CFT 2015 Preseason Preview: Big Ten Predictions

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As the 2015 season draws near, we peek into our crystal ball and guess project how each of the five major conferences will play out. Today, we will be examining the home of the defending national champion, the Big Ten. 

And while we’re at it, check out some of our other Power Five conference predictions HERE (ACC) and HERE (Big 12) as the CFT team continues to take its month-long glimpse of the upcoming season.

BIG TEN EAST

1. Ohio State (14-1 in 2014; beat Oregon in College Football Playoff title game)
For the forseeable future, you can pencil in Urban Meyer‘s Buckeyes as the class of the both the division and conference, as well as an annual contender for a playoff spot thanks to the one-two combination of the coaching staff and its recruiting prowess.  Last year, Meyer thought his Buckeyes were a year away from contention… and all they did was run through Wisconsin, No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Oregon in the postseason to claim the inaugural CFP championship.  What can OSU do for an encore?  Given the returning talent, they could very well be the eighth team since the Poll Era began (1936) to go back-to-back — provided they can get past, among others, the very stout, tremendously talented and extremely motivated team directly below this blurb.

2. Michigan State (11-2; beat Baylor in Cotton Bowl)
The Spartans have several positives going for them entering the 2015 season, from one of the best offensive and defensive lines in the conference to one of the best quarterbacks in the entire country in senior Connor Cook to one of the most underrated head coaches in Mark Dantonio.  There’s every reason to think that the Spartans, ranked fifth in the preseason, will remain in that neighborhood for a sizable chunk of the season.  Losing defensive mastermind Pat Narduzzi, now the head coach at Pittsburgh, could negatively impact the season, as could the schedule: three of MSU’s toughest games are on the road (Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan) while they also play host to a Top Ten in Week 2 in Oregon.

3. Michigan (5-7)
Yes, I’m drinking the Jim Harbaugh-flavored Kool-Aid already, and there are two good reasons as to why.  One, and look no further than what he did at Stanford, he is one of the best coaches at any level of football.  In the five years prior to his arrival on The Farm, the Cardinal won just 16 games; in Harbaugh’s four years heading the program, and taking over a one-win squad, the win total jumped to 29.  Secondly, he and his staff aren’t exactly coming into the kitchen with a bare cupboard.  In 2013 and 2012, UM’s recruiting classes were ranked fifth and seventh nationally and second in the Big Ten, respectively, according to Rivals.com. Even in 2014, amidst much speculation that Brady Hoke was as good as done, he still pulled in a class that ranked 31st in the country and fourth in the conference.  The talent is there, the coaching there, so there’s no reason to think that an immediate improvement won’t be there as well.

4. Penn State (7-6; beat Boston College in Pinstripe Bowl)
The biggest thing the Nittany Lions have going for them this season, the thing that could have them too low in this East prediction?  Their schedule.  They will be heavily favored in all six games — three conference, three non-conference — before traveling to Ohio State in mid-October, plus the scheduling gods gave them Illinois and Northwestern as their cross-divisional games this season.  Should the defense, as expected, remain one of the best in the conference, and Christian Hackenberg can overcome any crisis of confidence caused by a subpar offensive line — he was sacked 44 times in 2014, a season in which he tossed more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (12) — the Nittany Lions could very well increase their win total from a year ago.

5. Maryland (7-6; lost to Stanford in Foster Farms Bowl)
Relatively speaking, and compared to much of Randy Edsall‘s first four seasons in College Park, the Terps got off to a rousing start in 2014, winning five of their first seven games.  They then limped home with a 2-4 finish, punctuated by a 24-point loss to Stanford in the Foster Farms Bowl.  Like it or not, The Terps could very well be back in rebuilding mode, what with just 10 returning starters on both sides of the ball and a schedule that includes road trips to West Virginia, Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State as well as a home game against West power Wisconsin.  Given that combination, getting back to a bowl game would serve as a huge plus for Edsall’s program.

6. Indiana (4-8)
It’s very simple for the Hoosiers: either win and make a bowl game, or the program will be looking for a new head coach following the upcoming season.  In four years thus far, the Kevin Wilson experiment has netted just 14 wins, with seven of those coming against Power Five teams and six against conference members.  For IU to get back to a bowl game for the first time since 2007 — and just the second time since 1993 — they’ll need to take advantage of a slate that includes five very winnable games; if they can squeeze out an upset along the way, they could very well go bowling — and save Wilson’s job in the process.

7. Rutgers (8-5; beat North Carolina in Quick Lane Bowl)
If this particular prediction were to ultimately come to fruition, Rutgers would be the next Big Ten school looking for a new head coach.  Normally a coach that went 8-5 in the program’s first season in a Power Five conference wouldn’t even be remotely close to the hot seat, but Kyle Flood‘s recent off-field issue will place even more pressure on the fourth-year coach to win and win bigger than last season’s surprise total.  That, though, could prove to be an impossible row to hoe.  Not only do the Scarlet Knights return just 10 starters, they also lost 28 lettermen with varied amounts of experience and playing time, further exposing a glaring lack of depth compared to just one season ago.  Adding to the potential 2015 angst is that, in addition to the East heavyweights, RU also drew West stalwarts Nebraska and Wisconsin.  In fact, it’s conceivable and not even remotely out of the question that the Scarlet Knights could go winless in conference play.

BIG TEN WEST

1. Nebraska (9-4; lost to USC in Holiday Bowl)
The first season post-Bo Pelini in Lincoln is expected to be a breath of fresh air both on and off the field.  Mike Riley is a big reason for that, although how quickly the Cornhuskers adapt to his style of offense will likely determine whether or not this first-year prediction of success is overly optimistic.  NU was on the cusp of grabbing a divisional talent last season before dropping back-to-back November games against Wisconsin and Minnesota.  This season, the ‘Huskers get the Badgers at home, although they’ll have to make a mid-October trip to the Gophers.  One other question mark?  Replacing a handful of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball.

2. Wisconsin (11-3; beat Auburn in Outback Bowl)
Whether it was Barry Alvarez or Bret Bielema or Gary Andersen, the Badgers merely locked and reloaded at running back, along the offensive line and on defense from year to year to year with great success.  Can they do the same under first-year head coach and former UW offensive coordinator Paul Chryst?  The Badgers should again have one of the best defenses in the conference as well as one of the top running games in college football, although, again, the team will likely struggle to make gains through the air.  If they flip the script on the latter, though, they could be one of the most dangerous teams in the country and very well make it back to yet another conference championship game.  Another plus?  They avoid both Ohio State and Michigan State in the regular season, although they do have to travel to both Lincoln and Minneapolis.

3. Minnesota (8-5; lost to Missouri in Citrus Bowl)
How close were the Gophers to an absolutely epic 2014 season?  They held a four-point third-quarter lead in the regular-season finale against Wisconsin in a game that, with a win, would’ve meant a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship.  They lost that lead, then proceeded to lose both their bowl game (by double digits to Mizzou) and 12 starters, including leading rusher David Cobb, leading receiver Maxx Williams and their two most productive players on the defensive side of the ball.  Perhaps the best news?  They get both Nebraska and Wisconsin at home.

4. Northwestern (5-7)
Call this slotting a hunch.  Or a significant reach.  One of the two.  After going bowling for five straight seasons from 2008-12, the Wildcats have back-to-back postseason-less years from which they’re attempting to bounce back.  Returning 14 starters is a good start to the rebound; the schedule makers didn’t do the Evanston bunch many favors, though, as they’ll tackle Stanford in the opener, Duke and Michigan on the road as well as a home date against Penn State — and that’s in addition to the divisional games against Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.  While it won’t be easy, look for the Wildcats to get back to at least six wins and into a bowl game.

5. Iowa (7-6; lost to Tennessee in Taxslayer Bowl)
From 2002 through 2009, the Hawkeyes averaged nearly nine wins per season; in the five years since, they’ve averaged less than seven, and finished fourth or worse in the Big Ten in four of those seasons.  Last year, they didn’t beat a single FBS program that ended the year with a winning record.  Entering his 17th season at the school, and despite the lack of recent success, Kirk Ferentz has the benefit of a very loyal athletic department — and a hefty buyout that, in essence, handcuffs said department.  The 2015 season should serve up more of the same style of play on the field: running game-centric offense, brutish defense and just hanging around in games long enough and often enough to qualify for another third-tier bowl game.  How long the fair-to-middlin’ results will continue to be acceptable to the Hawkeye faithful — and boosters — remains to be seen.

6. Illinois (6-7; lost to Louisiana Tech in Heart of Dallas Bowl)
A two-game winning streak at the end of last season put the Illini into a bowl game and saved Tim Beckman‘s job; his alleged treatment of players, though, forced the athletic department’s hand and resulted in Beckman being dismissed exactly one week before the season opener.  Enter offensive coordinator Bill Cubit as the interim coach, although, from a projection standpoint, not much should really change. The Illini actually returns 15 starters — that’s in the top third of the Big Ten — including a starting quarterback in Wes Lunt who has the talent to be productive and thrive in this offensive system if he can only stay healthy.  Looking at the schedule, though, four wins seem to be a reasonable projection while five wins appears to be the best to which the Illini can aspire.  Should they get to 6-8 wins?  There may be no need to conduct a coaching search after all.

7. Purdue (3-9)
Let’s just get straight to the point.  Darrell Hazell has won a mere four games in his first two seasons in West Lafayette, including one lone win in Big Ten play.  His non-conference schedule this season includes Virginia Tech and a road trip to defending Conference USA champion Marshall, while there’s a better-than-average chance he will go winless in conference play for the second time in three years.  If the 15 returning starters can improve enough, there’s a chance the Boilermakers could, akin to a fat man shimmying into a pair of skinny jeans, squeeze its way into a postseason bid, which is likely the only way this branch of the Jim Tressel coaching tree gets another season.

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION
Ohio State over Nebraska

Starting Tulsa safety Cristian Williams popped for DUI, suspended

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If the “Days Without An Arrest” ticker was still a thing, it’d be a Tulsa football player responsible for setting it back to double zeroes.

According to Tulsa World, Cristian Williams was arrested this past weekend on one count of driving under the influence.  Details of what led up to the arrest and charge have not yet been released.

As a result of the arrest, the Tulsa football program has indefinitely suspended the safety.

The off-field incident has cast somewhat of a shadow on what was a feel-good story for the 2019 season.

Williams returned to the playing field last August after missing most of the 2018 season with what was thought to be a career-ending health issue. The defensive back had been diagnosed with an “Arnold Chiari Type 1 malformation (a fluid-filled cyst commonly known as a syrinx)” in September and moved over to become a student assistant as he dealt with the issue.

In his return to the field, Williams started all 12 games for the Golden Hurricane in 2019.  He has been awarded a sixth season of eligibility, which he’ll be permitted to use in 2020.  Provided there is a season, of course.

During his time with Tulsa football, Williams has started 16 of the 39 games in which he played.

Tulsa is coming off a 4-8 football campaign.  That marked the third straight losing season for the Golden Hurricane since they won 10 games in 2016.  In bringing back Montgomery for a sixth season, though, the program made it clear that it’s a bowl game or bust in 2020.  Whether the pandemic alters that mindset remains to be seen.

Utah QB Jason Shelley transfers to Utah State

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Jason Shelley may have left Utah but, thanks to Utah State, he won’t be leaving the Beehive State to continue his football career.

Way back in early February, Shelley took the first step in leaving the Utes by entering the NCAA transfer database.  More than five months later, Utah State has officially confirmed the quarterback’s addition to the football roster.

As a graduate transfer, Shelley is eligible to play immediately for the Aggies in 2020.  Additionally, the school noted, Shelley will have another year of eligibility to use in 2021 as well.

Shelley was a three-star member of the Utes’ 2017 recruiting class.  The 247Sports.com competitive had the Texas product rated as the No. 17 dual-threat quarterback in the country.

In 19 career games with the Pac-12 program, Shelley started five of those contests.  In that action, Shelley completed 104-of-179 passes for 1,205 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions.  He also ran for 223 yards and another four scores.

The Aggies are coming off a 7-6 record in their second first season under Gary Andersen.  Anderson also served as the USU head coach from 2009-12.  In his final season in Logan, Andersen led Utah State to a school-record 11 wins. That mark was matched six years later by Matt Wells.  That season helped Wells land the Texas Tech job.  And led Andersen back to USU.

Hawaii adds another grad transfer WR, this one from Rice

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Hawaii football has been busy on the portal front.  Especially when it comes to the receiving corps.

In mid-June, Hawaii confirmed the addition of North Texas wide receiver transfer Rico Bussey Jr. to its football roster.  Roughly a month later, Aaron Cephus made his commitment to Hawaii football over the weekend.  The receiver, who began his collegiate career at Rice, made the announcement on his personal Twitter account.

As will be the case with Bussey, Cephus is coming to the Rainbow Warriors as a graduate transfer.  This coming season will serve as his final year of eligibility.

Coming out of high school in Texas, Cephus was a two-star member of the Class of 2016 for the Owls. His first season at the Conference USA school, Cephus took a redshirt.  The next two, though, the receiver put up impressive numbers.

In 2017, Cephus earned third-team All-Conference USA honors after setting a school record for freshmen with 622 yards.   The following season he led the Owls with five touchdown receptions.  He was also second on the team with 565 yards and third with 40 receptions despite missing the final two games with an injury.

A suspension, however, cost Cephus the entire 2019 season.

All told, Cephus has totaled 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns on 65 receptions.  The 6-4, 200-pound also averaged 18.3 yards per catch.

Hawaii football is coming off its best season since 2010. Included in a 10-win season was the program’s first appearance in the Mountain West Conference championship game.  Of course, that appearance ended in a loss to Boise State.

Ohio State announces resumption of voluntary workouts after COVID-19-related suspension last week

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After a brief hiccup, Ohio State is back to prepping for whatever the 2020 college football season will hold.

July 8, Ohio State announced that it was putting a halt to all voluntary on-campus workouts that had commenced the month before.  The pause was due to “the results of its most recent COVID-19 testing of student-athletes.”

Tuesday, however, Ohio State announced that its student-athletes, including football players, are now permitted to resume the workouts.  The school noted in its release that “[a]ll student-athletes from the seven sports that returned last month to voluntary workouts were tested Monday, and the results were received today.  The last round of testing was July 7 resulting in the suspension July 8.”

The school did not give the specifics of the tests that were most recently taken, citing the individual medical privacy of the athletes.

“Our Buckeyes are excited to be headed into a new school year and were disappointed last week when we had to temporarily suspend training,” OSU athletic director Gene Smith said in a statement. “These young people come from across the nation and the world to be part of our Ohio State family, and we do everything we can to create a safe, healthy environment so that they have a chance to study and compete.  Our medical team will continue to evaluate, and we will share our decisions as we move forward.”

Ohio State had been scheduled to open the 2020 season at home against Bowling Green Sept. 5.  However, the Big Ten announced this month that its league members will be going to a conference-only schedule for fall sports.