College football begins this week, a wonderful thing to finally get to say.
CSNChicago.com has been previewing the 2015 season throughout the month of August, but now it's prediction time.
How will the season pan out for Big Ten teams? Well, while it's really impossible to see the future or predict it, it's worth a shot, right? When it turns out I got it wrong, I'll go back and make sure Marty McFly's parents get together, and hopefully that will set everything right.
Here are my projected Big Ten standings:
Big Ten East
1. Ohio State Buckeyes, 12-0 (8-0)
A no-brainer. Ohio State is the first unanimous No. 1 in the history of the AP preseason poll. The Buckeyes are one of the more-hyped defending champions in recent memory, and it's because they're loaded at every spot on the field. They've got a preseason Heisman contender in running back Ezekiel Elliott, two top-flight quarterbacks in J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, arguably the best offensive line in the country, studs at linebacker and safety and the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in defensive end Joey Bosa. Oh, and the best coach in America in Urban Meyer. The schedule-makers did us all a favor and put Michigan State near the end of Ohio State's schedule, setting up a potential de facto CFP play-in game between two potentially undefeated super teams on Nov. 21. But the Buckeyes look like too much of a juggernaut right now, and an undefeated finish, a win in the Big Ten Championship Game, a return trip to the Playoff and a second straight national title — fairly or unfairly — are not all just possibilities, they're expectations.
[BIG TEN PREVIEW: Can anyone stop the Buckeyes on road to repeat?]
2. Michigan State Spartans, 11-1 (7-1)
For as great as Ohio State is, Michigan State is right there. The Spartans have earned the right to be called one of the true contenders for the College Football Playoff this season after finishing in the top five nationally in each of the past two years and coming off back-to-back wins in the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl. Quarterback Connor Cook is among the tops in the nation, the O-line is one of college football's best and defensive end Shilique Calhoun could finally take home Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors after posting two remarkable seasons in 2013 and 2014. But there are question marks, including an inexperienced running game and how Michigan State will overcome a season-ending injury to linebacker Ed Davis. But if Mark Dantonio has taught us anything, it's that double-digit wins should be expected from this bunch. The Spartans will be favored in a high-profile Week 2 game against Oregon n East Lansing. Win that, and it could set up a de facto CFP play-in game on Nov. 21 against Ohio State. While the Spartans might not be able to take down the Buckeyes in Columbus, they might get another chance — a one-loss Michigan State team would figure to have a very good chance of still reaching the Playoff.
[BIG TEN PREVIEW: Spartans have earned status as national-title contenders]
3. Penn State Nittany Lions, 9-3 (5-3)
The Nittany Lions had one of the best defenses in America last season and should have another quality unit this season. Where things need to get better is one the offensive side of the ball, where hyped quarterback Christian Hackenberg threw more interceptions than touchdowns and a sieve-like O-line had its quarterback constantly under pressure and was part of the reason the Lions' run game was practically non-existent. All signs point to Hackenberg being better, as it's a mission at Penn State to keep the guy who was sacked 44 times last season upright. He's got a terrific target in DaeSean Hamilton, and running back Akeel Lynch is working to make that run game a lot better. Thanks to a pretty easy start to the schedule — Temple, Buffalo, Rutgers, San Diego State, Army and Indiana — Penn State could quite realistically be 6-0 before its Oct. 17 trip to Ohio State, and while no one's expecting the Lions to take down the Buckeyes, they came closer than anyone else (save Virginia Tech) last season. But the games against tougher opponents will hinge on that offense and whether it can overcome the myriad troubles it had last season. Games against teams with particularly stingy defenses — Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and even Northwestern — will provide Penn State with many challenges.
[BIG TEN PREVIEW: Can Penn State compete with big boys in Big Ten East?]
4. Michigan Wolverines, 7-5 (3-5)
Seven wins is a conservative pick in the first year of the Jim Harbaugh Era because we don't really know which way things will go. It's possible Harbaugh can get these guys to flip a switch and find something they didn't have for the past two seasons. This is an extremely talented crop of running backs that has yet to produce behind a shaky O-line, and both Jake Rudock and Shane Morris have yet to prove they're capable of leading a powerful, explosive offense. Michigan's defense was among the nation's finest a season ago, and that could keep the Wolverines in a lot of games this fall. A couple teams from the Beehive State, Utah and BYU, could provide non-conference hurdles, but a strong start is certainly possible with the Harbaugh buzz still cranked up to 11. Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State and even Northwestern have defenses capable of shutting down the Michigan offense, should it still not jell under Harbaugh. But if @CoachJim4UM shows up with a vastly different and more productive offensive unit than we've seen, then look out Big Ten.
[BIG TEN PREVIEW: Will Jim Harbaugh buzz equal wins for Michigan in 2015?]
T-5. Indiana Hoosiers, 5-7 (2-6)
Getting Nate Sudfeld back under center is huge for this team. His injury last year took the Hoosiers from the Big Ten's top passing team in 2013 to its worst in 2014. If Sudfeld can return with even just most of the same electricity he brought to the Indiana offense two years ago, then the Hoosiers will find themselves in a lot more games than perhaps their bottom-of-the-barrel status in the conference would indicate. Add in UAB transfer Jordan Howard at running back, and Kevin Wilson could have another explosive offense on his hands. And though the final two games are on the road, they come against Maryland and Purdue and provide the opportunity for a couple of season-ending wins against teams that won't be able to defend an offense in high gear. Of course, the problem for Indiana, as it has been, will be stopping opponents, and so high-powered offenses will likely run right past the Hoosiers, hence the six Big Ten losses.
[BIG TEN PREVIEW: Will Nate Sudfeld return Hoosiers to 2013 passing numbers?]
T-5. Rutgers Scarlet Knights, 6-6 (2-6)
There are a lot of things about Rutgers that should have Scarlet Knights fans excited. Running back Paul James is back from the injury that derailed his promising 2014 season, and the entire running back corps is deep and solid. Leonte Carroo is probably the conference's best wide receiver and will provide one heck of a set of training wheels for new quarterback Hayden Rettig, should it be Rettig once Chris Laviano's suspension ends during halftime of the season-opener. Darius Hamilton is a stud on the defensive side of the ball, and you just know Rutgers is going to block a bunch of kicks. But the problem is the schedule. Not only does Rutgers play in the Big Ten East — meaning Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan are going to appear every season — but like last year, the opponents from the Big Ten West are Wisconsin and Nebraska. Those four games are tough ones to win for the Knights, even though they did beat Michigan last season and probably should've beat Penn State. When the schedule is that daunting, it's hard to build momentum. Rutgers has a little after winning its bowl game last season, and there could be four more wins in the non-conference slate. But the Big Ten gauntlet doesn't appear to allow much wiggle room for the Knights.
[BIG TEN PREVIEW: Is Rutgers' Leonte Carroo the Big Ten's best wide receiver?]
7. Maryland Terrapins, 2-10 (0-8)
Sorry, Terps. The things that worked on offense for the Terps last season are gone. Maryland lost its four top receivers and another top target this offseason, as well as its long-time starting quarterback C.J. Brown. With a running back that didn't have much going on last season, things could be grim on that side of the ball in 2015. Perry Hills was a surprise winner of the team's quarterback battle this month. He has some experience. But it's hard to spot where production will come from. Will Likely is a terrific return man and defensive back, and he'll surely make an impact. But a return man and defensive back can only do so much. Throw in tough non-conference games against Bowling Green and West Virginia, plus the rigors of the Big Ten East gauntlet, and it's also hard to see where the wins will come from for this team.
[BIG TEN PREVIEW: Kicking machine Brad Craddock is Terps' greatest asset]
Big Ten West
1. Wisconsin Badgers, 11-1 (8-0)
The Badgers probably won't be as good as they were a season ago, but that might not matter in the Big Ten West. Don't judge Wisconsin by what you see Week 1 because new head coach Paul Chryst is transitioning this program while losing All-America running back Melvin Gordon and trying to cobble together an offensive line plagued by injuries this August. And oh yeah, Wisconsin's Week 1 opponent is Alabama. So it could be a very problematic season-opener on Saturday night. That being said, the Badgers have a terrific replacement for Gordon in Corey Clement, return defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and several big-time playmakers form last season's top-of-the-line defense and have a very experienced quarterback in Joel Stave. Those things will all work in their favor when the schedule lightens: Miami (Ohio), Troy and Hawaii round out the non-conference schedule, and even with its issues, Wisconsin shouldn't be afraid of Iowa, Purdue, Illinois, Rutgers or Maryland on the Big Ten slate. So the games to circle are Oct. 10 at Nebraska, Nov. 21 vs. Northwestern and Nov. 28 at Minnesota. None of those teams have all-world offenses, meaning Wisconsin's D should be able to stop them, allowing just enough wiggle room for its own questionable offense to sneak through. The regular-season finale against Minnesota could be another Big Ten title game play-in. Just tell me: How is Mitch Leidner going to beat this Wisconsin defense?
[BIG TEN PREVIEW: Paul Chryst seems like a Badgers coach who's here to stay]
2. Minnesota Golden Gophers, 9-3 (6-2)
Jerry Kill's continued ascendance up the Big Ten should continue behind a solid defense this season, but there are just too many mysteries on the offensive side of the ball for it to be a Playoff-caliber season in Minnesota. A tough schedule is partially to blame, as the Gophers must face both the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country, Ohio State and TCU. But Mitch Leidner has yet to prove himself a quarterback capable of consistent production and reliability, and the offense's two biggest weapons, running back David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams, are now playing on Sundays. The Minnesota secondary is the conference's best and could be one of the tops in the nation, and the Gophers' defense in general should make up quite a bit for its continued lack of offense in many of this team's games. But when Ohio State, TCU and Wisconsin come knocking, there will be no room for the offense to remain unproductive. Kill's doing great things — and Big Ten West opponents should keep the wins coming — but without knowing if the offense is going to be able to get in the end zone against quality competition, it's hard to predict the Gophers will reach the next level.
[BIG TEN PREVIEW: To reach next level, Gophers need to beat Badgers]
T-3. Nebraska Cornhuskers, 8-4 (5-3)
There's a new coach in town in Mike Riley, who takes over for Bo Pelini. Pelini was fired after not winning the games that mattered, though he still managed to win an awful lot of football games in his seven seasons. Will Riley win the games Pelini couldn't? BYU and Miami are tough non-conference tests to start the Riley Era, an era that begins without star running back Ameer Abdullah, who's off to the NFL. Tommy Armstrong looked like a quarterback ready to take the next step, but he's now running a brand-new offense and is without Abdullah and top target Kenny Bell. Jordan Westerkamp should still provide some fireworks — and maybe another Westercatch — but the Huskers will be without star return man De'Mornay Pierson-El for at least a month. It's a lot to put on Armstrong's shoulders. But mostly, a Nebraska defense that has been lackluster the past two seasons needs to improve. Games against Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan State won't be easy, particularly if Armstrong is shut down by those defenses.
[BIG TEN PREVIEW: Can Mike Riley do what Bo Pelini couldn't with Huskers?]
T-3. Northwestern Wildcats, 7-5 (5-3)
Northwestern should have a great defense that will keep it in a lot of ballgames. But staying in ballgames has never been a problem for the Cats. Finishing them off has been. A talented defense could help with that. The secondary should be particularly good with experienced players Nick VanHoose, Traveon Henry and Matt harris taking the lead. Anthony Walker has reportedly improved his play and leadership after an impressive freshman season. Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry are anchors on the D-line. But what of the offense? Clayton Thorson is a redshirt freshman and will see his first collegiate action against a perennially tough Stanford team. The O-line had tons of question marks a season ago. Christian Jones is coming back form an injury as the team's top receiver. Thank goodness, then, for Justin Jackson, who was terrific as a true freshman running back last season. With the legion of legendary Big Ten backs that moved on to the NFL, there's no reason Jackson can't be one of the conference's best in 2015. Team success will depend on whether that offense can get things together in a hurry. The schedule is stacked with the likes of Stanford, Duke, Minnesota, Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin, and while many of those games are winnable, will the offense be able to get things done? That's the question. That and will Northwestern be able to avoid the usual college football craziness that always seems to bite them.
[BIG TEN PREVIEW: How can Northwestern return to winning ways?]
5. Iowa Hawkeyes, 8-4 (4-4)
It doesn't look like Iowa will be able to escape its perennial mediocrity, and that's because the team is pretty mediocre. C.J. Beathard taking over as the full-time starting quarterback will be the season's biggest storyline, but he's one of the surer things for this group. There are a couple huge holes to fill on the offensive line, the running game is a mystery and there's a lot of uncertainty on defense. With a schedule that features games against Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern, where does the production come for the Hawkeyes against those quality defenses? And while the offenses at all four of those programs don't strike a whole bunch of fear at the moment, how Iowa will stop them isa perfectly valid question. Thankfully the non-conference schedule brings winnable games against Illinois State, Iowa State, Pittsburgh and North Texas, and Indiana, Maryland, Purdue and Illinois will see games where Iowa is favored. But while the program needs excitement, it's difficult to find any on this schedule.
[BIG TEN PREVIEW: Can Hawkeyes escape rut of mediocrity?]
6. Illinois Fighting Illini, 4-8 (1-7)
The Illini were thrown into turmoil a week before the season-opener with the firing of Tim Beckman. It's forced interim head coach Bill Cubit and the team into the rare and unenviable position of having to quickly pick up the pieces and get ready for the season. Wes Lunt should be better now that he's healthy and has another year of experience under his belt. Unfortunately for him, though, his top wide receiver, Mike Dudek, could miss the whole season after tearing his ACL in the spring. There are other targets for Lunt, and against weaker competition, he should have no trouble finding them. But as talented as Josh Ferguson is, the Illinois running game hasn't taken off in recent seasons, and the Illini defense still remains one of college football's worst, particularly at stopping the run. That's problematic in the Big Ten. Injuries have also ravaged the Illini's depth this summer. There's not a lot working in Illinois' favor heading into 2015, though there are winnable games against Kent State, Western Illinois, North Carolina, Middle Tennessee State, Iowa and Purdue. And don't forget that last season the Illini beat Minnesota, Penn State and Northwestern en route to a bowl appearance. While things are gloomy in the wake of Beckman's firing and the schedule doesn't seem to allow for too many wins, a fresh start sans Beckman, a good leader in Cubit and a positive season from Lunt could end with a couple more surprises.
[BIG TEN PREVIEW: Does Wes Lunt still have something to prove for Illini?]
7. Purdue Boilermakers, 1-11 (0-8)
Another year, another grim outlook for the Boilermakers. Purdue has only won one Big Ten game in two seasons under Darrell Hazell, and it's hard to see where the second will come from in Year 3. Austin Appleby won the team's quarterback competition this month, though the trend of the past two seasons has had Purdue starting quarterbacks losing their jobs midway through the year. The team's pair of lightning-quick running backs are gone, leading one to wonder if the offense has any explosive capabilities at all. The defense was one of the Big Ten's worst a season ago. Plus, it's going to be hard to establish any kind of in-conference momentum with the schedule the Boilers have been handed: They open the conference slate with games against Michigan State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Ouch. A four-game finish of Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa and Indiana could help Purdue climb out of the basement, but at this point it looks doubtful.
[BIG TEN PREVIEW: Can Purdue get out of the Big Ten's basement?]
Preseason All-Big Ten Teams
QB: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
RB: Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State
RB: Corey Clement, Wisconsin
WR: Leonte Carroo, Rutgers
WR: Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska
TE: Jake Butt, Michigan
OT: Taylor Decker, Ohio State
OT: Jack Conklin, Michigan State
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State
OG: Dan Feeney, Indiana
OG: Pat Elflein, Ohio State
DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State
DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DT: Anthony Zettel, Penn State
DT: Maliek Collins, Nebraska
LB: Darron Lee, Ohio State
LB: Josh Perry, Ohio State
LB: Vince Biegel, Wisconsin
CB: Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Minnesota
CB: Eric Murray, Minnesota
S: Tyvis Powell, Ohio State
S: Vonn Bell, Ohio State
K: Brad Craddock, Maryland
P: Peter Mortell, Minnesota
RS: De’Morany Pierson-El, Nebraska
QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State
RB: Justin Jackson, Northwestern
RB: Paul James, Rutgers
WR: DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State
WR: Michael Thomas, Ohio State
TE: Nick Vannett, Ohio State
OT: Justin Spriggs, Indiana
OT: Keith Lumpkin, Rutgers
C: Dan Voltz, Wisconsin
OG: Josh Campion, Minnesota
OG: Kyle Kalis, Michigan
DE: Drew Ott, Iowa
DE: Kemoko Turay, Rutgers
DT: Austin Johnson, Penn State
DT: Darius Hamilton, Rutgers
LB: Joe Bolden, Michigan
LB: Mason Monheim, Illinois
LB: Yannick Ngakoue, Maryland
CB: Will Likely, Maryland
CB: Nick VanHoose, Northwestern
S: Michael Caputo, Wisconsin
S: Jordan Lucas, Penn State
K: Rafael Gaglianone, Wisconsin
P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State
RS: V’Angelo Bentley, Illinois