Big 10 Conference Preview
Big 10 East

1. The Ohio State Buckeyes were one of the least experienced teams in the nation last year and still they went 11-2. This year they are loaded as they have 15 starters back and are the 4th most experienced team in the Big 10. The Buckeyes also would like to erase the memories of a 31-0 loss to Clemson in the semifinals of the playoffs and they can do that. JT Barrett is back at QB and the Buckeyes have added offensive guru Kevin Wilson as OC. The Buckeyes have their top RB in Mike Weber (1006 yards) returning and while they lose their top three WR from last year, that group still rates as 3rd best in the league. Games are usually won in the trenches and the Buckeyes rate the 3rd best OL and the 2nd best DL in the country, while also having the 11th best LB corps and 8th best secondary in the land. They have a road game against Michigan to end the year, but Michigan will be down some and they get Penn State and Oklahoma at home. This is a legit National Title contender.

2. Penn State came out of nowhere to win the Big 10 Title last year. Their season was highlighted by a 24-21 home win against the Buckeyes. This year they have to play that game on the road and it may be the only game that they are not favored in. Penn State has 15 starters back from last year’s 11-3 team and they come in as the most experienced team in the league and 12th most in the nation. The offense set many records last year and back are QB Trace McSorely (3614 yards, 29 TDs, 8 INTs) and Sequon Barkley (1496 yards 918 TDs) and both should have strong numbers again. Also back are nine of their top 10 receivers from last year and they have a defense that rates as 2nd best in the league. The defense allowed 25.4 ppg last year but they have 24 lettermen back, including six starters on that side of the ball, so they should improve on that number. They have tough roadies against Northwestern and Ohio State, but get Michigan and Nebraska at home and they avoid Wisconsin. This team can and will challenge for the Big 10 East, but come up just a bit short.

3. Michigan is in for a bit of a down year as they were gutted by graduation. The Wolverines are 127th in the nation in experience this year and they have just five starters back, including just one back from a defense that allowed just 14.1 ppg last year. I do not see them duplicating that feat this year. Jim Harbaugh has recruited well, but still they have to replace seven of their top eight tacklers from last year, including Jabrill Peppers, who was one of the best defenders in the nation last year. On offense, they have back just four starters, but one is QB Wilton Spreight, who threw for 2538 yards with 18 TDs and just seven INTs last year, Top RB De ‘Veon Smith and their top three receivers are gone from last year, so the skill positions are a bit lean. They will not come all that close to the 40.3 ppg they put up last year. The Wolverines have road games against Penn State, Wisconsin and a much-improved Indiana squad, while having to deal with Ohio State at home. This team lost too much to challenge for a Big 10 Title, but they will still get at least eight wins and get to another bowl.

4. The Indiana Hoosiers come in off a 6-7 season and they are a much-improved team over that team. They have 62 lettermen back overall, including 15 starters and they rate as the 6th most experienced team in the league. The biggest improvement for them last year was their defense, which allowed 10.4 ppg less than what they allowed in 2015 and this year’s defense could be even better as they have 32 of 38 lettermen back on that side of the ball, including nine starters. Tegray Scales is the leader of the defense after posting 126 tackles, including seven sacks and 16.5 more tackles for loss a year ago. He is a beast and will help this defense improve once again. The offense has six starters back, but they do lose their top RB and three of their top four WR from last year, Still, They have some very solid pieces on this side of the ball, including the 2nd best set of WRs in the Big 10, so they should improve on the 25.8 pg they put up last year. Look for the Hoosiers to get to another bowl game.

5. Michigan State is what they call a “Mission Team” this year as they went from 13, 11 and 12 wins from 2013-2015, but faded to 3-9 last year. I would have them a bit higher in the Big 10 East standings as they are a team on a mission, but they have just eight starters back and are the 2nd least experienced team in the nation. The Spartans have to break in a new QB, have to replace three of their top for receivers, have just three of their top eight tacklers back, plus they have the 11th rated offensive and defensive lines in the league. This is a team that could be in trouble this year and while they are looking to bounce back from a tough season, and while they may be able to squeak out six wins on the year, they just won’t be able to move up in the standings, especially with road games against Ohio State, Northwestern, Minnesota and Michigan, plus a home game against Penn State on their docket.

6. The Maryland Terrapins were 6-7 last year, which included losing a 36-30 thriller to Boston College in the Quick Lane Bowl. That was DJ Durkin’s first year at the helm and they could be better this time around. The Terps have 13 starters back, including seven on a defense that improved by 4.9 ppg last year over 2015. They have their top three tacklers back and 27 of 34 lettermen from that side of the ball overall. The offense has six starters and Caleb Henderson will take over at QB. He is a transfer from North Carolina and was rated 10th in the nation when he came out of school. Their top three backs all return and top WR DJ Moore, while they have an average OL. They could improve on the 25.8 ppg they put up last year. Even though they are improved over last year, the Schedule is very tough and that will keep them near the bottom of the Big 10 East standings and probably out of a bowl game.

7. The Scarlet knights will also be an improved team over the one that went just 2-10 last year, but still, they have a long way to go before escaping the basement of the Big -10 East. Last year they were 0-9 in league play and were outscored 360-86 in those games, while also being -231.2 ypg in league play. Even worse was their play against Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State as they were outscored 224-0 in those games. They have a lot of ground to make up. The Knight have six starters back on offense and will have Louisville transfer Kyle Bolin at QB. They also have their top RB and two of their top three receivers back from last year, so they should easily top the 15.7 ppg they put up last year. On defense, they allowed 37.5 ppg and 451 ypg last year and with eight starters back and 10 of their top 13 tacklers overall, they will improve on the numbers from a year ago. They are improved, but it won’t show in the standings.

Big 10 West

1. The Wisconsin Badgers had another strong season a year ago as they went 11-3 overall and played in the Big 10 Title game, where they lost to Penn State by a score of 38-31. The Badgers are again loaded as they have 52 lettermen back, including 15 starters, while losing just 15 lettermen. They are 8th in the nation in percentage of returning letterman and they are the 3rd most experienced team in the Big 10. The offense averaged a modest 28.4 ppg last year, but with eight starters back, including QB Alex Hornibrook, their top two WRs and four of five offensive linemen, they will improve on last year’s output. The defense has always been a strength of this team and this year will be no different as they have 27 of 33 lettermen back from last year, including eight starters and 16 of their top 20 tacklers. They have allowed 19.1 ppg or less in 5 of their last 6 seasons and this year will be no different. The Badgers get Michigan and Northwestern at home and avoid both Penn State and Ohio State out of the East. The should roll to another Big 10 title game.

2. The Northwestern Wildcats are primed for a big year. They were just 7-6 last year, but they have eight starters back on both sides of the ball and come in tanked 2nd in the league and 17th in the nation in experience. Their offense should top the 26.0 ppg they put up last year, especially with QB Clayton Thorson back, who threw for 3182 yards with 22 TDs and just 9 INTS last year and RB Justin Jackson, who rumbled for 1524 yards and 15 TDs a year ago. They are missing a 1200-yard receiver, but they have eight of their next nine back, plus they have an offensive line that returns four of five starters. This could be a very potent offensive team this year. The defense slipped a little last year but still allowed just 22.2 ppg. This year they have eight of their top 10 tacklers back, but they have major holes in the LB corps and that could keep them from improving on last year’s defensive numbers. The Cats Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road, but they get Penn State at home and avoid Ohio State and Michigan out of the East. I see at least nine regular season wins and a solid bowl invite for the Cats this year.

3. PJ Fleck takes over for a Minnesota team that went 9-4 last year and they could be just as good this year. Fleck steps into a good spot as he has seven starters back from an offense that put up 29.3 ppg last year and we all know what an offensive guru he is as his last two teams at Western Michigan put up 36.0 ppg and 41.6 ppg. This will no longer be a ground and pound offense Demry Croft takes over at QB after redshirting last year and he has a good arm, plus he also has 8 of their top 10 receivers back from last year. They also return RB Rodney Smith, who ran for 1158 yards and 16 TDs last year along with RB Shannon Brooks, who ran for 650 yards and 5 TDs. They will still run the ball, but they will just set up more of a passing game in the end. The defense has just five starters back, but they also have 12 of their top 17 tacklers back as well. The Gophers haven’t allowed more than 25.2 ppg in each of their last five years and they won’t their year either. The Gophers will be a surprise team this year and getting Nebraska at home in mid-November will help them finish in the 3rd slot in the Big 10 West.

4. The Nebraska Cornhuskers were 9-4 in Mike Riley’s 2nd season, but getting to nine wins will not be all that easy this year, The Huskers have just 10 starters back and are ranked 126th in the nation in experience. On offense, they have just four starters back and must replace QB Tommy Armstrong, who was also their 2nd leading rusher. They also have to replace leading rusher Terrell Newby and three of their top four receivers from last year. The OL is the strength of their offense and that means that they may have trouble topping the 26.6 ppg they averaged last year. On defense, they were not bad as they allowed just 23.9 ppg and their year they will need that defense to step up again. They have six starters back on this side of the ball and while they did lose their top three tacklers from last year, they also have back 12 of their next 14. They have solid depth on defense and a good crop of newbies coming in, so they will be improved on defense. They Wisconsin, Ohio state and Northwestern at home, meaning most of their winnable games are on the road, but still they have to play Minnesota and Penn State on the road. An inexperienced team facing a tough schedule should mean a few less wins than last year, but they will still make it to a bowl.

5. The Iowa Hawkeyes has a decent 8-5 season last year, but still, it was a pretty good drop from the 12-2 season they had the year before. The offense was an issue for tyhem last year as they averaged just 24.9 ppg and they must replace QB CJ Beathard and 1000-yard back LeShun Daniels, plus three of their top four WRs. They will look to be a grind it out team this year as they have RB Akrum Wadley back after he ran for 1081 yards and 10 TDs and he will be running behind the 2nd best OL in the league. Still. It will not be easy for them to top last year’s output. It’s a good thing they have eight starters back from a defense that allowed just 18.8 ppg last year. They rate as having the 5th best DL and the 2nd best LB unit s in the league and they should against allow less than 20 ppg. They have Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska on the road and they draw Penn State and Ohio State out of the east. They are both at home, but will be very tough for the Hawkeyes to win. No challenge for the Big 10 West Title, but they should squeak into a bowl game.

6. The Purdue Boilermakers went just 9-39 in Darrell Hazell’s four year at the helm, so in steps Jeff Brohm, who was at Western Kentucky the last few years. He is an offensive guru and each of his last three WKU teams put up at least 44.3 ppg. The Boilers have just five starters back on offense, but one is QB David Blough, who threw 25 TDs last year, but also had 21 INTs. He must cut down on the mistakes and if he does then this offense will thrive, even though they lose their top three receivers from a year ago. They do have their top six ball carriers back from last year and will easily top the 24.6 ppg they put up last year. The defense has ore work to do as they allowed 38.3 ppg and 36.5 ppg the last two years. They do have eight starters back on this side of the ball, but still, all three defensive units rate 9th or worst in the Big 10. New schemes on both sides of the ball a tough schedule and not a lot of talent on defense will keep them from challenging for a bowl bid this year.

7. Lovie Smith did not have a great first year at Illinois as his team went 3-9 overall, including just 2-7 in the Big 10 and they were outgained by 128.2 ypg in league play. They have a lot of ground to make up and it will be hard with just 30 of 56 lettermen back from last year, including just 11 starters. At QB is Dwayne Lawson, who is a transfer from Virginia Tech, where he was highly touted and he has back their top two RBs and top receiver from last year and they all set up behind a very average offensive line. This will not be a great offense, but they will top the 19.7 ppg they averaged last year. The defense was a problem for them last year as they allowed 31.9 ppg and they do have 19 lettermen back on that side of the ball, plus defense is the forte of Lovie Smith, so you can bet they will improve on last year’s numbers. The Illini are pretty even with Purdue, but they face the Boilers on the road and the rest of the schedule is rather tough as well, so while they will be improved on the field, it will not show up in the standings.