Predicting every Big Ten team’s first loss for the 2016 season
I’ve got some bad news for all Big Ten fans: Each of your favorite teams will lose one game this season.
That’s right, no team in the Big Ten will finish the 2016 season undefeated. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Six of the eight teams to qualify for the College Football Playoff since its inception in 2014 made the playoff with one loss.
This article isn’t to examine how many losses might occur. But rather, it will predict every Big Ten team’s first loss of the season. This might not be a tough pill to swallow, but your teams will lose at least once. Here’s when you can expect that first defeat to happen:
Rutgers: Sept. 3 at Washington
Naturally, this begins with the Scarlet Knights, who will lose coach Chris Ash’s first game at the helm.
This isn’t an easy way to start the season: A cross-country road trip at a somewhat difficult environment against a team that went 7-6 a year ago. This game will be an early indication of what Rutgers is made of this year. Unfortunately, Rutgers might not be made of much in 2016.
The good news is the Scarlet Knights are trending back in the right direction. Ash’s Big Ten experience as an Ohio State assistant will only help. The results just won’t show very often during Ash’s debut season.
Wisconsin: Sept. 3 vs. LSU (Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis.)
The only other Big Ten team that will drop its first game will be the Badgers. After a stellar 10-3 campaign in Paul Chryst’s first season, the Badgers could be bound for a step back. Wisconsin will have to replace quarterback Joel Stave and leading receiver Alex Erickson.
This “neutral-site” game will pretty much be a home game for the Badgers. But that won’t matter too much. LSU is poised for a College Football Playoff run after starting the 2015 season 7-0 and being ranked No. 2 in the country before dropping three in a row and falling out of the national conversation.
The Badgers will have their hands full trying to corral LSU running back Leonard Fournette, who is one of the Heisman Trophy favorites entering his junior year. LSU’s defense is stockpiled with returning talent and the Tigers will be extremely tough to beat if quarterback Brandon Harris progresses this season.
Purdue: Sept. 10 vs. Cincinnati
Purdue welcomes Cincinnati to West Lafayette to cap a home-and-home series that began in 2013, when the Bearcats demolished the Boilermakers 42-7 in Cincinnati.
The Bearcats enter the season as the favorites in the American Athletic Conference, while Purdue has some major fixing to do after a dismal 2-10 season. Cincinnati’s offense should be potent yet again with Gunner Kiel behind center, but its defense is a work in progress after ranking 78th in total defense last season.
The Boilermakers should improve offensively with seven starters returning to a unit that ranked 11th in the Big Ten in total offense. There will be a quarterback competition entering the fall between sophomore David Blough and redshirt freshman Elijah Sindelar.
The offense likely won’t be able to keep up with the Bearcats, however and Darrell Hazell’s seat might warm up a bit more after losing early to Cincy.
Illinois: Sept. 10 vs. North Carolina
Lovie Smith will get a chance to prove himself at the collegiate level when the Tar Heels come to Champaign in Week 2. The Illini were blasted by North Carolina 48-14 last season in Chapel Hill and the second matchup of this home-and-home series could bear similar results.
North Carolina will be starting a new quarterback this time around, but coach Larry Fedora’s offense returns a ton of talent and his team should be in the running for the ACC title once again.
Quarterback Wes Lunt should keep Illinois in some games this season, but the overall dearth of talent is too much for a gunslinger and an established NFL coach to conquer. A bowl appearance would be an overachievement for the Illini in Smith’s first season. They’ll likely have some work to do after suffering an early setback against the Tar Heels.
Michigan State: Sept. 17 at Notre Dame
Yes, Notre Dame is technically Michigan State’s first game against a Division I opponent. But since this is based on when a team loses, the Spartans are a bit further back on the list. Michigan State welcomes Furman to East Lansing, Mich., before traveling to South Bend to renew its rivalry with Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish should be just as good as they were last season, but will have to make a tough decision between Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer for the starting quarterback job.
The bigger concern is figuring out what Michigan State’s offense will look like. The Spartans will be replacing the program’s winningest quarterback, Connor Cook, and also will be without its top two leading receivers from last season. Tyler O’Connor likely will be the guy taking over behind center, but a tune-up game against Furman likely won’t give the offense much of an opportunity to gel.
Having the bye week before this contest will help the Spartans in terms of preparation, but Notre Dame’s defense should be good enough to give an inexperienced offense too many problems to overcome.
Ohio State: Sept. 17 at Oklahoma
That’s right. The Buckeyes will lose a game in September for the second time under Urban Meyer.
This sets up as a bad matchup for Ohio State, which will replace a whopping 16 starters this season. The Buckeyes will have home games against Bowling Green and Tulsa to prepare for their trip to Norman, but it’s tough to gauge whether those tuneups will be enough against the Sooners.
Of course, quarterback J.T. Barrett is capable of carrying this team on his back. But an early road trip against a team that made the College Football Playoff last year doesn’t bode well for a team replacing a ton of stars on both sides of the ball. If anyone can pull it off, it’s Meyer. But it will take an incredible performance from his quarterback and some timely plays by the OSU defense.
Nebraska: Sept. 17 vs. Oregon
The Huskers should be better in 2016 after a 6-7 campaign. But they might not be good enough to knock off the Ducks.
Last year Oregon failed to win 10 games for the first time since 2007 and will be looking to replace graduated quarterback Vernon Adams. Oregon’s offense should still give opponents fits with Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop presumptively taking over. Former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke has joined Oregon’s staff and has revamped the defense into a 4-3 scheme.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong could finish as one of the top passers in the conference this season. But Nebraska’s thin defensive line could be exposed against Oregon’s running game.
Nebraska lost four games last season by three points or fewer. They’ll lose another nail-biter to the Ducks in mid-September. It would be Mike Riley’s 10th loss against Oregon since 2003, when he became the head coach at Oregon State.
Penn State: Sept. 24 at Michigan
There’s a lot to be excited about in Happy Valley, especially offensively. The Nittany Lions will debut a new quarterback, most likely Trace McSorley, a new frantic system led by first-year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, and will also have several key skill position players returning.
Penn State likely isn’t ready for primetime, however, and this road trip to Ann Arbor will tell a lot about how competitive the program will be in coach James Franklin’s third season.
The Wolverines are the talk of the Big Ten on and off the field. Part of that is because of Jim Harbaugh, but the hype is legitimate. Michigan returns many key contributors to an outstanding defense and should have enough on offense to contend for the conference crown.
This game could be tight if Penn State’s high-powered offense gels quickly during the first three games. The Wolverines defense will be too good to succumb to Penn State’s up-tempo attack.
Minnesota: Oct. 1 at Penn State
Minnesota is an intriguing team and one that could be a dark horse in the Big Ten West. After qualifying for a bowl with a 5-7 record, the Golden Gophers return a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. A road trip to Happy Valley as its first true road game isn’t an easy task, however.
The Gophers have an outstanding backfield tandem in sophomores Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith. The duo combined for 1,379 yards last season and both halfbacks should be in store for an outstanding year.
Minnesota’s season will likely hinge upon quarterback Mitch Leidner’s development. Defensively, Minnesota will be without a couple of star cornerbacks from last year’s squad, but have a strong linebacking corps returning.
Penn State will be coming off a loss to Michigan the week before in this scenario, but should be able to bounce back at home to win a close one against the Gophers.
Northwestern: Oct. 1 at Iowa
Northwestern is another team that could contend for the Big Ten West after going 10-3 a season ago. But a trip to Kinnick Stadium will mark the first setback for coach Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats.
The Wildcats were too defensively dependent last season and need that to change against a much tougher schedule. Quarterback Clayton Thorson needs to develop after a mercurial freshman season and he will need some help from his wide receivers, who were lackluster a year ago.
The Hawkeyes remain the class of the Big Ten West after a magical 2015 season. Quarterback C.J. Beathard is back and a stout defense should be more than enough against Northwestern.
This could be a low-scoring game, with big plays being the difference. That category wasn’t Northwestern’s strong suit last season and it will doom them against Iowa.
Indiana: Oct. 1 vs. Michigan State
Indiana loses its starting quarterback, leading runner and top offensive tackle from last year’s 6-7 team. But the Hoosiers don’t face many stiff tests during the non-conference slate. A road trip to Florida International isn’t much of a threat, albeit an odd scheduling quirk. Ball State went 3-9 a year ago and the Hoosiers beat Wake Forest last year on the road and should handle the Deacons at home.
Michigan State no longer has Connor Cook directing the offense, but Indiana’s defense shouldn’t pose much of a threat to whoever starts under center for the Spartans. Indiana’s poor depth along the line of scrimmage will also be a major disadvantage against the physically dominant Spartans.
Maryland: Oct. 8 at Penn State
Don’t laugh about Maryland being 4-0 entering this game. That’s not to say the Terrapins will be markedly improved under new head coach D.J. Durkin, but they’ll be good enough to beat Howard (FCS), Florida International (5-7 in 2015), Central Florida (0-12 in 2015) and Purdue (2-10 in 2015) following its bye week. The FIU and UCF games are both on the road, strangely.
The Terrapins return some talent offensively, including quarterback Perry Hills. Maryland’s defense should be better under Durkin’s watch and the Terps should be good enough to win their first four games. It’s not completely inconceivable.
That will be the extent of Maryland’s success, however. Maryland still doesn’t have enough talent to truly compete in the Big Ten East and it will show against the Nittany Lions.
Iowa: Oct. 8 at Minnesota
There’s a decent chance Iowa makes it all the way to its Nov. 12 meeting with Michigan unblemished. But Minnesota is good enough to compete with the Hawkeyes and will pull off the upset at TCF Bank Stadium.
The most important matchup will be Minnesota’s rebuilt secondary against Beathard and the Hawkeyes’ passing attack. The Gophers are talented enough to contain the passing game and have enough beef within the front seven to give Iowa’s running game a difficult time.
Iowa won’t have a true road test – no, a trip to Rutgers in in September doesn’t count – entering this game against the Gophers. That will matter in Minneapolis.
Michigan: Nov. 12 at Iowa
Michigan has a relatively easy path to a 7-0 start before its road trip to Michigan State. While the Spartans have held the advantage recently, the Wolverines are too talented to fall in East Lansing this time around.
A primetime environment at Kinnick Stadium is one of the toughest in the Big Ten and the Hawkeyes will find a way to overcome Michigan’s outstanding defense.
Quarterback play could be the difference and Iowa’s Beathard will outplay either John O’Korn or Wilton Speight during this showdown.
Michigan will be the last Big Ten team to lose a game and could lose a second against rival Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio two weeks later.