Rick Brown’s preseason Big Ten picks: Hawkeyes to finish 8-4
Ohio State’s depth at quarterback is so stacked that Braxton Miller, a two-time Big Ten MVP, is moving to wide receiver.
He hardly leaves a void. J.T. Barrett was a first-team all-Big Ten selection last season. Cardale Jones led the Buckeyes to victories in the Big Ten Championship and college football’s inaugural playoffs.
Talk about depth. That’s just one reason why the defending national champions are the class of the Big Ten and, quite possibly, the nation. Coach Urban Meyer has never lost a regular season game to a Big Ten opponent since retooling the Buckeye machine in 2012. It will take a stunning upset for him to lose his perfect record.
Why picked here: Barrett is a better runner than Jones, but both are capable of handing it off to Ezekiel Elliott, who gained 696 yards and scored eight touchdowns in three postseason games. Jones has a bigger arm than Barrett. Both know how to win. That’s the bottom line.
And all-Big Ten end Joey Bosa, one of college football’s top NFL prospects heading into the season, is back to lead the defense. He had 13 1/2 sacks last season. With Bosa, linebacker Darron Lee (7 1/2 sacks) and tackle Adolphus Washington (4 1/2 sacks) ready to tee off on quarterbacks, Ohio State looks like a well-rounded monster.
Potential issues: Ohio State gave up 201.1 yards passing per game last season, and all-Big Ten cornerback Doran Grant is gone. Three interior defenders — tackle Michael Bennett, end Steve Miller and linebacker Curtis Grant — must also be replaced.
The good news for the Buckeyes is that even if teams do some damage against a group that was fifth in the Big Ten in total defense (342.4 yards) last season, the offense should score enough points to keep opponents at bay.
If you’re looking for a possible upset, keep an eye on Nov. 28. Ohio State must travel to Michigan, where coach Jim Harbaugh will have the Wolverines in an emotional frenzy.
Rick Brown’s 2015 record prediction: 12-0 (8-0 Big Ten).
Why picked here: Coach Mark Dantonio has made the Spartans a serious Big Ten contender. They’ve won at least 11 games, seven of them in the Big Ten, in four of the past five seasons.
But Ohio State’s giant shadow makes a title run a longshot this season, especially with Michigan State playing in Columbus, Ohio on Nov. 21. But the Spartans can still have another big season, title or not. One game to circle is a Sept. 12 game with Oregon in East Lansing. Seven starters return on both sides of the ball for Michigan State, including all-Big Ten performers Shilique Calhoun (defensive end) and Jack Allen (center).
Potential issues: Pat Narduzzi, an accomplished defensive coordinator, has left to take over the Pittsburgh program. Big-time talents Trae Waynes (cornerback), Kurtis Drummond (free safety) and Taiwan Jones (linebacker) must also be replaced.
There’s talent at running back, but it’s an unproven position. The departed Jeremy Langford, a Chicago Bears rookoie, rushed for better than 1,400 yards in each of the last two seasons.
Still, Michigan State has stockpiled good depth at positions of need, and double-digit wins should be the result in 2015 once again.
Rick Brown’s 2015 record prediction: 10-2 (7-1).
Why picked here: Junior quarterback Christian Hackenberg is positioned for a breakout season, which could get the Nittany Lions to double-figure victories. And Penn State’s agreeable schedule plays into that. Illinois and Northwestern, their two crossover opponents, are expected to finish in the west’s second division.
Coach James Franklin, heading into his second season in Happy Valley, has an experienced team. He returns seven starters on both sides of the ball.
Penn State’s defense, led by tackles Anthony Zettel (first-team all-Big Ten) and Austin Johnson, should be stingy. Teams averaged just 2.9 yards a carry against Penn State last season, second-best among all FBS schools. Hackenberg has a can’t-miss target in DaeSean Hamilton.
Potential issues: Penn State was the poorest rushing team in the Big Ten last season (101.9 yards a game), and this is still an area of concern even though three starters return in the offensive line. Hackenberg, a favorite of many NFL Draft analysts, must also increase his accuracy and decrease his interceptions. He threw a Big Ten-high 15 picks last season while completing just 55.8 percent of his passes.
Rick Brown’s 2015 record prediction: 10-2 (6-2).
Why picked here: On paper, first-year Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh inherited an experienced group with 10 starters returning on both sides of the ball. That’s also the bad news, since the Wolverines finished 3-5 in the Big Ten and 5-7 overall. Three of those losses, to Utah, Minnesota and Maryland, were in the Big House.
Michigan should lean to the defensive side of the ball again this season. The Wolverines were seventh nationally in total defense, but must replace key components Frank Clark, Brennen Beyer and Jake Ryan.
Potential issues: Quarterback, for one. Shane Morris is the most experienced returnee. He played in five games last season, but completed just 35 percent of his 40 pass attempts and is still looking to record his first collegiate touchdown pass.
Harbaugh may turn to Jake Rudock, who left Iowa after losing the starting job to C.J. Beathard. He’s been the Hawkeyes’ starter 25 of the last 26 games. Former Dowling Catholic all-stater Amara Darboh is poised for a big junior season at wide receiver, if someone can get him the ball on a consistent basis.
The Wolverines have a good stable of running backs in De’Veon Smith, Derrick Green and Drake Johnson, who combined for 1,351 yards rushing last season.
Rick Brown’s 2015 record prediction: 7-5 (4-4).
Why picked here: Just five starters return on both sides of the ball. And the biggest loss will be playmaking quarterback Gary Nova, who ushered Rutgers into the Big Ten by throwing for 2,851 yards.
His favorite target, Leonte Carroo (1,086 receiving yards) is back to catch passes from either Chris Laviano or LSU transfer Hayden Rettig.
Rutgers may rely more on the run this season, even though there will be three new starters in the offensive line. Five returning running backs — Desmon Peoples, Josh Hicks, Robert Martin, Paul James and Justin Goodwin — all logged at least 63 carries last season. James is the best of the bunch but is coming back from ACL surgery after getting hurt in the fourth game last season.
Potential issues: The Scarlet Knights were 12th in the Big Ten in pass defense last season, and three of four starters in the secondary will be new in 2015.
The quarterback spot will be up for grabs when fall practice starts. Two starting defensive linemen and two starting linebackers return, but Rutgers was 13th in the league in rushing defense last season (212.3 yards allowed per game).
Rick Brown’s 2015 record prediction: 6-6 (2-6).
Why picked here: Wide receiver Stefon Diggs caught 792 yards worth of passes last season. Gone. Quarterback C.J. Brown passed for 2,288 yards and was also the team’s leading rusher with 539 yards. Gone.
And say goodbye to seven starters on the defensive side of the ball. New defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski is changing to a 4-3 alignment after a season that saw the Terrapins finish 12th in rushing defense (a generous 201.9 yards a game).
Potential issues: The wide receiver position was gutted, due to Diggs’ jump to the NFL, transfers and suspensions. And since Caleb Rowe, the expected successor to C.J. Brown, doesn’t bring the same running threat, it’s easy to project this offense as one that moves at a methodical pace.
The defense didn’t set the world on fire last season, either, allowing at least 31 points to seven opponents. They won just one of those games, against Iowa (38-31).
Even the return of first-team all-Big Ten defensive back and kick returner deluxe William Likely doesn’t give the Terrapins a world of optimism heading into 2015.
Rick Brown’s 2015 record prediction: 5-7 (2-6).
Why picked here: Coach Kevin Wilson was wise enough to take advantage of running back Tevin Coleman’s immense skills last season. The pass-happy Hoosiers started to grind it out. And that approach intensified after starting quarterback Nate Sudfeld and backup Chris Covington were lost for the season in the sixth game at Iowa.
Coleman was the nation’s second-leading rusher with 2,036 yards. As a team, the Hoosiers were ninth nationally with 2,636 yards. And Indiana finished 1-7 in Big Ten play. Sudfeld is back, but Coleman is gone. The Hoosiers could be returning to the air in 2015.
Potential issues: It won’t matter if Indiana runs or passes the ball if the defense can’t stop anybody. The Hoosiers were 93rd nationally in total defense last season, allowing an average of 433.8 yards a game. And with just five starters returning on that side of the ball, don’t expect much of an upgrade.
Even if Sudfeld starts to air it out, the top three receivers (including Coleman) are not longer in uniform. That is problematic. The good news is that Sudfeld should be well protected, with four of five starting interior lineman back this season.
Rick Brown’s 2015 record prediction: 4-8 (1-7).
Why picked here: The Badgers might not play the prettiest brand of football out there, but you can’t argue with the results. Wisconsin is a run-first program. And even though there’s been a coaching change for the third time in four seasons, with former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst replacing Gary Andersen, expect the Badgers to keep pounding away. Wisconsin has finished in the Big Ten’s top three in rushing yards for eight seasons running.
All-American running back Melvin Gordon, who set a Big Ten single-season rushing record with 2,587 yards last season, went to San Diego with the 15th pick in April’s NFL Draft. But Corey Clement is a solid replacement. He finished 10th in the league in rushing with 949 yards. Wisconsin might not finish as high as third nationally in rushing, which it did last season, but that will remain their black-and-blue trademark.
Potential issues: Chryst will have to fill three openings in the offensive line, including all-Big Ten tackle Rob Havenstein’s spot. And quarterback Joel Stave has got to be more accurate than his 10-interception, nine-touchdown effort last season. Second-team all-Big Ten defensive backs Michael Caputo and Darius Hilary return, but it will be challenging to replace end Warren Herring and linebackers Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter.
Rick Brown’s 2015 record prediction: 9-3 (6-2).
Why picked here: Two outstanding playmakers are gone in running back Ameer Abdullah and wide receiver Kenny Bell. A third key departure was coach Bo Pelini, shown the door and replaced by Mike Riley.
Look for Nebraksa to beat teams on the ground, with a more mature quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. under center. Armstrong should thrieve in Riley’s pro-style attack. He passed for 2,695 yards last season, with 22 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. But Nebraska was just ninth in the Big Ten in passing offense (212.1 yards per game). Terrell Newby, a junior, is the leading candidate to replace Abdullah, who helped the team finish fourth in the league in rushing (240.2 yards) and third in scoring offense (37.8 points) last season.
Potential issues: Second-team all-Big Ten linebacker Maliek Collins and tackle Vincent Valentine are a formidable tandem, combining for 90 tackles in 2014. And 21 of those were behind the line of scrimmage. But the Blackshirts of old still play in the memory bank, not the field. The Cornhuskers were ninth in both scoring defense (26.4) and rushing defense (177.8 yards) last season. And that was with first-team all-Big Ten defensive end Randy Gregory in the fold. Eight starters return on defense, and that side of the ball has go to show improvement for Nebraska to challenge Wisconsin.
Rick Brown’s 2015 record prediction: 8-4 (5-3).
Why picked here: Minnesota’s brick-by-brick climb up the Big Ten standings is impressive, from 2-6 in Jerry Kill’s first two seasons as coach to 4-4 in 2013 and 5-3 last season. Now we’ll find out if this program has staying power or not.
Quarterback Mitch Leidner is a true dual-threat quarterback, passing for 11 touchdowns and running for 10 last season. He accounted for 1,798 yards with his arm, 452 more with his legs. But the secondary, 18th nationally in pass defense last season, could be even better this year behind returning second-team all-Big Ten selections Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray. Linebacker Theiren Cockran (team-best four sacks) has all-Big Ten ability. The Gophers also have a key field position weapon in punter Peter Mortell, a first-team all-Big Ten returnee who averaged 45.1 yards last season.
Potential issues: David Cobb is gone after rushing for 1,626 yards and three touchdowns in 2014. Tight end Maxx Williams, Leidner’s favorite target, left early for the NFL Draft. Williams had 36 catches for 569 yards and eight touchdowns. No one else had more than 18 catches.
Leidner is one of just five starters returning on offense. The defense will have to carry this team until the offense catches up.
Rick Brown’s 2015 record prediction: 7-5 (5-3).
Why picked here: The C.J. Beathard era is about to start, and his arm has the potential to get this offense moving downfield after last season’s inconsistent play. Iowa’s defense looks improved, and the secondary is experienced with cornerbacks Desmond King and Greg Mabin and free safety Jordan Lomax all back.
Beathard gives the Hawkeyes a pass-run threat. And LeShun Daniels and Jordan Canzeri will give this team two solid up-field runners if new offensive tackles Boone Myers and Ike Boettger can step in for NFL draft picks Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal. The first two games — Illinois State at home and at Iowa State — will give a quick indication of the direction this season will go.
Potential issues: Beathard must remain healthy for this to be a successful season. Redshirt freshman Tyler Wiegers, his backup, has never taken a snap in a college game. The linebackers have been shuffled around, putting them in places to take best advantage of their strengths. But the interior of the defensive line also lost two NFL draft picks in Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat. Defensive end Drew Ott is a potential star, but the development of the defensive line could write the story of this Hawkeye season.
Rick Brown’s 2015 record prediction: 8-4 (5-3).
Why picked here: After beating Mississippi State in the 2012 Gator Bowl to compete a 10-3 season, coach Pat Fitzgerald said that was just a sampling of the good things coming for his program in the future. Not exactly. The Wildcats have totaled just 10 victories over the last two seasons, including a 4-12 Big Ten record.
And the Wildcats head into 2015 without a proven quarterback, and an offense that isn’t nearly as dangerous as it once was. Justin Jackson rushed for 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns as a true freshman. Northwestern managed just nine touchdown passes. The quick-strike Wildcats were just eighth in the league in passing offense last season (216.5 yards a game).
Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson came out of spring ball as the leading contenders to replace Trevor Siemian at quarterback. They’ll benefit from the return of wide receiver Christian Jones, who blew out a knee in fall camp and missed the entire 2014 season.
Potential issues: The winner of the quarterback competition will get thrown into the fire. Stanford at home and at Duke are two of the first three games. Quarterback will be one of five positions Fitzgerald has to fill on offense. The defense has eight starters back. But two of the losses — linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and safety Ibraheim Campbell — were significant.
Rick Brown’s 2015 record prediction: 5-7 (2-6).
Why picked here: The Boilermakers do return eight starters on both sides of the ball, but it’s going to be hard for this struggling program to gain traction in 2015.
The team’s top two offensive players, backs Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, are gone. Hunt led the team in both rushing (949 yards) and receiving (48 catches).
Austin Appleby beat out Danny Etling for the quarterback job, and guided the Boilermakers to a victory at Illinois in the sixth game of the season. But Purdue ended 2014 with six straight losses, Etling transferred out of the program and Appleby is competing with David Blough for the starting spot.
Purdue didn’t score more than 16 points in any of those last six losses and allowed at least 35 in five of them.
Potential issues: With crowd apathy at an all-time high in West Lafayette, Ind., coach Darrell Hazell needs to show some progress in his third season. Purdue has two top-notch defenders in tackle Jake Replogle and safety Frankie Williams. But the secondary was an easy target for opponents last season (223.9 yards a game).
If receiver Danny Anthrop is slow to come back from knee surgery, and no one steps up to fill the Hunt-Mostert void at running back, apathy will rule.
Rick Brown’s 2015 record prediction: 4-8 (2-6).
Why picked here: Coach Tim Beckman is under fire for his alleged treatment of players. That means the minute things start go to south in Champaign — and they likely will — the temperature will go up on the hot seat.
The Illini were second in the Big Ten in pass offense last season, at 249.8 yards a game. If quarterback West Lunt can make it through the season healthy — he broke his leg and missed five games last season — running back Josh Ferguson gets some room to run and receiver Mike Dudek returns (midseason) from the ACL injury he suffered in spring ball, the offense could be fun to watch. Dudek had 76 catches for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns last season, and ranked third in the Big Ten in both yards per catch (5.8) and yards per game (79.8).
Potential issues: Illinois has got to stop somebody. Anybody. This team was last in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing 34 points a game. And last in rushing defense, allowing 239.2 points a game. A repeat of numbers like that don’t exactly lead to coaching security. Linebacker Mason Monheim, the team’s leading tackler (111), is back. But he needs help. A lot of help. If the defense doesn’t improve, Lunt can throw for 3,000 yards and it won’t matter.
Rick Brown’s 2015 record prediction: 4-8 (1-7).
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.