How Michigan, MSU can win Big Ten championship

Bruce Mason
The Detroit News
Chris Wormley

Bruce Mason of The Detroit News has three reasons Michigan can win the Big Ten championship, and three reasons Michigan State can emerge as the conference champion.

MICHIGAN

DEFENSE DOMINATES

Defensive coordinator Don Brown takes over a defense that ranked tied for second in the nation last year in third-down percentage (27.6), third in pass defense (158.5 yards), fourth in total defense (280.7) and 16th in rush defense (122.2).

Michigan should be even better in 2016.

The Wolverines have two of the country's best defensive players in hybrid linebacker-safety Jabrill Peppers and cornerback Jourdan Lewis, who led the country’s No. 1 pass efficiency defense (94.6) last season.

Defensive tackle Chris Wormley (6-5, 303) was a third-team all-league pick by the coaches in 2015 who recorded 14.5 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks. He’ll be helped by Taco Charlton (6-6, 285), who had 5.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. The line will also feature Bryan Mone (6-4, 320), who missed last season with a broken ankle, and super prospect Rashan Gary (6-5, 293).

Peppers (6-1, 208) will be a menace for opposing offenses. He’s athletic enough to be deployed in coverage against tight ends on the wide side of the field or sent in on blitzes. Last year he had 10 passes defensed and made 45 tackles (5.5 for a loss).

John O'Korn

O’KORN USES WEAPONS

Houston transfer John O’Korn appears to be the front-runner to start at quarterback, though he may be  pushed by Wilton Speight.

O’Korn (6-4, 220 pounds) completed 58.1 percent of his passes for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2013 as a freshman. But O’Korn lost his starting job the following season.

O’Korn should be just fine in Ann Arbor with his senior offensive weapons -- tight end Jake Butt (51 receptions, 654 yards), and receivers Jehu Chesson (50-764, nine TD) and Amara Darboh (58-727, five TD).

And there’s always a chance for a quick screen or direct snap to Jabrill Peppers, who should add to what stands to be an entertaining Michigan offense in 2016.

Detroit News Big Ten football primer

QUICK START

In his first year on the Michigan sidelines, coach Jim Harbaugh gave the Wolverines their first 10-win season since 2011.

He’ll have a great chance to duplicate the double-digit win total in 2016, despite having to travel to Michigan State and Ohio State.

Michigan opens the season with five straight home games, including non-conference opponents Hawaii (3-10 in 2015), Central Florida (0-12) and Colorado (4-9). The Wolverines open the Big Ten season with back-to-back home games against Penn State and Wisconsin.

With a good start, there’s a chance the Wolverines will be favored in all of their games heading into the rivalry game at Ohio State on Nov. 26.

A quick start could create considerable momentum for the Wolverines, who play their three toughest games on the road in the final five weeks — at Michigan State, at Iowa, at Ohio State.

Michigan has not had consecutive 10-win seasons since Lloyd Carr pulled off the feat in 2002 and 2003.

Tyler O'Connor

MICHIGAN STATE

O’CONNOR STAYS CONSISTENT

Quarterback Tyler O’Connor showed his mettle in brief action in 2015 — and it came at the right time. It was at the Horseshoe in a 17-14 upset against defending national champion and No. 2 Ohio State, a win that secured Michigan State’s trip to the Big Ten title game.

O’Connor, the clear front-runner for the starting quarterback gig after the spring practices, has the poise and talent to lead a reshaped Spartans receiving corps that loses No. 1 wideout Aaron Burbridge.

O’Connor, who is also a running threat — remember that fourth-and-3 run at Columbus? — will be tested again under the lights in the first road game of the year at Notre Dame.

It’s one thing to jump in and win one game — another to be consistent throughout a long season.

Malik McDowell, DT, 6-5, 276: Strong and athletic, McDowell proved he is versatile and can play anywhere on the defensive line. He left MSU with eligibility left and will have to prove that he’s not injury prone.  PROJECTION: 1.

MCDOWELL TAKES THE TORCH

Malik McDowell went on record saying he’s the best defensive lineman in the county. He will certainly have to carry a bigger load since MSU loses three starters on the line — Shilique Calhoun, Lawrence Thomas and Joel Heath.

The Spartans believe they won’t miss a beat with junior defensive end Demetrius Cooper (6-5, 252), who had 7.5 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks last season. Plus they return middle linebacker Riley Bullough (106 tackles, 7.5 TFL) and strong side linebacker Jon Reschke (75 tackles, 5.5 TFL).

But the key is McDowell (6-6, 280), whose athleticism in the interior makes him a potential top-10 pick in the 2017 NFL draft. The preseason first-team All-American (Sporting News) had 13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and eight QB hurries last season.

The man known as “Leek” will be needed to disrupt quarterbacks and aid a secondary that returns three of four starters who relinquished 20 touchdown passes last season.

FINDING PLACES TO RUN

The running game struggled last season — and now it loses All-American tackle Jack Conklin and center Jack Allen.

Brian Allen (6-2, 305) will be needed to open holes for a ground game that seeks an established starting running back. The Spartans averaged 151.3 rushing yards per game last year and ranked 93rd in the country.

Right tackle/center Kodi Kieler (6-6, 310) and left guard Benny McGowan (6-3, 327) are seniors who hope to launch a breakout campaign for sophomore tailback LJ Scott (6-0, 238).