An interesting battle is set to unfold at the top of the Big Ten next season. Ohio State was the favorite to win the conference last year, but the Buckeyes fell short after a loss to Michigan State, opening the door for the Spartans to represent the East Division in the title game. Despite a handful of key players leaving for the NFL and senior departures, Ohio State is the early favorite for 2016. But the Buckeyes have plenty of competition. Michigan is on the rise under coach Jim Harbaugh, and the Wolverines return enough talent to win the Big Ten and contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Michigan State is also in the mix, but the Spartans must replace quarterback Connor Cook and defensive end Shilique Calhoun. Iowa is the favorite in the West Division, with Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern rounding out the second tier.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2016 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Big Ten for 2016:
Early Big Ten Predictions and Rankings for 2016
Early East Division Rankings for 2016
1. Ohio State
It’s a close call between Ohio State and Michigan for the No. 1 spot in the East Division power rankings. Talent certainly isn’t an issue in Columbus, but there is a considerable amount of turnover on the depth chart, as nine players are leaving early for the NFL. The rebuilding effort on offense starts with quarterback J.T. Barrett and standout guard Pat Elflein, and running back/receiver Curtis Samuel is a player poised for a breakout season with more touches. Only three starters are back for new co-coordinator Greg Schiano on defense, but the pieces are in place for a quick reload. While the interior of the line needs to be rebuilt, Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis are back to anchor the end spots. Raekwon McMillan is a rising star at linebacker, with cornerback Gareon Conley the lone returning starter in the secondary. The Buckeyes also have a significant schedule advantage in place next year with the annual rivalry game against Michigan taking place in Columbus.
College Football Podcast: Early 2016 Top 25 Breakdown
As mentioned above, it’s a close call between Michigan and Ohio State for the No. 1 spot in the East Division power rankings. As expected, the Wolverines have experienced a quick turnaround under coach Jim Harbaugh and another step forward should be expected next fall. After averaging only 20.9 points a game in 2014, Michigan finished fourth in the Big Ten by scoring 31.4 a contest in 2015. Finding a replacement for quarterback Jake Rudock is the biggest question mark for the offense. Houston transfer John O’Korn is the early frontrunner, but regardless of who starts under center, there’s a strong supporting cast in place. New coordinator Don Brown is one of the top assistant hires for 2016 and inherits a defense capable of being the best in the Big Ten next season. Cornerback Jourdan Lewis and safety Jabrill Peppers help to anchor one of the nation’s top defensive backfields.
3. Michigan State
Despite some key personnel departures, Michigan State isn’t going anywhere. The Spartans have plenty of staying power behind coach Mark Dantonio and the reloading process starts on offense. Quarterback Connor Cook, receiver Aaron Burbridge, center Jack Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin leave big shoes to fill. Quarterbacks Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry will compete for the job this spring, and both players gained valuable experience in the win at Ohio State in 2015. The defensive line is the position hit the hardest by departures on defense. Ends Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas and tackle Joel Heath have expired their eligibility. Tackle Malik McDowell is the top returner in the trenches, and the front seven should get a boost from the return of linebacker Ed Davis from a season-ending knee injury.
4. Penn State
The pressure is starting to build on coach James Franklin. The Nittany Lions are just 14-12 in Franklin’s first two seasons, but the former Vanderbilt coach deserves some time to recruit and develop the roster, especially as the program continues to recover from recent scholarship sanctions. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is off to the NFL, which leaves Trace McSorley as the early favorite under center. McSorley will have plenty of help at his disposal, as running back Saquon Barkley is one of the best in the Big Ten, and the receiving corps returns DaeSean Hamilton and Chris Godwin. Will new coach Matt Limegrover generate improvement from a struggling offensive line? The departure of coordinator Bob Shoop to Tennessee was a huge blow to the defense. New coordinator Brent Pry is tasked with replacing end Carl Nassib, tackles Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson and keeping this unit near the top of the Big Ten. No pressure.
After a 6-7 season and the program’s first bowl trip since 2007, coach Kevin Wilson was awarded a six-year contract extension in January. Can the Hoosiers ride the momentum and earn another postseason trip in 2016? It’s possible. Finding a replacement for quarterback Nate Sudfeld is Wilson’s biggest concern this fall, while the offensive line loses standout tackle Jason Spriggs. Devine Redding proved to be a capable replacement for running back Jordan Howard last season and should have an opportunity to eclipse 1,000 yards next season. Improvement is needed on defense after Indiana surrendered 37.6 points a game last season. The hire of Tom Allen as the team’s new defensive signal-caller should help Wilson improve that side of the ball right away.
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D.J. Durkin was a solid hire for this program, but it’s asking a lot for the former Michigan defensive coordinator to guide Maryland to a bowl in 2016. After sporting a minus-18 turnover margin last season, the Terrapins should have more luck in holding onto the ball in 2016. But will the offense find a consistent option at quarterback and retool the starting five in the trenches? Two defensive starters on the line – end Yannick Ngakoue and tackle Quinton Jefferson left for the NFL. However, top cornerback William Likely is back for his senior year.
New coach Chris Ash will have his hands full in 2016. Transitioning schemes and to a new coaching staff requires time, but Ash seems like the right coach to get this program on track. The Scarlet Knights won only one game in Big Ten play last season – a 55-52 win over Indiana – and the schedule won’t get any easier in 2016 with Washington in non-conference action, as well as Iowa in crossover play with the West Division. Chris Laviano and Hayden Rettig are set to battle once again for the quarterback job. Top receiver Leonte Carroo and left tackle Keith Lumpkin have expired their eligibility, but the backfield features a promising duo at running back in Josh Hicks and Robert Martin. Ash’s specialty is on defense, and Rutgers has plenty of question marks there after giving up 41.8 points a game in Big Ten action in 2015.
Early West Division Rankings for 2016
Iowa was one of the nation’s biggest surprises in 2015, but the Hawkeyes won’t sneak up on the rest of the Big Ten next fall. Coach Kirk Ferentz’s team should be the early favorite in the West Division. Quarterback C.J. Beathard returns after throwing for 2,809 yards and 17 scores last season, and the ground attack is in good shape with LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley handling the workload from departed senior Jordan Canzeri. Two of the top three statistical pass catchers are out of eligibility and two standout performers – Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh – depart the offensive line. Three starters are gone on defense, but this unit should be one of the best in the Big Ten. Cornerback Desmond King turned down the NFL for one more season with the Hawkeyes, and the program is waiting to hear on an additional year of eligibility for standout end Drew Ott.
A 10-3 record was a solid debut for coach Paul Chryst in his return to Madison. The Badgers lost to national champion Alabama in the season opener and lost to Iowa by four and Northwestern by six. The Badgers must replace quarterback Joel Stave, leading receiver Alex Erickson and left tackle Tyler Marz, but Corey Clement returns to lead the ground attack after missing most of 2015 due to injury. Losing defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to LSU was a huge blow for Wisconsin. The Badgers return a solid core to build around in the front seven, but cornerback Darius Hillary and safety Michael Caputo have expired their eligibility. A brutal schedule is on tap for Wisconsin in 2016. After a neutral site game against LSU in Green Bay to open the season, the Badgers play Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa and Northwestern on the road. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s a home date against Ohio State on Oct. 15.
It’s a close call between Nebraska and Northwestern for the No. 3 spot in the early power rankings. Even though the Cornhuskers finished 2015 with a 6-7 record, advanced metrics by Football Outsiders placed coach Mike Riley’s team at No. 36 overall nationally. Improving on last season’s six wins is realistic for Nebraska next fall, especially if it finds a way to eliminate some of the turnovers (-12 margin in 2015). Quarterback Tommy Armstrong has to take better care of the ball, but a full offseason working with coordinator Danny Langsdorf should help. Armstrong could use more help from the ground attack, and sophomore Devine Ozigbo could be part of the solution after rushing for 87 yards against UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl. Defense is Riley’s biggest concern. Starting tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine are off to the NFL, and this unit ranked 11th in the Big Ten in yards per play allowed (5.88).
For the second time in four seasons, Northwestern is coming off a year with double-digit wins. That total is even more impressive when you consider the program has just four seasons of more than nine wins in its history. Can the Wildcats make another run at 10 wins in 2016? Doing so will require more from the passing attack and quarterback Clayton Thorson. Northwestern averaged only 136.1 passing yards in Big Ten contests last year and three of the top six receiving options are out of eligibility. Running back Justin Jackson is one of the best in the Big Ten. The strength of last year’s team was clearly a defense that limited opponents to 18.6 points a game. Linebacker Anthony Walker should push for All-America honors next fall, but ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson, cornerback Nick VanHoose and safety Traveon Henry have expired their eligibility.
New coach Tracy Claeys begins his first full season on the job. The first order of business for Claeys this offseason was to address the coaching staff, and three new assistants join the program for 2016. New play-caller Jay Johnson is tasked with improving an offense that averaged only 22.5 points a game last season. Quarterback Mitch Leidner closed out 2015 on a high note with a solid performance against Central Michigan and needs to take another step forward for the Golden Gophers to return to the postseason. Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith are a promising duo at running back. Claeys is handing off the defensive play-calling to Jay Sawvel and each level of the defense has voids to fill this offseason. Standout cornerbacks Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun depart the secondary, while Theiren Cockran (DE) and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell are key losses in the front seven.
Bill Cubit might not be the long-term answer at Illinois, but the veteran coach is a solid pick to stabilize the program after a tumultuous 2015 season. The Fighting Illini fell just short of a bowl appearance last year and getting to six wins in 2016 will be a challenge with crossover games against Michigan and Michigan State. But this team has a some intriguing pieces returning on offense, and receiver Mike Dudek is back after missing all of 2015 due to a torn ACL. Quarterback Wes Lunt (14 TDs) and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn (723 yards) could push for All-Big Ten honors with another step forward in their development. The defense took a step forward on the stat sheet last season, and coordinator Mike Phair has some work to do in order to help this unit make another jump in the standings. The Fighting Illini must replace defensive lineman Jihad Ward, linebacker Mason Monheim and three starters in the secondary.
Coach Darrell Hazell enters his fourth season on the hot seat. Purdue is just 6-30 over the last three years and has only two Big Ten wins under Hazell’s watch. While Hazell didn’t inherit the best roster situation, he needs to show progress to return in 2017. Quarterback David Blough showed promise in his freshman campaign and new play-caller Terry Malone is tasked with helping the sophomore develop after throwing for 1,574 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015. Running back Markell Jones is another promising young talent for Hazell’s offense. The defense surrendered 6.13 yards per play last season and is under the direction of new coordinator Ross Els. With most of the defense returning intact, Purdue should expect some improvement on defense next fall.