This division is where not one but two teams could potentially challenge for a spot on the College Football Playoff. Here’s my breakdown of the Big Ten East.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Our first stop is Columbus, where for some programs when you lose guys like your number two leading rusher, Ezekiel Elliott, all-time leader in offense, quarterback turned wide receiver Braxton Miller, a couple of other receiving stand-outs and an All-American offensive tackle, you would panic, not the Buckeyes.
Head coach Urban Meyer has a boatload of talent back led by preseason All-Big Ten quarterback J.T. Barrett. The rest of the offense is in question though, Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel lead a solid backfield. There’s youth and depth at wide receiver, led by Noah Brown and Corey Smith, both coming off of season ending injuries.
The defense returns only three starters. One of them is preseason All-American linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who had a team-high 119 tackles last season. And though Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington are now in the NFL, defensive ends, preseason All-American Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard could provide the monster pass rush that was one of the Buckeyes’ strengths last season.
They host Northwestern, Nebraska, and Michigan. They must play Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan State on the road.
We go to Ann Arbor next, say what you want about head coach Jim Harbaugh, but he led his alma-mater to an impressive nine win season last year. Now buzz in Ann Arbor is that this year’s team can make a play not just for the division but also a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Preseason All-Americans tight end Jake Butt and wide receiver Jehu Chesson lead an incredibly dynamic corps. Who will throw to them though, is a big question. The Wolverines will also look to shore up their running game.
Michigan was able to lure Don Brown away from Boston College to become the new defensive coordinator. Brown helped the Eagles become the number one overall defense last season. Preseason All-American Jabril Peppers will shift from safety to linebacker under Brown’s scheme. Peppers also leads a veteran front seven. All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis is back and leads a terrific secondary.
They host Colorado, Penn State and Wisconsin. They face Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State on the road.
Michigan State Spartans
We take the trek two hours northeast to East Lansing, where Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio will have to replace key pieces from last year’s conference title team. Running back LJ Scott is back and leads a speedy backfield. R.J. Shelton leads a talented but unproven receiving corps.
Preseason All-American versatile defensive tackle Malik McDowell has the quickness up front to stop the run, which has been the Spartans’ mantra on defense. Linebacker Riley Bullough led the team in tackles last season. Safeties Montae Nicholson and Demetrious Cox could be the best safety duo in the Big Ten.
They host Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan, and Ohio State. They face Notre Dame and Penn State on the road.
The Rest of the Big Ten East
In State College, there’s depth and talent for the Penn State Nittany Lions. Former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead is the new offensive coordinator. He will install a new no-huddle style offense. Preseason All-Big Ten running back Saquon Bailey was third in the conference in rushing last season. Wide Receiver Chris Godwin was second in receiving yards. Both could shine in Moorhead’s new offense. With Christian Hackenberg gone, the Lions must find a new quarterback. While the defense will have to be rebuild but has experience in the secondary.
Off to Bloomington, where head coach Kevin Wilson led the Indiana Hoosiers to a bowl game last season. No doubt Hoosier fans want him to do it, again but it will be a bit harder. Quarterback Nate Sudfield (who set multiple school records), running back Jordan Howard (who rushed for over 1,200 yards) and tackle Jason Spriggs are gone. Preseason All-American guard Dan Feeney could play on Sundays. Linebackers Marcus Oliver and T.J. Simmons lead an unproven defense.
In College Park, new Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin is a defense-minded guy, but has to build the offense if he wants to keep up in the East. Quarterback Perry Hills and running back Wes Brown, two of their top five rushers from last season are back. Receiver D.J. Moore could have a breakout season. End Roman Braglio and linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. lead the defense.
Finally in Piscataway, former Ohio State assistant coach Chris Ash has been tasked to try and turn Rutgers around. The Scarlet Knights’ new offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer is installing a more up-tempo spread offensive attack, problem, he doesn’t have the athletes to run it at the moment. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton, who’s coming back from injury, is the leader on defense.
That’s it for the Big Ten East, next we’ll preview the Big Ten West