2015 NCAA Football Preview: Big Ten Conference

September 1, 2015

Being from the Midwest and graduating from a Big Ten school, this is obviously my favorite college football preview to publish.

It may also be the only preview that people actually read.

Let’s take a look at the only league in the country with a College Football Playoff champion.


There are undoubtedly some fans right off of 315 that correctly predicted that the No. 4 Buckeyes would win the national championship last season once Ohio State was announced as a playoff participant. But very few, even those within the greater Columbus area, would have predicted just how the Buckeyes would go about doing so. In outpacing, outscoring and out-running both Alabama and Oregon en route to the inaugural College Football Playoff title, Ohio State single-handedly brought back respect to the Big Ten Conference.

In 2015, the rest of the college football landscape is now chasing the best that the Big Ten has to offer. But it’s not only Urban Meyer’s program that is keeping the engine running. Teams such as Michigan State, Wisconsin and perhaps even Michigan have their campuses abuzz about the upcoming season. The Big Ten title game is not out of reach for a few teams in both divisions, and winner of that game in Indianapolis fully expects to be playing in one of the two semifinal matchups on New Year’s Eve. All is well in the Big Ten, and frankly, the rest of the country is better off as a result.

College Football Playoff Contenders

Ohio State

From an outsider’s perspective, the biggest story in the Ohio State camp is about who will line up under center when the team travels to Blacksburg for its opener on Labor Day against Virginia Tech. But to those analyzing the team more closely, it’s clear that the quarterback race is far from the most important aspect determining whether the Buckeyes can repeat as national champions. Go back to the final three Ohio State games last season, and you’ll notice that it’s the skill players around the quarterback and the defensive stars that provided the biggest lift. Creating lanes for Ezekiel Elliot and giving the ball to guys like Jalin Marshall in open space has a far bigger impact than whether Cardale Jones or J.T. Barrett is the starting quarterback.

That being said, Urban Meyer has already made his decision about the signal caller. He is too calculated not to, and he knows exactly what he needs his quarterback to do on the field. As long as that gets done, there isn’t a team on Ohio State’s schedule that can beat the Buckeyes when they play their best. Anything less than a return trip to the playoff would be a major disappointment.

Michigan State

It may sound like a broken record, but Michigan State is right where it wants to be. The Spartans just need to capitalize. Senior Connor Cook has transformed into one of the country’s top signal callers and the defense will be one of the best in the nation thanks to a fearsome front four led by Shilique Calhoun. The schedule sets up nicely in the early season, with a home date against Oregon serving as a chance for the Spartans to solidify their place among the true playoff contenders.

The difference this season is that double-digit victories and a marquee bowl victory won’t get the fans excited like it has the past two years. Michigan State lost two games in 2014, to the two teams that ended up playing for the national championship. The supporters in East Lansing know that the 2015 campaign is perhaps their best shot to make the playoff for awhile. Close losses to top competition will no longer serve as building blocks for the future but rather bring with them whispers that Dantonio needs to be more aggressive with his strategy.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Penn State

Entering his second season as head coach of the Nittany Lions, James Franklin will learn what it feels like to deal with the pressure of expectations rather than the simplicity of honest curiosity. Despite an up-and-down year in 2014, Penn State showed enough fight in its six losses to suggest that the 2015 campaign could be marked by more “W’s” in the close contests.

One area where the Nittany Lions should be markedly better is in the passing game, which returns two wide receivers to aid quarterback Christian Hackenberg in his continued development. Additionally, four offensive linemen return, which should hopefully mean improved coordination among the unit and fewer sacks allowed (Penn State led the conference with 44 last season). If this becomes reality, expect Hackenberg to have a breakout year and the Nittany Lions to finish in the top half of the East Division.

Hi, My Name Is… (Players to Watch)

Connor Cook, Michigan State senior quarterback

Cook spurned the NFL for a chance to play in East Lansing for his senior season, which is a smart move for multiple reasons. On one hand, provided that the 6’4″, 220 pound professional archetype continues to produce similar numbers (47 touchdowns to just 15 interceptions over the past two seasons), he will almost surely be the No. 1 quarterback on draft boards next spring. On the other hand, Cook’s return gives the Spartans a realistic shot at breaking into the College Football Playoff.

With upperclassmen to throw to, Cook should have no trouble adjusting to the absence of Tony Lippett, his favorite target for the past two years. Expect this guy to be on the Heisman shortlist for the majority of the season. The Ohio State game may determine whether he ends up winning it.

Corey Clement, Wisconsin junior running back

Gone is Melvin Gordon from the Wisconsin backfield, but fans in Madison aren’t as worried as one might think. Ready to take Gordon’s place is junior Corey Clement, who racked up nearly 1,000 yards and nine rushing touchdowns in relief of the former Badger star last season. Now it’s Clement’s turn to assume the role of star, as new head coach Paul Chryst was the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin from 2005 to 2011 and will employ a similar offensive strategy Bret Bielema once did.

It may be a bit premature to suggest that Clement can completely replicate Gordon’s production on the ground, but without a proven backup it is safe to say that he will get the majority of touches. It is assumed that the name Clement will become just as well known as his predecessors right about the time Big Ten play begins.

Out-of-Conference Games to Watch

Alabama vs. Wisconsin [in Dallas, TX] (September 5)

New head man Paul Chryst will have no time to ease into the job – Wisconsin must take on the powerful Crimson Tide in the Cowboys Classic to begin the season. While Alabama is again starting over at the quarterback position, the defense is enough to make them a top five squad. We will find out just how ready new Wisconsin starting running back Corey Clement is in this one.

This game should feature a ton of the ground game, but expect Wisconsin to try and catch Alabama off-balance through the air a bit. The Badgers aren’t strong enough defensively to simply trade long drives, so Joel Stave & Co. will have to find a way to move the ball quickly at times.

Oregon at Michigan State (September 12)

The Ducks travel to East Lansing for a rematch of last season’s early big ticket game, and the Spartans will be seeking more than just revenge. For about three quarters it looked as if Michigan State was going to be able to keep pace with Oregon but faltered in the fourth quarter. This time around the Spartans can prove that they are a four quarter team against the best in the country.

Mark Dantonio is a defensive mastermind, so expect him to show a multitude of defensive looks against the Ducks, who will be playing just their second game with new quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., a transfer from Eastern Washington. If the Spartans can force a couple of turnovers on the Ducks to slow down the pace of the game, they will be in good position to exact revenge and prove to the selection committee that they are a serious playoff contender.

In-Conference Games to Watch

Michigan State at Ohio State (November 21)

Ohio State will get both Michigan schools at the end of the season, but rivalry aside this is definitely the bigger of the two. It is entirely possible that both teams enter this contest undefeated, which might result in an epic 1 vs. 2 battle. Even if it isn’t, chances are that one of the two teams will still be in playoff contention.

Michigan State did not have the offensive firepower to keep up with the Buckeyes in 2014 and they won’t again this season. But what the Spartans do have is an elite quarterback that can pick apart what is a somewhat shaky defensive secondary for Ohio State. It sounds contradictory, but Connor Cook has the ability to lead the Spartans on methodical drives that chew up clock. Not having the ball is Ohio State’s biggest concern in this game.

Wisconsin at Minnesota (November 28)

Minnesota isn’t expected to have as successful a year as it did in 2014, but that doesn’t mean that the Golden Gophers won’t be an extremely tough opponent. Especially in the cold weather months, Jerry Kill’s team seems to hit another level and make it difficult for opposing offenses to move the football.

Wisconsin will need a huge game out of Corey Clement and the running back corps as the Golden Gophers will likely have the weather as an aid to stifle the passing game. Don’t be surprised if this one comes down to the final minutes, and Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner is more capable than Joel Stave of orchestrating a winning drive.


East Division

1. Ohio State (12-0, [8-0])

2. Michigan State (10-2, [6-2])

3. Penn State (9-3, [5-3])

4. Michigan (8-4, [5-3])

5. Rutgers (7-5, [3-5])

6. Maryland (5-7, [2-6])

7. Indiana (3-9, [1-7])

West Division

1. Wisconsin (9-3, [6-2])

2. Minnesota (7-5, [5-3])

3. Nebraska (8-4, [5-3])

4. Northwestern (6-6, [4-4])

5. Iowa (7-5, [4-4])

6. Purdue (4-8, [2-6])

7. Illinois (3-9, [1-7])

Championship Game (Ohio State vs. Wisconsin)

Winner: Ohio State

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