Big Ten

More Stories:


#60 Minnesota Golden Gophers



Big Ten West Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Tracy Claeys, 2-4 (<1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jay Johnson | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jay Sawvel

It’s always tough when a coach steps down in the middle of the year, but Minnesota recovered nicely with wins over Illinois and Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl. Now with the interim tag off, coach Tracy Claeys will see what he is made of with a full season ahead of him in Minneapolis. Running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith should be one of the best backfield tandems in the Big Ten. Expect the duo to carry the offense and junior linebacker Cody Poock to anchor the defense.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter:

Previewing Minnesota’s Offense

With veteran quarterback Mitch Leidner, a fleet of running back talent and a retooled offensive line, the Minnesota Gophers are convinced they can contend for a Big Ten West title this season.

“Wide receiver — we should be awfully good,” coach Tracy Claeys says. “It’s hard for anybody to argue at tailback [that] we’re pretty good. I would say tight end-wise, we can be as good as anybody. If we get our offensive line straightened out, I think we’ll score a lot more points than we did this last year.”

The Gophers ranked next to last in the Big Ten in scoring, at 22.5 points per game. Claeys, the former defensive coordinator who took over as head coach when Jerry Kill retired last October, fired offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski. Claeys hired Jay Johnson from Louisiana-Lafayette as the new coordinator/quarterbacks coach, and tabbed former Wisconsin assistant Bart Miller to coach the offensive line. To further bolster the O-line, Claeys signed two well-regarded junior college players — right guard Vincent Calhoun and left tackle Garrison Wright.

All this was good news to Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, two running backs who combined for 1,379 yards as freshmen last year.

Previewing Minnesota’s Defense

Things won’t change much on defense under new coordinator Jay Sawvel, promoted from defensive backs coach. Minnesota had the nation’s 11th-best pass defense, but now the Gophers need to replace two outstanding cornerbacks, Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun. Fortunately for the Gophers, that’s a position where they’ve done some of their best recruiting. Senior Jalen Myrick and sophomore KiAnte Hardin could jump right into starting roles, and there is young talent in reserve.

The linebackers are strength of this defense, led by Jack Lynn and Cody Poock. The pass rush needs work, especially at defensive end. But the Gophers look vastly improved at defensive tackle this spring with Steven Richardson healthy and junior college transfer Merrick Jackson plugging holes.

“I think we are very comparable [on defense],” Claeys says. “We can run in the secondary again, and it will probably be our best speed overall at linebacker.”

Previewing Minnesota’s Specialists

The Gophers need to replace Peter Mortell, whose 44.0-yard punting average was the best in school history. Their best option is Ryan Santoso, who just happens to be the team’s best kicker after making 17-of-21 field goals last year and all 31 extra point attempts. Claeys doesn’t want one person to handle both jobs. Emmit Carpenter could be the placekicker this fall, with Santoso handling the punting and longer field goals. The team’s top kickoff returner (Myrick) and punt returner (Hardin) are both back.

Final Analysis

Most of the skill players are back on offense. Leidner has recovered from foot surgery and is entering his third full year as a starter. His completion percentage improved from 51.5 percent to 59.5 percent the past two years. Claeys addressed the team’s two most glaring holes — offensive line and defensive tackle — with an infusion of junior college talent.

After going 8–5 the previous two years, the Gophers took a step back last season. They finished the regular season at 5–7 and qualified for a bowl game only because the NCAA didn’t have enough six-win teams. But Leidner led them over Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl, snapping the program’s seven-game bowl losing streak.

Minnesota is determined to use that as a springboard, especially with TCU, Michigan and Ohio State coming off the schedule. Added up, the Gophers should return to a bowl game for the fifth straight season.


#55 Indiana Hoosiers



Big Ten West Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Kevin Wilson, 20-41 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kevin Johns | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tom Allen

Indiana displayed the improvement fans were looking for by earning a bowl game last season. This year will be no different for the Hoosiers, as coach Kevin Wilson hopes to guide the program to another postseason trip. Losing quarterback Nate Sudfeld will hurt, but Indiana returns talented running back Devine Redding and a solid offensive line. The defense should show improvement behind new coordinator Tom Allen.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter:

Previewing Indiana’s Offense

Kevin Wilson has shown he can build prolific offenses in the Big Ten, but that doesn’t mean people don’t ask if he can do it again. This time he’ll have to deliver without a quarterback who set multiple school records (Nate Sudfeld), a halfback who ran for more than 1,200 yards (Jordan Howard) and a tackle who earned a prominent spot on NFL Draft boards (Jason Spriggs). Don’t expect Wilson to settle on a quarterback until late summer. Danny Cameron, the walk-on son of LSU offensive coordinator Cam, and junior college transfer Richard Lagow led the competition during the spring. Cameron knows the offense. Lagow has the better arm. IU would like to redshirt Zander Diamont, its most experienced quarterback.

The running game is less unsettled. Devine Redding earned enough snaps when Howard was ailing to run for 1,012 yards and nine touchdowns. Expect him to share time with Camion Patrick, a former wide receiver who missed last season for academic reasons.

At receiver, Wilson has the mixture he loves — a tall, deep threat in Simmie Cobbs, a possession guy in Mitchell Paige and a sharp route-runner in Ricky Jones. Mike Majette and Ricky Brookins will split time at receiver and halfback.

Despite the loss of Spriggs and another starter, the line remains a strength. Wilson, a former offensive line coach, says senior guard Dan Feeney is the best blocker he has coached. Brandon Knight has been compared to Spriggs.

Previewing Indiana’s Defense

Wilson has not shown he can build a winning defense. He changed coordinators, again, recruiting Tom Allen, a former Indianapolis high school coach who employed a 4-2-5 alignment at USF last season. The defense also welcomes Mark Hagen, a former IU linebacker who arrives from Texas A&M to coach the line.

Allen must create opportunities to employ his talented linebackers, because Marcus Oliver, T. J. Simmons, Clyde Newton and Tegray Scales were the unit’s strength last season. Nate Hoff and Ralph Green have the bulk to be run stoppers at tackle, but Indiana lacks experience on the edges and a pure pass rusher. Greg Gooch and Nile Sykes, two more former linebackers, should contribute.

The secondary struggled — again — allowing 313.8 passing yards per game. Safety Jonathan Crawford showed playmaking skills, grabbing four interceptions and making the Big Ten All-Freshman team. Chase Dutra is a quality safety if he can stay healthy. Two transfers — Jayme Thompson (Iowa Western via Ohio State) and Wesley Green (South Carolina) — should deliver an upgrade in the secondary.

Previewing Indiana’s Specialists

Everybody remembers Griffin Oakes’ controversial missed field goal in overtime of the Hoosiers’ Pinstripe Bowl loss to Duke, but don’t forget that he was the Big Ten Kicker of the Year and hit 6-of-8 from 40 yards or more. Joseph Gedeon has the inside track to replace Erich Toth at punter. Paige gave Indiana occasional thunder in its punt return game, taking two back for touchdowns, including one for 91 yards. Devonte Williams and Brookins will handle kickoff returns.

Final Analysis

The Hoosiers ended an eight-year bowl drought last season, but now comes a more substantial challenge — earning back-to-back bowl trips for the first time in 25 seasons. The pieces are there at running back, receiver and the offensive line. Can Wilson develop a 60 percent passer who doesn’t make bad reads? Defensively, the issue has not changed at Indiana in more than a decade: The Hoosiers lack the serious beef to win on the line of scrimmage against top Big Ten teams. Six wins remains their ceiling — without serious injuries or major issues.


#87 Rutgers Scarlet Knights



Big Ten East Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Chris Ash, First year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Drew Mehringer | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jay Niemann

A decade ago, Rutgers was on top of the college football world — at least for a week. In 2006, Rutgers started 9-0, punctuated by a Jeremy Ito field goal to beat undefeated Louisville on a Thursday night in November. Ten years later, Rutgers is back to being a cellar dweller, only now it’s in the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights turn to former Ohio State assistant Chris Ash to turn things around in Piscataway. One thing’s certain, though, it’s not going to be a quick fix in one of football’s toughest divisions.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter:

Previewing Rutgers’ Offense for 2016


New offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer faces a challenge in moving Rutgers to an up-tempo power spread attack: How does he get his roster, which was recruited for the pro-style offense that the program has relied on for nearly two decades, to adapt quickly?

The change in style is a dramatic one, particularly at quarterback, where a dual-threat is essential to what the 28-year-old Mehringer wants out of the position. Chris Laviano, coming off an erratic first year as a starter, and backup Hayden Rettig are more scramblers than runners. So the overhaul may require a longer adjustment period than Mehringer would prefer. Rettig and Laviano will have competition this fall, as TCU graduate transfer Zach Allen announced his intention to transfer to Rutgers in early June.

The four returning starters on the offensive line face an equally demanding test because of the faster tempo and the no-huddle approach that runs contrary to what they have done in the past. Conditioning has been geared toward getting them leaner and in better shape.

There’s also a glaring lack of playmakers on offense in the passing game. Wide receivers Janarion Grant, Andre Patton and Carlton Agudosi combined for 86 catches for 1,097 yards last year, but none has ever been the go-to guy, and depth is a major concern on the unit. Returning running backs Robert Martin and Josh Hicks, who combined for 1,437 yards and 10 TDs as sophomores last season, are a dynamic 1-2 punch. Both have 1,000-yard potential.

Previewing Rutgers’ Defense for 2016

, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

With the return of fifth-year senior tackle Darius Hamilton — out last season with an injury — the defense gets back its best player and unquestioned leader. The front four will be the strength of the defense, with proven veterans Julian Pinnix-Odrick and Quanzell Lambert at the end spots. The X-factor is Kemoko Turay, a supremely talented pass rusher who can’t seem to shake his injury issues.

All three linebackers have to be replaced, and that’s a concern because the only returnee on the unit with significant playing time is Deonte Roberts, who has made one start in his career. Isaiah Johnson will look to stake a claim to the middle linebacker position, but last year the senior couldn’t crack the lineup of a defense that yielded 5,544 yards (second-most in school history) in 12 games. New head coach Chris Ash looked to address the unit’s issues with five linebacker recruits, three of whom were mid-January enrollees.

After getting roughed up, the secondary should be improved through experience, with cornerbacks Isaiah Wharton and Blessuan Austin taking their lumps as true freshmen. Kiy Hester, Davon Jacobs, Anthony Cioffi and Saquan Hampton give Rutgers depth and experience at safety after opponents passed for 3,311 yards a year ago. Jay Niemann will oversee all of it as the new defensive coordinator.


Previewing Rutgers’ Specialists for 2016

After returning three kickoffs for TDs and a punt for another score last season, Grant has established himself as one of the country’s most dangerous returners. Fifth-year senior Tim Gleeson is the frontrunner to win the open punting job. The placekicking duties appear headed to junior walk-on David Bonagura, who is looking to replace four-year starter Kyle Federico. Bonagura has yet to appear in a college game.

Final Analysis

Ash, the former co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State, now gets a chance to see how the other half of the Big Ten lives. While he inherited plenty of experience, there isn’t an abundance of talent on the roster, and the schedule — perhaps the toughest in school history — is unforgiving. Overhauling the offense figures to take some time since it currently lacks the dual-threat quarterback required to operate the power spread. Defensively, Rutgers was a mess last year and looks to be only marginally better on paper. A repeat of last year’s 4–8 season would not be surprising.  


#95 Purdue Boilermakers



Big Ten West Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Darrell Hazell, 6-30 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Terry Malone | DEF. COORDINATOR: Ross Els, Marcus Freeman

 won just two games last season, posting one of the worst records by a Power Five team. Darrell Hazell is squarely on the hot seat entering this season, and the prospects for considerably better results don't look that promising. Purdue does return 16 starters, but the life in the  is never easy.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter:

Previewing Purdue’s Offense for 2016

Overall, the Boilermakers return seven offensive starters from a team that finished ninth in Big Ten scoring (25.1 ppg), 11th in total offense (368.6 ypg), 13th in rushing offense (131.3 ypg) and fifth in passing offense (237.3 ypg).

Sophomore David Blough took over at quarterback in Week 4 of the 2015 season and passed for 1,574 yards in eight starts. But the native of Texas was 1–7 in those starts, and redshirt freshman Elijah Sindelar was pushing him in spring practice.

Purdue’s backfield will feature sophomore Markell Jones, Indiana’s 2014 Mr. Football who rushed 168 times for 875 yards and 10 touchdowns as a freshman. Junior D.J. Knox, who rushed for 409 yards in 2015, went down with a knee injury in the spring and could miss extensive time — if not the entire season. Bruising redshirt freshman Richie Worship, who is 6'1" and weighs 252 pounds, was impressive in spring practice.

The receiving corps will be led by senior DeAngelo Yancey, who had 48 receptions for 700 yards and five touchdowns last season, and seniors Cameron Posey and Domonique Young. The fourth receiver should be either junior Gregory Phillips or fifth-year senior Bilal Marshall. While experienced, the receiving corps isn’t likely to be spectacular and needs Yancey to become a playmaker.

There is experience among the offensive linemen, but only Penn State did a worse job of protecting its quarterback in the Big Ten. Right tackle Cameron Cermin and guards Jordan Roos and Jason King return.

Previewing Purdue’s Defense for 2016

, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Senior tackle Jake Replogle (14 tackles for a loss in 2015) will lead the Boilermakers’ 4-3 defense that ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in most key categories. Senior Evan Panfil and junior Gelen Robinson return as starting ends but leave a lot to be desired from a pass-rushing standpoint. Sophomore tackle Eddy Wilson was impressive in the spring and is expected to start after Ra’Zahn Howard decided not to return to the team in 2016. 

Linebacker is the strength of the defense and may be the program’s most talented overall position group, led by middle linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, who made 49 tackles in the five games before sustaining a season-ending knee injury. Danny Ezechukwu and Jimmy Herman return outside. Andy James Garcia also returns after recording 63 tackles stepping in for Bentley.

The secondary, with the exception of returning strong safety Leroy Clark, could cause sleepless nights for the coaching staff. Starting corners Anthony Brown and Frankie Williams are gone and will likely be replaced by junior Da’Wan Hunte and sophomore Tim Cason. But redshirt freshman Evyn Cooper impressed coach Darrell Hazell and his staff in the spring and will push for one of the corner spots, as could junior Myles Norwood.


Previewing Purdue’s Specialists for 2016

Sophomore punter Joe Schopper was a pleasant surprise, averaging 40.2 yards on 58 punts. Placekicking duties are wide open and could go to incoming freshman J.D. Dellinger. Kick returning is another area of concern now that Williams and Danny Anthrop have exhausted their eligibility. Hazell hopes to find some kick return candidates from among the 23 new recruits.

Final Analysis

Unless something surprising happens, Purdue will struggle to win more than four games this season. Purdue is 6–30 overall and 2–22 in the Big Ten under Hazell, and he’s never stuck with a quarterback for even half a season. Purdue just does not have the talent to win on a consistent basis in a loaded Big Ten. It could be a long fall for the Boilermakers, and perhaps Hazell’s last at Purdue.


#74 Illinois Fighting Illini





HEAD COACH: Lovie Smith, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Garrick McGee | DEF. COORDINATOR: Hardy Nickerson

Previewing Illinois’ Offense for 2016

The guy pulling the trigger for the Illini offense knows his way around the Big Ten. Wes Lunt, who started his career at Oklahoma State before transferring, enters his third year as a starter. At Illinois, Lunt has thrown only nine interceptions. His new head coach wants him to keep it up.

“The easiest way to lose football games is if you don’t protect the football,” Lovie Smith says. “Nobody harps on the turnover ratio as much as we do.”

Lunt has a talented playmaker behind him at tailback in Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who led the team with 723 yards — including 180 on 16 carries in a win at Purdue — in 2015.

On the second day of spring practice, the Illini suffered a blow — for the second consecutive year. Mike Dudek, who broke the freshman receiving record at Illinois in 2014 with 1,038 yards, tore the ACL in his right knee. It was the same injury he suffered in April 2015, which cost him his sophomore season. Dudek had surgery on April 12. It’s a serious loss, although there are players who are ready to fill the resulting void. Desmond Cain is coming off a 53-catch freshman season. Malik Turner enters his third season and was third on the team with 39 catches. Justin Hardee returns after missing the 2015 season because of injury.

The Illini line is set at tackle, where starters Christian DiLauro and Austin Schmidt return.

Previewing Illinois’ Defense for 2016

, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The strength of Hardy Nickerson’s crew will be up front. Three starters return, led by end Dawuane Smoot, who had a team-best eight sacks last season. Other than Lunt, no player is as important to the team as Smoot. Rob Bain and Chunky Clements are back to fill the tackle spots.

Nickerson’s son — also named Hardy — will provide an immediate boost to the Illini defense as a graduate transfer. Last year, Nickerson led California with 112 tackles. 

Opposing quarterbacks are going to have to keep an eye out for safety Taylor Barton. He led the Illini with four interceptions in 2015 and is back for more. The Illini lost three starters in the secondary. Jaylen Dunlap will fill one of the spots. The cornerbacks will be new, with Darius Mosely a good bet to start.

Previewing Illinois’ Specialists for 2016

Punter Ryan Frain averaged 40 yards in his first year as a starter. Just 12 of his 70 boots ended up inside the 20, a number he wants to improve. Kicker David Reisner hit 6-of-11 field goals in 2014, including a game-winner against Penn State, but did not attempt a kick last season. He will be pushed in preseason drills by incoming freshman James McCourt. The return game lost V’Angelo Bentley to graduation. He ranked as one of the best in school history. No replacement was picked in the spring, meaning it could be a training camp decision.  

Final Analysis

Smith has gone back to school. After 21 years away from the college game, the former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Bucs head coach is in charge at Illinois.

“I think that’s a [misconception], that you’re in the NFL, so you’re in a different country,” Smith says. But he hasn’t coached in college since the 1995 season, when he worked with the defensive backs at Ohio State.
Smith is the ninth head coach at Illinois since 1979. Only one (John Mackovic) left on his own terms.

Smith will be tested early and often in his rookie season with games against North Carolina, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa. Nine of this season’s opponents went to bowls last season. To get to the postseason against that schedule, the Illini are going to have to pull some upsets.