The Big Ten ended 2014 in the spotlight after Ohio State claimed the national championship and Jim Harbaugh arrived at Michigan. And through seven weeks in 2015, it’s safe to say this conference has been worthy of all of the offseason attention and more.
The Buckeyes are putting together the necessary pieces and working through a few early-season kinks to make a run at the national championship, while the Wolverines made a quick turnaround under Harbaugh and emerged as one of the top 10-15 teams in the nation. Although the attention and accolades for Michigan is certainly deserved, in-state rival Michigan State should not be overlooked. After last Saturday’s crazy, last-second victory over the Wolverines, the Spartans are back in the driver’s seat as Ohio State’s top challenger in the East Division.
While the preseason favorites have matched expectations in the East, the West is led by Iowa – picked by most to finish third or fourth in this division. Wisconsin is the Hawkeyes’ top challenger, but new coach Paul Chryst needs some help to get to Indianapolis after Iowa defeated the Badgers in Week 5.
Here are some award winners, plus second-half predictions from the Big Ten in 2015:
Big Ten Midseason Review and Second-Half Predictions
Offensive Player of the Year: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
Elliott closed out 2014 by rushing for at least 200 yards in each of Ohio State’s final three games. The junior has picked up where he left off in the Buckeyes’ championship run, recording 988 yards and 11 rushing scores through the first seven games. Elliott has rushed for at least 100 yards in every contest this season and has three games of at least two rushing scores. He is also tied for fifth nationally with four rushing plays of 40 yards or more.
Defensive Player of the Year: Carl Nassib, DE, Penn State
Nassib – a former walk-on – has emerged as one of the nation’s top defenders. In seven appearances this year, Nassib has recorded 35 tackles (15.5 for a loss), one interception and five forced fumbles. Additionally, Nassib’s 11.5 sacks are the most by any player at the FBS level after seven weeks.
Coach of the Year: Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Ferentz entered 2015 on the hot seat and had plenty of doubters on whether he could elevate Iowa’s program out of its recent 8-5/7-6 win totals. Fast forward to October and Ferentz is a coach of the year candidate. The Hawkeyes are 7-0 and 3-0 in the Big Ten after seven weeks and the frontrunner to represent the West Division in the conference championship game in early December. With two more wins, Iowa will clinch its best season since 2009 (11-2).
Freshman of the Year: Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan
A strong argument could be made for Penn State running back Saquon Barkley or Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Edwards here, but let’s go with Peppers for the Big Ten’s top freshman at the midway point of the season. Peppers helps anchor one of the nation’s top defensive backfields, recording 23 tackles (4.5 for a loss) and five pass breakups through the first seven games of 2015. The Wolverines’ secondary has allowed only three passing scores this season. Peppers has also played a limited role on offense, catching two passes for 35 yards versus Michigan State and averages 10.3 yards per punt return.
Newcomer of the Year: Jordan Howard, RB, Indiana
Howard was a huge pickup prior to spring practice after UAB disbanded its football team after the 2014 season. Filling Tevin Coleman’s shoes was no easy assignment, but Howard recorded 709 yards and four touchdowns in his first five games of 2015. An ankle injury has sidelined the junior the last two games, but he should record over 1,000 yards as Indiana makes a push for a bowl.
Biggest Surprise: Iowa
The Hawkeyes were picked by most to finish third or fourth in the Big Ten’s West Division, but coach Kirk Ferentz’s team enters its bye week at 7-0 and ranked No. 12 in the latest Associated Press poll. Iowa missed on playing one of the top four teams from the East Division in crossover play, but this team has solid road wins over Wisconsin and Northwestern and claimed a three-point victory over Pittsburgh in mid-September. The driving force behind the improvement this season? The emergence of quarterback C.J. Beathard helped to provide more big-play ability to the offense, while the offensive and defensive lines are among the best in the Big Ten.
Team That’s Due for Better Luck: Nebraska
Before we take a look at the second half of the season, Nebraska’s 3-4 record in the first seven weeks is worth a look under the spotlight. Simply, the Cornhuskers are due for better luck. All four of Nebraska’s losses came by five points or less, including a last-second Hail Mary defeat against BYU. New coach Mike Riley has plenty of work to do in order to get Nebraska back in contention for the Big Ten West Division title. However, a manageable second-half slate should ensure this team goes bowling in 2015.
Five Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Ohio State’s Quest to Repeat
Repeating as a national champion isn’t easy. Ohio State has experienced its share of ups and downs so far in 2015, but this team is still loaded with talent and on the verge of putting all of the pieces together. The Buckeyes will be heavy favorites in their next three games – at Rutgers, Minnesota and at Illinois – before a huge two-game stretch against Michigan State and then a road trip to Michigan.
2. Ohio State’s Quarterback Situation
The calls for J.T. Barrett to start over Cardale Jones are getting louder. Will the Buckeyes continue to go with a two-quarterback system? Or is Barrett poised to take the job?
3. Iowa’s Quest for 12-0
Iowa entered the year with low expectations after a 7-6 record. However, the Hawkeyes are just one of 10 teams from the Power 5 conferences with an unbeaten mark and should be 11-0 headed into the Nov. 27 showdown against Nebraska. Even if Iowa doesn’t finish with an unbeaten regular season, this has been quite the turnaround for coach Kirk Ferentz.
4. Michigan and Nebraska
It’s going to take Michigan a few days to get over the heartbreak from Saturday’s loss against Michigan State, but Jim Harbaugh’s first season in Ann Arbor is still a huge success. And here’s the intriguing part: Michigan could play spoiler and end Ohio State’s unbeaten season on Nov. 28. For Nebraska, new coach Mike Riley has also experienced plenty of heartbreak and bad luck in his first year, but the Cornhuskers could rally with a solid finish in the second half. With the return of dynamic receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El from injury, along with three home games (and winnable road trips to Purdue and Rutgers), Nebraska’s final five games provide an opportunity for Riley to close out his debut with momentum.
5. Coaching Searches
The Big Ten already has two open head coaching jobs – Illinois and Maryland – and there could be more openings at the end of the season. How quickly will teams fill their vacancy?
Top Five Games in the Second Half
1. Michigan State at Ohio State (Nov. 21)
This matchup was pegged as Ohio State’s toughest game in the preseason and nothing has changed that line of thinking. After the Spartans’ last-second win over Michigan last Saturday, this game should decide which team represents the East Division in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title.
2. Ohio State at Michigan (Nov. 28)
One of college football’s best rivalries is only going to increase in intensity with the arrival of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. Can the Wolverines spoil Ohio State’s unbeaten season?
3. Michigan at Penn State (Nov. 21)
Points should be at a premium when two of the Big Ten’s top defenses square off in Happy Valley.
4. Iowa at Nebraska (Nov. 27)
This Black Friday showdown in Lincoln is the toughest remaining obstacle in Iowa's hopes for a 12-0 record.
5. Michigan State at Nebraska (Nov. 7)
The Cornhuskers made a late rally in East Lansing last season and lost by only five (27-22). Can Nebraska find a way to pull off the upset?
Bonus: Penn State at Michigan State (Nov. 28)
If – and this is a huge if – Michigan State beats Ohio State on Nov. 21, the Spartans will have to avoid a letdown against Penn State.