In 2015, the Big Ten distributed $27.6 million to each of its 14 member schools, second only to the SEC in terms of money generated by a college conference from football. Over the past two seasons the conference has begun to turn things around in the postseason, winning the national championship with Ohio State in 2014-2015 and then getting Michigan State in the College Football Playoff last year. More importantly than just the resurgence of the top tier of teams, the Big Ten as a whole went 11-10 over the past two bowl schedules after going 8-16 the previous three years.
But the Big Ten, now bloated to 14 teams, remains on aggregate the weakest of the Power Five conferences. Adding Nebraska to get to an even dozen was a matter of adding a team with a winning pedigree; adding Maryland and Rutgers was entirely a decision based on grabbing for big television markets rather than competitive programs. In the process, teams at the top will have an uphill battle each year as they compete for College Football Playoff berths, fighting against the perception of playing a weaker conference schedule.
Don’t cry for the venerable old Big Ten, though… this lack of bottom-up depth hasn’t prevented the Buckeyes and Spartans from reaching the CFP field in each of the system’s first two seasons, and the league champ is always going to be taken into consideration for the playoff bracket. And hey… they’ll always have the Rose Bowl, which continues to dictate terms to the rest of the college football postseason and perpetuates the mythic foundations on which the Big Ten’s continued fiscal success is underpinned.
So let’s dive in and assess the Big Ten pecking order, using the preseason PRS rankings as our guide to evaluate where each team stands heading into the 2016 season. (NOTE: While the PRS rankings are used as a guideline in determining the conference preview rankings, they are not a hard-and-fast rule. We try to contextualize the rankings as one facet of the analysis along with deeper evaluation of scheduling and personnel that impact what is likely to happen in 2016.)
Big Ten East
7. Rutgers — Things are rebooting yet again in Piscataway, as the Scarlet Knights put the Kyle Flood era in the rearview mirror and turn toward former Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash to try to rebuild Rutgers. The Knights certainly return plenty of experience, especially on offense. Chris Laviano returns for a second season starting at quarterback, while the line returns 74 career starts and the skill positions sport senior experience throughout the receiver and back positions. Defense, where the team lost more than 40 percent of last year’s production, is of far greater concern for Rutgers. Opening the season with a road game at Pac-12 North contender Washington is a tough way to start the year, especially given the fact that the Scarlet Knights are locked in the tougher of the two divisions and will have to face both Ohio State and Michigan State on the road as well. Unless this group can generate an upset or two along the way, there are simply too many tough tests on the schedule to expect a postseason appearance for Rutgers in 2016.
6. Indiana — Last year the Hoosiers made the leap back up to postseason contention, just the second time in the past two decades that Indiana has made a bowl appearance. Kevin Wilson now enters his seventh season in Bloomington hoping to build upon last year’s breakthrough, but he’ll have to do so without several of the key cogs from the 14th-ranked offense of 2015. Not only has quarterback Nate Sudfeld moved on, but so too has tailback Jordan Howard and versatile left tackle Jason Spriggs; all told, more than half of the offensive production from last year is now gone. The defense fared much better in the offseason, losing four starters but returning more than 80 percent of its total tackles. FIU, Ball State, and Wake Forest provide a trio of winnable non-conference games to open the season, setting up the Hoosiers to need just three more wins from their Big Ten schedule to reach a second straight bowl. How they fare against fellow West division lightweights Maryland and Rutgers will determine whether they return to the postseason.
5. Maryland — The Terrapins, during the first decade of the 21st century, were a model of consistency. Under Ralph Friedgen the program went to seven bowl games in 10 seasons, but the school ditched the alumnus for UConn head coach Randy Edsall hoping to take a leap to powerhouse status. That thinking also led the school to ditch the ACC for the Big Ten, visions of grandeur for a school with a hardwood rather than gridiron pedigree. This is the environment into which new coach D.J. Durkin wanders, hoping to return the Terps to some semblance of consistency. Perry Hills and/or Caleb Rowe will need to take over the quarterback position decisively if Maryland has any chance in 2016, especially since a defense that was its strong suit last year lost six starters and will likely regress. The non-conference schedule — FCS Howard, FIU, and UCF — sets the team up to enter Big Ten play with some confidence, but if they are going to get anywhere near bowl eligibility in Durkin’s first season at the helm it will require winning every toss-up game on the schedule.
4. Penn State — A pair of 7-6 seasons aren’t exactly cause for excitement in Happy Valley, but more important is the fact that James Franklin improved the Nittany Lions to .500 in conference play in 2015. Penn State returns the bulk of its experience on offense, which could be a mixed blessing given the abysmal production of the unit last year. If a veteran offensive line can coalesce under new position coach Matt Limegrover, Trace McSorley could step in and quickly produce more effectively than highly-touted Christian Hackenberg given the talented threats at the skill positions. That line also has the potential to propel Saquon Barkley to the top of the Big Ten rushing charts. Defense, the strength of last year’s team, has far more holes to fill after losing three linemen to the NFL, and could suffer from depth issues if injuries plague the team in 2016. Pitt and Temple provide September tests before the conference schedule begins, but it will require several upsets to get beyond the seven- or eight-win threshold that has been the Lions’ calling card the past few years.
3. Michigan State — Mark Dantonio completed his first decade at Michigan State in 2015 with his third conference title at the school and a trip to the national semifinals of the College Football Playoff. But both the offense and the defense lose more than half of their starters, and it will be hard to maintain a position of primacy in a tough division. They fielded one of the most efficient teams in 2015 in terms of turnover margin, and while the defense was not as fearsome in its first season after longtime coordinator Pat Narduzzi left to take over at Pitt it was still solid enough to keep the Spartans in every game except the last one of the season. Tyler O’Conner is the next man up at a quarterback position that has remained a quiet strength for MSU, and one imagines that the offense will lean more on its running game in 2016. Notre Dame and BYU are a pair of tough independent non-conference tests for Sparty, and they also drew Wisconsin and Northwestern in cross-division play. A step back for Michigan State this year, though, still probably means nine or 10 wins by the end.
2. Michigan — After leading the Wolverines to a 10-3 record in 2015, Jim Harbaugh looked a bit like the savior for a beleaguered yet storied program. Then again, it was one win fewer than Brady Hoke was able to muster in his inaugural season in Ann Arbor. Whether the law of diminishing returns befalls Harbaugh like it did Hoke is dependent on whether or not new talent can emerge to fill the holes throughout the roster. Houston transfer John O’Korn is likely to start at quarterback behind a veteran line, but it is the running game that needs to make a big leap if Michigan is going to contend for the Big Ten East. Defense kept the Wolverines in many a contest in 2016, holding opponents under 20 points in nine of their 13 games, but they must replace five impact starters and are trying to move versatile defensive back Jabrill Peppers to outside linebacker to mask their depth issues. Hawaii, UCF, and Colorado provide little schedule strength out of conference, and with just four road games the schedule sets up well to challenge for the division.
1. Ohio State — In 14 seasons as a head coach, no Urban Meyer team has won fewer than eight games. Since taking over in Columbus, Meyer has gone 50-4 and lost just one of 32 conference games. And while the Buckeyes have less returning talent than any other team in FBS, with just six total starters from last year suiting up in 2016, they remain as dangerous as ever. Seventy percent of their offensive production is gone, more than half of their defensive production… and yet, given Meyer’s recruiting prowess and the players that do return to the squad, it is hard to bet against the Buckeyes contending yet again for the Big Ten title. J.T. Barrett returns at quarterback, and the offensive line is experienced. The Buckeyes warm up for their trip to Oklahoma with home games against Bowling Green and Tulsa, but that visit to Norman will be the bellwether moment of the season. If OSU returns home 3-0, their biggest remaining tests will be road trips to Wisconsin and Michigan State and a regular-season finale against the Wolverines that could be a de facto division championship game.
Big Ten West
7. Purdue — Though Danny Hope had led the team to two straight bowl games, he was dismissed by a program that thought it could do better. Instead Purdue has won just six games combined over Darrell Hazell’s first three seasons in West Lafayette. This year the Boilermakers return more experience than any other team in the Big Ten, and Hazell enters what could be a make-or-break year after Hope was given just four years. Redshirt sophomore David Blough should nab the full-time starter role at quarterback, and he’ll have tailback Markell Jones and a strong group of receivers to whom he can distribute the ball. The defense will need to get more pressure from its front seven if it is to be effective enough to challenge for bowl eligibility. Unfortunately for Hazell and his squad, there are probably too many roadblocks on this schedule — even though they did avoid Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan in cross-division play.
6. Illinois — The season began rough in Champaign right off the bat in 2015, with head coach Tim Beckman fired after an investigation revealed player mistreatment and Bill Cubit forced to take over leadership. That the Illini nearly reached bowl eligibility despite the fiasco is a testament to the fact that there was serviceable talent on the roster. New head coach Lovie Smith takes his first stab at college coaching after an NFL career, and he will have to adjust to the loss of a lot of defensive talent. Working in Illinois’ favor is the fact that the offense is fairly well stacked from last year, with transfer quarterback Wes Lunt staying for a second season and a line that returns decent experience. All three of their non-conference games come at home, but they include ACC hopeful North Carolina and MAC contender Western Michigan. Drawing Michigan and Michigan State from the East further complicates the path toward bowl eligibility, making this more of a year for Smith and his staff to lay foundations for the future.
5. Minnesota — It feels like Mitch Leidner has been the quarterback for the Golden Gophers for ages, and yet he’s back for a senior season in the Twin Cities. The sudden retirement of Jerry Kill due to health reasons seemed to take the wind out of the team’s sails last year, though they did get the school’s first bowl victory since 2004 under interim coach Tracy Claeys. Claeys was rewarded with the full-time gig entering 2016, and provides continuity after being with the program since 2011. The Gophers have plenty of skill position players returning, but they lose a lot of talent on the offensive line and in the defensive front seven and could struggle to either get the run game going or to stop opponents on the ground. Home games against Oregon State, FCS Indiana State, and Colorado State provide an opportunity to get three easy wins before Big Ten play begins. The stretch between October 15 and November 5 will be critical, as it provides four straight winnable conference games against Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois, and Purdue. If they plan on bowling, Minnesota must win those games.
4. Nebraska — Nine-win seasons under Bo Pelini had stopped being fun for Cornhuskers fans, so last year the team brought in Mike Riley from Oregon State to replace the fiery coach. In Riley’s first season, Nebraska needed a special dispensation just to reach a bowl game at 5-7. On offense the team returns most of its skill players, including senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., but must replace three starters on the offensive line. How quickly new players adjust to starting roles will determine how far the offense can progress from last year’s average production. The defense gave up four touchdowns or more in seven games, and Nebraska can’t count on going 3-4 in such games this year if they continue to cough up points. This year’s schedule includes a home game against Oregon, which will provide a major litmus test for that defense before the Big Ten schedule begins. The schedule is unfavorable from there, with their games against Northwestern, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Iowa all coming on the road.
3. Northwestern — Last year’s Wildcats team came out of nowhere to beat Stanford in its opener, follow up with a win over Duke and a 5-0 start, and took out Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road en route to a 10-win season. Interestingly, while Northwestern loses half of last year’s starters from offense and defense, Pat Fitzgerald’s staff still has the third-most returning experience in the conference behind Purdue and Rutgers. The offense will look for Clayton Thorson to take greater control in his second season as a starter, with an offensive line that should offer plenty of protection and a group of receivers that needs to step up its own production. Defense shouldn’t be a problem as the Wildcats return a solid secondary and two-thirds of the contributors to a group that finished 13th in yards allowed and 12th in points allowed in 2015. Northwestern opens right away with a challenge at home from Western Michigan, and Duke also travels to Illinois in September. Ten wins might be too much to ask for again, but returning to the postseason is entirely feasible.
2. Iowa — The elder statesman in the Big Ten continues to stave off the threat of termination, quieting his detractors last season by winning the division title with an undefeated regular season. Even losing the last two games of the year, to Ohio State and Stanford, didn’t dampen the impact of a 12-2 season for the Hawkeyes. C.J. Beathard is back at quarterback, and the offensive line returns four of its five starters. The backfield and receiving corps will feature new talent, but the offense should resemble recent Iowa vintages. The defense, integral to Iowa’s breakthrough in 2015, has the returning personnel (especially cornerback and return man Desmond King) to continue stifling opposing offenses with smart decisions and timely takeaways. The non-conference schedule is most notable for the inclusion of five-time defending FCS national champion North Dakota State, who could be the toughest out among a trio that also includes Miami of Ohio and rival Iowa State. A dozen wins might be too much to ask, but Iowa has the advantage of playing Wisconsin at home this year.
1. Wisconsin — The Badgers, in the past decade since longtime coach Barry Alvarez retired to athletic director duties, have spent the postseason in Florida or California every year. The trend continued last year under Paul Chryst, who went 10-3 in his first year leading his alma mater. The best scoring defense in college football in 2015 returns seven starters, though it loses coordinator Dave Aranda to the very LSU team the Badgers play at Lambeau Field on opening weekend. If the offense can stay healthier in 2016, after an anemic year where starting tailback Corey Clement and much of the line was injured, the Badgers should have no problem contending in the weaker of the two Big Ten divisions. Even with (or perhaps because of) inconsistent quarterback Joel Stave graduating, the pieces are there for the run game to improve. If Chryst’s crew can get past the Tigers, they’ll still have to face a murderer’s row of Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa (all but the Buckeyes on the road) to begin Big Ten play. If they can emerge even 5-2 from this stretch, nobody else should stop them on the way to Indianapolis.