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College Football Preview 2016-2017: Previewing the Big Ten

Justin Jackson, Northwestern
Big Ten Conference

2015 In Review: After a miraculous run to win the first ever College Football Playoff Championship in 2014-2015, Ohio State appeared to be the nation's most complete team entering last year. The Buckeyes struggled to find their rhythm offensively early on, but found their groove as the season progressed. However, a late loss to division rival Michigan State ruined their Big Ten title hopes. OSU still responded by punishing archrival Michigan 42-13 and winning the Fiesta Bowl over Notre Dame. Michigan State got a big win early in the non-conference against Oregon, but inched by mediocre opponents for a long time. Even so, win against Ohio State and Michigan in crazy ways helped them get to the Big Ten Championship and eventually the Playoff. Michigan doubled their win total from 5 to 10 and appear to be extremely dangerous as we enter 2016, while Iowa came out of nowhere to go 12-0 in the regular season and win a disappointing Big Ten West. A loss to MSU finished their undefeated season, and a blowout loss at the hands of Stanford in the Rose Bowl left them hungry to prove last season wasn't a lucky fluke.

Big Ten East Rankings

1. Michigan Wolverines National Rank: 3
In the midst of beefs with rivals through social media or drama pertaining to satellite camps, Jim Harbaugh had quite a year on the football field with Michigan in 2015-2016. The Wolverines won 10 games and their defense pitched three shutouts, the most of any FBS football team. This is the perfect time for Michigan to take the next step and win the Big Ten, particularly considering Ohio State and Michigan State are in a rebuilding state. Offensively, receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson will hope to break in new quarterback John O'Korn, a Houston transfer. Running back De'Veon Smith could be UM's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2007, after piling up 753 last year. On defense, new defensive coordinator Don Brown should run an aggressive, varying scheme. Do-it-all Jabrill Peppers will likely move to linebacker, where the Wolverines will ask him to rush the passer and help in coverage. Cornerback Jourdan Lewis gives the Wolverines one of the conference's best. With all their talent and a soft non-conference slate, UM has a prime opportunity to win the Big Ten and be in serious Playoff contention in 2016.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes National Rank: 8
This past spring, Ohio State was decimated by the NFL Draft. Offensive weapons like Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall along with defenders Joey Bosa, Darron Lee and Eli Apple all decided to turn pro. While that leaves Ohio State as one of the nation's most inexperienced teams, they still have the talent to be very good. Junior QB J.T. Barrett should lock down starting duties full-time and should have a huge year, while redshirt freshman Mike Weber could be just as good as Elliott in the long run at back. The receiver corps will need new stars to emerge, but people are excited about what sophomore speedster Noah Brown can do. Defensively, the Buckeyes still have a rich abundance of talent, namely defensive end Sam Hubbard and linebacker Raekwon McMillan (119 tackles in '15). The secondary will be youthful, but junior corner Gareon Conley has all the tools to be shutdown. OSU doesn't have quite the easy schedule as Michigan (Oklahoma non-conference, road trips to Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State) but they still have the playmakers to win the Big Ten.
3. Michigan State Spartans National Rank: 12
It was a pretty magical year in East Lansing last season for Michigan State. The Spartans won 12 games, won the Big Ten, made the Playoff and had some crazy wins over rivals Michigan and Ohio State. They enter 2016 without star quarterback Connor Cook and a proven passing game, but they will still be in the mix for the Big Ten crown. Senior Tyler O'Conner appears to be the heir to Cook's throne, and will be supported by a deep stable of backs, led by workhorse sophomore L.J. Scott. On defense, MSU should be as stout as ever. Defensive tackle Malik McDowell is a monster that should soften the loss of Shilique Calhoun, and senior linebacker Riley Bullough will make tackle after tackle. Don't expect the Spartans to be very flashy entering '16, but they have been one of the league's most consistent programs over the past five years, they'll be very strong again.
4. Penn State Nittany Lions National Rank: Unranked
Entering just his third year in State College, head coach James Franklin is feeling significant heat with the Nittany Lions. Penn State has had two consecutive 7-6 records under his lead, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Penn State is 0-5 against ranked teams under Franklin, 0-6 against the Big Ten East powers (OSU, Michigan, MSU) and went a very average 4-4 against the conference in 2015. That has put significant pressure on the former Vanderbilt head coach, but this may be his most talented team since ar
riving here. Sophomore Trace McSorley takes over for the departed Christian Hackenberg, who was frustratingly inconsistent in his final two seasons with the Nittany Lions. While McSorley doesn't have the arm strength of Hackenberg, he is a better fit for the offense. Sophomore back Saquon Barkley rushed for 1,076 yards last year and should be even better, and PSU possesses a dangerous 1-2 punch at receiver in Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton. However, the defenses loses some key pieces, namely end Carl Nassib and tackle Anthony Zettel, and is very inexperienced. PSU should be much better this season, but imagining them hopping over UM, OSU or MSU to win the East is unrealistic when considering their inexperience and lack of depth in many areas.
5. Indiana Hoosiers National Rank: Unranked
After five years at the helm, head coach Kevin Wilson finally got Indiana to a bowl game last season. It was loss in the Pinstripe Bowl, but it was still definitely progress for a football program that had been floundering for years. The Hoosiers will put up quite a bit of points in 2016 in Wilson's fast-paced offense, even without QB Nate Sudfeld and back Jordan Howard. Junior receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr. is criminally underrated, and junior back Devine Redding (who should replace Howard) ran for 1,012 yards a year ago. Indiana has long struggled defensively under Wilson, but there is talent on that side of the ball, led by junior linebackers Tegray Scales and Marcus Oliver. Indiana should put up quite a bit of points, but unless their defense steps up in a big way, moving into the upper half of the division will be tough. Even so, a bowl berth is certainly within reach.
6. Maryland Terrapins National Rank: Unranked
After a solid but unexciting first season in the Big Ten in 2014 going 7-6, Maryland fell apart last season. The offense sputtered early, head coach Randy Edsall was let go, and the team lost much of its fight, resulting in a 3-9 record. The Terrapins move ahead in a new era with former Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin as their head coach. Durkin's defensive expertise will be particularly important, as Maryland struggled mightily on defense last season, allowing 34.4 points per game. Senior cornerback Will Likely is a playmaker in the defensive backfield, but the Terps' pass rush is average at best. On offense, Maryland will hope senior QB Perry Hills can jumpstart a passing game that struggled last season. A very easy non-conference slate (Howard, Florida International, UCF) should help Maryland at least gain some momentum before Big Ten play hits. If they can improve defensively the Terrapins could fight to get over .500.
7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights National Rank: Unranked
Last season was not a fun year in Piscataway, New Jersey, as Rutgers limped to a 4-8 overall record and a 1-7 mark in Big Ten play, which was further overshadowed by academic scandal and suspensions. That disappointing 2015 led the Scarlet Knights to move on from head coach Kyle Flood and end up turning to former Ohio State DC Chris Ash. Ash, much like Durkin at Maryland, will hope to bring his defensive expertise to Rutgers, considering they were also very poor on that side of the ball last year. The defense does have senior defensive linemen Darius Hamilton (six sacks in '15) and some talent in the secondary, but it could still struggle against some of the elite offenses in the division. Offensively, Rutgers has settled on inconsistent Chris Laviano as their go-to at quarterback over former LSU transfer Hayden Rettig. Along with junior backs Robert Martin and Josh Hicks, the offense at least has some serious potential. Even so, Rutgers faces a brutal schedule this season that includes all the Big Ten East powers and Iowa in a cross-division conference battle. Staying out of the cellar may be a goal for Ash in Year One.

Big Ten West Rankings

1. Iowa Hawkeyes National Rank: 14
Few teams in college football surprised as much last year as Iowa, who jumped out to a 12-0 start in the regular season behind a methodical offense and physical defense. Losses in the Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl put a damper on what was definitely a successful year in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes should be tough to stop once more in 2016, as they return many of the top playmakers that helped them so much a season ago. Senior QB C.J. Beathard won't throw deep too often but he is an accurate signal-caller that doesn't make mistakes. The backfield should also be a strength, as senior LeShun Daniels Jr. and junior Akrum Wadley are back from the committee approach Iowa uses last year. On the other side of the ball, Iowa will miss defensive ends Drew Ott and Nate Meier, but should still be stout up front. Linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Desmond King (eight interceptions last year) are among the best in the conference and should fuel the unit.
Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska
2. Nebraska Cornhuskers National Rank: Unranked
After a long tenure at Oregon State, Mike Riley's first season in Lincoln was as disappointing as it could have been. After four straight seasons of at least nine wins, Nebraska slipped to 6-7 this past season, slightly helped by a bowl victory over UCLA. While it was certainly frustrating, those seven losses were by a combined 31 points, as the 'Huskers simply didn't close out games the way they should have last season. With more experience and Riley more comfortable, expect that to change in a big way this year. Senior QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. continues to struggle with turnovers but has the arm strength and talent around him to have a successful final run with Nebraska. Senior receiver Jordan Westerkamp had 918 receiving yards last season and junior De'Mornay Pierson-El is a dangerous threat; they should help guide the inconsistent quarterback. Senior safety Nate Gerry should guide the defense, after leading the 'Huskers with four interceptions and 79 tackles a year ago. While Nebraska could still have growing pains as the Riley era continues to progress, they should find a way to close out more games this season, which could push them back to the nine or ten-win range.
3. Wisconsin Badgers National Rank: Unranked
It wasn't always pretty, but Wisconsin found ways to win last season. The Badgers' poor quarterback play continued on to 2015 and the rushing game, usually their strength, was surprisingly average. Even so, the defense helped fuel Wisconsin to a 10-3 record and a bowl win. The good news entering the 2016 campaign is that the ground attack should certainly improve. Senior back Corey Clement was supposed to breakout last year but struggled with staying healthy. Fellow senior Dare Ogunbowale is also returning after leading the Badgers in rushing last season, with 819 yards. The QB position could continue to be a concern, as Joel Stave moves on, leaving senior Bart Houston (281 passing yards, 57.4 completion percentage) as the likely starter. Defensive coordinator Dave Arranda left to take the same gig at LSU, but the defense should still be very good. Linebacker Vince Biegel is an explosive pass rusher (eight sacks last season) and the secondary has plenty of experience. The biggest question facing the Badgers will be their schedule. Not only do they get cross-division meetings with Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan, they open their season with LSU non-conference. That will challenge Wisconsin certainly, but they still have what it takes to serious contend for the Big Ten West crown.
4. Northwestern Wildcats National Rank: Unranked
After two consecutive 5-7 marks in 2014 and 2015, Northwestern was a surprise last season, winning 10 games and beating Stanford to open the year. The Wildcats should be dangerous once more, thanks to the return of much of a dynamic offense. Sophomore Clayton Thorson was extremely young last season and had some growing pains, but will look to improve as a pure passer this year. He'll be joined in the backfield by junior Justin Jackson, one of the Big Ten's best at his position. On defense, Northwestern will lean heavily on linebacker Anthony Walker, who recorded 122 tackles and 20.5 tackles for loss in '15. Having him to help the rush defense and an experienced secondary headed by corner Matthew Harris should give Northwestern one of the best defenses in the conference this year. However, the offense continues to struggle with consistency and the schedule is loaded with tough road games. Northwestern could be very dangerous, but it is hard to know what you are getting from them. A middle-of-the-road finish in the division seems likely.
5. Minnesota Golden Gophers National Rank: Unranked
Last season, Minnesota appeared to be a dark horse Big Ten West title contender after two straight 8-5 campaigns. Unfortunately, things didn't go quite as planned. The offense never really found its stride without back David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams, and things became even worse when popular head coach Jerry Kill was forced to retire due to health concerns. New head Tracy Claeys (a long-time Kill assistant) won't change a whole lot. This team will still run the ball behind a powerful O-Line and play their bend-not-break defense. Senior quarterback Mitch Leidner continues to make strides, and will be helped out by the Gophers' dangerous 1-2 punch at back, with sophomores Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith. The Gophers took major steps defensively last season and could be very good on that side of the ball again in 2016. Junior linebacker Cody Poock is a tackling machine and the secondary could still be great, led by senior safety Damarius Travis and sophomore cornerback KiAnte Hardin. The Gophers will have to show they can move the ball more effectively this season, but with a relatively favorable schedule they should certainly reach a bowl, at the very least.
6. Illinois Fighting Illini National Rank: Unranked
New Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman didn't wait to make his first big splash with the Illini. In an unexpected move he ditched head coach Bill Cubit after he earned a full-time job this past season (previously an interim head coach for the team) and replaced him with former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith. Smith will bring a winning pedigree and some energy to a stale program, but the roster still has serious holes. Former Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt is solid, but will miss his top receiver Mike Dudek, who was injured in spring and will have to operate behind a poor offensive line. Defensively the Illini possess talent but are rather unproven. Defensive tackle Chunky Clements is a disruptive force in the front seven, and ball-hawking safety Taylor Barton should make plenty of plays in the back. Yet, the team still lacks a great rush defense or dominant pass rush, which could make them average this season. Smith will endure some growing pains in his first season in Champaign, but they still have enough to fight for a bowl appearance.
7. Purdue Boilermakers National Rank: Unranked
The pressure is on for Darrell Hazell at Purdue. The head coach enters his fourth season with the Boilermakers with a 6-30 career mark and 2-10 record last season. The cupboard isn't completely bare in West Lafayette, but they could still be in store for a rough season. Sophomore David Blough s set to take over at quarterback, and will be joined by Markell Jones, a dangerous back. Senior DeAngelo Yancey gives him something to work with on the outside, but the O-Line still lacks much experience or depth. The defensive line should be the strength of the team, as veterans Jake Replogle and Ra'Zahn Howard are back and junior Gelen Robinson has loads of potential. Senior safety Leroy Clark will help the pass defense, but that could still be a problem in '16. With a pretty soft non-conference slate (Nevada, Cincinnati, Eastern Kentucky) Purdue should have enough to at least equal last year's two victories. Anything beyond that is a mystery.

Conference Championship Prediction: Michigan over Iowa

Projected All-Big Ten Team
First Team
QB J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State
RB Justin Jackson, Northwestern
WR Jehu Chesson, Michigan
WR Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska
TE Jake Butt, Michigan
OL Pat Elflein, Ohio State
OL Dan Feeney, Indiana
OL Kyle Kalis, Michigan
OL Brian Allen, Michigan State
OL Jamarco Jones, Ohio State
DL Sam Hubbard, Ohio State
DL Malik McDowell, Michigan State
DL Chris Wormley, Michigan
DL Tyquan Lewis, Ohio State
LB Anthony Walker, Northwestern
LB Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State
LB Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
CB Desmond King, Iowa
CB Jourdan Lewis, Michigan
S Nate Gerry, Nebraska
S Taylor Barton, Illinois

Second Team
QB C.J. Beathard, Iowa
RB L.J. Scott, Michigan State
RB Corey Clement, Wisconsin
WR Chris Godwin, Penn State
WR Simmie Cobbs Jr., Indiana
TE Josiah Price, Michigan State
OL Benny McGowan, Michigan State
OL Damian Prince, Maryland
OL Erik Magnuson, Michigan
OL Jonah Pirsig, Minnesota
OL Cole Croston, Iowa
DL Chunky Clements, Illinois
DL Jake Replogle, Purdue
DL Ryan Glasgow, Michigan
DL Demetrius Cooper, Michigan State
LB Marcus Oliver, Indiana
LB Josey Jewell, Iowa
LB Cody Poock, Minnesota
CB Gareon Conley, Ohio State
CB Will Likely, Maryland
S Leroy Clark, Purdue
S Damarius Travis, Minnesota

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