How close are Ohio State and Michigan? How much of a favorite is Iowa in the West?
Before each college football season, Athlon Sports hears from readers wanting to know why one team was favored over another in our preseason rankings. Why this team was ranked so high or that team so low.
Some of these questions are in — um — colorful language.
That’s why Athlon takes you inside our decision process for some of the biggest questions you ask. Believe it or not, some of these questions are the ones we grappled with through our rankings meeting.
Here are the questions we anticipated about our Big Ten predictions for 2016.
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What separated Ohio State and Michigan?
Not much. It was basically a choice between the upstart program with a ton of momentum vs. the old guard that lost a bunch of talent but still possesses a loaded roster. Michigan was one of the surprise teams in the nation last season, winning 10 games overall and recording a 6–2 mark in the Big Ten. We must keep in mind that the Wolverines were fortunate to beat Minnesota (29–26) and Indiana (48–41, 2OT). But we also can’t forget that the loss to Michigan State came on one of the flukiest plays in the history of college football. Jim Harbaugh will have a good team — he always does — but the Wolverines still lag behind Ohio State in overall talent. There are questions at quarterback and some significant holes to fill at linebacker (though Jabrill Peppers’ move to a hybrid backer/safety spot could alleviate some of those concerns). Ohio State needs to replace some elite talent — only six starters return — but Urban Meyer has been stockpiling top-five recruiting classes. Talent will not be an issue in Columbus. Experience might, but it’s a positive that J.T. Barrett will be back to run the offense after sharing the position in 2015 with Cardale Jones. One more reason to like the Buckeyes: Michigan visits Columbus on Nov. 26.
Why isn’t Michigan State, with a 22–2 Big Ten record the last three years, considered more of a contender?
Michigan State has made a habit of defying preseason expectations, but this figures to be the season the Spartans take a step back in the Big Ten. The defense should be able to survive some key personnel losses, but the offense must replace quarterback Connor Cook as well as two all-conference linemen. Also, Michigan State might not have been as good as its gaudy record — and spot in the CFB Playoff — suggests. Six of their 12 wins in 2015 came by seven points or fewer, including two against Big Ten lightweights Purdue (three) and Rutgers (seven).
Was Iowa the easy choice in the West?
Iowa is far from the sexiest pick, but in the end it was the smartest (we hope). The Hawkeyes return many of the key players who contributed to their 12–0 regular-season run. Among them is quarterback C.J. Beathard, who battled through various injuries yet was still productive in his first season as a starter. There’s also the schedule, which is once again very kind. Kirk Ferentz’s team does not play Ohio State or Michigan State and gets four of its five toughest opponents at home — Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska. The trip to Penn State, which comes after a bye, is by far Iowa’s most challenging road game. We gave serious thought to Nebraska (more on the Huskers to follow) and some thought to Wisconsin, but all signs continued to point to Iowa.
Which team was the toughest to project?
Nebraska. There’s no denying that Mike Riley’s first season in Lincoln did not go well: The Cornhuskers went 6–7 overall (3–5 in the Big Ten) and lost four games at Memorial Stadium. But there might not have been an unluckier team in college football. Nebraska opened the season by losing on a Hail Mary to BYU and then proceeded to lose five Big Ten games by an average of 4.6 points, including three losses by two points or fewer. Yes, two of those came against Illinois (on an inexcusable coaching blunder) and Purdue (when the Huskers were without starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong), but this team could very easily have won more games. The talent level at NU isn’t up to par with the top teams in the Big Ten East, but the Huskers are good enough to compete with Iowa and Wisconsin for supremacy in the West. This team could win the division, or — if the bad luck and coaching mistakes continue — finish as low as fourth.