The race for the Big 10 Conference crown is more wide open than we have seen in many years. With the resurgence at Michigan, consistency at Michigan State and surprise success at Iowa, the Big 10 is looking very competitive in 2016. Although the Buckeyes lost a ton of talent and return only 3 starters on offense and 3 on defense, Ohio State has two major things going in their favor…..an established Heisman Trophy candidate in J.T. Barrett, and the Wolverines at home November 26. Those two factors are enough to give Ohio State a razor thin margin as pre-season favorites. The Eastern Division of the conference, with Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State is by far the stronger group in the Big 10 this year. Any one of those teams are capable of winning the conference title. But Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State are all breaking in new QB’s. If James Franklin is going to turn a corner at Penn State, this is certainly the year to do it. The Nittany Lions have a ton of returning starters and although a road trip to Michigan on September 24th looms large, Penn State has Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State at home.
In the Western Division Iowa will once again rely on a stingy defense, but duplicating last years success will be near impossible. The schedule is more difficult and the Hawkeyes won’t be sneaking up on anyone in 2016. Wisconsin appears to be the next strongest team in the division but the Badgers are breaking in a new QB and must play at division favorite Iowa on October 27. Northwestern was a surprise in 2015, racing to an impressive 10-3 season record. The Wildcats have an experienced QB and enough overall talent to compete for the division title, but lack depth in key positions so injury is going to be a major concern. The schedule is not kind for Northwestern, opening with Western Michigan will be very tough and later, road trips to Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State look brutal. Nebraska will be improved, and certainly has the ingredients to be one of the year’s top surprise teams, but the Cornhuskers have consistently under performed in recent years so it is difficult to have any level of confidence in their 2016 performance.
Billingsley’s Big 10 Conference Projections:
Ohio State Iowa
Michigan State Northwestern
Penn State Nebraska