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 West Preview: Part II
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 Ten 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. You can find Part I here. Or if you have not read the Big Ten East Preview, you can find it here.
Nebraska: 7-5 (6-7 in 2015)
It is hard to swallow the fact that Nebraska may not win the West this year. They have their 3000+ yard quarterback returning, along with their 700+ yard running back, and all six of their receiving targets with over 20 receptions. And with these impressive stat lines, how did they go 6-7? All seven losses were within 10 points and Nebraska never seemed to catch a break. While Nebraska may have one of the most talented offenses in the Big Ten, this season may share the same result.
If Nebraska is a Top 25 team this year, they will have to make sure to stay healthy. 11 of their starting 22 are backed up by freshman with no college experience and one injury could cost the Cornhuskers one of several close games. Nebraska’s offense will also have the opportunity to send some players to the award celebration at the end of the season. Tommy Armstrong could potentially have another 3000+ passing season. Terrell Newby could also have a big season if he is relied on more than last season.
So why is Nebraska projected so low? While the offense may be one of the best in the Big Ten, their schedule may be the most difficult. Nebraska will face Oregon early in the season which will likely be a loss. And to add to that, the Cornhuskers will have to travel to face Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa. It is unfortunate to see such a good team swallowed by their schedule, but Nebraska could still make some noise with an upset or two on the road.
Minnesota: 6-6 (6-7 in 2015)
The Big Ten seemed split last season. Either you were a 10+ win team, or you were barely scraping for a 0.500 record. Minnesota fell in the latter category. This was mainly due to their inconsistency. Minnesota played within a touchdown of TCU, but were shut out by Northwestern. Minnesota also kept Ohio State on their toes in a close 28-14 game, but barely beat Colorado State. Without any major changes this off-season, Minnesota may have to deal with yet another season of mediocrity.
Minnesota is returning with a very similar group to last year. Including their starting quarterback Mitch Leidner, five of their top six receiving targets, and their starting running back. On defense, the majority of the core group is returning this year. In his first full season as head coach, Tracy Claeys will at least try to build some consistency for his team to really be able to gauge where they stand among the rest of the Big Ten.
With how inconsistent Minnesota was last year, it is hard to pick what games they may lose or not. Their out-of-conference schedule leaves two questionable games in Colorado State and Oregon State which should lead to at least one loss. In-conference, games like Penn State, Wisconsin, and Iowa should be losses. But games like Northwestern and Nebraska may be toss ups depending on how each team develops through the year. Even if Minnesota can pull a win or two out of these seven, there is still a good chance that they blow it against a team like Illinois or Rutgers.
Illinois: 3-9 (5-7 in 2015)
Among the controversy of satellite cameras and Tate Martell committing to Ohio State, Illinois still seemed to find their way into the headlines. In March, Illinois was able to secure one of the more popular names in NFL Coaching. Lovie Smith signed on to be the coach of the Fighting Illini for six seasons. While this signing will surely change the future of Illinois football, don’t expect major changes this early.
Lovie Smith definitely has a decent team to work with. Wes Lunt is entering his final season with Illinois and may be able to secure himself as a late-round draft pick. He has thrown for 14 touchdowns in each of the past two seasons and has several of his top receiving targets returning. Lunt’s offensive line is relatively similar to last year as well. However, do not expect this team to turn around in one season. Lovie Smith will certainly bring in big name recruits, but not this early. Illinois will slowly improve and by the third or fourth year of Smith’s contract, it is reasonable for them to be a Top 25 team.
Illinois’ schedule doesn’t have much to be excited about if you are a fan. Five of their nine conference games are on the road and they face UNC early on. Murray State and Western Michigan should be relatively easy games to win for the Illini. But the conference games will not. The only game that will almost certainly be a win is Purdue. Depending on how Minnesota decides to play the week Illinois faces them, could also be another victory.
Purdue: 2-10 (2-10 in 2015)
Well, at least Purdue will have a football team in 2016. After some controversy on whether Purdue would even have a team in 2016, in was revealed earlier this month that they would. Despite having one of the poorest track records and bank accounts in the Big Ten, Purdue may be on the verge of being out of college football. They have had one winning season since 2007 and have had three different coaches in that same time period. If this is one of the last times we see the Boilermakers on the field, what will this season hold?
David Blough is likely to start for Purdue this season at quarterback. He had a very mediocre season last year with 10 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Three of his four top targets last year will be returning and will all likely see an increase in targets after Danny Anthrop went to the NFL. However, their defense still is questionable at best. Looking at their team, there isn’t a notable player in the entire secondary. And this is only one year after a running back moved to safety and led the team in tackles. The defensive line doesn’t seem to have a defined pass rusher to watch for either. Overall, this team looks like a team you’d expect to be on it’s way out.
While it is sad to see Purdue go, this season just doesn’t look like the year to turn around. No major changes were made and the schedule looks similar to last year. One notable out-of-conference team and a conference that seems leagues ahead of them. But Purdue does have one or two games a year where they scare decent teams. So if Purdue can finish one of these games, maybe there will be hope for the Boilermakers to bring in more money, and potentially keep their team.
MINNEAPOLIS, MN – OCTOBER 11: Mitch Leidner #7 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers carries the ball against the Northwestern Wildcats during the first quarter of the game on October 11, 2014 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Golden Gophers defeated the Wildcats 24-17. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)