Early test: Sept. 17 at Oklahoma
Best case: Ohio State’s recruiting prowess prevails again. Mike Weber proves a capable replacement for Ezekiel Elliott, and the offense hums with J.T. Barrett not having to look over his shoulder for Cardale Jones. Cretin-Derham Hall’s Jashon Cornell and others become stars in a dream season reminiscent of 2014.
Worst case: Oklahoma exposes the revamped Buckeyes offensive line in Week 3. Barrett and Co. never quite click. After going 50-4 his first four years in Columbus, Meyer tires of the expectations and pressure, while Jim Harbaugh’s star continues to rise at “that school up north.”
Early test: Sept. 24 vs. Penn State
Best case: Michigan gets even stingier under new defensive coordinator Don Brown. LB Jabrill Peppers, CB Jourdan Lewis and DL Rashan Gary, the No. 1-rated recruit in the country, all thrive. Michigan survives at Michigan State (Oct. 29) and Ohio State (Nov. 26), going undefeated.
Worst case: Harbaugh is known as the QB Whisperer, but it’s dangerous to assume he’ll always have the same effect he did on Jake Rudock, Colin Kaepernick, Alex Smith, Andrew Luck and Josh Johnson. Houston transfer John O’Korn and sophomore Wilton Speight could falter, even with several talented receivers.
Early test: Sept. 17 at Notre Dame
Best case: They’ll miss Connor Cook, but Tyler O’Connor is a senior who gives them more of a dual-threat QB. L.J. Scott is a Le’Veon Bell-type budding star at RB. Malik McDowell is a force at defensive tackle. Michigan State can use home-field advantage to vanquish Ohio State and Michigan.
Worst case: The QB problems that vexed this program in 2012 return, and each game becomes a grind, starting with Notre Dame and Wisconsin in September. Mark Dantonio is an underrated coach, but the Spartans shouldn’t be expected to win 11-plus games every year.
Early test: Sept. 10 at Pittsburgh
Best case: Three consecutive Top 25 recruiting classes finally bear fruit for impatient fans, who’ve watched three straight seven-win seasons. A retooled offensive line propels Saquon Barkley to 1,600 rushing yards. Penn State goes 10-2, knocking off one of the East’s Big 3 — Michigan, Ohio State or Michigan State.
Worst case: Christian Hackenberg is sorely missed at QB. Trace McSorley isn’t the answer. A loss at Pittsburgh leads to calls for James Franklin’s job. It gets louder with a loss at Michigan, and Franklin’s fate is sealed with a home loss to the Gophers on Oct. 1.
Early test: Oct. 1 vs. Michigan State
Best case: After a quiet, 1,000-yard rushing season behind Jordan Howard, Devine Redding carries the load. Richard Lagow, the nation’s No. 1 junior college QB recruit, proves a capable replacement for Nate Sudfeld. New defensive coordinator Tom Allen stems the usual bleeding, and Indiana goes bowling for a second straight year.
Worst case: The talents of Redding and Indiana’s two outstanding guards — Dan Feeney and Jacob Bailey — go to waste thanks to another lousy year for Indiana’s defense. Coach Kevin Wilson’s squad gets chewed up by this October slate: Michigan State, at Ohio State, Nebraska, at Northwestern.
Early test: Oct. 8 at Penn State
Best case: Under first-year coach D.J. Durkin, Maryland takes advantage of its nonconference schedule and beats Purdue to start 4-0. After a close loss to Penn State, Maryland rebounds against the Gophers, with a stout run defense led by inside linebacker Jermaine Carter. The schedule stiffens, but wins over Indiana and Rutgers send Maryland to a bowl.
Worst case: Maryland’s turnover woes carry over from last year’s 3-9 season. Perry Hills’ struggles at QB continue, and since it’s clearly a rebuilding year, Durkin is careful not to burn a redshirt for Tyrrell Pigrome.
Early test: Sept. 3 at Washington
Best case: The Chris Ash era begins with notable progress. Beyond the 5-7 finish, there is across-the-board improvement against a murderous schedule after last year’s 4-8 disappointment. QB Chris Laviano applies lessons learned as a sophomore, leading the up-tempo offense to consecutive victories over Illinois, Minnesota and Indiana.
Worst case: The honeymoon ends quickly for Ash, as losses mount against Washington, Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan by Week 6. DT Darius Hamilton’s return isn’t enough to spark the defense. Losses to Michigan State, Penn State and Maryland cap a 3-9 season for the Scarlet Knights.