The perception at the end of the 2015 season still might be that the Big Ten Conference doesn’t have the full horsepower to be considered the best conference in college football.
Even though Iowa and Michigan State struggled on the the biggest stage, perception isn’t always reality.
Nobody had more teams in the final CFP rankings than the Big Ten Conference. In the month of December, three teams were in the hunt for a national championship. Despite Michigan State and Iowa losing embarrassingly on the biggest stage, the trio of Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan impressed the nation in their bowl games, defeating teams that either finished the regular season in the top 10 or played in their conference’s championship game.
If this season was a building block for the future of the Big Ten, can 2016 be another year of growth for individual programs and the conference as a whole?
Let’s look ahead to the future of the Big Ten by answering some of the bigger questions heading into next season. This is Fact or Fiction, Big Ten Edition.
Indiana Will build off 2015 and Improve in 2016.
After making its first bowl appearance in seven years, the only way to go is up for the Indiana Hoosier program in 2016. Despite losing senior signal caller Nate Sudfeld and stud running back Jordan Howard, the Hoosiers have a ton of talent returning in 2016.
The biggest returner might be a cakewalk non-conference schedule that includes FIU, Ball State, and Wake Forest to start the season.
Kevin Wilson might be losing his top two offensive players from 2015, but there is no doubt that he can rebuild an offense around the talent returning to Bloomington. Indiana averaged more points per game than any other team in the conference. Nobody will question if the former Oklahoma offensive coordinator can put a top notch offense on the field. He’s proven it since joining the conference as a head coach in 2011.
Quarterback Zander Diamont is a playmaker Wilson can work with. Devine Redding proved in the Pinstripe Bowl that he can carry a workload similar to what Howard shouldered in 2015. Top receivers Simmie Cobbs and Ricky Jones are two of the best returning players in the conference.
The Indiana offense will be explosive yet again in 2016. In order to improve, though, the Hoosiers have to build up their defense so that it doesn’t implode.
The good thing is that it can’t get worse. The Hoosiers gave up over 500 yards of offense per game in 2015. What will be vital is if the linebacking corps can continue to grow. All three starters return in 2016 and have the talent to be one of the better groups in the B1G.
The growth might be minuscule in 2016, but expect growth nonetheless.
Despite Nebraska’s bowl win over UCLA, head coach Mike Riley should be on the hot seat.
It’s not necessarily that Riley’s rally of his troops in the Foster Farms Bowl was so impressive that he has earned the right to head into 2016 without any pressure. There were too many things that went wrong in his first year to heal the wound by applying a bowl win bandage.
This is where Nebraska might differ from other schools in the Big Ten and across the country. The Huskers understand that Riley needed that year to set the foundation of what he expects from his program.
He needed that adversity to sell to his program the idea that he is the right person to replace the man that went had won 7 or more games in each of his first seven seasons. Riley needed that time to rally belief in quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who said before the season that firing Bo Pelini was the “biggest mistake you’ve ever made.”
The Cornhuskers lost five of their seven games by 5 points or fewer. They were the only team in the regular season to beat the College Football Playoff-bound Michigan State Spartans. Week by week, more key players bought into what Mike Riley was selling.
2015 was about laying the foundation for the future of the program.
Bo Pelini won a lot of games for Nebraska, but was ultimately dismissed because he couldn’t win championships. If Nebraska’s administration understands what it really needs in order to sustain a championship program, leaders at the school will realize that Mike Riley has to have a leash longer than two seasons to put together the football product he believes in.
Don’t be surprised if Nebraska has another six- or seven-win season and Mike Riley gets another year to prove he can be a high-level coach in the Big Ten. In his second year, Riley and the Cornhuskers will face Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa on the road.
Iowa will repeat as Big Ten West champions.
Hawkeye hysteria across college football isn’t going away anytime soon.
Despite being embarrassed by Stanford in the Rose Bowl, you will still need to prepare to talk to your kids about Iowa Football in 2016.
No, Kirk Ferentz hasn’t evolved into this amazing in-game coach that has turned this program around. The talent on this team still might get smoked by big-time teams inside and outside of the conference.
Yet, the talent is there to repeat as Big Ten West champions, simply because they are the most veteran team in the division and will have a secondary that can shut down any of the wannabe offenses in the West.
Desmond King and Greg Mabin will be the best cornerback duo in the conference. Only Nebraska and Indiana saw more pass attempts against their defense in 2015, yet the Hawkeyes led the conference in interceptions and held receivers to 6.2 yards per attempt. Even if Drew Ott isn’t granted a sixth year of eligibility, the defensive line for the Hawkeyes has proved it can create enough pressure to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable.
Plus, the team’s rush defense gave up only 121 yards per game on the ground.
Did I mention that the Hawkeyes’ road schedule is softer than the Pillsbury dough boy? Iowa will travel to Rutgers, Minnesota, Purdue, Penn State, and Illinois. Their toughest division games will come at home against Northwestern and Nebraska. They’ll also host Michigan at Kinnick Stadium. Those two teams have not matched up since 2013, but Iowa has won four of the last five games in the series.
The Hawkeyes are also 3-0 during that stretch at home.
Even though Iowa should capture the Big Ten West crown, I’m still not sold on the longevity of the program under Kirk Ferentz, and I’m not convinced that the Hawkeyes will be a top-10 program in 2016. They’ll have enough, though, to get back to Indianapolis.
Ohio State will take a step back in 2016.
It’s hard to imagine a world in which a one-loss season is a failure to meet expectations. In 2014, a one-loss season meant a national championship for Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes.
The 2016 season represents a chance to put the past behind them and start what Meyer has already labeled a “developmental period.”
At most universities, that means a two- or three-year process to build back the program. The last time Ohio State went through this process, the Buckeyes found their way to a national championship in 2014.
In 2016, the Buckeyes will have three returning starters on offense. In 2014, they had four. On defense, they ushered in a whole new secondary as Tyvis Powell, Vonn Bell, and Eli Apple made their first marks on the program.
Joey Bosa began his assault on opposing quarterbacks during the 2014 campaign, after getting his feet wet in 2013. Darron Lee and Joshua Perry got their first opportunities to shine at linebacker, and nobody had any idea what to expect of them.
In a backfield full of talent, it took the midway point of the season for the Buckeyes to realize that Ezekiel Elliott was the missing part of their offense and needed the ball consistently. This was the case even with an offensive line that replaced four of its five starters.
On offense, the same quarterback who led Ohio State’s growth in 2014 will return as the full-time starting quarterback next season. J.T. Barrett is by far the most talented quarterback returning to the Big Ten Conference next season.
While it’s crazy to think that Ohio State can create that magic again in 2016, it’s also foolish to buy into the fact that OSU will be a “down” program.
The Buckeyes went undefeated in 2012 and were more depleted than they are now at nearly every skill position. At one point, Meyer had to make the decision to put his starting fullback Zach Boren at linebacker, because of a lack of depth.
As long as Ohio State has one of the best coaching staffs in the country at developing talent, and the Buckeyes continue to recruit kids that fit the program, it’s hard to imagine them not being in contention for a Big Ten championship.
Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines will face a sophomore slump in 2016.
When Jim Harbaugh was hired, everybody that roots for the University of Michigan instantly thought he was the savior of Wolverine football.
Nobody realistically thought he could win 10 games in his first season as head coach.
College football pundits can riff all they want on the decision to punt against Michigan State. They can question whether or not his team showed up during the last game of the regular season against Ohio State. Their opinions on Michigan’s opening-week loss to Utah can change, based on the Utes’ three losses late in the season.
Even with those blemishes, it’s clear that Jim Harbaugh is one of the most detail-oriented coaches in the country. He gets the most out of the pantry, even when it seems the cupboards are bare. It’s how he built up the University of San Diego and Stanford so quickly.
At the collegiate level, he guided Andrew Luck to back-to-back seasons of 30-plus touchdowns and a 70% completion rate.
At the professional level, he turned Alex Smith, a washed-up quarterback with one last chance to prove himself, into a franchise quarterback making nearly 17 million a year in Kansas City. Colin Kaepernick nearly won a Super Bowl under Harbaugh in San Francisco and was instantly considered the NFL’s prototypical quarterback of the future. Since Harbaugh’s departure, he’s thrown just six touchdown passes.
Jake Rudock started Harbaugh’s first season at Michigan as “the former Iowa quarterback who was relegated to backup duties.” He ended his career as a fringe NFL prospect and a guy who connected with 21 different receivers during the season.
The Michigan defense was one of the best in the country throughout the year, and will only get better as more talent heads to Ann Arbor in 2016. This is especially likely to occur under new defensive coordinator Don Brown, who led the best defensive unit in the country a year ago at Boston College.
If you were to ask Jim Harbaugh to define “slump,” he might look at you with a puzzled frown. No, not because it’s one of those crazy antics the polarizing coach likes to use to grab attention for his program. He literally has never experienced it as a football coach.
That will stay the same in 2016, whether it’s John O’Korn, Shane Morris, or Shane Falco starting at quarterback for the Michigan Wolverines.