Tag Archives: Lovie Smith

2017 Big Ten Conference Football Projections

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East

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

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.

Nick Bosa

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.

Trace McSorley

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.

Mike Gesicki

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)

Jim Harbaugh

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.

Richard Lagow

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)

Mark Dantonio

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?

Caleb Henderson

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

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.

West

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.

Alex Hornibrook

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)

Pat Fitzgerald

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

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?

Nathan Stanley

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

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.

David Blough

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

X-Bowl Eligible

Y-New Year’s Six

Z-Conference Champion

Sources: Sports-reference.com, Cfbstats.com, Ourlads.com

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2016 Big Ten Conference Football Projections

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East

Ohio State Buckeyes 11-2 (8-1)

Urban Meyer

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.

Raekwon McMillan

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)

Jim Harbaugh

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.

De’Veon Smith

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)

Mark Dantonio

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.

LJ Scott

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.

Saquon Barkley

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.

Chris Ash

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.

D.J. Durkin

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.

West

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.

C.J. Beathard

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.

Anthony Walker

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

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.

Mike Riley

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.

Mitch Leidner

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

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A Different Taste Of Champaign

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The past few months have not been easy for the Illinois Fighting Illini football program. Last summer just before the start of the 2015 college football season, Tim Beckman was fired by Illinois as their head football coach after an internal report showed that he mistreated some of his players. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit would then take over as the Illinois head football coach on an interim basis and he was able to get the program to a bowl game. The school then gave Cubit a two-year extension to be their head football coach, but he like most of us recently received a huge surprise.

Josh Whitman took over as the Illinois athletic director last month and it hasn’t taken him that long to shake things up. Last week Whitman fired Cubit as the timing of the move was extremely surprising due to the fact that most football programs are in the midst of preparing for their spring game. And if firing Cubit weren’t shocking enough, Whitman’s hire of Lovie Smith to become the next head football coach in Champaign definitely was.

Lovie Smith

Smith has had success in the National Football League and in the State of Illinois as he was the head coach of the Chicago Bears for nine years. During Smith’s time with the Bears, he led them to their second NFC Championship in franchise history. Smith was most recently the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he appeared to be building something until he was surprisingly fired in January.┬áBut the hire of Smith is a bit surprising due to the fact that he has not been involved in the college game in more than two decades when he was the defensive backs coach at the Ohio State University in 1995.

Smith has always been known as a defensive-minded coach with his variation of the “Cover 2” defense while also being a stickler for detail. Smith will look to bring that same philosophy to the Illini which will definitely take some time. A solid Cover 2 doesn’t happen overnight in the National Football League as it takes time to find the find the right personnel being that the strength of the system comes from the defensive tackles, middle linebacker, and free safety positions which means that Smith will need some time to not only find the right players, but to also have the ability to consistently recruit players that will fit that mold.

However due to the fact that Smith has a long background in the National Football League, it should immediately help him as far as bringing in recruits due to the fact that players want to play for a guy that can get them to the next level. Smith’s arrival at Illinois should see the Illini be able to get some of the best players that the Windy City has to offer being that he is still respected in the area from his time with the Bears. Smith is also the first African-American head football coach that Illinois has hired and his appointment will be vital for the school to recruit more African-American players from the Midwest region.

But the main thing that will hurt Illinois in the short-term is the timing of the hire. Typically schools want to have their new head football coach in place by mid-January which gives him the ability to get on the road for recruiting while also assembling his staff. Current Illini players also find themselves in a bind as whenever a coaching change happens, student-athletes want to weigh their options and possibly transfer to another school.

As controversial as it is, Whitman now has people talking about Illinois football which is the first time that this has been the case in a very long time. Illinois has not win the Big Ten Conference Title since 2001 while they’ve failed to secure a Rose Bowl victory since 1964. The Big Ten is littered with high-profile head football coaches such as Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh and Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer as the Illini don’t want to get lost in the wash being that recruiting now is more important than ever within the conference.

Illinois has an advantage being that they play in the Big Ten West as they regularly avoid meeting Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State who call the Big Ten East home. And now with Smith running the show, Illinois is hopeful that they’ll soon be on par with the big boys of the Big Ten.

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Tough To Grasp

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Lovie Smith

In an extremely surprising move last Wednesday night, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided to fire head coach Lovie Smith. In two seasons as the Buccaneers head coach, Smith had a record of 8-24, but this was a team that was on the rise. Smith inherited a very young team that went 2-14 under him in 2014. The Bucs would finish with worst record in the National Football League which earned them the first overall pick in the draft last April. The Buccaneers would select quarterback Jameis Winston as they looked to him as a building block for their franchise. Winston just finished up a solid rookie campaign as he passed for 4,042 yards while throwing 22 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions as he appears to be the front runner to be named as the NFL’s Rookie of the Year. Even at the of 22, Winston was beginning to emerge as a leader for the Buccaneers. And due to Smith’s guidance, the youngster appeared to be putting his off-the-field issues in college behind him; which made it surprising when the announcement was made that Tampa Bay was going in another direction.

Under Smith, Tampa Bay finished the 2015 NFL season with a record of 6-10, and they were showing signs of improvement. After 12 games, the Buccaneers were 6-6 before losing their final four games of the season. The Bucs lost four games this season by eight points or less, but they appeared to building towards something. Tampa Bay was fifth in total offense and tenth in total defense this past season which added to the surprise in the firing of Smith.

Joel Glazer

All season long there were never any reports coming out of Tampa that Smith’s job security was in jeopardy, and he recently met with his coaching staff to discuss their plans for next season as the Buccaneers appeared to be just a defensive leader away from being a solid playoff contender. But Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer saw things a little bit differently and thus he decided to make a change. And to make matters worse, Glazer never met with Smith face-to-face as the head coach was fired via phone. The Buccaneers have attempted to spin the issue around claiming that Smith was informed Wednesday via phone from team general manager Jason Licht that Glazer wanted to meet with him Thursday morning. Smith picked up on the vibe and declined the face-to-face because he knew what was coming.

The departure of Smith has already rankled some Buccaneer players such as veteran defensive tackle Gerald McCoy who found out about the firing while he was putting gas in his car last Wednesday night. Smith’s firing will mean that the Buccaneers will now have to hire their fifth different head coach since 2008 and it shouldn’t be a shock that over this stretch, the organization has only been able to enjoy two winning seasons with no trips to the postseason. But Glazer and Licht are going to have themselves a very tough selling job ahead of them when they hire their next coach due to the fact that their last two head coaches (Greg Schiano, and Smith) were each only able to get two seasons at the helm before they were fired in Tampa as building a winner in the National Football League takes some time.

Smith was in the process of changing the culture in Tampa Bay and he has a proven track record of doing so. In 2001, Smith became the defensive coordinator of St. Louis Rams and he took over a unit that finished last in the National Football League in the previous season in total defense. And in Smith’s first year with the Rams, St. Louis would have the seventh ranked defense in the NFL as they won the NFC Championship. From 2004-2012, Smith was the head coach of the Chicago Bears. When Smith took over the Bears, they were coming off of a string of seven losing campaigns over an eight-year stretch. The Bears did go 5-11 in Smith’s first year in Chicago, but but by 2005, they won their division for the first time since 2001. Under Smith, the Bears would make the Super Bowl for just the second time in franchise history and they were always a playoff contender.

The Buccaneers simply gave up on Smith and in the process, they didn’t do themselves any favors of how they handled everything. Smith is a man of class and dignity, but the Glazer Family failed to treat him accordingly. Now the Bucs must start the process over of attempting to find another head coach which could slow down the maturation process of Winston. On top of that, a new head coach could potentially bring in a new defensive scheme which could take away from the “Cover 2” defense that Smith had employed which was beginning to produce some positive results.

But firing of Smith really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise if you’ve followed the Buccaneers franchise throughout their 40 years of existence. After helping the Buccaneers reach the postseason from 1979-1982, quarterback Doug Williams was given the cold shoulder by former team owner Hue Culverhouse which led the quarterback to leaving for the United States Football League. After 1982, the Bucs would endure 14 consecutive losing seasons while Williams would join the Washington Redskins in 1986, and he helped them to win Super Bowl 22. In 1996, Tony Dungy became the head coach of the Bucs and by 1997, he had Tampa Bay in the postseason. But after consecutive first-round losses by the Buccaneers in 2000 and 2001, Dungy was fired.

Dirk Koetter

Rumors have surfaced the current Buccaneers offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is the prime candidate to replace Smith as the organization was fearful of losing him to another team in the National Football League that currently has a head coaching vacancy. The Bucs don’t want Winston to start over with another offensive voice in the room, but in doing so they’ve parted with a leader in Smith. But regardless of who will the Buccaneers head coach in 2016, he will have a tough sell job on his hands as he’ll be taking over a locker room that was committed to Smith.

There is only one championship that is handed out each year in the National Football League as it is truly the great organizations that win. And by the looks of things, the Bucs have long way to go before they can claim another Super Bowl Title as they are the circus of West Florida.

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2015 NFC South Projections

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X-Carolina Panthers 10-6

Generally when teams in the National Football League finish the season with a record of 7-8-1, it symbolizes that you were close to being a playoff team, but you were too inconsistent. That was the record of the Carolina Panthers last season which was actually good enough for them to win the NFC South. And as inconsistent as the Panthers were in 2014, they have the potential to be much more dynamic in 2015.

Cam Newton

Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera have done a good job in building around quarterback Cam Newton as they look to win the NFC South for an unprecedented third consecutive year. Newton was only 5-8-1 as the Panthers starting quarterback last season, but he was rewarded by the Panthers as they signed him to a five-year, $103.8 million extension this off-season. Newton threw 18 interceptions last season and his completion percentage was 58.5, but the Panthers believe in him as far as being the quarterback that can get them to the Super Bowl.

Around Newton, the Panthers have big options for him in the passing game. Tight end Greg Olsen is 6’5″ and rookie wide receiver Devin Funchess is 6’4″ as people may confuse them for the Charlotte Hornets. And the size and pass catching ability of Olsen and Funchess will somehow be able to offset the loss of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin who tore his ACL in training camp.

But regardless who the coach of the Panthers is, their bread and butter has always been their rushing attack. The Panthers were seventh in rushing in the NFL last season and this year running back Jonathan Stewart is expected to get the bulk of the work after Carolina parted with longtime running back DeAngelo Williams. Stewart is entering his eighth season in the NFL, but he has only had one season where he carried the football at least 200 times. And just in case that Stewart is unable to be the feature back for the Panthers, the team did draft running back Cameron Artis-Payne who will give them an element of speed.

Under Rivera, the Panthers know how to wreak havoc on defense as they finished last season ranked tenth overall in total defense which is due to the fact that they can get after teams at every level. Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei plugs up holes on the defensive line which makes the job of inside linebacker Luke Kuechly that much easier. In just three seasons in the National Football League, Kuechly has already been named as the Defensive Rookie of the Year and the Defensive Player of the Year as he tackles anything that moves. In the off-season, the Panthers did sign longtime Chicago Bears cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman. Tillman is 34-years of age and he can be a teacher in the Panthers secondary as he has perfected the art of stripping the football from opponents.

The Panthers first four games of 2015 will not see them face a team that made that playoffs last year, but two of those games will be within the NFC South as they’ll take on the New Orleans Saints which will be followed by a road game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After the Panthers bye week in Week 5, they will travel to take on the Seattle Seahawks as these two clubs have engaged in some physical battles recently and this year’s meeting could have an impact on playoff seeding in the NFC. The Panthers are built to win the NFC South, but the loss of Benjamin could prevent them from making a deep run in the postseason.

Atlanta Falcons 8-8

No head coach in the history of the Atlanta Falcons has won more games the Mike Smith, but the bottom fell out for him in 2015. Smith was 66-46 in seven seasons as the head coach of the Falcons including a trip to the NFC Championship Game in 2012. But in Smith’s last two seasons in Atlanta, the team was 10-22 which led Falcons owner Arthur Blank to fire him. Smith has been replaced by former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn who will look to inject some of that Seahawks swagger into the Falcons.

Matt Ryan

Quinn won’t be starting from scratch in Atlanta as he has a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback in Matt Ryan. Ryan has passed for more than 4,000 yards in each of the last four seasons as he is now the franchise’s all-time passing leader. The Falcons had the fifth ranked passing offense in the National Football League last season and along the way there was a changing of the guards. Injuries limited wide receiver Roddy White last season which saw Julio Jones emerge in the Falcons offense. Jones had 104 receptions and set a Falcons franchise single-season record with 1,593 receiving yards. Jones is beginning to show the talent that made the Falcons trade up twenty spots in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft to select him. White is 33-years of age and coming off of knee problems that hindered him in 2014, but he can still be effective in the Falcons offense.

Ryan was sacked 31 times in 2014 and it will be the job of the Falcons offensive line led by left tackle Jake Matthews to prevent the franchise quarterback from being on his back while looking up at the lights in the Georgia Dome as much as possible.

The Falcons have lacked a strong running game in recent years and the young legs of second-year running back Devonta Freeman and rookie running back Tevin Coleman are going to be needed in order to balance out Atlanta’s offense.

However Quinn will have to start from scratch with the Falcons defensively as they finished last in the National Football League last season in total defense. The Falcons only totaled 22 quarterback sacks last season and that isn’t going to get it done in a division that has Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

Dan Quinn

Quinn is attempting to change the culture in the Falcons locker room and it will take some time. The early part of the Falcons schedule does have an NFC East theme as they’ll begin the season against the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, and Dallas Cowboys. The Falcons won’t have their first divisional game until Week 6 when they travel to take on the Saints as they look to become a playoff contender in 2015.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6-10

A 2-14 record in 2014 earned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the first overall pick of the 2015 National Football League Draft. The Buccaneers made no secret about the fact that they wanted Jameis Winston to be their next starting quarterback and they used the first overall pick of the draft on him this past spring.

Jameis Winston

In two years as the starting quarterback at Florida State University, Winston posted a record of 26-1 to go along with leading the school to a national championship and winning the 2013 Heisman Trophy. Winston has all of the physical tools necessary to be a good professional quarterback, but the Bucs will have to tread with him caution due to the fact that he has had several off-the-field issues while he was in college. But as long as Winston comes in prepared to play, he can have immediate success in the Bucs offense. Last year Tampa Bay had two wide receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans who both had over 1,000 yards receiving. Jackson and Evans are each 6’5″ and they provide match-up nightmares for opposing defensive backs; especially in the red zone.

But the Bucs must get more out of their running game that was 29th in the National Football League last season and their leading rusher was Doug Martin with just 494 yards. And if Tampa Bay is unable to run the football more efficient in 2015, it will mean that too much pressure will be placed on the right arm of Winston this year.

Surprisingly the Buccaneers were 25th in the NFL last year in total defense under head coach Lovie Smith. Smith is a defensive guru when it comes to coaching the “Cover 2”, but he needs players that are going to step up and make plays in his system.

The Bucs first test of the season will come in Week 4 when they host the Carolina Panthers who are the defending NFC South Champions and a victory there could give Tampa Bay the confidence they need to contend for a playoff berth in 2015.

New Orleans Saints 5-11

The New Orleans Saints are coming off of their second losing campaign in the past three seasons and what they are currently cooking up down on the Bayou isn’t going to get them any closer to turning things around. Ever since quarterback Drew Brees signed his $100 million contract extension with the Saints in 2012, the team around him hasn’t been that good which is evident in their record. Brees is coming off of his ninth consecutive season in which he passed for at least 4,000 yards and he also led the National Football League in pass attempts with 659. But as good as Brees is, one man cannot do it by himself in the NFL.

Brees’ security blanket with the Saints the past four years has been tight end Jimmy Graham. But like Brees, Graham wanted more money and with New Orleans unwilling to give him the long-term financial security that he was seeking, he was traded this off-season to the Seattle Seahawks which leaves a huge void in the offense for New Orleans.

Rob Ryan is set to enter his third year as Saints defensive coordinator, but he still hasn’t been able to find the impact players that are necessary for his 3-4 defensive scheme to flourish.

The magic appears to be running out for Saints head coach Sean Payton and Brees in New Orleans as this team is nowhere near ready to compete for another Super Bowl Championship.

X-Clinched Division

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2014 NFC South Projections

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X-New Orleans Saints 10-6

Last year the New Orleans Saints made their fourth playoff appearance in the last five years. In 2014, Saints head coach Sean Payton is hopeful that his team can return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2009.

Drew Brees

Saints quarterback Drew Brees has passed for more than 5,000 yards in the last three seasons and you can expect another campaign like that this season due to the rules in the National Football League that protect quarterbacks and wide receivers alike. Bress and the Saints will miss running back Darren Sproles who is now with the Philadelphia Eagles. Sproles was huge coming out of the backfield as a receiver on third down. The Saints will look to Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas to be their workhorse running backs this season.

The Saints still have tight end Jimmy Graham who is a match-up nightmare for opponents and he will once again be Brees’s go-to-guy.

Rob Ryan is entering his second year as the Saints defensive coordinator and he is starting to get his type of players to be in the 3-4 defense. Saints strong safety Kenny Vaccarro is returning from injury and he will be a player that will flourish under Ryan in 2014. Vaccarro had 62 tackles last season before an injury ended his campaign.

Of the Saints first six opponents this season none of them had a winning record in 2013 which bodes well for New Orleans as they will try to get off to a fast start which could allow them to get a home game for the postseason.

Carolina Panthers 9-7

Ron Rivera

With his job on the line last season, Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera guided his squad to the postseason for the first time since 2008. Rivera is a defensive minded head coach that relies on a tough defensive club which he currently has. The Panthers had the second ranked defense in the National Football League last season as they were led by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Kuechly is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year and he simply tackles anything that crosses his path.

But for the Panthers to have success this season it cannot simply be just about their defense. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is entering his fourth season in Charlotte and he has done some good things there. But more than ever Newton needs to have a stud wide receiver to throw the football to. The Panthers drafted wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the first round of the NFL Draft this past spring which was a reach as he lacks explosion. The Panthers also released longtime wide receiver Steve Smith who was a security blanket for Newton in years past. Newton is also coming off of off-season ankle surgery and he may not be as mobile in 2014 as he has been previously which could put more of a strain on Carolina’s offense.

If the Panthers fail to make the playoffs in 2014 it will be hard for me to see Rivera returning to Charlotte in 2015.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 7-9

Lovie Smith

The Greg Schiano era was a disaster from the start which is why former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith is now running the show for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In nine years as the head coach of the Bears, Smith compiled a record of 81-63 which was highlighted by him leading Chicago to the Super Bowl following the 2006 NFL season. Smith has a past life in Tampa as from 1996-2000 as he was the Buccaneers linebackers coach. The Cover 2 defense that has at times has been referred to as the “Tampa 2” will once again be prevalent with Smith running the show, but does he have the pieces for it to be successful this season?

Defensively the Bucs have a defensive line that features defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive ends Adrian Clayborn, Michael Johnson, and William Gholston. McCoy, middle linebacker Mason Foster, and strong safety Mark Barron will be vital because the strength of the Cover 2 is right up the middle of the defense and it remains to be seen whether or not the Buccaneers will be up for the challenge defensively.

Quarterback Josh McCown is set to join his sixth NFL team this season with the Bucs. McCown was a backup quarterback for the Bears during Smith’s last year there in 2012 which means that there is some familiarity between them. McCown has talent around him with some very big wide receivers in Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans. The Buccaneers could also have an impact made by their trio of tight ends in Brandon Myers, Luke Stocker, and rookie Austin Seferian-Jenkins who will be mainly a receiving tight end.

The Buccaneers recently acquired guard Logan Mankins from the New England Patriots who will be a veteran presence on an offensive line that struggled at times last year in Tampa and this team must get better in the trenches.

The Bucs first two games of the season are at home as they’ll host the Carolina Panthers and St. Louis Rams respectively. Even if the Buccaneers start off slow this season, Smith will not allow his squad to get down on themselves as he’ll preach focus and determination.

Atlanta Falcons 5-11

Like any other sport there are championship windows that teams have in the National Football League. While the window can be bigger for some teams rather than others you still must make the most of you opportunity. Mike Smith took over as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in 2008 and in four of his six seasons there he has led the club to the postseason. Twice the Falcons have finished the regular season with the best record in the NFC, but over that stretch they have only been able to win one playoff game. Last year the Falcons had their worst season since 2007 as they went 4-12 and they are hopeful for a quick turnaround this year.

Matt Ryan

Quarterback Matt Ryan is set to begin his seventh season with the Falcons and he has done some tremendous things there. Ryan is already the Falcons all-time franchise leader in passing yards while compiling a record of 60-34 as a starting quarterback. Last year Ryan was done in by the injury bug as the Falcons team around him crumbled but he is hoping for a different outcome this year.

Last year the Falcons offensive line was in shambles. The Falcons drafted offensive tackle Jake Matthews early in the first round of this year’s NFL Draft as he is expected to anchor their o-line at left tackle. When healthy Falcons wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White are one of the best combinations in football and Ryan needs the pair to be available for the entire 2014 campaign. Last year the Falcons were dead last in the NFL in rushing. This past spring Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff drafted running back Devonta Freeman in the fourth round, but it will be tough for him to come in immediately and fill that void in Atlanta’s struggling running game. Tight ends Bear Pascoe and Levine Toilolo will have their hands full in replacing tight end Tony Gonzalez who retired.

Last year the Falcons defense was tied for 27th in the league and by not adding any major impact players I do not see the unit improving that much for the upcoming season.

The Falcons will begin the season against a pair of playoff teams from last season in the New Orleans Saints and Cincinnati Bengals respectively and this season could get away from Atlanta even before it really starts.

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

X-Clinched Division

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