College football’s 2014 season has ended, and the focus shifts from the national championship picture to signing day, spring practice and early preseason rankings for 2015. While last year and Ohio State’s national title victory over Oregon is still fresh in our minds, it’s never too early to think about next season.
While repeating as a national champion in college football isn’t easy, Ohio State opens as the overwhelming favorite for 2015. The Buckeyes return nearly everyone from last year’s team and are only getting better with the addition of a solid recruiting class. Elsewhere in the East Division, all eyes will be on Michigan with the arrival of Jim Harbaugh. Wisconsin is the favorite to win the West, but Nebraska and Minnesota aren’t far behind.
Early Big Ten Rankings for 2015
East Division Rankings
1. Ohio State
2014 Record: 14-1 (8-0)
The defending national champions are a heavy favorite to repeat in 2015. Of course, that’s easier said than done, as only one team during the BCS era (Alabama) was able to claim back-to-back titles. Ohio State’s path to the championship next season is favorable. Michigan State, Minnesota and Penn State visit Columbus next year, with the season finale at Michigan the toughest road game in conference play. The quarterback battle between Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller (if he stays at Ohio State) will be one of the nation’s most intriguing storylines to watch this preseason. Regardless of which quarterback starts, the supporting cast is loaded with returning talent. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is one of the leading candidates for the 2015 Heisman Trophy, and four starters are back on the line. Receivers Devin Smith and Evan Spencer and tight end Jeff Heuerman will be missed, but Michael Thomas (14.8 ypc) and Jalin Marshall (6 TDs) are capable options. Tackle Michael Bennett, end Steve Miller and cornerback Doran Grant are the biggest losses on defense. However, with end Joey Bosa and linebacker Darron Lee returning, the Buckeyes aren’t likely to take a step back in defensive production.
2. Michigan State
2014 Record: 11-2 (7-1)
Coach Mark Dantonio has guided Michigan State to four seasons of at least 11 victories in the last five years. The Spartans could hit that mark in 2015, but Dantonio’s team isn’t without question marks. Coordinator Pat Narduzzi left to be the head coach at Pittsburgh, and Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett will call the defensive signals next season. The promotion of Tressel and Barnett ensures continuity for a group that limited Big Ten offenses to just 4.7 yards per play in 2014. And the transition of Tressel and Barnett into their new role was made easier by the return of end Shilique Calhoun (eight sacks in 2014). Each level of the defense has personnel to replace, but the biggest area of concern has to be in the secondary where safety Kurtis Drummond and cornerback Trae Waynes departed East Lansing. Barnett and Tressel will be counting on young players like Montae Nicholson (safety) and Darian Hicks (cornerback) to step up next season. Quarterback Connor Cook won't have top receiver Tony Lippett or running back Jeremy Langford, but the offensive line should be one of the top units in the Big Ten.
3. Penn State
2014 Record: 7-6 (2-6)
High expectations surrounded coach James Franklin’s first season at Penn State, but the Nittany Lions needed a win over Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl to finish with a winning record and won only two games in Big Ten play. Even though expectations were certainly higher than seven wins, scholarship limitations, injuries and overall depth issues was largely to blame for last year’s record. Depth issues will continue for this team into 2015, but there’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic for improvement. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is still one of the nation’s most talented signal-callers. Hackenberg has a talented group of receivers and a solid running back in Akeel Lynch at his disposal. However, the passing game and offensive production won’t take a step forward unless the line performs (44 sacks allowed in 2014) at a higher level. Left tackle Donovan Smith left early for the NFL, but the coaching staff hopes incoming junior college recruit Paris Palmer helps to fill one of the voids on the line. Despite the problems on offense, Penn State’s defense was one of the best in the nation. Coordinator Bob Shoop must replace end Deion Barnes and linebacker Mike Hull, but the Nittany Lions should remain one of the top defenses in the Big Ten.
2014 Record: 5-7 (3-5)
With Jim Harbaugh taking over in Ann Arbor, Michigan will be one of the nation’s most intriguing teams in 2015. Sure, the Wolverines have some personnel issues, but this team will be better with Harbaugh at the helm. How much? That’s hard to say. Michigan will be challenged in its non-conference schedule with games against Utah, Oregon State and BYU, while road trips to Maryland, Minnesota and Penn State are slated for conference play. On the bright side for Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State visit Ann Arbor next year. Lost in the Brady Hoke hot seat talk and a struggling offense was the play of the defense in 2014. The Wolverines limited Big Ten foes to 23.5 points per game and allowed only 4.8 yards per play. New coordinator D.J. Durkin should keep this defense near the top of the league, and the secondary will benefit from the return of talented freshman Jabrill Peppers from injury. Harbaugh’s background and experience should help a struggling offense. Michigan averaged only 20.9 points per game last season and has several question marks heading into 2015. Is Shane Morris the answer at quarterback? Can this team develop a consistent rushing attack? Also, who steps up to replace Devin Funchess at receiver? Improvement should be expected. Michigan hasn’t been hurting for talent. However, now the team has the right coaching staff in place.
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2014 Record: 8-5 (3-5)
Rutgers was pegged by most to finish last in the East last season, but coach Kyle Flood’s team surprised with an 8-5 record and a fourth-place finish in its division. The hire of Ralph Friedgen as the team’s offensive play-caller paid dividends and was a key piece in this team’s improvement. The Scarlet Knights averaged 26.7 points per game, and quarterback Gary Nova finished his last season of eligibility with the best overall performance of his career. Chris Laviano and Hayden Rettig will battle to replace Nova this spring. Talented running backs Robert Martin and Josh Hicks should anchor the offense until a quarterback emerges, and top receiver Leonte Carroo is back after considering a jump to the NFL. Flood and coordinator Joe Rossi will spend the offseason looking for a few answers after the defense allowed 6.6 yards per play in conference games in 2014. Each level of the defense has key departures, but the return of tackle Darius Hamilton, linebacker Steve Longa and end Kemoko Turay provides plenty of hope for improvement.
2014 Record: 7-6 (4-4)
The Terrapins have recorded back-to-back seven-win seasons and finished with a .500 mark (4-4) in their first year in Big Ten action. Coach Randy Edsall’s team may have trouble hitting seven wins in 2015 with the attrition on both sides of the ball, but Maryland should be a bowl squad. The departure of C.J. Brown leaves Caleb Rowe and Perry Hills competing for the starting quarterback position this spring. Rowe attempted 54 passes in a reserve role last season and appears to have a slight edge over Hills. In addition to finding a new signal-caller, Edsall must replace top receivers Deon Long and Stefon Diggs and three starters on the offensive line. Diggs’ big-play ability will be missed, but the receiving corps may not miss a beat if Amba Etta-Tawo and Juwann Winfree develop as expected, and Levern Jacobs (47 catches in 2013) quickly shakes off the rust after missing 2014 due to suspension. The offense has big shoes to fill at a couple of positions, but the rebuilding effort is even bigger on defense. Coordinator Brian Stewart has only three returning starters from 2014, and the losses in the front seven are heavy.
2014 Record: 4-8 (1-7)
Coming off a 5-7 mark in 2013, Indiana seemed to have a little momentum going into the 2014 season. And with 16 starters back, a reasonable expectation – even in a tougher division – was a bowl appearance. However, the Hoosiers lost all momentum after quarterback Nate Sudfeld was injured and ruled out for the season halfway through the year. Without Sudfeld, Indiana’s quarterback situation was a major problem. The Hoosiers tossed only one touchdown pass over the final six games. Running back Tevin Coleman carried the offense and finished 2014 with 2,036 yards and 15 scores. Coleman left Bloomington for the NFL, but UAB transfer Jordan Howard should be a solid replacement. Defense has been an ongoing issue for Indiana in recent years, and this unit showed some – albeit still not enough – progress on the stat sheet. The Hoosiers gave up 7.4 yards per play in Big Ten games in 2013 but cut that number to 6.4 in 2014. With most of the depth chart coming back, can Indiana’s defense show marked improvement next year?
West Division Rankings
2014 Record: 11-3 (7-1)
Wisconsin has played in three of the four Big Ten Championship Games, and the Badgers are the early favorite to claim a spot in the 2015 version from the West Division. New coach Paul Chryst returns to Madison after a three-year stint as Pittsburgh’s head coach. Chryst is back in familiar surroundings and scored a key addition to his staff when defensive coordinator Dave Aranda agreed to stay in Madison. The Badgers’ formula for success won’t much under Chryst, as the rushing attack and defense will carry this team next season. Melvin Gordon is a huge loss, but Corey Clement is ready to step into the No. 1 role. Improving the passing game is a priority for Chryst, and in addition to getting better play from quarterback Joel Stave, the receiving corps needs more big-play ability. Tackle Rob Havenstein and guards Kyle Costigan and Dallas Lewallen are huge losses from an offensive line that was one of the best in the nation last year. Despite the return of just three starters, the Badgers ranked second in the Big Ten with just 4.7 yards per play allowed in conference games. Aranda will have to replace linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch, but this unit should be one of the best in the conference once again.
2014 Record: 9-4 (5-3)
New coach Mike Riley inherits a program that has won at least nine games in seven consecutive seasons. And the new coaching staff isn’t starting with an empty cupboard, as there’s plenty of talent to keep Nebraska in contention for the West Division title in 2015. The biggest departure on offense is standout running back Ameer Abdullah, but the rushing attack can turn to Imani Cross (5.1 ypc in 2014), Terrell Newby (4.4 ypc) and sophomore Adam Taylor. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong needs to raise his completion percentage (53.3 in 2014), and the junior should benefit from an opportunity to learn under Riley and underrated coordinator Danny Langsdorf. Getting the defense back on track is another spring priority for the new staff. Nebraska slipped from No. 2 (2013) in yards per play allowed (conference-only games) to No. 9 in 2014. Tackles Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins need to anchor the line with the departure of end Randy Gregory, while the back seven suffered a few departures with safety Corey Cooper, cornerback Josh Mitchell and linebackers Trevor Roach and Zaire Anderson expiring their eligibility. Junior Nate Gerry should be one of the Big Ten’s top defensive backs next season.
2014 Record: 8-5 (5-3)
The Golden Gophers were a win against Wisconsin away from playing for the Big Ten championship. Can Minnesota take the next step in 2015? In order for coach Jerry Kill’s team to contend for the West, improving the passing game and finding a replacement for running back David Cobb is atop the spring priority list. Quarterback Mitch Leidner is an effective runner (452 yards, 10 TDs in 2014), but he completed only 51.5 percent of his throws last year. Adding the passing game concerns is the departure of standout tight end Maxx Williams to the NFL. Although Cobb’s sheer production from last season (1,629 yards, 13 TDs) will be tough to replace, Rodrick Williams and Berkley Edwards have showed flashes of potential in limited work. Linebacker Damien Wilson, safety Cedric Thompson and cornerback Derrick Wells are big losses, but the defense should be a strength. Cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun might be one of the nation’s most underrated defenders.
2014 Record: 7-6 (4-4)
Since the Big Ten expanded and added divisions in 2011, Iowa is just 15-17 in conference play. And needless to say, the fanbase is getting even more restless with coach Kirk Ferentz after a disappointing 7-6 record in 2014. Despite a favorable schedule – no Ohio State or Michigan State and Wisconsin and Nebraska visiting Kinnick Stadium – the Hawkeyes finished 7-6 and lost four out of their final five games. Improving on last year’s win total is possible with another favorable slate, but Ferentz has a couple of key personnel concerns to address. Will it be Jake Rudock or C.J. Beathard under center? Also, how will the offense replace standout left tackle Brandon Scherff? End Drew Ott should be one of the top linemen in the Big Ten next season, but the talented duo of Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat will be missed on the interior. Cornerback Desmond King is one of the conference’s rising stars on defense.
2014 Record: 6-7 (3-5)
Under Tim Beckman, Illinois has improved its win total by two games in each of the last two years since a 2-10 debut in 2012. While improvement has been noticeable, the Fighting Illini is just 4-20 in conference action. 2015 seems to be a make-or-break year for Beckman, and there’s enough returning personnel to expect another bump in the win column. Quarterback Wes Lunt was off to a good start last year before a leg injury limited the Oklahoma State transfer in the second half of 2014. Lunt should regain the controls of the offense after Reilly O’Toole expired his eligibility after the Heart of Dallas Bowl. The Fighting Illini returns some solid skill talent, including running back Josh Ferguson (1,162 total yards) and receiver Mike Dudek (1,038 yards, 6 TDs in 2014). However, this team won’t take a step forward unless the offensive line improves after giving up 37 sacks last season, and the defense finds a way to cut down on its points allowed. Illinois has allowed three consecutive seasons of 32 points or more, and there’s pressure on coordinator Tim Banks to produce results.
2014 Record: 5-7 (3-5)
Since winning 10 games in 2012, the Wildcats are just 10-14 over the last two seasons. And this program has missed out on bowl appearances in back-to-back years for the first time since 2006-07. There’s enough talent in place for Northwestern to finish a spot or two higher than No. 6 next season, but a quarterback has to emerge to return to the postseason. Zack Oliver and Matt Alviti received limited snaps in 2014 and neither showed enough to enter spring as the clear No. 1 option. Redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson is a name to watch under center next year. Running back Justin Jackson returns after a standout freshman season (1,187 yards and 10 TDs), but the receiving corps loses Kyle Prater (51 catches) and Tony Jones (35 catches). Safety Ibraheim Campbell and linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo are the biggest losses from a group that limited Big Ten opponents to 5.3 yards per play. Despite losing Campbell and Ariguzo (honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2014), the defense should be the strength for coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team next year.
2014 Record: 3-9 (1-7)
The Boilermakers made slight progress in coach Darrell Hazell’s second year. Purdue’s win total improved by two games, which included a Big Ten victory over Illinois. Of the Boilermakers seven losses in conference play, only two came by a touchdown or less. Needless to say, this team has a ways to go before it can contend for a winning season. The first priority for Hazell is settling on a quarterback. Will Austin Appleby remain the starter over Danny Etling? Or will redshirt freshman David Blough make a push for the No. 1 spot? The team’s top rushers (Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert) depart, leaving Keyante Green (199 yards in 2014) as the top option at running back. The defense limited Big Ten opponents to 5.7 yards per play last season, which was an improvement from giving up 6.5 yards per play in 2013. However, this unit still has room to grow, and most of the core returns for 2015. Safety Frankie Williams should be in contention for All-Big Ten honors, and the linebacking corps features promising sophomores in Ja’Whaun Bentley and Danny Ezechukwu.