There’s nothing like a pleasant surprise that captivates the nation and ends the year as one of the best stories of the season. Last year, Iowa provided that magic, going 12-0 in the regular season before losing its final two games.
College football expert Phil Steele believes three Big Ten teams could be capable of achieving a similar fate. Steele featured the Hawkeyes, Michigan State and Nebraska on his list of surprise teams for the 2016 season.
The magical Hawkeyes came in at No. 3 on this list. What Kirk Ferentz’s club did last season will be mighty tough to top. But with a ton of returning talent and a manageable slate in the Big Ten West, the Hawkeyes could be poised for another perfect regular season.
“I do not think the Hawkeyes are one of the top five teams in the country talentwise, but they could end up being favored in all 12 games, and an undefeated Big Ten champion would make the playoff,” Steele wrote.
Iowa does have a legitimate chance at running the table again. Iowa hosts Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska and has quarterback C.J. Beathard back for another season.
The Spartans don’t get much love nationally, especially this season, but chalk Steele up as a believer. He said Michigan State returning to underdog status in the Big Ten East will only be an advantage for the under-appreciated Mark Dantonio.
“The Spartans play best with a chip on their shoulder,” Steele wrote. “Last year they came in as the preseason No. 5 team and played differently than in years past. Well, the chip is back!”
The problem is Michigan State might be underestimated for good reason this season. The program’s winningest quarterback has departed and Michigan State has a bevy of unproven playmakers on offense. Michigan State’s defense should be stout with Riley Bullough and Malik McDowell manning the front seven. But it’s uncertain where this unit will rank among past Spartans defenses.
Rounding out the list for the Big Ten was Nebraska as Steele’s bonus team. The Cornhuskers lost a ton of close games last season and all seven of their losses were by 10 points or fewer. Steele believes Nebraska’s luck is bound to change this season.
“Remember, the Cornhuskers lost five games in the final seconds last year and were basically five plays away from being 11-2,” Steele wrote. “They are much stronger in Mike Riley’s second year, so they could certainly surprise.”
Nebraska will definitely be explosive offensively with quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., and essentially all of his weapons returning to Lincoln, Neb. The problem lies on the defense, particularly in the front seven. The Huskers might have to win a lot of high-scoring games in Riley’s second year.