By Seth Gruen–
(CBS) We know this much about the college football season as far as Big Ten teams are concerned: It begins Thursday night when Indiana plays at Florida International and Minnesota hosts Oregon State.
Beyond that, we know little. We hope that it ends with someone in the conference winning the national championship in 2016.
And while it seems safe to surmise that the Big Ten will have a representative in this year’s College Football Playoff — the conference has had representatives in each of the first two, as Ohio State won the inaugural CFP and Michigan State lost last season to Alabama — it’s no certainty.
So, with so much unknown leading up to the start of the season, it seems as good a time as any to make some predictions. I make no guarantees, except that if I’m right you’ll hear about it later.
West champion: Iowa
At present, Iowa only has one team ranked in the AP Top 25, Michigan, on its schedule and can employ a similar formula to the one it rode to the Big Ten championship game last season: Tear through an easy schedule.
Even so, when the Hawkeyes went to Indianapolis, they proved strength of schedule isn’t always a determinant of the quality of a team. Iowa lost to Michigan State, 16-13, in one of the most thrilling games of the 2015 college football season. The Spartans needed a touchdown run from LJ Scott with 27 seasons remaining to win the game in what was a de facto CFP play-in game.
Iowa returns much of the core of its team from a season ago. Most importantly, its defensive and offensive fronts remain intact, as all but two players combined in that regard return. That’s where the program breads it butter.
Sorry to sound like a bloviating talking head on an NFL pregame show, but the Hawkeyes really do need to control the line of scrimmage more so than any other team in the conference. With more teams going to spread offenses, Iowa still holds onto its traditional, smash-mouth style. The Hawkeyes are one of the few teams in college football where the fullback matters.
Sophomore Matt Nelson is the only newcomer to the defensive front. Center James Daniels joins four returning starters on the offensive line. Add in the experience of quarterback C.J. Beathard and arguably the best secondary in the conference, and the Hawkeyes have a chance to post a second straight undefeated regular season.
East champion: Ohio State
As long as Urban Meyer coaches at Ohio State, the Buckeyes can be picked as Big Ten East champions without much else needed to substantiate it.
While Ohio State only returns six starters from last year’s squad — three on offense and three on defense— the electric, big-play ability that has made the Buckeyes a perennial national championship contender remains. It’s only with players less familiar to the conference.
That’s the nature of playing at a powerhouse: With so much talent, players have to wait their turn to star. But there’s always talent behind the team’s starters.
In quarterback J.T. Barrett, the Buckeyes have the conference’s best offensive player. Most importantly, Barrett, a redshirt junior, enters his first season as the unquestioned starter.
As a redshirt freshman in 2014, he took over the job after Braxton Miller suffered a shoulder injury. Later that season, Barrett broke his ankle and Cardale Jones took over under center, leading the Buckeyes to the national championship.
That prompted a quarterback battle heading into last season, and Barrett couldn’t work his way back into the starting lineup until the eighth game of the season. Combined with receiver Noah Brown, the duo should form the conference’s most dangerous passing combination.
Brown is known little to fans around the country because he only has one career catch. He played 13 games as a true freshman in 2014 but was lost last season after suffering a leg injury in fall camp.
He’s a player with tremendous speed and the ability to play all over the field. Don’t be surprised if Meyer employs him in the way in which he used Percy Harvin at Florida. Brown can play some H-back and is a just-put-the-ball-in-his-hands athlete.
Conference champion: Ohio State
The Big Ten East may be the second-best division in the country. The SEC West still holds that title.
Nonetheless, regardless of which team comes out of that side of the conference, it will undoubtedly be the favorite in the Big Ten championship Dec. 3 in Indianapolis.
Offensive Player of the Year: QB J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
For starters, Barrett plays the right position. We’ve come to learn that as awards are concerned, quarterback provides the most opportunity to win them.
Beyond that, Barrett is the kind of dual-threat quarterback who can single-handedly win a game. And given that he’s Ohio State’s most-experienced skill position player, he just may have to do that.
His ability is apparent: Ohio State remained a national championship contender after he took over for Braxton Miller in 2014. Barrett only started four Big Ten games last season but led the conference in passing efficiency.
Defensive Player of the Year: LB Anthony Walker Jr., Northwestern
Last year Walker was named an Associated Press third-team All-American. This season, he very well might be the best player in the country.
Walker has the mentality of a linebacker with the speed of a safety and the ability to chase running backs sideline to sideline. Seven times last season, he posted double-digit tackles, and he finished fourth in the nation with 20.5 tackles for loss.
Player to Watch: WR De’Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska
As a freshman in 2014, Pierson-El was named a USA Today second-team All-American as a punt returner. He also caught 23 passes for 321 yards but was limited to only five games last season due to injury.
Not only could Pierson-El emerge as the country’s top return specialist this season, but he’ll be one of the conference’s elite big-play threats if he’s able to stay healthy. At 5-foot-9, 185 pounds Pierson-El won’t jump over foes, but he’s a human joystick in the open field, with the Big Ten’s best ability to make guys miss.
1. Ohio State — See above
2. Michigan State — The Spartans have done it longer than…
3. Michigan — Banging on the door, asking for re-entry into college football’s VIP lounge.
4. Iowa — After an undefeated regular season in 2015, could this team again fly under the radar?
5. Northwestern — This may be coach Pat Fitzgerald’s best team in years. The problem is the schedule: Ohio State and Michigan State are crossover games.
6. Wisconsin — The Badgers go as running back Corey Clement goes.
7. Nebraska — Looking to rebound from a disappointing year.
8. Penn State — A distant fourth in the tough East.
9. Minnesota — Former coach Jerry Kill had been grooming Tracy Claeys for this, his first full season as a head coach.
10. Illinois — “Wes is our quarterback.”
11. Maryland — Big news: Five-star running back Anthony McFarland, a top recruiting target, put them in his top five.
12. Indiana — Even though the program is bad, I’ve heard the tailgates are fun.
13. Purdue — Pick ‘em
14. Rutgers — How’s the cross country team?
Seth Gruen is columnist for CBSChicago.com, focusing on college sports. You can follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.