckeyes from being one of the top teams in the nation. After last year’s 12-1 campaign, Ohio State lost a ton of talent to the National Football League with 9 underclassmen declaring early. But if you’re Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer, you need not worry as the cupboard is never bare in Columbus.
Coming into 2016, redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett won’t have to look over his shoulder as he is entrenched as the Buckeyes starting signal caller with Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller now pursuing careers in the National Football League. Barrett gives Meyer that dual-threat of a passer and runner that he covets at the quarterback position and more will be put upon his shoulders this year. With the departure of running back Ezekiel Elliot, you can expect seniors Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball to split the carries while Barrett could have a more active role in the Buckeyes running game.
The Buckeyes must replaces six starters on defense, but junior middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan is a play maker that could find himself in the discussion as far as being the Big Ten Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Ohio State can’t be accused of lining up the cupcakes in their non-conference schedule as they will travel to face the Oklahoma Sooners out of the Big 12 Conference on September 17 which will be a tune-up for Big Ten Conference play as the Buckeyes will have road games against the Wisconsin Badgers, Penn State Nittany Lions, and Michigan State Spartans, before finishing the regular season at home versus the Michigan Wolverines.
6. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Since Brian Kelly took over as the head football coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, he has succeeded in what the school wanted him to do and that was to make Notre Dame Football consistently relevant. In six years at Notre Dame, Kelly has a record of 55-23 with three of the last four seasons seeing the Irish ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press’ Poll. And after flirting with reaching the College Football Playoff last season, Kelly and Notre Dame will be thinking about bigger things in 2016.
Last year as a true freshman, DeShone Kizer was thrust into the role of starting quarterback after an early season injury to Malik Zaire. Zaire will be back for his senior season and Kelly has a difficult decision to make as Zaire is the better athlete, but Kizer has the better arm.
Like Kizer, Notre Dame relied on another true freshman last year in the backfield in running back Josh Adams. With C.j. Prosise having graduated and moving on to the National Football League, Adams is expected to be the feature back as Kelly will lean on him and Kizer due to the fact that Notre Dame will be a little green in the passing game.
Defensively the Irish must replace six starters from last season, but with defensive coordinator Brain VanGorder entering his second year in South Bend, Indiana, he now has more of a feel of what Kelly wants done.
With an early season road meeting against the Texas Longhorns, the rest of Notre Dame’s most difficult games will be at home, and if they are able to handle their business, they could be College Football Playoff bound come January.
7. Alabama Crimson Tide
Although that the Alabama Crimson Tide will enter the 2016 college football season as the defending national champions, they won’t be the top team in the land due to the many defections that they had. Alabama must replace eight defensive starters from a unit that was tied for second in the nation last year in total defense.
The Crimson Tide must also replace quarterback Jake Coker who they lost to graduation and running back Derrick Henry who won the Heisman Trophy. But the Tide still have Nick Saban as their head football coach which is the right person to be in charge as under him, it’s about reloading at Alabama, and not rebuilding.
It will be Cooper Bateman’s opportunity to be the starting quarterback for the Crimson Tide. Bateman spent his first two years at Alabama primarily serving as a backup quarterback, and now as a junior it will be his job to lose. Sophomore running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough will be splitting time this fall in the Alabama backfield as they will be running behind an offensive line that is returning three starters with junior offensive tackle Cam Robinson potentially being a first-team, All-Southeastern Conference member.
Defensively Alabama will be very green while they will also miss the leadership of former defensive coordinator Kirby Smart who is now the head football coach for the Georgia Bulldogs.
Right out of the chute we’ll see how good that this Alabama team will be as they’ll begin the season on September 3 against the USC Trojans out the Pac-12 Conference at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Tide also have road games in the Southeastern Conference against the Ole Miss Rebels, Arkansas Razorbacks, Tennessee Volunteers, and LSU Tigers. But Saban always knows how to get the best out of his teams.
8. Florida State Seminoles
Under head football coach Jimbo Fisher, the Florida State Seminoles have returned to being one of premier college football programs in the nation. In each of Fisher’s six years at Tallahassee, the Seminoles have finished the season ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll along with playing in a top-tier bowl game in each of the last five years. With the ‘Noles back on the national scene, it also means that they are once again sending talent to the National Football League, and when talent is headed to the pro ranks, it also means that there are consistent voids to fill on the roster which Florida State must do this year.
After spending the last three years as a backup quarterback, senior Sean Maguire is ready for the spotlight at Florida State. At 6’3″, 224 lbs., Maguire has a solid frame for a quarterback, but it won’t be a situation where he will have to do it by himself. National Football League scouts are drooling over the play making ability of junior running back Dalvin Cook. With two years as the Seminoles starting running back, Cook has gained 2,699 yards on the ground as he has become the heart and soul of this team. And in 2016, you can expect Cook to be a favorite to be the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Player of the Year. Led by junior wide receiver Travis Rudolph, the ‘Noles have their top three wide receivers returning from last year’s team while all five of the big uglies up front are back.
The Seminoles also have six starters returning from a defense in 2015 that was 19th in the nation and under defensive coordinator Charles Kelly, they will look to wreak havoc on the offenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
You can’t accuse Florida State of ducking anybody as their non-conference schedule includes games against the Ole Miss Rebels and the Florida Gators of the Southeastern Conference. But the Seminoles Atlantic Coast Conference slate will be defined by their home game against the Clemson Tigers on October 29 as that contest will more than likely determine who will win the Atlantic Division and get to the conference title game and be a potential player in the College Football Playoff.
9. Iowa Hawkeyes
The college football season 2015 saw the Iowa Hawkeyes fly under the radar, and before you knew it, this team was 12-0. But as good as Iowa’s season was, they will still enter the 2016 college football season with a bad taste in their mouths after losing their last two games from the previous season which were the Big Ten Championship Game to the Michigan State Spartans and the Rose Bowl to the Stanford Cardinal.
The workman like approach that was so effective for Iowa in 2015 will once again be at the forefront for head football coach Kirk Ferentz and his crew as they look to win the Big Ten. What helped Iowa in 2015 was their ability to not defeat themselves as they were 11th in the nation in turnover margin. The Hawkeyes have a senior quarterback C.J. Beathard who stays within the realm of the offense which means him not trying to do everything himself, while relying on Iowa’s solid running attack and stingy defense.
Iowa’s was 22nd in the nation last year in total defense, and led by junior linebacker Jewell Josey, this band of brothers will once again pack their lunch pales every Saturday afternoon in the Big Ten.
The fact that the Hawkeyes play in the Big Ten West will see them once again have a favorable schedule and they could fly under the radar just like they did in 2015.
10. Michigan Wolverines
It hasn’t taken Michigan Wolverines head football coach Jim Harbaugh that long to once again create a buzz around his football program. In just one year, Harbaugh has put Michigan back onto the national scene and after a 10-3 record in 2015, the Wolverines are eyeing bigger and better things this year. Last year Michigan benefited from a transfer at quarterback in Jake Rudock. And this year the Wolverines will lean on another transfer quarterback in John O’Korn.
O’Korn began his collegiate career at the University of Houston where he was the 2013 American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year as passed for 3,117 and 28 touchdowns. But injuries and the emergence of Greg Ward at quarterback made O’Korn expendable as he found a new home in Ann Arbor. Now O’Korn will play for a head coach in Harbaugh that wants him while also showcasing his live right arm. With four returning starters on the offensive line, senior running back De’Veon Smith should have plenty of running room to work with as Harbaugh is returning Michigan to the days of smash-mouth football of Bo Schembechler.
Last year the Wolverines were fourth in the nation in total defense which included three consecutive shutouts. And with hard hitting, redshirt sophomore Jabril Peppers making the move strong safety to linebacker, Michigan will have a physical presence once more.
Outside of road games against the Michigan State Spartans, Iowa Hawkeyes, and Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan has a very favorable schedule which bodes well as far as their chances of winning the Big Ten Conference.
11. UCLA Bruins
Make no mistake about that the expectations have changed for the UCLA Bruins ever since Jim Mora became their head football coach in 2012. The Bruins have been in contention in the Pac-12 Conference while also re-emerging on the national scene. And after an 8-5 campaign in 2015, is UCLA ready to win the Pac-12 and make the College Football Playoff?
If sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen can cut down on the turnovers in 2016, he has what it takes to be the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year. Rosen started all 13 games for the Bruins last year and he has the potential to be a very special player. Senior outside linebacker Jayon Brown is a solid tackler and the Bruins defense as a whole can get after opponents as they registered 28 sacks in 2015.
Under Mora, the Bruins don’t shy away from playing big teams from power conferences as they will begin the season on the road against the Texas A&M Aggies, while their Pac-12 slate includes road games against the Arizona State Sun Devils and Washington State Cougars.
12. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Although that the 2015 college football season didn’t end in the fashion that the Oklahoma State Cowboys would have liked, this a team that still has high hopes. The Cowboys won their first 10 games in 2015 before things fell apart as they lost their final three contests. Defense has never been Oklahoma State’s calling card as they surrendered 151 points in those three losses. But even with that Oklahoma State head football coach Mike Gundy has a squad that will be capable of winning the Big 12 Conference.
Junior quarterback Mason Rudolph has proven that he can sling the football around in Gundy’s wide-open, spread-offense attack. The Cowboys offense doesn’t focus on pounding you with a running attack, but more with a passing game that can spread out opposing defenses and exploit weaknesses. Junior wide receiver James Washington and senior wide receiver Marcell Ateman were first and third respectively in receiving yards last year for the Cowboys and defenses in the Big 12 Conference will once again have their hands full with this duo. All five starting offensive linemen from last year’s team are back for the Cowboys and that continuity up front should give Rudolph ample time to pick apart defenses.
Defensively Oklahoma State was ranked 100th in the nation in total defense last year, and even though that they are returning eight starters on that side of the football, the unit will still be a work in progress.
The Cowboys season will be defined the Bedlam Game on December 3 against the Oklahoma Sooners as the winner of this contest will more than likely not only win the Big 12, but get to the College Football Playoff.
13. Ole Miss Rebels
Don’t look now, but there is a certain buzz around the Mississippi Rebels football program that hasn’t been in Oxford, Mississippi for quite some time. Hugh Freeze is set to begin his fifth season as the Mississippi head football coach and in each year there, the team’s win total has increased. And after showing that they can compete in the Southeastern Conference, the Rebels are ready to show that they have what it takes to be a contender for the College Football Playoff.
There’s a growing consensus that senior quarterback Chad Kelly could be the Southeastern Conference’s Player of the Year. If the last name sounds familiar it is that the Rebels quarterback is the nephew of Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. But the younger Kelly is writing his own legacy as he might be the finest pocket passer that currently calls the SEC home. Kelly will have to carry the Ole Miss offense this year due to the fact the team lost so much production from last year’s squad which included four offensive linemen and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell.
Ole Miss will face one of the toughest schedules in the nation which features games against the Florida State Seminoles of the Atlantic Coast Conference along with conference affairs against the Alabama Crimson Tide, Arkansas Razorbacks, and LSU Tigers.
14. Houston Cougars
For Houston Cougars head football coach Tom Herman and his squad, they are out to prove that 2015 wasn’t a fluke. The Cougars went 13-1 last season and only a three-point road loss to the Connecticut Huskies prevented them from having an undefeated season. But the Cougars return a ton of talent on both sides of the football as they are seeking to qualify for the College Football Playoff, while also impress the on lookers of the Big 12 Conference for a potential bid to join.
The Cougars have a dynamic play maker at quarterback in senior Greg Ward Jr. Last year Ward accounted for 3,936 yards of total offense for Houston and his name could be thrown around in the Heisman discussion this season. At 6’2″, 200 lbs., senior wide receiver Chance Allen has solid size and he has shown that he can be a go-to-guy for Ward in the red zone during jump ball situations. The Cougars have a young, but experienced offensive line that will be running the show as there are four returning starters from 2015, but none of them are seniors.
Senior outside linebacker Steven Taylor will look to cushion the loss of middle linebacker Elandon Roberts whom Houston lost to graduation as he leads a unit that forced 21 interceptions and had 36 sacks in 2015.
The Cougars will be in the mix to once again win the American Athletic Conference, but they can make a huge statement when they take on the Oklahoma Sooners of the Big 12 Conference to begin the season as they look to repeat as AAC Champs and potentially get to the College Football Playoff.
15. Baylor Bears
Hands down the past few years have been the golden era of Baylor Bears football. Four of the last five years have seen Baylor win at least 10 games as they’ve garnered national attention under head football coach Art Briles. But all good things must come to an end as Baylor parted with Briles due to numerous off-the-field situations involving his players with the most notable issue being sexual assault. Briles has been replaced by former Wake Forest Demon Deacons head football coach Jim Grobe who will try to maintain Baylor’s recent success on the football field.
The Bears must replace a ton of production on the offensive side of the football as they lost seven starters from last last year’s team including four starters on the offensive line. Senior quarterback Seth Russell is returning from a neck injury that ended his 2015 college football season abruptly and his right arm along the ability to find junior wide receiver KD Cannon will be important for Baylor’s chances as far as staying in the Big 12 Title hunt.
Baylor was 61st last year in total defense, but they are returning seven starters as defensive coordinator Phil Bennett hopes that his unit will be able to do enough to offset the Bears high-powered offense.
Outside of road games against the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners, the Bears, Big 12 Conference schedule is a favorable one. But a weak non-conference schedule could once again impact Baylor’s chances of making the College Football Playoff.
16. Northwestern Wildcats
The Northwestern Wildcats will enter the 2016 college football season looking to build off of their surprising success in 2015. Northwestern was able to win 10 games last year, but they are looking to avoid taking a huge step backwards. The Wildcats would also win 10 games in 2012, but they won a combined 10 games over the next two seasons. However this time around Northwestern head football coach Pat Fitzgerald could have a team that can contend in the Big Ten West. Fitzgerald doesn’t attempt to mask his philosophy which consists of a solid defense and a strong running game as they are a throwback to old school, smash mouth football in the Big Ten.
Last year Northwestern running back Justin Jackson was a menace for opposing defenses to deal with as he gained 1,418 yards on the ground. And this year as a junior, Jackson and his elusiveness will once again be difficult to deal with. The Wildcats have four starters returning on their offensive line which is led by senior center Ian Park who could be an All-Big Ten performer.
Last year Northwestern had the 13th ranked defense in the nation, and with five starters returning on that side of the football, the Wildcats will once again be difficult to deal with. Junior middle linebacker Anthony Walker will be in the conversation to win the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, while senior cornerback Matthew Harris will be in consideration to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.
The month of October won’t be easy for Fitzgerald and the Wildcats as they’ll have three road games against the Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans, and Ohio State Buckeyes, but they should be hang around in the Big Ten Title conversation.
17. Washington State Cougars
As Mike Leach is set to embark on his fifth season as the head football coach of the Washington State Cougars, he is looking to put it together in consecutive years. Under Leach, the Cougars are coming off of their first winning season since 2003 and they are now looking to become a player in the Pac-12 North.
Junior quarterback Luke Falk is coming off of one of the finest seasons in Washington State history as he passed for 4,561 and 38 touchdowns in Leach’s pass happy system. It has taken Leach some time, but he has found the right signal caller in Falk to operate his offense. Along with Falk, the Cougars have senior wide receiver Gabe Marks who could be an All-Pac-12 player this season while also becoming the school’s all-time leader in receiving yards. Washington State also returns three starters on the offensive line as they look to provide blanket protection around Falk and the skill players.
Defensively the Cougars have six returning starters from 2015 and they have some play makers in the form of junior middle linebacker Peyton Pelluer, sophomore defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa, and free safety Shalom Luani that can positively impact the game for the Cougars.
The Cougars have to travel to face the Stanford Cardinal, but they get both the Oregon Ducks and Washington Huskies in Pullman which could help them with the Pac-12 North.
18. Oregon Ducks
The Oregon Ducks are hopeful that their strong finish to the 2015 college football season will carry over to this year. The Ducks were able to win seven of their last nine games as head football Mark Helfrich is emerging from the shadow of his predecessor Chip Kelly.
Senior quarterback Jeff Lockie has been real patient as he has been the understudy to both Marcus Mariota and Vernon Adams. But now Lockie can finally show what he can do under center for the Ducks. The Ducks have a player to look out for in the Heisman Trophy race in junior running back Royce Freeman. Last year Freeman rushed for 1,836 yards to go along with 17 touchdowns, and in 2016, he still be one of the fastest players in the nation. If Lockie is able to get the Ducks offense going, he has an array of receivers to get the football to in Oregon’s spread attack which includes senior wide receiver Bralon Addison and junior wide receiver Darren Carrington.
On defense, the Ducks must replace six starters in their front seven, but they will have a ton of experience in the secondary where led by junior Arrion Springs, all four starters will be returning.
As the season progresses, Oregon’s schedule will get tougher which includes road games against the Southern California Trojans and Utah Utes, but the Ducks do have enough firepower to win the the Pac-12 Conference.
19. Michigan State Spartans
The Michigan State Spartans are coming off of their best three-year stretch in school history. The Spartans have won 36 games over the last three seasons to go along with a top ten finish in the Associated Press Poll in each year as well. And although that there has been some talent that has left East Lansing, Michigan State head football coach Mark Dantonio still has a team to be reckoned with.
Quarterback Tyler O’Connor has bided his time on the bench behind Connor Cook who is now in the National Football League. And as a senior, O’Connor will get his chance to be the starting quarterback for the Spartans. You can expect Dantonio to lean heavily on the running game which will feature sophomore running back LJ Scott who could become a very punishing runner in the mode of former Michigan State running backs Lorenzo White and T.J. Duckett.
The Spartans must replace some talent on the defensive side of the football as they lost six starters from last year’s unit, but led by senior safety Demetrious Cox, the defense should be able to take shape as the season progresses.
Michigan State won’t be able to steamroll through the season like they did when they reached the College Football Playoff last year, but under Dantonio they will once again be a tough out.
20. Pittsburgh Panthers
Last year the Pittsburgh Panthers overachieved under first-year head football coach Pat Narduzzi as they won eight games for the first time since 2010. But it will be interesting to see if this program will be able to take the next step that has alluded them for more than 30 years.
Narduzzi likes to keep it simple on offense which means ball control and not turning the football over. Last year as a junior, quarterback Nathan Peterman made the most of his chance to be Pitt’s starting quarterback as he threw 20 touchdown passes to just 8 interceptions. As a team the Panthers also averaged 4.8 yards on the ground and you can expect more of the same from them in 2016.
After being the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Player of The Year in 2014, running back James Conner was limited to being a spectator for the majority of the 2015 college football season as he underwent cancer treatment. But now Conner is healthy and his return to competition alone should be inspiring to the Panthers program. In Conner’s absence, running back Qadree Ollison stepped up to gain more than 1,200 yards rushing, and going forward this duo should be problems for opposing defenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Narduzzi has built his reputation on the defensive side of the football and with an experienced unit which includes eight seniors which is highlighted by senior middle linebacker Matt Galambos, the Pitt defense could resemble some of Narduzzi’s defenses during his time as the defensive coordinator of the Michigan State Spartans.
Pitt’s non-conference schedule won’t be a cakewalk as it includes games against the Penn State Nittany Lions of the Big Ten Conference and the Oklahoma State Cowboys of the Big 12 Conference. But when Atlantic Coast Conference plays begins, the Panthers will be staring down the barrel of some daunting road affairs against the North Carolina Tar Heels, Miami Hurricanes, and Clemson Tigers as all three teams with be in the hunt to take the conference’s crown.
21. Georgia Bulldogs
This college football season will have a different feel for the Georgia Bulldogs as for the first time since 2000, Mark Richt will not be the head football coach in Athens. Kirby Smart has spent the last eight years as the defensive coordinator for the Alabama Crimson Tide where he helped the school win four national titles while also sending a bevy of talent on that side of the football to the National Football League. Now Smart is returning to his alma mater in the hopes of adding to what Richt has accomplished by taking Georgia’s program to the next level.
I expect Georgia to continue pounding the football which means that you can expect a healthy dose of a pair of junior running backs in Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. Both Chubb and Michel are explosive running backs that are always one play away from going the distance. In front of Chubb and Michel, the Bulldogs will only have two starters returning on the offensive line, but one of those is junior left tackle Isaiah Wynn who will look to anchor the offensive line.
On defense for Georgia, there will be some inexperience in the front seven, but there is a very experienced secondary in Athens which includes junior safety Dominick Sanders who will be in the mix to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.
A road game against the Mississippi Rebels along with their annual meeting in Jacksonville against the Florida Gators will be the determining factor into whether or not that Smart will be able to get the Dawgs to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.
22. Temple Owls
It’s a new day for Temple Owls football as they are being at looked as a team that can win the American Athletic Conference while finishing the season ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 1979. Matt Rhule is in his fourth year as Temple’s head football coach, and he is steadily developing a program that will make the folks in Philadelphia very proud.
Senior quarterback P.J. Walker has been Temple’s starting quarterback in each of the last three seasons and he has developing into one of the better quarterbacks in the American Athletic Conference. Senior running back Jahad Thomas is a work horse for Rhule who only gets stronger as the game goes on. Temple has a ton of experience on their offensive line which includes four returning starters from 2015. Of those four starters, the Owls have a pair of senior in left tackle Dion Dawkins and center Brendan McGowan who’s experience should pay dividends for Temple’s offense.
Last year Temple was ranked 20th in the nation in total defense and with seven starters returning on the side of the ball, they can once again be stingy. Senior middle linebacker Jarred Alwan has solid range and he has the potential to carry the Owls defense while being one of the best linebackers in the American Athletic Conference.
Temple is no longer Philadelphia’s little secret and they could be in line to win their first conference title since 1967.
23. Arizona Wildcats
In 2015, the Arizona Wildcats were unable to live up to their preseason expectations as they stumbled to a record of 7-6, which included losing four out of their last six contests. But for Arizona head football coach Rich Rodriguez, you can expect his team to take a turn for the better this year in Tucson.
After a stellar freshman campaign in 2014, quarterback Anu Solomon took a step backwards last year which was a microcosm of the Wildcats team. But there is a ton of talent returning on the offensive side of the football around Solomon which includes three starters on the offensive line, and junior running back Nick Wilson.
For the Wildcats to have a legitimate shot to win the Pac-12 Conference in 2016, they will need a much more spirited effort on defense. Last year the Wildcats were 115th in the nation in total defense as they had ten games in which they surrendered at least 30 points. Arizona does return six defensive starters, but for first-year defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, he is hopeful to find some impact players.
Arizona has a favorable non-conference schedule, but things will get tougher in October with consecutive road games against the UCLA Bruins and Utah Utes as the Wildcats will have their hands full as far as winning the Pac-12 South for the second time in the last three years.
24. Stanford Cardinal
The Stanford Cardinal might not get the respect that they deserve nationally, but this is a program that has become the class of the Pac-12 Conference. Five of the last six college football seasons have ended with Stanford finishing no lower than 11th in the final Associated Press Poll which included being third last year after their dominating Rose Bowl victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes.
But it won’t be as easy for Stanford to win the Pac-12 this time around as they have to replace a plethora of talent. The Cardinal lost eight starters on offensive line which includes four offensive linemen and quarterback Kevin Hogan who was a four-year starter. However the Cardinals still have Mr. Versatility in junior running back Christian McCaffrey. Last year McCaffrey set an NCAA single-season record with 3,864 all-purpose yards as he was named the Pac-12’s Offensive Player of the Year. McCaffrey is an early favorite to win the Heisman Trophy and if he is able to keep Stanford among the upper echelon teams in the nation, he could put to bed the “East Coast bias” that has been a stigma with the Heisman voting.
Like their offense, the Cardinal defense must replace a wealth of talent as five starters from last year’s unit graduated. But the cupboard hasn’t been bare for some time at Palo Alto as senior linebackers Kevin Palma and Peter Kalambayi will look to step up and fill voids.
Under head football coach David Shaw, Stanford never has a cupcake schedule which is once again the case this year as their non-conference schedule includes games against the Kansas State Wildcats of the Big 12 Conference and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish along with a brutal conference slate that will see them get it on with the USC Trojans, UCLA Bruins, Washington Huskies, and Oregon Ducks.
25. North Carolina Tar Heels
In just four years as the head football coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels, Larry Fedora has built his program into a power within the Atlantic Coast Conference. Last year Fedora led North Carolina to 11 wins which tied a school record. The Tar Heels won the Coastal Division of the ACC for the first time in school history, and as the 2016 college football season is set to begin, Fedora is looking to build off of that success.
After spending the last two years as the understudy to quarterback Marquise Williams, junior Mitch Trubisky is ready for his opportunity to be North Carolina’s starting quarterback. But whereas Trubisky might be inexperienced as Carolina’s starting quarterback, he has plenty of talent around him. The Heels have three returning starters on the offensive line which included both offensive tackles in seniors Bentley Spain and Jon Heck. The Tar Heels have two senior wide receivers in Bug Howard and Ryan Switzer that Trubisky can lean on to make plays. However the engine for North Carolina’s offense is junior running back Elijah Hood.
Last year Hood rushed for 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns, but he was overshadowed in the Atlantic Coast Conference by the play of Clemson Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson and Florida State Seminoles running back Dalvin Cook. But make no mistake about it that Hood is a play maker who will be in the running to be the ACC’s Offensive Player of the Year.
The Tar Heels have seven starters returning on defense as their pass rush will be anchored by senior defensive end Mikey Bart. The Heels also have experience in their secondary with no player being more vital to their success than junior cornerback M.J. Stewart who is one of the top corners in the nation.
As Fedora is attempting to build North Carolina’s brand, he and his program will have a golden opportunity to win a showcase game to begin the season when they travel to face the Georgia Bulldogs of the Southeastern Conference at the Georgia Dome on September 3, while they also have road games within the Atlantic Coast Conference against the Florida State Seminoles, Miami Hurricanes, and Duke Blue Devils.
In the mix-Western Michigan Broncos, Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, Northern Illinois Huskies, Boise State Broncos
Sources: Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com, Cfbstats.com
Ohio State Buckeyes 13-0 (9-0)
The Ohio State Buckeyes are not only the team to beat in the Big Ten Conference, but also in college football. The Buckeyes enter the 2015 college football season as and they are expected to be in contention to repeat as national champions, but first they have to survive the Big Ten Conference.
For Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer, he has three quarterbacks that are capable of leading his team, but on Saturdays this fall, only one of them can play. Senior Braxton Miller, junior Cardale Jones, and sophomore J.T. Barrett have all had success at quarterback and whoever is the starter this season will be looking over his shoulder. But Miller has volunteered to finish his collegiate career at wide receiver which will eliminate some of the confusion.
Regardless of who will be Ohio State’s starting quarterback this season, they will be playing behind an offensive line that led by senior offensive tackle Taylor Decker, will be returning four starters from last year’s national championship team. This Buckeyes offensive line is expected to continue opening holes for junior running back Ezekiel Elliot who should flirt with rushing for 2,000 yards and also being named as the Big Ten Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year which will help Ohio State who is looking to once again have one of the top offenses in the nation.
Defensively the Buckeyes were 19th in the nation last season in total defense and with junior defensive end Joey Bosa leading the way as far as putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Ohio State will once again be tough to score on.
The only thing that would prevent the Buckeyes from getting back to the Big Ten Championship Game would be their final two regular season games as they’ll host the Michigan State Spartans and when they travel to meet the Michigan Wolverines which should both be fierce contests. But the Big Ten Title in 2015 is definitely Ohio State’s to lose.
Michigan State Spartans 11-1 (7-1)
The Michigan State Spartans lost two games in 2014, but they could take solace in knowing that the teams that beat them in the Oregon Ducks and Ohio State Buckeyes played for the national championship. The culture has changed in East Lansing for Michigan State under current head football coach Mark Dantonio as the Spartans are now a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten Conference.
The Spartans run a pro-style offense and senior quarterback Connor Cook is poised to have a big year in it. Cook is one of the best winners that Michigan State has ever had play quarterback and he would love to cap his collegiate career off with another Big Ten Conference Title. Junior running back Delton Williams is ready to emerge as the next workhorse running back for Dantonio while Cook will be throwing the football to a trio of senior wide receivers in AJ Troup, Aaron Burbridge, and Macgarrett Kings. The Spartans also posses one of the best offensive lines in the conference as they’ll return four starters from last year’s team including senior center Jack Allen.
Dantonio continuously preaches defense and as Michigan State finished last season ranked eighth in the nation in total defense, you can expect another strong showing from them this season. Led by senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun, the Spartans return seven starters from a defense last season that held eight of their 13 opponents under 20 points. And Calhoun’s motor never stops which will once be trouble for Michigan State opponents.
The Spartans will step out of conference on September 12 to host Oregon. But Sparty will have three big conference games on the road as they’ll meet the Michigan Wolverines, Nebraska Cornhuskers, and Ohio State as they look to win the conference and get to the College Football Playoff.
Michigan Wolverines 9-3 (6-2)
The dawn of a new era is upon us for Michigan Wolverines football. Former Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh is now the head football coach at Michigan and he has brought expectations and enthusiasm with him to Ann Arbor. Harbaugh has previously coached at the University of San Diego, Stanford, and in the National Football League with the San Francisco 49ers as he has had success at each stop of the way along his coaching journey.
Harbaugh has taken over a Michigan football program that has fallen by the wayside. The Wolverines have not won the Big Ten Conference Championship since 2004 and once the conference expanded in 2011, Michigan has failed to win it’s division. For years in the Big Ten, Michigan has been right alongside the Ohio State Buckeyes as far as conference supremacy. But in recent years Michigan has been left in the dust by Ohio State and they’ve also been past by the Michigan State Spartans within the conference as they will now look to regain their spot at the top of the conference under Harbaugh.
In the spirit of Harbaugh, you can expect him to have an open competition at every position, but Michigan’s starting quarterback job will be junior quarterback Shane Morris’ to lose. Last season the Wolverines were 64th in the nation in rushing and you can expect that number to improve under Harbaugh as Michigan will get off of the bus running the football this season; especially since all five starters are back on the offensive line.
Defensively the Wolverines return eight starters as first year defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin will look to establish the 3-4 defense in Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines have a favorable schedule this season, but their season will be defined by what they are able to do on October 17 when they host the Michigan State and on November 28 when they clash with the Buckeyes.
Penn State Nittany Lions 8-4 (4-4)
The first year for the Penn State Nittany Lions under head football coach James Franklin was an up and down one, but things could be better for them in 2015. Last year Franklin had the dark cloud of NCAA sanctions and a four-year bowl ban hanging over his program. But last fall the NCAA reduced those sanctions including lifting Penn State’s bowl ban which will help them in recruiting; especially in the State of Pennsylvania. Penn State has not won the Big Ten Conference since 2008 and they are hopeful that they’ll be able to win the Eastern Division of the Big Ten this season to advance to the conference title game.
Junior quarterback Christian Hackenburg is set to begin his third year as Penn State’s starting quarterback. Hackenburg didn’t have the most talented team around him in 2014, but he does have a big arm and he is still one of the better quarterbacks in the conference. Hackenburg did develop a chemistry wide receiver Daesean Hamilton who know as a sophomore will be expected to take a bigger role in the Nittany Lions offense.
Part of Penn State’s problem was that they were unable to run the football last season with any success as they were 120th in the nation as far as rushing. But Franklin is hopeful that four returning starters on the offensive line led by senior center Angelo Mangiro can remedy that.
As usual Penn State’s defense is a blue collar unit that embodies the spirit of Western Pennsylvania. Last year the Nittany Lions were second in the nation in total defense and as they are set to return seven starters under defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, they should once again be a force to be reckoned with.
Penn State will work with a soft non-conference schedule this season, but their final two games of the regular season will see them meet the Michigan Wolverines and Michigan State Spartans which will let us know how far that this program has come under Franklin.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights 6-6 (3-5)
In their first year in the Big Ten Conference, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights were a pleasant surprise as they went 8-5 and established themselves in their new conference. Rutgers head football coach Kyle Flood has been able to maintain the workman like approach that was instilled in Piscataway by his predecessor Greg Schiano which has allowed the Scarlet Knights remain relevant.
This season Flood will look to sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano to fill the void of Gary Nova who graduated. Laviano only attempted 28 passes as a freshman and he’ll need to get his feet wet in a hurry in order for the Scarlet Knights to have a puncher’s chance in 2015. Laviano will have a security blanket to throw the football to in senior wide receiver Leonte Carroo who has the potential to be an All-Big Ten performer this fall.
Rutgers will need to fatten up on victories in their non-conference schedule as their Big Ten slate of games will see them go on to the road to meet the Penn State Nittany Lions, Wisconsin Badgers, and Michigan Wolverines along with hosting the Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan State Spartans.
Maryland Terrapins 5-7 (2-6)
Like the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, the Maryland Terrapins were expected to struggle in their first year in the Big Ten Conference. But under head football coach Randy Edsall, Maryland found themselves with a winning season and going bowling. The Terrapins had a patchwork offense in 2014, but if they aren’t consistent this season, it will hinder their chances to be successful in the Big Ten.
The Terps have a three-game stretch this October that will see them face the Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Penn State Nittany Lions. And with only one of those games taking place in College Park, Maryland, the Terrapins will have their work cut out for them in 2015 as far as securing a winning season.
Indiana Hoosiers 3-9 (0-8)
Since 1994, the Indiana Hoosiers football program has only produced one winning season as they’ve consistently been in the shadow of the school’s men’s basketball program in Bloomington. For Indiana head football coach Kevin Wilson, he is entering his fifth season at Bloomington and he has a tough gauntlet to survive in the Eastern Division of the Big Ten Conference as he and his team must go through some major heavyweights within the conference. 2015 won’t see that many cupcakes for them to face which means that the folks that follow the Hoosiers are already counting down to basketball season.
Iowa Hawkeyes 9-4 (5-4)
As Kirk Ferentz is set to embark on his 16th season as the head football coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes, he has seen his fair shape of ups and downs in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes tend to be a middle of the pack team in the Big Ten Conference. But since the Big Ten has gone to a two-division format along with the fact that they real heavyweights are in the Eastern Division of the conference, Iowa has a chance to make some noise in 2015 and make their first appearance in the conference title game this December.
Under Ferentz, Iowa has typically had “game managers” at the quarterback position and they lost one as Jake Rudock decided to transfer within the Big Ten to the University of Michigan. Rudock’s departure means that junior quarterback C.J. Beathard will get his opportunity under center this fall in Iowa City as he’ll look to add to the blue-collar approach of Ferentz’s teams.
Iowa’s non-conference schedule should be considered as “cupcake central” and outside of road meetings with the Wisconsin Badgers and Nebraska Cornhuskers, they should be able to navigate their way through the Western Division of the Big Ten.
Minnesota Golden Gophers 6-6 (4-4)
Slowly but surely Minnesota Golden Gophers head football coach Jerry Kill is building a program for the maroon and gold. The Golden Gophers are coming off of their third straight straight bowl appearance and their second consecutive 8-5 campaign. But in 2015, does Kill’s team have what it takes to win the Big Ten West?
Last year running back David Cobb was Minnesota’s offense. But Cobb is now in the National Football League which means that sophomore running back Berkley Edwards will have his opportunity for the Golden Gophers. Led by senior offensive tackle Josh Campion, the Gophers have three starters returning on the offensive line, but their success will come down to whether or not junior quarterback Mitch Leidner can take his game to another level.
Defensively the Golden Gophers return seven starters as they look to stop offenses in the Big Ten and introduce teams to the frigid cold that is Minneapolis.
The Golden Gophers will begin their 2015 college football season by hosting the TCU Horned Frogs of the Big 12 Conference which will be followed up by a trip to Fort Collins, Colorado to meet the Colorado State Rams out of the Mountain West Conference. Minnesota’s Big Ten Conference schedule includes road games against the Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Iowa Hawkeyes along with home meetings with the Michigan Wolverines, Illinois Fighting Illini, Nebraska Cornhuskers, and Wisconsin Badgers as this will not be an easy campaign for Kill and crew.
Nebraska Cornhuskers 7-5 (4-4)
The past few years have seen the Nebraska Cornhuskers offense resemble “three yards and a cloud of dust”, but things will be changing in 2015. Mike Riley is the new head football coach at Nebraska and he will be looked to make the Cornhuskers have more of a passing offense. In 14 years at Oregon State University, Riley compiled a record of 93-80 with eight bowl appearances. But the pressure will be on Riley in Lincoln as he is replacing Bo Pelini at Nebraska. In seven seasons at Nebraska, Pelini had a record of 67-27 with three appearances in a conference title game. But it wasn’t enough to meet the extreme expectations at Nebraska and thus he was fired.
This year will be tough for Riley as he will be transitioning Nebraska from primarily being a running team to more of a throwing team. Riley will also look to make junior quarterback Tommy Armstrong more efficient. In two years at Nebraska, Armstrong has never had a completion percentage higher than 53 percent. In the past Nebraska has run to set up the pass, but in Riley’s system, it’s more about passing the football to set up the run as the threat of the pass allows his team to run the football. Riley runs a West Coast offense which relies on the quarterback getting the football out quicker and more efficient which Armstrong will have to improve on. Nebraska’s leading receiver that is returning from last season’s team is junior Jordan Westerkamp who averaged 17 yards for each reception and he”ll more than likely be Armstrong’s go-to-guy in 2015.
The Cornhuskers return seven starters defensively. But new Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker comes to the Cornhuskers from Oregon State with Riley where his defense was ranked 76th in the nation last season which doesn’t give the folks in Lincoln hope for a revival of the Blackshirts this fall.
The Huskers schedule in 2015 is not a favorable one as their non-conference schedule will see them host the BYU Cougars and they’ll travel to take on the Miami Hurricanes out of the Atlantic Coast Conference. And when the Big Ten Conference schedule kicks off, Nebraska will have to deal with home games against the Wisconsin Badgers and Michigan State Spartans.
Wisconsin Badgers 7-5 (4-4)
The past 25 years have seen the Wisconsin Badgers morph into one of the top football programs in the nation. But Badgers success on the field has not been able to keep them from losing head coaches. Paul Chryst has taken over as Wisconsin’s head football coach and his hire marks the Badgers third head football coach since 2012. The constant turnover at the head coaching position cannot help Wisconsin on the recruiting front as recruits wants stability from a program; especially for a Badgers program that historically hasn’t been able to land five-star players.
Quarterback Joel Stave is set to begin his senior season at Wisconsin and once again he has to prove himself to another coaching staff as he’ll have to do it for a Badgers team that doesn’t have that much talent around him offensively.
The Badgers do return eight starters from a defense that was fourth in the nation last season, and until the offense is able to get their footing, this is the unit that will have to carry this team.
The Badgers will have their hands full to begin the college football season when they travel to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas to meet the Alabama Crimson Tide out of the Southeastern Conference and their Big Ten Conference season could be made or broken by their first two games as they face the Iowa Hawkeyes and Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Northwestern Wildcats 6-6 (4-4)
In 2012, the Northwestern Wildcats won their first bowl game since 1948, but since then things haven’t gone well for them. Under head football coach Pat Fitzgerald, the past two years have seen Northwestern go 5-7 in each season and they are hopeful that 2015 will find them bowling again.
At 6’4″, 240 lbs., junior quarterback Zack Oliver is intimidating and he’ll need to be as Fitzgerald likes his quarterbacks to run and throw the football. Running back Justin Jackson enjoyed a good freshman season as he rushed for 1,187 and 10 touchdowns. And for Northwestern to be viable in the Big Ten West in 2015, Jackson will need to rush for at least 1,500 yards this season.
Northwestern’s season opener will be a tough one as they’ll host the Stanford Cardinal of the Pac-12 Conference and their Big Ten Conference schedule includes road games against the Michigan Wolverines, Nebraska Cornhuskers, and Wisconsin Badgers as they look to become bowl eligible in 2015.
Illinois Fighting Illini 6-6 (3-5)
Since 2000, the Illinois Fighting Illini have only had four winning seasons and they have not reached a bowl game in consecutive years since 1990 which means that head football coach Tim Beckman will have his work cut out for him in 2015. Junior quarterback Wes Lunt appears to be the favorite to be the starting quarterback for the Illini this season and he’ll look for sophomore wide receiver Mike Dudek who has the potential to be an All-Big Ten performer this year as a target in the passing game early and often.
It will be important for Illinois to take care of business in their non-conference schedule as they’ll face a tough slate in the Big Ten that will see them have road meetings with the Iowa Hawkeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, and Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Purdue Boilermakers 3-9 (1-7)
There was a time when the Purdue Boilermakers were able to hang with the big boys of the Big Ten Conference, but that notion is a now a thing of the past. The past two years have seen the Boilermakers lose 20 games which is not going to get it done in an improving Big Ten Conference.
For Boilermakers head coach Darrell Hazel, he must improve his squad that was 111th in the nation last season in total offense as he’s hopeful that junior quarterback Austin Appleby can lead them.
The only thing that Purdue can do in 2015 is to hold on for the long and bumpy ride in West Lafayette.
Big Ten Title Game: Iowa vs. Ohio State
Conference Champion: Ohio State
Sources: Sports-reference.com, Cfbstats.com, NationalChamps.net
Michigan State Spartans 12-1 (8-1)
It’s official that the Michigan State Spartans are no longer in the shadow of their Big Ten brethren from Ann Arbor in the Michigan Wolverines. Since Mark Dantonio took over as the head football coach at Michigan State in 2007, the Spartans have only lost to the Wolverines twice. And over that stretch the Spartans also have more conference titles (1) than the Wolverines.
The Spartans begin this season as the defending Big Ten Conference Champs and the team to beat in this 14-team field.
Michigan State junior quarterback Connor Cook came into his own last season as he led the Spartans to a Rose Bowl victory. At 6’4′, 219 lbs., Cook has the size to be an NFL quarterback and if he stays all four years at East Lansing he has the potential to be an early round pick. Senior running back Jeremy Langford gained over 1,400 yards on the ground last season and you can expect him to once again punish defenses in the Big Ten. The Spartans return three starting offensive linemen including both tackles in sophomore Jack Conklin and junior Donavon Clark.
The Spartans must replace six defensive starters from a unit that was ranked second in the nation last year in total defense, but senior middle linebacker Taiwan Jones could be a catalyst.
This season the Spartans host both Michigan and Ohio State which could be the difference in them making it back to the Big Ten Title Game.
Ohio State Buckeyes 10-2 (6-2)
The Ohio State Buckeyes will begin this season knowing that they lost their last two games of the 2013 college football season and they will be out to change that. The Buckeyes lost the Big Ten Championship Game as well as the Orange Bowl and for Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and his squad in Columbus they are out to improve off of their 12-2 campaign from a year ago.
The Buckeyes will not have the services of senior quarterback Braxton Miller. Miller underwent shoulder surgery in the off-season. Miller had been rehabbing and was expected to be ready to tackle another season in the Big Ten Conference, but he re-injured the shoulder and thus he’ll be replaced by redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett.
Last season Ohio State’s defense sacked opposing quarterbacks 42 times which was third in the nation and you can expect more of the same this season with an offensive line that is led by junior defensive end Noah Spence.
The Buckeyes non-conference schedule includes a game with Navy that will be tougher than most people expect. But Ohio State’s season in the Big Ten will come down to the month of November when they have showdowns with Michigan State and Michigan which will decide the Eastern Division in the Big Ten.
Michigan Wolverines 10-2 (6-2)
This could be a make or break year for Michigan Wolverines head football coach Brady Hoke. After winning 11 games in his first season in Ann Arbor, Hoke has only won 15 in the last two seasons there which doesn’t sit well with the fan base that supports the maize and blue.
For Hoke, he is hopeful that senior quarterback Devin Gardner will be able to come into his own this season. Historically the Wolverines are known to have a powerful ground attack and they must get back to that this season as they were 103rd in the nation last season in rushing.
The Wolverines begin the season against Appalachian State who upset Michigan to start the season in 2007. With the exception of games against Michigan State and Ohio State, the Wolverines do however have a manageable schedule in 2014.
Penn State Nittany Lions 10-2 (6-2)
For nearly 36 years the Penn State University Nittany Lions had one head football coach in Joe Paterno. Now since Paterno’s departure in 2011 they are welcoming their third head football coach. James Franklin is set to begin a new era of football in Happy Valley. Franklin comes to Penn State already doing the impossible as a head football coach; winning with the Vanderbilt Commodores. In three seasons as the head football coach at Vanderbilt, Franklin led the school to a bowl game in each year that he was there. Franklin knows that the Nittany Lions are still banned from participating in a bowl game for the next two seasons, but he is hard at work establishing himself in Happy Valley while also recruiting heavily in the state of Pennsylvania as well as looking to play spoiler in the Big Ten.
Franklin is not inheriting a bad team at Penn State as he has one of the better quarterbacks in the conference in Christian Hackenburg. Last year as a freshman, Hackenburg passed for nearly 3,000 yards while throwing 20 touchdowns to only 10 interceptions and the sky is the limit for him. Hackenburg’s main target last season was wide receiver Allen Robinson who is now in the National Football League with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Last year Robinson accounted for nearly half of the Nittany Lions receiving yardage and Franklin is going to seek a committee this year to replace him.
But the ground attack will be en vogue for Penn State as it will be a pair of senior running backs in Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak carrying the rock.
Penn State has an easy non-conference schedule this season as they will use conference games such as their tilt against Ohio State and their regular season finale with Michigan State as de facto bowl games for 2014.
Indiana Hoosiers 5-7 (2-6)
The Indiana Hoosiers are not known as a football powerhouse as they are consistently cannon fodder for the big boys of the Big Ten and you can expect more of the same in 2014. In three seasons as the Hoosiers head coach, Kevin Wilson has improved the team’s win total, but it will be tough for him to get that much needed sixth victory this year in order to become bowl eligible.
Junior Nate Sudfeld is entering his second season as the Hoosiers starting quarterback. Last year Sudfeld threw 21 touchdown passes and for him to help Indiana make a bowl game for the first time since 2007, he will need to improve on those numbers. If junior running back Tevin Coleman is able to gain at least 1,200 yards on the ground this fall it could symbolize big things for the Hoosiers.
As members of the Big Ten East, Indiana will face Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State which means that they must beat up on the bottom feeders if they’re going to become bowl eligible this year.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights 3-9 (1-7)
The Rutgers Scarlet Knights have high hopes for themselves heading into this season, but there is a harsh reality check waiting for them at the doorstep of the Big Ten Conference. In eight of the last nine years Rutgers has made a bowl game, but that will change in 2014. Rutgers was quick to accept the Big Ten’s money, but there is a consistent butt kicking that will come with it as the Scarlet Knights simply don’t match up with the better teams in the Big Ten.
Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova is back for his senior season in Piscataway and he will look to be more consistent as he has been up down during his collegiate career. Rutgers head football coach Kyle Flood is hopeful that junior running back Paul James will be able to stay healthy this season and flirt with the 1,500 yard mark on the ground.
With road games this season against Ohio State, Nebraska, and Michigan State, Rutgers fans will be reminded of the old days of Scarlet Knights football in the Big East Conference when they were cannon fodder for the superior teams.
Maryland Terrapins 2-10 (0-8)
Last year Maryland Terrapins head football coach Randy Edsall was able to get off of the hot seat as he he led the Terps to their first bowl game under his watch. But that was in the Atlantic Coast Conference, not the Big Ten. Like Rutgers, Maryland was drooling when the Big Ten opened up the vault and flashed the cash which they fell for hook, line, and sinker. Now it is time for Edsall to become very creative.
As a senior, Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown will look to be more assertive as he prepares to participate in a more physical brand of football in the Big Ten. Last season Maryland was 84th in the nation in rushing and for them to hang in the Big Ten this season they will need a heavy dose of junior running back Brandon Ross and then some.
Maryland’s non-conference schedule will see them meeting a trio of former Big East schools in South Florida, West Virginia, and Syracuse before they will face the big boys of the Big Ten that includes Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, and Ohio State.
Wisconsin Badgers 10-2 (7-1)
The Gary Anderson era with the Wisconsin Badgers is off to a roaring start. In his first year as Wisconsin’s head football coach, Anderson led the Badgers to a 9-4 record and this team in ready to once again contend for a Big Ten Title in 2014.
Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon is a redshirt junior that will have NFL scouts focusing on him this fall. Last year Gordon gained 1,609 rushing yards and if healthy he will be a candidate to win the Heisman Trophy in 2014. At 6’5″, 225 lbs., Wisconsin junior quarterback Joel Stave has a live arm and he is extremely mobile which will be important in Anderson’s offense.
The Badgers will have a huge test when they begin the season against the LSU Tigers of the Southeastern Conference. A late season trip to Iowa City to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes will determine whether or not that the Badgers will be able to win the Western Division of the Big Ten.
Iowa Hawkeyes 10-2 (6-2)
Things have changed with the landscape that is college football, but one things that remains the same is that Iowa Hawkeyes head football coach Kirk Ferentz is going to roll out a tough, blue-collar team every year in Iowa City. This season Ferentz will rely on a basic offense led by junior quarterback Jake Rudock and and senior running back Mark Weisman to get the job done for the Hawkeyes.
This season the Big Ten West will come down to Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes will host both schools over a six day stretch to end the regular season as Ferentz and his team will be looking to book a trip Indianapolis for the Big Ten Title Game.
Nebraska Cornhuskers 9-3 (5-3)
In every year that Bo Pelini has been the head football coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers he has led the school to at least 9 wins. But for some of the Big Red Nation it is not good enough because the ‘Huskers have not won a conference title since 1999. However that could change in 2014.
Pelini expects his quarterbacks to be dual-threats and at 6’1″, 220 lbs., Nebraska sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong is a load. As a runner Armstrong is tough to take down, but he still must improve as a passer if the Cornhuskers are going to contend for a Big Ten Title this year. Aside from Armstrong’s running ability, Peleni can also rely on senior running back Ameer Abdullah who is a burner.
With seven starters returning on the defense Pelini is hopeful that Nebraska’s defense can return to the days of the famed “Black Shirts”.
Non-conference games against Fresno State and Miami will get Nebraska ready for the riggers of the Big Ten this season that includes road games against Michigan State, Iowa, and, Wisconsin.
If Nebraska can run the football effectively and force turnovers on defense they will be in the mix all season long in the Big Ten.
Illinois Fighting Illini 5-7 (3-5)
In his first year as the head football coach of the Illinois Fighting Illini, Tim Beckman won two games. Last year the Illini went 4-8. So I guess that it is safe to say that Illinois will be bowl eligible this year with a record of 6-6?
In order for Illinois’ dream of going to a bowl game this year to become a reality, the rushing attack must improve. The Illini were 93rd in the nation last season in rushing and it will come down to a spirited effort in 2014 by junior running back Josh Ferguson who must become the workhorse.
A non-conference test in Seattle against the Washington Huskies will let Beckman know if the Illini will have what it takes to compete this season in the Big Ten, but the Illini will still have their work cut out for them.
Minnesota Golden Gophers 5-7 (3-5)
Minnesota Golden Gophers head football coach Jerry Kill is hopeful that he is building something magical in Minneapolis. Last season his Golden Gophers won 8 games for the first time since 2003. But taking that next step for Minnesota this season in the Big Ten will not be easy. The Gophers had a winning record last season in spite of having the 107th ranked offense in the nation and they won’t be able to get away with that in 2014.
A daunting road schedule with games against TCU, Michigan, Nebraska, and Wisconsin should crush Minnesota’s bowl dreams in 2014.
Northwestern Wildcats 5-7 (2-6)
The Northwestern Wildcats were able to end their lengthy bowl victory drought in 2012 and they had high expectations in 2013. Last season the Wildcats got off to a 4-0 start before they proceeded to lose their next seven contests. Wildcats head football coach Pat Fitzgerald is looking to put the losing season behind him as well as fighting off the potential distraction of a football union at Northwestern.
The Wildcats are able to run the football, but they must be more progressive in their passing game which will mean that the onus will be on Northwestern senior quarterback Trevor Siemian.
Northwestern has an easy non-conference schedule and if they can navigate through conference road games against Penn State, Minnesota, and Iowa then they should be able to go bowling in 2014.
Purdue Boilermakers 3-9 (0-8)
After a 1-11 season last year for Purdue Boilermakers head coach Darrell Hazell and his squad there is only one way to go for them in 2014 as they will once again try not to be swallowed up by the monster that is the Big Ten. Out of 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams Purdue was 121st in total offense last season and you can expect more of the same in 2014.
Purdue’s first two games of the season are against Western Michigan and Central Michigan respectively. If the Boilermakers struggle with those two foes from the Mid-American Conference, it will be a preview of things to expect in West Lafayette, Indiana when the Big Ten season begins.
Big Ten Championship Game: Lucas Oil Stadium-Indianapolis, Indiana-Michigan State vs. Wisconsin
Big Ten Champions-Michigan State
Sources: Nationalchamps.net, Cfbstats.com, sports-reference.com