Big Ten Preview: East Division

Crucial Fall Games Will Determine Fate Of Big Ten East

Perhaps no division in the NCAA has received more attention and publicity this off-season than the Big Ten’s East division, and for good reason. With the emergence of Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines, coupled with two of the most consistent programs in the country in Michigan State and  Ohio State, the Big Ten East could be the best division in college football. Below is a preview of each team in the division, and how I see their season playing out:

  1. Ohio State

Associated Press Ranking: 6

The Buckeyes return just six starters from last season, but Ohio State will not lack talent in 2016. Head coach Urban Meyer is one of the best recruiters in the country, which always puts his team in contention for the Big Ten Championship. Quarterback J.T. Barrett returns for his junior year, and his dual threat ability will be the focal point of the Buckeyes offense.

A week 3 battle at Oklahoma will set the tone for the Buckeyes season, while they end the year at Michigan State and at home against Michigan. Those match-ups at the end of the season will once again determine the Big Ten East title, and OSU’s inexperienced roster should have plenty of seasoning by then. Expect names like Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel to become household names on offense with Raekwon McMillan and Sam Hubbard anchoring the defense.

Road games at Wisconsin and Penn State could provide a conference loss in October, but Ohio State will once again be in the Big Ten Championship picture come November. The Buckeyes will have a full head of steam going into the winner-take-all regular season finale against Michigan, and once again defeat the Wolverines to capture the Big Ten East title.

Projected record: 10-2

2. Michigan

Associated Press Ranking: 7

Whether or not you buy the hype surrounding Jim Harbaugh and the 2016 Michigan Wolverines, it is undeniable that Michigan is relevant again. An easy early season slate should have the Wolverines sitting in the Big Ten’s driver seat heading into key road games at Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State.

Looking at their roster, Michigan’s defense has the potential to be one of the best in the nation, led by All-Big Ten players Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers. The starting quarterback position is still up in the air heading into the season, but Harbaugh has proven he can make something out of nothing with his development of quarterbacks in the past. Look for Michigan to play a simple game, relying on their running game and defense to lead them to victories, much like last season.

I see Michigan rounding in to form early in the year, with plenty of momentum built up as the Big Ten gauntlet approaches. However, a trio of aforementioned road games against top 25 teams will prove to be too much for the Wolverines. In Year 2 under Harbaugh, Michigan will fall just short of a Big Ten Championship game appearance.

Projected record: 10-2

3. Michigan State

Associated Press ranking: 12

Despite winning the Big Ten last year, the Spartans are flying under the radar heading into the 2016 season. While Ohio State and Michigan stole most of the pre-season headlines, MSU will once again field a competitive team and talented roster behind head coach Mark D’Antonio. A favorable Big Ten schedule includes home games against Ohio State and Michigan, while a non-conference tilt at Notre Dame should generate early season buzz.

The 2016 Spartans should feature a familiar game plan: a strong running game with a stout defense. LJ Scott leads a deep stable of running backs, which should help quarterback Tyler O’Connor run the offense smoothly. However, the inexperienced O’Connor will have to make plays in big games in order for Michigan State to be a top team in the nation. Malik McDowell and Riley Bullough are NFL talents on defense, which MSU will once again lean on to be successful.

Expect Michigan State to be in the Big Ten title race yet again, but they may lack playmakers on offense to put them over the top. Losses to Michigan and Ohio State will damper the Spartans hopes of repeating as Big Ten champs.

Projected record: 9-3

4. Penn State

After a 7-6 season last year, Penn State is embracing change, bringing in a new offensive coordinator in hopes of igniting an offensive unit that finished 101st in the nation in scoring. Head coach James Franklin could potentially be on the hot seat if Penn State is unable to show improvements in 2016.

A new up-tempo offense will highlight new quarterback Trace McSorley’s dual threat ability and should help the offense put more points on the board. However, the focal point of the offense will be Saquon Barkley, one of the nation’s best running backs. The Nittany Lions should once again have a great defense, with linebackers Nyeem Wartman-White and Brandon Bell becoming the new faces of Linebacker U.

Non-conference regional rivalries against Temple and Pittsburgh could help Penn State start the year off on the right foot. Look for them to compete in home games against Michigan State, Iowa, and Ohio State, but Penn State lacks the talent right now to enter the Big Ten East’s elite category.

Projected record: 8-4

5. Indiana

While Indiana may not be known for its football program, head coach Kevin Wilson is attempting to change that. After making a bowl last season with a record of 6-7, Indiana looks to take the next step in building their program in to a contender in the Big Ten East.

Indiana will rely on outscoring opponents yet again, which may not be a bad thing.  Their high-powered offense lost their quarterback and running back from last season, but JUCO transfer Richard Lagow has the physical tools to step in and quarterback Indiana’s offense. Their defense must improve against the pass, after giving up 400 yards in the air three times last season. If Wilson can get the most out of linebackers Marcus Oliver and T.J. Simmons, Indiana can be better on that side of the ball.

With a fairly easy schedule outside of Michigan/Michigan State/Ohio State, Indiana should be able to surprise some people in the Big Ten East. Home games against Nebraska and Penn State are must-wins if the Hoosiers want to take the next step in their development.

Projected record: 8-4

6. Maryland

First year head coach D.J. Durkin should improve the Terrapins moving forward, after going 3-9 last year. Durkin brings experience under Harbaugh and Meyer, and if he is able to recruit the talent-heavy Washington D.C. area, he may find success at Maryland. The question is; how soon will that success come?

Nine starters are back on offense from last year, but the starting quarterback position is still up in the air. Caleb Rowe or Perry Hills, whoever wins the QB battle, will have to fix Maryland’s -18 turnover margin from last season. Maryland’s defense will also be a project in 2016, with only five returning starters, led by corner William Likely. However, Durkin and his staff should be able to fundamentally improve the defense just by coaching and strategy adjustments.

Looking at their schedule may bring optimism to Maryland fans early in the season. A cakewalk non-conference schedule followed by a home game with Purdue should notch a couple wins under Durkin’s belt. However, the Big Ten schedule remains tough for a program looking to build from the bottom, especially in the East.

Projected record: 4-8

7. Rutgers

Much like Maryland, Rutgers will be under a rookie head coach looking to lay the foundation for a competitive future in the Big Ten East. Head coach Chris Ash, formerly Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, brings an exciting and energetic attitude to Rutgers in 2016. Ash will attempt to reshape the Rutgers program, turning them in to an Ohio State of New Jersey.

Last season, the Rutgers offense was not great, but it was not awful. They bring back quarterback Chris Laviano, and a two-headed running back attack as well. While they don’t have the mobile quarterback they will be looking for in the future, they have enough talent to be respectable on offense. Their defense is where they run in to problems. Defensive lineman Darius Hamilton is one of the only bright spots for the defensive unit, which last season gave up conversions on 44% of third downs. The largely inexperienced defense will more than likely be what holds Rutgers back in 2016.

A Week 1 game against Washington is not ideal, and neither is the brutal conference schedule Rutgers faces. Wins will be scarce this year as Chris Ash looks to build the Scarlet Knights program the right way.

Projected record: 3-9

With a three-headed monster at the top of the division and multiple storylines throughout the group, the Big Ten East promises to be one of the most exciting and competitive divisions in the country.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @Awight54

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