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Big Ten Football 2016 Returning Starters Analysis

Nebraska Cornhuskers

Nebraska Cornhuskers

Returning starter data in college football preseason charts or magazine pages isn’t an exact science. The numbers and data can vary among different websites, magazines or other resources. However, even if there’s some disagreement on the numbers, the data is an interesting early look at how teams are shaping up for the upcoming season.

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The Big Ten features one of the nation’s most intriguing races for the league title in 2016. Ohio State and Michigan are picked in most preseason polls as neck-and-neck for the top spot in the East and for the No. 1 overall designation in the conference. While the Buckeyes and Wolverines are considered playoff contenders, there’s plenty of depth in this league with Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin. Additionally, Nebraska should take a step forward in coach Mike Riley’s second season in Lincoln, and Penn State has the talent for a breakthrough year under coach James Franklin.

With spring practice underway across the Big Ten, it’s never too early to start looking at the depth charts and returning starters for all 14 teams in the league. In preparation for the 2016 College Football Preview magazine, Athlon Sports determines the returning starters for every team. A simple criteria is used as a baseline for returning starters. A player must start seven overall games or the last six of any season. However, that is not a hard-line rule for returning starters, and there’s plenty of flexibility (snaps or overall playing time as a backup, injuries or scheme) when taking into account the actual number. 

East Division

Team

Offense

Defense

Indiana

6

7

Maryland

4

5

Michigan

8

6

Michigan State

4

5

Ohio State

3

3

Penn State

9

5

Rutgers

8

7

* Ohio State’s six returning starters are the fewest by any Big Ten team for 2016. While the Buckeyes are thin on proven talent, the six returning starters could feature three preseason All-Americans – quarterback J.T. Barrett, linebacker Raekwon McMillan and center Pat Elflein.

* Look for Michigan’s offensive line to take a significant step forward in 2016. The Wolverines return four starters, and Mason Cole is expected to slide from left tackle to center to replace Graham Glasgow. Jim Harbaugh has to break in a new quarterback, but Michigan returns three of the Big Ten’s top playmakers at receiver and running back De’Veon Smith.

* Despite losing two starters, Michigan’s defensive line could one of the best in college football in 2016.

* Rebuilding in the trenches is a priority for Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. The Spartans lose three starters on the offensive side, and tackle Malik McDowell is the only returning starter in the defensive trenches.

* Expect Michigan State’s linebacking corps to be among the best in the Big Ten. The Spartans return Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke, while Ed Davis – a likely all-conference performer – is back after missing all of 2015 due to injury.

* First-year coach Chris Ash inherits plenty of personnel concerns at Rutgers, but the defensive line should be a strength. The Scarlet Knights return three starters, and tackle Darius Hamilton is back after missing most of 2015 due to injury.

* New Indiana defensive coordinator Tom Allen inherits a unit with four new starters up front, but the Hoosiers return seven starters on the back end. Safety Jonathan Crawford, cornerback Rashard Fant and linebacker Tegray Scales are just a few of the promising players returning for Allen in 2016.

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* Penn State’s nine returning starters on offense are the most by any team in the Big Ten. And with new coordinator Joe Moorhead calling the plays, is this the year the Nittany Lions have a breakout performance on offense?

* Maryland cornerback William Likely is one of the Big Ten’s top defenders, but he’s the only returning starter for new coach D.J. Durkin in the secondary.

West Division

Team

Offense

Defense

Illinois

5

4

Iowa

5

8

Minnesota

7

7

Nebraska

6

6

Northwestern

7

6

Purdue

7

9

Wisconsin

6

5

* Nebraska had plenty of bad fortune last season, but the Cornhuskers should get a few bounces to go their way in 2016. The official tally lists 12 starters returning for coach Mike Riley, which is only one behind West Division frontrunner Iowa.

* The biggest question mark for Riley is the trenches. Nebraska loses three starters up front on offense and must replace three on defense. The departures on defense are a bigger issue, as tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine won’t be easy to replace in 2016.

* Keep an eye on Nebraska’s receiving corps. The above criteria suggests there’s only one returning starter at receiver, but the Cornhuskers return their top eight statistical options from last season. Additionally, dynamic playmaker De’Mornay Pierson-El is slated to return from injury.

* Illinois has the fewest amount of returning starters (nine) in the Big Ten West. New coach Lovie Smith also inherits a defense that returns only one starter in the back seven.

* Iowa’s eight returning starters on defense are the second-highest total by a Big Ten team for 2016.

* The Hawkeyes return only five starters on offense, but one of those players is quarterback C.J. Beathard – the best signal-caller in the Big Ten West Division.

* Purdue’s 16 returning starters are the highest total for any Big Ten team in 2016. But will that translate into improvement for a program that’s 6-30 over the last three years?

* Minnesota’s secondary was arguably one of the most underrated groups in the Big Ten over the last couple of seasons. This unit loses three starters, but Damarius Travis returns after playing in only one game due to injury in 2015.

* Northwestern ranked sixth in the Big Ten in sacks (31) generated last season. However, two starters – Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry – depart after accounting for 12 of those sacks last year.

* Standout left tackle Tyler Marz must be replaced, but the Badgers have to be optimistic about their offensive line. Four starters are back for coach Paul Chryst, with sophomore Michael Deiter one of the conference’s rising stars in the trenches.

* The Badgers return only one starter in the secondary.