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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#60 Minnesota Golden Gophers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#60

Big Ten West Division PREDICTION

#5

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.

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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.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#55 Indiana Hoosiers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#55

Big Ten West Division PREDICTION

#5

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.

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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.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#87 Rutgers Scarlet Knights

NATIONAL FORECAST

#87

Big Ten East Division PREDICTION

#7

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.

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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.


Related:
 

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.  




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#95 Purdue Boilermakers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#95

Big Ten West Division PREDICTION

#7

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.

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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.

Related:

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.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#74 Illinois Fighting Illini

NATIONAL FORECAST

#74

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#6

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.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#66 Maryland Terrapins

NATIONAL FORECAST

#66

Big Ten East PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: J.J. Durkin, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Walt Bell | DEF. COORDINATOR: Andy Buh


Previewing Maryland’s Offense for 2016

New coach D.J. Durkin wants to build around defense and special teams, but he is going to have to improve the Maryland offense to be competitive in the Big Ten’s bully-filled East Division. The good news is that a bigger, bulkier offensive line helped push the Terrapins to 200.7 yards rushing per game last year, the third-best total in the bruising Big Ten. The Terrapins return four of their top five rushers, including quarterback Perry Hills and running back Wes Brown. 


The hard-charging Brown will probably split time with speedy Ty Johnson, Virginia Tech transfer Trey Edmunds, and maybe a host of other candidates including Kenny Goins, Jr., and Jake Funk. Hills, though he started eight games, is no shoe-in for his job, with prettier passer Caleb Rowe on his heels. The tough-as-nails Hills, the better run/pass option, seems the better fit in new offensive coordinator Walt Bell’s high-speed option attack.


Seven of the top eight receivers return, and sophomore D.J. Moore is a candidate for a breakout campaign. Brothers Levern and Taivon Jacobs can also excel if Hills, Rowe or incoming freshman Tyrrell Pigrome can get them the ball. Avery Edwards could be a star at tight end. Ditto Damian Prince at tackle.

 

Previewing Maryland’s Defense for 2016

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

New defensive coordinator Andy Buh was a late addition, but he’s a Durkin disciple and will implement the preferred 3-4 scheme. High-motor Roman Braglio returns at one end, and uber-athletic Jesse Aniebonam will play the hybrid rush end/linebacker position. It will be nice if true freshman Adam McLean lives up to the hype and can help anchor the middle, where D-line coach Mike London has a lot of bodies but not a lot of high-end talent. Middle linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. is a stud, coming off a team-high 103 tackles and 14 tackles for a loss. Jalen Brooks has some experience on the flanks around him.


The secondary is a primary concern with just Will Likely back. Likely was an All-Big Ten corner and an All-America return man. There’s some experience returning, though don’t be surprised if a youth movement gets under way under the new coaching staff. Sophomore Darnell Savage Jr. will start opposite Likely.

 

Previewing Maryland’s Specialists for 2016

Likely’s 18.2-yard punt return average ranked second in the country, and he had two scores. Junior Adam Greene got his kicking foot wet last year, hitting 3-of-5 field goals and all 11 PATs. The hope is that former Australian Rules footballer Wade Lees can shore up the punting, a perennial problem. Durkin envisions winning some games with improved special teams under coach Pete Lembo.

Final Analysis

Durkin has turned up the energy level in College Park, and there was a spring in the team’s spring practice step. The unexpected resignation of defensive coordinator Scott Shafer during spring practice was a blow — Shafer was one of the three former head coaches Durkin had on staff — but the bigger issue for Maryland this year is just finding enough talent to compete in an unforgiving league. Five of the Terrapins’ seven conference losses were by more than two scores, and border rival West Virginia laid a 45–6 whipping that got Randy Edsall fired midseason.


Durkin came aboard too late to salvage all of a promising recruiting class, but he did land some help. And the Terrapins need it after posting only two winning seasons in the last five years. Playing smarter — fewer miscues on offense, a more determined defense and improved special teams — can help, and that’s the plan. Like all rebuilding plans, it will work better when Durkin gets a chance to bring in more players that fit his system. 




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#45 Northwestern Wildcats

NATIONAL FORECAST

#45

Big Ten West Division PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Pat Fitzgerald, 70-56 (10 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mick McCall | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mike Hankwitz

Northwestern is coming off an impressive 10-3 record from 2015, but coach Pat Fitzgerald's team has a lot of work to do in order to reach double-digit wins once again. The Wildcats can lean on running back Justin Jackson to carry the offense, while quarterback Clayton Thorson should be better in his second year as the starter. The defense was a standout group last season and returns a solid core for 2016. However, the Wildcats have a tougher schedule this year. Is another 10-win season in the works? Or will the schedule and concerns on offense be too much to overcome?

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Previewing Northwestern’s Offense

The Northwestern offense must make significant upgrades in passing (120th in yards per game) and big plays, where it ranked last nationally in percentage of plays 10 yards or longer (14.2). Quarterback Clayton Thorson’s development will help. Now the clear-cut starter, the sophomore improved his footwork and decisiveness during the winter. “He had arm strength and ball speed all the time,” offensive coordinator Mick McCall says. “It was just getting his feet set in the right spot and anticipating the break, anticipating someone getting open.”

A drops-prone receiving corps needs recently converted players like Marcus McShepard (defensive back) and Solomon Vault (running back) to contribute immediately. Austin Carr, who has strong chemistry with Thorson, could become his No. 1 target. Northwestern has little recent production from taller receivers, but redshirt freshman Charlie Fessler shows promise.

Running back is the unit’s most secure position. Justin Jackson has 2,605 rushing yards in his first two seasons, but the staff will try to lighten his load in 2016. Senior Warren Long and explosive redshirt freshman John Moten IV will contribute.

Offensive line play has been spotty, but Northwestern returns an experienced and versatile group that blocked well late in games.

McCall recognizes that the playbook must expand for the Wildcats to come close to 10 wins again. Development at receiver is pivotal because Thorson can handle more responsibility. “We need to get back to pitching and catching the football,” McCall says.

Previewing Northwestern’s Defense

Northwestern became a defense-driven team in 2015 as it led the nation in fewest passing touchdowns allowed (five) and ranked seventh nationally in yards per play allowed (4.5). The Wildcats hub once again looks solid with national awards candidate Anthony Walker at middle linebacker, dynamic junior Godwin Igwebuike at safety, senior Matthew Harris at cornerback and the ability to go five deep at defensive tackle.

The Wildcats need to replenish their depth at end after losing Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry, who combined for 12 sacks and 26 tackles for a loss last year. Ifeadi Odenigbo is a gifted pass rusher (13.5 career sacks) who must show he’s an every-down player. The spot opposite Odenigbo is critical, and a tackle like C.J. Robbins could slide over.

Once a huge weakness, the secondary has become one of Northwestern’s strongest units through improved recruiting. “Our DBs can run,” coordinator Mike Hankwitz says. “We can match up with people and play more man.”

Previewing Northwestern’s Specialists
 

While Northwestern would love to see more accuracy from kicker Jack Mitchell (18-of-27 on field goals) or greater leg strength from punter Hunter Niswander (38 yards per punt), it doesn’t take their experience for granted. Vault, meanwhile, is one of the nation’s top kick returners. The Wildcats have struggled at times to find productive punt returners and hope Flynn Nagel or Harris is their answer.

Final Analysis

A 10-win season revived Northwestern, but coaches know the same approach — overly reliant on defense with limited big-play threat — isn’t sustainable. The offense will make at least marginal strides, and the defense should again be among the Big Ten’s best. But this could easily be a better team with a worse record as the schedule gets much tougher.

Ohio State and Michigan State return to the slate. Northwestern visits both Big Ten heavyweights along with Iowa, the reigning West champion. The Wildcats face all three teams in October, traditionally their worst month in the Pat Fitzgerald era, so a strong start at home will be imperative.

The Debate

Will Clayton Thorson develop into an All-Big Ten QB this year?

Click here to join the debate.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#39 Penn State Nittany Lions

NATIONAL FORECAST

#39

Big Ten East PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: James Franklin, 14-12 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Joe Moorhead | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brent Pry

Penn State hasn't quite reached expectations in James Franklin's two seasons, but this team still has a lot of talent and the overall depth has improved. However, playing in one of the hardest divisions that college football has to offer is no small task. The Nittany Lions are looking for a spark on offense, with Franklin turning to former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead as the program's new play-caller. Running back Saquon Barkley is one of the Big Ten's rising stars, but Penn State needs more from its offensive line and quarterback.

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Previewing Penn State’s Offense

The Lions will look very different this fall, and not just because their all-time passing yardage leader, Christian Hackenberg, is off to the NFL. New coordinator Joe Moorhead has been installing a no-huddle spread offense that won’t exactly rekindle memories of the Paterno era. It’s a scheme he deployed effectively as head coach at Fordham the past four years, and he’s got plenty of skill position talent to work with at Penn State, a list headlined by sophomore running back Saquon Barkley and junior wideout Chris Godwin. Barkley finished third in the Big Ten in rushing last season with 1,076 yards, while Godwin was second in receiving yards with 1,101.

The big questions on offense concern the line and the quarterback spot. Up front, the Lions return six players who started at least five games last season, but they will need to do better than simply pick up where they left off in 2015, as the team averaged only 104 yards rushing in its last three games. At quarterback, sophomore Trace McSorley is the only contender with any playing experience. Tommy Stevens is a redshirt freshman, and Jake Zembiec enrolled in January.

Previewing Penn State’s Defense

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

There’s plenty of rebuilding to do up front, where the lone holdover from last year’s starting front four is strong-side defensive end Garrett Sickels. Antoine White and Parker Cothren will likely take over at the tackle spots. At weak-side end, Torrence Brown looks to be a potential starter after seeing action late last season when Carl Nassib got hurt.

The linebacker unit isn’t unproven, but it isn’t deep, either. Much will depend on whether Nyeem Wartman-White is fully recovered from the season-ending knee injury he suffered last September at Temple. Wartman-White was limited in the spring but is expected to battle his replacement, Jason Cabinda, for the middle linebacker position. If he regains his starting spot, Cabinda will move back outside. Penn State is solid at the strong-side spot with Brandon Bell back for his senior year, and the secondary should be another strength with three experienced veterans returning: cornerback Grant Haley, free safety Marcus Allen and strong safety Malik Golden. John Reid, an impact freshman last year, is the likely starter at cornerback opposite Haley.

One priority will be to create more turnovers. Penn State’s defensive backs intercepted only six passes last season.

Previewing Penn State’s Specialists

Joey Julius and Tyler Davis combined to hit 18-of-20 field-goal attempts last year, but that success rate was partly a byproduct of Penn State’s poor red zone offense; only six of those 20 attempts were from 40 yards or more. Given the Lions’ problems on kickoffs and extra points (Julius missed four PATs), incoming freshman Alex Barbir will likely get a shot at the starting job in preseason practice. Another newcomer, punter Blake Gillikin, may get a chance to fix one of Penn State’s bigger liabilities the past two seasons.

Final Analysis

The recruiting gains of the past two years are starting to have an impact, and the effect of the NCAA sanctions is fading, but this program is not in the clear just yet. Since the end of the 2015 regular season, James Franklin has replaced his offensive and defensive coordinators and also hired two new position coaches. The reconfigured staff will have to figure out a way to energize an offense that ranked 13th in the Big Ten last year in yards per game and 11th in scoring. It will also be looking to patch up a defense that lost three starters from a highly effective front four. Still, the Lions are welcoming their third consecutive top-25 recruiting class this summer, so there is reason to believe they have the necessary talent for a breakthrough season. Whether that breakthrough occurs in 2016 is a separate question.   

The Debate

Where does James Franklin rank among the Big Ten's coaches?

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