Big Ten

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#29 Nebraska Cornhuskers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#29

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Mike Riley, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Danny Langsdorf | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mark Banker

Nebraska football needed a culture change heading into 2015, and in new coach Mike Riley, the Cornhuskers have that. Nebraska traded the abrasive, tightly wound Bo Pelini for the former Oregon State coach who is known for being one of the most relaxed coaches in a profession marked by Type A personalities. Whether Riley can deliver different results from his predecessor remains to be seen. Nine and 10 wins became the norm for Pelini, yet that was a mark Riley hit only once since 2008.

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Previewing Nebraska’s Offense for 2015
 

Mike Riley has installed a pro-style offense with returning starter Tommy Armstrong Jr. at quarterback. Armstrong, the team’s second-leading rusher a year ago behind the departed Ameer Abdullah, will become more of a pocket passer. 

Among the first things offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf told Armstrong was that he wasn’t a runner, though the threat of his running will continue to be a concern for opposing defenses, especially in third-down situations. Armstrong completed 53 percent of his passes for 2,695 yards and 22 touchdowns with 12 interceptions last season. Langsdorf is expecting increased efficiency.

Look for De’Mornay Pierson-El to be featured at wide receiver, along with veteran Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly, who came as a walk-on.

Terrell Newby and Imani Cross are the most experienced of the running backs, a position where there will be continued competition for playing time in fall camp as the Huskers look to replace departed All-American Ameer Abdullah.

Regardless of the system, success will depend on the play up front. The line is built around left tackle Alex Lewis, a candidate for postseason honors and the only returning lineman who started every game last season. He sets the tone emotionally.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Big Ten College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Nebraska’s Defense for 2015 
 

In the spring, players on defense talked about being freed up to make plays in coordinator Mark Banker’s system. Banker said, jokingly, he didn’t know whether to take that as a compliment or that it meant the system was “like being in elementary school.” 

Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine are returning starters at tackle. Collins’ quickness allowed him to lead the team in tackles for a loss in the previous system, so he could be even more effective. Valentine is a “load to block,” says defensive line coach Hank Hughes. Kevin Williams is a third proven tackle.

Depth is a concern at defensive end, where Greg McMullen returns, and linebacker, where young players will be in the mix with Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey, who returns after missing all of last season with a knee injury.

Safety Nate Gerry, cornerback Daniel Davie and nickel Byerson Cockrell are a place to start, but the secondary rotation will include young players, possibly a true freshman or two.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Nebraska’s Specialists for 2015
 

Pierson-El was among the best punt returners in the country as a true freshman, returning three for touchdowns. Special teams coach Bruce Read doesn’t plan to use him on kickoff returns, however, because of his importance as a receiver. Sam Foltz and Drew Brown are the returning punter and placekicker, respectively, and the recruits include long-snapper Jordan Ober. Nebraska hasn’t had an assistant assigned solely to special teams in the past. But such a position is “very, very key,” Riley says.

Final Analysis 
 

Nebraska won nine or more games in each of Bo Pelini’s seven seasons as coach. His overall record was 67–27. So Riley can expect to be held to a high standard. But he is considerably more engaging than his predecessor, which probably means there will be some degree of patience during the transition.

The non-conference schedule could be challenging, with an opener at home against BYU and a trip to Miami (Fla.) two weeks later. But the conference schedule is such that nine wins, even in transition, should be possible. Nebraska hasn’t won a conference championship since 1999. Winning one this year would be a stretch, though the Huskers should contend in the Big Ten West if the defense improves.

The Debate

Will Tommy Armstrong Rank Among the Top Five Big Ten QBs in 2015?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#34 Michigan Wolverines

NATIONAL FORECAST

#34

Big Ten East PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Jim Harbaugh, First season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tim Drevno | DEF. COORDINATOR: D.J. Durkin

Michigan got its man. Now the hard part begins. After stumbling through the Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke eras, the Wolverines have made the home run hire they needed by bringing Jim Harbaugh back to Ann Arbor. Optimism is high, but the short-term prognosis is questionable. Michigan needs to find a quarterback and solidify the play of the offensive line to complement what should be a steady defense. If that can happen, Michigan can surprise.

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Previewing the Michigan Offense for 2015
 

Out with the old, and in with a newer version of the … well … old. Of all the changes new coach Jim Harbaugh has made, completely revamping the offense really wasn’t one of them. The offense implemented by former head coach Brady Hoke was basically meant to be a copy of what Harbaugh used to run at Stanford. But Hoke’s version never worked, and the Wolverines collapsed to No. 112 nationally in total offense a year ago.

The biggest focus for Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch has been pass efficiency. Michigan posted a dreadful team pass efficiency rating of 109.7 last season, 107th nationally. In the spring, Michigan worked with junior Shane Morris, true freshman Alex Malzone and redshirt freshman Wilton Speight — a trio with zero combined touchdown passes in college. Come fall, the Wolverines will welcome true freshman Zach Gentry to the fold and also get a boost from graduate transfer Jake Rudock. Rudock was the fourth-most efficient passer in the Big Ten last season at Iowa. 

The quarterback battle is far from over, and one could say that with nearly every other position on offense as well. The departure of leading receiver Devin Funchess to the NFL puts more pressure on junior Amara Darboh to build on his 473-yard showing from a year ago. In total, Michigan returns just five touchdown catches from last season (two from Darboh, two from tight end Jake Butt, one from sophomore Freddy Canteen).

The offensive line returns five players with staring experience but lost senior center Jack Miller to retirement in the spring. 

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Big Ten College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing the Michigan Defense for 2015
 

Michigan’s defense finished the 2014 season as one of the more underrated units in America as the offense was woefully bad, constantly leaving its defense out to dry and ultimately resulting in a 5–7 record. In fact, if it weren’t for the defense, the Wolverines may have finished with at least two fewer victories a year ago. The good news is that 24 of the 29 players who appeared on the final defensive depth chart are back. And that number doesn’t include touted redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers, who had as strong a spring camp as any player on the team. 

The Wolverines finished the 2014 season No. 7 nationally in total defense. And while they will have to replace playmakers Jake Ryan, Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer, the amount of seasoned depth returning at all three levels is significant. 

New defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin says the team will be multiple this season, running 4-3 and 3-4 sets. In the spring game, though, the team almost exclusively showed a 4-3. The heartbeat of the defense again resides in the middle, as senior Joe Bolden is back after a 102-tackle season, and senior Desmond Morgan returns after missing nearly all of last year with an arm injury. 

Previewing the Michigan Specialists for 2015
 

Michigan lost former Big Ten Punter of the Year Will Hagerup and starting placekicker Matt Wile to graduation. True freshman Andrew David arrives as one of the nation’s top-rated kickers, and graduate transfer Blake O’Neill is expected to handle the punting. The units surrounding the specialists might actually present a bigger concern, as Michigan’s special teams suffered from a lack of discipline and explosion. 

Final Analysis 
 

If Harbaugh can keep Michigan’s offense from stepping on land mines while showing improvement week to week, the defense is good enough to push the Wolverines to at least eight victories. But if Michigan doesn’t find a quarterback who can protect the football, or get a serious push from its offensive line, the team may struggle to make a huge leap in Year 1 of the Harbaugh era.

The Debate

Where Does Jim Harbaugh Rank Among Big Ten Coaches?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#1 Ohio State Buckeyes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#1

Big Ten East Division PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Urban Meyer, 38-3 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tim Beck, Ed Warinner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chris Ash, Luke Fickell

Ohio State opens 2015 as the favorite to repeat as college football’s national champion. Winning back-to-back titles is no easy assignment, but coach Urban Meyer’s team is loaded with proven talent. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is a Heisman contender, and there’s no shortage of options at quarterback. The defense is also one of the best in the nation.

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Previewing Ohio State’s Offense for 2015


Urban Meyer teams move the ball and score — and that has only trended upward in Columbus.

The Buckeyes should be explosive once again as they return three accomplished quarterbacks, star running back Ezekiel Elliott, four starters along the offensive line (including All-Big Ten candidates Taylor Decker and Pat Elflein), useful tight end Nick Vannett, and a bevy of speedsters who can catch the ball.

The best of that lot is wideout Michael Thomas, who hauled in a team-best 54 passes for 799 yards and nine scores last season. The coaches want to get even more use out of Jalin Marshall and will really be able to put pressure on foes if burner Dontre Wilson can bounce back from a fractured foot.

Elliott is lined up for a monster year. The junior could approach 2,000 yards rushing — and Heisman finalist status. OSU also has another backfield weapon in Curtis Samuel, while true freshman Mike Weber could prove he deserves to see the field as well.

Ohio State’s trio of standout QBs — Braxton Miller, Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett — is an embarrassment of riches but raises lots of questions as to who is most deserving of the starting job. Miller is the most accomplished, Barrett the best game manager and Jones, or “12 Gauge” as he’s known, possesses the strongest arm. All of them can hurt defenses with their feet, making this unit even more lethal.

Related: Ohio State All-Time Athlon Sports Cover Gallery
 

Previewing Ohio State’s Defense for 2015 

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Big Ten College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Ohio State wasn’t impenetrable last season, but the Buckeyes were pretty darn good at slowing teams down. Opponents averaged just 5.0 yards per play, 3.9 per rush and converted just a third of a their third-down plays. Plus, the Buckeyes racked up 45 sacks and scored six defensive touchdowns.

Key starters return up front, in the linebacking corps and at safety with defensive end Joey Bosa, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, the headliner. Bosa is a headache for offensive linemen and quarterbacks. Most teams try to stay away from him completely or double-team him with regularity. Tackle Adolphus Washington will counter some of that tactic. He’s also hard to keep out of the backfield.

If Ohio State adequately replaces departed lineman Michael Bennett, the linebackers should prosper. Joshua Perry is coming off a 124-tackle season on the outside and will be the leader of the defense. Darron Lee is a big-play performer, and middle backer Raekwon McMillan is perhaps the team’s biggest hitter.

Eli Apple is the Buckeyes’ top corner with Doran Grant out the door. He’s capable of big things. Safety is in experienced hands with Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell.

Related: Athlon’s 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Ohio State’s Specialists for 2015 


All the key elements return to the specialty units, and the Buckeyes have plenty of speed and athleticism from which to choose as they formulate their new kick cover and return teams. Sean Nuernberger is coming off a solid year at placekicker, although he hasn’t attempted many pressure field goals. Power-legged Cameron Johnston is one of the Big Ten’s best punters at pinning opponents deep. Marshall is a weapon on punt returns but has a knack for making every one of them interesting.

Final Analysis


Last season was supposed to be the transition year for the Buckeyes. Instead, they blitzed through the Big Ten again, reached another level during the postseason and won the inaugural College Football Playoff. Now with seven returning starters entrenched on both sides of the ball, talent in all areas and a title under their belts, the Buckeyes’ challenge is to find a way to maintain an edge. Fortunately, they’ve got one of the game’s top motivators under the headset. 

The Debate

Is Urban Meyer College Football's No. 1 Coach?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#7 Michigan State Spartans

NATIONAL FORECAST

#7

Big Ten East Division PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Mark Dantonio, 75-31 (8 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jim Bollman, Dave Warner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Harlon Barnett, Mike Tressel

Mark Dantonio has transformed Michigan State into one of the nation’s top programs in recent years. The Spartans have claimed at least 11 wins in four out of the last five years and finished No. 3 nationally in 2013. Dantonio’s team is poised for another run at the Big Ten title, especially with senior quarterback Connor Cook back under center. But the big question for Michigan State is on defense with a secondary that loses its top two players from last year and lost coordinator Pat Narduzzi.

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Previewing Michigan State’s Offense for 2015


Michigan State has a third-year starter in Connor Cook who’s poised to become the winningest quarterback in school history and set several all-time passing marks this season.  Cook has the advantage of being protected by what’s expected to be the best offensive line of the Mark Dantonio era. Senior All-American Jack Allen brings an ornery presence to center, while left tackle Jack Conklin is a celebrated talent some project to be a future first-round NFL Draft pick.

The extent of the Spartans’ offensive success is a matter of who steps up to replace Big Ten Receiver of the Year Tony Lippett and 1,500-yard rusher Jeremy Langford. The Spartans have plenty of talent at the receiver and running back positions, but it is unproven. Players will need to grow up quickly with a Sept. 12 home game against 2014 national runner-up Oregon looming.

Cook has great accuracy and a strong arm, leading the Big Ten in passing yardage last season, but receivers such as Aaron Burbridge and R.J. Shelton need to be more consistent, and the Spartans have plenty of room for improvement in gaining yards after the catch. Tight end Josiah Price likely will remain one of Cook’s favorite third-down and red-zone targets.

Tailback is less settled, with the status of Delton Williams up in the air after his indefinite suspension in the spring, and slashers Madre London and Gerald Holmes jockeying for pole position heading into fall camp. Incoming freshman LJ Scott will compete immediately for the starting tailback job regardless of how the depth chart reads entering August.

Previewing Michigan State’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Big Ten College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.


The Spartans have finished in the nation’s top 10 in total defense the past four years, and a dominant front four could keep that streak alive. It starts with former Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Shilique Calhoun at one end, and the quick and powerful Lawrence Thomas shifting from tackle to the other end. Seniors Damon Knox and Joel Heath are at tackle alongside towering Freshman All-American Malik McDowell.

The Spartans return better-than-adequate outside linebackers Ed Davis and Darien Harris, with junior Riley Bullough fast becoming a rising star in the middle.

The question mark on the team is in the secondary, where Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Kurtis Drummond and first-round talent Trae Waynes must be replaced. Athletic sophomore Montae Nicholson seems up to the task of playing alongside veteran RJ Williamson at safety, but the corners are much less certain. Junior Darian Hicks started 10 games last season but must win back his starting job, and redshirt freshman Vayante Copeland and senior Arjen Colquhoun are in close competition. Junior Demetrious Cox has been a safety but is talented enough to play cornerback if needed. The position is shaky enough that true freshmen will be thrown into the mix in fall camp.

Related: Athlon’s 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Michigan State’s Specialists for 2015


Kicker Michael Geiger is coming off an offseason procedure for a hip pointer. Redshirt freshman Jake Hartbarger has a big leg but is unproven at punter. Macgarrett Kings Jr. is expected to handle punt return duties, while Shelton is a good bet to continue to return kicks after running one back 90 yards for a score against Penn State last season.

Final Analysis


Michigan State has an accomplished quarterback, strong-to-dominant play on both the offensive and defensive lines, and 24 seniors. The Spartans must prove they have elite talent at the other skill positions to attain their goals of winning the Big Ten and making the College Football Playoff. There is great potential but still much to be determined in fall camp.

The Debate

Where Does Mark Dantonio Rank Among Big Ten Coaches?

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