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Big Ten Football 2015 Predictions

Ezekiel Elliott

Ezekiel Elliott

The Big Ten is a conference on the rise. Ohio State is the defending national champion, Michigan State has won at least 11 games in four out of the last five seasons, and with new coaches at Penn State (James Franklin) and Michigan (Jim Harbaugh) it won’t be long before both programs are back among the top 25 on an annual basis.

In a prediction that should surprise no one, Ohio State is Athlon’s projected Big Ten champion for 2015. The Buckeyes are also Athlon’s predicted national champion. Michigan State is a close No. 2 in the East, but the Spartans must replace standout coordinator Pat Narduzzi and reload in the secondary. Wisconsin is Athlon’s pick to win the West.

Here are a few key storylines to watch for the Big Ten in 2015, followed by complete predictions and season projections.

5 Key Questions That Will Shape the Big Ten in 2015

1. Ohio State’s Quest for a Repeat

Ohio State will be fighting history in its quest to go back-to-back as college football’s national champion. Only one team since 1998 (Alabama) was able to go back-to-back, and it’s never easy to make it through a season with a loss, key injury or simply bad luck in a game. While history isn’t on their side, the Buckeyes have few holes and a favorable path to a playoff bid. Sure, there’s uncertainty at quarterback, but coach Urban Meyer isn’t hurting for proven options. Replacing receiver Devin Smith and right tackle Darryl Baldwin are the biggest question marks on offense, while the defense needs to develop more depth in the trenches and fill the void left behind at cornerback by Doran Grant. Will Michigan State push Ohio State for the Big Ten title? Could rival Michigan play spoiler in the final week of November? Those scenarios are possible, but it’s going to be tough for any team to beat the Buckeyes in 2015.

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2. Jim Harbaugh’s Impact at Michigan

There’s no doubt Michigan will show improvement in the first season under new coach Jim Harbaugh. But how high can the Wolverines climb in the East Division? Third place seems to be the ceiling for Harbaugh’s team. While Michigan is poised to make gains in the win column, this team still has a few glaring concerns. Quarterback is the biggest question mark for Harbaugh, but Iowa transfer Jake Rudock provides an experienced option. The offensive line has been the biggest issue for Michigan over the last two seasons and returns four starters for 2015. The Wolverines also need to generate better production on the ground and find a go-to receiver. The strength of Harbaugh’s team will be on defense after limiting opponents to 22.4 points per game in 2014. Eight wins is a reasonable expectation for Michigan. But reaching eight or nine victories will require improvement on offense. How quickly will Harbaugh find the right answers in his return to Ann Arbor?

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3. Wisconsin vs. Nebraska in the West

Anchored by defending national champion Ohio State and Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State Spartans, the balance of power in the Big Ten is clearly in the East. In addition to Ohio State and Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan should show improvement in 2015. The West Division has only one team (Wisconsin) in Athlon’s projected top 25 for 2015. Even with a new coach (Paul Chryst), the Badgers’ formula for success won’t change. Melvin Gordon will be missed, but Corey Clement is the next star at running back. And Wisconsin’s defense should be among the best in the Big Ten with seven returning starters. While the Badgers will be a popular pick to win the West, Nebraska isn’t far behind. New coach Mike Riley is changing the schemes on both sides of the ball, so there will be a transition period for this team. However, if quarterback Tommy Armstrong settles into the new pro-style attack, the Cornhuskers have the necessary pieces in place to win the West. Wisconsin is the favorite, but the gap between the Badgers and Nebraska might be smaller than most believe.

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4. Year 2 for James Franklin at Penn State, Michigan State Defense

James Franklin’s Penn State debut had its share of ups and downs. The Nittany Lions finished 7-6 but closed the year with a win over Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. The defense ranked near the top nationally in the four major statistical categories and should be strong once again with seven starters back. However, for Franklin’s team to finish in the top 25, the offense has to take a step forward. The offensive line struggled in 2014, but there’s signs of optimism in 2015. And if the line is able to provide better protection for quarterback Christian Hackenberg, the offense will easily surpass last year’s totals. The talent is there to push for nine wins in 2015. Getting there requires improved play up front and a better year from Hackenberg (15 TDs, 12 INTs in 2014). For Michigan State, the Spartans have emerged as one of the Big Ten’s top programs over the last five seasons. Coach Mark Dantonio’s team won’t slip too far in the standings in 2015, but the defense may take a step back without Pat Narduzzi calling the plays. While the front seven is rock solid for new co-coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel, there’s a lot of uncertainty in the secondary. How quickly Michigan State reconfigures on defense will dictate whether or not it can challenge Ohio State.

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5. On the Hot Seat?

Could this be a make-or-break year for a couple of coaches in the Big Ten? Kirk Ferentz’s oft-mentioned contract will continue to be a point of discussion around the Big Ten, especially if the Hawkeyes finish close to the .500 mark once again. Iowa is just 19-19 over the last three years, and Ferentz has to push for improvement with a team that returns just 10 starters in 2015. Despite a bowl appearance in 2014, Illinois’ Tim Beckman is on the hot seat. Allegations of player mistreatment this offseason have only added to the pressure on this program, and the Fighting Illini are looking to take a step forward after losing all seven games by at least 10 points last year. Making matters worse for Beckman, top receiver Mike Dudek suffered a torn ACL in the spring and may miss all of the 2015 season. Rutgers is also coming off a bowl game, but how much will this team miss offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen? In the Hoosier State, Indiana and Purdue combined for a 7-17 mark last season. There’s more reason for optimism for Kevin Wilson’s Hoosiers, especially with the return of quarterback Nate Sudfeld from injury. The Boilermakers are young and showed signs of progress in coach Darrell Hazell’s second year. However, the Boilermakers struggled to be competitive in Big Ten play and more progress is needed.  

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Big Ten Team Previews for 2015

Visit the Athlon Sports Online Store to order a copy of the 2015 Big Ten Preview Magazine, which features in-depth analysis and previews for all 14 teams, predictions, rankings and features to prepare for the upcoming year. 

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Big Ten Football 2015 Predictions

Big Ten 2015 Superlatives and Season Predictions

 

Steven
Lassan

Mitch
Light

Mark
Ross

Braden
Gall

David
Fox

 

@AthlonSteven

@AthlonMitch

@AthlonMarkR

@BradenGall

@DavidFox615

Offensive POY

Ezekiel Elliott
RB, OSU

Ezekiel Elliott
RB, OSU

Ezekiel Elliott
RB, OSU

Connor Cook
QB, MSU

Ohio State QB

Defensive POY

Joey Bosa
DE, OSU

Joey Bosa
DE, OSU

Joey Bosa
DE, OSU

Darron Lee
LB, OSU

Joey Bosa
DE, OSU

Coach of the Year

Urban Meyer
Ohio State

Urban Meyer
Ohio State

Urban Meyer
Ohio State

Urban Meyer
Ohio State

Jim Harbaugh
Michigan

Coach on Hot Seat

Tim Beckman
Illinois

Tim Beckman
Illinois

Kevin Wilson
Indiana

Tim Beckman
Illinois

Tim Beckman
Illinois

Top Freshman

Jabrill Peppers
DB, Michigan

Jabrill Peppers
DB, Michigan

LJ Scott
RB, MSU

Jabrill Peppers
DB, Michigan

Jabrill Peppers
DB, Michigan

Top Newcomer

Jordan Howard
RB, Indiana

Jordan Howard
RB, Indiana

Jordan Howard
RB, Indiana

Jake Rudock
QB, Michigan

Paris Palmer
OT, PSU

Sleeper Team

Nebraska

Indiana

Penn State

Nebraska

Northwestern

Top Coordinator Hire

D.J. Durkin
DC, Michigan

D.J. Durkin
DC, Michigan

D.J. Durkin
DC, Michigan

D.J. Durkin
DC, Michigan

Danny Langsdorf
OC, Nebraska

Key Position to Watch

Penn State OL

Penn State OL

Ohio State QB

Michigan State DB

Penn State OL

Hardest to Evaluate

Michigan

Michigan

Michigan

Nebraska

Minnesota

Coach on the Rise

Dave Aranda
DC, Wisconsin

Dave Aranda
DC, Wisconsin

Bob Shoop
DC, PSU

Dave Aranda
DC, Wisconsin

Bob Shoop
DC, PSU

Must-See Game

Mich. State at
Ohio State

Ohio State at 
Michigan

Mich. State at
Ohio State

Ohio State at
Michigan

Ohio State at
Michigan

Breakout Player

Raekwon McMillan
LB, OSU

Jalin Marshall
WR, OSU

Rodrick Williams
RB, Minnesota

De'Mornay Pierson-El
WR, Nebraska

Corey Clement
RB, Wisconsin

Comeback Player

Nate Sudfeld
QB, Indiana

Nate Sudfeld
QB, Indiana

Jabrill Peppers
DB, Michigan

Braxton Miller
QB, OSU

Nate Sudfeld
QB, Indiana


Ranking the Big Ten's Coaches for 2015

1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State

2. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

3. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

4. James Franklin, Penn State

5. Jerry Kill, Minnesota

Click here to view the full Big Ten Coach Rankings for 2015

Ranking the Big Ten's Quarterbacks for 2015

1. Ohio State: Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones

2. Connor Cook, Michigan State

3. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State

4. Wes Lunt, Illinois

5. Nate Sudfeld, Indiana

Click here to view the full Big Ten Quarterback Rankings for 2015

Ranking the Big Ten's Running Backs for 2015

1. Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State

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2. Corey Clement, Wisconsin

3. Justin Jackson, Northwestern

4. Jordan Howard, Indiana

5. Akeel Lynch, Penn State

6. Josh Ferguson, Illinois

Click here to view the full Big Ten Running Back Rankings for 2015

The Big Ten's Top 5 Players on the Rise for 2015

1. Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan

2. Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State

3. Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin

4. Nate Gerry, S, Nebraska

5. Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State

Related: College Football's Top 25 Players on the Rise for 2015

The Big Ten's Top 5 Non-Conference Games for 2015

1. Oregon at Michigan State - Sept. 12

2. Wisconsin vs. Alabama (Arlington) - Sept. 5

3. Ohio State at Virginia Tech - Sept. 7

4. TCU at Minnesota - Sept. 3

5. Nebraska at Miami - Sept. 19

Related: Big Ten 2015 Schedule Analysis

Key Coordinator Hires for 2015

1. D.J. Durkin, Defensive Coordinator, Michigan

2. Danny Langsdorf, Offensive Coordinator, Nebraska

3. Tim Beck, Co-Offensive Coordinator, Ohio State

Top Incoming Freshmen (from 247Sports)

1. Justin Hilliard, LB, Ohio State

2. L.J. Scott, RB, Ohio State

3. Jerome Baker, LB, Ohio State

4. Brian Cole, WR, Michigan

5. Torrence Gibson, QB, Ohio State

6. Michael Weber, RB, Ohio State

7. Jashon Cornell, DL, Ohio State

8. Eric Glover-Williams, DB, Ohio State

9. Isaiah Prince, OL, Ohio State

10. Matthew Burrell, OL, Ohio State

11. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

12. Adam McLean, DL, Maryland

13. Garrett Taylor, DB, Penn State

14. John Reid, DB, Penn State

15. Eric Lee Jr., DB, Nebraska