The perception of the Big Ten last year changed on New Year’s Day. Wisconsin came back to beat Auburn in double-overtime, Michigan State erased a 20-point fourth quarter deficit to beat Baylor, and Ohio State upset Alabama all within a span of 12 hours. What was viewed as the weakest of the Power 5 conferences coming into the day was now considered arguably the strongest.
As we know, Ohio State went on to beat Oregon in the National Championship Game to cap off the improbable run. The Buckeyes have now won 24 straight conference games under Urban Meyer as the Big Ten clearly belongs to them. But Michigan State also finished in the AP Top 5 last year, meaning that the Big Ten was the only conference to have two among the Top 5 at season’s end.
The Big Ten went 6-4 in bowls against Power 5 teams, which was the best mark in the country. Four schools finished in the Top 10 in attendance last year with Ohio State (#1), Michigan (#3), Penn State (#5) and Nebraska (#10). Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman and Ezekiel Elliot finished #1, #2 and #3 in rushing last year as the Big Ten remains a smash-mouth conference.
Ohio State is the favorite to win not only the Big Ten East, but also the conference title and the national title in 2015. Wisconsin is the favorite in the West. But I have a good feeling that both of those teams will get knocked off their pedestals this season. Here are my predictions for the East and West divisions, as well as my overall Big Ten champion.
Big Ten East Predictions
T-1st: Michigan State (11-1, 7-1 Big Ten)
The Spartans’ only two losses last season came against the two teams that played in the National Championship Game in Oregon and Ohio State. They had their chances against both teams. Now they have 14 returning starters and are the most experienced team in the Big Ten. They have a veteran QB on Connor Cook and a solid offensive line that will help pave the way for some new skill players. The defense is loaded with seven starters back and a very strong front seven. Sure, the Spartans have to travel to face Ohio State on November 21, which will likely decide the East. But the visitor has won the last three meetings, and don’t forget that the Spartans beat the Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game in 2013 to prevent them from going to the national championship. I’ll call for Michigan State to upset Ohio State this season, which will give it the tiebreaker into the Big Ten Championship.
T-1st: Ohio State (11-1, 7-1 Big Ten)
The Buckeyes are the favorites to win the Big Ten and National titles for good reason. They have 14 starters back from last year’s championship team. It will be interesting to see what Urban Meyer does at the quarterback position considering he has three guys who have proven they deserve to start. That could create some turmoil among that position group and the team. I just don’t trust teams to come back motivated off a National Championship, and I look for the Buckeyes to slip up this year. I have them losing at home to Michigan State as the visitors have actually won each of the last three meetings. Ohio State is such a massive favorite in every game that I believe there will be some value in fading the Buckeyes in 2015 as they’ll have a target on their backs every week.
3rd: Penn State (10-2, 6-2 Big Ten)
I am a big Penn State fan this season. The Nittany Lions go from having 64 scholarship players last year to 83 this year, which will make a huge difference in James Franklin’s second season. He welcomes back 15 starters from last year’s team while losing only 18 lettermen. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is a potential No. 1 pick in next year’s draft, and he’ll be much better protected this season as the offensive line gained valuable experience last year. The defense was stout last year in allowing just 18.6 points and 279 yards per game and figures to be one of the top stop units in the Big Ten again. Penn State draws Illinois and Northwestern from the West, but unfortunately it has to play the top two teams in the East in Ohio State and Michigan State on the road. It should be favored in every other game and thus I’ll project a 10-2 record for the Nittany Lions in 2015.
4th: Michigan (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten)
Jim Harbaugh could not have stepped into a much better situation. Brady Hoke left him with plenty of talent in the form of 15 starters and 50 lettermen returning, while losing just 18 letter winners. Now it will be up to Harbaugh to revive the offense, which averaged just 20.9 points per game last year. The offensive line and skill positions are loaded, and I look for Harbaugh to get the most out of his quarterbacks. It will most likely be Iowa transfer Jake Rudock, who made 25 starts for the Hawkeyes. The defense has been dominant in recent years and should be again with seven starters back. This could potentially be a special season considering Michigan gets both Michigan State and Ohio State at home, with winnable road games at Maryland, Minnesota and Indiana. I don’t believe all the pieces will fall into place in Harbaugh’s first season, so I’ll call for a 5-3 record within the Big Ten and an 8-4 mark overall.
5th: Indiana (7-5, 3-5 Big Ten)
The Indiana Hoosiers are desperate to get back to their first bowl game since 2007. They had a great shot last season with 17 returning starters, but then QB Tre Roberson transferred, and backup QB Nate Sudfeld was lost for the season after six starters. The end result was a disappointing 4-8 season. With 12 starters and 51 lettermen returning, plus a healthy Sudfeld, I’ll call for the Hoosiers to get to a bowl game in 2015. They brought in UAB transfer Jordan Howard (1,587 yards last year) to take over for Tevin Coleman, and he’ll be running behind a veteran offensive line. Kevin Wilson has recruited well on defense as the stop unit showed tremendous improvement last year. Indiana draws two of the worst teams from the West in Iowa and Purdue, so the schedule isn’t overly difficult. It will be a favorite at home against both Iowa and Rutgers, and it can pull off an upset or two on the road at Maryland and Purdue to easily get to 3-5 within the conference. The non-conference schedule is very easy, so I’ll call for a 7-5 season for the Hoosiers.
T-6th: Rutgers (4-8, 1-7 Big Ten)
Kyle Flood has done an excellent job of exceeding expectations in his three years at Rutgers. He guided the Scarlet Knights to an improbable 8-5 season in 2014 in their first year in the Big Ten. But there are a lot of signs pointing downward heading into 2015. Rutgers only brings back 10 starters and loses 28 lettermen, making it the most inexperienced team in the Big Ten. It gave up 325 rushing yards per game over its final six contests last year. It was outgained by an averaged of 105.9 yards per game in Big Ten play last year, which was the third-worst mark in the conference. Five of the top seven tacklers on D have departed, and they break in a new starting quarterback behind an inexperienced offensive line. Plus, the schedule is absolutely brutal. The Scarlet Knights draw the top two teams from the West in Wisconsin and Nebraska. Their only winnable Big Ten games are at home against Maryland and on the road at Indiana. That leaves them at likely 1-7 within the conference and 4-8 overall.
T-6th: Maryland (4-8, 1-7 Big Ten)
Like Rutgers, Maryland shocked the Big Ten by finishing third in the West division in its first season in the new conference. It went 4-4 in Big Ten play and 7-6 overall for a second straight bowl berth. But the Terrapins had 16 starters back last season and were a veteran bunch, and now they’ll only have 10 starters and 34 lettermen back in 2015 while losing 25 letter winners. There are plenty of signs pointing downward. They were actually outgained by 99.3 yards per game in Big Ten play in spite of their 4-4 record. They now have just three true Big Ten home games considering they play Penn State in Baltimore. They draw Wisconsin and Iowa from the West and stand to be favored in only one Big Ten game, which will be at home against Indiana on November 21. As a result, I’ll call for a 1-7 season within the Big Ten and a 4-8 mark overall since they play West Virginia on the road out of conference.
Big Ten West Predictions
T-1st: Nebraska (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten)
Only two coaches have won at least nine games in seven straight seasons following the 2014 campaign. Nick Saban has the richest contract ever, while Bo Pelini was fired. The Huskers lost exactly four games each of the past seven seasons, but they never quite got over the top, and that wasn’t enough to save Pelini’s job. Mike Riley is an interesting hire as he hasn’t exactly done a whole lot at Oregon State, but he also didn’t have the tools to recruit that he will in Lincoln. He steps into a great situation with 12 starters and 60 lettermen returning. The offense should continue to roll behind junior QB Tommy Armstrong, even the losses of the top two playmakers in Abdullah and Bell. The defense does lose four of the top five tacklers, but there is plenty of talent to make up for it. The schedule sets up well for Nebraska to make a run at the West title. It gets its toughest games at home in Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern. All four of its road games are winnable at Illinois, Minnesota, Purdue and Rutgers. I’ll call for the Huskers to win that October 10 game against Wisconsin to earn the tiebreaker in the West and get back to the Big Ten Championship Game.
T-1st: Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten)
The Badgers had yet another successful 11-3 season last year under Gary Anderson, but it’s hard to get that 59-0 shellacking against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship out of my mind. Andersen questionably bolted for Oregon State, but the Badgers are happy with the hiring of Paul Chryst. He was born in Madison, played QB here, and was the offensive coordinator during their record setting seasons from 2005 through 2011. He has 11 starters and 47 lettermen returning from last year’s team. The loss of Melvin Gordon hurts, but the Badgers always churn out running backs, and Corey Clement may be the next great back here. The key for Wisconsin is getting better QB play as Joel Stave is no more than a game manager. Nine of the top 12 tacklers return on D from a unit that gave up just 20.8 points and 294 yards per game last season. While Wisconsin will be tested right away against Alabama, it will likely be favored in its other 11 games. But I have the Badgers losing their October 10 trip to Nebraska, which will ultimately have them losing out on the tiebreaker for the West title. I’m just not sold that this offense is good enough to win the division.
T-3rd: Northwestern (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten)
The Wildcats won 10 games in 2012 but have gone 5-7 each of the last two seasons. They have been bitten hard by injuries over the last two years, and there’s no question they are due to have better luck in the health department. They beat the likes of Penn State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame last year, so they have the potential to take down great teams. With 14 starters and 62 lettermen returning, they could be one of the most improved teams in the country in 2015. The quarterback play figures to be much better than last year, even if talented freshman Clayton Thorson wins the job. Justin Jackson (1,187 yards, 10 TD) had a tremendous freshman campaign and will be running behind a veteran offensive line. The Wildcats could have their best defense yet under Pat Fitzgerald with eight starters back from a unit that gave up 25.2 points per game last year. Northwestern avoids the top two teams from the East in Ohio State and Michigan State. It only has three true Big Ten road games since it plays Illinois in Chicago. Its four home games are against Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State and Purdue, which are all winnable, as is that game against Illinois. I’ll call for a 4-4 season in the Big Ten and a 7-5 campaign overall for the Wildcats.
T-3rd: Iowa (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten)
It has to be maddening for Hawkeye fans to watch Kirk Ferentz get paid so handsomely for putting such a mediocre product on the field. They play a boring brand of football that led to just a 7-6 season last year with their seven wins coming against the likes of Northern Iowa, Ball State, Pitt, Purdue, Indiana, Northwestern and Illinois. Iowa returns just 12 starters and 40 lettermen. Starting QB Jake Rudock transferred to Michigan, but fans want to see CJ Beathard get a shot anyways since he is more of a dual-threat guy and opens up the offense a little more. The defense returns seven starters and should be solid again. The schedule is very easy as the Hawkeyes get to play Maryland and Indiana from the East. They will be favored in all four of their Big Ten home games against Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota and Purdue. I have them winning all four of those games, but losing all four road games against a much tougher slate of teams. That leaves the Hawks at 4-4 in the Big Ten and 7-5 overall with a likely loss to either Pitt or Iowa State out of conference.
5th: Minnesota (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten)
Jerry Kill knows how to build a program. Within three years at each program, he took Southern Illinois from 1-10 to 10-2, Northern Illinois from 6-7 to 11-3, and Minnesota from 3-9 to 8-5. The Golden Gophers even had a chance to win the Big Ten West in the final week of the season last year. They had Wisconsin down 17-13 at half, but eventually lost 34-24. This year they lose their top two players on offense in RB David Cobb and TE Maxx Williams. The QB play has been shoddy, and the offense will be even worse this season as a result. Only 12 starters return in all for the Gophers, though the defense should be solid once again with seven starters back. The Gophers finished +10 in turnovers last year and averaged a ridiculously low 12.6 yards per point on offense. Those are signs pointing downward. They also draw to of the top teams from the East in Ohio State and Michigan. Minnesota will be a dog at home to Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan, meaning most of its winnable games are on the road. I’ll give Kill some credit and call for Minnesota to finish 3-5 within the conference. It’ll get to 6-6 overall with a loss to TCU out of conference.
6th: Purdue (4-8, 2-6 Big Ten)
After going 1-11 and getting outscored by 23.1 points per game in Darrell Hazell’s first season in 2013, the Boilermakers went 3-9 and were only outscored by 7.9 points per game last year. That jump in point differential really shows just how much they improved last season. With 15 starters and 50 lettermen back in 2015, this will clearly be Hazell’s best team yet. Unfortunately, it might not show up in the win/loss column because of the schedule. The Boilermakers do get Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota at home, and I have them winning two of those three games. They will finish 2-6 within the conference, but a tough non-conference schedule against Marshall, Virginia Tech and Bowling Green will have them settling for a 4-8 season overall. The record won’t necessarily show much improvement, but this team is fully capable of pulling off a handful of upsets in 2015.
7th: Illinois (4-8, 1-7 Big Ten)
It was essential that Tim Beckman get the Fighting Illini to a bowl game last year in his third season on the job. They had to pull off upsets against Penn State and Northwestern in the final two games of the season to get there, but they lost to Louisiana Tech 17-35 in the bowl to fall to 6-7. Beckman should have his best team yet in 2015 with 15 starters and 49 lettermen returning. Plus, QB Wes Lunt will be healthy after missing five games last year with an injury. He had an impressive 14-to-3 TD/INT ratio last season, so his health is imperative to the offense. Lunt has all of his top skill players back from last year, so the offense should be improved. The defense cannot be as bad as it was last year with seven starters returning. While I do believe Illinois is a better team than last year, it won’t show up in the win/loss column. That’s because they draw two of the top three teams from the East in Ohio State and Penn State. They only get three true Big Ten home games since they play Northwestern in Chicago. Those three home games are against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska, meaning most of their winnable games are on the road. They could be an underdog in every conference game this season. I’ll call for a 1-7 record in Big Ten play and a 4-8 mark overall with a loss at North Carolina out of conference.
Big Ten Championship Game: Michigan State Defeats Nebraska
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