Big Ten 2015 Football Preview by Michael Leese

Big Questions

  •   Can Ohio State repeat?
  •   Will Purdue sneak into a bowl?
  •   Who will win the West?
  •   Which coach is on the hot seat?
  •   Is Jake Rudock the answer for the Wolverines?
  •   Which new coach will have the biggest impact?
  •   What team is the most improved in 2015?

Big Games

  • 9/5     Stanford at Northwestern, BYU at Nebraska, Wisconsin vs. Alabama
  • 9/12   Oregon at Michigan State
  • 9/19    Northwestern at Duke
  • 9/26    Indiana at Wake Forest
  • 10/10  Wisconsin at Nebraska
  • 10/24  Penn State at Maryland   (In Baltimore)
  • 11/7    Iowa at Indiana
  • 11/21  Michigan State at Ohio State
  • 11/21  Michigan at Penn State

Big-Impact Newcomers

  • Indiana – RB  Jordan Howard
  • Iowa – DL Nathan Bazata
  • Maryland – T  Damian Prince
  • Michigan – T  Erik Magnuson
  • Michigan State – RB  L.J. Scott
  • Nebraska – G  Jerold Foster
  • Northwestern –  QB  Clayton Thorson
  • Ohio State – WR  Jalin Marshall
  • Penn State – TE Mike Gesicki
  • Rutgers – LB Kaiwan Lewis
  • Wisconsin – DE  Alec James

Big Coaching Hires

  • Michigan –  Jim Harbaugh, head coach
  • Nebraska – Mike Riley, head coach
  • Wisconsin – Paul Chryst, head coach

Team-by-team

East Division

INDIANA      I could go several ways with this team.   The Hoosiers have disappointed me two years in a row, but I will again jump on the bandwagon.   The loss of 2,000 yard rusher Tevin Coleman, may seem like something they can’t overcome, but transfer Jordan Howard will fill those shoes admirably.    They also add in, two potential game breakers at receiver in Camion Patrick and Marqui Hawkins.    Quarterback Nate Sudfield returning from injury, will benefit from the newcomers.   The defense is what concerns me, with only five returning starters, but this side of the ball also gets some key transfers joining the squad.    If the Hoosiers can start 4-0, (key game week four at Wake Forest)  they should get to a bowl for the first time since 2007.

MARYLAND   The Terrapins surprised many last season, with a 4-4 conference mark in their first season in the Big Ten.   This season the Terrapins will take a step back, as they lose too many quality players.    The offense suffered some major blows, with the departures of C.J. Brown and Stefon Diggs, and a major overhaul on defense will take place.  Maryland will bring up the rear of the East.

MICHIGAN      The Jim Harbaugh era began and he wasted little time pumping up the fans here in Ann Arbor.   One thing we know for sure, is that Harbaugh’s teams at Stanford were tough and physical.    Wolverine fans need to exercise patience, this is not going to be an overnight fix.  The Wolverines will evolve as the season moves along, and I do think Michigan gets back to the post-season.

MICHIGAN STATE   If anyone can unseat the Buckeyes this season, it’s this band of Spartans.    It seems like quarterback Connor Cook has been here for a decade, and he has gotten better each year.  He’s led the Spartans to a Big Ten Championship and bowl wins over in the Rose Bowl and the Cotton Bowl.  But he is a senior and this will be his final season under center.   The Spartans need a solid running game to make their offense go and replacing Jeremy Langford and Tony Lippett could prove challenging.  Madre London and L.J. Scott could play huge roles.   The defense, always a Spartan staple, could also take a hit with departure of Pat Narduzzi to take the head coaching job at Pittsburgh.  Ed Davis and Shilique Calhoun provide a solid nucleus on this side of the ball.    Road games at Nebraska and Ohio State could be bumps in the road.

OHIO STATE   Can you believe that the Buckeyes haven’t lost a regular season conference game since 2011?   The defending National Champions will be looking to keep that streak alive as they enter 2015.    This team is stocked with elite talent and the only real looming question, is who will win the quarterback battle.   J. T. Barrett and Cardale Jones will compete for the top spot, after previous Big Ten Player of the Year Braxton Miller moved to receiver.   The offense will thrive, no matter who wins the job.    Defensively they get the top four leading tacklers back, led by Joshua Perry and Vonn Bell.    Also back is All-American candidate and sack master Joey Bosa.    The Buckeyes are the team to beat!

PENN STATE    This is my surprise team this season in the Big Ten.   Every indicator I use in predicting success, is in play here.   First, you must have a solid proven quarterback, which the Lions have in Christian Hackenberg.  Then you need a line and he’ll be behind what is now a veteran offensive line that. You need a stout defense and the Lions allowed only 18 points-per-game last season.   They get seven starters back and should be improved on that side of the ball as well.  They also have a schedule that is very manageable.   They play a soft non-conference slate and avoid Wisconsin and Nebraska from the West.  In addition, the Lions have only four true road games.

RUTGERS   Kyle Flood enters his fourth season as the head coach having taken his squad to a bowl game in each year.    This season might be a struggle, as major holes must be filled.   The quarterback race is wide open.   Both Hayden Rettig (LSU Transfer) and Chris Laviano are waging a heated battle.    The offensive line also needs mending.    The lone constant on offense is standout receiver Leonte Carroo, the top returning receiver in the conference!    The Scarlet Knights return only five starters on defense, with the secondary losing three of four.   The schedule is also will leave the Knights seeing red as they draw both Nebraska and Wisconsin from the West.   This will be a rebuilding year for the Knights.

West Division

ILLINOIS   Tim Beckman is going to miss out on what would have been his best team.  The Illini have 15 returning starters, as a youngsters become experienced.   The offense should make a dramatic improvement with the return of quarterback Wes Lunt, and leading rusher Josh Ferguson.  The defense should be improved and features one of the better secondaries in the conference.   The schedule has them drawing both Penn State and Ohio State from the East, plus has a road trip to North Carolina.   The Illini have the pieces in place to have a great 2016.

IOWA   Kirk Ferentz will enter his 17th season on the sidelines with a team no different then years past.   What you get from a Hawkeyes team is never flashy, but always workman like.  I like the transition at quarterback from Jake Rudock to C.J. Beathard.   The defense will be the cornerstone this year, as seven starters return giving them a solid nucleus.  The Hawkeyes travel to Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

MINNESOTA      Head coach Jerry Kill has taken the Golden Gophers to three straight bowl games, including their first New Years Day bowl game in more than 50 years.   He is one of the most underrated coaches in the country, and no matter where he is, every year he seems to have his teams in the thick of things.  That’s why my prediction could be a big mistake on my part — I think the Gophers will take a step back this season.    It’s not so much about the lack of talent, more about other teams are on the rise.    Mitch Leidner returns at quarterback.  He has gotten better each year, after playing as a freshman.   But the Gophers lose their top running back and receiver in David Cobb and Maxx Williams.  The defense should again be opportunistic, but will need the Ekpe brothers to have big years.   The Gophers open with TCU and do get both Nebraska and Wisconsin at home.

NEBRASKA    After years of solid but not spectacular results, the Cornhuskers decided to make a change and got the right man for the job.  Mike Riley comes over from Oregon State to takeover for Bo Pelini.   A fresh approach with a very talented roster will pay immediate dividends here.    While the Huskers lost a lot of NFL talent, they get back several key performers.   I expect quarterback Tommy Armstrong to thrive in the new offense.   I believe Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor will pick up the slack for the departed Amer Abdullah,    The defense also lost some big names, but several very talented players are ready to step in.    The schedule is favorable, as they get Wisconsin and Michigan State at home!  I expect the Huskers to get better as the season rolls along.

NORTHWESTERN  Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald played middle linebacker here for four years and his upbeat approach resonates with his players.  It’s not just being upbeat to think that the Wildcats have a chance to have a very special season.  To do that they will need a big year from the quarterback position, as the highly touted Clayton Thorson takes over. He’ll have plenty of weapons at his disposal.     The defense should be much improved with eight returning starters, including the entire line.   Look for the Wildcats to be back in the post season.

PURDUE    When Darrell Hazell took over at Purdue, he choose to go with a youth movement.  The Boilermakers are 1-15 in Big Ten play in that time, but his approach should now start to pay dividends.    Eight startrers return to an offense that will features one of the better offensive lines in the league. Defensively the Boilers should continue to improve.   There are only six projected senior starters on this club.  The non-conference schedule is tough, but the Boilers are on the way up.  I believe that Hazell will have this team bowling in 2016.

WISCONSIN    Paul Chryst returns to the school where he played and coached.   This reunion is a perfect fit and should pay immediate dividends.    Chryst returns a talented roster, led by quarterback Joel Stave.    Stave is not the most dynamic, but he has a penchant for winning.   There are some major concerns on offense.  One is  as good as Corey Clement is, he is not Melvin Gordon.    The bigger issue is an offensive line that needs to replace three starters.   The defense should again be solid.  For the second year in a row, the Badgers open against a tough SEC opponent, taking on Alabama in Arlington, Texas.   The game at Nebraska should decide the the Western Division, as the Badgers may be favored in the rest of their conference games, and they draw Maryland and Rutgers from the East.

 

PROJECTED STANDINGS

East

  • OHIO STATE               8-0   12-0              
  • MICHIGAN STATE    6-2   10-2            
  • PENN STATE               6-2   10-2              
  • MICHIGAN                  4-4    6-6               
  • INDIANA                      3-5    7-5                
  • RUTGERS                     1-7    4-8                
  • MARYLAND                 1-7   3-9      

West

  • NEBRASKA                8-0   11-1
  • WISCONSIN              7-1   10-2
  • IOWA                            4-4   7-5
  • NORTHWESTERN   3-5   6-6
  • ILLINOIS                     3-5   6-6
  • MINNESOTA              1-7   4-8
  • PURDUE                      1-7   4-8

Big 10 Championship Game – Ohio State vs. Nebraska

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