Today’s Rose Bowl was a sneak preview of the 2017 college football season for both the USC Trojans and the Penn State Nittany Lions.
From 2011-2013, head football coach James Franklin did the impossible as he turned the Vanderbilt Commodores into a contender in the Southeastern Conference. Under Franklin, the Commodores went 24-15 and made a bowl game in each year on his watch which was a far cry from a program that only had four bowl appearances in 107 years prior to his arrival. What Franklin did at Vandy wouldn’t go unnoticed and in 2014, he was asked to become the head football coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions.
At Penn State, Franklin was taking over a program that is one of the most storied in college football history, but they were teetering on the brink after NCAA sanctions in wake of the Jerry Sandusky which included a $60 million fine, a four-year bowl ban, and a loss of scholarships which came down in 2012 threatened to make the Nittany Lions an afterthought.
As expected it wasn’t easy for Franklin in his first two years in Happy Valley as Penn State was still recovering from NCAA sanctions. In each of Franklin’s first two years at Penn State, the Nittany Lions went 7-6, but the NCAA did lift the school’s bowl ban which made them eligible for the postseason. And as the 2016 college football season began, Penn State once again had their full compliment of scholarships which is allowing them to reemerge as being a force in the Big Ten Conference.
The month of September wasn’t kind to Penn State as they lost a pair of tough road games. On September 10, Penn State lost a heartbreak to one of their in-state rivals in the Pittsburgh Panthers before they were taken behind the woodshed by the Michigan Wolverines 49-10 on September 24. But who knew that a 29-26 overtime victory on October 1 over the Minnesota Golden Gophers would spark the Nittany Lions to their current run.
Since the beat down by Michigan, Penn State has won five consecutive games to run their mark to 7-2. The highlight of this came on October 22 when the Nittany Lions scored a 24-21 upset victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes in what was Franklin’s biggest victory to date at Penn State. Penn State finds themselves tied with Ohio State for second place in the Big Ten East, and with a very winnable schedule remaining, their first 10-win season since 2009, along with still having a legitimate chance to make their first conference title game appearance are realities. But for anyone who has followed Franklin’s brief career as a head coach should not be surprised with what is going down at Penn State.
During Franklin’s time at Vanderbilt, the Commodores defeated the Tennessee Volunteers twice, while in 2013, he engineered a 34-17 victory over the Florida Gators which saw them end a 22-game losing streak to their rivals from the Southeastern Conference. Franklin was on the fast track to making Vanderbilt a household name, but when Penn State came calling, it was hard for the native of Langhorne, Pennsylvania to say no.
Now Franklin has the opportunity to flex his muscles in the Big Ten, and he is beginning to get the top high school football players from the Keystone State to remain home.
Franklin’s first big signing at Penn State was running back Saquon Barkley. Originally from the Bronx, New York, Barkely attended Whitehall High School in Whitehall Township, Pennsylvania. As a high school senior in 2014, Barkley was Pennsylvania’s Mr. Football and after flirting with playing football for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, he decided on Penn State.
In 2015, Barkley was the Big Ten Conference’s Freshman of the Year as he rushed for 1,055 yards, while averaging 6.3 yards per carry. This year Barkley has already eclipsed those numbers as he has gained 1,076 yards while he is in the running to be the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Year as he is restoring Penn State’s reputation for being “running back U”.
The last two years saw Franklin not adjust his system to former quarterback Christian Hackenburg who is now in the National Football League with the New York Jets, but he has found his guy in sophomore Trace McSorley. McSorley is a dual-threat quarterback that is ideal for Franklin’s system and the numbers prove that. This year McSorley has thrown 14 touchdowns to just 3 interceptions, while he has not turned the football over since the loss to Michigan.
According to ESPN.com, Penn State currently has 21st ranked recruiting class for next year as they are showing that they are more than ready to rub elbows with Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten East. There were some that wanted to put Franklin on the hot seat in Happy Valley, but the powers to be there hired the right man who in Pennsylvania at heart. And as the wins continue to pile up for Franklin, he’ll continue write his own legacy while helping Penn State move further away from their darkest hour.
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.
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
Ohio State Buckeyes 13-0 (9-0)
The Ohio State Buckeyes are not only the team to beat in the Big Ten Conference, but also in college football. The Buckeyes enter the 2015 college football season as and they are expected to be in contention to repeat as national champions, but first they have to survive the Big Ten Conference.
For Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer, he has three quarterbacks that are capable of leading his team, but on Saturdays this fall, only one of them can play. Senior Braxton Miller, junior Cardale Jones, and sophomore J.T. Barrett have all had success at quarterback and whoever is the starter this season will be looking over his shoulder. But Miller has volunteered to finish his collegiate career at wide receiver which will eliminate some of the confusion.
Regardless of who will be Ohio State’s starting quarterback this season, they will be playing behind an offensive line that led by senior offensive tackle Taylor Decker, will be returning four starters from last year’s national championship team. This Buckeyes offensive line is expected to continue opening holes for junior running back Ezekiel Elliot who should flirt with rushing for 2,000 yards and also being named as the Big Ten Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year which will help Ohio State who is looking to once again have one of the top offenses in the nation.
Defensively the Buckeyes were 19th in the nation last season in total defense and with junior defensive end Joey Bosa leading the way as far as putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Ohio State will once again be tough to score on.
The only thing that would prevent the Buckeyes from getting back to the Big Ten Championship Game would be their final two regular season games as they’ll host the Michigan State Spartans and when they travel to meet the Michigan Wolverines which should both be fierce contests. But the Big Ten Title in 2015 is definitely Ohio State’s to lose.
Michigan State Spartans 11-1 (7-1)
The Michigan State Spartans lost two games in 2014, but they could take solace in knowing that the teams that beat them in the Oregon Ducks and Ohio State Buckeyes played for the national championship. The culture has changed in East Lansing for Michigan State under current head football coach Mark Dantonio as the Spartans are now a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten Conference.
The Spartans run a pro-style offense and senior quarterback Connor Cook is poised to have a big year in it. Cook is one of the best winners that Michigan State has ever had play quarterback and he would love to cap his collegiate career off with another Big Ten Conference Title. Junior running back Delton Williams is ready to emerge as the next workhorse running back for Dantonio while Cook will be throwing the football to a trio of senior wide receivers in AJ Troup, Aaron Burbridge, and Macgarrett Kings. The Spartans also posses one of the best offensive lines in the conference as they’ll return four starters from last year’s team including senior center Jack Allen.
Dantonio continuously preaches defense and as Michigan State finished last season ranked eighth in the nation in total defense, you can expect another strong showing from them this season. Led by senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun, the Spartans return seven starters from a defense last season that held eight of their 13 opponents under 20 points. And Calhoun’s motor never stops which will once be trouble for Michigan State opponents.
The Spartans will step out of conference on September 12 to host Oregon. But Sparty will have three big conference games on the road as they’ll meet the Michigan Wolverines, Nebraska Cornhuskers, and Ohio State as they look to win the conference and get to the College Football Playoff.
Michigan Wolverines 9-3 (6-2)
The dawn of a new era is upon us for Michigan Wolverines football. Former Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh is now the head football coach at Michigan and he has brought expectations and enthusiasm with him to Ann Arbor. Harbaugh has previously coached at the University of San Diego, Stanford, and in the National Football League with the San Francisco 49ers as he has had success at each stop of the way along his coaching journey.
Harbaugh has taken over a Michigan football program that has fallen by the wayside. The Wolverines have not won the Big Ten Conference Championship since 2004 and once the conference expanded in 2011, Michigan has failed to win it’s division. For years in the Big Ten, Michigan has been right alongside the Ohio State Buckeyes as far as conference supremacy. But in recent years Michigan has been left in the dust by Ohio State and they’ve also been past by the Michigan State Spartans within the conference as they will now look to regain their spot at the top of the conference under Harbaugh.
In the spirit of Harbaugh, you can expect him to have an open competition at every position, but Michigan’s starting quarterback job will be junior quarterback Shane Morris’ to lose. Last season the Wolverines were 64th in the nation in rushing and you can expect that number to improve under Harbaugh as Michigan will get off of the bus running the football this season; especially since all five starters are back on the offensive line.
Defensively the Wolverines return eight starters as first year defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin will look to establish the 3-4 defense in Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines have a favorable schedule this season, but their season will be defined by what they are able to do on October 17 when they host the Michigan State and on November 28 when they clash with the Buckeyes.
Penn State Nittany Lions 8-4 (4-4)
The first year for the Penn State Nittany Lions under head football coach James Franklin was an up and down one, but things could be better for them in 2015. Last year Franklin had the dark cloud of NCAA sanctions and a four-year bowl ban hanging over his program. But last fall the NCAA reduced those sanctions including lifting Penn State’s bowl ban which will help them in recruiting; especially in the State of Pennsylvania. Penn State has not won the Big Ten Conference since 2008 and they are hopeful that they’ll be able to win the Eastern Division of the Big Ten this season to advance to the conference title game.
Junior quarterback Christian Hackenburg is set to begin his third year as Penn State’s starting quarterback. Hackenburg didn’t have the most talented team around him in 2014, but he does have a big arm and he is still one of the better quarterbacks in the conference. Hackenburg did develop a chemistry wide receiver Daesean Hamilton who know as a sophomore will be expected to take a bigger role in the Nittany Lions offense.
Part of Penn State’s problem was that they were unable to run the football last season with any success as they were 120th in the nation as far as rushing. But Franklin is hopeful that four returning starters on the offensive line led by senior center Angelo Mangiro can remedy that.
As usual Penn State’s defense is a blue collar unit that embodies the spirit of Western Pennsylvania. Last year the Nittany Lions were second in the nation in total defense and as they are set to return seven starters under defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, they should once again be a force to be reckoned with.
Penn State will work with a soft non-conference schedule this season, but their final two games of the regular season will see them meet the Michigan Wolverines and Michigan State Spartans which will let us know how far that this program has come under Franklin.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights 6-6 (3-5)
In their first year in the Big Ten Conference, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights were a pleasant surprise as they went 8-5 and established themselves in their new conference. Rutgers head football coach Kyle Flood has been able to maintain the workman like approach that was instilled in Piscataway by his predecessor Greg Schiano which has allowed the Scarlet Knights remain relevant.
This season Flood will look to sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano to fill the void of Gary Nova who graduated. Laviano only attempted 28 passes as a freshman and he’ll need to get his feet wet in a hurry in order for the Scarlet Knights to have a puncher’s chance in 2015. Laviano will have a security blanket to throw the football to in senior wide receiver Leonte Carroo who has the potential to be an All-Big Ten performer this fall.
Rutgers will need to fatten up on victories in their non-conference schedule as their Big Ten slate of games will see them go on to the road to meet the Penn State Nittany Lions, Wisconsin Badgers, and Michigan Wolverines along with hosting the Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan State Spartans.
Maryland Terrapins 5-7 (2-6)
Like the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, the Maryland Terrapins were expected to struggle in their first year in the Big Ten Conference. But under head football coach Randy Edsall, Maryland found themselves with a winning season and going bowling. The Terrapins had a patchwork offense in 2014, but if they aren’t consistent this season, it will hinder their chances to be successful in the Big Ten.
The Terps have a three-game stretch this October that will see them face the Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Penn State Nittany Lions. And with only one of those games taking place in College Park, Maryland, the Terrapins will have their work cut out for them in 2015 as far as securing a winning season.
Indiana Hoosiers 3-9 (0-8)
Since 1994, the Indiana Hoosiers football program has only produced one winning season as they’ve consistently been in the shadow of the school’s men’s basketball program in Bloomington. For Indiana head football coach Kevin Wilson, he is entering his fifth season at Bloomington and he has a tough gauntlet to survive in the Eastern Division of the Big Ten Conference as he and his team must go through some major heavyweights within the conference. 2015 won’t see that many cupcakes for them to face which means that the folks that follow the Hoosiers are already counting down to basketball season.
Iowa Hawkeyes 9-4 (5-4)
As Kirk Ferentz is set to embark on his 16th season as the head football coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes, he has seen his fair shape of ups and downs in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes tend to be a middle of the pack team in the Big Ten Conference. But since the Big Ten has gone to a two-division format along with the fact that they real heavyweights are in the Eastern Division of the conference, Iowa has a chance to make some noise in 2015 and make their first appearance in the conference title game this December.
Under Ferentz, Iowa has typically had “game managers” at the quarterback position and they lost one as Jake Rudock decided to transfer within the Big Ten to the University of Michigan. Rudock’s departure means that junior quarterback C.J. Beathard will get his opportunity under center this fall in Iowa City as he’ll look to add to the blue-collar approach of Ferentz’s teams.
Iowa’s non-conference schedule should be considered as “cupcake central” and outside of road meetings with the Wisconsin Badgers and Nebraska Cornhuskers, they should be able to navigate their way through the Western Division of the Big Ten.
Minnesota Golden Gophers 6-6 (4-4)
Slowly but surely Minnesota Golden Gophers head football coach Jerry Kill is building a program for the maroon and gold. The Golden Gophers are coming off of their third straight straight bowl appearance and their second consecutive 8-5 campaign. But in 2015, does Kill’s team have what it takes to win the Big Ten West?
Last year running back David Cobb was Minnesota’s offense. But Cobb is now in the National Football League which means that sophomore running back Berkley Edwards will have his opportunity for the Golden Gophers. Led by senior offensive tackle Josh Campion, the Gophers have three starters returning on the offensive line, but their success will come down to whether or not junior quarterback Mitch Leidner can take his game to another level.
Defensively the Golden Gophers return seven starters as they look to stop offenses in the Big Ten and introduce teams to the frigid cold that is Minneapolis.
The Golden Gophers will begin their 2015 college football season by hosting the TCU Horned Frogs of the Big 12 Conference which will be followed up by a trip to Fort Collins, Colorado to meet the Colorado State Rams out of the Mountain West Conference. Minnesota’s Big Ten Conference schedule includes road games against the Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Iowa Hawkeyes along with home meetings with the Michigan Wolverines, Illinois Fighting Illini, Nebraska Cornhuskers, and Wisconsin Badgers as this will not be an easy campaign for Kill and crew.
Nebraska Cornhuskers 7-5 (4-4)
The past few years have seen the Nebraska Cornhuskers offense resemble “three yards and a cloud of dust”, but things will be changing in 2015. Mike Riley is the new head football coach at Nebraska and he will be looked to make the Cornhuskers have more of a passing offense. In 14 years at Oregon State University, Riley compiled a record of 93-80 with eight bowl appearances. But the pressure will be on Riley in Lincoln as he is replacing Bo Pelini at Nebraska. In seven seasons at Nebraska, Pelini had a record of 67-27 with three appearances in a conference title game. But it wasn’t enough to meet the extreme expectations at Nebraska and thus he was fired.
This year will be tough for Riley as he will be transitioning Nebraska from primarily being a running team to more of a throwing team. Riley will also look to make junior quarterback Tommy Armstrong more efficient. In two years at Nebraska, Armstrong has never had a completion percentage higher than 53 percent. In the past Nebraska has run to set up the pass, but in Riley’s system, it’s more about passing the football to set up the run as the threat of the pass allows his team to run the football. Riley runs a West Coast offense which relies on the quarterback getting the football out quicker and more efficient which Armstrong will have to improve on. Nebraska’s leading receiver that is returning from last season’s team is junior Jordan Westerkamp who averaged 17 yards for each reception and he”ll more than likely be Armstrong’s go-to-guy in 2015.
The Cornhuskers return seven starters defensively. But new Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker comes to the Cornhuskers from Oregon State with Riley where his defense was ranked 76th in the nation last season which doesn’t give the folks in Lincoln hope for a revival of the Blackshirts this fall.
The Huskers schedule in 2015 is not a favorable one as their non-conference schedule will see them host the BYU Cougars and they’ll travel to take on the Miami Hurricanes out of the Atlantic Coast Conference. And when the Big Ten Conference schedule kicks off, Nebraska will have to deal with home games against the Wisconsin Badgers and Michigan State Spartans.
Wisconsin Badgers 7-5 (4-4)
The past 25 years have seen the Wisconsin Badgers morph into one of the top football programs in the nation. But Badgers success on the field has not been able to keep them from losing head coaches. Paul Chryst has taken over as Wisconsin’s head football coach and his hire marks the Badgers third head football coach since 2012. The constant turnover at the head coaching position cannot help Wisconsin on the recruiting front as recruits wants stability from a program; especially for a Badgers program that historically hasn’t been able to land five-star players.
Quarterback Joel Stave is set to begin his senior season at Wisconsin and once again he has to prove himself to another coaching staff as he’ll have to do it for a Badgers team that doesn’t have that much talent around him offensively.
The Badgers do return eight starters from a defense that was fourth in the nation last season, and until the offense is able to get their footing, this is the unit that will have to carry this team.
The Badgers will have their hands full to begin the college football season when they travel to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas to meet the Alabama Crimson Tide out of the Southeastern Conference and their Big Ten Conference season could be made or broken by their first two games as they face the Iowa Hawkeyes and Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Northwestern Wildcats 6-6 (4-4)
In 2012, the Northwestern Wildcats won their first bowl game since 1948, but since then things haven’t gone well for them. Under head football coach Pat Fitzgerald, the past two years have seen Northwestern go 5-7 in each season and they are hopeful that 2015 will find them bowling again.
At 6’4″, 240 lbs., junior quarterback Zack Oliver is intimidating and he’ll need to be as Fitzgerald likes his quarterbacks to run and throw the football. Running back Justin Jackson enjoyed a good freshman season as he rushed for 1,187 and 10 touchdowns. And for Northwestern to be viable in the Big Ten West in 2015, Jackson will need to rush for at least 1,500 yards this season.
Northwestern’s season opener will be a tough one as they’ll host the Stanford Cardinal of the Pac-12 Conference and their Big Ten Conference schedule includes road games against the Michigan Wolverines, Nebraska Cornhuskers, and Wisconsin Badgers as they look to become bowl eligible in 2015.
Illinois Fighting Illini 6-6 (3-5)
Since 2000, the Illinois Fighting Illini have only had four winning seasons and they have not reached a bowl game in consecutive years since 1990 which means that head football coach Tim Beckman will have his work cut out for him in 2015. Junior quarterback Wes Lunt appears to be the favorite to be the starting quarterback for the Illini this season and he’ll look for sophomore wide receiver Mike Dudek who has the potential to be an All-Big Ten performer this year as a target in the passing game early and often.
It will be important for Illinois to take care of business in their non-conference schedule as they’ll face a tough slate in the Big Ten that will see them have road meetings with the Iowa Hawkeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, and Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Purdue Boilermakers 3-9 (1-7)
There was a time when the Purdue Boilermakers were able to hang with the big boys of the Big Ten Conference, but that notion is a now a thing of the past. The past two years have seen the Boilermakers lose 20 games which is not going to get it done in an improving Big Ten Conference.
For Boilermakers head coach Darrell Hazel, he must improve his squad that was 111th in the nation last season in total offense as he’s hopeful that junior quarterback Austin Appleby can lead them.
The only thing that Purdue can do in 2015 is to hold on for the long and bumpy ride in West Lafayette.
Big Ten Title Game: Iowa vs. Ohio State
Conference Champion: Ohio State
Sources: Sports-reference.com, Cfbstats.com, NationalChamps.net
When the NCAA levied sanctions against the Penn State Nittany Lions football program in 2012, there wasn’t much joy in Happy Valley. Penn State had to pay $60 million in fines to the NCAA along with a reduction of football scholarships and a four-year bowl ban in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky Scandal. Penn State plays in the Big Ten Conference and the school and the conference both could not afford to have a marquee football program become irrelevant for that long. So last fall the NCAA announced that Penn State’s bowl ban would be immediately lifted which was a huge shot in the arm for the university and the Big Ten.
Under first-year head coach James Franklin, Penn State finished this past college football season with a record of 7-6 which ended in a 31-30 victory last week over the Boston College Eagles in the Pinstripe Bowl and Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. The game was the fifth edition of the Pinstripe Bowl and there was a record attendance for the game as 49,012 people traveled to the home of Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees to see this contest with the majority of the folks in attendance coming from Western Pennsylvania as they were chomping at the bit to see their beloved Nittany Lions play in a bowl game for the first time since 2011. Along the way Franklin took the time to acknowledge his senior class that stuck with the Penn State program in its darkest hour when it would have been so easy for them to jump ship. But those senior leaders provided leadership to the underclassmen while showing a mental toughness and resolve that some people that are twice their age don’t have. And now Franklin and the Nittany Lions have something to build off of going forward.
Penn State’s six losses this past season were all within the Big Ten with four of those defeats coming by a touchdown or less. The Nittany Lions began the season with a last second win over the Central Florida Knights and they finished it with an overtime win over BC. The reduction of scholarships will hurt Penn State in the short term, but Franklin does have a strong quarterback in sophomore Christian Hackenburg.
When Hackenburg was recruited to Penn State by former head football coach Bill O’Brien, he was one of the top prospects in the nation and he came to Happy Valley primarily because of O’Brien’s background of working with quarterbacks in the National Football League. With sanctions hanging over Penn State and the allure of becoming an NFL head coach, O’Brien left Happy Valley to become the head coach of the Houston Texans in the NFL which opened the door for Franklin to leave Vanderbilt University as their head football coach to join Penn State. But for Hackenburg he is looking to improve heading into his junior campaign. As a freshman, Hackenburg threw 20 touchdown passes to just 10 interceptions. Hackenburg wasn’t as efficient this past season as he was picked off 15 times while only throwing 12 touchdown passes primarily due to the fact that he was in a different offensive system this season under Franklin coming from O’Brien’s pro-style offense in 2013 while also not have a ton of talent around him offensively. In 2013, Hackenburg’s go-to-guy was wide receiver Allen Robinson who is now in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars. But as the season progressed Hackenburg was able to developed some chemistry with freshman wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton who finished his first year at Penn State with 82 receptions for 899 receiving yards and a pair of touchdown grabs.
This past season Penn State had the second ranked defense in the nation and led by sophomore Nayeem Wartman, Franklin will look to keep that trend going in 2015 as for some time now Penn State has been known as “Linebacker U”.
For Penn State, Franklin is a tireless recruiter which was evident of the fact that he turned Vanderbilt into a winner while also sending talent to the National Football League during his tenure there which is unheard of. At Vandy, Franklin did the impossible as he took the program to three consecutive bowl game appearances for the first time in school history. Franklin is from Pennsylvania and Penn State has always had a stranglehold on the top high-school football talent coming out of Western Pennsylvania. And with NCAA sanctions being lifted, it means that the future is bright for them in the newly expanded Big Ten as another sleep giant in college football is waking up.
Sources: Sports-reference.com. Cfbstats.com