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2016 College Football Preview: Picking the Big Ten

2016-B1G-Predictions

Michigan can’t live up to they hype, while Buckeyes continue to lead the Big Ten

You have no doubt seen some high expectations for the Michigan Wolverines in Year Two under Jim Harbaugh. Well, put those high hopes on ice, because the Wolverines still have some work to do. In fact, they could finish at the bottom of a three-way tie for second place in the division. That may be an extreme worst-case scenario for Michigan, but their rivals in Ohio will continue to show this conference runs through Columbus.

After a mild break for one last summer vacation, it’s back to sharing preseason predictions. Let’s roll through the official predictions for the Big Ten for the 2016 season.

Big Ten East

J.T. Barrett has Ohio State staying on top of the Big Ten East and eyeing a trip to the College Football Playoff.

J.T. Barrett has Ohio State staying on top of the Big Ten East and eyeing a trip to the College Football Playoff.

1. Ohio State (11-1, 8-1 Big Ten)

Last season: 12-1, 7-1 Big Ten, won Fiesta Bowl vs. Notre Dame (44-28)

Does Ohio State have a lot of talented players to replace in 2016? Absolutely. Should you expect Ohio State to be able to fill those vacancies with talented players? Without question. Given how Ohio State has recruited under Urban Meyer, it should not take long for Ohio State’s new faces to step into big roles this season on either side of the football. Fortunately, the Buckeyes have one familiar face in place to help ease the transition with quarterback J.T. Barrett. I fully expect Barrett to help keep things running smoothly in the early going until Mike Weber finds his groove in the offense and the Buckeyes defense settles in. I’m even calling for Ohio State to score a massive victory on the road at Oklahoma in mid-September, which will carry huge playoff implications down the road for the Big Ten favorites. One loss on the road in Big Ten play will put the Buckeyes on the fringe, but a strong finish with wins against Michigan, Michigan State and a second bout with Wisconsin (or Iowa or Nebraska), should help keep Ohio State in the top four at the end of the season.

*Note: I’m not exactly sure how a three-way tie in the Big Ten is settled when three teams go 1-1 against each other, so please take that into consideration when viewing these next three picks. I chose to go by projected spot in the rankings, which I feel could favor Penn State down the stretch given how I predicted games in my game-by-game predictions for the Big Ten.

2. Penn State (9-3, 7-2 Big Ten)

Last season: 7-6, 4-4 Big Ten, lost TaxSlayer Bowl vs. Georgia (24-17)

Don’t go too crazy with this one. This predicted finish is based on the expectation the offense sees dramatic improvement with an improved offensive line, a new offensive system under new offensive coordinator Joe Moorehead leading to a better ability to adapt where needed and getting the ball into the hands of Saquon Barkley. It also counts on Penn State taking a home game against either Ohio State or Michigan State (I’m calling for a victory over the Spartans), to earn a tiebreaker in the standings. In terms of overall talent and potential, this will be James Franklin’s best roster yet. What he and the staff can do to tap that potential and prove they can develop talent will be key to getting things going. Road games at Pitt and Michigan are both toss-ups in my book, which I have the Nittany Lions coming out on the losing end. Penn State might hang with Ohio State and every other game is winnable if the offense improves as I suspect it might.

3. Michigan State (9-3, 7-2 Big Ten)

Last season: 12-2, 8-1 Big Ten, Big Ten champions, lost Cotton Bowl College Football Playoff semifinal vs. Alabama (38-0)

Michigan State will be right in the Big Ten title hunt until the final couple of weeks of the season. That much has become expected under Mark Dantonio in East Lansing. We will get an early indication of how good this team might be when the Spartans travel to South Bend to take on Notre Dame in mid-September (September 17 is pretty important for the Big Ten). The defense should be good, and defensive tackle Malik McDowell may be one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten. How well the Spartans plug a hole at quarterback remains to be seen, but they should have faith in running the ball with LJ Scott and a solid offensive line. Michigan State got bullied by Alabama in the College Football Playoff, so now we’ll see how this program bounces back form that embarrassing performance against the eventual national champs.

4. Michigan (9-3, 6-3 Big Ten)

Last season: 10-3, 6-2 Big Ten, won Citrus Bowl vs. Florida (41-7)

Yeah, this one is going to create a stir, but I promise you it is not for the sake of page views and angry comments. As good as I think Michigan may be with Jim Harbaugh, I am not at all in love with this team’s schedule in conference play. Oh, it will get off to a good start with an easy non-conference portion of games and perhaps a win in the Big Ten opener at home against Penn State and maybe the following week against Wisconsin, but Michigan has to go on the road to play Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State in the back-half of the schedule, and I am not sure they win any of those. I also have a big question about the quarterback situation which needs to be addressed early on. There is some good talent on the roster though, and Michigan will be a viable contender until meeting Ohio State.

5. Indiana (6-6, 3-6 Big Ten)

Last season: 6-7, 2-6 Big Ten, lost Pinstripe Bowl vs. Duke (44-41)

Indiana could be a pesky team in the Big Ten Eats this season, and there are a handful of games that should be considered toss-up games for Kevin Wilson and his Hoosiers, including a road game at Northwestern and a home game against Penn State. The bottom line is Indiana has to replace their top quarterback and running back from last season and the defense continues to be a major issue in order to provide any serious threat at the end of the season. It is hard to have much confidence in Indiana doing much more than getting to .500, but that should be applauded in Bloomington.

6. Maryland (5-7, 2-7 Big Ten)

Last season: 3-9, 1-7 Big Ten

A new head coach in D.J. Durkin should see some improved defensive play at Maryland, and the Terrapins do have one of the top defensive players in the Big Ten with Will Likely at cornerback. The offense can have glimpses of promise at times, but there is still plenty of work to do with this program in order to be any real threat in the division. Maryland may be capable of an upset under the right conditions, but do not count on it this season. A postseason berth will be just out of reach as a result.

7. Rutgers (3-9, 1-8 Big Ten)

Last season: 4-8, 1-7 Big Ten

Rutgers also made a coaching change that should see a focus on improving the defense with Chris Ash taking over a massive project in New Jersey. Chris Laviano gets the nod at quarterback and wide receiver Janarion Grant can be one of the more exciting players to watch in the Big Ten, especially on special teams. The Rutgers offensive line brings back experience but must get tougher in order to hold off some of the defenses they will face this season. The road should be unkind to Rutgers this season, which has been the case since joining the Big Ten. It should be a long season for Rutgers.

Big Ten West

The Badgers and Hawkeyes will battle for the Big Ten West division crown.

The Badgers and Hawkeyes will battle for the Big Ten West division crown.

1. Wisconsin (9-3, 7-2 Big Ten)

Last season: 10-3, 6-2 Big Ten, won Holiday Bowl vs. USC (23-21)

If Wisconsin can handle keeping their heads high through a tricky start to the season, they will be rewarded for their efforts later on. In fact, I have Wisconsin limping out to a 2-3 start with losses to LSU in Lambeau Field and on the road in back-to-back weeks at Michigan State and Michigan (going 1-2 in these three games would not be a shock, but I’m not counting on it). I also have Wisconsin handing Ohio State its only loss of the regular season, which sets up a revenge game for the Buckeyes in the Big Ten championship game. I do not have too much faith in the offense in the big games early on, but things could settle down to help pick up wins against Iowa and Nebraska, essentially making the division impossible to lose from there until the end of the season.

2. Iowa (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten)

Last season: 12-2, 8-1 Big Ten, Big Ten West champion, lost Rose Bowl vs. Stanford (45-16)

The defending Big Ten West champs will make another run at the division and conference championship in 2016 with a strong and dependable defensive effort once again. The return of Desmond King was a big boost for the Hawkeyes, but Kirk Ferentz will need more out of his offense with C.J. Beathard at quarterback, who happens to be drawing great praise form NFL types. LeShun Daniels could be a top running back in the Big Ten as well, although I think the running duties will be split with Akrum Wadley. Iowa will be put on upset alert against North Dakota State, but they will survive. The hurdles unable to be cleared will come at home against the Badgers and on the road two weeks later at Penn State.

3. Nebraska (8-4, 6-3 Big Ten)

Last season: 6-7, 3-5 Big Ten, won Foster Farms Bowl vs. UCLA (37-29)

Nebraska may have been the best five-win team in the regular season last year but coming up with a recurring dose of bad luck doomed the Huskers from the start. Don’t count on that string of bad luck happening again this season, but road woes will hold Nebraska back from winning the division crown this season. Will Nebraska get a consistently dependable performance from Tommy Armstrong? Having Jordan Westerkamp to target is a nice luxury, but Nebraska needs to improve on the defensive line and reduce the number of penalties it takes.

4. Illinois (4-8, 3-6 Big Ten)

Last season: 5-7, 2-6 Big Ten

Stabile leadership may finally be in place for Illinois with the hiring of Lovie Smith, but the former Chicago Bears head coach has a good amount of work to do with the Illini. Expect to see some hints the Illini will improve this season rather quickly, even if the season sees a good amount of losses (which it will). Early home games against North Carolina and Western Michigan could be trouble out of the gate, and going on the road in Big Ten play will be no easier, but I do think we’ll see a good season from Wes Lunt at quarterback and the defense should buy into Hardy Nickerson’s and Smith’s defensive wishes.

5. Northwestern 5-7 (3-6 Big Ten)

Last season: 10-3, 6-2 Big Ten, lost Outback Bowl vs. Tennessee (45-6)

With improvements being made potentially at Nebraska and Illinois, that could cost Northwestern a couple more games this fall. The Wildcats also get the unlucky cross-division draw of Ohio State and Michigan State, both on the road. Northwestern does have one of the most overlooked offensive players in the Big Ten with running back Justin Jackson and quarterback Clayton Thorson has shown some good things since getting a chance to lead the offense. Northwestern will be prickly for teams too, especially in Big Ten West play. Northwestern is capable of pulling an upset against any team it is trying to catch in the West, which makes them a wild card on all fronts.

6. Minnesota (6-6, 3-6 Big Ten)

Last season: 6-7, 2-6 Big Ten, won Quick Lane Bowl vs. Central Michigan (21-14)

Despite a good number of starters coming back on each side of the football and the praise quarterback Mitch Leidner is receiving from NFL scouts, I just cannot see much going well for the Gophers this season. Enough will be done to keep a postseason trip in the fold, but this is hardly a division contender with expected losses to five teams in division play. Maybe my outlook will change after the first few games of the season (home game against Colorado State could be telling), but I think the Gophers will need too many breaks to go their way to do anything truly special this season under Tracy Claeys.

7. Purdue (3-9, 0-9 Big Ten)

Last season: 2-10, 1-7 Big Ten

Believe it or not, we could be talking about an undefeated Purdue team heading into Big Ten play. Unfortunately for the Boilermakers, or at least Darrell Hazell, A winless Big ten schedule is very much a possible reality for Purdue unless the amount of returning starters leads to a bit of growth that can lead the team to a win here or there. I’m just not counting on it. Hazell could be the first coach on the chopping block this season.

Big Ten Game of the Year

Ohio State at Oklahoma

This game is bigger than any conference game, because it will be prove to be a playoff chip for the winner and its conference. The Big 12 and Big Ten could very well be battling for the final playoff spot this season, especially if things play out as I’m predicting, so having a key win like this is vital. Ohio State may not be able to make the College Football Playoff without a win over Oklahoma, and the same may be true for Oklahoma without a win over Ohio State. A win gives the Buckeyes a margin for error in conference play (as it does for the Sooners in the Big 12). A loss and all fo a sudden the road gets more troublesome to the playoff for Ohio State, and perhaps the Big Ten as a whole.

Offensive Player of the Year

QB J.T. Barrett, Ohio State

There are some darn good offensive players in the Big Ten, but there is likely only one who has a chance to reach New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. That would be Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, who I suspect helps get Ohio State through the early portion of the schedule with a win at Oklahoma against another Heisman hopeful, Baker Mayfield (and Samaje Perine?). Ohio State’s success and playoff hopes will rely heavily on the performance of Barrett, and he will be ready to take on that responsibility in his junior season.

Defensive Player of the Year

LB Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

Michigan’s biggest defensive star makes a position change this season from secondary to linebacker, and he could thrive in it. While Peppers will be taking on more duties of a linebacker, expect him to be versatile enough to drop in coverage where needed. Peppers should be all around the field this season, and getting by him should be tricky even for the best offensive players in the conference.

Coach of the Year

Urban Meyer, Ohio State

The Big Ten typically does not award the best coach the coach of the year award, but it will be difficult to pass on Urban Meyer this season. With the talent lost to the NFL, Meyer faces as many questions out of the gate than he has ever faced since coming to Ohio State. Answering those questions with a big win at Oklahoma and leading the Buckeyes to a Big Ten title should make this a no-brainer, especially without a surprising season from anyone else in the conference (unless you consider a 9-3 Penn State worthy enough for James Franklin).

2016-B1G-Predictions

And that’s how I am calling for the Big Ten to play out in 2016. Sure, I’m taking some leaps here, and I may end up regretting a few of these predictions. We’ll see. In the meantime, catch up on some of my other predictions for the American, ACC and Big 12. Feel free to discuss these Big Ten predictions on Facebook.

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About the Author

Kevin McGuire
Contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Also a contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Member of Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. Follow on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.
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