The USC Trojans are one of several high profile football programs that will be playing in a big bowl game.
For more than 100 years the Big Ten Conference has been at the forefront of college athletics. The Big Ten is home to some of the largest venues for college football in the nation, along with some of the games most storied programs such the Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Penn State Nittany Lions. And with prominent programs such as these leading the way, the Big Ten has found itself in the spotlight over the years which has seen their top-tier football programs consistently on national television, while the conference champion typically gets an invite to play in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day which is one of the most storied games in college football. Over a nine-year span from 1994-2002, the Big Ten produced three undefeated teams as Penn State did it in 1994, Michigan in 1997, and Ohio State in 2002. Michigan and Ohio State would each claim at least a share of the national title in their respective undefeated seasons while Penn State had to take a back seat to the Nebraska Cornhuskers. But after 2002, the Big Ten began to take a backseat to the Southeastern Conference on the college football scene.
Since 2003, the Southeastern Conference has at least claimed a share of 11 national championships, and in the process they became the gold standard in college football. For more than 20 years, the SEC has had a contract with CBS to televise their game of the week which is a slot that is generally reserved for the conferences best matchup of the week at 3:30. This allowed the SEC to compete with the Big Ten on a national scene as for years the Big Ten dominated this time slot on ABC with one of their top contests that typically featured Michigan or Ohio State. But what has also hurt the Big Ten is that programs such as Michigan and Penn State faded from the national scene for several years, while they also struggled in big bowl games against the Power Conferences.
Under former head football coach Jim Tressell, Ohio State lost consecutive BCS Championship Games to the Florida Gators and LSU Tigers of the Southeastern Conference by a combined score of 79-38. And since 2001, the Big Ten is 2-11 in the Rose Bowl which is a stark contrast from 1988-2000 when they won the “granddaddy of them all” seven times. But aside from losing the Rose Bowl, the Big Ten was looked at as being slow in comparison to the SEC and Pac-12 Conferences. And as the Big Ten has a proud football tradition, they weren’t going to take this notion lying down.
Things began to shift for the Big Ten in 2011 with conference expansion. The Big Ten was able to reach out the Nebraska and lure them away from the Big 12 Conference. Nebraska possesses a long and storied football history that has seen them win 46 conference titles and 5 national titles. Nebraska’s arrival to the Big Ten allowed the conference to have a conference title game as they know had 13 schools which would help them to have more equal footing with the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, and Pac-12 Conference who all had conference titles games. Since then the Big Ten has also added the Maryland Terrapins and Rutgers Scarlet Knights as they were able to procure media markets in New York and Washington D.C. But that wasn’t enough for the Big Ten as they began to set their sites on more marquee coaches.
In 2012, Ohio State named Urban Meyer as their new head football coach. From 2005-2010, Meyer went 65-15 at Florida which saw him win a pair of national championships. Meyer’s winning pedigree traveled with him to Columbus as in his first year there the Buckeyes went 12-0, but they were ineligible to play in a bowl game. And when the College Football Playoff rolled around in 2014, the Buckeyes found themselves in the inaugural field of four as they would go on to claim the national championship which saw them defeat the Alabama Crimson Tide of the Southeastern Conference, and the Oregon Ducks of the Pac-12.
But the Big Ten Conference really got propped up in 2015 when Jim Harbaugh became the head football coach at Michigan. Prior to coming to Michigan, Harbaugh played their as a quarterback from 1983-1986 before he embarked on a 15-year playing career in the National Football League. As a head coach Harbaugh made a name for himself when he turned around the fortunes of the Stanford Cardinal which included leading the an Orange Bowl victory at the end of the 2010 college football season. Harbaugh would then go on to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers where in four years there, he compiled a record of 44-19-1 which was highlighted by winning the NFC Championship in 2012. And when Harbaugh and 49ers general manager Trent Baalke had a falling out in 2014, Michigan would welcome him in open arms.
In one year Harbaugh took a Michigan team that was 5-7 in 2014 to a record of 10-3. Now Michigan is back to being the national power that we’re accustomed to seeing as they began this college football season ranked seventh in the Associated Press Poll, and they are currently ranked third in the first College Football Playoff Poll.
Penn State is in their third year under head football coach James Franklin who took over a program that was on life support after the Jerry Sandusky scandal rocked the college football world as the NCAA sanctioned them. But after a pair of 7-6 seasons, Franklin has led the Nittany Lions to a 6-2 start here in 2016 which includes an upset win over Ohio State. Penn State appears to be turning the corner and they could be in line for their first 10-win campaign since 2009.
Overall the Big Ten has five schools ranked in the top 12 of the College Football Playoff Poll which is a spot that has been dominated by the Southeastern Conference, but not any more. The race is on between Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan to win the Big Ten East, and there’s a strong possibility that one of these schools along with Nebraska could be Rose Bowl bound, while at least one of them is expected to qualify for the College Football Playoff.
I know that the Michigan State Spartans took it on the chin last December in the Cotton Bowl as they lost to Alabama 38-0 which was a national semifinal, but overall this is a conference that is in a much better place since conference commissioner Jim Delany expanded, while also getting a new television deal with ESPN, along with developing the Big Ten Network. And as Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, Nebraska, and the Wisconsin Badgers are all getting back on the national scene, the Big Ten will be able to hold their own with any of the other power conferences which means that they’ll always have a spot in the College Football Playoff.
College Football Playoff
Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State vs. Oklahoma
This will mark the second time that these two clubs meet this season, and it should be a dandy.
Peach Bowl: LSU vs. Miami
It’s a new team and a new conference for Mark Richt, but he’ll still struggle against LSU.
National Championship Game-Raymond James Stadium-Tampa, Florida
LSU vs. Oklahoma
A year after nearly losing his job at LSU, Les Miles is once again king of the mountain.
National Champion: LSU
Orange Bowl: Boise State vs. Clemson
Clemson is definitely worthy of getting back to the College Football Playoff, but making the Orange Bowl isn’t a bad consolation prize.
Cotton Bowl: Tennessee vs. Notre Dame
A trip to the Cotton Bowl will climax the end of a great season for two programs that are on the upswing.
Rose Bowl: UCLA vs. Michigan
It hasn’t taken Jim Mora and Jim Harbaugh that long to get their respective programs back on the national scene.
Sugar: Alabama vs. Oklahoma State
Will a consecutive trip to the Sugar Bowl bring a different outcome for Oklahoma State after they were blown out by Ole Miss this past January?
New Mexico Bowl: Marshall vs. San Diego State
There will be plenty of offense on display at the New Mexico Bowl between Marshall and San Diego State.
Las Vegas Bowl: Air Force vs. Arizona
The triple-option attack of Air Force versus the spread offense of Arizona will lead to an intriguing contest.
Cure Bowl: East Carolina vs. Georgia State
Georgia State and their powerful running game don’t get enough respect around the nation, but they could get some here.
Camellia Bowl: Toledo vs. Troy
This could be a sleeper matchup during bowl season.
New Orleans Bowl: Georgia Southern vs. Southern Mississippi
Georgia Southern will arrive on Bourbon Street with an attitude to run the football.
Miami Beach Bowl: Tulsa vs. Northern Illinois
Tulsa quarterback Dane Evans can use this game as a chance to fine tune his resume as he’ll be one of the first quarterbacks selected in next year’s National Football League Draft.
Boca Raton Bowl: Connecticut vs Middle Tennessee
Bob Diaco is building his program at Connecticut and a bowl appearance would be rewarding to him and his players.
Poinsettia Bowl: Nevada vs. BYU
Although that Bronco Mendehall is no longer coaching at BYU, this program still has what it takes to make a bowl game.
Idaho Potato Bowl: Ohio vs. Colorado State
It’s a battle of teams that wear green on the “smurf turf” of Boise, Idaho.
Bahamas Bowl: Memphis vs. Western Kentucky
The explosiveness of Western Kentucky’s offense is no longer a secret.
Armed Forces Bowl: Navy vs. Texas Tech
The triple-option attack of Navy against the pass happy offense of Texas Tech should make for an intriguing contest in Fort Worth, Texas.
GoDaddy Bowl: Appalachian State vs Western Michigan
After a strong season at Western Michigan, this could be the last game there for head football coach P.J. Fleck who could be ready to take over a bigger program.
Hawaii Bowl: Stanford vs. UNLV
It’s not the Rose Bowl that we’re accustomed to seeing Stanford in, but they will gladly take a trip to Honolulu after a down year.
St. Petersburg Bowl: Cincinnati vs. Bowling Green
The scoreboard operator at Tropicana Field will be busy as both of these offenses can score with the best of them.
Quick Lane Bowl: Indiana vs. Duke
Indiana versus Duke is no longer simply reserved for the hardwood anymore.
Independence Bowl: Missouri vs. Virginia Tech
For a pair of first year head coaches in Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech) and Barry Odom (Missouri), a bowl victory can do wonders for their respective programs.
Heart of Dallas Bowl: Louisiana Tech vs. Minnesota
Louisiana Tech won’t be intimidated by playing a team from a power conference.
Military Bowl: North Carolina State vs. Temple
After a strong season it will be interesting to see if Temple will show up for this one.
Holiday Bowl: Penn State vs. Washington
This will be a contest of teams that are on the verge of breaking through in their respective conferences.
Cactus Bowl: Kansas State vs. Utah
There will be plenty of physicality on the field with two teams that are among the toughest in their respective conferences.
Pinstripe Bowl: Georgia Tech vs. Wisconsin
The Ramblin’ Wreck makes its way up I-95 to the House that Jeter built.
Russell Athletic Bowl: West Virginia vs. Florida State
This contest is New Year’s Day worthy, but we’ll get it in late December.
Foster Farms Bowl: Nebraska vs. Washington State
Will Nebraska make it consecutive wins at Santa Clara in this game?
Texas Bowl: TCU vs. Texas A&M
Watching TCU and Texas A&M meet on the gridiron will bring back memories when these two schools called the Southwest Conference home; and it doesn’t hurt that the game will take place in Houston.
Birmingham Bowl: Houston vs. Kentucky
This could be Houston’s final audition before joining the Big 12.
Belk Bowl: Mississippi State vs. North Carolina
Mississippi State will have their hands full as this will be a de facto home game for North Carolina in Charlotte.
Alamo Bowl: Texas vs. Oregon
A bowl victory for Texas could be the springboard that they need to get back on the national scene.
Liberty Bowl: Baylor vs. Arkansas
After a tough year for both Baylor and Arkansas, they’ll both be happy to have the chance to finish on a positive note.
Sun Bowl: Louisville vs. USC
Louisville will be happy to travel to El Paso, but will it be the same for the Men of Troy?
Arizona Bowl: New Mexico vs. South Florida
Very quietly Bob Davie has done a good a developing a respectable program at New Mexico.
Music City Bowl: Auburn vs. Pittsburgh
Will a trip to Nashville signal the end of Gus Malzahn’s run at Auburn?
Citrus Bowl: Georgia vs. Iowa
This will culminate the end of a solid first year at Georgia for Kirby Smart as he gets his squad to a New Year’s Day bowl game.
TaxSlayer Bowl: Ole Miss vs. Northwestern
Hugh Freeze is accomplishing one of his goals as Ole Miss is consistently playing on or around New Year’s Day.
Outback Bowl: Michigan State vs. Florida
After struggles by both teams, they will be thankful to get it on in Tampa on New Year’s Day.
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
After the Michigan Wolverines finished the 2014 college football season with a record of 5-7, you knew that change was forthcoming in Ann Arbor. And when Michigan decided to replace Brady Hoke as their head football coach with Jim Harbaugh, you knew that each player on Michigan’s team would fall in line.
It’s only early October, but the next victory by Michigan will tie their win total from 2014. So far the Wolverines have a record of 4-1 and even though they have not gotten into the heart of their Big Ten Conference schedule, you can see that they’ve already made tremendous strides.
Michigan had a solid defense in 2014 as they were ranked seventh in the nation in total defense. And the Wolverines have found a way to build off of that as they are currently ranked second in the nation in total defense. Michigan has surrendered just 38 points this season with 24 of those coming in the first game of the year and in their last two contests, they’ve shut out their opponents. Michigan’s offense has yet to reclaim its status as a national juggernaut, but you can see the blueprint that is being constructed on Harbaugh’s watch. And when Michigan completely gets their act together, the Big Ten as well as the rest of college football will be put on notice.
Harbaugh is an intense man that ask no quarter and gives no quarter. Football runs through the veins of Harbaugh as his father Jack was a football coach for nearly 50 years while his brother John is the current head coach of the Baltimore Ravens in the National Football League. Harbaugh himself played football at Michigan under the watch of legendary head football coach Bo Schembechler. Harbaugh would go on to play 14 seasons in the NFL as a quarterback. For seven years Harbaugh played for the Chicago Bears where he was known to clash with head coach Mike Ditka: while during the 1995 NFL season, he would lead the Indianapolis Colts to a berth in the AFC Championship Game as their starting quarterback.
After being on the Carolina Pathers roster in 2001, Harbaugh began to venture into his post-playing career. From 2002-2003, Harbaugh was the quarterbacks coach of the Oakland Raiders as he helped the team win an AFC Championship. In 2004, Harbaugh got his shot to become a head coach when he took over the University of San Diego’s football program. After going 29-6 in three seasons at San Diego, Harbaugh got his big break when Stanford University came calling. Prior to Harbaugh arriving at Stanford, the team was 1-11, but in his first season they would win five games and by his final year in 2010, Stanford won their first Orange Bowl in school history.
In 2011, the National Football League would come calling as Harbaugh became the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers were a proud NFL franchise that had fallen on bad times as they had eight consecutive non-winning seasons. But in Harbaugh’s first three seasons in San Francisco, he was able to guide the Niners to the NFC Championship Game in each year with a berth in Super Bowl 47. However, Harbaugh and 49ers general manager Trent Baalke were never on the same page which resulted in Harbaugh being fired this past January.
Just prior to becoming the 49ers head coach, Michigan had flirted with bringing Harbaugh as their head football coach, but things fell through. However this time around, Michigan found their guy.
Harbuagh totally embodies Michigan as he is indeed a “Michigan man”. Being that Harbaugh was raised by his father who was a blue-collar football coach, played for another one at Michigan in Schembechler, and in the National Football League under Ditka, he was a tough minded, competitive player which has carried over to his head coaching career. Harbaugh is an old-school coach that still believes in using a fullback and blocking tight ends which catches those who have fallen in love with the spread offense totally off guard. You know that when you face a Harbaugh led team that there will be a high level of physicality with them as they get off of the team bus with an attitude and they pride themselves on being able to run the football while playing solid defense.
During Harbaugh’s time at Stanford, the school began a tradition of sending quality offensive linemen to the National Football League that includes Pittsburgh Steelers guard David DeCastro and New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Andrus Peat and you can expect that to continue in Ann Arbor.
Harbaugh is returning the Michigan brand to what is was under Schembechler; and not just because the football team is wearing 1974 inspired uniforms this season. But being that Michigan is a national brand that doesn’t need to use the fancy gimmicks of the spread offense during Rich Rodriguez’s tenure there, or with unrecognizable alternate uniforms to get the attention of recruits like they did when Hoke was in charge as they are going back to being all about three yards and a cloud of dust . And once you factor in Harbaugh’s success in the National Football League as a player and head coach, along with his ability to get talent to the professional ranks, Michigan is returning to the old days as they won’t have to beg the top high-school talent in the nation to come to Ann Arbor.
With their 4-1 record this year, Michigan appears to be ahead of schedule under Harbaugh which will only help to prop up the Big Ten Conference that much more as the conference is at its best when the Wolverines are competing on the national stage. In recent years the Wolverines have taken a back seat to the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Michigan State Spartans in the Big Ten and although it isn’t etched in stone that Michigan will be victorious in those games, you might be witnessing two of the most physical games on the college football slate when the maize and blue tango with their conference rivals.
Hail to the victors valiant, hail to the conquering heroes, and when opponents face the Wolverines under Harbaugh, they had better pack a lunch.