Big Ten


#45 Minnesota Golden Gophers



Big Ten West Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Jerry Kill, 25-26 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Limegrover | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tracy Claeys

Few coaches get more out of their team than Jerry Kill at Minnesota. It's easy to forget that the Golden Gophers were one half away from winning the Big Ten West Division last fall. With just four starters back on offense, Kill knows his offense has some work to do this summer. Luckily, the defense brings back seven starters, so expect Minnesota to win low-scoring games early in the year while the offense gets up to speed.

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Previewing Minnesota’s Offense for 2015

Minnesota has steadily improved in each of Jerry Kill’s four seasons, but to take the next step, the passing game must improve. Junior quarterback Mitch Leidner returns to a passing attack that ranked 119th nationally last year.

The Gophers need to replace their two best playmakers on offense, as running back David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams are both headed to the NFL. Minnesota installed a new, no-huddle offense this spring and worked extensively on its short passing game. The goal is to get the ball out of Leidner’s hands more quickly.

“We can’t lose our identity of who we are,” Kill says. “We’re going to run the football. But I think we win two or three more games last year if we throw it a little bit better. That’s our fault (as coaches), not the kids’ fault.”

The battle for the 300-plus carries that went to Cobb last year starts with senior Rodrick Williams and redshirt freshman Rodney Smith. The receiving corps needs a boost, and the Gophers hope for big things from four redshirt freshmen — Jeff Jones, Isaiah Gentry, Desmond Gant and Melvin Holland Jr.

Previewing Minnesota’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.

Defense has been a strength under Kill, and this could be defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys’ stingiest bunch yet. The Gophers will start four seniors in the secondary, including All-Big Ten cornerbacks Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray. Boddy-Calhoun had five interceptions last year, compared to one for Murray, but that’s because teams often avoid Murray altogether.

After ranking ninth in the Big Ten in sacks last year (2.08 per game), the Gophers should have a better pass rush. Defensive end Hank Ekpe, who was limited with a severe sinus infection last year, was one of the most impressive players in spring camp. Another defensive end, Theiren Cockran, had 7.5 sacks in 2013. The Gophers must replace middle linebacker Damien Wilson, but Claeys felt like the linebackers were the most pleasant surprise this spring. It’s unclear who will start in Wilson’s place — Cody Poock or Everett Williams — but Claeys likes both options.

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

Previewing Minnesota’s Specialists for 2015

Kill’s teams are usually strong on special teams, and this unit could be one of his best. Senior Peter Mortell was the Big Ten Punter of the Year last season, leading the conference with a 45.2-yard average. Sophomore kicker Ryan Santoso hit a 56-yard field goal in the spring game. Craig James was the Big Ten’s fifth-leading punt returner last year, and Jalen Myrick was the conference’s second-leading kickoff returner.

Final Analysis

Kill was named Big Ten Coach of the Year last season, and he’ll need to work more magic this year against a schedule that includes TCU and Ohio State. The coaches are confident they have enough running back talent to replace Cobb, but there’s no substitute for a dynamic tight end like Williams. Leidner was instrumental in all five Big Ten wins last year. He needs to be more consistent. If the offense finds a way, this won’t be a fun team to play.

“We’ve got a chance to be a really, really good football team,” Kill says. “We’re very athletic on both sides of the ball.”

The Gophers were picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten West last year but wound up pushing Wisconsin to a final-week showdown for the division title. The Gophers landed their first New Year’s Day bowl appearance since 1962, and more than 20,000 of their fans turned out to watch them play Missouri in the Citrus Bowl.

The fans want more. The Gophers haven’t defeated Wisconsin since 2003 and haven’t won a bowl game since 2004. If Kill can get those things done, his popularity will continue to soar.

The Debate

Where Does Jerry Kill Rank Among Big Ten Coaches?

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#32 Penn State Nittany Lions





HEAD COACH: James Franklin, 7-6 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: John Donovan | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bob Shoop

If not for an NCAA decision midway through 2014, the highlight of last season may have been a win over UCF on Aug. 30 across the Atlantic Ocean. The Nittany Lions started 4-0 but struggled through most of the season thanks largely to a thin offensive line. They did, however, get to six wins, key since the NCAA lifted their bowl ban. Penn State took advantage by defeating Boston College 31-30 in the Pinstripe Bowl. That progress should continue in the second season under James Franklin and the first full season as Penn State returns to full strength.

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Previewing Penn State’s Offense in 2015 

Christian Hackenberg is looking for a bounce-back season after seeing his touchdown-interception ratio go from 20-to-10 as a freshman to 12-to-15 as a sophomore. But most of the questions on offense concern his supporting cast. 

Hackenberg was sacked a Big Ten-worst 44 times last year, so figuring out how to protect No. 14 is high on the to-do list. The Lions have six linemen with starting experience back, a big improvement over last year, when only one member of the first-team unit had ever started a college game prior to opening day. 

The receiving corps mirrors the line, in that it’s looking to reap the benefits of last year’s trial by fire. Sophomores DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall all saw extensive action in 2014, with Hamilton catching a league-best 82 passes. 

In the backfield, the Lions welcome back last year’s leading rusher, junior Akeel Lynch, along with a quintet of highly regarded freshmen. 

With most of his supporting cast returning, hopes are ratcheting back up for Hackenberg’s junior season. In the two games last season in which he was healthy and well-protected — the opener vs. UCF and the Pinstripe Bowl vs. Boston College — he combined to complete 68 percent of his passes for 825 yards, with five touchdowns and two interceptions. That’ll do nicely. 

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Penn State’s Defense in 2015

Tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel are rock solid. The 6'4", 325-pound Johnson was the unsung hero of a Penn State defense that last season ranked third nationally against the run. Zettel, meanwhile, played a very prominent role, leading the team in tackles for a loss (17) and sacks (eight) and tying for the lead in interceptions (three). 

The Lions will have two holes to fill at defensive end — Garrett Sickels and Carl Nassib are the leading candidates — but their biggest vacancy is at middle linebacker, where someone needs to replace last year’s Big Ten tackling leader, Mike Hull. Junior Nyeem Wartman, a two-year starter at outside backer, slid inside in spring practice, with returning starter Brandon Bell and sophomore Jason Cabinda outside. 

The secondary returns three starters and should be a strength. Marcus Allen started the last seven games of his true freshman season and “played as well as any safety in college football the second half of the year,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop says. At free safety, the Lions will rely on Jordan Lucas, a two-year starter at cornerback. Sophomore Grant Haley looks like the leading contender for Lucas’ former position, while senior Trevor Williams returns at the opposite cornerback spot.  

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


Previewing Penn State’s Specialists in 2015

Franklin referred to walk-on Joey Julius as “Big Toe” this spring. A redshirt freshman, Julius has yet to attempt a field goal or PAT in a college game, but he’s battling deposed punter Chris Gulla for the job. The Lions punted erratically last season, so there’s a competition under way between Daniel Pasquariello and Robby Liebel. 

Final Analysis

The Lions have addressed their glaring weakness, building depth and experience along a patchwork offensive line. They’ll still be young up front, with only one senior on the projected two-deep (two if you count incoming graduate transfer Kevin Reihner), but the line probably won’t be as big of a liability. On the opposite side of the ball, they return seven starters from what was, statistically, the Big Ten’s best defense last season. 

Of Penn State’s six losses last fall, only two were by more than a touchdown. If the defense holds strong and Hackenberg gets a chance to show what he can do, it’s not hard to imagine the Lions turning a few of those close losses into close wins in 2015. 

The Debate

Where Does James Franklin Rank Among Big Ten Coaches?

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#29 Nebraska Cornhuskers





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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#34 Michigan Wolverines





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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#1 Ohio State Buckeyes



Big Ten East Division PREDICTION


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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