The Big Ten is riding a wave of momentum into the 2015 season—and what better way to begin testing that momentum than with Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan debut against Utah on Sept. 3. But a conference whose off-season shined brightest on the Wolverines and Ohio State has plenty of other teams on the move entering the 2015 campaign. Let’s check in on who’s rising, falling or could do either with some superlatives.
Most improved: Penn State
The Nittany Lions’ issues with depth and experience reached their apex last year; now comes the rebound. Despite a 2–6 conference record in 2014, Penn State boasted one of the top defenses in the country, allowing just 4.1 yards per play. That unit should be similarly stout this fall, led by stud defensive tackle Anthony Zettel. His pass-rushing ability can help offset the loss of both starting defensive ends, while the bulk of the linebacker corps returns and the secondary has strong experience at safety. The room for improvement comes on offense, where Christian Hackenberg can break out of his sophomore slump with the help of a less porous—though still somewhat inexperienced—offensive line. The addition of top JUCO tackle recruit Paris Palmer should help the Nittany Lions better their dreadful 8.13% sacks allowed percentage last season. Other than trips to Ohio State and Michigan State, every game is winnable.
Most on the decline: Maryland
The Terrapins’ first season in the Big Ten went about as well as could be expected. They posted a .500 league record and lost to the elite teams of the conference, with a roughly even split in close-game results. For the first time since 2002–03, Maryland won at least seven games in consecutive seasons. Extending that stretch for a third season, though, will be an uphill battle. The Terrapins must completely retool their passing game without quarterback C.J. Brown and top two wide receivers,Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. The defense is a major question mark, too, after losing its coordinator, top pass rusher and nearly every linebacker. Maryland is also making the switch to a 4–3 alignment. Coach Randy Edsall’s strong recruiting work—his ’16 class currently ranks No. 22 nationally, according to Rivals.com—should keep him safe, but the Terrapins could easily miss out on a bowl this year.
Toughest schedule: Rutgers
Rutgers faces a brutal conference slate for the second straight year. In addition to its divisional matchups against Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan, the Scarlet Knights draw Wisconsin and Nebraska in cross-divisional games. Even one of their more winnable conference games, at home against Maryland, is made much more difficult by its placement on the schedule: in the final week of the regular season after playing for seven weeks without a bye and coming off of a draining game against Army’s triple-option offense.
Easiest schedule: Wisconsin
Yes, there’s the Week One battle against Alabama, but have you looked at the rest of the Badgers’ schedule? Trips to Nebraska and Minnesota could be tricky, but Wisconsin should be favored in every other game. Cross-divisional matchups against Rutgers and Maryland mean the Badgers miss the meat of the Big Ten East. An 11–1 regular season is very possible.
Biggest range: Nebraska
The team is in flux with Mike Riley taking over as head coach and star running back Ameer Abdullah and top pass rusher Randy Gregory off to the NFL. Still, there’s a reason the Cornhuskers were consistently good—though never great—under Bo Pelini, and they should be able to build around an experienced secondary. But Nebraska fans know well the difference between good and great, and the ability (or lack thereof) of the offense to jell under Riley and coordinator Danny Langsdorf will likely make the difference. A sluggish attack could lead to nonconference losses against BYU and at Miami, midseason defeats versus Wisconsin and Minnesota (though as the next superlative shows, I think the latter is unlikely) and then another conference loss to Michigan State. That’d make a nine-win Pelini season look pretty good. The Cornhuskers could just as easily spread the ball around effectively to win double-digit games, reach the Big Ten championship and earn a one-off battle against Ohio State with a possible playoff berth on the line.
Most overrated: Minnesota
Jerry Kill has done a tremendous job building the Gophers into a winning program for the past two seasons, but that doesn’t make him immune to down years when he doesn’t quite have the pieces to meet the standard he set. Minnesota is firmly expected to finish third in the Big Ten West and has drawn some buzz as a dark horse threat to reach the conference title game. But a division full of middle-of-pack teams means it won’t take much to push the Gophers towards the back of that pack. An offense built around the running game loses the powerful David Cobb, and quarterback Mitch Leidner will be without his favorite target, tight end Maxx Williams. Minnesota’s defense, whose aggressive secondary forced 11 interceptions in the first seven games, regressed in the second half of the year with just four more picks. If the defense can’t help out an attack that will undoubtedlystruggle in transition, the Gophers will likely fall short of the eight wins they compiled in each of the past two seasons.
Most underrated: Michigan
Let’s start with a clarification: Michigan’s future as a program isn’t underrated, nor is Jim Harbaugh underrated. But Team 136 in Ann Arbor is. Whereas the general consensus is that Harbaugh will rebuild the Wolverines but the rebuild will take a few seasons to produce results, Michigan should start seeing returns from the hire this season. Harbaugh took the San Francisco 49ers to the NFC Championship Game in his first season on the job, and while Michigan likely won’t make as large a leap right away, a return to the upper tier of the Big Ten is definitely possible. Harbaugh has assembled an excellent coaching staff and retains several key pieces from a defense that allowed just 4.6 yards per play last year. The offense is the clear vulnerability, but Michigan’s woeful line at least boasts some more experience and the running game could be loaded with De’Veon Smith, Derrick Green and USC transfer Ty Isaac. The Wolverines get three chances for a signature win against Michigan State, Ohio State and at Penn State; they’re capable of stealing one of those.
Most at stake: Illinois
The positive momentum from the Fighting Illini’s continued on-field improvement under coach Tim Beckman has been dashed this off-season by former Illinois offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic’s allegations of “abuse and misuse of power” within the program. There’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Fighting Illini this fall, particularly on offense where quarterback Wes Lunt (1,763 yards, 14 touchdowns, three interceptions) and running back Josh Ferguson (741 yards, 5.1 yards per carry, eight rushing touchdowns) return, while freshman All-America Mike Dudek (76 catches, 1,038 yards, six touchdowns) could be back by mid-season after tearing his ACL in April. But the distraction caused by Cvijanovic’s allegations and renewed speculation about Beckman’s job security could push Illinois into a downward spiral. No team may be more in need of a strong start to the season.
Best path to the playoff: Ohio State
Among the Power Five, no team has a better chance to finish the season undefeated than Ohio State. Even with the batch of suspensions for the Buckeyes’ season opener, they should still be able to handle Virginia Tech. And even if they don’t, the Buckeyes lost to a much worse Hokies team last year and still made the playoff. Ohio State’s path through the Big Ten might actually be easier this year because Michigan State will have to travel to the Horseshoe.
While there are no guarantees, even for the defending national champs, the more interesting question might concern other Big Ten teams’ playoff hopes. The Spartans could potentially make the playoff despite a loss to Ohio State if they finish the season 11–1 with a win over Oregon. And there’s always the possibility a Big Ten West team like Wisconsin could run the table in conference play and upset Ohio State (or Michigan State) in the conference title game to force its way into the top four.