The Big Ten East’s a beast. Ohio State is loaded with returning talent and is the popular pick to return to the College Football Playoff to defend its national title.
Michigan State has won 24 games the past two seasons and four straight bowls. Jim Harbaugh’s arrival in Ann Arbor shows Michigan is serious about making a quick resurgence, and Penn State looks to be on the rise under James Franklin.
The West, meanwhile, is in catch-up mode after Ohio State hammered Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten championship game. Wisconsin and Nebraska each has a new coach, Minnesota is out to prove it’s better than an eight-win program and Iowa is coming off losses in five of its last seven.
The Big Ten, as a whole, raised its profile last year. Ohio State won the conference’s first national title since 2002 and the league had a 6-4 postseason record and three teams among the top 13 in the final polls.
“There is good energy,” commissioner Jim Delany said, “and we’re glad to be in the conversation.”
The Buckeyes are 24-0 in Big Ten regular-season games in three years under Urban Meyer. Their only loss to a conference team came in the 2013 Big Ten title game, 34-24 to Michigan State.
The Spartans squandered their opportunity against the Buckeyes last year, with their defense having no answer for J.T. Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott while losing 49-37 at home.
“Even if there isn’t a chip on our shoulder from people disrespecting us, there’s a chip on our shoulder from realizing we can do better and being disappointed in ourselves for not making it as far as we could, knowing that we had the potential to make it that far,” defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun said.
Harbaugh’s Wolverines are a recruiting cycle or two away from contending in the East. Penn State and Rutgers are coming off bowl wins, Maryland will have a new quarterback and defensive coordinator after a solid Big Ten debut season, and Indiana will be looking to move up with QB Nate Sudfeld’s return following a shoulder injury.
In the West, Paul Chryst takes over at Wisconsin and Mike Riley at Nebraska. Both inherit winning programs.
The Badgers lost national rushing leader Melvin Gordon, but there won’t be much drop off with Corey Clement. Joel Stave is 21-7 as the starting quarterback.
At Nebraska, Tommy Armstrong Jr. will be a three-year starter at quarterback. The Cornhuskers need to settle on a replacement for three-time 1,000-yard rusher Ameer Abdullah and fix a defense that allowed more than 200 yards rushing against Big Ten opponents.
Minnesota has won eight games and beaten Nebraska two years in a row, and the Gophers could have one of the league’s best defenses. Iowa is looking to bounce back from its 2014 collapse, and Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue all are aiming to improve.
Some things to watch in the Big Ten this season:
GOING FOR TWO IN A ROW: Ohio State has everything it needs to repeat as national champion. QBs Cardale Jones and Barrett have been there, done that; RB Elliott is a Heisman Trophy hopeful; and DL Joey Bosa could be the best defensive player in the country.
HARBAUGH HYPE: Harbaugh’s hiring should give Michigan a shot of confidence after it lost three home games for the second time in five years. The defense should be able to hold up its end, but the offense was one of the nation’s worst last year.
TOP PASSERS: Michigan State’s Heisman candidate, Connor Cook, threw for 3,214 yards and 24 TDs last season and is 23-3 as a starter. Ohio State’s Barrett passed for a league-high 34 touchdowns and 236 yards a game before he broke his ankle.
NEW COORDINATORS: Offense — Tim Drevno, Michigan; Danny Langsdorf, Nebraska; Ed Warinner, Ohio State; Ben McDaniels, Rutgers; Joe Rudolph, Wisconsin. Defense — Mike Phair (co-coordinator), Illinois; D.J. Durkin, Michigan; Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel, Michigan State; Keith Dudzinski, Maryland; Mark Banker, Nebraska.
HOT SEATS: Tim Beckman’s Illinois program was dogged in the offseason by allegations of player abuse, and he has a three-year Big Ten record of 4-20. Purdue’s Darrell Hazell has won four games in two seasons, and there’s nothing to suggest improvement. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz is paid $4.1 million a year and under contract through 2020, but he’s 34-30 since 2010. Kevin Wilson’s Indiana defenses have allowed 471 yards and 36 points a game in his four seasons.
Predicted order of finish:
EAST: Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, Michigan, Maryland, Rutgers, Indiana.
WEST: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue.