By Ryan Mayer
College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, sleepers, and the rest. Can your team truly challenge for conference supremacy? Are they being underrated? Stay tuned.To give you an idea of what each tier means, teams that are marked contenders are considered legitimate division and conference title contenders. Sleepers are teams that if everything breaks their way could pull a few upsets and steal a spot in the conference title game. The rest is teams that likely won’t contend for the division or conference title but are more likely to be fighting for a bowl spot.
Today we look at the Big Ten East, where Jim Harbaugh looks to deliver on the hype in Year 2.
Preseason Media Poll
1) Ohio State
3) Michigan State
4) Penn State
Ohio State Buckeyes
No team in college football was decimated by players leaving early for the NFL Draft like Urban Meyer’s squad was. With five first round picks and 12(!) players drafted overall, to say that the Buckeyes need to reload is an understatement. There are just six returning starters on this team with three on each side of the ball. The good news? The most important position returns a starter who is a former Big 10 Player of the Year in junior QB J.T. Barrett.
People may forget that two years ago Barrett ran roughshod over the conference after Braxton Miller got hurt in preseason. Then, Barrett’s own injury in the final game of the regular season (broken ankle) allowed for Cardale Jones’ star turn in leading the Buckeyes to the national title. Last season, the split duties between Jones and Barrett led to neither guy really flourishing and despite the offense having a ton of experience, it disappointed often last year. Now that Jones and Miller are gone (both drafted), it’s Barrett’s team once again. That’s good news considering that everywhere else the offense is breaking in new players. At running back, Mike Weber is expected to step in to fill the void left by Ezekiel Elliott and the wide receiver spot – despite losing Miller, Jalin Marshall and Mike Thomas – does get a bunch of guys back from injury that should help offset the loss. The offensive line lost four of five starters but, 2nd team All-American Pat Elflein declined the draft and he will help anchor a young unit.
On defense, Ohio State needs to replace Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington along the defensive line, but they bring back sack leader Tyquan Lewis (8 sacks) and DE Carl Hubbard (6.5 sacks), so they should be fine there. The linebackers group will miss the ridiculous athleticism of Darron Lee, but Raekwon McMillian returns in the middle to try and offset that loss. The secondary is a bit of a concern considering that three of four starters (Eli Apple, Von Bell, and Tyvis Powell) are gone as well.
Urban Meyer recruits well and we’ve counted out Ohio State with a “rebuilding year” before in his tenure (remember 2014?). So, despite the fact that this is an inexperienced group, they will still be in the race for the East title. The problem is that three of the toughest games on their schedule come on the road (Oklahoma, Penn State, Michigan State).
Toughest Games: @ Oklahoma (9/17), @ Wisconsin (10/15), @ Penn State (10/22), @ Michigan State (11/19), vs Michigan (11/26)
There was a lot of fanfare when Jim Harbaugh was brought in as the head coach a little over a year and a half ago now. His first season did nothing to dispel that notion, rather it only heightened expectations. After a 10-3 year featuring losses to Utah (season opener), Michigan State (on the weirdest play of the year), and Ohio State (a 42-13 beatdown at home) before a huge win in their bowl game (41-7 over Florida in Citrus Bowl), Michigan exceeded pretty much everyone’s expectations in Year 1. With 14 returning starters, their sights are officially set on a Big Ten title, which would be the team’s first since 2004.
On offense, Harbaugh will once again be breaking in a new QB after Jake Rudock’s one year as a grad transfer. Junior Wilton Speight is back and he’ll battle with Houston transfer John O’Korn for the starting job. The support system is stacked with top rusher De’Veon Smith (180 carries 753 yards 6 TDs) returning behind a veteran offensive line that loses only its center (Graham Glasgow) from last season. Add to that the fact that the top three receivers also return from last year’s group in seniors Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh and tight end Jake Butt (159 receptions 2,145 yards 17 TDs combined). Whoever wins the starting QB job will have plenty to work with and a solid offensive line for protection.
Defensively, there’s a new coordinator in town as former DC DJ Durkin takes over as the head coach at Maryland. Ron Brown comes in from Boston College, which had the 4th best defense in the country last year. He has plenty to work with as defensive ends Taco Charlton (fantastic name) and Chris Wormley return (12 sacks combined), while adding back defensive tackles Ryan Glasgow and Bryan Mone back from injuries last season. Oh, and they got the nation’s No. 1 recruit in Rashan Gary to add to the line. Yeah, that group is good. The linebackers are a bit of a different story as both Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan are gone (top tacklers last year). But, safety and uber-athlete Jabrill Peppers has made the transition to LB and will help offset those losses. The secondary gets top corner Jourdan Lewis back and should be able to withstand Peppers switching positions.
Their three toughest games come on the road which could derail a potentially special season. However, barring a rash of injuries, they’ll be in contention and possibly undefeated late into the season.
Toughest Games: @ Michigan State (10/29), @ Iowa (11/12), @ Ohio State (11/26)
Michigan State Spartans
Mark Dantonio’s group won the Big Ten last year and earned a playoff berth, but ran into the machine that is the Crimson Tide and lost 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl. They were one of the more experienced teams in the country, but were banged up throughout the season. Now, Sparty is on the other end of the equation. Less experienced and needing to replace some big contributors, but back in their preferred underdog role. The biggest question on offense is who will take over at QB? Three-year starter Connor Cook is gone. That leaves Tyler O’Connor, Damion Terry and redshirt-freshman Brian Lewerke to battle it out for the job. They’ll have a rebuilding offensive line in front of them unfortunately as center Jack Allen, left tackle Jack Conklin and right guard Donovan Clark are all gone. The good news is that the trio of running backs (LJ Scott, Madre London, Gerald Holmes) are all back and RJ Shelton and tight end Josiah Price (combined 10 touchdowns) return as well. Being healthier is one thing the Spartans can hope for after a year filled with many of their offensive weapons being banged up.
On defense, the defensive line loses three starters including star Shilique Calhoun, but defensive tackle Malik McDowell is back and he was highly touted/recruited coming out of high school. Linebackers Riley Bullough and John Reschke are both back and the secondary will benefit from the return of corner Vayante Copeland from injury after he missed all of last season.
This is the type of team that consistently gets overlooked. The Spartans will get less ink used on them than their East counterparts in Ohio State and Michigan. However, they can still contend for a division title particularly because both of those squads have to come through East Lansing on the road to the title.
Toughest Games: @ Notre Dame (9/17), vs Michigan (10/29), vs Ohio State (11/19), @ Penn State (11/26)
Penn State Nittany Lions
The top three will be the most talked about teams in the Big Ten (along with Iowa out of the West), but don’t underestimate James Franklin’s Penn State squad. Now out from underneath the NCAA sanctions that were handed down due to the Freeh report, Franklin enters his third year with a lot of talent on the offensive side of the ball and a team that will finally fit his preferred style of offense. Christian Hackenberg is gone to the NFL after three years as a starter, but there’s a ready-made starter back in sophomore Trace McSorely, who started in the bowl game (20/40 185 yards 2 TDs in 24-17 loss to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl).
So, while he’s not considered one of their nine returning starters, he’s had experience running the number one unit. Running back Saquon Barkley, who eclipsed 1,000 yards as a true freshman, is back behind a line with four of the five starters coming back. Add to that the top three receivers in juniors Chris Godwin (1,101 yards), DaeSean Hamilton (6 TDs), and Saeed Blacknall (averaged 31 yards per catch on eight catches last year) returning and you’ve got a recipe for something special. New coordinator Joe Moorehead, formerly the head coach at Fordham, steps in with a more uptempo style of offense to take advantage of all this talent.
The defense is under new leadership as well after Bob Shoop left to take over the coordinator duties at Auburn. Brent Pry and Tim Banks will split the duties and have to find answers along the defensive line that lost big time talent and production in defensive end Carl Nassib and tackles Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson (28 sacks combined). That unit is the biggest question mark here. Linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell are back and the secondary remains largely intact.
Franklin has begun his tenure with back-to-back 7-6 seasons without the full complement of scholarships at his disposal. Now, he has a more experienced offense with a mobile QB that fits his style. Most of the toughest games for the team will come in the friendly confines of Happy Valley, so there’s potential for a better season and with a few upsets, a shot at the divisional title.
Toughest Games: @ Pitt (9/10), @ Michigan (9/24), vs Ohio State (10/22), vs Iowa (11/5), vs Michigan State (11/26)
The Hoosiers put a scare into a couple of the top dogs in the Big Ten last year on their way to a 6-7 season, losing by seven, eight, and seven points to Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan, respectively, before falling by just three in their bowl game to Duke. That performance was enough to earn head coach Kevin Wilson a shiny new six year contract extension and this year’s team could surprise some teams as well. That is if they can find a suitable replacement for Nate Sudfeld at the QB spot.
Speaking of the quarterback position, junior Zander Diamont, who has gotten some starting experience when Sudfeld missed time due to injuries the last two years, will have the inside track on the job, but the team did add Juco transfer Richard Lagow who could push for time. Another big hit was the decision by 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Howard to leave early for the NFL, but his loss is offset by fellow 1,000-yard back, junior Devine Redding (226 carries 1,072 yards 9 TDs). The top three receivers return in Simmie Cobbs, Ricky Jones and Mitchell Paige (171 receptions 2,625 yards 15 TDs combined) and the offensive line brings back three starters thought they will sorely miss tackle Jason Spriggs.
On defense, front seven is a big question mark. Three starters along the defensive line are gone as are a pair of linebackers. Tegray Scales does return (64 tackles 5.5 TFL last year) to man the middle of the defense and the secondary brings everyone back in addition to adding Wesley Green from South Carolina. There’s talent here for new coordinator Tom Allen to work with, but definitely questions that need to be answered. The month of October is brutal with Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska and Northwestern in consecutive weeks.
Toughest Games: vs Michigan State (10/1), @ Ohio State (10/8), vs Nebraska (10/15), @ Northwestern (10/22), @ Michigan (11/19)
The rebuilding project begins in College Park as DJ Durkin takes over as head coach after spending time on both Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer’s staffs. The school feels like it has the potential to be a giant in the college football world (particularly due to the close ties to Under Armour through alum Kevin Plank) and we’ll see if Durkin can start to build the foundation for that. He’ll do so in his first year with 12 returning starters, seven of them on the offensive side.
On offense, Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe are back at the QB spot, but that’s not necessarily heartening considering that the QB spot produced 15 TDs versus 29 INTs last year. The Terps do have the benefit of a trio of good running backs in senior Wes Brown, sophomore Ty Johnson, and Virginia Tech grad transfer Trey Edmunds to help alleviate the workload of the QBs. Add to that the fact that the top four receivers and seven of the top eight are back and there are weapons available. Whether the QBs will have time to find those weapons is a big question considering that the offensive line loses three starters from last year.
Defensively, both the defensive line and the secondary were decimated by players leaving as DT Quinton Jefferson, DE Yannick Ngakoue and CB/S Sean Davis all left early for the NFL while the Terps also lost safeties AJ Hendy and Anthony Nixon. They do bring back top corner William Likely but both of those groups look like question marks heading into the year. Their leading tackler is back in LB Jermaine Carter as is Jalen Brooks, but still plenty of questions on the defensive side.
There are indications of a potential rebound from the three-win season, in particular a -18 turnover differential last year. As we all know, turnovers are highly variable from year to year, so a turnaround in that category could lead to better results from the Terps. However, the month of November starts off brutally with the team having to travel to Michigan, play the Buckeyes at home and hit the road to Nebraska in three straight weeks.
Toughest Games: @ Penn State (10/8), vs Michigan State (10/22), @ Michigan (11/5), vs Ohio State (11/12), @ Nebraska (11/19)
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Rutgers, like Maryland, made a coaching change this offseason as out goes Kyle Flood and in comes Chris Ash from Ohio State. The good news for him is that they bring back 16 returning starters. Offensively, Ash has a couple of different options at QB with top passer Chris Laviano and back-up Hayden Rettig coming back with redshirt-freshman Giovanni Rescigno and true freshman Tylin Odin pushing for time. The signal caller (whoever that may be) gets the benefit of an offensive line returning all but one starter and the top two running backs (Robert Martin/Josh Hicks) are back. They lose top receiver Leonte Caroo but return all of the rest of their receiving leaders.
On defense, the line gets tackle Darius Hamilton back from injury and loses just one starter. Linebacker is a question as there will be three new starters with all of last year’s group moving on. The secondary loses just safety Davon Jacobs.
There seems like a lot of hope here for the Knights, right? Yeah, problem is, the schedule is brutal. Rutgers plays Washington, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State all on the road and draw Iowa (at home) from the West. Rebuild Year 1 could be a tough one despite the returning experience in Piscataway.
Toughest Games: @ Washington (9/3), vs Iowa (9/24), @ Ohio State (10/1), @ Michigan (10/8), @ Michigan State (11/12), vs Penn State (11/19)
Division Winner- Michigan
I already hate this pick. The Buckeyes or Spartans will probably make me look dumb come December. However, there are plenty of reasons to like the Wolverines this season. They’re one of the most experienced teams in this division (whereas Sparty and Bucky aren’t), the defensive and offensive lines are deep and strong, and they have a plethora of returning weapons for the QB to work with. The division very well may come down to the final week of the season in the Horseshoe against hated rival Ohio State, but with a more experienced squad, I think Harbaugh’s group will avenge last year’s blowout to head to Indy for the title game.