1. Ohio State
Who’s going to be the quarterback? Will J.T. Barrett be healthy in time to make a difference, and will Braxton Miller still stay around if he’s not assured of the starting gig? Cardale Jones won a national title … how do you put him on the bench? With Ezekiel Elliott and a loaded backfield returning, the ground game should take control early on behind a line that gets back four starters. The receiving corps is going to be fantastic with Jalin Marshall and Michael Thomas leading the way, but the loss of TE Jeff Heuerman will hurt.
Joey Bosa will lead another strong year from the defensive front, even if it does lose DT Michael Bennett and DE Steve Miller. The linebacking corps has to replace Curtis Grant in the middle, but Darron Lee and Joshua Perry are playmakers on the outside. Even without CB Doran Grant, the secondary will be outstanding with safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell with a world of upside. PK Sean Nuernberger needs to be a bit more consistent, while Cameron Johnston should be one of the nation’s best punters.
2. Michigan State
Is QB Connor Cook ready to lead an NFL team? Yup, but he’s back for one more year, and that could be the difference in MSU being a playoff-caliber team and a fighter for the East. The passing game loses top receivers Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery, but welcomes back Macgarrett Kings, R.J. Shelton and TE Josiah Price. Workhorse RB Jeremy Langford and No. 2 man Nick Hill are gone, meaning Delton Williams will get the first look to take over the ground game behind a line that gets back three starters, but loses LG Travis Jackson and RG Connor Kruse.
DE Shilique Calhoun is too good not to be gone early to the NFL, but like Cook, he’s back too, and Marcus Rush has to be replaced on the other side. However, the tackles are back and strong with Lawrence Thomas, Joel Heath, and 2014 super-recruit Malik McDowell inside. Top tackler Kurtis Drummond is gone from the secondary, and LB Taiwan Jones is finished, but Ed Davis should be one of the Big Ten’s better linebackers along with Darien Harris, Trae Waynes and Tony Lippett will be missed in a big way at corner, but it’s Michigan State – the secondary will turn out fine. PK Michael Geiger is back after an up-and-down year, and P Mike Sadler is gone after averaging over 41 yards per punt.
The defense was actually fantastic last season, and now it gets back four starters in the secondary – at least in nickel packages – along with 2014 superstar corner recruit Jabrill Peppers. Heart-and-soul LB Jake Ryan is gone, but everyone else is back on the front seven including all of the key backups. The pass rush, however, loses Brennen Breyer and Frank Clark up front, needing Mario Ojemudia and Brennen Beyer to shine on the outside.
And then there’s the offense. Is QB Shane Morris ready to live up to the immense hype, or is Zach Gentry going to be Jim Harbaugh’s guy right away? Alex Malzone and Wilton Speight are also in the equation. Who’s going to catch the ball with Devin Funchess taking off early to the NFL? Amara Darboh, Jehu Cheeson and Dennis Norfleet are all back, and TE Jake Butt needs to stay in one piece as a possible No. 1 target. The running game has to start helping the cause, hoping for Derrick Green to get healthy to go along with De’Veon Smith and Justice Hayes working behind a line that gets back all five starters. P Will Hagerup is done after averaging 43 yards per punt, and PK Matt Wile is also finished after hitting 15-of-21 field goals.
4. Penn State
Christian Hackenberg has to be more consistent, he needs to start to be the overall NFL franchise quarterback everyone thinks he can be, but it’s all there. Can the receivers improve? They might have been strong against Boston College, but the receiving corps has to be better and more explosive, and it doesn’t help to lose TE Jesse James early to the NFL. Finding a better running game is a must, too, starting with leading rusher Akeel Lynch, but it’s going to be tough with four starters gone – including OT Donovan Smith early to the big leagues - from a mediocre O line.
The defensive line has to undergo an overhaul – it doesn’t help to lose DE Deion Barnes a year early - and losing linebackers Mike Hull and C.J. Olaniyan hurts, too. However, after Hull, the next six tacklers are back from a phenomenal run defense. The secondary should be the most experienced defensive unit, and the entire group can hit. PK Sam Ficken closed out his career coming through clutch, and now it’ll likely be up to Chris Gulla to take over. The awful punting game has to be better with either Gulla or Daniel Pasquariello.
There’s firepower returning as long as the quarterback situation is settled early on. Chris Laviano has the early line on replacing Gary Nova, and LSU transfer Hayden Rettig could be a factor. TE Tyler Kroft is off to the NFL early, but Leonte Carroo and the top receivers are all back. The running game should be great if Paul James can return to form to go along with all the other options – everyone who finished with a positive rushing yard returns. Three starters are gone up front, but LT Keith Lumpkin and RG Chris Muller are back.
The defense that struggled so much has the most work to do in the secondary, losing three starters, but there are plenty of other options. Leading tackler Steve Longa returns along with fellow linebacker Quentin Gause, but four of the top six and five of the top eight tacklers are gone. P Joey Roth and PK Kyle Federico are back.
After a strong first year in the Big Ten, the Terps have to try to get by without receivers Deon Long (a senior) and Stefon Diggs (too good not to be in the NFL) while also working in likely new starting quarterback Perry Hills with C.J. Brown finished. Three starters are gone off the offensive line with guard Andrew Zeller and tackle Michael Dunn returning to help block for the running back tandem of Brandon Ross and Wes Brown.
The defense has to do a ton of work with the entire front seven needing to be replaced. Safety Sean Davis was one of the team’s top tacklers, and William Likely is a do-it-all playmaker as a returner and a cornerback, but too many key parts are gone up front. Corner Jeremiah Johnson is gone, but the other three starters in the secondary are back. The nation’s best kicker, Brad Craddock, is back along with P Nathan Renfro.
Getting QB Nate Sudfeld back from a shoulder injury should mean everything to an offense that hit the skids over the second half of last season. Three starters return up front to protect him, but who will he throw to, and who will he hand off to? 2,000-yard back Tevin Coleman is gone along with No. 2 man D’Angelo Roberts, and now Devine Redding might get his shot to do far more. The receiving corps loses Shane Wynn, but it comes back strong with Simmie Cobbs and Dominique Booth two good-sized targets to work with.
The Hoosiers need more big plays from a defense that loses CB Tim Bennett and S Mark Murphy – two of the team’s key playmakers – along with key linebackers David Cooper and Forisse Hardin. The top two tacklers are back in S Antonio Allen and LB T.J. Simmons, but losing DE Bobby Richardson takes away the team’s top pass rusher. PK Griffin Oakes is back after connecting on 13-of-18 field goals, and P Erich Toth returns after averaging around 41 yards per kick.
2015 Pre-Preseason Big Ten East Rankings
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