The summertime temperatures may be climbing into the 90s, but the days are also getting shorter, a clear sign that college football will soon be here.
As part of that, it’s a good time to invoke a detailed look at VegasInsider.com’s seasonal projections for every Big Ten club.
Today’s breakdown: The East division. To view the West over/under projections that we reviewed Wednesday, click here.
It’s worth noting that Vegas Insider’s over/under odds (via The Daily Gopher) only cover the 12-game regular season, excluding conference championship and bowl action).
This piece promises to be an interesting exercise, given how Vegas Insider has neither regional nor emotional ties to any conference program. Looking at the overall estimates – citing both divisions – it’s fair to wonder if the popular Web site has supreme confidence in the Big Ten during non-league competition.
Namely, there are several crucial “swing” games like Ohio State at Oklahoma, Michigan State at Notre Dame, Oregon at Nebraska, Penn State at Pittsburgh, North Carolina at Illinois and even Cincinnati at Purdue that could tip the betting scales, one way or another.
There isn’t much room for hedging on Vegas Insider’s picks, either, given the “half-win” element to certain projections (for example, Indiana, Maryland and Rutgers are all slated for 4.5 victories). As everyone knows, college football waved bye-bye to ties a long time ago.
MICHIGAN (10 WINS)
Presumptive victories: vs. Hawaii (Sept. 3), vs. UCF (Sept. 10), vs. Colorado (Sept. 17), vs. Wisconsin (Oct. 1), at Rutgers (Oct. 8), vs. Illinois (Oct. 22), vs. Maryland (Nov. 5), vs. Indiana (Nov. 19)
Reasonably confident: vs. Penn State (Sept. 24)
50/50 games: at Michigan State (Oct. 29), at Iowa (Nov. 12), at Ohio State (Nov. 26)
The skinny: With all due respect to Penn State (the lone “reasonably confident” pick), Michigan’s quest for double-digit victories, a Big Ten championship and a berth in the four-team College Football Playoff boils down to three road games against the conference elite – Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State.
If the Wolverines (10-3 last year, capped by an Outback Bowl demolition of Florida) can take one of the three, they’ll register a ‘push’ on the Vegas Insider scale.
If they claim victory in two of three roadies, the Wolverines will likely capture the Big Ten East crown.
And if Michigan sweeps the trio of high-profile road games, it would likely own a top-2 seed for the College Football Playoff and presumably land a spot in the Peach Bowl, a national semifinal from Atlanta.
As for this countdown, it’s quite tempting to ride the “over” pick, factoring in how the Wolverines boast the Big Ten’s best pass-catching trio in tight end Jake Butt and receivers Jeehu Chesson and Amara Darboh, an elite 1-2 punch in the secondary (Jabrill Peppers, Jourdain Lewis), the most experienced offensive line (four returning starters), an NFL-quality behemoth at left tackle (sophomore Grant Newsome), the nation’s top-ranked prep recruit from 2016 (defensive tackle Rashan Gary) and a highly accomplished defensive coordinator in Don Brown, who oversaw Boston College’s No. 1 defense last season).
That aside, the flat ’10’ makes this an easy call, money-wise.
OHIO STATE (9.5 WINS)
Presumptive victories: vs. Bowling Green (Sept. 3), vs. Tulsa (Sept. 10), vs. Rutgers (Oct. 1), vs. Indiana (Oct. 8), vs. Northwestern (Oct. 29), vs. Nebraska (Nov. 5), at Maryland (Nov. 12)
Reasonably confident: at Wisconsin (Oct. 15), at Penn State (Oct. 22)
50/50 games: at Oklahoma (Sept. 17), at Michigan State (Nov. 19), vs. Michigan (Nov. 26)
The skinny: In his four seasons at Ohio State, head coach Urban Meyer owns an absurd 50-4 overall record. That prolific period includes four campaigns of 12-plus wins, one Big Ten title, one national championship and a perfect mark against 12 conference schools.
The lone blemish: Two high-profile losses to Michigan State – the 2013 Big Ten title game and a devastating home defeat last season, precluding the Buckeyes from claiming the Big Ten East division crown and a shot at another national championship in the playoffs.
Of course, the Buckeyes will encounter some drama upon reaching the “9.5” threshold. Ohio State-Oklahoma stands as the season’s most anticipated non-conference clash. It’s never easy to beat Wisconsin and Penn State on the road during prime time, and no other team in the country has a tougher finishing kick than OSU, with tough tests at Michigan State and at home against Michigan.
And yet, I like the Buckeyes’ chances of going 11-1 during the regular season and representing the division in the Big Ten championship. It’s a testament to Meyer’s recruiting and reloading acumen, making on-the-fly adjustments to Ohio State losing 12 early picks to the recent NFL draft (Rounds 1 through 4).
MICHIGAN STATE (7.5 WINS)
Presumptive victories:vs. Furman (Sept. 2), vs. Wisconsin (Sept. 24), vs. BYU (Oct. 8), at Maryland (Oct. 22), at Illinois (Nov. 5), vs. Rutgers (Nov. 12)
Reasonably confident: at Indiana (Oct. 1), at Penn State (Nov. 26)
Ominous personal feeling: vs. Northwestern (Oct. 15)
50/50 games: at Notre Dame (Sept. 17), vs. Michigan (Oct. 29), vs. Ohio State (Nov. 19)
The skinny: Say hello to Vegas Insider’s most conservative pick from the East division, a proverbial sucker’s bet that will surely entice greater action on the “over” side.
That group includes yours truly.
Michigan State might have incurred a robust number of personnel losses from last season — including quarterback Connor Cook (34-5 record as the starter, two Big Ten titles) and defensive end Shilique Calhoun (27 career sacks) – but the talent cupboard is hardly bare in East Lansing.
There’s star potential with defensive tackle Malik McDowell (likely top-10 pick in next year’s draft), tailback LJ Scott (11 TDs as a freshman), safety Montae Nicholson and the linebacker duo of Riley Bullough and Ed Davis (injury redshirt in 2015).
And even if the Spartans were in the midst of a full-on rebuilding, hasn’t head coach Mark Dantonio (65 victories since 2010) earned the benefit of the doubt with his program?
Bottom line: If Vegas Insider had “8.5” as Michigan State’s threshold, perhaps there would be some consternation here. Instead, even if MSU should falter against Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State and suffer a surprising loss to either Indiana, Northwestern, Penn State, the Spartans would still be in the clear for eight victories.
PENN STATE (6.5 WINS)
Presumptive victories: vs. Kent State (Sept. 3), vs. Minnesota (Oct. 1), vs. Maryland (Oct. 8), at Purdue (Oct. 29), at Rutgers (Nov. 19)
Reasonably confident: vs. Temple (Sept. 17)
50/50 games: at Pittsburgh (Sept. 10), at Indiana (Nov. 12), vs. Iowa (Nov. 5)
Underdog status: at Michigan (Sept. 24), vs. Ohio State (Oct. 22), vs. Michigan State (Nov. 26)
The skinny: This may be the most intriguing over/under of the countdown. Penn State has big losses at quarterback (replacing Christian Hackenberg) and the defensive line (losing Carl Nassib, Austin Johnson, Anthony Zettel to the NFL). But the 2016 Nittany Lions are built more along the lines that coach James Franklin likes, and that will be interesting in his third year.
There is plenty of talent to go around. Receivers Chris Godwin (69 catches, 1,101 yards, 5 TDs last year) and DaeSean Hamilton (45 catches, 580 yards, 6 TDs) are explosive, quick-strike targets. Sophomore Trace McSorley has the potential to be a superb dual-threat quarterback and tailback Saquon Barkley (1,076 rushing yards, 8 TDs as a freshman) could claim the Big Ten rushing title as a sophomore. On defense, freshman Kevin Givens should be a breakout performer at defensive tackle
In other words, Franklin has done a good job of moving the Nittany Lions forward, while subtly awaiting for his own impact recruits to wreak havoc.
Regarding the schedule, we have varying degrees of “high” confidence that Penn State will knock off Kent State, Minnesota, Maryland, Purdue, Rutgers and Temple, a major revenge game from last year). That leaves the Nittany Lions with a nice cushion of “50/50” clashes, requiring only a victory over Pittsburgh, Indiana or Iowa (my pick for “Big Ten Upset Of The Year”) to eclipse the “6.5” threshold.
Seems easy enough, huh?
INDIANA (4.5 WINS)
Presumptive victories: vs. Ball State (Sept. 10), vs. Wake Forest (Sept. 24), vs. Maryland (Oct. 29), vs. Purdue (Nov. 26)
Reasonably confident: at Florida International (Sept. 1), at Rutgers (Nov. 5)
50/50 games: vs. Nebraska (Oct. 15), vs. Penn State (Nov. 12)
Underdog status: vs. Michigan State (Oct. 1), at Ohio State (Oct. 8), Northwestern (Oct. 22), at Michigan (Nov. 19)
The skinny: In 2015, the football Hoosiers were the only Big Ten team to boast multiple 1,000-yard rushers (Jordan Howard, returning star Devine Redding); and over the last four seasons (2012-15), the offense has coolly averaged 32.8 points per game – numbers befitting of a program which should muster at least five victories per season.
But here’s the rub: Even with the above platitudes, IU head coach Kevin Wilson (20-41 overall) has yet to post a winning record in Bloomington; and his best Hoosiers squad (6-7 last season) only finished 2-6 in Big Ten action.
The schedule breaks down in three phases:
Phase I: The Hoosiers will most likely fall to Michigan State, Ohio State, Northwestern and Michigan.
Phase II: Indiana should have minimal problem knocking off Wake Forest, Maryland, Purdue and Ball State at home.
Phase III: Four too-close-to-call outings against Florida International (road), Rutgers (road), Penn State and Nebraska. These games serve as the make-or-break opportunities for a breakthrough season, something Wilson desperately needs for the “Indiana” section of his coaching resume.
RUTGERS (4.5 WINS)
Presumptive victories: vs. Howard (Sept. 10), vs. New Mexico (Sept. 17)
50/50 games: vs. Illinois (Oct. 15), at Minnesota (Oct. 22), vs. Indiana (Nov. 5), vs. Penn State (Nov. 19), at Maryland (Nov. 26)
Underdog status: at Washington (Sept. 3), vs. Iowa (Sept. 24), at Ohio State (Oct. 1), vs. Michigan (Oct. 8), at Michigan State (Nov. 12)
The skinny: It’s seldom a good look, preseason over/under-wise, when a club has only two presumptive victories in its favor. It’s also deflating when none of the seemingly easy wins involve conference foes.
As such, even with a respectable two-headed backfield (Robert Martin, Josh Hicks), a burgeoning offensive line (three returning interior starters, sophomore bookends at tackle) and upside at the quarterback slot (experienced junior Chris Laviano), Rutgers must still fight for every crumb in Big Ten play this fall.
The upside to that: We genuinely believe the Scarlet Knights (4-8 last year) are 50-50 propositions in five games – home outings with Illinois, Indiana, Penn State and roadies against Minnesota and Maryland.
Will the Scarlet Knights reach the attainable threshold of five victories – the same slam-dunk number from 2005-14? Yes, but just barely.
MARYLAND (4.5 WINS)
Presumptive victories:vs. Howard (Sept. 3), at UCF (Sept. 17), vs. Purdue (Oct. 10)
50/50 games:at Florida International (Sept. 9), vs. Minnesota (Oct. 15), at Indiana (Oct. 29), vs. Rutgers (Nov. 26)
Underdog status: at Penn State (Oct. 8), vs. Michigan State (Oct. 22), at Michigan (Nov. 5), vs. Ohio State (Nov. 12), at Nebraska (Nov. 19)
The skinny: Give Maryland credit for scheduling back-to-back road games in the state of Florida in mid-September. Sure, the Terps coaches may be using this eight-day dalliance in the Sunshine State as an extended recruiting voyage – long-term vision takes precedent – but it still counts as stepping up during the dog days of non-conference action.
Along those lines, if Maryland could somehow sweep that two-game slate down south against FIU and UCF, the program would be nicely positioned to surpass Vegas Insider’s expectations for Year 1 of the D.J. Durkin regime.
A Florida split, however, would put the Terrapins in the uncomfortable position of needing two of three victories against the likes of Minnesota, Rutgers and Indiana – with the latter opponent coming on the road. It’s a close call, across the board.
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.