2016 Big Ten preview: Who's best in three-way race for the East?

1:19 | College Football
2016 Big Ten football preview: Defense shines
Wednesday August 17th, 2016

The Big Ten remains top heavy heading into the 2016 season—but their best teams all reside in the same division. Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State are the class of the conference, and each will have major strengths—as well as a couple flaws—as they battle it out for a spot in the College Football Playoff. The winner of the Big Ten East could be the de facto conference champion, though Iowa put a scare into the Spartans during last season’s conference title game.

The Hawkeyes are currently the favorites to repeat as West division champs, though Wisconsin and Nebraska should bounce back from unlucky seasons to pose a greater threat. The Big Ten may not be the deepest conference of the Power 5, but its top teams should play significant roles when it comes to the national title picture.

Projected 2016 Big Ten standings

East West
Ohio State 10–2 (8–1) Iowa 10–2 (7–2)
Michigan State 10–2 (8–1) Wisconsin 9–3 (7–2)
Michigan 10–2 (7–2) Nebraska 8–4 (6–3)
Penn State 7–5 (4–5) Northwestern 8–4 (5–4)
Indiana 6–6 (3–6) Minnesota 6–6 (3–6)
Maryland 4–8 (2–7) Illinois 3–9 (2–7)
Rutgers 3–9 (1–8) Purdue 2–10 (0–9)

Conference title game: Ohio State over Iowa

    Offensive MVP
    J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
    2015 stats: 992 yards passing, 63.3% completion percentage, 682 yards rushing, 22 total touchdowns
    2016 projected stats: 3,046 yards passing, 65.5% completion percentage, 774 yards rushing, 48 total touchdowns
    Barrett should benefit immensely after the departures of Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller. Barrett will be the unquestioned leader for Ohio State headed into the 2016 season, and the team’s commitment to him should be mutually beneficial. He was a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate as a full-time starter in 2014 and could vault himself back into that conversation this season. Barrett’s blend of running ability and accuracy makes him a great fit for Urban Meyer’s offense, and the talent around Barrett, though less proven than in past years, should give the Buckeyes an explosive attack.

    Defensive MVP
    Anthony Walker, LB, Northwestern
    2015 stats: 122 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 1 interception
    2016 projected stats: 115 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 3 interceptions
    Dubbed “The Franchise” by Northwestern this off-season, Walker was a major catalyst in the Wildcats’ surprising 10–3 finish in 2015. A Miami export, Walker brings a major dose of athleticism to Northwestern’s linebacking corps. For a team that normally plays conservatively, Walker has found ways to make plays within NU’s scheme, continuously finding himself in the backfield while also showing decent ball skills. Walker’s immense talent already has him rising up NFL draft boards, and he’s been a standout in nearly every Big Ten game so far in his career. Northwestern’s record may fall this season—and potentially Walker’s counting stats as well—but his impact on the defensive side of the ball is of immeasurable value to the Wildcats.

    Impact Freshman
    Rashan Gary, DT, Michigan
    The No. 1 recruit in the class of 2016, Gary will be expected to contribute right away for the Wolverines, a team entering the season with immense hype. The expectations should be no surprise for Gary, who was pursued by all of college football’s top dogs before choosing Michigan on National Signing Day. Gary has already earned positive reviews from teammates during camp, and he could start on the inside of the Wolverines’ defensive line in Week 1. With the Maize and Blue’s offense somewhat in flux (Jim Harbaugh still must select a starting quarterback), Michigan’s defense could have to carry the team early in the season. Gary’s maturity has been praised by coaches, and his athleticism should make him a force along the defensive line.

    Coach On the Hot Seat
    Darrell Hazell, Purdue
    2015 record: 2–10 (1–7)
    Overall record at Purdue: 6–30 (2–22)
    The Boilermakers have been plain bad under Hazell, who has yet to find any kind of winning combination in West Lafayette. Purdue has won only six times in the last three years, and it’s plausible the Boilermakers will lose every single one of their conference games this season. They have never been a powerhouse, but Hazell has nearly turned the team into a laughing stock. Purdue flashed one or two signs of hope last season (like an Oct. 31 upset of Nebraska), but unless it wins five games, I have a hard time imagining Hazell will get a fifth year to turn things around. An upset of Nebraska or Wisconsin would really help Hazell’s case.

Key nonconference games

LSU vs. Wisconsin (Sep. 3)

The Badgers won 10 games in 2015 but were largely forgotten after a drubbing at the hands of Alabama in Week 1. If Wisconsin wants to avoid a similar fate this year, it needs to beat LSU. This is the third straight year Wisconsin has opened with an SEC team, also facing the Tigers two seasons ago (a 28–24 loss). And this could be the Badgers’ best chance to win, especially if Leonard Fournette is still recovering from his fall camp ankle sprain. If coach Paul Chryst can guide his team to a victory, Big Ten West rival Iowa will feel much more uncomfortable at the top of the division.

Ohio State at Oklahoma (Sept. 17)

The Buckeyes proved in the first year of the playoff that an early-season loss is far from an elimination, but they can bolster their final four case with a win over Oklahoma in Norman. The game will be a test for both schools and could be extremely critical if either team misses its conference title game. Barrett will be counted on heavily in what will likely be a shootout against Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield. If Ohio State’s defense holds up, the rest of the Big Ten will surely take notice.

Michigan State at Notre Dame (Sep. 17)

The same weekend the Buckeyes travel to Oklahoma, Michigan State makes the shorter trek to South Bend to face the Fighting Irish. This game probably means a little more to Notre Dame, which doesn’t have the luxury of a conference title game for a late-season playoff résumé boost. Beyond the playoff implications, this nonconference tilt will serve as an early barometer for Spartans quarterback Tyler O’Connor, who will have to carry the team more than he has ever before. If O’Connor acquits himself well—even in a loss—that could go a long way in determining how much of a threat Michigan State is to win the Big Ten East.

Key conference games

Michigan at Michigan State (Oct. 29), Ohio State at Michigan State (Nov. 19), Michigan at Ohio State (Nov. 26)

Let’s lump these three together because the machinations of these matchups will likely give us a playoff representative from the Big Ten. Michigan is talented and well coached but has questions at quarterback. Michigan State is in a similar boat, and the two schools will likely rely on their defenses in these games. Ohio State has the clear advantage under center but is losing most of its starters from last year’s squad. The outcomes of these three games will be huge for the conference, and it doesn’t help us prognosticators that last year’s Michigan-Michigan State and Michigan State-Ohio State games were extremely close (and kind of flukey!). At the end of all of this, at the very least we will have a division champion, and more likely than not a top-four team.

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Michigan at Iowa (Nov. 12)

This game could very likely be a conference championship preview. The Wolverines cannot take the Hawkeyes lightly, especially with Kinnick Stadium being a tough place to play. Michigan may have the hype and high-ranked recruiting classes, but Iowa’s experience under center with C.J. Bearthard gives it an added confidence in big games. If the Wolverines overlook the Hawkeyes, it could ultimately cost them a chance at a national title.

Nebraska at Iowa (Nov. 25)

We haven’t talked a lot about the Cornhuskers during this preview. Mike Riley stumbled in his first season in Lincoln, a distressing 6–7 season after the departure of Bo Pelini. In Riley’s defense, Nebraska lost very close games, meaning his team simply could have been unlucky as opposed to untalented. Iowa, on the other hand, was on the winning side of a couple could-go-either-way games last season. All of this is to say, Nebraska should make a much stronger push for the division title this season, and the Cornhuskers’ trip to Iowa City could be a high stakes one if both teams are playing well. This game could very well determine the winner of the Big Ten West.

Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Five key questions

Will Indiana score an upset?

Seemingly every Saturday in conference play last season, an Indiana score would flash on the screen and cause everyone to murmur about a possible upset. The Hoosiers’ dynamic offense put some Big Ten elites on their heels last season and it figures to do the same this year even without Nate Sudfield at quarterback. But can the Hoosiers finally pull off a big win after only beating middling opponents last year? Indiana can throw a serious wrench into the Big Ten hierarchy if its defense rises even the slightest this season (the Hoosiers ranked No. 1 in the conference in scoring offense but last in scoring defense in 2015). If one of the Hoosiers’ close games turns into an upset, the Big Ten could be turned upside down.

Whose offense will gel first: Michigan’s or Michigan State’s?

Both the Spartans and Wolverines are going through fall camp with position battles at quarterback. O’Connor seems likely to start for Michigan State, while Michigan still has three players vying for the job, with Wilton Speight possibly having the slightest of upper hands. Both teams have extremely talented defenses and coaches who can coax wins from less-than-stellar QBs, but with the Buckeyes’ offense looming, Harbaugh and Mark Dantonio would sleep much better if one of their quarterbacks asserted his dominance. Whichever team puts it together first under center will be a better team by the end of the season.

Will Nebraska’s luck turn around?

The Cornhuskers lost their seven games last season by an average of 4.4 points. We touched on this earlier, but Nebraska’s bad breaks in close games could be the saving grace for Riley. The Cornhuskers will have a chance to challenge for a division title this season, and outside of a nonconference matchup with Oregon, the school has a fairly favorable schedule, avoiding Michigan and Michigan State in conference play. If Riley manages to flip the script in close games and Iowa comes back down to earth, the Cornhuskers could be in the driver’s seat for the conference title game.

Will Penn State make the leap?

James Franklin has gone 7–6 in each of his two seasons with the Nittany Lions and has lost some of the shine that made him widely beloved at Vanderbilt. Christian Hackenberg couldn’t resist taking shots at Franklin on his way to the NFL, and Franklin hasn’t done himself any favors with bizarre statements, like blaming a loss to Northwestern on a time change. All that said, Penn State still has a talented group, but has the misfortune of playing in the same division as the big three teams of the conference. An 8–4 finish with one upset would be a bigger improvement than the record would show.

Can Minnesota sustain momentum? The Golden Gophers had become a feisty out under coach Jerry Kill, who had to step away from the program amid health issues last season. Minnesota has pockets of talent around the roster and is far from an easy game for any Big Ten team. New coach Tracy Claeys will not only be coaching for his job, but one bad season could undo all of Kill’s work to make Minnesota a program on the rise. A solid season from Claeys could not only give him better job security, but it could also position the Gophers for long-term success. Luckily for them, they avoid Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State this season.

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