As college football nears its Sept. 3 kickoff, we're going around the country to preview the 2015 season. While some conferences may be more nationally relevant than others, every league has intriguing teams and players to watch. So far, we've covered the Sun Belt, Mountain West, Conference USA, MAC and AAC. Today, we continue with 20 things to know about the Big Ten.
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1. It is a good time to be the Big Ten, but sustaining success is another matter. For all of the Big Ten's postseason successes last year -- Ohio State winning the national title, Michigan State beating Baylor, Wisconsin beating Auburn, Penn State beating Boston College, Rutgers beating North Carolina -- that doesn't mean the league is suddenly deep and on solid ground, competitively speaking. The Buckeyes are, without a doubt, one of the top two or three programs in college football, Michigan State has back-to-back top-five finishes, Wisconsin is consistently good and both Michigan and Penn State could be on the rise. Still, the Big Ten could be far too top-heavy, with the Big Ten West likely the weakest division among the eight divisions in the power conferences. Last year was a good start, though, and it's about time the Big Ten has a had a chance to celebrate some on-field success on a national level.
2. The biggest story is Ohio State's continued quarterback debate, which remains the best problem in the world. Two-time Big Ten player of the year Braxton Miller switched to receiver, leaving the competition between Cardale Jones, the strong-armed junior who led the Buckeyes to wins in the Big Ten title game and playoff, and J.T. Barrett, the efficient and mobile sophomore who ranked second nationally in passer rating and set the Buckeyes up for the playoff run. Ohio State can't go wrong. Barrett handles pressure better, is more accurate and is a great leader, and he probably most fits the description of an Urban Meyer quarterback. Jones, however, can stretch the field with his arm like nobody else in college football, and he complements that with power running when the defense is stretched out. The hunch here is that Barrett probably gets the most snaps over the course of the season, but Ohio State would be ranked No. 1 with either quarterback entrenched as the full-time starter.
3. Ordinarily, a Michigan quarterback race would be getting the same amount of attention as an Ohio State battle, but that's not the case this year. The Wolverines have a long list of options -- none of whom compare to what Ohio State has -- although the race is likely to come down to Iowa transfer Jake Rudock and junior Shane Morris, the top backup last year. Rudock essentially got pushed out at Iowa after two years as starter. In 2014, he completed 61.7 percent for 2,436 yards with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. If anyone can get the most out of him, perhaps it's Jim Harbaugh, and if nothing else, Rudock brings Big Ten starting experience. Morris completed just 14 of 40 passes in limited action last year, and he was most known for being wrongfully re-inserted into the Minnesota game despite displaying concussion symptoms. The Michigan quarterback battle is about finding a serviceable short-term solution, because the long-term race will be focused on current true freshmen Zach Gentry and Alex Malzone and 2016 verbal commitment Brandon Peters.
4. Stuck in a malaise of mediocrity for much of the last decade, Michigan fans are undoubtedly hungry for immediate success. But after the slog of the last couple years of the Brady Hoke era, there's also an understanding that not even Jim Harbaugh -- who puts Michigan on the fast track to success more than any other hire could have -- can make Michigan a contender in year one. The best hope is that Michigan makes tangible progress over the course of the season, setting up a clear path to future success. The Wolverines have a long way to go to catch up to Ohio State, as right now it's hard to place even one player on a first- or second team All-Big Ten list, with redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers perhaps the team's best player. So, with a schedule that includes Utah, Oregon State and BYU in nonconference play, plus Michigan State and Ohio State at home and Penn State on the road, it's hard to expect too much in year one, even if the coaching staff is exceptional and the cupboard isn't totally bare.
5. With Rudock going to Michigan, junior C.J. Beathard is now officially the Iowa starter with no debate. Beathard opens up the offense a bit more, and fans clamored for more of him as they grew frustrated with the stagnant offense. Ultimately, with a much smaller sample size, his numbers were similar to Rudock's, but the hope is that Beathard can liven the offense with a full offseason as starter. He'll need more help from an underperforming line that loses Brandon Scherff, with the hope that the run game can finally find some semblance of explosiveness. This is a crucial year for Kirk Ferentz. Since taking the Hawkeyes to the Orange Bowl and earning a 10-year contract that's paying him about $4 million per year, Ferentz has gone 34-30, now halfway through that contract. Few teams have more of a stigma for overly conservative play than Iowa, and every year the previously gargantuan Ferentz buyout gets more manageable. Ferentz, to his credit, has coached some of the most successful teams in Iowa history, but with losses to Iowa State in three of the last four years and the prolonged mediocrity since the new contract, Iowa will have to start showing some signs that it can avoid treading water every year, especially in a winnable Big Ten West division.
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Top 10 Players
1. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
2. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
3. Darron Lee, LB, Ohio State
4. Anthony Zettel, DT, Penn State
5. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
6. Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State
7. Jack Conklin, OT, Michigan State
8. Taylor Decker, OT, Ohio State
9. Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State
10. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
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6. It's possible that nobody in college football has a hotter seat than Tim Beckman. Technically, Beckman's teams continue to improve, as season-ending wins over Penn State and Northwestern allowed the Fighting Illini to go bowling last season (they were then dismantled by Louisiana Tech in the Heart of Dallas Bowl). But Beckman enters his fourth year of a five-year contract with little fan support, no contract extension and accusations of mistreatment of players. His press conference at Big Ten media days was bizarre, as he did everything possible to avoid talking about anything controversial, and with chancellor Phyllis Wise resigning, it could be only a matter of time before an athletic department overhaul. It's not as if Illinois is likely to do enough on the field to inspire confidence in Beckman. The combination of quarterback Wes Lunt and tailback Josh Ferguson is solid, but star sophomore wide receiver Mike Dudek tore his ACL in spring ball and the defense gave up six yards per play last year. Illinois' only three Big Ten home games are against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska (it plays Northwestern at Soldier Field), and it has to go to North Carolina, Iowa, Minnesota and Penn State. It's a tricky schedule, especially for an embattled coach and a team that's a borderline bowl team anyway.
7. Purdue is just hoping to escape the Big Ten basement. Danny Hope got fired after back-to-back bowl appearances, and Darrell Hazell has gone 4-20 in two seasons since replacing him. Last year's team showed tangible signs of progress in winning three games and putting a scare into a couple other opponents, but with Austin Appleby trying to hold off David Blough at quarterback and holes at the skill positions, there are still a ton of questions to answer. While Hazell inherited a tough job, Purdue is going to show that progress in the actual standings, as the Boilermakers have won only one Big Ten game in two years. With Virginia Tech and Michigan State on the schedule, plus potential landmines against Marshall and Bowling Green, the road isn't particularly easy, despite the fact that Purdue plays in a weak division. Purdue has improved enough to the point where it'll probably upset somebody, but the fact that nearly any Big Ten win still feels like an upset shows how much ground is still left to be made up.
8. Indiana has won the Old Oaken Bucket from Purdue two years in a row, but it is still searching for its first bowl appearance under Kevin Wilson, its first since 2007 and its second since 1993. The Hoosiers have been potent on offense at times, producing 2,000-yard rusher Tevin Coleman, but Coleman's success last year was offset by an injury to quarterback Nate Sudfeld that crippled the passing game, along with an unreliable defense, which has been a problem throughout Wilson's four years. Wilson is now 14-34 as a head coach, and again there seems to be a chance that the Hoosiers could get over the bowl hump. Sudfeld returns, and while Coleman is a huge loss, UAB transfer Jordan Howard ran for 1,500 yards to earn first-team All-Conference USA honors last year. The receiving corps is unproven, but between Sudfeld, Howard and an underrated offensive line, Indiana has the offense to put a scare into some teams. The defense, however, has finished 12th in the Big Ten in yards per play allowed four years in a row. There are enough winnable games on the schedule to get to six wins, but it's hard to give the Hoosiers the benefit of the doubt.
9. Maryland went bowling in its first Big Ten season, finishing 7-6 with a 4-4 conference record despite playing a fairly difficult schedule. Last year's modest success will be difficult to repeat for the Terrapins. Only nine starters return, with receiver Marcus Leak leaving the program this offseason. Former quarterback C.J. Brown was actually the team's leading rusher last year, and the offense is now without Leak plus top receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. Throw in losses of 11 of the team's top 17 tacklers on defense, and Maryland could face significant depth and experience issues this year, with a schedule that includes Wisconsin, West Virginia and Iowa on top of the Big Ten East. There's also a question at quarterback, where Caleb Rowe has been in and out of the lineup at a position that has had a ton of injury trouble in recent years for the Terps, and big-armed but inconsistent Oklahoma State transfer Daxx Garman comes in as a viable option.* The added competition at quarterback is a positive, and the Terps have potential on both lines and can be in the mix for a bowl game. Still, this looks like a rebuilding season, with the next few years looking more promising.
*Update: Neither Rowe nor Garman won the quarterback job. Junior Perry Hillis sits atop the Terps' depth chart.
10. Rutgers joined Maryland in making a solid enough Big Ten debut. For both, getting to the postseason was a solid goal, and the Scarlet Knights put together a solid 7-5 regular season capped by a blowout bowl win over North Carolina. Rutgers also showed that it was a step behind, though, getting blown off the field by the Big Ten's heavyweights last year, losing by a combined score of 180-44 to Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State -- all of whom the Knights must play again this year. Only 10 starters return, but several key contributors return, led by receiver Leonte Carroo, defensive tackle Darius Hamilton and a solid group of running backs, with senior Paul James returning from a season-ending injury. If a quarterback emerges between Chris Laviano and LSU transfer Hayden Rettig*, this offense has the potential to be solid, meaning Rutgers is decent bet to get to its 10th bowl game in 11 years, which is no small feat.
*Update: Rettig is slated to start Rutgers' opener, with Laviano suspended for a half.
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Top 10 Games
1. Michigan State at Ohio State, Nov. 21
2. Oregon at Michigan State, Sept. 12
3. Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 28
4. Ohio State at Virginia Tech, Sept. 7
5. Wisconsin vs. Alabama, Sept. 5 (at Arlington, Texas)
6. Michigan State at Nebraska, Nov. 7
7. Wisconsin at Minnesota, Nov. 28
8. Michigan State at Michigan, Oct. 17
9. Wisconsin at Nebraska, Oct. 10
10. Penn State at Ohio State, Oct. 17
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11. Penn State was thrilled to be allowed to go bowling for the first time since 2011 last year, and the extra practices and Christian Hackenberg-led comeback win over Boston College in Yankee Stadium were huge confidence boosts entering the offseason. It's important to remember that, while all of the NCAA's competitive sanctions have been rolled back, Penn State is still dealing with the ramifications. That's especially true of last year's very thin, patchwork offensive line that struggled to open up any room for the running game and protect Hackenberg, in another new offensive system. That the Nittany Lions never slipped under .500 the last three years is impressive, and now they're regaining depth, coming much closer to full strength. Optimism has returned to Penn State football. While the offensive line may still be an issue, it's deeper and more experienced. The receiving corps is experienced and loaded with potential. Hackenberg still has big-time NFL potential, despite last year's frustration. The running game will be better. The defense was one of the nation's best last year, and it should continue to play at a high level behind coordinator Bob Shoop and defensive tackles Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson. The team still doesn't have a large margin for error, especially with the O-line questions, but with an exceedingly manageable schedule, beyond trips to Ohio State and Michigan State, this is a team capable of correcting many of the problems of last year and flirting with the top 25 again. With the way James Franklin is recruiting, that should be the new normal.
12. Among Penn State's slip-ups with a small margin for error was an embarrassing 29-6 home loss to Northwestern, who went on to beat Wisconsin the next week, making it look like it had snapped out of a year-long funk dating back to the heartbreaking 2013 loss to Ohio State. It wasn't to be. While the Wildcats did beat Notre Dame in South Bend, they lost five of their last seven games, leading to their second 5-7 finish in a row. Pat Fitzgerald took Northwestern to five straight bowl games from 2008-12, and now he'll try to stop the bowl-less skid at two. With better luck -- close losses, injuries, etc. -- a bowl bid is attainable again, but Northwestern always seems to be dealing with a slim margin for error, making a 5-7 disappointment or a 6-6 bowl season seemingly a toss-up. With sophomore tailback Justin Jackson and some potential and experience on defense, Northwestern has some hope, depending on how the quarterback battle shakes out between redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson, sophomore Matt Alviti (both four-star recruits) and senior Zack Oliver.
13. With solid offensive line play and impressive talent on defense, Minnesota hopes to be making another leap forward in 2014. The problem is that the Golden Gophers' schedule may prevent them from doing any better than last year's 8-5 mark. Minnesota has to go to Ohio State and host Michigan in cross-division play, and it also hosts TCU to open the season. Throw in Wisconsin, Nebraska and the post-TCU trap at Colorado State, and this is a difficult schedule for a team that is likely to play close games, relying on ball control and defense. The top priority is finding a replacement for workhorse tailback David Cobb, who ran 314 times for 1,626 yards. With Rodrick Williams and a solid group of options behind him, the Gophers should be fine, but a reliable lead runner is essential, as improvement is needed from quarterback Mitch Leidner, who completed 51.5 percent last year. Minnesota is a fundamentally sound team that will be really tough to pass on thanks to the cornerback combination of Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, but the team's upside is likely limited.
14. The upside for Nebraska has been obvious for years: One of the most powerful programs in college for three decades, Nebraska has been a reliable four-loss team for seven years in a row now. Bo Pelini went either 9-4 or 10-4 every year, and now it's up to former Oregon State coach Mike Riley to try to snap the Cornhuskers out of their decent-but-not-great funk. The Riley hire caught everyone by surprise, but there is an obvious explanation: As perhaps the friendliest person in college football, Riley is a big change of direction from the fiery Pelini. Even with Ameer Abdullah and Randy Gregory gone, Riley inherits enough talent for Nebraska to compete for the Big Ten West title. Despite the debacle against Melvin Gordon last year, the defensive front is solid thanks to anchors at tackle in Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine, who can hopefully mask issues at linebacker. On offense, De'Mornay Pierson-El* and Jordan Westerkamp form a formidable one-two punch for quarterback Tommy Armstrong, while Terrell Newby and Imani Cross complement each other well at tailback. There's enough talent here to maintain the status quo, but Armstrong's development in Riley's system and finding consistency on defense are the keys to actually unseating Wisconsin in the West.
*Update: On Wednesday, Nebraska announced that Pierson-El will miss 6-8 weeks with a foot injury.
15. The Big Ten West, of course, is hardly a tough division to win. Wisconsin is the safest bet in the West, even if it has more questions on the offensive line than usual and another new head coach. Despite recent coaching turnover, the Badgers have been one of the most stable programs in college football, even bouncing back from a humiliating 59-0 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game to beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl. New coach Paul Chryst played quarterback for Wisconsin in the 1980s and previously served as Bret Bielema's offensive coordinator, with a reputation that followed him to Pitt for developing productive run games behind quality offensive lines. Chryst has plenty to prove as a head coach, but the transition will be easy, even with the O-line rebuild and the loss of ultra-productive tailback Melvin Gordon. The defense will be stingy again with coordinator Dave Aranda sticking around, and despite the questions up front, running back Corey Clement is poised for a breakout. With a questionable passing game, the Badgers are unlikely to be a top-10 team, but there's still enough to like here to make the Badgers the best choice in a winnable division.
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1. Ohio State 12-0 (8-0)
2. Michigan State 9-3 (6-2)
3. Penn State 9-3 (5-3)
4. Michigan 7-5 (4-4)
5. Rutgers 6-6 (2-6)
6. Maryland 5-7 (2-6)
7. Indiana 5-7 (2-6)
1. Wisconsin 9-3 (6-2)
2. Nebraska 9-3 (6-2)
3. Minnesota 8-4 (5-3)
4. Iowa 7-5 (4-4)
5. Northwestern 6-6 (4-4)
6. Purdue 4-8 (1-7)
7. Illinois 4-8 (1-7)
Conference Championship: Ohio State over Wisconsin
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16. Everyone hated Legends and Leaders, but the gap between the Big Ten East and West is stark, and it's only going to get wider. In addition to Urban Meyer building a juggernaut at Ohio State and Mark Dantonio taking Michigan State to new heights, the Big Ten East has added recruiting star James Franklin at a stabilized Penn State and hometown hero Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. The Buckeyes and Spartans are the best two teams in the league, and while Michigan and Penn State are still developing, it's possible we could see a season in the near future in which the Big Ten's four best teams are all in one division.
17. With all the attention on Ohio State, Harbaugh and Franklin's recruiting, it's important to remember that Michigan State has won at least 11 games in four of the past five seasons. In other words: Don't forget about Michigan State. Pollsters haven't, as the Spartans open the season sixth in the coaches poll after posting back-to-back top-five AP finishes for the first time since 1965-66. Ohio State is the overwhelming Big Ten favorite, but Michigan State poses a legitimate challenge if Ohio State stumbles, thanks to the return of senior quarterback Connor Cook, one of the nation's best defensive lines and one of the nation's best offensive lines.
18. Despite the high expectations, Mark Dantonio faces a tough fight to repeat the success of the last two years. The skill positions have been depleted, with Jeremy Langford, Nick Hill, Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery gone. Dantonio's right-hand man, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, took the Pitt head coaching job. Once the strength of the team, the secondary now has some of the biggest questions after losing cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Kurtis Drummond. And there's even a question at linebacker now after standout senior Ed Davis was lost for the season to a knee injury last week. Dantonio has earned the benefit of the doubt recently. Michigan State has had bumps along the way, but it has been remarkably stable, developing talent and consistently churning out top-notch defenses. He will likely find answers to many of these questions. Still, this season is likely more about competing for a New Year's bowl -- filing the Big Ten's Rose Bowl spot, perhaps -- than winning the Big Ten or earning a playoff bid. Given Michigan State's history, possibly needing to temper expectations from the playoff down to hoping for a major bowl bid is an accomplishment by itself.
19. Ohio State is one of the most obvious overwhelming favorites ever. Make no mistake: Repeating as national champion is hard. Repeating as conference champion is hard. Bad breaks and unexpected things happen. But this is a team that won a national championship a year ahead of schedule and lost zero underclassmen early to the draft. There is so much depth and top-end talent, with an All-America candidate at every position group. There are two All-America candidates at quarterback alone, with a third moving to receiver. Ohio State has already run into problems, with Joey Bosa, Jalin Marshall, Corey Smith and Dontre Wilson suspended for the opener at Virginia Tech, who beat the Buckeyes last year, but this team has the depth and coaching to overcome most issues that arise, as it did last year with the quarterback injuries. Ohio State improved greatly over the course of last season, meaning it is well-positioned to keep rolling through 2015.
20. Ohio State will win the Big Ten. Michigan State, Penn State and Minnesota all come to Columbus. While the Buckeyes start their season at Virginia Tech and finish at Michigan, and while they'll have to win the Big Ten title game, it's hard to see a pre-playoff loss, let alone two. Winning the playoff is another story, as by that point in the season, it's likely that someone else -- Alabama, Baylor, etc. -- will have developed the talent to match the Buckeyes, just as Ohio State did last year in peaking at the right time. As it stands now, though, Ohio State is a clear No. 1 in the Big Ten, and a clear No. 1 nationally.