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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#3 Ohio State Buckeyes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#3

Big Ten East Division PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Urban Meyer, 50-4 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tim Beck, Ed Warinner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Greg Schiano, Luke Fickell

Despite losing a wealth of talent to the NFL, Ohio State is poised for another run at the Big Ten Championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff. Urban Meyer’s team returns only six starters, but elite recruiting has the Buckeyes’ roster stocked for a quick rebuild. J.T. Barrett is the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback and the lack of a controversy under center should allow the junior take full control of the offense. New co-coordinator Greg Schiano will keep the defense near the top of the Big Ten, and there’s no shortage of talent to work with, including standout linebacker Raekwon McMillan, ends Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard and cornerback Gareon Conley. 

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Previewing Ohio State’s Offense 
 

Not only did the Buckeyes lose the program’s No. 2 all-time rusher in Ezekiel Elliott, but Ohio State’s all-time leader in total offense — Braxton Miller — also is out the door. That’s a lot of production to attempt to replace, especially when you add in the fact that commodities such as wideout Michael Thomas, tight end Nick Vannett and All-America tackle Taylor Decker also are gone.

Fortunately for coach Urban Meyer, he still has a high-quality starting point in veteran quarterback J.T. Barrett. The offense soared late in the year with Barrett taking snaps and finding receivers, and he managed to produce 682 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in just 115 attempts on the ground, good for 5.9 per carry.

Still, the tasks now are to find reliable running options behind Barrett, reconstruct the offensive line and to begin polishing a corps of speedy wideouts who are not yet proven. Redshirt freshman Mike Weber is ready to emerge at running back, and H-back Curtis Samuel also should get a healthy dose of handoffs.

OSU’s best every-down receivers appear to be Noah Brown and Corey Smith, but both are coming off injuries that required surgery and were limited in the spring. Look out for youngsters K.J. Hill and Austin Mack, who add quickness and provide depth.

Up front, Pat Elflein is expected to shine at center after shifting from a guard spot, and the other returning starter, guard Billy Price, will continue to maul people. Jamarco Jones has emerged as the new left tackle, but the other spots are not yet nailed down.

Previewing Ohio State’s Defense 
 

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

Just like on offense, the Silver Bullets return only three starters but have an All-Big Ten anchor in middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan. The junior became a reliable commodity last season while racking up a team-high 119 tackles. He’s expected to be flanked by Dante Booker and Chris Worley, although young Jerome Baker is bucking for a role as well. The tackling ability, depth and potential of this group could develop into a major team strength.

The defensive line won’t be as dynamic with superstar end Joey Bosa and tackle Adolphus Washington now taking paychecks. But Sam Hubbard is an emerging star on the outside, and bookend Tyquan Lewis is coming off a breakthrough season. Also, position coach Larry Johnson can mix in Jalyn Holmes as a pass rusher and has many capable bodies to rotate inside.

Gareon Conley is the new top dog at corner, and it’s time for Marshon Lattimore and Denzel Ward to begin reaching their potential as cover men. Safety will have a new look with the successful Vonn Bell/Tyvis Powell combo departed, but Erick Smith could be the next standout on the back end.

Previewing Ohio State’s Specialists 
 

Meyer doesn’t like to call for a lot of field goals and, of course, he’s not wild about punting, either. But Ohio State has veteran Sean Nuernberger to handle placements, while senior punter Cameron Johnston is one of the best in college football. The Buckeyes didn’t return a kick for a score for the first time in 13 years. They’d like to start a new streak with talents such as Samuel and Dontre Wilson on the move.

Final Analysis
 

After the loss of 16 starters, the two-deep is now filled with players who were elite high school recruits a couple years ago, which means the clock is ticking on their development. Also, the schedule shows a brutal early road test against Oklahoma and is back-loaded, once again, with clashes against those schools from up north. It would be easy to label Ohio State a non-contender this fall, but the guy prowling the sideline and the vast amount of raw talent on hand suggest otherwise.

The Debate

Does Ohio State have the Big Ten's toughest schedule in 2016?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#5 Michigan Wolverines

NATIONAL FORECAST

#5

Big Ten East PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Jim Harbaugh, 10-3 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tim Drevno | DEF. COORDINATOR: Don Brown

Jim Harbaugh has Michigan back among the nation’s best, and the Wolverines should be in the conversation for a spot in the College Football Playoff in 2016. Road trips to Ohio State and Michigan State will determine just how high Michigan climbs in rankings, but the pieces are in place for a run at the Big Ten title. While a new quarterback must emerge to replace Jake Rudock, the supporting cast is strong with four returning starters on the line and one of the Big Ten’s top receiving corps. New coordinator Don Brown inherits six starters from a defense that limited opponents to 16.4 points a game in 2015. 

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Previewing Michigan’s Offense 
 

For the first time since 2013, the bulk of Michigan’s returners on offense are playing in the same system for a second year in a row. Head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno aren’t installing major parts of the team’s pro-style offense. Instead, they’re fine-tuning it. However, the Wolverines are faced with the same major question they were a year ago at this time: Who’s the quarterback?

Jake Rudock set career highs in every major passing category last year under Harbaugh (3,017 yards, 20 touchdowns, 64 percent completion rate). But now, Rudock’s gone and Harbaugh (along with quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch) is tasked with breaking in a new signal caller. Houston transfer John O’Korn is the presumed frontrunner, but he will find himself in a tight race with sophomore Wilton Speight and junior Shane Morris in preseason camp.

O’Korn has thrown 34 touchdowns as a college quarterback. The rest of Michigan’s scholarship passers have combined to throw one.

The good news here? Michigan’s eventual starting quarterback will have the benefit of throwing to three very experienced targets. All-America tight end Jake Butt, All-Big Ten receiver Jehu Chesson and fifth-year senior Amara Darboh are all back. A year ago, those three combined for 159 catches, 2,145 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Up front, Michigan returns four of its five starting offensive linemen but will be playing with a twist this year. Starting left tackle Mason Cole has moved inside to center as a replacement for the departed Graham Glasgow, pushing sophomore Grant Newsome into the first five as the team’s blindside tackle. Michigan will look to improve on what, statistically, was a pedestrian run game a year ago (158.2 ypg).

Previewing Michigan’s Defense 
 

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

Michigan will have a new look on defense this season after defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin left to run Maryland’s program in December. Harbaugh then hired Don Brown — the architect of the country’s No. 1 overall defense last season — away from Boston College.

Brown will inherit plenty of returning talent from Michigan’s top-five defense from 2015. All-America corner Jourdan Lewis and All-America rover Jabrill Peppers are back — though the latter will have a new role. After playing mainly as a nickel/safety last season, Peppers will occupy Brown’s hybrid strong-side linebacker position in 2016. Brown’s defense relies heavily on pressure and blitzes and will place Peppers — the team’s best athlete — in the box with hopes of creating more havoc in opposing backfields.

The Wolverines lost defensive tackle Willie Henry to the NFL Draft, but senior ends Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley (12 combined sacks) are back, as are tackles Ryan Glasgow and Maurice Hurst. Bryan Mone, who missed last season with a broken leg, will return as well. The Wolverines will get a huge boost up front this fall from incoming freshman Rashan Gary — the country’s top-ranked recruit.

Previewing Michigan’s Specialists 


The Wolverines return starting placekicker Kenny Allen (18-of-22 last season) but lose punter Blake O’Neill. Allen may end up handling all of the team’s kicking duties this season, unless incoming freshman Quinn Nordin can win one of the three jobs. The team’s return game should still be in great hands. Peppers averaged 11.4 yards per punt return last season, while Lewis was second in the Big Ten with 25.2 yards per kick return.

Final Analysis
 

The Wolverines were one fumbled punt snap against Michigan State away from being in the College Football Playoff conversation last November.  If Harbaugh can work his magic on another quarterback once again, this team has the goods to push Ohio State for the Big Ten East Division championship and a shot at this year’s CFP.

The Debate

Can Michigan overtake Ohio State in the Big Ten East in 2016?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#13 Michigan State Spartans

NATIONAL FORECAST

#13

Big Ten East Division PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Mark Dantonio, 87-33 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jim Bollman, Dave Warner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Harlon Barnett, Mike Tressel

Michigan State loses several key pieces from last year’s Big Ten title team, but coach Mark Dantonio’s program has plenty of staying power. The rebuilding effort starts on offense in replacing quarterback Connor Cook, receiver Aaron Burbridge and standout offensive linemen Jack Allen and Jack Conklin. The defense returns five starters, but this unit should be solid with standout tackle Malik McDowell anchoring the front seven. The secondary should be improved with the return of cornerback Vayante Copeland from injury, as well as the development of Montae Nicholson and Demetrious Cox at safety. While the Spartans have key players to replace, home games against Ohio State and Michigan should allow this team to stay in the thick of the Big Ten title picture.

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Previewing Michigan State’s Offense 
 

Michigan State aims for a fourth straight top-10 finish, but the Spartans need to grow quickly on offense to hit that target.

“There’s a look that’s going to change,” 10th-year coach Mark Dantonio says, “but that’s the challenge of college football.”

Fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor is the likely successor to MSU’s all-time leading passer, Connor Cook. O’Connor led the Spartans to a 17–14 upset over Ohio State with Cook sidelined by a shoulder injury. O’Connor and fourth-year junior Damion Terry are effective runners, and with an inexperienced offensive line, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Spartans adding more spread into their pro-style offense.

LJ Scott was the top rusher last season with 699 yards, including a memorable performance in a 16–13 Big Ten title game win over Iowa. Madre London and Gerald Holmes are proven and will push for carries. Likewise for fullback Delton Williams, who gives MSU another threat in the backfield.

Senior R.J. Shelton is the only returning receiver with more than seven catches. Shelton’s quickness makes him a threat on the jet sweep as well.  Sophomore Felton Davis III is a lanky target with sprinter speed, and incoming freshman Donnie Corley made waves in the spring after his January mid-term enrollment, showing good speed, hands and leaping ability. Senior Josiah Price holds the team record for TD catches for a tight end, and he’s expected to continue his role as a go-to target on third downs and in the red zone.

The rebuild on the offensive line starts with preseason All-Big Ten candidate Brian Allen, who could play guard or center. Senior Kodi Kieler is the most experienced of the returning linemen with 19 starts and can play right tackle or center. Several position battles will take place in fall drills.

Previewing Michigan State’s Defense 
 

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

Michigan State’s staple has been stopping the run, and it starts up front with dynamic junior Malik McDowell, who at 6'6", 280 has the strength, athleticism and quickness to play tackle or end. Junior Demetrius Cooper has flashed enough star potential at end that he’s expected to earn All-Big Ten honors in his first season as a starter.

The linebacking corps is as deep and talented as it has ever been under Dantonio, anchored by fifth-year senior Riley Bullough in the middle. A third-generation Spartan, Bullough led the team in tackles last season.

There’s plenty of competition for the outside linebacker positions, where Jon Reschke, Andrew Dowell, Chris Frey and Ed Davis are expected to battle it out for starting duties in fall camp and split repetitions once the season is underway.

MSU has arguably the best safety duo in the Big Ten: Montae Nicholson is a freakish athlete, and Demetrious Cox is a speed merchant with cornerback experience. Several others gained experience last season when injuries resulted in seven different starting combinations in the secondary.

Cornerbacks Darian Hicks and sophomore Vayante Copeland enter fall drills healthy after injuries plagued them last season. Sophomore Tyson Smith is expected to challenge at corner.

Previewing Michigan State’s Specialists
 

The return of kicker Michael Geiger and strong-legged sophomore punter Jake Hartbarger give the Spartans a chance for immediate improvement on special teams, provided long snapper Taybor Pepper is adequately replaced. Shelton is an experienced kick return man, while auditions for punt return duties figure to continue into the fall.

Final Analysis 
 

Michigan State’s Sept. 17 road trip to Notre Dame will provide an early clue as to whether the Spartans remain among the nation’s elite. A strong defense looks to carry a rebuilt offense against one of the more challenging schedules in the country. 

The Debate

Is LJ Scott primed for a breakout year?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#19 Iowa Hawkeyes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#19

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Kirk Ferentz, 127-87 (17 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Greg Davis | DEF. COORDINATOR: Phil Parker

The 2015 season was certainly a memorable one for Iowa. The Hawkeyes finished 12-2, claimed the Big Ten’s West Division title and came within a goal-line stand of reaching the College Football Playoff. Considering Iowa had not won more than eight games since 2010 and coach Kirk Ferentz was starting to feel a little heat, last year’s record was a huge surprise. While the Hawkeyes may have trouble repeating last season’s success, this team is the favorite to win the West Division once again. Quarterback C.J. Beathard anchors a solid offense, while the defense returns standout cornerback Desmond King. With a favorable schedule in place, Iowa could once again challenge for 10 (or more) wins.   

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Previewing Iowa’s Offense 
 

Entering his senior season, C.J Beathard is the focus of two questions that will go a long way in determining Iowa’s success. The first: What can Beathard do for an encore after what he accomplished last season? The second: Can he stay healthy?

Beathard has set the bar high for himself and for the team after leading Iowa to 12–2 record and the Big Ten West Division title. The season ended on a down note as Iowa lost to Michigan State 16–13 in the Big Ten Championship Game before being humiliated by Stanford 45–16 in the Rose Bowl. But it still doesn’t erase or diminish what Beathard and his cohorts accomplished. Sophomore Tyler Wiegers is expected to be Beathard’s backup for the second consecutive season.

Iowa averaged 181.7 rushing yards per game and returns many of the key players who made that happen, including three starters on the offensive line and three of the top four running backs. Senior LeShun Daniels and junior Akrum Wadley combined for more than 1,100 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns.

Senior Matt VandeBerg also returns at receiver after leading Iowa in catches (65) and receiving yards (703). Iowa likes to use its tight ends as receivers, and senior George Kittle has shown big-play capability. Six of his 20 catches last season resulted in touchdowns.

Previewing Iowa’s Defense
 

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

The 2016 defense would look a lot better on paper with All-Big Ten defensive end Drew Ott returning for a fifth season, but his appeal to the NCAA for a medical redshirt was denied. Still, the unit looks formidable without him as eight starters return, including three in a secondary highlighted by Desmond King. The 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner is not only a lock-down cornerback (he tied Iowa’s single-season record with eight interceptions last season) but also one of the Big Ten’s best return specialists.

Three players return on the defensive line with starting experience, including both tackles. Senior Jaleel Johnson and junior Nathan Bazata both started every game inside last season and more than held their own. Johnson showed star potential at times, finishing with 5.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks.

Two of the three linebacker positions have returning starters, led by junior middle linebacker Josey Jewell. He led Iowa with 126 tackles last season, earning second-team All-Big Ten accolades.

Joining King as returning starters in the secondary are senior cornerback Greg Mabin and junior strong safety Miles Taylor. Mabin has started 26 games opposite King the past two seasons. The one hole in the secondary is at free safety, where Jordan Lomax started the past two seasons.

Previewing Iowa’s Specialists
 

This is arguably the biggest concern on the team, considering both the starting kicker and punter from last season have to be replaced. Sophomore Mick Ellis has the most experience among the placekickers, but he was listed as the backup behind walk-on Miguel Recinos throughout spring practice. Recinos made his only two PATs last season but has not attempted a field goal. Ellis made all seven of his extra-point attempts as a true freshman in 2014 but missed his only field goal attempt. Most of the return duties will be handled by King.

Final Analysis 
 

It might be asking too much of Beathard and King to lead their supporting cast to another undefeated regular season. But the pieces are in place on both offense and defense for Iowa to be a force again. Keeping Beathard healthy will be paramount to Iowa’s success. The running game also will be crucial, as it was last season. Few teams rely on their running game as much as Iowa, even with Beathard working his magic behind center.

The Debate

Where does C.J. Beathard rank among Big Ten quarterbacks?

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