The upcoming Big Ten season should be one for the books, whether it involves a Heisman Trophy winner, a 2,000-yard rusher, a 4,000-yard passer, more heart-stopping, one-in-a-million finishes and/or at least four schools vying for a berth in the College Football Playoff come late November.
The Land Of 10 offers 16 reasons why the Big Ten will likely enjoy a watershed campaign in 2016.
1. THE TRUE HEISMAN HOPE
Quarterback J.T. Barrett could becomeOhio State’s third Heisman Trophy winner of the last 21 years — an honor no other school has accomplished since the 1995 season.
As a freshman, Barrett earned a battlefield promotion as Ohio State’s starter after Braxton Miller’s injury and soon brought superb efficiency to the Buckeyes offense, accounting for 3,772 total yards (938 rushing) and 45 touchdowns in just 12 games. After sharing the QB position with Cardale Jones last year, Barrett has regained his lofty status as the sole engine that drives OSU’s offensive attack.
2. THE REAL POWER BROKERS
The SEC might have the recent market cornered on national championships (eight titles in 10 years), but the Big Ten has made great strides with the acquisition of game-changing coaches.
Citing Athlon’s college football preview magazine, the SEC and Big Ten have nine leaders apiece ranked among the Top 50 head coaches, with the Big Ten placing three coaches in the top five (Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio rank 2-3-4).
3. SEE YOU IN SEPTEMBER
The Big Ten has a chance to own Week 3 of the college schedule. On Sept. 17, the conference will play a heavy role in three seismic matchups: Michigan State at Notre Dame, Oregon at Nebraska and Ohio State at Oklahoma — likely to be the nation’s most-hyped non-conference game of the year.
All three outings will likely shape the yearlong race to qualify for one of the “New Year’s Six'” bowls: Peach (College Football Playoff), Fiesta (Playoff), Rose, Sugar, Cotton and Orange.
4. RUSH TO GLORY
The Big Ten boasts four tailbacks — Northwestern’s Justin Jackson, Indiana’s Devine Redding, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, Wisconsin’s Corey Clement — that could realistically hit the 1,500-yard rushing mark this fall. Jackson and Redding are likely the strongest candidates to flirt with the hallowed 2,000-yard mark.
5. THE EYEBALLS HAVE IT
During bowl season, the eight Big Ten-affiliated games attracted roughly 63.3 million TV viewers, with the Cotton Bowl (Michigan State-Alabama), Rose Bowl (Iowa-Stanford) and Citrus Bowl (Michigan-Florida) leading the pack.
During the regular season, the Nov. 21 Michigan State-Ohio State clash that ultimately decided the East division winner generated 11.1 million viewers — an impressive feat for a regional game in the 3:30 p.m. EST window.
On the 2016 calendar, five games could generate monster ratings: Ohio State at Oklahoma (Sept. 17), Michigan State at Notre Dame (Sept. 17), Michigan at Iowa (Nov. 12), Ohio State at Michigan State (Nov. 19) and Michigan at Ohio State (Nov. 26).
6. LARGER-THAN-LIFE SPARTAN
Michigan State’s Malik McDowell, a viable contender for this year’s Bednarik Award as the nation’s best defensive player, could be the first defensive tackle taken in the 2017 NFL Draft.
At 6-foot-6, 275 pounds, McDowell has good instincts, great balance, tremendous raw power and excellent off-the-ball quickness — athletic grace belying his mammoth proportions. As such, McDowell stands to become the first defensive tackle off the board next spring. Had he been eligible for the 2016 draft, the junior-to-be might have gone ahead of Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins, the highest-drafted defensive tackle who went No. 12 overall to the New Orleans Saints.
7. THE ULTIMATE THUMPER
Speaking of the draft, Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan (119 tackles, 1.5 sacks last year) remains a solid pick to be the first linebacker taken in 2017. But his closest competition at that spot involves a player who hasn’t even lined up at that position yet.
Michigan cornerback/safety Jabrill Peppers, one of college football’s best athletes, will make the transformation from defensive back to linebacker this season, in hopes of capitalizing on his superb ball instincts and playmaking ability.
8. THE TOUGHEST SLATE OF ‘EM ALL
Here’s a good news/bad news item for Wisconsin fans: The Badgers could have the nation’s most difficult schedule in 2016.
The grind begins with a neutral-field showdown against LSU — my pick to win the national title — at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field. A few weeks later, U-Dub must encounter a consecutive-run gauntlet of Michigan State (road), Michigan (road), Ohio State (home), Iowa (road), Nebraska (home) and Northwestern (road).
The SEC’s toughest schedule? Ole Miss has a top-heavy slate that includes Florida State, Alabama, Georgia, Memphis, Arkansas, LSU, Auburn and Texas A&M.
9. KING OF THE HILL
In 2015, Iowa star and Detroit native Desmond King — who somehow slipped through the recruiting clutches of Michigan State and Michigan four years ago — collected the most interceptions among Power 5 schools with eight.
For King’s senior-season encore, the 2015 Thorpe Award winner (above video) leads a stacked Hawkeyes secondary which returns three starters and features fast-rising sophomore safety Brandon Snyder.
10. THE CORNER OFFICE
The Big Ten should be a high-profile hub for cornerbacks this fall, regardless of whether Jabrill Peppers makes the full-time conversion to safety/linebacker.
The conference has three blue-chip returnees in Iowa’s King, Northwestern’s Matthew Harris and Michigan’s Jourdain Lewis — with each playmaker ranking among the national leaders in ‘passes defended’ last year.
11. WELCOME TO THE WILD, WILD WEST
The West division has stability, leadership and a touch of old gunslinger at the quarterback slot, with C.J. Beathard (Iowa), Tommy Armstrong Jr. (Nebraska), Wes Lunt (Illinois) and Mitch Leidner (Minnesota) approaching their senior campaigns.
The quartet has cumulatively accounted for 70-plus college starts, 17,413 yards passing and 138 passing touchdowns. It’s a far cry from the Big Ten East, which only has one long-term starter back in the mix, Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett.
12. IT’S GONNA HAPPEN
Due to an easy-to-navigate schedule for the season’s first eight weeks, it’s highly probable that Michigan carries a No. 1 national ranking into the Oct. 29 road showdown with Michigan State. And two weeks later, the Michigan-Iowa clash could potentially pit the nation’s highest-ranked clubs, reminiscent of the schools’ No. 1 versus No. 2 classic from October 1985, when the Hawkeyes won on a last-second field goal from Michigan native Rob Houghtlin.
13. FULL HOUSES
According to CBS Sports, Michigan (110,168), Ohio State (107,244) and Penn State averaged at least 99,000 fans for its home games last year, ranking first, second and sixth nationally. Given their star power among returning players and coaches, the Wolverines and Buckeyes are expected to replicate their 1-2 attendance rankings this fall.
14. THE FUTURE IS NOW
The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry has a new twist: Defensive linemen Rashan Gary (Michigan, consensus No. 1 overall prepster) and Nick Bosa (OSU) were the Big Ten’s most decorated recruits from the Class of 2016 and should be inexorably linked throughout their respective college careers.
15. PRIME-TIME SHOWCASE
There’s much goodness to glean from the Big Ten Network’s attractive slate of prime-time outings. Understandably, Ohio State and Michigan will likely comprise the majority of games for ABC’s coveted 3:30 p.m window (EST); but BTN has secondarily secured a number of rock-solid matchups, covering certain tangible angles:
Rivalries: Iowa State at Iowa (Sept. 10), Nebraska at Northwestern (Sept. 24) and Minnesota at Northwestern (Nov. 12). Last week, Nebraska vs. Northwestern ranked among the top five of the Big Ten’s most bankable rivalries, citing the previous three seasons.
Upset potential: Penn State could be giant killers against Iowa on Nov. 5 — the week before Michigan invades Iowa City. Also, Michigan State has a brief history of being sluggish for prime-time road games airing on BTN, meaning something crazy or unforeseen could occur against Indiana (Oct. 1) or Maryland (Oct. 22).
Inter-conference appeal: On back-to-back Saturday nights, the Big Ten will get a crack at two emerging programs from the ACC, with Illinois hosting North Carolina on Sept. 10 and Northwestern entertaining Duke on Sept. 17.
The UNC game could be a breakthrough experience for new Illini head coach Lovie Smith, who’s trying to revive a moribund program that has endured four consecutive losing seasons. As such, an early takedown of North Carolina would be a great first step to a long-term reversal of fortune.
And last but not least …
16. NO MORE HONEY WORDS
It’s very likely that, once the college season begins, Big Ten fans will have a four-month reprieve from hearing the words “satellite” and “camp” paired together.
That’s something we can all celebrate.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.