Believe it or not, the 2016 college football season is less than 3 months away, so we are continuing our conference previews for the Power 5 conferences today with the Big Ten.
Even though we have still not reached the official start of summer, the 2016 college football season now begins in less than three months, and besides, it is never too early to start preparing for your early season college football picks. In an attempt to assist with that research, we are here previewing every one of the Power 5 conferences over the coming weeks, continuing today with the Big Ten.
The Big Ten was once considered too “slow” to compete with other Power 5 conferences when it came to national championships, but that perception began to change two years ago when Ohio State emerged victorious in the first ever College Football Playoff, beating Alabama and Oregon in the process.
The conference did not fare as well last season with Big Ten champ Michigan State getting blown out by the eventual national champions from Alabama 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl, which served as a Playoff semifinal. And now this season, both Ohio State and Michigan State must deal with a boatload of defections, making the conference a bit more open.
Now, not all conference odds are up yet at this still relatively early stage, but the college football odds are up for the top contenders and Ohio State is the current favorite to win the Big Ten Championship. However we are expecting a relatively down year from the Buckeyes, as you will see in our projected 2016 Big Ten standings that follow. Please note that we have provided odds to win the Big Ten only for those schools that currently have actual conference odds posted.
Michigan Wolverines (+200): Michigan actually had the highest posted win total at the Golden Nuggets of any Big Ten team when the Wolverines opened at 9½ compared to a surprising 8½ for Ohio State. Personally, we feel Michigan deserves to be the favorite to win the conference in the second year of the Jim Harbaugh era as it may have been one year ahead of schedule when going 10-3 last year in a season culminated by a 41-7 romp over Florida in the Citrus Bowl. Only uncertainty at quarterback could be keeping the Wolverines out of the national championship conversation.
Ohio State Buckeyes (+160): There appears to be a disconnect here with the Buckeyes posted as the conference favorites yet having a posted win total of only 8½. That means that based on the win total, oddsmakers expect Ohio State to lose at least three games this year, which would mark one more regular season loss than Coach Urban Meyer has had during his four years at Columbus so far! However the pessimism is understandable as the Buckeyes have one of the youngest teams in the country after losing so much talent to the NFL, and an inexperienced team facing road games at Oklahoma and Michigan State as well as hosting a probably better Michigan team could be a recipe for at least three losses.
Michigan State Spartans (+550): The defending Big Ten Champions lost a lot from last year including quarterback Connor Cook, and they could be underdogs this year to both Michigan and Ohio State. Should the Spartans lose both those games, it would seem like a monumental task to finish in the top two in the East while breaking in a new quarterback. Speaking of which, opening the Big Ten season vs. a more veteran Wisconsin team could also be another loss that early in the year before the young Spartans have developed fully.
Penn State Nittany Lions (+1500): Despite out criticisms of Michigan State, it is still a fairly big gap between the top three teams and the rest of the East Division, with Penn State looking like the best of the rest. Also, the departure of quarterback Christian Hackenberg may not be such a bad thing as he was a pocket passer that flourished under former coach Bill O’Brien, but never did get comfortable in the spread formation employed by current coach James Franklin.
Indiana Hoosiers: Indiana finished 6-7 last season, but matching that mark could be tough after losing both quarterback Nate Sudfeld and running back Jordan Howard. Also, opening up the conference season with Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska and Northwestern may not be the best way for new quarterback Zander Diamont to begin his career as a starter.
Maryland Terrapins: Maryland has a new head coach in D.J. Durkin, but we do not think he has quite enough talent on hand to markedly improve on the abysmal 3-9 record last year that spelled the end of the Randy Edsall era. Just about the only good news is the loads of experience returning at quarterback in seniors Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe, but unfortunately both are coming off of poor seasons in which they combined to throw 28 interceptions!
Rutgers Scarlet Knights: Rutgers had a nice run of bowl success before joining the Big Ten, but unfortunately the Scarlet Knights have looked outclassed in their new conference and that does not figure to chance this year. Furthermore, the Chris Ash era at Piscataway opens up with Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan in that order, which should be a rude awakening for the new head coach.
Wisconsin Badgers (+1200): The West is the weaker of the two divisions of the Big Ten, but that does not mean that there is not some value to be found. If you choose to eschew the obvious choices like Michigan and Ohio State, the Badgers at +1200 are not a bad way to go considering the easier path to the Big Ten Championship Game and also the return of running back Corey Clement after an injury plagued year. A healthy Clement could key a huge road win at Iowa in Week 8 that could propel the Badgers to the division title.
Iowa Hawkeyes (+1000): Iowa probably overachieved with its perfect regular season last year, and that became more apparent in post-season losses to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Still, the experience definitely helped in regards to this year, although we still think they are at least one playmaker away from winning at least 10 games. Look for the Hawkeyes to struggle more this season when coming up against stiff run defenses.
Nebraska Cornhuskers (+1100): We were very tempted to place Nebraska second in the division behind Wisconsin as, in all seriousness, this was probably easily the best 5-7 regular season team in the country last year, and remember that the Huskers did get to 6-7 by beating UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl. Six of the seven losses were by eight points or less and the Huskers do not figure to repeat their -12 turnover differential. The only thing stopping us from placing Nebraska second place is that it has to travel to Ames to play Iowa this season. Regardless, the Cornhuskers should still finish as one of the most improved teams in the country.
Northwestern Wildcats (+4000): Northwestern was another team that may have overachieved last year at 10-3, especially defensively, and that was never more apparent than while getting destroyed 45-6 by Tennessee in the Outback Bowl. The good news for the Wildcats is the weak West Division, as while they may not be as strong as our top three teams in the division, they do appear to be better than the bottom three teams, placing them smack in the middle in fourth place.
Minnesota Golden Gophers: Minnesota went 5-7 during the regular season last year and we do not see the Gophers doing any better than maybe getting to 6-6 this year. Returning quarterback Mitch Leidner looked like a deer in headlights at times last season, and he may face a battle for his starting job from either Demry Croft or true freshman Seth Green. We are not sure that any of the three are accurate enough to jump-start the morbid Gophers’ passing game though, which could make Tracy Claeys’s first season as the Minnesota head coach a long one.
Illinois Fighting Illini: Former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach Lovie Smith was a surprising hire by an Illinois team that won five games last year, Smith’s first college coaching job since he was the defensive backs coach at Ohio State back in 1995. Unfortunately the schedule does not do the Illini any favors as they play nine opponents that went to a bowl game last year. Thus, even if Illinois does improve under returning quarterback Wes Lunt, that improvement may unfortunately not be reflected by more wins than last season.
Purdue Boilermakers: In a nutshell, Purdue should be the worst team in the Big Ten this year, not unlike last season when the Boilermakers won two games all year including just one in the conference, shockingly over Nebraska at home. Do not expect another upset this year with Purdue having to travel to Lincoln for what should be an avenging beatdown, and after an easy non-conference opener vs. Eastern Kentucky, the Boilermakers will be underdogs in every other game this season.
Predicted Big Ten Champion: Michigan (+200)
Darkhorse: Wisconsin (+1200)