Success is an elusive term in college football. A seven-win season might be cause for celebration at Rutgers or Purdue, but it would stir some uneasy feelings at Ohio State or Michigan. All programs are in different stages of building, rebuilding or trying to remain on top, and the 2016 season presents a crucial test for all of them.
So what number of wins will determine a successful season for each team? We start with the Big Ten East.
It’s a successful season if: Ohio State wins at least 11 games, beats Michigan and wins the Big Ten. It’s amazing to think this way after the Buckeyes sent 12 players to the first four rounds of the NFL Draft and lost more offensive and defensive contributions than any Power 5 team in the country, but that’s the standard Urban Meyer has created with four straight seasons of at least 12 wins. This year’s team can lose a game or two, but taking the division will be the expectation.
Why it should happen: Ohio State might lose a ton, but it returns several pieces that were bound to matter most this season: quarterback J.T. Barrett, guards Pat Elflein and Billy Price and middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan. Barrett can be the game-changer in a division where Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State will all welcome in new signal-callers, and Meyer’s deep recruiting classes have left the cupboards full.
And if it doesn’t: It’ll leave a sting with the ultra-competitive Meyer and a program that fell just short in the division last year as well. If missing the mark comes at the hands of a home loss to Michigan in the final week, the rivalry will ramp up that much more.
It’ll be a successful season if: The Wolverines win at least 11 games, beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten East. Michigan took a nice step back toward prominence in Jim Harbaugh’s first season, going 10-3 win a bowl crushing of Florida. What it lacked was a win against either of Michigan’s fierce rivals, Ohio State and Michigan State. This year, with the returning experience on Michigan’s side and not with those rivals, the expectations of old are going to start creeping back.
Why is should happen: No team in the Big Ten East can boast the amount of returning experience Michigan has. The Wolverines might have the conference’s best stable of running backs and receivers, and they return more to the offensive and defensive lines than anyone else. Jabrill Peppers might be the best athlete in the conference, and Harbaugh has a good enough track record developing new starting quarterbacks to quell the fears there as well.
And if it doesn’t: Harbaugh will work through it if it’s still a competitive season, although it’ll surely bother him. It’s possible Michigan is still a year away, and competing in a division with Meyer, Mark Dantonio and James Franklin is going to mean some great teams fall short. Michigan just can’t let that continue to happen for too long.
It’ll be a successful season if: The Spartans win at least 10 games. Michigan State is used to contending for and often winning the Big Ten, but replacing an entire passing game is tough on any team. However, the Spartans have enough talent back on both sides of the ball, particularly up front, that they should remain competitive. It’s also the bar Dantonio has set for one of the most consistent programs in the country.
Why is should happen: Michigan State has a simple system for success — play smart and beat teams up — and it should have all the personnel to do that this season. The Spartans have a fifth-year quarterback in Tyler O’Connor who has won a big road game (at Ohio State last year), three returning starters from one of the better offensive lines in the country and three stars in the front seven to stop the run. Most of the good teams on their schedule come at home.
And it if doesn’t: One off year won’t be cause for too much concern because it has happened with a first-year quarterback under Dantonio. However, if Michigan State looks to be lacking athleticism for a second straight year, it could start to spell a few worries about the program’s grip on this league with the way Harbaugh and Franklin can recruit in addition to Meyer.
It’ll be a successful season if: Penn State wins at least nine games. It hasn’t happened in Happy Valley since 2011, and the NCAA sanctions and coaching turnover have explained some of that. But after two seven-win seasons, James Franklin needs to make his first real splash in the Big Ten. With a quarterback who is more his own and a new offensive coordinator, this is the time to take a real step back toward contention, especially with the personnel losses around the division.
Why it should happen: The Nittany Lions bring back more production on offense than any other team in the division except Michigan. They have a 1,000-yard rusher in Saquon Barkley and 1,100-yard receiver in Chris Godwin, in addition to four starters on the offensive line. What the offense did lose — quarterback Christian Hackenberg and offensive coordinator John Donovan — were perhaps what had been holding the program back. The defense is also strong, so improvements on offense should mean a jump in wins.
And if it doesn’t: James Franklin might be looking at the first warm seat of his coaching career to start 2017. Penn State will want to start seeing progress in the post-scandal era, and it’s crucial not to lose a grip now that the other Big Ten East schools are stocking up on elite coaches and recruits.
It’ll be a successful season if: Indiana wins at least seven games. The Hoosiers have made gradual progress under Kevin Wilson, starting 1-11 in 2011 and then reaching a bowl game with a 6-7 mark last year. That’ll be the expectation this year, although the Hoosiers would like to see their first bowl win since 2007, too. Expecting more for a school like Indiana in a division with heavyweights is asking for trouble.
Why it should happen: Indiana led the Big Ten in yards, scoring and passing offense while ranking second in rushing, and while the stars of that production are mostly gone, Wilson has established enough credibility to believe he can repeat it. He returns a 1,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard receiver, and his team came dangerously close to beating Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa last season. Improve the nation’s 120th-ranked defense, and knocking off a big boy could happen.
And if it doesn’t: Questions will probably start about whether Wilson — who earned a six-year, $15.3 million extension last year — can hire the right defensive coordinator. Tom Allen will be his third in Bloomington, and while nobody is expecting great numbers from an Indiana defense, it’s hard to explain consistently ranking outside the top 100 in the nation.
It’ll be a successful season if: Maryland can win five games and challenge for a bowl game. D.J. Durkin inherited a true mess from Randy Edsall after the former coach departed just six games into last year, and now he’ll try to plug holes in a brutal division. He’s lucky to be elbowing with a few other teams in similar boats, and progress will be the key component to this season.
Why it should happen: Maryland has more playmakers than most bad teams with do-it-all athlete Will Likely and tackle machine Jermaine Carter. It also returns the bulk of a running game that finished third in the Big Ten. The first four games come against Howard, Florida International, Central Florida and Purdue, teams that combined to win eight games last season.
And if it doesn’t: It wouldn’t shock anyone, as the Big Ten East is rugged. It’ll hurt not to show any progress, though, if it means slipping behind Rutgers for recruits out on the East Coast.
It’ll be a successful season if: Rutgers can win five games and improve significantly on defense. It’s not a high bar, but it would exceed last year’s mark with a more difficult schedule. This is the least talented team in a division where the gap is as big as any, and playing at Washington in Week One will not be an easy start to all of it. Rutgers lost seven straight conference games to end last season, so improving on that kind of slide is necessary.
Why it should happen: Rutgers returns eight starters, including quarterback Chris Laviano, from an offense that broke the 40-point barrier twice in conference play last year. Chris Ash has plenty to fix on the defense, but that’s at least his side of the ball.
And if it doesn’t: People would understand because Rutgers’ talent just doesn’t come close to matching at least half the teams on the schedule. It would make recruiting all the harder for a team that’s already against it and a head coach who has never held this kind of role before, though.