Big Ten football picks 2015: Can anyone knock off Ohio State?

Big Ten football got underway last night with Michigan and Minnesota both losing to better teams, but neither game changed my outlook on theirs or the conference outlook. Should be another fun year of football in the Midwest and all over the nation, and I am excited to be covering the Big Ten for FOXSports.com this fall. I’ll still be writing for Buckeye Sports Bulletin as well. While those places are (at least mostly) for news, this is where you can find opinions and hopefully some further insight. 

Here is my outlook on the conference. For my thoughts on Michigan and Jim Harbaugh, click here. 

I have a hard time seeing the Big Ten East as anything other than the Big Two and the Little Five. 

The biggest question to be answered is probably how much ground Penn State is able to make up on Michigan State from last year to this. I think the Nittany Lions were not as good as their record last year, but credit goes to James Franklin for PSU finding ways to win some close games. Otherwise, things could have been really ugly. I’m buying stock in a bounce-back year for Christian Hackenberg, and I’m a believer he will have a lot of dangerous weapons to utilize, but I’m taking a wait-and-see approach on the offensive line. Will it be better than last year? It almost couldn’t be worse, but I don’t see a quick turnaround there. Defensively, I think the Spartans’ numbers were a bit inflated, but they have some bona fide guys to build around, including Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson inside. They might benefit from addition by subtraction at defensive end, and this could be their best secondary in a while with a maturing Marcus Allen and the versatile Jordan Lucas at safety.

Ohio State exposed Michigan State in East Lansing last year as the defense was clearly a step below what it had been in 2012 and ’13. There are still a lot of questions on that side of the ball I think some national pundits have glossed over a bit too quickly. A secondary that really wasn’t that good lost three starters, so it’s fair to wonder if there will continue to be questions there. (And, no, “They had worse numbers because they played good teams” is not a reasonable defense.)

Michigan State Spartans football coach Mark Dantonio at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago
Michigan State Spartans football coach Mark Dantonio at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago

Despite Mark Dantonio’s reputation as a defensive guru, the press quarters defense the Spartans have used to rise to prominence differs fairly significantly from what he ran as coordinator at Ohio State. He said himself last summer those differences came from coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who has left to be head coach at Pittsburgh. It’s not a given the Spartans will be able to move on easily without him, especially with the loss of SAM linebacker Ed Davis to a knee injury in the preseason. The candidates to replace him are all young and unproven.

Five-star defensive tackle Malik McDowell enters the lineup full-time this year after a cameo in 2014, and he should be an upgrade over Lawrence Thomas, who is sliding out to end. But Thomas might be a downgrade form unsung four-year starter Marcus Rush, who was a legitimate threat teams had to account for opposite All-Big Ten end Shilique Calhoun, who is also back for one more go ‘round.

Offensively, the Spartans have an elite offensive line and have plenty of candidates to play running back. How much will Connor Cook miss go-to receiver Tony Lippett (who graduated)? Cook will have plenty of people to spread the ball around to, but his sometimes suspect decision-making might suffer without a proven No. 1 option. Or the Spartans could get even more dangerous with more people to defend across the field, especially if Cook takes another step forward and irons out some of his inconsistency in decision-making and mechanics.

Michigan and PSU aside, if there is a team that can surprise in the East (though none of those teams are going to compete for the division title), I’d go with Indiana. I’m a believer Kevin Wilson’s team has made consistent progress that was stymied by the injury to quarterback Nate Sudfeld last season and robbed the Hoosiers of a shot at bowl eligibility. He is no world-beater, but he’s a solid distributor who works well in Wilson’s spread offense. The offensive line should be pretty good, and there are a couple of solid candidates to replace All-American Tevin Coleman at running back. The big question is if someone can step up at wide receiver. If that happens, Indiana should be pretty tough to slow down. The Hoosiers also showed some improvement defensively last year in a new scheme, at least as far a the eyeball test but not so much statistically, where the stress of playing the second half of the season with no support from the offense was evident. They were more stout and sound, and many of the key pieces return in the front seven. The secondary will be very young and has the potential to be a disaster, though.

Big Ten East projected standings

  1. Ohio State 12-0, 8-0
  2. Michigan State 11-1, 7-1
  3. (tie) Penn State 8-4, 4-4
  4. (tie) Indiana 8-4, 4-4
  5. (tie) Michigan 6-6, 3-5
  6. (tie) Maryland 6-6, 3-5
  7. Rutgers 4-8, 0-8

(I must admit when I sat down to do my picks, I didn’t expect to have them end up 8-4 after I had projected all the games. That does depend on winning a toss-up game against Michigan but losing at Maryland. The Hoosiers could also take down Penn State, but they face the Nittany Lions the week after playing Ohio State, which tends to have a negative effect on teams.) 

Let’s get weird, West 

In the West, three teams appear clearly better than the rest — Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota — but none of them might actually be that good.

Wisconsin doesn’t have to play Ohio State or Michigan but instead gets two of the worst teams in the East (Maryland and Rutgers), but Minnesota hosts the Badgers and the Cornhuskers. Jerry Kill’s team has a good shot at punching a ticket to Indianapolis if it can sweep those games. I think they will, but this pick has a high capacity for backfiring because Minnesota has legitimate questions about whether or not it’s passing game is even close to decent. But the Gophers will be able to run the ball and return a formidable defense.

Wisconsin, too, could have a hard time throwing unless new coach Paul Chyrst can work miracles on senior Joel Stave. Then again, the bigger question for the Badgers is who will catch Stave’s passes if he can get them in the vicinity of a teammate? Defensively Ohio State showed the Badgers to be a bit of a paper tiger despite gaudy statistics, and their offensive line was pretty badly outclassed by the Buckeyes as well. This year UW is starting out the season with some questions up front thanks to injuries.

I’m not sold on the personnel fitting the new schemes at Nebraska, especially on offense where do-it-all runner Ameer Abdallah is gone. I think there is still a talent deficit on the Blackshirt defense, too, but the local media has already blamed everything on fired coach Bo Pelini. Maybe they’ll be correct and Mike Riley will lead them back to glory. Only time will tell, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Nine wins might look good in Lincoln when all is said and done.

Big Ten West projected standings

  1. (tie) Minnesota 10-2, 7-1*
  2. (tie) Wisconsin 10-2, 7-1
  3. Nebraska 7-5, 5-3
  4. Northwestern 6-6, 4-4
  5. Iowa 6-6, 3-5
  6. Purdue 3-9, 1-7
  7. Illinois 3-9, 0-8

*Head-to-head tiebreaker sends Gophers to Indianapolis

 

When all is said and done… 

Ohio State should be able to out-talent everyone in the league, as it has most of the time for the past 15 years when not facing NCAA sanctions,, but will the Buckeyes slip up anywhere? It’s hard to see that happening, but there is no denying the end of the season is daunting with the much-anticipated matchup with Michigan State leading into a trip to Ann Arbor — You know, that place a defending champion Ohio State team suffered the most devastating loss in school history against a new Wolverines head coach in 1969.

As mentioned, I believe Michigan will be good at the line of scrimmage and thus hard to play against, but the Wolverines don’t have the horses to create big plays without getting some help.

Could Michigan (and by extension, MSU) take enough out of Ohio State that the Buckeyes fall in the Big Ten Championship Game? That is a real concern, but they will not face any world-beater there, so even a B performance would probably get the job done. (Michigan State’s 2013 team was much better than whoever wins the West will be in 2015, but I don’t think I’d qualify that as a B performance, either.)

Schedule notes 

I do believe the trip to Virginia Tech has the potential to be a land mine for Ohio State because the Hokies should be pretty good (they were actually not nearly as bad as their record last year but suffered a bevy of big injuries and dropped a couple of close games after beating Oho State). Like the Michigan game, this could be an ugly affair that is decided by a handful of plays late if Ohio State can’t get out and run away early.

Michigan feels like a team that will have more talent than a six-win squad, but the Wolverines play a tough nonconference slate and get solid Minnesota and Penn State teams when they are coming off byes, which could play a role in what should be close games. If the Wolverines win both of those games, their season will look a lot better.

Michigan State gets the benefit of facing an Oregon team that will still be breaking in a new quarterback against the rebuilt Spartan secondary, and there is little resistance on the MSU schedule between than and their trip to Columbus in late November.

Wisconsin plays such a laughably weak schedule the Badgers could go down as the worst double-digit win team of all time, but I think Chryst was the right hire there.

Assuming MSU beats Oregon, it will be interesting to see if they can get into the College Football Playoff. This is just about impossible to project at this point, though. Too many variables in the other leagues, but I think Dantonio’s program has garnered enough cred it would be in the discussion if there is chaos in some other leagues, as I suspect there will be in the Pac-12 and maybe the SEC. Although (just thinking out loud here) MSU might need Oregon to be good but not too good to get in, so that could be a delicate balance.

Ohio Stadium panorama

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