Big Ten East Preview: Part I

After sending 10 of 14 teams to bowl games last season, the Big Ten is getting ready for another season in hopes to prove that they can still keep up with the SEC as the dominant Conference in College Football. This will include key games like Ohio State at Oklahoma, LSU at Wisconsin, UNC at Illinois, and Oregon at Nebraska. The Big Ten will need these out-of-conference games if they want to be taken seriously come bowl season. The podcast version of this article can be found here.

Big Ten East Preview: Part I

The Big Ten was able to send 10 teams to Bowl Games last season, their record was not as impressive. They went 5-5 in these games with notable wins in the Fiesta Bowl with Ohio State handling Notre Dame 44-28. However, there were several notable losses including Alabama shutting out Michigan State in the Sugar Bowl and Stanford running Iowa out of the Rose Bowl 45-16. The Big 10 was outclassed when put into tough situations despite having a record six teams with 10 or more wins. If the Big Ten wants to prove they are the best conference, it will involve winning these types of games, and 2016 will give them several opportunities to do this.

Now how will each team do in the 2016 season? For the most part, Big Ten teams are not losing much and will be returning with a solid core group from the 2015-2016 season. In this series of articles, we will rank each team and predict their record for this upcoming season, including why they will finish there. We will also look at the key games that each team will have this upcoming season.

Ohio State: 11-1 (12-1 in 2015)

Last season, Ohio State had some serious expectations to meet. After winning the 2014-2015 Playoffs, and having almost the entire core lineup returning, it seemed inevitable that they would return to the Playoffs. Urban Meyer was deciding whether to start J.T Barrett or Cardale Jones. Along with a quarterback battle all season, he had to decide how to spread the ball. The Buckeyes had several targets to utilize. With Michael Thomas, Nick Vannett, Jalin Marshall, and Braxton Miller all reliable receiving options, and Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield,it was impossible to utilize them all. The offense never seemed to pick themselves back up and despite winning, their luck would run out. A late season loss to Michigan State cost them any chance of going back to the Playoffs.

This season however, the Buckeyes should be able to spark their offense back despite losing so many pieces last season. Ohio State will be able to focus on what they are best at and won’t need to force the ball to be spread out. J.T. Barrett will be at the front of the attack. With Tim Beck stepping back from calling the plays, Ed Warriner should be able to recreate what he had in the two games he called plays last season.

Key Games:  

Ohio State will have a few difficult games this season, three of four on the road. Ohio State will travel to face Oklahoma, Penn State, and Michigan State. While Penn State and Michigan State will be the easiest of the three, they play in very hostile environments and they would not be hard games to lose. Oklahoma is a different story. They are an experienced team with a Heisman caliber quarterback and talented receivers. Both team’s have high powered offenses, and it will be a shootout, one that Ohio State will not likely win. However, this is the only game Ohio State should lose. Despite Michigan being a Top 10 team this year, Ohio State should still be able to win this game as well. The game will be in Columbus and Ohio State has had Michigan’s number lately.

Michigan: 11-1 (10-3 in 2015)

Since the addition of Jim Harbaugh as head coach in 2015, Michigan has quickly been making strides to becoming an elite team in the country again. Michigan has been able to convince top players such as John O’Korn to transfer from Houston, and getting players like Jabrill Peppers ready for what will likely be, one of the best seasons of any Big Ten secondary member since Deion Sanders. Despite an embarrassing loss to Ohio State last season, Michigan was still able to rebound. They put up 41 points against one of the top defenses in the league. Even with losing their starting quarterback, Jake Rudock and center, Graham Glasgow; Michigan seems ready to make some noise this season and will easily be among the top 10 teams in the country. The question is, how high?

With O’Korn taking snaps, Michigan should be able to maintain a solid passing game. O’Korn will have several returning targets, including seniors Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh. Jake Butt will also be playing in his last season of college football. Butt will certainly be the go-to target in the redzone, and is looking to add another Tight End of the Year Award to his collection. To compliment the passing game, De’veon Smith will likely be taking most of the rushing snaps. If he can produce a similar 4.2 yards per carry average like last season, it will be enough to make Michigan’s offense one of the best in the country.

Key Games:

 One thing that may come back to haunt Michigan is their poor out-of-conference schedule. They play Hawaii, UCF, and Colorado which combined  for seven wins last season. Michigan will only have to travel away from home four times the entire season. Their schedule is not a complete joke however. Michigan will still need to travel to face Iowa, Ohio State, and Michigan State; all of which were 10+ win teams last year. However, their only true test will be Ohio State. Michigan will need to win every game up to that point to have a chance for the College Football Playoffs, and will likely need a Big 10 Championship to solidify that.

Penn State: 9-3 (7-6 in 2015)

Penn State will likely go under the radar, but certainly should be watched. Despite losing Christian Hackenberg, Penn State found a suitable replacement who will likely be better, Trace McSorley. In the one chance he had, he threw for two touchdowns against Georgia. Georgia was able to produce the best pass defense in the FBS last season. While Penn State may have lost to Georgia, there was still a lot to be excited about. McSorley looked poised and ready despite it being his first real chance to play. Penn State is not a playoff contender, but they will certainly make some noise and could spark an upset or two.

While McSorley will be the one to watch, his receivers will be just as important to watch; especially DaeSean Hamilton. He has had 127 receptions in two collegiate seasons and eight touchdowns. If McSorley needs to rely on him again this year, Hamilton could make a case for the Biletnikoff Award. However, Penn State will need to make sure they win some important games to help him make this dream a reality.

Key Games: 

Penn State could either change the landscape of the Big Ten East this year, or remain around the 0.500 mark like last year. They will have to travel to face Pittsburgh, and Michigan, while hosting Ohio State, Michigan State, and Iowa. Michigan State and Iowa are easier wins despite being in the Big Ten championship last year. Both had major losses in the off-season and their schedules are not favorable. However, Michigan and Ohio State will both be dominant in the East. These will likely end up being losses for Penn State.

The shocking loss here is Pittsburgh. While they may have only went 8-5 last year, their rushing game is phenomenal. Qadree Ollison tallied over 1100 yards last year and is looking to repeat this year. And with Penn State’s rushing defense giving up almost 150 yards per game on the ground last year, it could spell trouble for the Nittany Lions.

Michigan State: 7-5 (10-3 in 2015)

Since the inauguration of the Big Ten Championship in 2011, Michigan State leads the Big Ten with three appearances. They are also tied with Wisconsin with two wins. In both of Michigan State’s Conference wins, Connor Cook led the team and posted two game MVPs. However, after losing Cook to the NFL Draft this spring, Michigan State looks to be a brand new team. Along with losing Cook, the Spartans lost three starting offensive linemen, a top receiving target in Aaron Burbridge, and four members of the front 7 on defense. Mark Dantonio will truly test his coaching abilities this season with a major rebuild.

While Michigan State will still be a Top 25 team this season, the losses they suffered will set them back. At quarterback, Tyler O’Connor will likely start for the Spartans. He has looked shaky at best so far. Dennis Finley will also be a Spartan to watch this season. He will be coming back from a broken leg and is likely to start. Safety David Dowell will be on the opposite side of the field but is expected to start as a freshman. Dowell was a 4-star recruit. He was ranked the 18th best Safety in the country and 16th best player in Ohio.

Key Games:

Michigan State will face some very reputable opponents this year. They play Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin. While O’Connor will improve as the year goes on, his inexperience may lead to their downfall. Michigan State may be able to pull a win or two out of this group. But unless O’Connor starts making major strides, they are all just as easily lost.

 

Check out Part Two of the Article.

 

Main Photo: EAST LANSING, MI – NOVEMBER 8:  J.T. Barrett #16 of the Ohio State Buckeyes during the game against the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium on November 8, 2014 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)