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Hawkeyes columnkst Chad Leistikow lays down his predictions for how he thinks teams will fare in the Big Ten Conference this season. Aaron Young

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It’s time to roll out my predictions for the Big Ten Conference football season.

You loyal Hawk Central radio show/podcast followers out there already know where these end up (thanks for listening, by the way). So I’ve already gotten some grief for my division champions picks. And after two days at the league’s media days in Chicago, my opinion hasn’t changed.

I think Michigan is the best team in the Big Ten East, and I think Iowa is best in the West. BUT ...

... I’ve got Ohio State, behind Big Ten MVP J.T. Barrett, routing Minnesota -- yes, Minnesota -- in the league championship game Dec. 3 in Indianapolis.

Huh?

Well, it’s the first year of nine-game conference schedules in a 14-team league. And when each school faces three of the seven teams in the opposite division, not all schedules are created equal. And this year’s Big Ten title chase, in my opinion, is going to be more widely affected by schedules than when there were just two crossovers.

Let’s look at two teams that some think could challenge the West-favored Hawkeyes: Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Badgers’ three East opponents (Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State) were a combined 36-6 last year.

The Gophers’ draw (Maryland, Penn State and Rutgers) was 14-23.

See if you agree with my assessment and alignment of the Big Ten’s 14 teams.

EAST DIVISION

1. Ohio State

Crossovers: Wisconsin (road), Northwestern (home), Nebraska (home).

Why No. 1?

There’s no more quarterback controversy (and maybe there never should’ve been) in Columbus. Barrett, who finished fifth in 2014 Heisman Trophy voting, is again solely at the helm after an awkward time-share with now-in-the-NFL Cardale Jones last fall.

Barrett is the ideal run-first, pass-second athlete for Urban Meyer’s offense, as he showed by directing the 44-28 rout over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.

While there are questions about who replaces the 12 NFL-drafted players off last year’s incredible roster, there isn't doubting Meyer's track record (38-4 over the past three seasons in Columbus).

Plus, the schedule plays out nicely for a team looking to find and assert itself. After a likely non-conference road loss at Oklahoma, the Buckeyes soft-launch the Big Ten campaign with Rutgers and Indiana at home. That’ll give Ohio State time to build toward the finale in the Horseshoe against Michigan, which it’ll win to take the East on a tiebreaker.

Potential issues

The players coming behind the departed likes of Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, Eli Apple and Braxton Miller are unproven at the college level. But the replacements are elite recruits who waited their turn. Get ready to hear about Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel as Buckeye playmakers.

If anything happens to Barrett, there would be major questions at quarterback.

And even with off-the-charts personnel a year ago, the Buckeyes weren’t world-beaters (20-13 vs. Northern Illinois, 34-27 at Indiana), so they aren’t invincible.

Leistikow’s 2016 record prediction

10-2 (8-1 Big Ten)

2. Michigan

Crossovers: Wisconsin (home), Illinois (home), Iowa (road).

Why No. 2?

There’s no question who had the most buzz in Chicago: Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh.

He gets your attention and so should his stacked roster. The Wolverines bring back pretty much every key piece from the nation’s No. 4-ranked defense, which held six 2015 opponents to seven points or less. Do-it-all linebacker/rover Jabrill Peppers and cornerback Jourdan Lewis are the superstars.

The Wolverines have a great early-season schedule, too -- giving them enough time to figure out their quarterback situation. If they don’t start 7-0, I’ve misread them. Michigan will likely start in the national preseason top five and stay there. It leaves the state just once (Oct 8 at Rutgers) until a Nov. 12 night brawl in Iowa City.

I’ve got Michigan going into Columbus with an 11-0 record before falling in a classic to the Buckeyes. The question then will be: Will the deserving 11-1 Big Ten East runners-up make the College Football Playoff?

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Michigan coach is causing a stir this offseason with his unique recruiting methods. USA TODAY Sports

Potential issues

As mentioned, quarterback is uncertain after Jake Rudock’s excellent one-season stay. But under Harbaugh, that position shouldn’t ever be a major concern. Look for Wilton Speight and John O’Korn to duke it out, maybe even into the nonconference season.

Whoever wins the job, though, will have wonderful pass-catching options: All-Big Ten tight end Jake Butt, and receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh.

Michigan needs to improve its rushing attack, but having four of five starters back on the offensive line should help.

Leistikow’s 2016 record prediction

11-1 (8-1 Big Ten)

3. Michigan State

Crossovers: Wisconsin (home), Northwestern (home), Illinois (road).

Why No. 3?

Michigan State’s record the past three seasons is a staggering 36-5. That’s hard to ignore, despite losing Sparty all-Big Ten quarterback Connor Cook and decorated offensive linemen Jack Allen and Jack Conklin to the NFL.

Some are predicting the Spartans to contend for the East title, because they draw Michigan and Ohio State in East Lansing. The backfield is loaded with plug-and-play bodies, including L.J. Scott -- the man who tore out Iowa hearts with his last-minute reach in the Big Ten title game.

Defensive tackle Malik McDowell is a stud, and the secondary should be excellent.

Potential issues

While Mark Dantonio can brag about five 11-win seasons in the last six years, there is that 7-6 campaign of 2012 (3-5 in the Big Ten) that hasn't gone away.

I think the loss of receiver Aaron Burbridge is going to be a big deal, too. If Tyler O’Connor isn’t the answer at quarterback, there are problems.

I have the Spartans beating Ohio State for the second straight year but struggling with consistency.

Leistikow’s 2016 record prediction

8-4 (6-3 Big Ten)

4. Penn State

Crossovers: Minnesota (home), Purdue (road), Iowa (home).

Why No. 4?

The Nittany Lions are embracing their return to 85 scholarships following NCAA sanctions for the Jerry Sandusky scandal, but they’re still pretty young.

How to replace three-year starting quarterback Christian Hackenberg? With a no-huddle spread offense being installed under new coordinator Joe Moorhead, these certainly won’t look like your father’s Nittany Lions. Sophomore Saquon Barkley (1.076 rushing yards in 2015) and junior Chris Godwin (1,101 receiving yards) will be the playmakers as dual-threat QB Trace McSorley takes the reins.

McSorley is 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, but he can move his feet. He seems to have the makeup of those historically annoying QBs (think Antwaan Randle El) that give Iowa fits.

Potential issues

Trench play is a big question mark, not a good starting point. Hackenberg operated behind a sieve of an offensive line, and only one starter returns from the strength of last year’s worse-than-their-record 7-6 team -- the defensive line.

Though from the outside Penn State still has a winning history, none of the current players have experienced anything more than mediocrity. Expect more of the same for now in Happy Valley, but things do seem to be trending up.

Leistikow’s 2016 record prediction

7-5 (5-4 Big Ten)

5. Indiana

Crossovers: Nebraska (home), Northwestern (road), Purdue (home).

Why No. 5?

You could argue the Hoosiers were one of the best 6-7 teams in the country last year. They nearly shocked Ohio State, fell to Michigan in a double-overtime classic, pushed Iowa deep into the fourth quarter and then, for good measure, lost the Pinstripe Bowl in overtime against Duke.

Kevin Wilson should again have a great offensive line, with all-American Dan Feeney as the anchor. Three winnable nonconference games give Indiana a shot to record back-to-back bowl appearances, something that hasn’t happened in Bloomington since the 1990-91 seasons.

Potential issues

Nate Sudfeld was an underrated quarterback, and he’s gone. It’ll be interesting to see whether Wilson opts for the more athletic (6-1, 173 Zander Daimont) or prototypical (6-6, 240 Richard Lagow) body as Sudfeld's heir apparent.

Defense is always a Hoosier pitfall, and that’s not good in a physical conference. They’ll try to reboot behind a 4-2-5 scheme being installed by new defensive coordinator Tom Allen.

Expect some inconsistency, and maybe one upset, along the way.

Leistikow’s 2016 record prediction

6-6 (3-6 Big Ten)

6. Maryland

Crossovers: Purdue (home), Minnesota (home), Nebraska (road).

Why No. 6?

I think D.J. Durkin will eventually do well in College Park. The first-year coach and former Michigan defensive coordinator has Under Armour resources and a rich recruiting base at his disposal. But it might take a little time to clear the rubble from last year’s 3-9 implosion that led to Randy Edsall’s midseason firing.

The good news is that Maryland's early-season schedule is soft (the Terrapins could start 4-0 pretty easily), and the bulk of an offense that finished No. 3 in the Big Ten in rushing returns – including dual-threat quarterback Perry Hills.

Potential issues

Even though explosive return man/cornerback Will Likely returned for his senior season, there are issues on the defensive side of the ball.

Durkin could get that figured out pretty quickly, though. Mark it down: The Terps pull their first signature win under Durkin on Oct. 22 under the College Park lights, knocking off Michigan State.

Leistikow’s 2016 record prediction

6-6 (3-6 Big Ten)

7. Rutgers

Crossovers: Iowa (home), Illinois (home), Minnesota (road).

Why No. 7?

Rutgers needs to use this year under new coach Chris Ash, an Ottumwa native, to re-establish culture after the tumult created by Kyle Flood. If the Scarlet Knights can focus on the right things, they might have a chance down the road to be a spoiler in the rugged East.

Ash will deploy a power-spread attack similar to Ohio State’s under the direction of 28-year-old coordinator Drew Mehringer, imported from Houston (no doubt he came highly recommended by Tom Herman, who like Ash is a former Buckeye assistant).

You can bet Ash will want to make a splash in his Big Ten head-coaching debut against his home-state Hawkeyes on Sept. 24.

Potential issues

There’s no getting around the fact that the Scarlet Knights lack playmakers.

And their defense could be a mess, after losing the entire linebacking core off a defense that ranked 13th in the conference.

Last season, Rutgers was not competitive with Penn State, Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin or even Nebraska. This is a team that might struggle to win a conference game, but I think they eke out one (against Indiana).

Leistikow’s 2016 record prediction

3-9 (1-8 Big Ten)

WEST DIVISION

1. Minnesota

Crossovers: Penn State (road), Maryland (road), Rutgers (home).

Why No. 1?

That’s the $64,000 question. Only one of 39 sportswriters (me) picked the Gophers in the Cleveland.com preseason poll, which predicted Minnesota fifth in the West even though head coach Tracy Claeys contends "this is our best football team” in his five years in the program.

What’s to like about Minnesota?

Fifth-year senior quarterback Mitch Leidner is quietly becoming one of the league’s best at his position. ESPN’s Todd McShay made him a first-round 2017 NFL Draft pick in his way-too-early projections. The offense should be considerably better, with Leidner touting significant upgrades on the offensive line.

The Gophers’ defense is better than you think; they just need to reverse a turnover margin that tied for 10th in the conference.

And then there’s that schedule. Let’s agree to give Minnesota home wins over Purdue and Rutgers. That still leaves seven toss-up-type games, and if the Gophers can catch Iowa on an off day Oct. 8, they’ll have a real shot at the West title.

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Mitch Leidner wanted to be a Hawkeye.

Potential issues

The defensive edge is where the Gophers could be weak, and the West is a division with some decent quarterbacks to burn them. They lost starting cornerbacks Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray off the nation’s No. 11 pass defense, and there are also concerns at defensive end.

The Gophers seem to annually be one or two wins away from a breakthrough. This is their best chance. With a rivalry win over Iowa and a huge schedule advantage, I’ve got Minnesota tying the Hawkeyes for the West title -- and going to Indy on the tiebreaker.

Leistikow’s 2016 record prediction

9-3 (6-3 Big Ten)

2. Iowa

Crossovers: Rutgers (road), Penn State (road), Michigan (home).

Why No. 2?

Depending on your perspective, 9-3 will be measured as successful or disappointing. Iowa legitimately has a chance to repeat its 12-0 regular season from 2015. I’m not saying it’s a good chance, but every game on the schedule is winnable.

Iowa went 7-1 in 2015 games decided in the fourth quarter, the loss coming in the final minute of the Big Ten title game. The team’s top three stars return in quarterback C.J. Beathard, linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Desmond King, and the weak program culture of 2014 is a distant memory.

The Hawkeyes should be stout at defensive tackle (the top three return) and in the secondary (only Jordan Lomax is gone).

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Mark Emmert and Chad Leistikow discuss what went down Tuesday morning in Chicago.

Potential issues

Where will the pass rush come from? Iowa isn’t a team that blitzes very often, so the season might hinge on how quickly red-shirt sophomores Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson mature at defensive end.

And even though Iowa returns five offensive linemen with starting experience, it lost its best two power blockers in Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh. To win a championship, Iowa must protect Beathard better than it did a year ago.

There are going to be a lot of down-to-the-wire finishes, and Iowa needs to again win most of them to rule the West.

Leistikow’s 2016 record prediction

9-3 (6-3 Big Ten)

3. Northwestern

Crossovers: Michigan State (road), Indiana (home), Ohio State (road).

Why No. 3?

It’s easy to forget Northwestern went 10-3 last year (including a win over Stanford) and returns many of its key pieces from that team.

Veteran coach Pat Fitzgerald thinks his team will be more competitive at the line of scrimmage, an area he blames for last year’s three losses. He said it’s been a record-setting offseason in the weight room, as evidenced by a bell that players ring when they set a personal best. “That damn thing was purple when we started the offseason,” Fitzgerald said. “Now we’ve got to repaint it.”

Anthony Walker Jr. might be the best linebacker in the conference -- and that includes Jewell, Peppers and Ohio State's Raekwon MacMillan.

Potential issues

Even though quarterback Clayton Thorson is going into second season as a starter and top rusher Justin Jackson returns, Northwestern lacks playmakers.

The Wildcats will need at least two signature wins to surprise in the West, and October alone is a beast -- with trips Iowa City, East Lansing and Columbus. The schedule is just too tough, but this is a better team than people think.

Leistikow’s 2016 record prediction

8-4 (5-4 Big Ten)

4. Nebraska

Crossovers: Indiana (road), Ohio State (road), Maryland (home).

Why No. 4?

A lot of people think the Big Ten title will be decided on Black Friday in Iowa City. But that's a long ways off. Mike Riley’s team needs an identity.

A big Week 3 matchup against Oregon will tell us more about the Cornhuskers. Nebraska should have a good shot at going 4-0 at home in Big Ten play (Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota, Maryland), so its season will be defined on the road.

There are some good vibes for Nebraska after it rushed for 326 yards against UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl. Tommy Armstrong Jr. is back for a senior year as the team’s quarterback, but …

Potential issues

… Armstrong is back as the team’s quarterback. I keep hearing, “If he cuts down on his interceptions,” he’ll be great. But this is a guy who threw 12 picks in 2014, then 16 a year ago and is a 54-percent career passer.

Armstrong puts up big offensive numbers, yes, but his track record shows inconsistency. And Nebraska has major issues in the trenches, with only two offensive-line starters back and its defensive line gutted.

Year 2 presents an interesting challenge for Riley, whose program is reeling from the recent death of punter Sam Foltz.

Leistikow’s 2016 record prediction

7-5 (5-4 Big Ten)

5. Illinois

Crossovers: Rutgers (road), Michigan (road), Michigan State (home).

Why No. 5?

Lovie Smith was a superb hire. He brings calm, calculated leadership to a program that needs it after the reckless antics of Tim Beckman.

Smith steps into a decent situation. He glowed at Big Ten Media Days about running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s abilities, and there’ll be no quarterback controversy with veteran Wes Lunt at the helm.

Smith was a defense-first, ball-control type guy during his runs with the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so look for that to approach to be emphasized in Champaign, too.

Potential issues

The defense might take time to build with coordinator Hardy Nickerson, whose son of the same name comes over as a graduate-transfer after leading California in tackles a year ago.

Illinois’ schedule is daunting, but it has the talent (and now coaching) to be competitive and stage an upset along the way.

Leistikow’s 2016 record prediction

6-6 (4-5 Big Ten)

6. Wisconsin

Crossovers: Michigan State (road), Michigan (road), Ohio State (home).

Why No. 6?

The schedule is ruthless, beginning with the opener against potential preseason No. 1 LSU at Lambeau Field.

But beyond the lineup of strong opponents, the Badgers need to pick a quarterback between senior Bart Houston and freshman Alex Hornibrook. Folks in Madison think the offensive line will be a lot better than the banged-up unit of a year ago that generated just the 95th-best rushing offense in the country. (This is Wisconsin, right?)

If they’re right, there are plenty of good running backs to operate behind them – including Corey Clement, who missed most of last season after sports-hernia surgery (the same operation Iowa’s Beathard had in January).

Potential issues

The Badgers had an elite defense in 2015, but with architect Dave Aranda gone to LSU how dominant will it remain?

The Badgers still have upper-division personnel, including with linebacker Vince Biegel, but the schedule will make Big Ten wins tougher to come by than most think in Paul Chryst’s second season at the helm.

Leistikow’s 2016 record prediction

5-7 (3-6 Big Ten)

7. Purdue

Crossovers: Maryland (road), Penn State (home), Indiana (road).

Why No. 7?

It’s make-or-break time for fourth-year coach Darrell Hazell, who is 6-30 overall and 2-22 in the Big Ten.

He was one of the most optimistic coaches that took the podium in Chicago, but is it just hot air? “I think you're going to like what steps off the train this year,” he proclaimed, trumpeting high morale.

The Boilermakers do have something to build on, with 16 starters back off a team that beat Nebraska a year ago and pushed Michigan State and Northwestern to the wire. Look for David Blough (who got KO'd vs. Iowa with a concussion) to be the starting quarterback.

Potential issues

The Boilermakers need to believe they can win and not just talk about it. They play hard, but powering through adversity has been a problem.

A secondary that requires rebuilding won’t help to hold any lead that the Boilermakers get. This will likely be Hazell's final season in West Lafayette.

Leistikow’s 2016 record prediction

2-10 (0-9 Big Ten)

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