Big Ten preview: Which beast will emerge in East?

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Rivals Michigan and Michigan State will clash Oct. 29 at Spartan Stadium.

The Big Ten unofficially kicks off its season Monday and Tuesday with its annual Media Days in Chicago, and by the following week, all 14 teams will be taking part in preseason camp.

There will be plenty of intriguing story lines:

•Can Iowa run the table again and return to the Big Ten title game?

•Which team comes out of the gauntlet that is the East Division?

•Can Michigan State win its third division title in four years?

•Can Ohio State settle the score with Michigan State?

•Can Michigan live up to expectations?

But there’s more as Wisconsin and Nebraska look to get back on track, Northwestern shoots for another 10-win season, and Penn State looks to finally move up and contend with the big boys in the East.

And there are new coaches, too. Chris Ash takes over at Rutgers, D.J. Durkin is at Maryland, and Lovie Smith takes over at Illinois.

In predicted order of finish



2015: 12-1 (7-1 Big Ten)

Bowl: Fiesta (def. Notre Dame, 44-28)

Key returnee: QB J.T. Barrett — There’s no more question who the leader is, and Barrett could be primed for a Heisman Trophy season.

Key loss: It’s hard to limit this one — Joey Bosa, Joshua Perry and Darron Lee from the defense are gone, as are RB Ezekiel Elliott and WR Braxton Miller. But like most seasons, Ohio State has plenty of talent waiting in the wings.

Big games: Sept. 17 at Oklahoma, Nov. 19 at Michigan State, Nov. 26 vs. Michigan

Outlook: Ohio State has plenty of holes to fill, but it has the one thing fellow contenders Michigan State and Michigan don’t — a veteran quarterback who’s played in the big games. The nonconference meeting against Oklahoma will be big, but if Ohio State wins, it will be in prime position for a backloaded Big Ten schedule.

Quarterback J.T. Barrett could be competing for a national championship and the Heisman Trophy as he leads the Buckeyes offense this season.


2015: 12-2 (7-1)

Bowl: Cotton, playoffs (lost to Alabama, 38-0)

Key returnee: DT Malik McDowell — The junior is on most preseason All-American lists and will be counted on heavily as the Spartans retool their defensive line. The back end of the defense figures to be solid, so McDowell’s ability to get in the backfield and disrupt opposing offenses will be the difference.

Key loss: QB Connor Cook — The winningest quarterback in school history will be difficult to replace, though fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor has knowledge of the offense and led Michigan State to its biggest win last year (Ohio State).

Big games: Sept. 17 at Notre Dame, Oct. 29 vs. Michigan, Nov. 19 vs. Ohio State

Outlook: The Spartans will be solid on defense and have depth at running back, but it could take some time for the offense to find its footing with three starters to replace on the offensive line. Game No. 2 at Notre Dame will be tough, but Michigan State plays its biggest conference games at home.


2015: 10-3 (6-2)

Bowl: Citrus (def. Florida, 41-7)

Key returnee: Jabrill Peppers — It’s hard to add a position for the sophomore because he might just play everywhere by the end of the season. He’ll play defensive back and linebacker and see his share of touches on offense as well as be a dynamic return man.

Key loss: LB Joe Bolden — He led the team in tackles, but what makes his loss tougher is Desmond Morgan and James Ross being gone, too. It makes linebacker the only real question mark on a defense that expects to be among the best in the nation.

Big games: Oct. 29 at Michigan State, Nov. 12 at Iowa, Nov. 26 at Ohio State

Outlook: The Wolverines have high hopes after winning 10 games in Jim Harbaugh’s first season, and they have a defense that could carry them long enough to let the offense, with a new quarterback, settle in during an easy early schedule that closes with three brutal conference road games.


2015: 7-6 (4-4)

Bowl: Taxslayer (lost to Georgia, 24-17)

Key returnee: RB Saquon Barkley — He ran for 1,076 yards and seven TDs as a freshman and more will be expected, especially as the Nittany Lions break in an inexperienced quarterback under new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.

Key loss: While it would be easy to say QB Christian Hackenberg, DT Anthony Zettel could be the biggest. He didn’t have the sack numbers of end Carl Nassib, but Zettel disrupted opposing offenses and will be hard to replace.

Big games: Sept. 10 at Pittsburgh, Sept. 24 at Michigan, Nov. 26 vs. Michigan State

Outlook: The Nittany Lions desperately need to improve their offense and that starts up front, where they have struggled. They’ll have plenty of experience returning and it will need to pay off if they expect Barkley to have another big season.


2015: 3-9 (1-7)

Key returnee: CB Will Likely — An all-Big Ten player in the secondary and an All-American as a return man, he’s as good as they get. But, he’ll be trying to overcome a thin secondary that could be young.

Key loss: DL Yannick Ngakoue — A first-team all-Big Ten defensive end last season, he’s off to the NFL. The Terrapins have some talent up front but Ngakoue had 13 sacks as a senior.

Big games: Oct. 8 at Penn State, Oct. 29 at Indiana, Nov. 26 vs. Rutgers

Outlook: Former Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin will have his hands full turning around Maryland, but getting wins over the bottom half of the conference will be the first step before it makes a run at the East Division powers.


2015: 6-7 (2-6)

Bowl: Pinstripe (lost to Duke, 44-41 OT)

Key returnee: RB Devin Redding — He’s poised to have a big season after gaining 1,012 yards and scoring nine times as a sophomore. The Hoosiers will again be strong up front, paving the way for Redding and the running game.

Key loss: QB Nate Sudfeld — A third-team all-Big Ten player after throwing for 3,573 yards and 27 TDs. The Hoosiers have little in experience among the group hoping to fill Sudfeld’s shoes.

Big games: Oct. 1 vs. Michigan State, Nov. 12 vs. Penn State, Nov. 19 at Michigan

Outlook: The Hoosiers are coming off their first bowl in eight seasons and they intend to make such trips a habit. The defense continues to improve and it will need to if Indiana hopes to get a win or two against the top half of the division.


2015: 4-8 (1-7)

Key returnee: DT Darius Hamilton — He missed nearly all last season with a knee injury. He’ll be the anchor of the defense and will try to improve on the 45 tackles and 111/2 tackles for loss he had in 2014.

Key loss: WR Leonte Carroo — He was about all the Scarlet Knights had when it came to playmakers, catching 39 passes for 809 yards and 10 TDs, but he’s off to the NFL.

Big games: Oct. 15 vs. Illinois, Nov. 5 vs. Indiana, Nov. 26 at Maryland

Outlook: First-year coach Chris Ash won’t have the players he had as defensive coordinator at Ohio State and he’ll likely take his share of lumps as Rutgers transitions to an up-tempo offense.

Desmond King and the Iowa Hawkeyes are coming off an undefeated Big Ten season.



2015: 12-2 (8-0)

Bowl: Rose (lost to Stanford, 45-16)

Key returnee: CB Desmond King — A Thorpe Award finalist, he locks down one side of the field. He’s just one of several important players returning to a team that did not lose in the regular season, including LB Josey Jewell and QB C.J. Beathard.

Key loss: C Austin Blythe — The heart of the offensive line. Iowa should still be good, but missing the man calling the shots could be difficult to overcome, especially in a key crossover against Michigan.

Big games: Oct. 22 vs. Wisconsin, Nov. 12 vs. Michigan, Nov. 25 vs. Nebraska

Outlook: The Hawkeyes return plenty from a team that was minutes from winning the Big Ten title game. The schedule sets up well for them to get back to Indianapolis with most of their tough games played at home.


2015: 10-3 (6-2)

Bowl: Holiday (def. USC, 23-21)

Key returnee: RB Corey Clement — He should be healthy, and combined with the return of senior Dare Ogunbowale (819 yards, 7 TDs) and an improved offensive line, the Badgers should resemble more of the physical offense fans are used to seeing.

Key loss: Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda — He led the No. 1 defense in the Big Ten and then bolted for a better offer at LSU. He got a pay bump to make the lateral move, and the Badgers and coach Paul Chryst have tabbed former USC coordinator Justin Wilcox to take over.

Big games: Sept. 3 vs. LSU, Oct. 22 at Iowa, Oct. 29 vs. Nebraska

Outlook: The Badgers must replace QB Joel Stave and likely will do so by relying on running. The schedule is tough with a matchup against LSU and crossover games with Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State.


2015: 6-7 (3-5)

Bowl: Foster Farms (def. UCLA, 37-29)

Key returnee: WR Jordan Westerkamp — He caught 65 passes, second-most in Nebraska history, and provides a steady target for QB Tommy Armstrong. The senior quarterback has struggled with INTs, but having Westerkamp leading a talented receiving corps helps.

Key loss: DT Maliek Collins — A second-team All-Big Ten, he left after his junior season. Replacing a physical tackle who had 23 tackles for loss in his career will be a big hole for the Huskers to fill.

Big games: Sept. 24 at Northwestern, Oct. 29 at Wisconsin, Nov. 25 at Iowa

Outlook: Mike Riley is looking to get his team above .500 in his second season and it has a bowl victory to build on. The offense should be able to score enough to keep the Huskers in contention in the West.


2015: 10-3 (6-2)

Bowl: Outback (lost to Tennessee, 45-6)

Key returnee: RB Justin Jackson — He was outstanding as a sophomore, with 1,418 yards and five TDs. He’ll need to improve on a season in which he earned second-team all-Big Ten honors.

Key loss: DE Dean Lowry — The Wildcats will be thin on experience at defensive end after losing Lowry. He accounted for 13.5 tackles for loss for a defense that allowed 18.5 points.

Big games: Oct. 1 at Iowa, Oct. 29 at Ohio State, Nov. 5 vs. Wisconsin

Outlook: The Wildcats return plenty from a 10-win team but the schedule offers few breaks. Northwestern must travel to Michigan State and Ohio State as well as head to Iowa for a big game in the West.


2015: 6-7 (2-6)

Bowl: Quick Lane (def. Central Michigan, 21-14)

Key returnee: RBs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith — They will combine to give the Gophers a solid rushing attack, one that will need to be potent if they expect to improve on an offense that was next to last in the conference in scoring (22.5).

Key loss: CBs Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun — The hope is the young talent takes over. It will be a tall task as Murray was second-team all-Big Ten and Boddy-Calhoun was honorable mention.

Big games: Oct. 8 vs. Iowa, Nov. 12 at Nebraska, Nov. 19 vs. Northwestern

Outlook: It will be the first full season for Tracy Claeys, and the schedule isn’t quite as tough, something the Gophers hope leads to bouncing back from their first sub-.500 record since 2012.


2015: 5-7 (2-6)

Key returnee: QB Wes Lunt — He enters his third season leading the Illini after throwing for more than 2,700 yards and 14 TDs. He’s done well protecting the football, but first-year coach Lovie Smith will need Lunt to have a career season.

Key loss: WR Mike Dudek — He tore an ACL during spring practice in 2015 — and suffered the same fate this year.

Big games: Sept. 10 vs. North Carolina, Nov. 19 vs. Iowa, Nov. 26 at Northwestern

Outlook: Smith returns from the NFL to take over a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2010. He’ll have time to turn things around, but if he can make up ground in recruiting he can soon contend in the West.


2015: 2-10 (1-7)

Key returnee: RB Markell Jones — He showed flashes as a sophomore, running for 875 yards and 10 TDs. He’ll be counted on to add a spark to a rushing attack that was 13th in the Big Ten (131.3 yards).

Key loss: RB D.J. Knox — He was expected to team with Jones to form an impressive tandem, but a knee injury suffered during the spring should put him on the shelf and put more pressure on the passing game.

Big games: Oct. 1 at Maryland, Nov. 5 vs. Minnesota, Nov. 26 vs. Indiana

Outlook: Darrell Hazell is firmly on the hot seat with two Big Ten wins in three seasons. It’s hard to imagine a much-improved mark for the Boilermakers, who haven’t had a winning season since 2011.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau