After the Big Ten scrapped the ridiculous “Leaders” and “Legends” division upon adding Maryland and Rutgers, Michigan found itself in the same division as its two primary conference rivals. Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio have each won the East once en route to a playoff bid; Ohio State beat Alabama and Oregon to win a national title, while Michigan State was destroyed by the Tide. Michigan managed to hire Jim Harbaugh away from the NFL, and the division added a third elite coach, who turned things around at Michigan immediately.
The Buckeyes went on a crazy postseason run with third-stringer Cardale Jones to win it all in 2014, and their team was loaded with top-tier talent last season. They were the consensus pick to win the conference, but Michigan State went into Columbus without Connor Cook and managed to lock OSU down in a slugfest that left the Buckeye fans apoplectic with the playcalling. Since State came away with a win in Ann Arbor (the forces of the devil were working that night and I refuse to admit otherwise), the Spartans were the surprise winner of the East. Ohio State figured things out and took out their frustrations on Michigan and then Notre Dame in the bowl game. MSU / OSU / UM finished with a combined 31-3 record against other teams.
Meyer, Harbaugh, and Dantonio make the Big Ten East as competitive at the top as any other division in college football. This year, State gets both OSU and UM at home, while Michigan gets both rivals on the road. In terms of the general wax and wane of team quality from year-to-year, Ohio State and Michigan State are on the downswing from last year: OSU loses a ridiculous draft class (there were too many good players to list here, honestly), while MSU loses its star quarterback, best receiver by a mile, two All-American offensive linemen, and three of four defensive linemen (including an All-American). Michigan, by contrast, gets many of its best players back – the Wolverines have several elite position groups (receivers/tight ends, defensive line, and defensive backs).
None of those three teams lost to any of the other four teams in the B1G East (Penn State, Indiana, Rutgers, Maryland). James Franklin is 14-12 so far at PSU, Indiana is a chaotic gadfly but not much more, Rutgers became OSU Jr. and Maryland became UM Jr. after hiring those respective schools’ defensive coordinators. It’s a safe bet that it will come down to Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State – and the winner of the B1G East is the heavy favorite to win the entire conference. There’s a decent chance the division goes three-for-three in playoff appearances.
[team previews after the JUMP]
2015 OSU might go down as the best team to miss the playoff for quite a while; the nucleus of what was a national championship team the year before returned to Columbus – and they inexplicably struggled through the beginning of the season, barely beating NIU and Indiana. The Buckeyes needed a new offensive coordinator after Tom Herman left for Houston and they weren’t able to utilize Cardale Jones or JT Barrett’s skill sets effectively, leaving them rotating between the two. Their backloaded schedule proved to be a problem: they lost to Michigan State 17-14 on senior day in Columbus – and the Spartans were without star QB Connor Cook. The shock of that upset quickly wore off and OSU dominated Michigan, won the bowl game against Notre Dame, and finished with a 12-1 record.
Players quickly declared for the NFL draft, and the Buckeyes sent a loaded class to the pros:
DE Joey Bosa, #3 overall
RB Ezekiel Elliott, #4
CB Eli Apple, #10
LT Taylor Decker, #16
LB Darron Lee, #20
WR Michael Thomas, #47
S Vonn Bell, #61
DT Adolphus Washington, #80
WR Braxton Miller, #85
TE Nick Vannett, #94
LB Joshua Perry, #102
QB Cardale Jones, #139
(WR Jalin Marshall and S Tyvis Powell went undrafted)
Since Ohio State typically recruits as well as anyone, it’s reasonable to assume that there will be some breakout stars from the hordes of unproven blue-chippers on the roster. Still, players like Elliott and Bosa are quite rare (though Bosa’s younger brother could be really good) and it’s definitely possible that OSU struggles at a position group or two as the young players are unready or unable to take over.
The return of JT Barrett is critical. Even though there was a considerable dropoff from Barrett’s outstanding redshirt freshman season (after which he finished 5th in the Heisman voting), the offensive coaches seemed to find some rhythm with him in the last two games. Inconsistent playing time and worse stats in the passing game – 9.0 yards per attempt in ‘15, 6.7 in ‘16, 23 fewer touchdowns – last year should raise some concern, especially because the offensive assistants are a clear downgrade from Tom Herman, who best unlocked Barrett’s potential. Of course, he’s shown that he can be a star, so a sudden improvement wouldn’t surprise.
All-American C Pat Elflein and multi-year starting G Billy Price are the only other returning starters on offense. The Buckeyes lose Ezekiel Elliott’s 1,821 yards and 23 touchdowns rushing, and will be replacing him with redshirt freshman Mike Weber. Outside of H-Back Curtis Samuel (and Barrett), no skill-position player has yet to make a significant impact yet in Columbus. Running back is not as deep as receiver, but there’s no indication as to who will step up for heavy targets yet. Both tackles will be new, and the Buckeyes may have to start true freshman G Michael Jordan (not that Michael Jordan (or the other Michael Jordan)).
Greg Schiano takes over a defense that lost a lot of great players, but should have enough to field a very good defense again. Ends Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard thrived opposite Bosa last season; Raekwon McMillan is a phenomenal inside linebacker; Gareon Conley has a prototypical frame at corner and may have been better than top ten pick Eli Apple was a year ago. The front seven in particular is talented, and the Buckeyes should have a good run defense. Outside of Conley, the secondary might be a little iffy, especially at the second safety spot.
Ohio State gets Michigan State and Michigan in the last two weeks of the season again, but they also travel to Oklahoma for a marquee non-conference matchup. Even if they lose that game, they should stand a good chance of staying in the playoff hunt until November. There are a ton of question marks, but there are some standouts coming back and, with Meyer’s record of 50-4 in Columbus, it’s silly to bet against the Buckeyes fielding an excellent team.
The bad feelings of Fall 2014 were quickly washed away by the hire of Jim Harbaugh; he brought in an Iowa castoff to play quarterback and took mostly the same roster that had gone 5-7 and doubled their win total. Harbaugh’s coaching and “Michigan Man” bona fides were about as good as they come: he built Stanford up from nothing and turned the 49ers around quickly, coming just short of a Super Bowl ring. Brady Hoke left a good amount of talent in Ann Arbor, and Harbaugh made the most of it – the Wolverines vaulted back into the top ten of advanced metrics and they’re a trendy pick to make the playoff in 2016.
Jake Rudock became a legitimate weapon by the end of his one-year rental and Michigan is faced with the prospect of a new starter again – Wilton Speight or John O’Korn will be the biggest question mark on offense, though he’ll be surrounded with a great supporting cast. Michigan returns a potentially elite trio of pass catchers in Jake Butt, Jehu Chesson, and Amara Darboh; there are plenty of options at running back (especially battering ram De’Veon Smith) and tight end; four of five starting offensive linemen return.
Harbaugh’s reputation as a QB guru will be crucial. Michigan wasn’t good enough to run the ball against most of the better defenses on the schedule and while they’ll probably improve with experience and continuity, the Wolverines will probably throw it around a fair amount. With a team that should be content to simply avoid mistakes on offense, there’s a reasonably low bar for Speight or O’Korn to clear. Of course, like all teams, Michigan’s ceiling is predicated on the level of play it can get from its quarterbacks – between the coaching and the talent of their targets, they will be accommodated as well as a new starter could be.
The defense cracked a little bit towards the end of 2015, mostly due to some injuries, but on paper, it’s one of the best in the country. It all starts with the defensive line: between Ryan Glasgow, Chris Wormley, Mo Hurst, Taco Charlton, Rashan Gary, and Bryan Mone, the Wolverines have the potential to have a dominant line – besides quarterback, defensive line is arguably the best position group to have a truly elite cast of players and, barring injuries, Michigan should have that. Generating organic pass rush from the ends is the one potential weak spot, but Taco Charlton could have a breakout senior season as a weakside end.
Jabrill Peppers, Michigan’s [OLB / NB / S / CB / PR / RB / Slot / Wildcat] star, is listed as a linebacker, but the other two linebackers are unproven – the ostensible weak link of the defense. New coordinator Don Brown will dial up some exotic blitzes featuring Peppers and others, a deviation from Michigan’s mostly vanilla defense in 2015. He’ll have the support of a tremendous secondary: Jourdan Lewis leads a great crop of corners, and safeties Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill are extremely fast in the defensive backfield. Michigan was good at avoiding giving up big plays, and Thomas and Hill are both new to being the last line of defense, so there could be iffy moments there.
Aside from a trio of late-season road games, Michigan has a very easy schedule, but those three games will be difficult. UM hasn’t won in East Lansing since 2007 or Columbus since 2000 and lost to both Michigan State and Ohio State last season. The division will be won or lost in those games, and they’re away from Ann Arbor. Michigan also travels to Iowa, the best team in the B1G West and historically a challenging team to beat from the pink locker rooms at Kinnick Stadium.
Harbaugh’s raised the bar at Michigan and they’re a decent bet to win the Big Ten for the first time since 2004 – although they’ll likely have to beat Ohio State in Columbus to do so. With Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes in the way – and based on how that rivalry has gone for the last decade – he’ll have to have a big breakthrough to win that season finale and go on to more.
The Spartans emerged as the 2015 Big Ten champions after the monumental upset over Ohio State and the narrow win over Iowa in Indianapolis – it was a year in which a ton of close games went Michigan State’s way: they won by three over Oregon after the Ducks missed a wide-open game-winning touchdown; they beat Purdue and Rutgers by a combined ten points in back-to-back weeks (and the Rutgers game ended when the Scarlet Knights spiked the ball on fourth down); they beat Michigan on the Play That Shall Not Be Named; they beat OSU and Iowa by three each. Their only regular season loss came to Nebraska (39-38, featuring a probable blown call on a last-minute NU TD). Of course, their playoff bid was rewarded by a matchup against former coach Nick Saban and Alabama; the Tide put a 38-0 beatdown on the Spartans.
Like Ohio State, the Spartans are losing a lot of key players, and like Ohio State, the impact of those losses will be more keenly felt on offense. Quarterback Connor Cook and receiver Aaron Burbridge are gone: that combination singlehandedly kept the Spartan offense afloat and Cook was the best quarterback in the Big Ten a year ago. Two All-American linemen – LT Jack Conklin (a high first-round draft pick) and C Jack Allen – are gone, as is another starting lineman and the Spartans’ second-best receiver, MacGarrett Kings. All-American defensive end Shilique Calhoun and most of the defensive line’s two-deep depart.
The quarterback battle will come down to Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry, who split snaps in that win over the Buckeyes last Novemeber (though the Spartans mostly ran the ball). O’Connor may be the favorite, but Terry possesses the ability to run an offense that features quarterback runs and that could be a better complement to State’s stable of good running backs (led by sophomore LJ Scott) than O’Connor throwing the ball mostly to tight ends and wholly unproven receivers. The run game also depends on the State OL – star LG Brian Allen is back, Kodi Kieler moves from RT to C, and the tackles are huge question marks.
MSU will be breaking in new players across the defensive line, but State still should have one of the better front sevens in the country. Malik McDowell is an All-American caliber lineman who is back: the junior was a former 5* recruit and can wreak havoc from most positions along the line, though he might be best as a 3-tech. Regardless of (potential) sixth-year senior SAM Ed Davis’s eligibility, State has good, experienced linebackers in MLB Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke, who’s capable of playing multiple positions. State’s run defense should be great again, though the pass-rushing ability of Calhoun will be missed.
While few teams were able to test State’s secondary (or unwilling, in Ohio State’s case), injuries and attrition left the unit bare by the end of last season. The Spartans are welcoming back CB Vayante Copeland, who’s a guy who was projected to be a standout last season before suffering a season-ending injury, and Demetrious Cox, State’s best safety. The other two spots are manned by SS Montae Nicholson (who’s getting a lot of hype this offseason despite getting repeatedly pulled despite giving up huge plays last season) and iffy corner Darian Hicks. The No Fly Zone is no more, though there’s a good chance that the secondary will improve from last year.
As far as Dantonio teams go, this one projects to be below average. Still, there’s clearly a floor, as State still has what looks to be quality run offense and defense, plus there’s still a huge gap between MSU and the rest of the division. The Spartans face an FCS foe in week one, get a bye, and then face Notre Dame (BYU is on the schedule in November); from the West, they get Wisconsin and Northwestern at home (and Illinois on the road). While another conference title would be a moderate surprise, State should still be one of the best teams in the Big Ten.
To be fair to James Franklin, he entered into a very difficult situation at Penn State after the short two-year tenure of Bill O’Brien; expectations were high despite the scholarship reductions and attrition in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. However, back-to-back 7-6 seasons featuring terrible offensive lines have left Franklin in a tenuous position – he overhauled the assistant coaching staff this past offseason, usually a sign that the coach’s job isn’t that secure. 2015 started poorly with a 27-10 loss at the hands of Temple, but PSU recovered to win seven of its next eight games before losing each of its last four. Much maligned QB Christian Hackenberg is off to the NFL* and there will be a new offensive scheme, so maybe PSU can start to turn things around.
Franklin hired former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead to run the offense, and he’ll bring in a scheme that emphasizes the no-huddle and should spread the field more. Trace McSorley is undersized at QB, but he could be a good fit as a run threat – he played decently enough as a freshman against Georgia in the bowl game. He’ll have two very good receivers in Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton at his disposal and there’s finally some experience on the offensive line (which will be now be coached by Minnesota’s former OC).
The burgeoning star on the Nittany Lion offense is sophomore running back Saquon Barkley: he ran for over 1,000 yards last season behind an iffy OL and totaled 5.9 yards per carry. Barkley was often tasked with evading defenders in the backfield and he was effective at getting the yards not provided for him by the offensive line. He’s the best back in the Big Ten and still has room to improve, although he’s already good at catching the ball out of the backfield and was decent for a freshman in pass protection. Moorhead should give him a steady dose of carries to stay on schedule offensively.
PSU has had good defenses under Franklin – though DC Bob Shoop left for Tennessee – and that’s unlikely to change, even though there’s some serious attrition on the defensive line (DTs Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel as well as DE Carl Nassib), the Nittany Lions should have a stout defense again. They return Jason Cabinda and Nyeem Wartman-White at linebacker, so if the DL can keep them clean, PSU should be fine. There’s enough experience in the secondary to get by and even though Penn State won’t have the fearsome pass rush that they had a year ago, the pass defense will probably still be a strength.
In any case, Penn State feels locked in to fourth in the East until something drastic happens. Franklin is 0-6 against OSU / MSU / UM and challenging those top three will be difficult. With Temple and Pitt early in the season, a loss to an in-state rival could turn up the pressure on Franklin – at the very least, PSU seems fated to stay in that 7 or 8 win tier until 2017.
*What on earth were you thinking using a SECOND ROUND PICK on him, Jets?
Kevin Wilson was able to return Indiana to a bowl game and was rewarded with a contract extension; with a new defensive coordinator in the fold (who’s bringing a 4-2-5 to Bloomington), there’s hope that he’ll finally be able to match his typically good offenses with a competent defense. IU was unfortunate in close games last season: they barely lost to Michigan and Ohio State at home, blew a colossal lead to Rutgers, and lost a heartbreaker to Duke in the bowl. However, they were able to recover from a mid-season six-game losing streak to become bowl eligible, and that’s an accomplishment in and of itself.
They’ll be forced to turn to a new quarterback with Nate Sudfeld graduating – the leading candidates to replace him are Zander Diamont and JUCO transfer Richard Lagow. Whoever wins the job will have an experienced trio of receivers at his disposal – Simmie Cobbs Jr. and Ricky Jones are big-play outside receivers and Mitchell Paige is a diminutive slot wizard. The running game will take a step back with the departure of Jordan Howard, but Devine Redding ran fro over 1,000 yards and scored 9 touchdowns while backing up Howard (and taking a lot of carries when Howard was injured). The line loses excellent tackle Jason Spriggs but returns guard Dan Feeney, who’s a preseason All-American – a couple of other starters also return.
New DC Tom Allen is facing a herculean task in turning around the Indiana defense. Even in wins, they were prone to giving up big plays and sizable point totals, and modest improvement would go a long way. They have pretty much everybody back in the linebacking and secondary units, though they lose quite a few contributors on the defensive line. Allen engineered a quick turnaround at USF, his last job, but he’ll need to get some stability in the back before any meaningful improvement happens at IU.
Indiana starts the year with three non-conference games they should win and they do face Purdue, so bowl eligibility is again a realistic goal. With MSU and OSU to start Big Ten play, they’ll have to weather the storm to get to the easier back half of the conference schedule intact.
D.J. Durkin has quite a task in digging out from the wreckage of the Randy Edsall era at Maryland – the Terps won just three games last year, had the highest interception rate in the country, and had their only Big Ten win over Rutgers. Durkin’s recruiting well so far and has more talent than the team’s previous performance would suggest, but ultimately it’s going to be a significant rebuild. They still have the interception-prone quarterbacks, a very young offensive line, and probably will have a bad offense again. Maryland’s strength as a team should be its run defense, but attrition in the secondary (save for tiny corner Will Likely) and at defensive end might make the Terps vulnerable to the pass. It was interesting for Maryland to hire a guy that was an assistant for two division rivals, but if Durkin can recruit well and develop what he has, there’s plenty of room for Maryland to move up the East hierarchy in time.