By: Kristen Ashly
Last year, the Big Ten had an unsatisfying, “nothing-to-write-home-about” season. The lack luster conference didn’t even look like it would make an appearance in the College Football Playoffs. Luckily, we were wrong.
Michigan State overcame a 21-point deficit in the fourth quarter to overcome Big 12 champion Baylor, while Ohio State took care of both Alabama and Oregon en route to the playoff title. By the end of the run, the Big Ten was 3-0 in the playoffs (meanwhile, the ACC and Big 12 were each 1-1, the Pac-12 was 1-2 and the almighty SEC was 0-3).
Will 2015 be a repeat? Did the Big Ten learn anything from their season last year, and return as the unified champs this season? Let’s take a look at which teams have a chance at pulling the Big Ten from limbo.
Ohio State Buckeyes
If you follow college football at all, this one is typically a no-brainer.
However, looking at the 2015 schedule for Ohio State, there are some definite possible hurdles to jump. Week 1 at Virginia Tech looms large, especially in the wake of announced suspensions for the Buckeyes.
Still, with what Ohio State was able to accomplish last season with a bunch of young, relatively inexperienced players, the Buckeyes’ chances in 2015 are very high, especially with essentially the same roster of now matured players. Add in their status as defending champions, and it’s almost impossible to envision a conference championship-winning Buckeyes team not earning another berth in the College Football Playoff.
The Team(s) to Watch
Ohio State might be the safe choice for favorite, but fans are rooting for the Badgers. New head coach Paul Chryst spent the 2002 season as the tight ends coach before returning in 2005 as the co-offensive coordinator under Barry Alvarez. Chryst stayed on as offensive coordinator under Bret Bielema, before taking over as head coach at Pittsburgh in 2012. Chryst was 19-19 in his three seasons at Pitt.
The Badgers are going to have to adjust to Chryst‘s coaching style, but don’t expect the major transition to be hard for Wisconsin. Wisconsin is going to play Wisconsin football in 2015, and Badgers fans will find the on-field product comfortable and familiar.
That familiar brand of Wisconsin football also means plenty of winning.
Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans have one of the nation’s best, but often overlooked, quarterbacks in Connor Cook, and the roster is full of impressive talent. MSU is fresh off of its win over Big 12 co-champion Baylor in the Cotton Bowl Classic, and even the coaches have rewarded the Spartans with a preseason No. 6 ranking. Analysts are head-over-heels for the possibility of Michigan State taking the conference lead over Ohio State. Pending big games in the East Division, MSU could do just that.
A fresh beginning is in the works with the recent hire of Mike Riley, which is the push the Huskers need to get over the Big Ten hump. Riley won’t be dealing with any hangover from Nebraska’s Big 12 days, and he seems ready and able to do whatever is necessary to win in the Big Ten. While a new coach is always a slow adjustment, the Huskers look primed and ready for a winning season.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
The Gophers are often overlooked in favor of teams such as Wisconsin or Nebraska, but head coach Jerry Kill has something special brewing in Minneapolis. Can Kill keep up his m.o. of doing so much with so little?
While it’s still expected that Minnesota will win big games against Purdue, Illinois and a pair of MAC teams, the Gophers face Nebraska in mid-October, Michigan two weeks later, travel to Ohio State the week after that and finish the season at home against Wisconsin. The road to success will be a long one, but one worth watching.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Head coach James Franklin started rebuilding his team last year, which paid off after Penn State returned to a bowl game and won. Penn State avoids potential trap games, with a fairly decent schedule ahead of them. It will be interesting to see if Franklin can keep up the momentum. It’s likely we’ll see exactly that.
Purdue Boilermakers- Head coach Darrell Hazell didn’t have much to work with when he arrived at Purdue, lacking a reliable option at quarterback. Purdue doesn’t have great depth at any skill position on either side of the football, and is missing the young, fresh talent that other teams have. Can Hazell eventually get things back on the right track? Perhaps—if he’s given the time. But given a 4-20 overall record, it’s unlikely.
Illinois Fighting Illini- Illinois has improved each season under Beckman, but the Illini are still in search of a winning record. While 2015 may prove to be the year Beckman gets his team over the hump, huge efforts will need to be put in place to make Illinois playoff worthy.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights- All things considered, Rutgers had a successful 2014 season. Eight wins is nothing to be ashamed of. Wins and losses, however, aren’t the only thing that gets a team to the College Football Playoff. For that, the Knights will need to be Big Ten championship material, which seems unlikely, given their extremely tough schedule this season.
Indiana Hoosiers- Wilson has turned the Hoosiers from a 1-11 squad in 2011 to a perennial four- or five-game winner recently, but without a single new recruit considered above 3-star, simply reaching a bowl game this season would be a major feat.
Northwestern Wildcats- Northwestern has come a long way under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, but there’s still plenty of work left to be done before we’re ready to call the Wildcats contenders for the Big Ten title. Add in some tough road games at Wisconsin and Nebraska along with a Week 1 game against Stanford, and you’re looking at an unlikely Cinderella story.
Maryland Terrapins- Maryland is going to have to overcome some loss of talent while dealing with a schedule that contains both Ohio State and Michigan State, as well as a visit from West favorite Wisconsin.
Iowa Hawkeyes- With the loss of an amazing player in Brandon Scherff, combined with another below average recruiting class, there are legitimate concerns about Iowa’s chances in 2015.
Michigan Wolverines- The hype is real: former 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has taken his place as head of the Michigan ship, and his formula is a winning one. Michigan fans hope to see a winning season to match, but they likely won’t. The Wolverines have too much ground to cover to make it to the playoffs. Harbaugh will certainly give them a better season, but it will take a few seasons of rebuilding before Michigan is a contender.
Games to Watch
Oct 3- Iowa at Wisconsin
The Hawkeyes have lost the last three games, and five of the last seven, against the Badgers. This will be Iowa’s first trip to Madison since 2009; the last three meetings have been in Iowa City because of scheduling quirks.
Oct 17- Penn State at Ohio State
The Nittany Lions have lost three in a row and five of six to the Buckeyes. PSU’s last win in Columbus came in 2011 with Tom Bradley as interim head coach.
Oct 17- Nebraska at Minnesota
The Gophers won 34-23 in 2013 in the Twin Cities and prevailed, 28-24, last year in Lincoln. Before that, Minnesota had lost 16 in a row to Nebraska. If Nebraska keeps losing to Minnesota, it will be hard-pressed to get to the Big Ten title game, nevertheless win the program’s first league title since 1999.
Nov 7-Minnesota at Ohio State
What could turn out to be a Big Ten title game preview. Since 1969, Ohio State has lost just twice to Minnesota (1981 and 2000). The Buckeyes won, 31-24, in the Twin Cities last season.
Don’t agree with the picks? Comment below.
Kristen Ashly is an editor and contributor for Nuts & Bolts Sports. You can follow Kristen on Twitter @KristenAshly.