With college football officially (Cal vs. Hawaii didn’t count) getting underway this week, let’s take a look at the landscape of the Big Ten heading into the season.
It’s really anybody’s guess who out of Michigan and Ohio State tops the Big Ten, but I’m going with the Wolverines here. Strong on the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and good players all around the field. Major question is quarterback, but Jim Harbaugh has proven his chops on coaching up the position.
2. Ohio State
Urban Meyer has recruited very well since he’s stepped on campus in Columbus, but I’m not sure anyone outside of Alabama could replace what the Buckeyes have to replace (12 NFL draft picks) in 2016. With J.T. Barrett at quarterback, Ohio State will still be one of the better teams in the country, but there’s just a little too much turnover to expect another Big Ten championship.
Iowa has an easy going again thanks to a weak Big Ten West, but let’s give the Hawkeyes some praise. They return a ton of talent both offensively and defensively, being one of the most experienced teams in the country. While they might still be overrated due to piling up the W’s, the 2016 Hawkeyes should be an improved squad from the 2015 version.
4. Michigan State
After a terrific five-year run, I think we see the Spartans take a step back this season. The defense will still be very good, but the losses at quarterback and on the offensive line are just too much to overcome.
5. Penn State
Hey there! Really, the No. 3 to No. 9 teams could all be switched around, but let’s go with the Nittany Lions here. Penn State has its questions marks — quarterback, defensive tackle and the offensive line — but there’s a lot to like in the defensive back seven, the wide receivers, and Saquon Barkley.
Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats are going to have another solid squad, but I’m not sure they’re going to be able to duplicate their 10-win 2015 season. Still, Anthony Walker is one of the most devastating linebackers in the country, and should lead a stingy Northwestern defense.
Similar to Iowa, the Golden Gophers really lucked out schedule wise, trading Ohio State and Michigan for Maryland and Rutgers. In Tracy Claeys’ first season at the helm, eight wins seems doable for an experienced Minnesota team.
After losing a number of close games last fall, there are a lot of pundits high on the Cornhuskers. And while I think Nebraska will be better, I don’t think they’ll take all that significant of a jump. Despite heading into his 8th season, I’m not sure Tommy Armstrong can be depended upon to take Nebraska to the next level.
The opposite of Wisconsin is Minnesota. The Badgers could have the toughest schedule in the Big Ten, having to play LSU, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska, and Northwestern in seven of their first nine games. Wisconsin will still probably get to a bowl game, but the road looks tough.
Although the Hoosiers have questions at quarterback, I’d expect a normal Indiana season. Kevin Wilson and company will float around the six-win mark, but — mainly due to its offensive — will play a number of teams very tough.
The Terrapins very well could be 4-0 heading into the Penn State game, but the reality of the Big Ten East will set in pretty quickly. Can Maryland scrape out two wins in the Big Ten to become bowl eligible? While I like D.J. Durkin, I’m not sure the Terrapins have the answer at quarterback to do so.
The Illini weren’t terrible last season, and while I like the hire of Lovie Smith, I think they’ll struggle a bit in the short-term. There’s not a ton to love offensively, and they’re replacing quite a bit in the secondary.
When Darrell Hazell was hired in West Lafayette, I actually liked the hire. Three seasons later and Hazell is 6-30 (2-22 in-conference) during his tenure. Unfortunately for Purdue fans, I doubt things are much better in 2016.
All things considered, Rutgers actually has some solid offensive pieces, the main one being Janarion Grant. That being said, I’m not sure how they fit into what Chris Ash wants to do offensively. Add in what should be a weak Rutgers defense and a tough schedule, and it becomes clear that Ash’s rebuilding job won’t be a quick one.