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

Ameer Abdullah earns Reese’s Senior Bowl MVP as North triumphs over South

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The 2014 season was one for the ages for Big Ten running backs, so it was fitting to see Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Minnesota’s David Cobb help lead the North to a Reese’s Senior Bowl victory Saturday in Mobile, Alabama. Abdullah, the game’s MVP, rushed for 73 yards and added 40 receiving yards and Cobb rushed for 79 yards and a touchdown. The North pulled away from the South in the second half for a 34-13 victory.

For Abdullah, the chance to wrap up his collegiate career before a large group of family and friends from his home state of Alabama was a special opportunity

“Being down here was much more than putting on a good performance for me,” Abdullah said after the game. “Leaving this state was something that was hard for me to do. You could write a movie about it, really, just coming back and playing on Alabama soil for my last time as a collegiate athlete. I couldn’t paint a better picture.”

The Senior Bowl performance was especially good for Abdullah, who had battled some injuries in 2014 and had a somewhat discouraging week of practice leading up to the game according to some scouting reports.

Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty also had a tough time in practices this week, missing out on an opportunity to shine in the spotlight for a game without two of the top quarterbacks entering the NFL Draft (Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston). Petty completed nine of his 13 pass attempts for 123 yards and was intercepted once. It was not a banner week for any of the quarterbacks in the game, to be fair. Oregon State’s Sean Mannion tossed the only touchdown pass of the afternoon, a 10-yard pass to Notre Dame tight end Ben Koyack in the second quarter. Auburn’s Nick Marshall made the move to cornerback and recorded five tackles in the game, tied for the most tackles on the South team.

The Pac-12 had two players stand out in the game on defense as well. Utah defensive end Nate Orchard and Washington defensive tackle Danny Shelton were among the defensive standouts with five tackles. Orchard had 1.5 tackles for a loss in his stat line.

How much stock is placed on one performance in the Senior Bowl varies by team and scout, but there were some players that stood out above most of the others on Saturday. Yale fullback Tyler Varga was one of them. Varga had four rushing attempts resulting in 31 yards and he was the North’s second leading receiver behind Abdullah with 39 receiving yards.

2015 could be the year of the running back in college football

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College football has been a game for quarterbacks over the last decade or so, but the 2015 college football season could be a big one for the running backs. The young running backs that have taken the big stage during the 2014 season have shown glimpses of what could be one of the finest seasons for fans of the running game in quite some time.

Just look at some of the names coming back to line up in the back field with authority in 2015.

Now a couple of years removed from the SEC’s best quarterback class in some time, the SEC should be heavy on the run in 2015. The SEC’s leading rusher returning in 2015 will be Georgia’s Nick Chubb for his sophomore season, and LSU freshman Leonard Fournette could also be worthy of striking his Heisman pose. Chubb rushed for 1,547 yards and an SEC-leading 14 touchdowns this season, and most of that came while backing up Todd Gurley until he went down to injury. Fournette also rushed for over 1,000 yards, including 143 yards in a bowl game loss against Notre Dame. If you need more running power from the SEC, look no further than Arkansas with sophomore Alex Collins. Collins is coming off a 1,100-yard season with 12 touchdowns and should be a big piece of the offense for Bret Bielema in 2015. If there is one thing Bielema knows how to do, it is run the football. With Collins on the field, Arkansas will do just that. Alabama will look for a big year from  too. Henry was 10 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season but he did rush for 11 touchdowns for the Crimson Tide.

Up north, the Big Ten should continue to see plenty of production on the ground. In 2014 the Big Ten running game was the story with Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon earning a nod as Heisman finalist and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah a household name. But the Big Ten also saw great seasons from Indiana’s Tevin Coleman, Minnesota’s David Cobb and Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford. The Big Ten will lose all of these players to the draft, but there are some talented running backs ready to pick up the steam. Right now there is no hotter name among young running backs than Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, who turned in a postseason run worthy of Mr. January consideration. Wisconsin has Corey Clement ready to be the next running back in line in Madison. Two other sophomores to keep an eye on in the Big Ten will be Michigan’s Derrick Green, who could have a big impact if he bounces back healthy in 2015, and Penn State’s Akeel Lynch if the Nittany Lions firm up on offensive line.

Move just west of Penn State and you may find the best running back in the state with Pittsburgh’s James Conner. The sophomore led the ACC in rushing with 1,765 yards and his 26 touchdowns were twice more than the ACC’s next leading rushing touchdown leader, Boston College’s Jon Hilliman (a freshman). Florida State’s Dalvin Cook could have a huge role in 2015 as well.

Out west it is easy to get caught up in the quarterback action in the Pac-12. This year was certainly the case with players like Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley, but next year could see some big years from running backs as well. Paul Perkins of UCLA led the Pac-12 in rushing with 1,575 yards this season and will be back in 2015. So will Arizona’s Nick Wilson, the conference’s fourth-leading rusher as a freshman, and Oregon’s Royce Freeman. Freeman did not have a great championship game against Ohio State, but he should take on a heavy load without Mariota leading the offense in 2015.

The pass-happy Big 12 is not without some impact running backs in 2015 either. Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine led the Big 12 with 1,713 yards and 21 touchdowns as a freshman in 2014. Baylor’s Shock Linwood was second in the Big 12  as a sophomore with 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns. West Virginia’s Rushel Shell is also capable of doing some major damage if the Mountaineers have more faith in him.

Quarterbacks will likely remain the face of many programs, but the 2015 season could be a huge season for the running backs.

No. 16 Missouri uses running game to pull away from No. 25 Minnesota for Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl victory

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For the second season in a row, Missouri ended its season with a win in a bowl game while representing the SEC. No. 16 Missouri pulled away from No. 25 Minnesota in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl Thursday afternoon in Orlando, Florida, winning 33-17 to even the SEC’s record against the Big Ten this bowl season.

Russell Hansbrough ripped off a 78-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter to boost a two-point advantage over the Gophers to a 26-17 lead, and Maty Mauk completed a seven-yard touchdown pass to Bud Sasser later in the fourth quarter for what was effectively a knockout blow for the Tigers. Missouri shrugged aside a sluggish start to the game with a pair of turnovers by way of intercepted passes on the first two possessions of the afternoon, and came back to play a physical game. Mauk played a role in that as well  with 38 hard-earned rushing yards and a touchdown that saw Mauk being the last man standing despite being tackled by one Minnesota player and another coming in for a helmet-to-helmet hit. Mauk was charged with emotion as his touchdown run gave Missouri a 19-14 lead following a failed two-point conversion attempt.

Minnesota may not have had many highlights, but tight end Maxx Williams may have turned in one of the best plays of the bowl season. Williams caught a pass and started to work his way down the left sideline. With a Missouri defended looking to force him out of bounds from the front, Williams took to the air to hurdle the defender. He then raced down field and left the Missouri defenders in the dust en route to an amazing 54-yards touchdown pass from Mitch Leidner.

The Tigers owned the advantage on the ground too. Marcus Murphy led all players with 157 rushing yards and Hansbrough added another 114 yards on the ground. Minnesota’s David Cobb ended his day with 81 rushing yards.

The win by Missouri was the fifth by the SEC this bowl season, improving the SEC’s bowl record to 5-4. That includes winning records against the ACC and Big 12 and a .500 mark against the Big Ten (with two more match-ups against the Big Ten to be played). The SEC East is now 3-0 in bowl action as well.

The Big Ten dropped to 3-4 as a result of this game, and with Michigan State trailing Baylor it looks as though the Big Ten is in at risk of a losing record this bowl season (Well, Michigan State just won, so forget about that thought for now). Ohio State and Iowa are the only two bowl teams remaining for the conference.

CFT Previews: The Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl

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WHO: No. 16 Missouri (10-3) vs. No. 25 Minnesota (8-4)

WHAT: The 69th Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl

WHERE: Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium, Orlando, Florida

WHEN: 1:00 p.m. ET January 1, 2015 on ABC

THE SKINNY: Minnesota fans have waited a long time to see their Gophers back in a New Years Day bowl game. The last time Minnesota played on New Years Day was in the 1962 Rose Bowl. Will the wait be worth it? Jerry Kill was named the Big Ten coach of the year, and he has running back David Cobb to thank for much of that. In a year that put Big Ten running backs under the spotlight, Cobb’s 1,548 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns may have been easy to overlook. Where Minnesota ruly excelled was inside the red zone. No Big Ten scored a higher percentage of touchdowns inside the 20-yard line than the Gophers (73.3 percent; 33 touchdowns on 45 red zone opportunities).

Minnesota may have had a darling of a season in Big Ten play, but the Gophers proved to be a team that was unable to get over the hump against the top teams on their schedule. Minnesota suffered losses against TCU, Ohio State and Wisconsin (and Illinois!). They will face a Missouri team that once again caught some in the SEC by surprise with a second straight SEC East division championship.Like Minnesota, Missouri was another team that struggled to beat the top competition on tis schedule (Georgia, Alabama… and Indiana?), but if the Tigers rely on their defense and get a solid outing out of quarterback

Like Minnesota, Missouri was another team that struggled to beat the top competition on tis schedule (Georgia, Alabama… and Indiana?), but if the Tigers rely on their defense and get a solid outing out of quarterback Maty Mauk, then the Tigers may be able to ring in the new year with a bowl victory. Head coach Gary Pinkel, himself a coach of the year his conference this season, is looking for his third straight bowl victory (Missouri missed the postseason in 2012 but has been victorious in two straight bowl trips).

THE PREDICTION: Missouri 26, Minnesota 20