It’s the offseason, and all across the Big Ten there is that summertime sense of optimism that pervades every campus this time every year.
But just how good can we be? It’s a question that gets asked daily.
We’re thinking the same thing, so let’s take a look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for 2016 for the seven Big Ten East schools.
To clarify, these spectrum predictions only include the 12-game regular season and Big Ten championship on the first Saturday of December, if applicable.
For the West division’s best/worst-case-scenario projections, click here.
Best-Case Scenario: 13-0 (Big Ten champs)
Worst-Case Scenario: 9-3
In four years with Ohio State, head coach Urban Meyer has collected 50 wins, one national championship and just four total losses. In that span, Michigan State stands as the only Big Ten school to beat a Meyer-coached squad.
So, in that vein, does it really matter that Ohio State sent something like 18 players to the NFL in May? Also, does it really matter that quarterback J.T. Barrett and linebacker Raekwon McMillan are currently the Buckeyes’ only household names (outside of Ohio)?
Absolutely not. Given Meyer’s elite-level acumen as a recruiter, coach and general program- builder, Ohio State has a great chance at winning the Big Ten title and reaching the four-team College Football Playoff.
No longer part of a quarterback controversy in Columbus thanks to the NFL exodus of Cardale Jones, Barrett (1,674 total yards, 22 total TDs) has a chance to replicate the absurd numbers from his freshman campaign, when he accumulated nearly 4,000 total yards, 45 touchdowns and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
In his final seven games last year after becoming the full-time starter, Barrett accounted for three outings of 100-plus rushing yards and 20 touchdowns.
Barrett easily stands as the Big Ten East’s best quarterback, factoring in his athleticism, versatility and previous track record. As a capper, he’ll have regular access to two explosive talents at receiver — Noah Brown and Parris Campbell.
Ohio State faces a no-lose proposition with its titanic clash against Oklahoma (Sept. 17), perhaps the greatest non-conference matchup of the college season.
Even if OSU slips against the Sooners, the Buckeyes’ dual hopes for the Big Ten title and a playoff berth would still be intact. As such, the conference season would come down to two final outings — at Michigan State (Nov. 19) and home to Michigan (Nov. 26).
For every game in between, the Buckeyes will be prohibitive favorites.
Best-Case Scenario: 12-1 (Big Ten champs)
Worst-Case Scenario: 10-2
Michigan has a number of built-in advantages in this year’s Big Ten race: The top receiving duo (Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh), the best tight end (Jake Butt), an experienced offensive line (four returning starters), a high-upside talent at left tackle (4-star recruit Grant Newsome), the No. 1 overall prep recruit (defensive tackle Rashan Gary) and top-shelf assets in the defensive secondary (cornerback Jourdan Lewis, hybrid safety/corner/linebacker Jabrill Peppers).
Oh, and Jim Harbaugh resides on the short list of college football’s best coaches.
The Wolverines have eight home games, including five straight Michigan Stadium events to open the season (Hawaii, UCF, Colorado, Penn State, Wisconsin). Michigan’s season, in terms of contending for the Big Ten title and four-team Playoff, essentially rests with three road outings — Michigan State (Oct. 29), Iowa (Nov. 12) and Ohio State (Nov. 26).
Michigan’s defense allowed just 38 points in its first six games last season, including back-to-back-to-back shutouts of BYU, Maryland and Northwestern. For the year, the Wolverines enjoyed top-10 tallies with passing yards allowed (3rd nationally), total defense (4th) and scoring defense (6th).
Now for the scary part: In lieu of ex-defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin accepting the head-coaching job at Maryland, Michigan went out and stealthily hired Don Brown, who oversaw the nation’s No. 1 defense at Boston College.
Best-Case Scenario: 11-2 (Big Ten champs)
Worst-Case Scenario: 8-4
Yes, Michigan State is technically in ‘rebuilding’ mode, replacing many crucial assets that helped deliver two Big Ten titles over the last three seasons. But what does that really mean? Instead of the Spartans being shoo-ins for 11 or 12 victories … fans should only expect nine or 10?
Citing recent history, the deep-pocketed boosters at Texas or Southern California would have been thrilled about that type of down year.
Therein lies the beauty of the Mark Dantonio coaching era (five 11-plus-win seasons since 2010): The program has enough talent, depth and leadership to absorb graduation losses to the NFL and life, in general. As such, the Spartans should always be in the conversation for a Big Ten title and/or a New Year’s Day bowl game.
2. The Spartans could have one of the nation’s best linebacking corps, a fast, physical and versatile group featuring Riley Bullough, Ed Davis, Jon Reschke, Chris Frey and Andrew Dowell. In the trenches, nose tackle Malik McDowell might be a top-10 pick in next year’s NFL draft (if he leaves school early).
3. Michigan State no longer has Connor Cook (9,194 yards passing; 34-5 as a starter) at quarterback; but the program has a good band-aid in place — senior Tyler O’Connor.
Coming out of high school, O’Connor was more lauded as a prospect than Cook; he just couldn’t win the competition at the college level.
O’Connor was certainly a productive backup, though. Against Ohio State last season, O’Connor (filling in for the injured Cook) enjoyed a mistake-free outing in wretched weather, accounting for 114 total yards (89 passing) and one TD.
His resilience paid off, with Michigan State pulling out a last-second shocker on the road.
Of its six toughest opponents this fall (Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Northwestern, BYU, Wisconsin), Michigan State only has to face Notre Dame on the road. And the Spartans should be sufficiently motivated for the Irish, who robbed MSU of an unbeaten campaign in 2013.
Best-Case Scenario: 10-2
Worst-Case Scenario: 8-4
1. Looking at the above projection with fresh eyes, 10 wins might be a stretch for Penn State … even if everything breaks right this fall.
For that to happen, Penn State would need to sweep its three-game non-conference slate (including a road trip to Pittsburgh), go 5-0 against the Big Ten’s lesser lights (Minnesota, Maryland, Indiana, Rutgers, Purdue) and then split the heavyweight four-pack of Ohio State, Michigan (road), Iowa and Michigan State.
The Nittany Lions could have a superb 1-2 punch at quarterback (Trace McSorley) and tailback (Saquon Barkley), with the latter racking up 1,237 total yards and eight TDs as a freshman. As for McSorley, yes, it’ll be initially tough to replace Christian Hackenberg in the pocket; but then again, Penn State’s offense often stagnated under Hackenberg’s care.
Simply put, in this pass-friendly age of college football, it shouldn’t be too difficult for Penn State to eclipse last year’s modest average of 23.2 points per game.
Penn State’s defensive front seven should be a viable strength throughout the season. There’s tangible depth and talent in the trenches, and the skilled linebacking corps gets a major boost from the injury return of Nyeem Wartman-White.
Best-Case Scenario: 7-5
Worst-Case Scenario: 6-6
Personally, I think head coach Kevin Wilson (20-41 overall record) has done a nice job with rebuilding Indiana’s program from relative scratch. But with zero winning seasons (2011-15) and just one bowl trip on the resume, it’s also hard to defend Wilson’s long-term candidacy with the Hoosiers.
As the saying goes, the proof’s in the pudding.
If Indiana couldn’t break through with Nate Sudfeld leading the offensive charge for three years (7,879 yards passing, 61 TDs), how can it possibly survive in a post-Sudfeld world? This creates a pressurized situation for new quarterback Richard Lagow, along with Coach Wilson, a noted QB whisperer.
The Hoosiers are once again seeking a No. 1 tailback, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In 2014, Tevin Coleman dazzled the Indiana faithful with 2,036 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns. In 2015, Jordan Howard notched 1,319 total yards and 10 TDs. And in 2016, Devine Redding will attempt to become the first IU tailback in some time to record back-to-back seasons of 1,000 yards rushing.
Indiana’s bowl hopes may ultimately hinge on its October slate, which includes home outings against Michigan State, Nebraska, Maryland and two road dates with Ohio State and Northwestern.
Best-Case Scenario: 7-5
Worst-Case Scenario: 4-8
The day will come when new head coach D.J. Durkin — a notorious Energizer Bunny on the recruiting trail — has the Maryland program running on all cylinders. In the meantime, however, the Terps will take their lumps in college football’s No. 2 division (behind the SEC West).
How clunky was Maryland last year? The defense allowed 40-plus points five times. It also gave up 31 points to Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin over three straight games. And after averaging 37 points in their first three outings last fall, the Terrapins offense subsequently tallied six combined points against West Virginia and Michigan.
Maryland’s quarterbacking situation will likely remain a mess in the short term, regardless if the program rides Perry Hills, Caleb Rowe or true freshman Tyrrell Pigrome.
Hills and Rowe (14 combined TD passes, 28 INTs last year) have experience, but limited upside … whereas Pigrome (Parade All-American from the Class of 2016) has plenty of talent, but nil college experience.
The Terrapins return three top wideouts (Levern Jacobs, D.J. Moore, Malcolm Culmer) from last year’s offense, which ranked just 95th nationally in scoring (24.7 points per game). For now, we’ve chosen to derive more positives than negatives from the above statement.
On the scheduling front, Maryland is the only Big Ten school with two true road games during non-conference action (at Florida International, at UCF).
Best-Case Scenario: 5-7
Worst-Case Scenario: 2-10
New Jersey may be an annual hotbed of prep talent, but the Scarlet Knights, as presently constituted, have a long way to go before garnering consistent respect.
In 2015, the Rutgers offense ranked 78th, falling below the national average of 29 points per game. Things were worse on the other side, with the defense surrendering 34.9 points per outing — including 40-plus to Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Maryland.
Out of the chute, Rutgers’ best-case scenario may be 2-4. It’s the reality of taking on Washington, Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan in the first six games.
The Scarlet Knights should have a lot of moving parts in Year 1 of the Chris Ash coaching regime. However, the program appears to be set at quarterback for the foreseeable future, leaning on Chris Laviano (2,247 yards passing, 16 TDs last season) for the next 24-26 games.
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.