2015 Big Ten Preview
Welcome to the THUNDERBLOG’s College Football Preview! With the season starting tonight, we’ll be taking you through each conference to let you know what to watch for throughout the exciting season. Next up, the Big Ten Conference:
(Note: All rankings from AP Top 25)
1) #1 Ohio State Buckeyes (2014:14-1 – National Champions over Oregon)
3 All-American Quarterbacks, a Heisman Trophy favorite at Running back, a top-3 NFL recruit on the defensive line, a 124-tackle linebacker manning the middle, and arguably the nation’s best head coach; no wonder Ohio State is the #1 team in the land. That and they are the defending national champions. This team is simply stacked and whether J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones wins the starting job, the Buckeyes are favorites every time they step on the field. Peaking at their schedule, only 3 games should provide any trouble. The very pesky Virginia Tech Hookies come to town opening night and if last year’s stunning upset is any indication, Beamerball can foil the best laid plans of a repeat champion. Assuming Ohio State marches on, they won’t be tested until late in the season. The Michigan State Spartans come to town November 21st and will provide a tough challenge for Ohio State on both sides of the football. If the Buckeyes can claw their way to a W, they must travel to the Big House the very next week to take on hated rival Michigan. And with Jim Harbaugh at the helm, look for this game to have trap written all over it. Then it is on to the conference championship game with a likely matchup against the always physical Wisconsin Badgers. Those three weeks will determine if the Buckeyes are worthy of another spot in the College Football Playoff. My prediction is they trip up but still make the playoff with a 12-1 season.
2) #5 Michigan State Spartans (2014: 11-2 – Cotton Bowl victory over Baylor)
Sparty is still here to stay and Coach Mark Dantonio has pushed this team to the forefront of the college football world. Returning is potential top QB prospect Connor Cook. A big arm and strong intangibles should help Cook dominate and an elite offense line starring center Jack Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin will provide the pocket passer plenty of time to pick apart the defense. What the offense will need is the skill positions to step up. Defensively Michigan State will again be strong with bookend pass rushers Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas providing big time pressure and a strong linebacker core highlighted by Riley Bullough to clean up the rest. Michigan State will be tested early with the Oregon Ducks visiting the second week of the season. If they can squeak by they should roll all the way to an October 17th showdown with the Wolverines in Ann Arbor. Then they end the season with Ohio State and a home showdown against the Penn State Nittany Lions. As good as this team is, I can’t see them not having 2 losses, especially playing Ohio State on the road. With a 10-2 record they will still be in a big time bowl game but will once again come up just short of a playoff berth.
3) Michigan Wolverines (2014: 5-7)
Finally Michigan has their man to compete with Urban Meyer. There was no better hire this offseason than the tornado of destruction that is Jim Harbaugh. Laser-focused and brutally demanding, Harbaugh will have a winner in Ann Arbor. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves; there is serious work to be done. Who is playing QB? There is plenty of talent to choose from but almost no experience. How about WR? Devin Funchess is gone and someone will need to step up. So the offense will need some time, but a stable rushing attack, a Harbaugh staple, should be had. The defense is what will give the Wolverines a chance. 24 of 29 players back on this underrated unit and the return of CB Jabril Peppers along with seniors Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan will make for a formidable test. The schedule is not overly challenging with non-conference games against Utah, Oregon State, and BYU as good barometers for where this team is. October 17th sees Michigan State come to town which will be a challenge. The last two weeks of the year have a trip to Happy Valley and Penn State along with the annual showdown with that “team from Ohio”. Michigan will play tough this year but an 8-4 record will be their ceiling. Catching Ohio State right after they play Michigan State has upset written all over it and if that’s the case, Michigan could go 1-12 and still be happy. 8-4 and a bowl berth would suffice in Harbaugh Year 1 though.
4) Penn State Nittany Lions (2014: 7-6)
Before we really dig into this Nittany Lion team, the biggest question hanging over Beaver Stadium is which Christian Hackenburg will we see; The freshman sensation and top prospect or the unconfident and disappointing sophomore? What would help is a stable offense line, last year’s unit gave up a Big Ten worst 49 sacks. With star WR DeaSean Hamilton returning and a deep running back unit, Hackenburg will have the weapons he needs to propel himself into 1st round NFL draft discussion. Defensively, Penn State has the best interior line of anyone in the country with Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel dominating the line of scrimmage. The issue is that Linebacker U needs to find some linebackers. But I return to the biggest question at hand, Hackenburg. I love the kid and think he will have success at the next level but head coach James Franklin’s system is not a match, favoring quick throws over the deeper passing attack of predecessor Bill O’Brien. With a still unsure Hackenburg, Penn State will stumble to an 8-4 record, dropping their opener to the surprising Temple Owls along with losses to Ohio State and both Michigan schools.
5) Maryland Terrapins (2014: 7-6)
The Terrapins surprised many last year. While I like where this team is headed, they are in for a rocky sophomore season in the Big Ten. The offense lost playmaker WR Stephan Diggs to the NFL and QB Caleb Rowe needs to prove he can stay healthy. The offense line should be solid but a dearth of weapons will be the downfall. Defensively the secondary is very, very good with safeties Anthony Nixon and Sean Davis and cornerback William Likey all battling for Big Ten honors. But the front 7 is not dominate by any means. Also hurting Maryland’s chances is a challenging conference schedule. Expect the non-conference visit to Morgantown to be a defeat as West Virginia should be no slouch. Then they dive right into Big Ten play with Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State all within 4 weeks. To make matters worse, Maryland plays Wisconsin and Michigan State back-to-back in early November. A 6-6 record should be seen as a success, even if it seems like treading water.
6) Rutgers Scarlet Knights (2014: 8-5)
Another sophomore in the Big Ten, Rutgers is still trying to upgrade to Big Ten play. They fared ok their first year out but will face some serious challenges. The offense has serious question marks and a quarterback carousel will be its biggest hurdle. The skill positions have some talent with WR Leonte Carrou providing a little star power along with a deep backfield. But the defense is very young and should pose little resistance against the big time offenses of the Big Ten. Look for a 6-6 season to be considered a success if the Knights can pull out a victory over Nebraska or Maryland.
7) Indiana Hoosiers (2014: 4-8)
The Hoosiers have potential. But that is about it. Replacing big time RB Tevin Coleman will be nearly impossible and while QB Nate Sudfeld can sling it, he needs to stay healthy. Sudfeld will also need to consistently score, and a lot, as the Hoosier defense is going to stuggle. UAB transfer LB Jordan Howard will help stem the tide and CB Tegray Scales is a potential star. But while Indiana has a soft non-conference schedule, look for them to struggle once conference play begins with Ohio State first on the list. 5-7 overall looks about right but one or two conference wins is all Indiana will muster this year.
1) #20 Wisconsin Badgers (2014: 11-3)
This isn’t the Wisconsin teams that we are accustomed to. That’s not a knock on this year’s squad but this version is a little watered down. That being said, this is not a team to take lightly as no Wisconsin team ever is. Defensively OLB Vince Biegel is a stud and the secondary will be very good. The offensive line will be strong per usual and Corey Clement will replace Melvin Gordon at RB and should shine. The big question is whether or not 5th year senior QB Joel Stave can finally show some consistency to match his talent. And this is key because Wisconsin will miss all the big boys in conference play as Ohio State and Michigan State, nor Penn State and Michigan will play the Badgers until a potential conference title game. While that all looks pretty, a season opener against Alabama will be a loss and I can see them dropping at least another game elsewhere as Nebraska and Minnesota could trip them up if Stave can’t figure it all the way out. But I still see at 10-3 record at worst for this team with a berth in the conference title game to boot.
2) Nebraska Cornhuskers (2014: 9-4)
When I look at the Big Ten West, Nebraska stands out as the program most likely to contend with Wisconsin for the next decade. I love the hire of head coach Mike Riley who should stabilize a program that had its ups and downs throughout the Pelini era. Riley made a winner out of Oregon State and I expect nothing less with a better program in Nebraska. But I’ll ease off my full-on praise machine because short-term, this team has some holes. Defensively they will be stout with defensive tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine anchoring the unit. Offense will be where the drama unfolds. Riley runs a pro-style system and will be attempting to convert the athletic Tommy Armstrong into a dropback passer. There will be growing pains, especially as the Cornhuskers try to replace all-everything back Ameer Abdullah. The concern is that this young squad opens the season by playing BYU and Miami in the first 3 weeks, giving Armstrong and Co very little time to iron out the wrinkles. Matchups with Wisconsin on October 10th and Michigan State on November 7th will determine if Nebraska gets a crack at the conference title. I don’t see it this year and while they will be competitive a 7-5 record is where they will fall as a loss to the Spartans late in the season will slot them behind Wisconsin.
3) Minnesota Golden Gophers (2014: 8-5)
Poor Gophers. I’m sure when they scheduled their home opener with TCU a few years ago no one was saying that the Horned Frogs would have a #2 ranking, Heisman hopeful quarterback, and an offense that can finally match its defense. After the slaughter though, Minnesota gets some reprieve. The offense needs to show improvement which will be hard with the loss of TE Maxx Williams to the pro level. A new no-huddle offense will help QB Mitch Leidner but a lack of talent is hard to replace. The defense will have some bite with 2 All-Big Ten corners and Hank Ekpe at defensive end. While this team should contend in most games, Ohio State in November along with Michigan and Wisconsin will create some tough Saturdays up in Minneapolis. 7-5 appears to be their destiny and if they can beat Nebraska look for them to have an outside shot at Wisconsin the end the season.
4) Northwestern Wildcats (2014: 5-7)
How has no one poached Pat Fitzgerald yet? Seriously this guy can coach. I know he’s an alumnus but man to have a winning record at Northwestern is impressive. This year’s squad has some talent with RB Justin Jackson and WR Christian Jones but a QB is desperately needed. Look for some funky spread looks and a lot of running. Defensively there is talent but just like on offense it needs to mature. Fitzgerald needs to have his eyes on the future for this team. They have some tough matchups in non-conference with Stanford and Duke both on the slate. They also catch Michigan and Penn State to go along with Wisconsin. But I see this squad surprising a few people and snagging a bowl berth at 7-5. Watch out for the Wildcats in the next few years.
5) Iowa Hawkeyes (2014: 7-6)
I know it doesn’t seem right, but is Kirk Ferentz on the hot seat at Iowa. The man has been there since 1999 and brought stable success to the Hawkeyes. But he hasn’t won a conference title since 2004 and not since 2009 has he been to a big time bowl game. There has been talent on the field, but it hasn’t produced lately. Ferentz had a bit of an overhaul this offseason both stylistically and on the field. QB CJ Beathard was inserted into the starter’s role midway through last season and he has a chance, a chance, to be good. Defensively, this team will need to be carried by DE Drew Ott and CB Desmond King. I just don’t see enough talent for Iowa to compete. If they can get by in-state rival Iowa State, they kick off conference play by traveling to Wisconsin. This has the look of a 6-6 squad with 4 conference defeats. With a new AD and athletic staff in place, Ferentz (the nation’s second longest tenured head coach) could be on his way out.
6) Illinois Fighting Illini (2014: 6-7)
Talk about a sudden turn for the worse for Illinois. Head Coach Tim Beckman was unexpectedly and dramatically fired last week for interfering with medical decisions regarding his players. This for a program already in flux and trending the wrong way after a number of disappointing seasons since their Rose Bowl berth in 2008. The hope has to be that the players rally around all the turmoil. I think they will. QB Wes Lunt is talented but injuries to his top receivers won’t help. RB Josh Ferguson had a strong 2014 campaign but can he sustain that behind a weak offensive line? The defense will also struggle. I see Illinois surprising people and defeat North Carolina before starting conference play. But the Fighting Illini will see Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State over a 4-week span which will demoralize this shaken squad. They will finish up with a 5-7 record and try to rebuild their program yet again.
7) Purdue Boilermakers (2014: 3-9)
This is a team with little chance. Harsh to say but that’s reality. They have no quarterback and while the offensive line will be half decent, their complete lack of skill weapons will show. The defense also has little in terms of talent. Maybe JaWhaun Bentley can shine and Austin Appleby can find something under center but other than that look for Purdue to be a warmup game for her Big Ten brethren. A 3-9 season would look good for the Boilermakers.
Conference Title Game – Ohio State over Wisconsin
Offensive Player of the Year – Ezekiel Elliott – RB Ohio State
Defensive Player of the Year – Joey Bosa – DE Ohio State