The Big Ten featured a couple of surprise division winners last season. The Michigan State Spartans managed to win the stacked East despite that fact that everyone was picking Ohio State to win the National Championship. They beat both Ohio State and Michigan on the road last season.
In the West, the Iowa Hawkeyes capped off a 12-0 regular season that nobody could have seen coming. They came within a play of beating Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship, which would have gotten them in the four-team playoff.
Instead, the Spartans were the Big Ten representative in the four-team playoff, and they proceeded to disappoint by getting blown out by Alabama 38-0. Iowa disappointed in the Rose Bowl as well with a 16-45 loss to Stanford. Ohio State would show well in the Fiesta Bowl with a 44-28 trouncing of Notre Dame, though.
The East really looks like there are four possible contenders in 2016 with Michigan getting most of the hype coming in. The West also has a handful of teams capable of winning the division. Here is how I have both divisions playing out in 2016.
Big Ten East Predictions
1st: Michigan (11-1, 8-1 Big Ten)
The Wolverines went 10-3 in Jim Harbaugh’s first year on the job with narrow losses to both Utah and Michigan State. Now they return 14 starters and are the most talented team in the Big Ten in 2016. They are strong in all areas, and they should get even better quarterback play even though they’re breaking in a new starter. They do add Wisconsin and Iowa from the West while playing both Michigan State and Ohio State on the road. So the schedule is the only concern, but I believe they are good enough to overcome it and win the East.
2nd: Ohio State (9-3, 7-2 Big Ten)
It’s hard to overlook the fact that Urban Meyer is 31-1 in Big Ten play since coming to Ohio State. However, with just six returning starters and being the least experienced team in the conference, I cannot pick them to win this year. The good news is that quarterback JT Barrett returns, so their will be no controversy at that position. The Buckeyes do have to play both Nebraska and Wisconsin from the West while also traveling to Michigan State and Penn State. They play Oklahoma on the road out of conference as well. I don’t expect the Buckeyes to live up to their usual lofty standards in 2016, but a second-place finish in this division isn’t bad.
T-3rd: Penn State (9-3, 6-3 Big Ten)
I’m really high on Penn State this year and nearly picked them to win the East. This is Year 3 under James Franklin, which is where coaches usually shine the most. There’s no question that this is the best team Penn State has had since the sanctions. The offense should be vastly improved with a mobile quarterback in Trace McSorley, who threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter of the bowl game. He’ll have the luxury of working with one of the best running backs in the Big Ten in Saquon Barkley (1,076 yards, 7 TD, 5.9/carry last year) and the best receiving corps in the conference, led by Chris Godwin (69 receptions, 1,101 yards, 5 TD in 2015). Their schedule makes them a contender as they get Michigan State, Ohio State and Iowa at home. This is a team that will push for 10 wins with a bowl victory.
T-3rd: Michigan State (8-4, 6-3 Big Ten)
Just like Ohio State, this appears to be a down season for Michigan State. The Spartans only return 10 starters and are the second-least experienced team in the Big Ten. The key loss is on offense where QB Connor Cook is no longer around after leaving as the school’s all-time leading passer. The Spartans benefited from being +14 in turnover differential last season while also winning six games by a touchdown or less. The schedule still makes them a contender because they draw Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin at home. I just don’t believe this team has the talent or experience to compete for the East crown.
5th: Indiana (6-6, 3-6 Big Ten)
It’s amazing how close Indiana came to beating four of the top teams in the Big Ten last year. They took Ohio State to the final play, lost to Michigan in overtime after giving up a TD on the final play of regulation, only trailed Michigan State 28-26 with five minutes left, and fell just eight points short of Iowa. Even though they lost all of those games, they still made their first bowl game since 2007. I believe this team has what it takes to get back to a bowl again with 13 returning starters and some underrated talent on offense. Plus, this should be Kevin Wilson’s best defense yet in his six seasons at Indiana. Getting five Big Ten home games will also help their cause. The Hoosiers are certainly sleepers in the Big Ten in 2016.
T-6th: Maryland (5-7, 2-7 Big Ten)
The Terrapins had some pretty poor fortune in going 3-9 overall and 1-7 in Big Ten play last year. They were actually only outgained by 30.3 yards per game in Big Ten play. What killed them was their -18 turnover differential, and that isn’t likely to happen again. But new head coach DJ Durkin still has his hands full with just 12 returning starters. The Terps do have a shot at opening 4-0, which I have them doing, but they’re likely to go 1-7 the rest of the way. They’ll probably be an underdog in seven of their final eight games of the season, which includes Penn State, Michigan State, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska. That’s why I don’t see much progress being made here in Durkin’s first season.
T-6th: Rutgers (4-8, 2-7 Big Ten)
The Scarlet Knights were decimated by injuries last year that led to a 4-8 season and a 1-7 mark in conference play. New head coach Chris Ash has some promising talent to work with in his 16 returning starters. But he also has a lot of ground to make up as Rutgers was outgained by 166.9 yards per game, which was the worst mark in the conference. They do get five Big Ten home games with winnable ones against Illinois and Indiana. Unfortunately, I can’t see them winning many more games outside of those two within the conference. So I’ll call for a last-place finish for the Scarlet Knights in the East.
Big Ten West Predictions
T-1st: Iowa (9-3, 6-3 Big Ten)
The Hawkeyes came out of nowhere to go 12-0 while earning a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game. There, they nearly beat the Michigan State Spartans, falling just a few yards short in a 13-16 loss. They went on to get stomped by Stanford 16-45 in the Rose Bowl. Iowa certainly had a ton of good fortune last year en route to its 12-0 start. It actually only outgained Big Ten foes by 36.6 yards per game during its 8-0 start in the conference. But the Hawkeyes do return 13 starters this season and have another very favorable schedule. While they do have five Big Ten road games, none of those foes had a winning record in conference play last year as they combined to go 10-30. Iowa gets all of its tough opponents at home in Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan and Northwestern. That gives it a great chance of repeating as West champs while winning the tiebreaker with a home victory over the Huskers.
T-1st: Nebraska (9-3, 6-3 Big Ten)
The Huskers had some extremely poor luck last season late in games in finishing 3-5 in Big Ten play. They actually outgained opponents by 28.1 yards per game within the conference and lost five games in the final seconds, meaning they were essentially five plays away from being 11-2. Entering Year 2 of Mike Reilly, the Huskers come in with high expectations now. They bring seven starters back on offense, including electric QB Tommy Armstrong. There are six starters back on defense on what should be an improved unit. While I believe the Huskers are the most talented team in the West, four tough road games against Northwestern, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa has me calling for them to finish in a tie for first while losing the tiebreaker to the Hawkeyes.
T-3rd: Wisconsin (7-5, 5-4 Big Ten)
The Badgers were a 6-10 home loss to Iowa away from winning the West last year. They actually outgained the Hawkeyes 320-221 for the game, but couldn’t punch it in in the red zone. They still finished 10-3 after beating USC in the bowl game in what was a successful first season for head coach Paul Chryst. The loss of defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is huge, but they should still field a solid defense with six starters back. They also need to get back to running the football on offense after averaging only 150 yards per game on the ground last year. It will be imperative to find better QB play as well, and they’re hoping senior Bart Houston can play better than Joel Stave did last year. What kills the Badgers this year is that they play the toughest schedule of any team because they draw Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan out of the East. They also face both Iowa and Northwestern on the road. That schedule has me calling for a third-place finish in the West.
T-3rd: Minnesota (8-4, 5-4 Big Ten)
The Golden Gophers are the one team that I could see surprising and winning the West this year. They lost on the last play to Michigan and gave Iowa all it could handle on the road last season en route to finishing 5-7. They still made a bowl game and benefited from extra bowl practice will beating Central Michigan. Tracy Claeys is no longer the interim head coach and his players love him. Claeys will be working with 13 returning starters, including do-it-all QB Mitch Leidner. The reason the Gophers have a chance of winning the West is because they avoid Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State out of the East. They have the easiest schedule of any team in the West as a result.
5th: Northwestern (7-5, 4-5 Big Ten)
After two straight disappointing 5-7 seasons, the Wildcats managed to go 10-3 last year while beating the likes of Stanford, Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin. However, they were throttled by Tennessee 45-6 in the bowl game, and they were certainly fortunate to win 10 games. Despite going 6-2 in Big Ten play, the Wildcats were actually outgained by 39.3 yards per game, which was 6.4 yards per game worse than they fared in 2014. I expect big-time regression from them and a middle-of-the pack finish in the West. A big reason why is that they draw both Ohio State and Michigan State from the East, and they have five Big Ten road games.
6th: Illinois (5-7, 2-7 Big Ten)
The case can certainly be made that the Fighting Illini were better than their 2-6 conference record would indicate last season. They were only outgained by 16.5 yards per game in conference play. They do have one of the best quarterbacks in the conference in Wes Lunt returning, which gives them a chance despite bringing just 11 starters back. The schedule is the biggest reason I’m down on the Fighting Illini. They draw both Michigan and Michigan State out of the East, and they have five Big Ten road games. Illinois hasn’t had a winning season in Big Ten play since 2007, and that is sure to continue here.
7th: Purdue (3-9, 1-8 Big Ten)
The Boilermakers were certainly more competitive in Darrell Hazell’s third season last year despite their 2-10 record. They killed Nebraska at home, while also giving both Michigan State and Iowa all they wanted on the road. Signs are pointing up now as Purdue as the most experienced team in the Big Ten with 16 returning starters. It also avoids Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State out of the East, so the schedule isn’t terrible. The problem is that it only gets four Big Ten home games and all four are against tough teams in Iowa, Penn State, Northwestern and Wisconsin. That means most of Purdue’s winnable games will be on the road, and I’m not so sure it will be favored in any Big Ten game this year. That’s why I’ll call for yet another last-place finish in the West.
Big Ten Championship Game: Michigan Defeats Iowa
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