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2015 College Football Preview: The Big Ten
Continuing my look at the Power Five Conferences, focusing this time on the Big Ten Conference.
Urban Myer's Ohio State Buckeyes won the National Championship last year and while it is difficult to repeat, Ohio State looks in the best position to do just that. Look for running back Ezekiel Elliott to become a Heisman candidate, and we will once again see the trifecta of quarterbacks: Braxton Miller, Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett. The only question is who is going to be the starter? Although they are losing lineman Michael Bennett, a lot of defensive starters are returning: Joshua Perry, Darron Lee, Raekwon McMillan, Eli Apple, Tyvis Powell, and Vonn Bell. Another player to look out for is wideout Michael Thomas, who caught 54 passes for 799 yards last season.
Mark Dantonio and the Michigan State Spartans might have something to say about that. Third-year quarterback Connor Cook has been impressive in past seasons and is poised to have another excellent season. He'll be protected by returning center Jack Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin. They will have to replace Big Ten Receiver of the Year Tony Lippett and 1,500-yard rusher Jeremy Langford. Their defense is rather solid despite the losses of Kurtis Drummond and Trae Waynes. The look to have a strong line with depth at linebacker. We'll see how they survive the loss of coordinator Pat Narduzzi.
Now that their NCAA sactions have been lifted, Penn State returns to full strength in James Franklin's second year as head coach. After an impressive first year, quarterback Christen Hackenberg struggled last season. He was also sacked 44 times, but the Lions are returning six starters on defense this year, including tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel, so that number should improve. Sophomore receivers DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall are all returning. They return seven starters from last season's tough defense, but they have a hole at middle linebacker, where someone needs to replace Mike Hull, however the secondary has three starters returning.
The off-season's biggest story was the hiring of NFL coach Jim Harbaugh to head the Michigan Wolverines. It's unclear how long it will take for him to turn them around. They have to find a quarterback and they have five candidates, none of whom have thrown a touchdown pass in college. They have a trio of receivers returning who haven't caught a touchdown either, but they look to inject new life with Iowa transfer Jake Rudock. New defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin will have to replace playmakers Jake Ryan, Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer. Last year's defense was ranked seventh nationally and look to return most of the defensive squad.
Wisconsin's Paul Chryst is in his first year as head coach. He needs to replace three starters on his offensive line. Fifth year quarterback Joel Stave returns but he was inconsistent last year, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns. They also have to replace Heisman trophy candidate Melvin Gordon, who rushed for 2,587 yards and scored 32 touchdowns last season. Corey Clement looks to fill those impressive shoes. The team retained defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, whose defense finished fourth nationally. Both Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert return to the linebacker positions. The secondary will return mostly intact with safety Michael Caputo and cornerbacks Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton, however they only had six interceptions last season.
Nebraska found itself as part of last years coaching shuffle replacing Bo Pelini with former Oregon State coach Mike Riley. He returns starter Tommy Armstrong Jr. at quarterback. He had 2,695 yards and 22 touchdowns with 12 interceptions.
However, the have to replace running back Ameer Abdullah. On defense, they need to improve their depth at defensive end and in the seconday. On the line, Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine return at tackle.
Unless Michigan State can stop them, this is Ohio State's conference championship to lose. Look for them to play in the championship against Wisconsin. They have a good chance to be in the position to defend their national title.
Next week: The also poorly named Big Twelve, which only has ten teams.