Lots of talk out there that the Big Ten was the best conference in college football for the 2015 season. Pending the bowl season you just might feel that way. Let's review the B1G!
Michigan State (12-1, 7-1)
It wasn't always pretty. In the end MSU remained on top and earns the playoff invite. Six wins by a touchdown or less clearly has Dantonio favored by the Gods right now. They escaped Michigan in hilarious fashion, slipped up to Nebraska in hilarious fashion, but one the big game against Ohio State and took care of Iowa for everyone.
Pretty significant losses on both sides of the ball plus a tough schedule (ND & BYU out of league) are going to make it very hard to win this many games again. There's still nice pieces to content in the division, though. Plus, Dantonio is one of the best in the business with player development.
Ohio State (11-1, 7-1)
That loss to Michigan State may sting for a good long while. Urban Meyer's first regular season Big Ten loss (pretty crazy it took nearly 4 full years) maybe could have cost him a back-to-back National Championship. Be that as it may, this wasn't the re-loaded, better than 2015 type of team some people expected.
The Buckeyes will lose some great players but their recruiting has been on another level compared to the rest of the Big Ten. Spending all off-season building around J.T. Barrett should do wonders for the chemistry that seemed lacking in 2015. A tricky early schedule awaits next year with BGSU, Tulsa, and Oklahoma early.
Michigan (9-3, 6-2)
Harbaugh came out of the gates hot with a tough showing at Utah and later 3 shutouts in a row among just 14 points surrendered over 5 games. Then the muffed punt we all cackled with joy at brought about a bit of a different second half of the season. A few lesser talented B1G teams were slipped past for win then Ohio State put Michigan in their place to end the season.
A veteran-laden defense performed well this year and 'Baugh squeezed just enough out of the offense in year one. There will be a lot of guys to replace on defense and plenty of questions at quarterback and receiver for 2016. The floor has been raised but ManBall™ without more explosiveness is only going to go so far with Urban in Columbus.
Penn State (7-5, 4-4)
Penn State's 5 losses all came against ranked teams. I suppose you could spin that in a positive way. The bad news is that their wins are among the least impressive in the league. Christian Hackenberg's stock imploded in the face of 39 sacks. Maybe he comes back and things get better. Or maybe he's broken and so is the offense.
Until proven otherwise the Nittany Lions should hold steady and comfortable in the 4th spot in this division. James Franklin seat is getting a little warm and he'll need to do more than just beat the bottom feeders in the conference to earn an improved program stock. The Pitt rivalry is back next year to begin a stretch that is followed up with Temple and Michigan early in the season. There might be some pressure very quickly.
Indiana (6-6, 2-6)
Kevin Wilson has been that coach who most thought was Doing Good Things™ in Bloomington. If you want to be kind he has improved from 1-11 in his first year to reaching the program's first bowl in 8 seasons this year. On the other hand, he's 8-32 in Big Ten play and is the poster child for modern soft OOC schedules that gift programs bowl eligibility if you have any semblance of a pulse.
What are the odds that the Hoosiers can lose sneaky good quarterback Nate Sudfeld and improve their record next season? You can find 5 or 6 wins again but Wilson is likely heavily involved in coaching firing rumors by late October when Indiana probably loses 4 straight in league play.
Maryland (3-9, 1-7)
As I mentioned in my recent 5WF post the Terps have a bloated sense of self that wasn't being met by Randy Edsall. In the middle of his 5th year he was jettisoned after winning just 10 out of his 33 league games. He did win 7 games on two separate occasions. Still, the trend line was not pretty in 2015--once he left there was no rise in morale as Maryland finished 1-5 down the stretch.
D.J. Durkin doesn't have to do much to improve over 2015. The Terps will get FIU, Howard, rebuilding UCF, plus Purdue and Minnesota from the West next year. If they steal a game somewhere else bowl eligibility may await.
Rutgers (4-8, 1-7)
Everyone was fired. Kyle Flood was originally suspended for 3 games and ultimately given his walking papers at the end of the season. The 4 wins were their fewest in 5 seasons and included victories over Norfolk, Kansas, Indiana, and Army. Truly dreadful wins. Somehow, the Scarlet Knights stayed with Michigan State otherwise they were soundly defeated in 5 other contests.
This was such a dysfunctional program in 2015 that I'm calling for an increased stock based on new head coach Chris Ash who comes over from Ohio State. The early season slate is pretty tough featuring Washington, Iowa, Ohio State, and Michigan by week 5, though. I can see 5 or 6 wins but not much more. Lots of young talent is coming back and thankful to move on from last year.
Iowa (12-1, 8-0)
This really happened. Iowa won 12 games to break the school record for most victories in a season. They were one goal line stand away from keeping the dream alive and entering the playoffs. A soft schedule and 5 wins by 10 points or less made it tough to get a read on this Hawkeyes team but in the end they proved themselves to be pretty darn good.
A repeat performance just won't happen. Still, enough starters will be back that Iowa should probably be favored to win the division again. If they're really good again there is a decent chance they start 7-0 before hosting Wisconsin, plus they miss both Ohio State and Michigan State in cross-divisional play.
Northwestern (10-2, 6-2)
Our loss from 2014 looks better! Kinda? Maybe? Anyway, the Wildcats won 10 games while scoring 20.7 points per game. That stat was 18.3 PPG against Power 5 teams. Way to go defense! They were embarrassed 78-10 in back-to-back weeks which put a damper on the season in early October. Besides that they upended Stanford and finished winning their last 5 games, including solid wins over Nebraska, Penn State, and Wisconsin.
Only 6 other Power 5 teams scored fewer points per game than Northwestern. They'll need extensive improvement on offense next year. They open with Western Michigan which has upset special written all over it. Duke also comes to Evanston, plus Ohio State and Michigan State are on the '16 schedule too.
Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2)
The nine wins for Paul Chryst in his first year in Madison looks fine but a closer examination is pretty uninspiring. The Badgers went 0-3 against ranked teams (Alabama, Iowa, Northwestern) and beat one team (Nebraska) inside the F/+ Top 50. Worst of all, they were terrible at running the ball.
Corey Clement missed the last 9 games of the season and getting him back healthy will be a big boost for the running game. Nevertheless, the Badgers need to find a quarterback and get way better on offense. They also could start the season, not even joking, at 2-6 or 2-7. Wisconsin faced LSU, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska, and Northwestern in their first 9 games. Yikes!
Nebraska (5-7, 3-5)
Well, the Mike Riley Era got off on the wrong foot. They were nearly blown out by Purdue yet turned around and beat Michigan State the next week. College football, everybody! Somehow because of #rules the Huskers will play in a bowl game anyway. If they lose to UCLA it'll be the most losses in a season since, are you ready for this, 1957.
This division isn't tough enough nor is Nebraska bad enough to stay in 4th place. They will get better next year and move up in the standings. How much, though? They could start 6-1 which would give them a lot of momentum. The back end of the schedule is tougher but I can see a 7-win season at minimum in Riley's second year.
Illinois (5-7, 2-6)
I thought this would be a sneaky good offensive team in the Big Ten and then no. They only scored over 20 points in league play twice and finished 12th in scoring among all B1G teams. Illinois did play 5 ranked teams and was only blown out by North Carolina, so that's kind of heartening.
Bill Cubit was an average MAC coach at Western Michigan for 8 seasons and now has taken over a major conference program. That doesn't give you much confidence. They should get better with Wes Lunt at quarterback and at least some stability without crazy Tim Beckman around.
Minnesota (5-7, 2-6)
Nothing but some sadness in Minneapolis as Jerry Kill stepped down as head coach in the middle of this year due to health concerns. After back-to-back 8-5 seasons it looked like he might have been building something worthy of divisional consideration but it wasn't meant to be. You have to think it was not easy for the team to move on over the last 5 games as the Gophers went 1-4 to close the regular season.
Long-time Kill assistant Tracy Claeys takes over and should keep the program running close to what they had cooking in the past. Minnesota played 6 ranked teams this year (lost all of them) and has a much easier path in 2016 with as few as 1 or 2 ranked teams next fall. If the offense improves I bet they can get back to 8 wins again.
Purdue (2-10, 1-7)
There are 6.6 million reasons why Darrell Hazell still works at Purdue. Yes, the Boilermakers didn't want to eat the $6.6 million buyout and will keep a coach with a .166 winning percentage and only 2 wins over Power 5 programs in 3 seasons. The defense has completely bottomed out under his watch giving up 36.5 points per game, second worst in the Big Ten.
Former Elite 11 quarterback David Blough was thrown to the wolves this year as a freshman. He looked pretty good at times and struggled at other times like most young starters. He's a bright spot for the future. Yet, after a probable win over Eastern Kentucky I don't know how many other teams Purdue will be favored against with Nevada and Cincinnati their other non-league games.