Is Ezekiel Elliott the best running back in the nation on the nation’s best team? Can the Buckeyes do it again with the bullseye square on their back? Just a couple of questions that will be answered in Sports & Swag’s 2015 Big Ten preview.
BIG TEN EAST
PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. OHIO STATE – No doubt they’re the best team in the nation. But, can they find the magic again? One things for sure, the schedule sets up extremely well for the Buckeyes to make another long run.
2. MICHIGAN STATE – Mark D’Antonio and his Spartans missed a golden opportunity when they lost to Ohio State at home last season. The Spartans get Oregon week 1, and probably won’t be tested again until they visit Columbus in November.
3. PENN STATE – The Nittany Lions probably aren’t ready to contend for the title this season, but the foundation is being built. The Big Ten is a better conference when Penn State is relevant.
4. MICHIGAN – Another team that makes the Big Ten needs to be good. Jim Harbaugh, will make sure to that. Wolverines fans may have to wait a year or two.
5. MARYLAND – The Terrapins did pretty well, all things considered, in their first Big Ten season. That’s unlikely to be the case this season with only 10 returning starters.
6. INDIANA – The Hoosiers had a huge upset win at SEC East champion Missouri last season. That was pretty much the only highlight in their 4-win season.
7. RUTGERS – Tough to see the Scarlett Knights winning eight games like they did a year ago.
Ezekiel Elliott, and the rest of the Ohio State Buckeyes defied the odds last season by losing to unranked Virginia Tech at home early in the season, but still making the inaugural College Football Playoff and winning the national title. They also defied the odds by winning it all with their 3rd string QB against the likes of Alabama and Oregon. This season, mostly everyone is back, including Elliott and three of the best quarterbacks (JT Barrett, Cardale Jones, and Braxton Miller) in the country. Of course, Miller has moved to wide receiver. The Buckeyes also have Joey Bosa who is a terror defensively and a pretty good bet to be the first player taken in next year’s NFL Draft. Urban Meyer, has the definitive best team the nation. Now, can they repeat? One team that can crash the Buckeyes party is Michigan State.
The Spartans are one of the most experienced teams in the nation, and are led by one of the best defenses. You also cannot forget senior QB, Connor Cook, who was second only to Ohio State’s Barrett in pass efficiency last season. However, the loss of running back, Jeremy Langford may be too much to overcome. Can the Spartans replace the Buckeyes in the College Football Playoff? Maybe. One team that seems to be on the move up in the Big Ten East is Penn State. We knew it would only be a matter of time before James Franklin would get things going in Happy Valley. They have an experienced QB. Junior, Christian Hackenberg, returns after a solid 2014. The talent level still isn’t quite where we would expect at Penn State. But, it’s getting there. Don’t be surprised if the Nittany Lions beat someone they’re not supposed to. Another historic program looking to make a comeback is Michigan. The Maze and Blue have made the all important first step, by hiring one of the best coaches in football. Harbaugh, has yet to make it known who his quarterback will be. Senior, Jake Rudock, looks like the odds on favorite. After nice first seasons in the Big Ten, it would appear the honeymoon is over for the Maryland Terrapins and Rutgers Scarlett Knights. Both teams return only 10 starters apiece. So, it will be tough for Randy Edsall, or Kyle Flood to get their teams back to a bowl game. Speaking of bowl eligibility, is this the season for the Hoosiers to make their first bowl trip since 2007? Maybe. A lot will be riding on junior running back Jordan Howard. A transfer from UAB, Howard was a 1st team All C-USA selection in 2013. The Buckeyes are the clear favorite in this division, but don’t be surprised if the Spartans or Nittany Lions put up a big challenge.
BIG TEN WEST
PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. WISCONSIN – The Badgers do not play Ohio State, Michigan State, or Penn State from the Big Ten East. If the Badgers stay healthy, with a schedule like that, a return trip to the Big Ten title game is a good bet.
2. NEBRASKA – The Huskers on the other hand do play Michigan State at home, but miss Ohio State. The Badgers come to Lincoln on October 10th. Huskers need to make their move then.
3. IOWA – The Hawkeyes also miss the Buckeyes and Spartans. The season-ending trip to Nebraska will probably decide second place in the division
4. MINNESOTA – Five of the last six games for the Gophers are vs Big Ten foes that will likely make a bowl. So, a fast start is a must. It’s not likely, but if all goes well, the Gophers could be 8-0 heading into Ohio State on November 7th.
5. NORTHWESTERN – The Wildcats also do not play the top two teams from the East. Pat Fitzgerald’s team won five last season. The opportunity is there for a bowl trip this year.
6. PURDUE – It may not look like it, but even at 3-9 the Boilermakers made some strides in 2014. This year they return 15 starters. A bowl trip isn’t likely, but an upset or two is possible.
7. ILLINOIS – Again, things could not be much worse for the Illini.
The Wisconsin Badgers are the class of this division again. However, head coach Paul Chryst has only 11 starters returning. Also, Melvin Gordon, is now a San Diego Charger. But, more importantly the Badgers are uncharacteristically young up front on their offensive line.
That’s not the best news for junior running back, Corey Clement, (pictured above) who ran for 949 yards even with Gordon in the fold. Still, this is Wisconsin. Since when have they not been able to pound opponents with their power running game? This season, it may just take a little time for things click. The next big question about the Badgers is senior QB, Joel Stave. His job was a lot easier with Gordon. Let’s see if he can handle things without him. Mike Riley, is the new head coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Riley, had his moments at Oregon State, but felt it was time to move on. Still, seems like the Cornhuskers may could have gotten a bigger name to lead their program. After, Bo Pellini’s failed effort, Husker fans are desperate. Kirk Ferentz, has his Hawkeyes in a pretty good spot after winning seven games last year. The opportunity for more could be there this season. It cannot be overstated what a great job Jerry Kill has done at Minnesota. The Gophers have been competitive, and have made three consecutive bowl appearances. Now, is the time to take the next step. Could a visit from Wisconsin to end the season be for the division? Maybe. The Gophers open up at home against 2nd-ranked TCU. That could be an interesting game. Northwestern, hasn’t been bowl eligible the last couple of seasons. That could change in 2015, but don’t bet on it. How embarrassing could it be to have your head coach fired two weeks before the season starts? Ask Illinois. The Illini are now without Tim Beckman, who was fired just a couple of weeks ago for mistreatment of players. BIll Cudit, takes over on an interim basis. Purdue won only 3 games last season. But, they have improved under head coach Darrell Hazell.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Ezekiel Elliott – RB Ohio State
Five Must See BIG TEN games of 2015
1. Michigan State at Ohio State (11/21) – Too bad these two teams are in the same division. Two meetings would be nice.
2. Oregon at Michigan State (9/12) – This one is huge for obvious reasons. Revenge for the Spartans is huge in this one.
3. Ohio State at Michigan (11/28) – The Big Ten may be decided at this point. But, this is a huge game for the conference.
4. Wisconsin vs Alabama (9/5) – The Badgers beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl. A win over Bama would be two-in-a-row vs SEC.
5. Minnesota vs TCU (9/3) – The Gophers try to show depth of Big Ten with good performance vs TCU.
BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP PREDICTION
OHIO STATE over Wisconsin in a rematch of last year’s game. Hard to go against this matchup. The Big Ten is not a very deep league which is good news for both these teams. Hopefully, the Badgers will show up this time……….