Fifty days?! What are we going to do until then?! Predict, project, guesstimate and throw things at the wall, of course. Yes, spring ball is a couple of months away, but we're already gearing up for next season. Star Tribune college football writer Joe Christensen watched Ohio State thrash Oregon on Monday night, took a breath, turned his attention to the 2015 season and offered his early, early outlook at what is shaping up to be a fascinating fall in the Big Ten.
After watching Cardale Jones dismantle Oregon in the national title game, I sat down to rank the Big Ten’s best quarterbacks heading into the 2015 season. The top three spots all went to guys from Ohio State.
Just for fun, my top five goes:
1. Jones, Ohio State
2. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
3. Braxton Miller, Ohio State
4. Connor Cook, Michigan State
5. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
Jones said Tuesday that he doesn’t think he’s ready for the NFL. But he still could turn pro, and Miller could transfer to play next season at Florida State as a graduate student. Even if two of these guys leave, Ohio State still would be a good bet to repeat as national champions next season.
Urban Meyer looks like he has a potential dynasty on his hands with all the freshmen and sophomores who played game-changing roles this season. Running back Ezekiel Elliott, defensive lineman Joey Bosa, linebacker Darron Lee and myriad others will be back, gearing up for spring practice in about seven weeks.
Here are four other questions to chew on before then:
Is the Big Ten really back?
It’s been a transformational four months. The Big Ten hadn’t won a national title since Ohio State last won in 2002. The conference’s bowl game follies had been well-documented, and on Sept. 13, Big Ten teams were a combined 1-10 against opponents from other Power Five conferences and Notre Dame.
But the narrative changed, big-time, on New Year’s Day with victories by Michigan State (over Baylor), Wisconsin (over Auburn) and Ohio State (over Alabama).
“I still think top to bottom, we have some work to do in our conference, but it’s moving,” Meyer said Tuesday. “I was cheering like mad for Wisconsin [against Auburn] because I just thought it legitimizes everything that these guys [in the Big Ten] did.
“You’ve been told you’ve been bad for so long, at times the psychologist part of it takes over. You start believing you’re not very good, and that’s not true at all.”
Who wins first?
Michigan made the home run hire with Jim Harbaugh, but the Wolverines (5-7) looked far from elite this past season. The team’s strength was its defense, and the Wolverines need to replace their best two tacklers in Jake Ryan and Brennen Beyer, along with wide receiver Devin Funchess, who left early for the NFL.
Departing senior Devin Gardner was a turnover machine at quarterback, but Shane Morris didn’t exactly impress. Harbaugh eventually will thrive at Michigan, but it could take awhile.
Mike Riley walked into his own challenge at Nebraska, as the Cornhuskers (9-4) look to replace running back Ameer Abdullah, defensive end Randy Gregory and wide receiver Kenny Bell.
Paul Chryst is probably the safest bet to win first at Wisconsin (11-3), but he’ll have to do it without record-setting running back Melvin Gordon and three departing seniors from the offensive line.
Who wins the East?
When Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes were rival coaches, the Big Ten was known as the Big Two and Little Eight. Now, the East Division looks like the Big Two and Little Five, with Ohio State and Michigan State several steps ahead of the rest.
Penn State (7-6) won the Pinstripe Bowl after coach James Franklin said he was basically down to 41 scholarship players. With the sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal lifted, and Franklin continuing to reel in top recruits, Penn State is on its way back to prominence. But similar to Michigan, it won’t happen overnight.
Michigan State (11-2) has won 53 games over the past five years and finished tied with Florida State for No. 5 in the final Associated Press poll after finishing No. 3 last year. Cook and Shilique Calhoun passed up chances to turn pro early, coming back for one last run at the national title. The Spartans have a rematch with Oregon in East Lansing on Sept. 12, and then play at Ohio State on Nov. 21.
After a quick study of each team’s key losses and returnees, here’s my early prediction for the East:
1. Ohio State
2. Michigan State
3. Penn State
Who wins the West?
Once again, the West looks far more wide open. The Badgers can plug Corey Clement in for Gordon to keep the rushing offense churning, and the defense should be strong again. Chryst kept defensive coordinator Dave Aranda as a holdover from Gary Andersen’s staff.
The Gophers are looking to build off their first New Year’s Day bowl appearance since 1962. They must replace running back David Cobb, tight end Maxx Williams and a few standouts on defense, but coach Jerry Kill insists this team could be better. The schedule is tough again, but the Gophers get TCU, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska at home.
So here’s my early prediction for the West: