The wait is over. When Indiana tees off against Florida International later tonight at 7:30 - followed by Minnesota squaring off with Gary Andersen and Oregon State at 9 - the four-month marathon will begin.
To show you what kind of twists and turns are in store, a year ago Minnesota opened the season with a gutty 23-17 loss to playoff hopeful TCU before winning its next three games by just 3 points each against Colorado State, Kent State, and Ohio. Michigan put up 2.6 yards a rush and 3 interceptions against Utah, then quickly flourished into a shut-out pitching, home run hitting machine. Indiana started 4-0, then dropped 6 straight. Nebraska went 3-6 in September and October ... and 3-1 over the rest of the season. Eventually, even Michigan State and Iowa ended the season on severely disappointing performances against Alabama and Stanford.
If we look at consistency as a benchmark for 2016, Michigan stands out in the East for its veteran roster and high upside. Two away games with MSU and OSU are enough to give pause, but the division is there for the taking.
In the West, it’s more complicated. Lovie Smith will be starting a roster rebuild in Champaign, and Purdue remains a glorified MAC team because of its talent. But neither is replacing as much as Wisconsin, which is part of the reason why I’m expecting a very disappointing season in Madison.
The Badgers’ nightmarish schedule is another reason for pessimism, but I’m also wary of Wisconsin’s recent high-profile coaching changes. Paul Chryst was average at Pitt, and Justin Wilcox is a definite step down from Dave Aranda. Coaching is not exactly plug-and-play; sometimes, you need to pay for the best. We’ll see soon enough if Chryst is more Brady Hoke than Barry Alvarez.
Nebraska is a darkhorse in 2016, but I’m predicting a division title.
The two most experienced teams in the West are Iowa and Nebraska, and I’m looking at both of them to emerge from the scrum of the Big Ten West and ultimately play for a division title on November 25th. Iowa has proven it can win, and they return a veteran team. On the other hand, Mike Riley has shown he knows how to turn Nebraska around. The defense’s back seven is deep, athletic, and finally healthy, and I trust their staff to plug in the holes on the offensive and defensive lines. Combined with enough offensive firepower to challenge some of the powerhouses in the East, Nebraska is my favorite to take home a division crown.
Playing With Disrespekt
Most are projecting Michigan State third in the division this year, but I’m bullish on their chances to rely on an emerging superstar at running back (L.J. Scott) and one of the more athletic back sevens in the conference.
Mark Dantonio has said freshman wide receiver Donnie Corley will definitely be playing this year, but there are a few other freshmen who could make the field and have a similar impact. I’m high on Cam Chambers as a more physical, but equally deadly, weapon for the Spartans attack.
Further south, Ohio State is getting the benefit of the doubt despite losing a downright staggering amount of players as well as Torrance Gibson to a year-long suspension. Urban Meyer has certainly earned some deference when it comes to covering up potential problems, but this is a year I think the Buckeyes stumble. Is 8-4 too blasphemous? They get Oklahoma, Penn State, and Michigan State on the road.
One last group I’ll mention is Indiana, a team that folks have understandably not put a lot of confidence in. However, they have lots of youth and athleticism that’s ready to be served on defense, and they retain a few of the stronger position units in the entire conference on offense. The talent is formidable overall, and I think they can punch their way to 8 wins with wins over FIU, Ball State, Wake Forest, Purdue, Maryland, Rutgers, and a couple shots against some of the bigger dogs of the conference.
But, the glorious part of this time of year is that anything’s possible. Articles on potential are going to give way to recaps of actual football, and teams will stumble often enough to give everyone in the fight a chance, if only they can seize it.