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Five Predictions For The Big 10 Conference In 2016

Mark Dantonio and Michigan State won the 2015 Big Ten Championship over Iowa by a score of 16-13. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images North America)
Mark Dantonio and Michigan State won the 2015 Big Ten Championship over Iowa by a score of 16-13. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images North America)

Five Predictions For The Big 10 Conference In 2016

The 2016 College Football season is less a week away as Hawaii and California kick off on next week in Sydney, Australia. Below are five predictions for Big Ten Conference for the 2016 season. Some predictions will be right, some predictions will be wrong, and some will be spectacularly awful (or correct) by the end of the season.

There are no changes to the teams for the Big Ten Conference as the fourteen teams remain the same and are split into East and West Divisions. The seven teams in the East Division are Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, and Rutgers. The seven teams in the West Division are Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern, Minnesota, Purdue, and Wisconsin.

The one change that will occur in 2016 is each team will now play nine conference games instead of eight and teams will no longer feature FCS opponents on their schedules going forward. There are plenty of FCS opponents on this year’s schedule in the opening weeks, however.

Here are five predictions for the Big Ten Conference in 2016:

1. Indiana will play in their second consecutive bowl game – The Hoosiers went 6-7 last year with a close loss in the highly entertaining Pinstripe Bowl against Duke 44-41. Now, Indiana will look to make back-to-back bowl games for the first time since the 1990 and 1991 seasons.

The offense has six starters back, but will lose both quarterback Nate Sudfeld and running back Jordan Howard. Howard was hobbled with injuries in 2015, which allowed Devine Redding to get some big reps (finished with 1,012 yards and 9 touchdowns). Redding is back as are the top three receivers in Simmie Cobbs (60 catches for 1,035 yards and 4 touchdowns), Ricky Jones (54 catches for 905 yards and 5 touchdowns), and Mitchell Paige (57 catches for 684 yards and 6 touchdowns). No matter who wins the quarterback battle, they will have plenty of options to go to.

The defense took a step back in 2015 when they allowed 37.6 points and 509 yards per game. That was worse than 2014 when they gave up 32.8 pints and 434 yards per game. There are seven starters back, including the top five tacklers in 2015, along with a new defensive coordinator in Tom Allen (from South Florida). The numbers in 2016 should look more like 2014 than 2015 and possibly better than 2014.

The schedule is favorable for Indiana to reach another bowl game. They open on the road against Florida International before back-to-back home games against Ball State and Wake Forest with a 3-0 record looking likely. They do have a daunting Big Ten schedule to start: Michigan State (home), Ohio State (road), Nebraska (home), and Northwestern (road). The back part is much easier with Maryland (home), Rutgers (away), Penn State (home), Michigan (away), and Purdue (home). Wins against Maryland, Rutgers, and Purdue would give them six wins. Indiana might need an upset along the way if they stumble, but they are capable of getting it.

2. Northwestern’s Justin Jackson will lead the conference in rushing – Justin Jackson deserves to be in the upper echelon of running backs in the nation, but he is rarely mentioned with the best. In 2015, he finished second in the conference with 1,418 yards rushing behind only Ezekiel Elliott who had 1,821 yards on the ground.

Consider this: Jackson alone averaged 109 yards per game in 2015 while the Northwestern passing attack average 139 per game. Jackson had little help with the passing attack, was the main focal point of the offense (and conversely the main focal point for the defense), and still ran for over 100 yards per game.

The passing attack should be better in Clayton Thorson’s second season. He lost some playmakers in the receiving corps (Christian Jones, Dan Vitale, Miles Shuler), but the numbers will be better as long as he has progressed. Jackson will face Western Michigan, Illinois State, and Duke in his first three games while playing Purdue, Minnesota, and Illinois in the final three games. Northwestern also faces Indiana in the middle of the season. As long as he stays healthy, Jackson should have a big year.

3. Wisconsin will not win 10 games – No prediction hurts more to make than this one. As a Wisconsin fan and someone who attended the school, it is always tough to make a prediction like this. But reality is too stark to ignore.

The Badgers lost defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, which is a huge loss. His defense never allowed more than 305 yards per game for a season, nor did they allow more than 21 points per contest over the course of a season. They get Justin Wilcox as a replacement from USC and he will have six starters to work with on defense. Wilcox is a solid guy as a DC, but he is not quite on the same level as Aranda.

The schedule is brutal for Wisconsin. They open with LSU (and face Aranda) in Green Bay before getting Akron and Georgia State at home. In Conference, they run a buzz saw from the start with Michigan State AND Michigan both at on the road. After a bye week they face Ohio State at home, Iowa on the road, Nebraska at home, and Northwestern on the road. They close out the season with Illinois (home), Purdue (away), and Minnesota (home). That is a demanding schedule to reach 10 wins, but I will still be hoping this prediction is wrong.

4. The winner of The Game will make the College Football Playoffs – This is a cop-out for having to pick the winner of the Michigan-Ohio State game. It is really tough to pick a winner of that game because it does look like a pretty even game (though Ohio State does have a slight edge being at home as well as having won four in a row and 11 of the last 12 games). It looks likely that whichever team wins the Michigan-Ohio State game will be in the College Football Playoffs.

This prediction looks solid but there are some hurdles that need to be cleared. First, Michigan State plays both Michigan and Ohio State at home this season. Ohio State also faces Oklahoma on the road September 17 as well as Wisconsin and Penn State on the road in back-to-back games in October (15 and 22). The next two games after PSU are Northwestern and Nebraska at home before they end with Michigan State (road) and Michigan (home).

Michigan has a schedule that sets them up well this year, but there are a few challenging games. Like OSU, they play Penn State and Wisconsin in back-to-back games, but both are at home. They do have some possible trap games as well. After Michigan State on the road (Oct. 29), they play Maryland at home (Nov. 5) and then face Iowa on the road (Nov. 12). In between Iowa and Ohio State (Nov. 26) they have Indiana at home (Nov. 19). The Wolverines should handily win those games against Maryland and Indiana, but they cannot take those games lightly given their next opponent.

Looking at Ohio State and Michigan, they are the two best teams in the Big Ten. Michigan State might have something to say about that and even if either the Buckeyes or Wolverines win the Big Ten East, they still have to take care of business in the Big Ten Championship Game, which has proven to be a tough hurdle in the past for teams in position to make the Playoffs or National Championship.

5. Iowa will be pushed to the brink by North Dakota State – If this game were held in the Fargodome, this would be a prediction for an outright NDSU win. But then again, Iowa would not be scheduling a road game against an FCS opponent and FCS opponents will be a thing of the past for Big Ten teams in the near future.

North Dakota State will be going to Iowa City on September 17 in Iowa’s third game of the year. It is sandwiched between Iowa State (home) and the Big Ten opener against Rutgers (away). North Dakota State is the five time FCS National Champion, but their record against FBS teams is outstanding. They are 8-3 overall and have won five in a row against Kansas (6-3 in 2010), Minnesota (37-24 in 2011), Colorado State (22-7 in 2012), Kansas State (24-21 in 2013), and Iowa State (34-14 in 2014).

NDSU has a well known blueprint to beating teams: a strong rushing attack and offense that eats up the time of possession and a very good defense. Iowa boasts a strong defense as well, which could lead to a defensive game. If North Dakota State can grind out long possessions, they can make this game way too close for comfort and possibly pull off the upset.

The Prediction Schedule

With the Big Ten predictions above, predictions have been made for every conference with the exception of the SEC. Those predictions will be made next Saturday, August 27. Below are links to each of the conference predictions completed.

July 17 – FBS Independents

July 17 – Sun Belt

July 23 – C-USA

July 24 – MAC

July 30 – American Athletic

July 31 – Mountain West

August 7 – Big 12

August 13 – Atlantic Coast

August 14 – Pac-12

August 20 – Big Ten

August 27 – SEC

2015 Week 10 Big Ten Roundup

Nebraska defeated Michigan State on a controversial ending to keep their bowl hopes alive. (Eric Francis/Getty Images North America)
Nebraska defeated Michigan State on a controversial ending to keep their bowl hopes alive. (Eric Francis/Getty Images North America)

2015 Week 10 Big Ten Roundup

All fourteen teams were in action for the Big Ten this week and, what seems to be the norm, is a controversial ending.

Illinois Fighting Illini at Purdue Boilermakers

Result: Illinois Win 48-14 (Saturday, November 7)

Illinois made quick work of Purdue as they coasted to an easy 34 point victory. Wes Lunt went 19 of 33 for 169 yards and 3 touchdowns with no interceptions. The run game was incredibly effective with Ke’Shawn Vaughn gashing the Purdue defense for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns on 16 carries. Josh Ferguson had 133 yards on 12 carries while backup quarterback Chayce Crouch even ran for 45 yards. Illinois finished with 382 yards rushing on 41 carries.

Desmond Cain had his best game on the year with 6 catches for 74 yards and a touchdown to lead the team in receiving. Ferguson added 6 catches for 41 yards and a touchdown through the air while Malik Turner had 2 grabs for 36 yards and a score. Illinois racked up 595 yards of offense and went 5 of 14 on third down.

Purdue had trouble getting much going with David Blough throwing for 174 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions on 29 of 47 passing. He found 10 different receivers with DeAngelo Yancey leading the team with 5 catches for 51 yards and a touchdown. Markell Jones had 84 yards rushing on 14 carries. Purdue’s offense put up 263 yards and went 8 of 22 on third and fourth down combined.

Illinois (5-4, 2-3) sits one game from bowl eligibility with Ohio State coming to town next week. Purdue (2-7, 1-4) is eliminated from bowl contention, but head coach Darrell Hazell will be back in 2016. The Boilermakers face Northwestern next week on the road.

Penn State Nittany Lions at #21 Northwestern Wildcats

Result: Northwestern Win 23-21 (Saturday, November 7)

Northwestern defeated Penn State on a late field goal, but lost quarterback Clayton Thorson. His backup, Zack Oliver, did well in place of him going 11 of 24 for 111 yards with a touchdown and interception. Oliver also ran for another touchdown.

Justin Jackson had a massive game rushing the ball with 28 carries for 186 yards as the Wildcats rushed for 227 yards on 47 carries as a team. Nine different receivers caught a pass for Northwestern with Dan Vitale tallying 4 catches for 40 yards. Garrett Dickerson had 2 catches for 34 yards and Christian Jones caught 2 passes for 27 yards and a touchdown. Northwestern finished with 396 yards on offense and were 6 of 17 on third down.

Christian Hackenberg went 21 of 40 for 210 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. Receiver Geno Lewis threw a nice 32 yard touchdown pass in his only attempt of the game. Saquon Barkley ran for 120 yards and 2 touchdowns on 25 carries while Chris Godwin was easily the top receiver with 8 catches for 104 yards. DaeSean Hamilton had the 32 yard touchdown catch from Lewis and finished with 3 grabs for 50 yards. Barkley also added 6 catches for 50 yards. Penn State converted only 4 of 17 third downs and put up 362 yards of offense.

Penn State (7-3, 4-2) has a bye week before taking on Michigan at home on November 21. Northwestern (7-2, 3-2) will play Purdue at home next week.

Wisconsin Badgers at Maryland Terrapins

Result: Wisconsin Win 31-24 (Saturday, November 7)

It was far from a pretty game for Wisconsin, but they came out with the victory on the road against Maryland.

Joel Stave went 15 of 24 for 188 yards with a touchdown and an interception while the surprise rushing leader was Joe Schobert on his lone 57 yard carry. Corey Clement did not make the trip while Dare Ogunbowale had 19 carries for 47 yards and a touchdown and Taiwan Deal had 42 yards on 9 carries. Unsurprisingly, Alex Erickson led the team in receiving with 5 catches for 83 yards. Ogunbowale also had a touchdown receiving to go along with 3 catches for 16 yards.

The Badgers were boosted by a nice 98 yard kickoff return from Natrell Jamerson and two interceptions by Tanner McEvoy. He now has 4 interceptions on the season. The Wisconsin offense had 305 yards and went a poor 3 of 13 on third down. They did convert both of their fourth down attempts.

Maryland employed a dual quarterback system with mixed results. Perry Hills went 6 of 16 for 107 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Caleb Rowe, who came in during the fourth quarter, had very similar stats going 7 of 18 for 97 yards with a touchdown and interception as well. Playmaker William Likely led the Terps in rushing with 56 yards on 3 carries while Wes Brown had 34 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.

DeAndre Lane led the team with 3 catches for 63 yards, but the next two guys caught the touchdown passes. DJ Moore had 2 catches for 51 yards while Levern Jacobs had 48 yards on 2 catches. Maryland put up 316 yards of offense and went 5 of 16 on third down.

Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1) still has a longshot possibility of winning the West Division, but will be more focused on getting to 10 wins. They have a bye before facing Northwestern at home on November 21. Maryland (2-7, 0-5) faces Michigan State on the road next week.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights at #17 Michigan Wolverines

Result: Michigan Win 49-16 (Saturday, November 7)

Michigan got back to their dominating ways even if they ruffled some feathers along the way.

Rutgers had trouble getting anything going on offense. Chris Laviano went 11 of 26 for 97 yards with an interception. Robert Martin had 81 yards on 10 carries while Josh Hicks went for 41 yards on 9 carries. Andre Patton led the team in receiving with 3 catches for 35 yards. Rutgers finished with 225 yards, went 3 of 13 on third down, and their lone touchdown came on special teams with Janarion Grant’s 98 yard kickoff return.

Michigan had a career passing game from Jake Rudock, who went 18 of 25 for 337 yards, 2 passing touchdowns, and a rushing touchdown. De’Veon Smith ran for 73 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries with Drake Johnson rushing for 27 yards and a touchdown on 7 carries. Jake Butt had 4 catches for 102 yards and Amara Darboh had 3 grabs for 53 yards and a score. Michigan tallied 487 yards and went 7 of 13 on third down.

Michigan was up 35-16 when De’Veon Smith punched the ball in from 4 yards out. Harbaugh decided to go for two and Rudock was able to run it in near the pylon to make it 43-16, which caused some chatter and controversy.

Rutgers (3-6, 1-5) faces Nebraska next week at home with the loser eliminated from bowl eligibility. Michigan (7-2, 4-1) still has a chance to win the Big Ten East and play in the Big 10 Championship Game by winning out. They face Indiana next week on the road.

#9 Iowa Hawkeyes at Indiana Hoosiers

Result: Iowa Win 35-27 (Saturday, November 7)

Iowa did not always play perfect against Indiana, but a win is a win and they are still undefeated.

C.J. Beathard went 19 of 31 for 233 yards and a touchdown, but also showed some decent wheels with 38 yards and a touchdown on 5 rushing attempts. With Jordan Canzeri still out, Akrum Wadley led the way with 12 carries for 120 yards and a touchdown. LeShun Daniels also had 23 carries for 78 yards and 2 scores.

The passing game was dominated by three receivers for Iowa. Matt VandeBerg had 5 catches for 68 yards, Tevaun Smith had 4 catches for 55 yards, and Jacob Hillyer finished with 4 catches for 53 yards. The lone touchdown pass went to George Kittle, who finished with 2 catches for 19 yards. Iowa went 7 of 14 on third down and put up 467 yards of offense.

Indiana had a good game against a solid defense, but it was not enough. Nate Sudfeld threw for 180 yards, a touchdown, and an interception on 16 of 37 passing. Jordan Howard ran wild with 174 yards and 2 touchdowns on 22 carries. Mitchell Paige had 2 catches for 51 yards while Ricky Jones caught 4 balls for 39 yards. Indiana put up 407 yards of offense while going a combined 10 of 19 on third down.

Iowa’s Desmond King continues to be an interception machine. He has recorded at least one interception in six of the nine games for Iowa and has 8 on the season.

Iowa (9-0, 5-0) will be focused on going undefeated, which is a strong possibility with their remaining schedule. They face Minnesota at home this week. Indiana (4-5, 0-5) has dropped five in a row and needs to win two of their final three to make a bowl game. They face Michigan at home next week.

#7 Michigan State Spartans at Nebraska Cornhuskers

Result: Nebraska Win 39-38 (Saturday, November 7)

Nebraska played in yet another close game this year, but, for once, this one turned out in their favor. It was a controversial ending on whether Brandon Reilly should have been called for illegal touching, but the Huskers will not care after how their season has gone.

Connor Cook had another good game passing going 23 of 37 for 335 yards with 4 touchdowns and an interception. His top target was none other than Aaron Burbridge with 10 catches for 164 yards and a touchdown. Macgarrett Kings had 4 receptions for 97 yards and 2 touchdowns as well.

Gerald Holmes ran for 117 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries as the featured back. Michigan State had 491 yards of offense and went 9 of 16 on third and fourth down. Their struggles on defense continue to be a worry and it caught up with them in this contest.

After missing last week, Tommy Armstrong returned with a vengeance going 19 of 33 for 320 yards with 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He also ran for two scores while Imani Cross led the team in rushing with 98 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Jordan Westerkamp had 9 catches for 143 yards and a touchdown while Brandon Reilly had 3 catches for 87 yards and the big touchdown grab down the sideline. Nebraska had 499 yards of total offense and went 6 of 12 on third down (1 for 1 on fourth down).

Michigan State (8-1, 4-1) can still win the Big Ten East, as they have to face Ohio State and beat Michigan earlier this year. They face Maryland at home next week. Nebraska (4-6, 2-4) can still make a bowl game by winning their final two games. They face Rutgers next week on the road with the loser not making a bowl game for the 2015 season.

Minnesota Golden Gophers at #3 Ohio State Buckeyes

Result: Ohio State Win 28-14 (Saturday, November 7)

Ohio State did not have JT Barrett, but that was no problem as they relied on Ezekiel Elliott and Cardale Jones to lead the way.

Jones went 12 of 22 for 187 yards and a touchdown, but was also effective running the ball. He ran 12 times for 65 yards and a late touchdown to ice the game. Elliott was a workhorse with 26 carries for 114 yards and a touchdown. Jalin Marshall had 2 catches for 56 yards while Braxton Miller had a big 45 yard catch, but that was his only one on the night. Michael Thomas finished with 4 grabs for 39 yards and a touchdown. Ohio State had 376 yards of offense and went 7 of 16 on third down.

Minnesota got another good game from quarterback Mitch Leidner. He went 27 of 44 for 281 yards with 2 touchdowns and an interception. The rushing attack could not get anything going as they managed only 33 yards on 26 carries as a team. Shannon Brooks was the leader with 27 yards on 11 carries.

KJ Maye had a wonderful game with 10 catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. Brandon Lingen caught 4 passes for 50 yards, Rodrick Williams had 2 catches for 44 yards, and Rashad Still had 6 grabs for 41 yards and a touchdown. Minnesota had 314 yards of offense, went 7 of 19 on third down, and converted one of two fourth downs.

Minnesota (4-5, 1-4) still needs two wins to reach bowl eligibility. They face Iowa on the road next week. Ohio State (9-0, 5-0) faces Illinois next week on the road, still with a massive chance to defend their National Title.

Check back next week for a recap of Week 11 in the Big Ten.

2015 College Football Preview: Big 10 West

Corey Clement has big shoes to fill in replacing Melvin Gordon while Wisconsin has been to three of the first four Big 10 Championship Games. (Mike McGinnis/Getty Images North America)
Corey Clement has big shoes to fill in replacing Melvin Gordon while Wisconsin has been to three of the first four Big 10 Championship Games. (Mike McGinnis/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: Big 10 West

Part fourteen of Sports Enthusiasts’ 2015 College Football Preview delves into the Big 10’s West Division. There are only three conferences left in the preview series with the Pac-12 and SEC still a few weeks down the road. Below is the schedule of conference previews completed and those still to come.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

FBS Independents – July 28

Sun Belt – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

The Big 10 West Division is broken down below.

1. Wisconsin Badgers

Bret Bielema bolted Wisconsin after the 2012 season to go to Arkansas while Gary Andersen came in for the 2013 and 2014 seasons. He led the Badgers to a 9-4 record in 2013 before a double digit win season in 2014 including a 59-0 destruction at the hands of Ohio State in the Big 10 Championship. He too bolted Madison and went West to Oregon State. Paul Chryst returns to his alma mater where he played quarterback from 1986 to 1988 and was the offensive coordinator from 2005 through 2011. He was also the head coach at Pittsburgh from 2012 t0 2014.

The offense was very good under Andersen where they had nearly identical output over his two years. In 2013, they put up 34.8 points and 481 yards per game and it was 34.6 points and 469 yards in 2014. The offense has five starters back with Joel Stave not having to worry about another QB. Stave threw for 1,350 yards with 9 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Melvin Gordon is gone after his monstrous season with 2,587 yards with 29 touchdowns, but Corey Clement is willing to try and fill the void. Clement had 949 yards and 9 touchdowns rushing while Dare Ogunbowale had 193 yards and a touchdown on only 34 carries. The go to guy last year, Alex Erickson, is back after recording 55 catches for 772 yards and 3 touchdowns. Troy Fumagalli caught 14 passes for 187 yards last year and a second wide receiver will need to develop in 2015. The offensive line also has only two starters returning, but the quarterback numbers should be better with Chryst in charge. The loss of Gordon will hurt, but the offense should be solid even with Chryst coming in.

The defense for Wisconsin is constantly solid. Between 2009 and 2014, the defense has not yielded more than 22 points and 325 yards per game. The defense had only 3 starters back in 2014 and allowed 20.8 points and 294 yards per game. There are six starters back including most of the secondary. Chikwe Obasih had 21 tackles and 1.5 sacks in seven starts. The depth is also better after plaguing them the past two seasons. The linebacker unit has the two outside ‘backers returning in Vince Biegel (56 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 9 tackles for loss) and Joe Schobert (69 tackles, 3 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss, and 7 pass breakups). The secondary has three starters back led by Michael Caputo. Caputo was the top tackler last year with 106 stops while also recording 1 sack, 5 tackles for loss, 6 pass breakups, and an interception. Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton will be at the cornerback spots, but need to interception more passes after those two failed to record any in 2014. Tanner McEvoy has also moved to safety after splitting time at quarterback and safety in 2014.

Wisconsin opens with a daunting game in Arlington, Texas against Alabama that will surely test them to their highest capability. After that, it is much easier with the trio of Miami (OH), Troy, and Hawaii all coming to Madison. In conference, Wisconsin faces Iowa, Purdue, and Northwestern at home while playing Nebraska, Illinois, and Minnesota on the road. From the East division, the Badgers take on Rutgers (home) and Maryland (road). The Badgers will surely make a bowl game in 2015 and can expect to be the team to beat for the West, but they have their question marks.

2. Northwestern Wildcats

Pat Fitzgerald did something that only Bob Voigts was able to do: win a bowl game. Voigts won the 1949 Rose Bowl while Fitzgerald won the 2012 Gator Bowl after losing the previous four bowl games. Since that 2012 season, Northwestern has not been back to a bowl game after back-to-back 5-7 seasons that have been filled with injuries. 2015 must result in a bowl game for the Wildcats and Fitzgerald.

The offense sputtered last year after putting up 23 points and 353 yards per game despite eight starters back. This year, the offense will have six starters back, but one of them will not be at quarterback. That may not be a bad thing as Trevor Siemian only threw for 2,214 yards with 7 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Zack Oliver threw for 367 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, but he will be battling with Clayton Thorson and Matt Alviti for the starting job. Justin Jackson is back after a stellar freshman season. Despite only starting five games, Jackson ran for 1,187 yards with 10 touchdowns while also catching 22 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown. There is plenty of talent back at wide receiver with Dan Vitale leading the way. He had 40 catches for 402 yards and 2 touchdowns. Cameron Dickerson (24 catches for 318 yards and a touchdown) and Miles Shuler (23 catches for 190 yards) back as well. The biggest returner is Christian Jones, who had a solid 2013 season with 668 yards, but missed all of 2014. The offensive line has three starters back and the entire offense should be able to perform better this year.

The defense was decent in 2014 with seven starters back, giving up 25.2 points and 384 yards per game. Eight starters are back in 2015, the most for Fitzgerald since 2009 (gave up 24.5 points and 350 yards per game). The entire defensive line is back led by Dean Lowry, who had 41 tackles, 4 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and 8 pass breakups. The linebacking unit is the worry for Northwestern with only Anthony Walker returning (51 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions). The secondary is another strength with three starters back. Traveon Henry had 73 tackles (#2 on team) and 2.5 tackles for loss while Matthew Harris had 70 tackles (#3 on team), 3.5 tackles for loss, 7 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. The defense should be solid once again for Northwestern and should improve on the numbers the allowed last season.

Northwestern does not have an easy start to the season with Stanford coming to town followed by Eastern Illinois. A road trip against Duke comes before their final non-conference game against Ball State at home. In conference, the Wildcats will face Minnesota, Iowa, and Purdue at home while taking on Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road. They also face Illinois in Chicago on the final weekend in November. From the East, they will have the pleasure of facing Michigan (road) and Penn State (home) in two tough games. All around, Northwestern should be better in 2015 and could have a chance to take the division with a win over Wisconsin (Nov. 21).

3. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Nebraska was led by Bo Pelini starting in 2008 and going through 2014. During that time, Pelini led Nebraska to at least 9 wins each year including three 10 win seasons. Pelini, however, did not make a BCS or Group of Five bowl in that time and was let go after the 2014 season. Mike Riley comes over from Oregon State after 15 years there and only once led the Beavers to at least 10 wins (2006).

The offense has six starters back from a group that put up 37.8 points and 452 yards of offense per game. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong threw for 2,695 yards with 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while also rushing for 705 yards and 6 touchdowns as the teams second leading rusher. Ameer Abdullah will not be back, which leaves Imani Cross (384 yards and 5 touchdowns) and Terrell Newby (297 yards and 5 touchdowns) as the top returning running backs. Nearly all of the receivers return led by Jordan Westerkamp (44 catches for 747 yards and 5 touchdowns) and De’Mornay Pierson-El (23 catches for 321 yards and 4 touchdowns). The offensive line has two starters back at the tackles. The offense will probably not put up the same numbers as they did last year with a new coach and new schemes.

The defense has six starters back from a unit that allowed 26.4 points and 384 yards per game. Three starters are back on the defensive line that gave up 178 yards and 4.7 yards per carry last year. Greg McMullen (4 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, and 4 pass breakups), Maliek Collins (45 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 9.5 tackles for loss), and Vincent Valentine (45 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and 2 pass breakups) are the returners. David Santos is the lone returning linebacker after recording 50 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and 1 interception. The secondary has two starters back led by Nathan Gerry (#1 tackler), who had 88 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, 4 pass breakups, and 5 interceptions en route to making the 2nd Team Big 10 squad. There may be some growing pains in 2015, but the numbers should not fluctuate too much.

Nebraska opens with BYU and South Alabama at home before traveling to face Miami (FL) on the road and getting Southern Miss at home. The Cornhuskers face Illinois, Minnesota, and Purdue on the road while playing Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Iowa at home. From the East, Nebraska will take on Michigan State (home) and Rutgers (road). Nebraska should be in a bowl game in 2015 and could even make the Big 10 Championship Game with a few stumbles and surprises.

4. Illinois Fighting Illini

Ron Zook was in charge of Illinois from 2005 through 2011 and led the Illini to three bowl games including the 2007 Rose Bowl. Zook was let go before the 2011 bowl game that Illinois won 20-14 over UCLA. Tim Beckman came in starting with the 2012 season and went 2-10 followed by a 4-8 record in 2013. The Illini had to make a bowl game in 2014 for Beckman to keep his job and they did, but lost to Louisiana Tech 35-18. 2015 is another chance for Illinois to make a bowl game.

The offense put up 25.9 points and 367 yards per game in 2014 with Wes Lunt taking over at quarterback. Lunt had injury issues throughout the season while finishing with 1,763 with 14 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Josh Ferguson is returning at running back after a sub par year with only 735 yards and 8 touchdowns. Ferguson also was the team’s third leading receiver with 50 catches for 427 yards and 2 touchdowns. Mike Dudek led the team in receiving as a freshman in 2014 with 76 catches for 1,038 yards and 6 touchdowns, but tore his ACL in April. He status for 2015 is still up in the air. Geronimo Allison (41 catches for 598 yards and 5 touchdowns), Malik Turner (25 catches for 256 yards and a touchdown), and Justin Hardee (19 catches for 240 yards and a touchdown) all return in case Dudek is unable to go. Three starters are back on the offensive line to bring the total up to eight for the offense. A healthy Lunt will mean higher numbers for the Illini offense even if Dudek is out for the year.

Defense has been an issue for Illinois under Beckman, as the unit has not allowed less than 32 points per game in his tenure. Last year, the defense gave up 34 points and 456 yards per game with seven starters back. That same number is back this year with Jihad Ward and Rob Bain back on the line. Ward had 51 tackles, 3 sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss last year. Two linebackers return in Mason Monheim and TJ Neal, which is good news for Illinois. Monheim had 111 tackles (#1 on team), 1 sack, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions while Neal had 98 tackles (#4 on team) and 6.5 tackles for loss. The secondary has three starters back including Taylor Barton, who had 100 tackles (#3 on team). V’Angelo Bentley is back in the secondary as well, but he will also be utilized in the return game. The defense should improve in 2015 with seven starters back.

Illinois opens with home games against Kent State and Western Illinois before traveling to face North Carolina on the road. They close out the non-conference portion of their schedule against Middle Tennessee at home. Within their division, Illinois will play Nebraska and Wisconsin at home while facing Northwestern in Chicago. They also play Iowa, Purdue, and Minnesota on the road. From the East, the Illini play Penn State (road) and Ohio State (home), which is a tough draw. There is enough offense and defense on this Illinois squad to make a second straight bowl game under Beckman.

5. Iowa Hawkeyes

Kirk Ferentz is entering his 17th season at Iowa. In that time, Iowa has 11 winning season and four season with at least 10 wins. Since going 11-2 in 2009, however, Iowa has not reached that success with their best recording being 8-5 in both 2010 and 2013. The pressure may be on Ferentz to get Iowa back to double digit wins sooner rather than later.

The offense will return five starters from a group that put up 28.2 points and 400 yards per game. CJ Beathard is taking over at quarterback for the now transferred Jake Rudock (went to Michigan). Beathard threw for 645 yards with 5 touchdowns and 2 interceptions while also not having Mark Weisman (812 yards and 16 touchdowns). Jordan Canzeri (494 yards), Akrum Wadley (186 yards and a touchdown), Jonathan Parker (141 yards and a touchdown), LeShun Daniels (49 yards and a touchdown), and CJ Hilliard will all see some looks at the running back spot. Tevaun Smith (43 catches for 596 yards and 3 touchdowns), Jake Duzey (36 catches for 392 yards and 3 touchdowns), and Matt VandeBerg (14 catches for 256 yards and 1 touchdown) are back. The line has three starters back while the offense could put up similar numbers in 2015 as they did last year.

Last year’s defense was not as effective as an Iowa defense usually is. They gave up 25.6 points and 344 yards per game with only five starters back. The number of starters returning increases by two, to seven, which is good news. Drew Ott (57 tackles, 8 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and an interception) and Nate Meier (57 tackles, 2 sacks, and 4 tackles for loss) are back to anchor the defensive end positions. Bo Bower and Josey Jewell are the two starters returning at linebacker while the secondary has three starters back. Jordan Lomax will be at one of the safety spots after recording 92 tackles, 6 pass breakups, and an interception last year. 2015 should see Iowa’s defense improve.

Iowa opens the season against Illinois State at home before facing in-state rival Iowa State on the road. The non-conference schedule ends with Pittsburgh and North Texas both coming to Iowa City. Iowa will face Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Nebraska on the road while playing Illinois, Minnesota, and Purdue at home. From the East, Iowa has Maryland (home) and Indiana (road) in two winnable games. Iowa should be back in a bowl game this year, but will that be enough to keep Ferentz around another year?

6. Purdue Boilermakers

Darrell Hazell came in from Kent State in 2013 and had a rough first year. The Boilermakers went 1-11 with their lone win against FCS Indiana State in a game they only won 20-14. The offense (14.9 points and 345 yards per game) and defense (38 points and 460 yards allowed per game) were dreadful. 2014 was a very good step in the right direction with a 3-9 record and 2015 should continue that trend.

The offense in 2014 had 8 starters back and shot up to 23.8 points and 345 yards per game. There are eight starters back again in 2015 with the quarterback position in the air between freshmen David Blough and Elijah Sindelar and Austin Appleby (1,449 yards with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions). Running back is not settled with DJ Knox, Keyante Green (199 yards), David Yancey, and Markell Jones all having a chance to win the top duties. Danny Anthrop is back as the top wide receiver after grabbing 38 passes for 616 yards and 4 touchdowns. The offensive line has all the starters back, which is great news for whoever wins the quarterback and running back battles. The offense should be better in 2015 with even better numbers than last year.

The defense was awful in 2013 by giving up 38 points and 460 yards per game. Year two was better with the defense allowing 31.7 points and 416 yards per game. Seven starters return in 2015 including the second through fifth top tacklers from last year. Ryan Watson (17 tackles, 4 sacks, 1.5 tackes for loss) and Jake Replogle (40 tackles, 3 sacks, and 7.5 tackles for loss) return on the line that improved from 235 rushing yards allowed per game in 2013 to 192 yards per game in 2014. That number should drop in 2015. The strength of the defense is at linebacker with the top three starters back. Ja’Whaun Bentley (76 tackles; #2 on team), Jimmy Herman (56 tackles, #4 on team), and Danny Ezechukwu (43 tackles; #8 on team) all back after starting last year. The secondary has three starters back led by Anthony Brown and Frankie Williams at the corner spots. Like the offense, the defense should improve in year three of Hazell’s tenure.

Purdue opens the season on the road at Marshall in a tough game before facing Indiana State, Virginia Tech, and Bowling Green at home. In their division, Purdue will play Minnesota, Nebraska, and Illinois at home while facing Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Iowa on the road. From the East, they will have to play Michigan State (road) and Indiana (home). Purdue is going in the right direction and will probably need two upsets to reach a bowl game.

7. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Jerry Kill has been at Minnesota since 2011 and has made them into a gritty team that is not easy to defeat. After going 3-9 in his first year, the team improved to 6-7 in 2012 and lost by a field goal, 34-31, to Texas Tech in the bowl game. 2013 saw them finish 8-5 and they did the same in 2014 as they had a chance to win the Big 10 West in the final week against Wisconsin. 2015 will be an interesting test for Minnesota and Kill.

The offense for Minnesota is run-based and will have five starters back in 2015. Mitch Leidner threw for 1,798 yards with 11 touchdowns and 8 interceptions while rushing for 452 yards and 10 touchdowns. Backup Chris Streveler ran for 235 yards and 1 touchdown as well. David Cobb has exited after rushing for 1,626 yards and 13 touchdowns leaving a big void at running back. Berkley Edwards (140 yards and 2 touchdowns) and Rodrick Williams (114 yards and 3 touchdowns) will be vying to start at running back. Top target Maxx Williams (36 catches for 569 yards and 8 touchdowns) is gone as well, leaving KJ Maye as the top wide receiver. Maye had 16 catches for 298 yards and a touchdown as the #2 receiver. The offensive line has three starters back, but it will probably be tough for the Gophers to match last year’s production of 28.4 points and 357 yards per game with Cobb and Williams gone.

The defense has been solid for Minnesota the last three years. In 2014, the defense gave up 24.2 points and 368 yards per game and returns seven starters from that group. Theiren Cockran (23 tackles, 4 sacks, and 3 tackles for loss) and Steven Richardson (23 tackles, 2 sacks, and 4 tackles for loss) will be teaming up with the Ekpe brothers of Scott and Hendrick. De’Vondre Campbell (75 tackles, 2.5sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and an interception) and Jack Lynn (57 tackles, 1 sack, and 6 tackles for loss) will be the returning linebackers. In the secondary, three starters are back led by Eric Murray at corner. Murray had 69 tackles, 7 pass breakups, and an interception last year. The defense should be solid once again for Minnesota.

Minnesota opens with TCU at home before facing Colorado State on the road. Kent State and Ohio both travel to Minneapolis to close out the non-conference slate. In division, Minnesota will play Northwestern, Purdue, and Iowa on the road while taking on Nebraska, Illinois, and Wisconsin at home. From the East, Minnesota draws Michigan (home) and Ohio State (road). It will be a challenging year for Minnesota if the offense sputters and will need a couple of upsets to make a bowl game, but they are more than capable of getting those upsets.

Overview

The Big 10’s West division is quite the conundrum with every team having questions. Wisconsin has a new coach and lost a star in Melvin Gordon while Northwestern has some offensive worries. Nebraska is in the same boat as Wisconsin with a new coach and lost Ameer Abdullah. Illinois has worries on defense while Iowa is constantly underachieving. Purdue is still learning Hazell’s system and Minnesota lost a lot of offensive production in David Cobb and Maxx Williams.

We will go with Wisconsin to win the division, but Northwestern or Nebraska could also finish on top. Illinois is likely to make noise with a more veteran team along with Iowa. Purdue and Minnesota will both be close to bowl eligibility and could easily finish higher than predicted, especially the Gophers. Below is the predicted order of finish.

1. Wisconsin

2. Northwestern

3. Nebraska

4. Illinois

5. Iowa

6. Purdue

7. Minnesota

Check back on Friday for a preview of the Big 10 East Division as well as a look at the Big 10 Championship Game prediction.

Christian Jones Undergoes Surgery

Christian Jones celebrates against Syracuse in 2014 (Andrew Renneisen / The Daily Orange)
Christian Jones celebrates against Syracuse in 2012 (Andrew Renneisen / The Daily Orange)

Christian Jones Undergoes Surgery

Northwestern wide receiver Christian Jones underwent surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left knee according to WildcatReport.com.

From WildcatReport.com:

“Wide receiver Christian Jones watched the practice on crutches after having knee injury to repair torn cartilage in his already repaired left knee. The senior tore the ACL in the same knee last August and said that the surgery had created a small hole in his cartilage. When he started running this spring (he was barred from contact but taking reps), he eventually tore a hole in it, necessitating another procedure. He said that he would start running again in July and expects to be back in August for the start of camp.”

As a freshman in 2011, Jones had 16 catches for 195 yards in 13 games. In 2012, Jones was the leading receiver for the Wildcats with 35 catches for 412 yards and 2 touchdowns. In 2013, he was the second leading receiver in catches and top receiver in yardage. He had 54 catches for 668 yards and 4 touchdowns while starting all 12 games.

While he is not expected to miss any playing time, it could be an outcome if he suffers a setback.

Also, running back Justin Jackson had surgery to shave his meniscus in the left knee, but is not expected to miss significant time. Jackson was the top rusher last season with 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns on 245 attempts. He also caught 22 passes for 201 yards and 1 touchdown.