Only 4 days until football! The Big Ten captured headlines this offseason thanks to Jim Harbaugh and the hiring of four new head coaches. But what about the actual players and teams that'll be taking the field? Check out these Big Ten predictions from the TCR staff ahead of the 2016 season!
Who will be the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year?
Smith: There’s no clear cut guy this year like there was last year in Ezeikel Elliot, but there’s still plenty of weapons in the conference. I’ll go with J.T. Barrett out of Ohio State. He was just okay (11 touchdowns, 4 interceptions) last year, but with the confidence of being the clear-cut #1 quarterback this year, Barrett should continue to improve. When he had that confidence in his freshman year he was much better (34 touchdowns, 10 interceptions). Saquon Barkley or Justin Jackson are some running backs that could be in the mix.
Vainisi: J.T. Barrett, for sure. He should’ve been Ohio State’s starting QB last year and, barring a stupid-good season from Jabrill Peppers, the junior will likely be the conference’s lone Heisman candidate.
Vallese: OSU’s J.T. Barrett has already got a national championship ring for a game he didn’t even play in. He’s the clear-cut starter for the Buckeyes this season and he’ll undoubtedly be the most dominant offensive weapon in the conference.
Primiano: Broken record and all, but yeah, it’s gotta be Barrett. Key offensive player on the preseason favorite to win the conference? Yup. Pretty much writes itself.
Jabs: I so badly want to be a homer here and say Lunt, but I just can't escape how good I think Barrett will be this season. Barring injury, I expect Barrett to take home the POY award.
Bourbon: There’s no real other choice than Barrett. He finally has the keys to the kingdom again after last year’s "your turn, my turn" rotation with Cardale Jones. Barrett put up 2,834 yards and 34 touchdowns to go with nearly 1,000 yards rushing as a freshman — he could easily surpass those marks this year. If the Buckeyes run the table, we could be talking about him taking home the Heisman at the end of the season as well.
Who will be the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year?
Smith: Jabrill Peppers, the dynamic three-way player for Michigan, is the easy answer here. Last year he finished with 45 tackles and 5.5 sacks, pretty good numbers for just a redshirt freshman. He will definitely be the biggest playmaker in the conference. However, it’s not as crystal-clear as you may think: the Big Ten has plenty of other talented veterans such as Iowa corner Desmond King or Illinois defensive lineman Dawuane Smoot. Peppers will be the headliner on a solid, Harbaugh Michigan defense though, so he’ll come home with the prize.
Vainisi: I think this will probably end up being a two-horse race between Jabrill Peppers and Desmond King, with the former eventually ending up as the selection. Dawuane Smoot has an outside shot as well, but I feel like he won’t have the ‘sexiness’ factor in his favor because Illinois will only end up with 4-6 wins; he’d need to have, like, 15.0+ sacks to make up for that, in my opinion.
Vallese: Desmond King. The Iowa cornerback decided to return for his senior season, which is good news for Hawkeye defense and bad news for just about every other wide receiver group in the Big Ten. He already won the Jim Thorpe award for the top defensive back last year, but he just might win it again in 2016.
Primiano: Peppers. King will have a tremendous effect on opposing offenses by forcing teams to avoid his part of the field, but that won’t result in impressive enough stats for him to top what Peppers is going to be able to do at Michigan this year. It’s a lot easier to avoid a lockdown corner than a hybrid demon monster.
Jabs: Peppers here as well. I expect him to top his good numbers from last year and I think he has a shot to flirt with double digit sacks this season. Michigan is going to be a tough team for anyone to play, and Peppers is a main reason for that.
Bourbon: I’ll go with King. I think that Peppers is certainly the most dynamic player, and he’ll have Michigan fans making Charles Woodson comparisons with the way he’s able to do a little bit of everything in all three phases of the game. That being said, for the best player on defense alone, I’m going to go with King. The only thing holding him back is if teams decide to not even test him in the passing game.
Which new coach will have most success in Year 1?
Smith: Lovie Smith. DJ Durkin, the former Michigan defensive coordinator, now the Maryland head coach, has made a splash recruiting wise with the Terps so far, but it remains to be seen if he can coach on the field. We know that Lovie can coach on the field, and I’ll define success as improvement. A Lovie coached team will be vastly better than a Bill Cubit coached team, and that gives Smith the nod in year 1. The impact that Lovie will have on this Illini team is being undervalued by just about everyone (I haven’t seen a single prediction for more than 5 wins), and therefore, his success will be recognized more at the end of the season.
Vainisi: I thought Lovie Smith was the only new coach in the Big Ten. True story.
Vallese: This comes down to either Lovie Smith or D.J. Durkin for me. Chris Ash has said all the right things since his Rutgers takeover, but they most certainly won’t be most successful in year one. Maryland has some playmakers on offense but I think Lovie Smith has the greatest chance at having a positive first season at the helm of his program.
Primiano: Three way tie between Durkin, Smith, and Ash with Tracy Claeys being the least impressive of the bunch.
Jabs: The Lovie Effect carries over here. Smith will probably sit at six-ish wins, but will still be regarded as the best new coach in the Big Ten with his rebuilding project that is Illinois.
Bourbon: Durkin. He’s been long overdue for a head coaching gig, and with Maryland’s soft schedule to open the season, we could see the Terps starting off 4-0 and even 5-1 without breaking a sweat heading into a night game at home against Michigan State. I believe he’s the only first-year head coach that will take his team to a bowl game.
Who is the most overrated team in the Big Ten?
Smith: Wisconsin, but they won’t be overrated for long. The Badgers schedule is brutal with early contests against LSU, Michigan State, Michigan, and Ohio State. Those are four probable losses for Wisconsin and the schedule isn’t much easier after that with games at Iowa, Nebraska, and at Northwestern. On top of this, the Badgers lost their dominant defensive coordinator to LSU, and their starting center quit football. This is as shaky of a Wisconsin team as we’ve seen in years.
Vainisi: Penn State. Maybe a new offensive coordinator will help James Franklin succeed this season? But probably not.
Vallese: Definitely Wisconsin. I’m probably lower on them than most, but I honestly think this team has 5-7, maybe even 4-8 potential. Their first six power five opponents of the season are: LSU, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska. I can’t find more than one or MAYBE two wins in there. They close out the year with Purdue and Minnesota, but I don’t see anything higher than a small bowl berth for the Badgers this season.
Primiano: Penn State. James Franklin’s tenure at Penn State has been incredibly underwhelming.
Jabs: Iowa. I see six wins for them in 2016. Even after last season, I was hardly impressed with the Hawkeyes. I do not believe this team will compete for the Bog Ten West, and I would not be surprised to see them miss a bowl game all together. I know I will catch flack for this answer...but it is true.
Bourbon: Nebraska. They’re projected for nearly nine wins this season, per ESPN’s FPI rankings, after finishing the regular season 5-7 last year and finagling their way into a bowl game. A series of close losses made this team’s record much worse than its talent, although Mike Riley’s clock management in tight games was questionable at times. Riley was underwhelming in his first season in Lincoln, and if he can’t take a step forward this season, Cornhusker fans will be longing for the days of Bo Pelini and his cat.
Who is the most underrated team in the Big Ten?
Smith: Northwestern. I’m not saying the Wildcats are going to win 10 games again, but they do return star running back Justin Jackson Jr. and quarterback Clayton Thorsen. They’re underrated because most people have them rated below Wisconsin and Nebraska in the B1G West, and Northwestern is by far the most solid of the three. They’re not going to overachieve, but they’re not going to underachieve, and the Badgers and Cornhuskers certainly have that possibility.
Vainisi: I think Indiana is near the top of the list (they nearly beat Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan, and Michigan State last year), but I’ve gotta go with Northwestern. I realize the Wildcats got extremely lucky last year, but I look at them and see a team that has some really nice talent at important positions. Justin Jackson is going to run all over the Big Ten this year.
Vallese: If we’re going strictly off of preseason rankings compared to where I think they’ll finish, probably Northwestern. The Wildcats went 10-2 in the regular season last year and return pretty much everybody. I don’t think they’ll be competing for a Big Ten title, but some rankings have them as low as tenth in the conference. This seems much too low for a team that just posted double-digit wins in 2015.
Primiano: Nebraska. I don’t think Nebraska will ever be the dominant force they once were again. The game has changed too much for a school in such a talent-poor state to be a legitimate national power without something else playing a part (Nike for Oregon), but I see them being far better than last year’s record. They won’t lose five games by less than a touchdown again.
Jabs: I hate to say Northwestern, but to echo above sentiments, they return so many good players, I think they could compete for the division. I feel gross saying that.
Bourbon: I’ll be different and say Illinois. The Illini are last in the conference in ESPN’s FPI and are project for just 4.1 wins this season — that’s 114th in the nation. I think people don’t realize how good this defensive line is going to be, and Lovie Smith will accelerate the learning curve for an inexperienced secondary. Offensively, the pieces are there to control the ball and stay in games with Wes Lunt and Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Making a bowl game will be tough with its schedule, but I don’t think the Illini will be a pushover in 2016.