This is the week we have longed for all summer long. The return of Big Ten football takes place starting with Indiana at Florida International on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET. Later that night at 9:00 p.m., Minnesota plays host to Oregon State. We will release our conference power rankings every Tuesday throughout the course of the season but with kickoff just two days away, we will bring our rankings back starting with our preseason edition.
14. Purdue – It can’t get much worse for the Boilermakers. After finishing with just two wins during 2015, Purdue is bringing back Darell Hazell. While he didn’t get dealt a great hand when he took over as head coach, the building process has been excruciating in West Lafayette. If things don’t turn around this season, Hazell will need to pack his bags. At least they are returning a Big Ten-best 16 starters. The biggest question facing Purdue is regarding the changes to the coaching staff. Will the new coordinators revitalize the Boilermakers, or will they slow down any of the limited progress that was being made?
13. Rutgers – Head coach Chris Ash doesn’t have the talent he had at his last gig where he was the defensive coordinator at Ohio State. After countless issues with the previous staff, he has a mess to clean up both on and off the field. Chris Laviano will take over quarterback duties after splitting time last season with Hayden Rettig, who isn’t even in the top three on the depth chart. Rutgers pushed some teams last year, most notably the reigning Big Ten champions, but can they see a quick turnaround with a new coach at the helm and a definitive answer at quarterback?
12. Maryland – The Terrapins also have a new coach coming in and were facing the same type of issues as Rutgers at quarterback. D.J. Durkin, who was the defensive coordinator for Michigan, will run the show at Maryland. Perry Hills is the starter at quarterback despite having a relatively quiet off-season. William Likely who, along with Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, is the most versatile player in the league is listed as a co-starter at wide receiver and will see time on both sides of the ball. Maryland will need to play a more conservative style to help their defense as turnovers kept that group on the field for much of last season. With the addition of Durkin, limiting turnovers could help the defense score an upset or two.
11. Illinois – It’s unfortunate to see Bill Cubit gone after a season-long stint for the Illini. He was named the coach one week before the season started and was one win away from making a bowl game. As Josh Whitman took over as the athletic director, he wanted to bring in his own coach. Lovie Smith is the best Big Ten hire of the off-season, but has a lot of work to do and has never been more than a position coach at the college level. Truthfully, had they stayed on the path with Cubit, they may be a little higher.
10. Indiana – The Hoosiers made their first bowl game last season in almost 10 years. Plus, five of their seven losses came by an average of 5.6 points per game. That includes games against Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan and their bowl game against Duke. Even the Michigan State game didn’t get out of hand until late. The problem is this is such a high-powered offense and they are losing Nate Sudfeld and Jordan Howard. They have the parts to replace them, but will we see a similar level of production to go with a sub-par defense? If not, this is going to be another long season for the Hoosiers.
9. Minnesota – Tracy Claeys takes over for Jerry Kill. As likable as Kill is, the Golden Gophers lose some of the drama surrounding the program due to his health. Claeys was successful as a substitute coach, filling in when Kill was unable to perform his duties. Now Claeys gets to run his own system with an experienced quarterback in Mitch Leidner and a very good running game that features Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith. This team is the sexy dark horse selection to make some noise in the Big Ten.
8. Penn State – The Nittany Lions are losing three of their four defensive linemen on a great front four. They are losing their starting quarterback and defensive coordinator. They also have a new offensive coordinator as well. James Franklin has been a hype-machine and is considered a great recruiter, but in year three, Penn State needs to see some progress. Saquon Barkley is going to be a superstar, but he can’t do it by himself when they play good rushing defenses like Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. Will the uptempo offense that will be implemented under new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead help a team that has had quite a few issues along the offensive line? It will help now that Penn State is no longer suffering scholarship losses from the Joe Paterno era.
7. Northwestern – Clayton Thorson returns for the Wildcats, as does running back Justin Jackson. Thorson was impressive early on, but struggled later in the season. The biggest question for Northwestern is if he can be more consistent moving forward. Add Anthony Walker to the mix, who may be the best defensive player in the Big Ten, and this team definitely has the leadership to win games.
Tied 5. Wisconsin – These aren’t meant to be predictions, but have you seen this schedule? Frankly, don’t be surprised if the Badgers start their season 2-7. Wisconsin is a good team, but is losing their starting quarterback. Even with Joel Stave under center, the situation under center wasn’t the best. They still have a solid defense and Corey Clement appears to be healthy, but even if Russell Wilson came back he might not be able to help Wisconsin this year. That’s a lot of pressure for redshirt junior quarterback Bart Houston.
Tied 5. Nebraska – The Huskers went 5-7 last year and still made a bowl game. They lost those seven contests by an average of 4.4 points per contest. They also beat Michigan State in the middle of the season. A few bounces go their way and we are looking at the second best team in the West division last year. With a softer schedule, don’t be surprised if this team makes some noise and possibly comes out of the West in 2016.
4. Iowa – Either this is an understandable lack of faith in Kirk Ferentz’s ability to repeat success, or it’s a credit to the rest of the Big Ten East. With everything they are returning, including C.J. Beathard who was a second-team All-Big Ten selection, Ferentz definitely has the talent to return to the Big Ten Championship. In fact, this team could be better than last year when they shocked the Big Ten and came within a one-yard run from heading to the College Football Playoff.
3. Michigan State – Unlike Iowa, the Spartans are losing a lot of starters, including their quarterback. But with the injuries they suffered last year, almost all of their new starters have significant experience. New quarterback Tyler O’Connor doesn’t have the longest resume in the world, but it doesn’t get much better than beating Ohio State on their home turf. Remember, he was just a few throws away from beating out Connor Cook during the quarterback battle in 2013. On the other side of the ball, the Spartans should compete with Iowa and Michigan for having the best defense in the Big Ten.
2. Michigan – Despite Jim Harbaugh reportedly knowing who his quarterback is, the Wolverines are the only team in the conference to not name their starter yet, though most feel it will be Wilton Speight. With the weapons that are returning on offense, whoever is under center should have an easier time than most quarterbacks stepping into a starting gig. Throw in a strong defense that isn’t losing much outside of their linebackers, and Michigan might be the top team when you look at returning talent. With the hype around the program, all the talent that is coming back this year and their easy early-season schedule, anything less than a 7-0 start to the season will be a disappointment as they don’t play Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State until later in the year. This team is well on their way to turning it around.
1. Ohio State – Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes are known for reloading, not rebuilding. However, they are still replacing 16 of 22 starters on offense and defense. J.T. Barrett is the best quarterback in the Big Ten, so it helps as he won’t be trying to fend of Cardale Jones for the starting job. The recruiting under Meyer is as good as it gets, so they should be able to just plug new starters in. They may still need a little time to mesh together, especially after the dismissal of wide receiver Torrance Gibson, who was going to have a major impact this year despite him being a redshirt freshman receiver.