Is the Big Ten on the upswing? It would be hard to say otherwise given how last season ended for the conference and what has transpired since. Ohio State won the national championship after sneaking in to the College Football Playoff as the No. 4 seed, knocking off top seed and SEC champion Alabama and No. 2 seed and Pac-12 champion Oregon (who in the process took out the ACC champion and defending national champions from Florida State). For good measure the Big Ten ended the postseason with a winning record overall and against the ACC and Big 12 and broke even with the SEC (the Pac-12, ironically, held a winning record against the Big Ten). Things are starting to look good for the Big Ten in 2015, but there is work to be done in order to continue riding the momentum.
Jim Harbaugh’s arrival in Ann Arbor brings loads of promise, but conference title talk is still a year or two away. Penn State enters a promising second season under James Franklin. Ohio State and Michigan State are still on a slightly different playing field from those two though. The West is still likely Wisconsin’s or Nebraska’s to lose, but Minnesota should once again be in the conversation after crashing the scene last year.
The Big Ten has some big challenges ahead of them as a conference in the first couple of weeks this season, and getting out of those marquee games without a losing record will be critical if it is to avoid national skepticism once more. Here are my Big Ten predictions for the upcoming college football season. When you are done, feel free to check up on my ACC, American Athletic Conference, Big 12, Conference USA and Mountain West Conference predictions.
BIG TEN EAST
1. Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten)
No surprises here, right? Ohio State did not lose a single underclassman early to the NFL Draft coming off a national championship and somehow managed to keep Braxton Miller in Columbus despite likely having plenty of options to go elsewhere if he chose to do so. Now Miller, one of the top athletes in the conference, is switching positions and Urban Meyer must choose between Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett at quarterback. Fortunately, it seems as though there is no real wrong answer here. Ohio State also has one fo the best players in the country with Joey Bosa at defensive end, and last year’s postseason breakout star Ezekiel Elliott running the football. The Buckeyes are loaded with the right ingredients to make a playoff run once more, and this time they will not succumb to the Virginia Tech Hokies early on.
2. Michigan State (10-2, 6-2 Big Ten)
If it’s not going to be Ohio State coming out of the Big Ten and representing the conference in the playoff, Michigan State feels like the next most likely option. Defense has been the key to success in East Lansing these last few years, but last year’s defensive showing showed its cracks and was not as strong as it used to be. It managed though and could be a bit more stable this season if it fills the gap in its no-fly zone. Shilique Calhoun can be a monster off the edge and Michigan State’s linebackers will be tough to run by. On offense, Michigan State returns quarterback Connor Cook, who some believe could be the best passer in the Big Ten. I think he’s really good, and he will have an offensive line losing just one starter from last year protecting him, which means some good things should happen on offense. I’m just not sure enough breaks go their way this season for a playoff run, even though I have them beating Oregon in Week 2.
3. Penn State (10-2, 6-2 Big Ten)
Ten wins for James Franklin’s team in his second season at Penn State is possibly a reach, but the schedule just seems favorable enough to make it a realistic possibility. I have gone at length this season suggesting the offensive line is poised for a big improvement this season with the additions of a couple of transfers and solid recruiting helping to beef up things up front. It was horrible last season and has nowhere to go but up. Even marginal improvement should have a trickle-down effect on the offense. Christian Hackenberg should have a nice bounce-back season as a result, with a talented crop of receivers and tight ends (a healthy Adam Breneman could have a big season) and the running game should be better too with Akeel Lynch carrying the bulk of the carries. The defense should once again prove to be dependable more often than not a swell.
4. Michigan (5-7, 3-5 Big Ten)
The future is bright for Michigan under Jim Harbaugh, and I suspect things will really start to look better in Ann Arbor as the season progresses. But there is work to be done getting the roster in gear before the Wolverines start jumping into the conference title conversation. The schedule is also not very kind to them this season with tough games at the start (I have losses at Utah and home vs BYU in September and losses to Penn State and Ohio State at the end of the season). There are some things to like though. Michigan returns an offensive line losing just one starter and safety Jabrill Peppers could start to show why he was a top recruit a year ago if healthy.
5. Rutgers (6-6, 2-6 Big Ten)
Year one as a Big Ten member for Rutgers went better than most people anticipated, and the Scarlet Knights are in position to be going bowling once again at the end of this season despite having to replace a ton of players. Rutgers has to replace all but two starters on the offensive line, but they return one of the Big Ten’s best receivers in Leonte Carroo and have senior running back Paul James back for another year. The Rutgers defense can make some plays happen against most of the teams on the schedule, but the question for Rutgers is how much can they catch up to the likes of the top teams in the Big Ten after seeing the wide gap last year? Kyle Flood has been working on ways to get the team in better shape for Big Ten play, and it seems to be paying off with the players, but now we need to see it on the field. Rutgers has a favorable start to the season and should get to October no worse than 3-1, and there should be a couple wins within reach in conference play to go bowling once more.
6. Maryland (5-7, 2-6 Big Ten)
Maryland also had a better debut in the Big Ten than most predicted, but year two should be a good challenge as well. Getting to the postseason is possible, but it will be a tough road to get there. Maryland’s defense returns just four starters, but that includes cornerback William Likely. All but one starter in the front seven must be replaced. On offense the Terps have a quarterback competition in play and there is not much to get excited about at any position, yet. Maryland plays on the road at Ohio State and Michigan State and will play Penn State in Baltimore. They also get Michigan and Wisconsin at home and must travel to Rutgers. Getting to six games might be just out of reach this year for Randy Edsall and company.
7. Indiana (6-6, 2-6 Big Ten)
Over the last couple of years the talk about the hot seat for head coach Kevin Wilson has started to pop up, and I always questioned why. It is not as though Indiana was ever in a position to seriously challenge for the Big Ten before Wilson’s arrival, and it was not like he was taking over a program ready to win when he arrived. Now we are entering year five of Wilson’s tenure in Bloomington, and I am starting to entertain the conversation a little more than I previously did. In a season that may be bowl-or-bust for Wilson, I think he somehow wiggles into the bowl season if quarterback Nate Sudfeld stays healthy. Getting off to a good start in September will be crucial. I actually have the Hoosiers putting together a 4-0 start before entering Big Ten play but Western Kentucky could be a swing game. A bowl trip could rest on beating Purdue in the final game of the season.
BIG TEN WEST
1. Nebraska (10-2, 8-0 Big Ten)
When I started going through the schedules in the Big Ten, no team’s gut instinct picks surprised me the way Nebraska did. Especially since I went and picked Nebraska to start the season with a 1-2 record with losses to BYU and at Miami. But take a look at Nebraska’s schedule and maybe you will agree this is not quite as far-fetched a possibility as it may seem. Nebraska has to play Wisconsin and Michigan State, but they get those game sin Lincoln, which could be a deciding factor. Nebraska should be able to run the football and the defense should be reliable enough. If the Mike Riley temperament has an effect on relaxing players a bit, that could be a welcome change. And wouldn’t it be ironic if Riley ended the season with 10 wins after his predecessor, Bo Pelini, plateaued on nine wins for so long?
2. Wisconsin (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten)
On paper, I tend to like Wisconsin slightly more than I do Nebraska. It is Wisconsin’s schedule I do not like as much, and I need to see if Paul Chryst can return home and keep things chugging along after seeing what he did with Pittsburgh. Like Nebraska, we know Wisconsin is going to pound the football on the ground with Corey Clement, but the usually strong Wisconsin offensive line returns just one starter from last season so things could be a bit of a work in progress. And how much faith can we put in the quarterback position? Wisconsin’s defense should be better off despite having to replace a handful of starters, but they can give Alabama some trouble in Arlington. I have Alabama escaping that game with a win over the Badgers, but if Wisconsin can make some things happen early on and avoid a meltdown the way it saw against LSU last year in Houston, it would be a huge win for the Badgers and the Big Ten.
3. Minnesota (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten)
The surprise team of 2015 should once again play a role in the Big Ten West race. Jerry Kill says this is the most talented team he has had since he got to the program, and he’s right. It does have some questions to answer though, and there are some tricky spots on the schedule. Minnesota opens the season at home against TCU, which will be a nice barometer for this team right out of the gate (I have TCU going undefeated this season). Minnesota also must visit Ohio State, an opponent both Nebraska and Wisconsin somehow manage to avoid this year.
4. Iowa (8-4, 4-4 Big Ten)
Iowa will be your typical middle-of-the-pack team in the Big Ten West picture. They may be capable of beating anybody in their division but there is no reason to expect them to win every game they probably should. Iowa has pieces to replace after losing Jake Rudock to a transfer to Michigan, which puts the pressure on C.J. Beathard, who won the job as last season progressed. Depth is shallow on Iowa’s roster, but a 4-0 start is not out of the question (Pittsburgh at home could be a loss though). Iowa’s schedule though dodges Ohio State, Michigan State (and Penn State and Michigan), so you won’t find a more favorable crossover schedule in the Big Ten West. Wild card would be a good way to describe Iowa.
5. Illinois (5-7, 2-6 Big Ten)
To say Tim Beckman needs a big year on the field is a bit of an understatement. Unfortunately for him, I’m not seeing it despite returning 14 starters. That includes Wes Lunt, who is capable of putting up some big passing numbers this season. After squeaking into the postseason last year, I have the Illini just missing the cut this season. Wins in the Big Ten should be difficult to come by, although they get Nebraska and Wisconsin (and Ohio State) at home. But outside of Purdue and Northwestern, there are not many automatic wins to look forward to. An early road trip to North Carolina could result in a loss as well in ACC territory.
6. Northwestern (3-9, 1-7 Big Ten)
Here is what I like about Northwestern. The Wildcats return 10 projected starters from a season ago. Here’s what I don’t like about Northwestern. The offense. I am not sure I can trust it enough to say this will be a good year for Northwestern. But that defense is not going to be a pushover unit, not at all. Northwestern’s defense is going to make every attempt to put the offense in position to take advantage of some opportunities, but how many of those will be cashed in? That’s the question. The schedule has a couple of likely losses in non-conference play against Stanford and at Duke, but I’m not sure things bounce Northwestern’s way in conference play this season as often as others might predict. This 3-win season will look worst on paper than it really will be though. Much worse.
7. Purdue (2-10, 0-8 Big Ten)
And then there is Purdue. The Boilermakers were a little bit of a young team last season, which is proven with a total of 16 projected starters back this season. Experience is good, but talent is better. Purdue does not have enough of it, which does not bode well for third-year head coach Darrell Hazell. We should start to see some improvement in West Lafayette, but the schedule is not very kind after mid-September. If Purdue doesn’t pick up a win or two in the first couple of weeks, it may be difficult stumbling across one the rest fo the year until facing Indiana in the final game of the season.
BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Ohio State over Nebraska
Get ready for another frustrating conference championship game result, Nebraska fans. Nothing is likely to get in Ohio State’s way except itself. As good of a year as Nebraska may have, they will ultimately be a minor blip on the radar on Ohio State’s playoff path. Ohio State going 13-0 likely gives them the top spot in the College Football Playoff, which likely means the Buckeyes would get to choose whether they would like to play a semifinal game in the Orange Bowl or the Cotton Bowl.
Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State QB
Say what you will about any of Ohio State’s offensive weapons, but I fully anticipate Penn State’s signal-caller to have a nice rebound season after a rough 2014 campaign. With an improved offensive line in front of him, look for Hackenberg to have an extra second to process what’s happening on the field and cut down on errors, be they rushed or ill-advised.
Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year: Joey Bosa, Ohio State DE
Perhaps an easy out here, but Bosa is already being viewed by some as a potential top draft pick in next season’s NFL Draft. There is no question he has a tremendous impact on the Ohio State defensive line, which makes his suspension for the Virginia Tech game all the more noteworthy. He should make up for it in short time though.
Big Ten Coach of the Year: Mike Riley, Nebraska
Yes, Ohio State could run the table and Urban Meyer will still be playing second in the coach of the year category. Digging Nebraska out of an early hole and going undefeated in conference play and getting Nebraska to the Big Ten Championship Game will be more than enough to sell conference-newcomer Mike Riley as the Big Ten coach of the year. Plus he’s a really nice guy and gosh darn it, people like him.