2016 NCAA Football Preview: Big Ten Conference

August 28, 2016
By K. Becks

In all reality, this next preview may be the only one that is read by more than three people these days.

Here is a look at the Big Ten Conference.

Overview

Despite a relatively strong year for the Big Ten Conference in 2015 (a College Football Playoff participant, two additional New Year’s Six bowl games, huge victory in Citrus Bowl by Michigan over Florida), the lasting memory of the league outside of the Midwest will be the beating that Michigan State suffered at the hands of Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. The 38-0 drubbing left a sour taste not only in the mouths of Michigan State fans, but Big Ten fans in general, many of whom believed that a different school from the conference would have been a better Playoff representative for the league.

This year, the Big Ten appears to be a very top-heavy league, with several very talented squads that should vie for a spot in the conference title game. But after the top tier of teams, the strength of the conference drops off quite significantly. While this could mean good things for teams at the top trying to avoid a letdown game, it brings into question the issue of preparedness for a team that is chosen from the Big Ten for the Playoff.

For fans in places such as Ann Arbor, Michigan and Columbus, Ohio, preparedness is not of great concern. Led by two of the most well-respected coaches in college football, Michigan and Ohio State are a couple of the teams that should be near the top of the Big Ten in 2016. The Buckeyes go on the road in the out-of-conference slate to test themselves against Oklahoma, while Michigan faces three teams ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 on the road. Neither team will be unprepared for a potential Playoff matchup considering the demeanor of the coaches that lead them.

All in all, it should be another exciting fall in the Big Ten Conference.

College Football Playoff Contenders

Michigan

The Wolverines quickly emerged as one of the best defensive units in the country during Jim Harbaugh’s first year as head coach and should again be a force on that side of the ball. Michigan has a new defensive coordinator in Don Brown, who was the mind behind the Boston College defense that was No. 1 in the nation in total yards allowed in 2015. A secondary that is led by Jourdan Lewis and in some packages Jabrill Peppers will be extremely difficult to move the ball on.

Appropriately enough, Michigan’s chances of ending up in the College Football Playoff may rest on the shoulders of Harbaugh’s choice for quarterback. One would think that John O’Korn, who was the starter for a season at Houston before transferring to Ann Arbor this past off-season, would be the logical choice. The Wolverines don’t play on the road until October 8 but will need a signal-caller who will get up to speed quickly. Things need to be humming by late October, when the Wolverines enter a stretch where they will face their three most difficult Big Ten opponents on the road (Michigan State, Iowa, Ohio State).

Ohio State

Thanks to Urban Meyer’s recruiting trail, there are no real rebuilding years in Columbus. Despite losing 12 players to the NFL Draft, the Buckeyes are still in good position to contend for the Big Ten West title and a Playoff spot. The biggest reason is the return of J.T. Barrett at quarterback. Barrett’s skills fit Meyer’s offense so well, and in 2016 there will be no controversy as to who will run the show for Ohio State. This should help Barrett find a rhythm earlier in the season and also allow the skill players to learn a single quarterback’s tendencies. If the timing on offense is actually improved despite several new pieces at receiver and running back, it wouldn’t be shocking.

A lot of familiar names have left Columbus, but the cupboard was far from bare. The new Buckeyes should be able to fill in just fine for the departed pieces, but will it happen early enough? Other than the annual rivalry against Michigan, Ohio State’s most difficult contest takes place in early September. That doesn’t allow much time to gel, meaning that Meyer’s skills as a teacher will be put to the test.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Nebraska

There has always been a love-hate relationship in Lincoln with Tommy Armstrong Jr., but the fact is that Nebraska has a four-year starter at quarterback, something that most teams would trade a lot to have. Armstrong may not always be great, but he is the best that the Cornhuskers have had at their expense since his arrival on campus. Mike Riley has been able to get a lot out of his quarterbacks in the past and in 2015 Armstrong’s passing yards and completion percentage were up over 2014. The senior really is the X-factor for the Cornhuskers so if he continues to progress under Riley, Nebraska should win more games.

Nebraska was on the unlucky side of almost every close game last year, starting in the season opener against BYU. Assuming that doesn’t happen this season and the Cornhuskers can improve their pass defense by returning nearly the entire secondary, the schedule sets up nicely for them to still be in West Division contention by the end of October.

Hi, My Name Is… (Players to Watch)

Jabrill Peppers, Michigan sophomore linebacker

Peppers has been a star at Michigan since the day he set foot on campus in Ann Arbor. The sophomore will play mostly at the linebacker position, but is athletic and versatile enough to play corner and safety at times as well. There may not be another player in the country that possesses the combination of size, quickness and tackling ability. Thus, it isn’t surprising that Peppers was on the shortlist of Heisman hopefuls and is a preseason All-American pick almost unanimously.

Often times it is difficult to quantify the true impact of a great defensive player, but this year it may be easier to see the importance of Peppers on the stat sheet. Michigan will be more aggressive with their blitz packages, meaning that the ability of Peppers as a coverage guy will be more pronounced. Expect Peppers to be all over the field this season.

Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State junior linebacker

With so many new faces on Ohio State’s defense in 2016, look for McMillan to become the clear leader being one of the few remaining starters from last season’s team. This was likely a role that the junior was bound to fulfill at some point anyway, being a former five-star recruit that has contributed in each of his previous two seasons as a Buckeye.

McMillan is a future NFL first-rounder that will anchor a defense that was at its best in 2015 in terms of yards allowed since Urban Meyer took over the program. If the Buckeyes are to avoid taking a step back on the defensive end this season, then McMillan will need to play like a first team All-American. His presence on the field makes teams think twice about running up the middle as well as drawing up slant routes that cross his path.

Out-Of-Conference Games to Watch

LSU vs. Wisconsin [game in Green Bay] (September 3)

College Gameday’s first stop of the season also happens to be one of the biggest games on the Big Ten out-of-conference slate. LSU has its sights set on a Playoff spot, but playing at a neutral site that will feel more like a home game for the Badgers is not going to be an easy start to the campaign. Wisconsin is replacing a lot, but Corey Clement returns after injuring his knee early last season and will be a nice boost to an offense that was uncharacteristically pedestrian in the running game. Clement is good enough to challenge Leonard Fournette for best performance by a running back in this one.

With so many dangerous offensive threats on the Tigers, Wisconsin will likely need to play above its head defensively to have a shot in this game. LSU will also be particularly strong on defense in the defensive front and secondary, so moving the football will be difficult for Wisconsin. On paper this sets up to be an extremely difficult contest for the Badgers.

Ohio State at Oklahoma (September 10)

In recent memory, regular season road games against non-Big Ten teams ranked in the AP Top 10 have not gone well for the Buckeyes. But this is also the first game meeting those requirements that Ohio State will play with Urban Meyer as head coach. Under Jim Tressel, the conservative offensive style faltered on the road against teams like Southern Cal and Texas, but Meyer’s team will not employ that style. Expect J.T. Barrett to attack Oklahoma’s defense in the short passing game before opening it up to test the experienced secondary.

Barrett will need to play well, because the Buckeyes are going to have a tough time on defense stopping both Baker Mayfield and Samaje Perine. One or both will likely find a way to gash Ohio State’s inexperienced unit. Expect the winner to have scored at least 30 points, despite Oklahoma having a strong defense with plenty of returning pieces. Neither one of these teams (or coaches) is afraid to engage in a shootout.

In-Conference Games to Watch

Michigan at Iowa (November 12)

The Hawkeyes benefited from a favorable Big Ten schedule in 2015, avoiding Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. This year, Iowa only has to face Michigan, but things could still get dicey in the West if Kirk Ferentz’s team can’t win this game. The important pieces to last year’s run return – offensive and defensive lines remain intact and the presence of C.J. Beathard will be key against stifling defenses such as Michigan’s.

In classic Big Ten style, this game should be a battle in the trenches without a lot of scoring. It’s also taking place in mid-November in Iowa, meaning that the weather could have an impact as well. Neither team will rely heavily on the pass this season anyway, but especially in this one getting the running game going will be important for both sides. Iowa would have had the slight edge in 2015, but it’s difficult to tell which team will emerge with the better rushing attack this season. The answer will likely decide this game.

Michigan at Ohio State (November 26)

It didn’t even take a full season for Jim Harbaugh to resurrect The Game as one of the premier contests on the Big Ten schedule. It is good for college football as a whole when this rivalry is competitive, and it appears as though the era of Ohio State dominance may see its ending rather soon. Michigan is good enough defensively to contain J.T. Barrett but by this time will probably need to worry about a rushing presence as well – perhaps Mike Weber.

Ohio State should still have enough offensive weapons to outgun the Wolverines, but chances are Michigan’s defense will be too good for that to happen. The blitz packages may not work well against a guy that can release the football as quickly as Barrett can, however, so more straight up coverage will be required. In essence, we will see Ohio State’s athletes take on Michigan’s athletes, which will be an incredible set of matchups considering the recruiting work that has been done at both programs. The Wolverines have just as much talent as the Buckeyes now, which is the first time that can be said in about a decade.

Conference Predictions

East

1. Ohio State (11-1, [9-0])

2. Michigan (11-1, [8-1])

3. Michigan State (9-3, [7-2])

4. Penn State (7-5, [5-4])

5. Indiana (6-6, [3-6])

6. Maryland (6-6, [3-6])

7. Rutgers (3-9, [1-8])

West

1. Iowa (10-2, [7-2])

2. Nebraska (8-4, [6-3])

3. Northwestern (7-5, [4-5])

4. Wisconsin (6-6, [4-5])

5. Minnesota (6-6, [3-6])

6. Illinois (3-9, [2-7])

7. Purdue (3-9, [1-8])

Championship Game (Ohio State vs. Iowa)

Winner: Ohio State

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*