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Big Ten Football 2016 Predictions

J.T. Barrett

J.T. Barrett

The Ohio State-Michigan rivalry has produced plenty of memorable moments throughout its history, and the battle on Nov. 26 should have plenty at stake, as the East Division title and a spot in the College Football Playoff could be up for grabs. With Jim Harbaugh taking over in Ann Arbor, the intensity in this rivalry has only increased over the last two years. The Wolverines took a step forward last season and should be even better in 2016 with 14 returning starters. The Buckeyes aren’t hurting for talent, but coach Urban Meyer’s team has to retool on both sides of the ball. That task is made easier with the return of quarterback J.T. Barrett and talented options at each level on the defense.

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While most of the preseason attention is focused on Ohio State and Michigan, Iowa and Michigan State – the two division winners from 2016 – shouldn’t be overlooked. The Spartans suffered some key personnel losses, but coach Mark Dantonio should have this team back in the mix for 10 wins. The Hawkeyes return one of the nation’s top defenders in cornerback Desmond King and enter the season as the clear favorite in the West Division. Wisconsin has the talent to push Iowa for the top spot, but the Badgers face a brutal schedule in coach Paul Chryst’s second year in Madison. Nebraska could be the biggest threat to the Hawkeyes if Mike Riley’s team quickly retools on the defensive line and cuts down on the turnovers after a minus-19 margin in 2015.

Five Key Questions That Will Shape the Big Ten in 2016

1. Ohio State or Michigan in the East Division?

Michigan State shouldn’t be overlooked in the Big Ten East, but Michigan and Ohio State are favorites in this division for 2016. How much separation is there between these two teams? Not much. In Athlon’s projected 128 rankings for 2016, Ohio State is picked to finish No. 3 overall, while Michigan checks in at No. 5. The Wolverines took a big step forward in Jim Harbaugh’s first season, increasing their win total by five games after a 5-7 mark in 2014 and finishing No. 12 in the Associated Press poll. And Michigan wasn’t too far from a playoff bid last season after losing two games by seven points or less, including the last-second loss to Michigan State. The Wolverines need to find a quarterback to replace Jake Rudock, but the rest of the team is in good shape. New coordinator Don Brown guides one of the nation’s best defenses, while the offense features an improving line and one of the Big Ten’s top receiving corps. Ohio State has significantly more question marks this preseason than the Wolverines, but Urban Meyer has recruited as well as any coach in the nation. There’s plenty of talent in place for the Buckeyes – it’s just unproven. J.T. Barrett is the unquestioned starter at quarterback, and a full offseason as the No. 1 option should help the junior return to his freshman form. The defense returns only three starters, but there’s not much concern for this unit. New co-coordinator Greg Schiano inherits one of the nation’s top linebackers in junior Raekwon McMillan and a pair of standout ends in Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard. What could be the deciding factors in the Ohio State-Michigan battle to win the East? The Buckeyes host the Wolverines on Nov. 26 – plenty of time for Meyer’s team to reload – and there’s a clear edge at quarterback with J.T. Barrett over John O’Korn or Wilton Speight.

Related: Athlon's College Football 1 to 128 Team Rankings for 2016

2. How Fast Will Michigan State Reload?

As mentioned above, Michigan State shouldn’t be overlooked in the Big Ten East Division. However, the Spartans have several key personnel issues to address from a team that finished 12-2 and earned a spot in the College Football Playoff in 2015. On offense, the line has to be retooled following the departures of Jack Conklin and Jack Allen, a new No. 1 receiver must emerge, and quarterback Connor Cook expired his eligibility. Defense has been a strength for Michigan State under coach Mark Dantonio, and there’s a strong foundation in place with five returning starters. Shilique Calhoun will be missed at defensive end, but tackle Malik McDowell is back to anchor the line of scrimmage, and linebacker Ed Davis and cornerback Vayante Copeland return from injury. With Dantonio at the helm, Michigan State is better equipped to handle personnel losses and reload quicker than in previous years. Additionally, the Spartans host Michigan and Ohio State in two games that will define where this team stacks up in the East Division. Michigan State may not match last year’s 12 wins but another double-digit victory total isn’t out of the question.

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College Football: Breaking Down Athlon’s 2016 Top 25



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3. Can Nebraska or Wisconsin Push Iowa for the Top Spot in the West?

Probably not. The Hawkeyes may not replicate last year’s run into the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings, but Kirk Ferentz’s team is still the best in the Big Ten West. Quarterback C.J. Beathard is the Big Ten’s No. 2 quarterback behind Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, and there’s a solid stable of backs to lean on until a few playmakers emerge at receiver. The defense limited opponents to 20.4 points a game last season and returns eight starters, including All-America cornerback Desmond King. Another huge boost to Iowa’s division title hopes is a favorable schedule. The Hawkeyes catch Michigan in crossover play with the East Division, but Iowa does not have to play Ohio State or Michigan State, while Nebraska and Wisconsin visit Iowa City. Wisconsin finished a solid 10-3 under new coach Paul Chryst last year and has enough returning talent to win the division. However, the Badgers face a brutal schedule and enter fall practice with uncertainty at quarterback. Nebraska might be the Big Ten’s biggest wild card team for 2016. The Cornhuskers weren’t as bad as their 6-7 record indicated in 2015, and better luck in the turnover department (minus-19 last year) and close games should equal improvement in the win column. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong is back and is surrounded by one of the Big Ten’s top receiving corps. But second-year coach Mike Riley has some big question marks to address on the defensive line. Nebraska should be better in 2016, but Iowa has the best collection of talent and favorable schedule to win another West Division title.

Related: Explaining Athlon's Big Ten Predictions for 2016

4. Is Penn State on the Right Track in James Franklin’s Third Year?

High expectations surrounded James Franklin when he replaced Bill O’Brien in Happy Valley prior to the 2014 season. Through two years, Franklin is 14-12 at Penn State, but he has reeled in three consecutive top 25 recruiting classes. With the talent level on the rise and a full allotment of scholarships, things aren’t all bad in Happy Valley. Sure, Franklin needs to show progress in the win column, but the Nittany Lions return 14 starters, including one of the Big Ten’s top running backs in Saquon Barkley. Additionally, the hire of Joe Moorhead as the new play-caller should spark the offense, and the promotion of Brent Pry to coordinator to replace Bob Shoop should keep continuity on defense. Franklin’s biggest concern in 2016 is the development of quarterback Trace McSorley, as well as a rebuilt defensive line. The schedule certainly isn’t easy, but Penn State could exceed seven wins for the first time since 2012.

5. Which New Coach Will Have the Biggest Impact in 2016?

The Big Ten has four new coaches in 2016: Lovie Smith (Illinois), Chris Ash (Rutgers), Tracy Claeys (Minnesota) and D.J. Durkin (Maryland). Smith is arguably the most interesting hire of the 2016 cycle, as the former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach returns to the college ranks for the first time since 1995. However, Smith inherits a team that finished 5-7 last season and has significant question marks from a defense that returns only four starters. Minnesota hopes Claeys picks up where Jerry Kill left off and continues to elevate the program within the West Division. Claeys also wasted no time putting his stamp on the program with changes to the staff this offseason. Durkin and Ash face an uphill battle in the East Division against Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State, but both coaches appear to be the right hire. Ash has arguably the toughest path to success in year one, while Durkin inherits a team that should have more talent than last year’s win total suggested. However, the Terrapins have a major question mark at quarterback, and there are few guaranteed wins in Big Ten play. 

College Football: Others Receiving Votes



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Big Ten Team Previews for 2016

Visit the Athlon Sports Online Store to order a copy of the 2016 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. 

Big Ten Football 2016 Predictions

Big Ten 2016 Superlatives and Season Predictions

 

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Offensive POY

J.T. Barrett QB, Ohio State

J.T. Barrett QB, Ohio State

J.T. Barrett QB, Ohio State

J.T. Barrett QB, Ohio State

J.T. Barrett QB, Ohio State

Defensive POY

Jabrill Peppers LB, Michigan

Jabrill Peppers LB, Michigan

Jabrill Peppers LB, Michigan

Jabrill Peppers LB, Michigan

Jabrill Peppers LB, Michigan

Coach of the Year

Urban Meyer Ohio State

Urban Meyer Ohio State

James Franklin Penn State

Jim Harbaugh Michigan

Jim Harbaugh Michigan

Coach on Hot Seat

Darrell Hazell Purdue

Darrell Hazell Purdue

Darrell Hazell Purdue

Darrell Hazell Purdue

Darrell Hazell Purdue

Top Freshman

Mike Weber RB, OSU

Nick Bosa DL, OSU

Austin Mack WR, OSU

Mike Weber RB, OSU

Mike Weber RB, OSU

Top Newcomer

Hardy Nickerson LB, Illinois

John O'Korn QB, Michigan

John O'Korn QB, Michigan

John O'Korn QB, Michigan

John O'Korn QB, Michigan

Sleeper Team

Nebraska

Nebraska

Penn State

Minnesota

Nebraska

Top Coordinator Hire

Don Brown DC, Michigan

Don Brown DC, Michigan

Don Brown DC, Michigan

Don Brown DC, Michigan

Greg Schiano Co-DC, OSU

Key Position to Watch

Ohio State WR

Ohio State WR

Ohio State WR

Michigan State DL

Ohio State OL

Hardest to Evaluate

Penn State

Penn State

Nebraska

Nebraska

Wisconsin

Coach on the Rise

D.J. Durkin HC, Maryland

D.J. Durkin HC, Maryland

Don Brown DC, Michigan

Harlon Barnett Co-DC, MSU

D.J. Durkin HC, Maryland

Must-See Game

Michigan at Ohio State

Michigan at  Ohio State

Michigan at Ohio State

Michigan at Ohio State

Michigan at Ohio State

Breakout Player

Sam Hubbard DL, OSU

Mike Weber RB, OSU

LJ Scott  RB, Mich. State

Curtis Samuel WR, OSU

Sam Hubbard DL, OSU

Comeback Player

Corey Clement RB, Wisconsin

Corey Clement RB, Wisconsin

Ed Davis LB, Mich. State

Vayante Copeland CB, Mich. State

Ed Davis LB, Mich. State

Ranking the Big Ten's Coaches for 2016

1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State

2. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

3. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

Click here to view the full Big Ten Coach Rankings for 2016

Grading the Big Ten's New Coach Hires for 2016

1. D.J. Durkin, Maryland (A-)

2. Lovie Smith, Illinois (B+)

3. Chris Ash, Rutgers (B-)

4. Tracy Claeys, Minnesota (C+)

Ranking the Big Ten's Quarterbacks for 2016

1. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State

2. C.J. Beathard, Iowa 

3. Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska

Click here to view the full Big Ten Quarterback Rankings for 2016

Big Ten's Top 10 Players on the Rise for 2016

1. Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State

2. LJ Scott, RB, Michigan State

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3. Brian Allen, OL, Michigan State

4. Nick Gates, OT, Nebraska

5. Ke'Shawn Vaughn, RB, Illinois

6. Shannon Brooks, RB, Minnesota

7. Markell Jones, RB, Purdue

8. Grant Haley, CB, Penn State

9. Jonathan Crawford, S, Indiana

10. Grant Newsome, OL, Michigan

Related: Big Ten's Top 15 Players on the Rise for 2016

Big Ten's Top 10 Non-Conference Games for 2016

1. Ohio State at Oklahoma (Sept. 17)

2. Wisconsin vs. LSU (Green Bay, Sept. 3)

3. Michigan State at Notre Dame (Sept. 17)

4. Oregon at Nebraska (Sept. 17)

5. Penn State at Pitt (Sept. 10)

6. BYU at Michigan State (Oct. 8)

7. Iowa State at Iowa (Sept. 10)

8. North Dakota State at Iowa (Sept. 17)

9. Duke at Northwestern (Sept. 17)

10. North Carolina at Illinois (Sept. 10)

Big Ten's Key Coordinator Hires for 2016

1. Don Brown, Defensive Coordinator, Michigan

2. Greg Schiano, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Ohio State

3. Tom Allen, Defensive Coordinator, Indiana

4. Joe Moorhead, Offensive Coordinator, Penn State

5. Walt Bell, Offensive Coordinator, Maryland

Related: Big Ten's Top 10 Assistant Coach Hires for 2016

Big Ten's Top Incoming Freshmen for 2016 (from 247Sports)

1. Rashan Gary, DL, Michigan

2. Nick Bosa, DL, Ohio State

3. Miles Sanders, RB, Penn State

4. Michael Menet, OL, Penn State

5. Jonathon Cooper, DE, Ohio State

6. Ben Bredeson, OL, Michigan

7. Shane Simmons, DL, Penn State

8. Demario McCall, RB, Ohio State

9. Brandon Peters, QB, Michigan

10. David Long, CB, Michigan

11. Terrance Davis, OL, Maryland

12. Devin Asiasi, TE, Michigan

13. Austin Mack, WR, Ohio State

14. Lamar Jackson, DB, Nebraska

15. Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State