The 2016 Big Ten football preview, featuring the key games, players, pro prospects and coaches on the hot seat. The league is rich, talented, and very, very interesting. With some of the top teams reloading, and with Jim Harbaugh taking things to another level, get ready to have fun.
How much more interesting do you want the Big Ten to get?
The conference had more players drafted in the first three rounds – the ones that matter – than the SEC, and everyone else.
It joins the ACC as the only league to have two different teams in the first two years of the College Football Playoff, it had some high-profile moments this last bowl season – nothing to see here with the Rose, Sugar and Outback, though – and more than anything else, the conference’s programs are really, really, really rich, and getting richer.
Eight Big Ten schools – with newbies Maryland and Rutgers, along with Illinois, Indiana, Northwestern and Purdue just on the outside – are in the $100 million athletic department club in annual revenue generated, while the Big Ten Network is printing money for the schools.
With all the available coin, some coaches who like to go camping have no problems going all over the country to show what their staffs are all about. Facilities aren’t an issue. Coaching salaries aren’t quite the moral problem they are at places that don’t generate the same coin.
All this means it’s easier to keep around the Harbaughs, and the Meyers, and the Franklins, and the Dantonios. It’s easier to attract the Lovies, and have the Schianos as assistants.
And soon, it might be easier to attract more programs to expand even further. But that’s for another day.
On the field, the Big Ten is better when Michigan is one of college football’s elite programs. It’s back with Jim Harbaugh the most interesting man in the world, while Ohio State continues to be special, Michigan State not going anywhere, and a resurgent Penn State about to be a whole bunch better over the next few seasons.
Throw in the improved coaching situations at Maryland and Rutgers, and with Indiana no longer a speedbump, and the East is going to be fascinating.
Can Nebraska start to get the right breaks and be better and stronger under Mike Riley? Probably. Iowa has another great team returning, Wisconsin is going to have a running game again and be dangerous, Northwestern and Minnesota are still solid, Illinois should be far better in a hurry under Lovie Smith, and Purdue has its best team yet under Darrell Hazell.
This is about as open as the league will get with the Buckeyes and Spartans undergoing a bit of an overhaul, and the Wolverines and Nittany Lions not quite there yet – but still strong.
It’s going to be one of the best years in a long time in terms of weekly battles and national interest.
Harbaugh is going to make it fun, no matter what.
Big Ten Team That Will Surprise
Maryland – D.J. Durkin will make a big difference right away for a Terp team that lost its way in a 3-9 season. The passing game was a disaster, the defense couldn’t stop anyone’s passing game, and the turnovers didn’t stop coming. Even so, Maryland still showed promise at times.
With a light schedule that all but guarantees a 4-0 start – Howard, at FIU, at UCF, Purdue – and with winnable games against Indiana and Rutgers still on the slate, Durkin might double the 2015 win total right away.
Big Ten Team That Will Disappoint
Michigan – The Wolverines are going to be terrific, but considering there’s a rumbling that they might be on their way to the Big Ten championship and the College Football Playoff, the rising expectations might be a year too early.
The receiving corps is going to be terrific, the defensive side will be a rock again, and the coaching staff is top shelf, but even so, a 9-3 regular season would be seen as a major downer. With games against Penn State and Wisconsin at home, and going on the road to face Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State, this isn’t going to be easy. However, if Michigan really is that good in Harbaugh, Year Two …
Big Ten Game of the Year
Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 26 – All due respect given to Michigan State, who gets the Wolverines and Buckeyes at home, but the rivalry of all sports rivalries will matter more than ever now. It might be for the Big Ten East – and, effectively, the Big Ten title – after the game not making a difference in the race last year, and while Jim Harbaugh can’t do any wrong, it’s not going to sit well if he’s 0-2 against Urban.
5 Big-Time Big Ten Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight
Five players who have been a bit under the radar, but should rise up and be some of the Big Ten season’s best players – again.
1. LB Anthony Walker, Jr. Northwestern
2. LB Josey Jewell, Jr. Iowa
3. WR Jordan Westerkamp, Sr. Nebraska
4. RB Saquon Barkley, Soph. Penn State
5. CB Rashard Fant, Jr. Indiana
Top 5 Big Ten Coaches on the Hot Seat
Five Big Ten coaches who’d better win this season. Being on a hot seat doesn’t necessarily mean a coach is about to fired, but the pressure is on to produce up to expectations, and beyond.
1. Darrell Hazell, Purdue
2. Mike Riley, Nebraska
3. James Franklin, Penn State
4. Kevin Wilson, Indiana
5. Tracy Claeys, Minnesota
5 Non-Conference Games the Big Ten had Better Take Very, Very Seriously
The Big Ten is pushing itself hard with plenty of fantastic non-conference battles. These are the ones the league had better pay attention to almost as much as Ohio State vs. Oklahoma and Wisconsin vs. LSU.
1. Western Michigan at Northwestern, Sept. 3
2. North Dakota State at Iowa, Sept. 17
3. New Mexico at Rutgers, Sept. 17
4. Nevada at Purdue, Sept. 24
5. Maryland at UCF, Sept. 17
5 Best Big Ten Pro Prospects
1. S/LB Jabrill Peppers, Michigan (Jr.)
2. LB Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State (Jr.)
3. DT Malik McDowell, Michigan State (Jr.)
4. OG/C Pat Elflein, Ohio State
5. CB Desmond King, Iowa
5 Biggest Big Ten Shoes To Fill
1. Ohio State RB Mike Weber or Bri’onte Dunn for Ezekiel Elliott
2. Ohio State DE Sam Hubbard for Joey Bosa
3. Michigan State QB Tyler O’Connor for Connor Cook
4. Penn State DE Garrett Sickels and/or Torrence Brown for Ryan Nassib
5. Michigan QB Wilton Speight for Jake Rudock