Early test: Sept. 17 vs. North Dakota St.
Best case: C.J. Beathard is 9-0 as a starting QB in Big Ten regular-season play, despite myriad injuries last season. The passing offense ranked 11th in the Big Ten last year, so if that ticks up with Beathard healthy, Iowa could be even more dangerous.
Worst case: If the Hawkeyes get cocky, NDSU could hit them hard in Week 3. Some of the doubts that materialized in the 29-point Rose Bowl loss to Stanford could mushroom. Iowa ranked 11th in the nation last year in turnover margin at plus-11 and will need to adjust if its luck changes.
Early test: Sept. 17 vs. Oregon
Best case: For the first time since joining the Big Ten in 2011, the Cornhuskers field one of the conference’s top-five scoring defenses, and the offense continues rolling. Tommy Armstrong minimizes his mistakes as a senior, and Nebraska claims the Big Ten West title.
Worst case: The defensive line holes prove too much. Armstrong, whose interception totals have climbed each year, can’t change the narrative even with a stable of receiving options, led by Jordan Westerkamp. The Huskers go 5-7 again, and fans lose faith in second-year coach Mike Riley.
Early test: Saturday vs. Louisiana State (Green Bay, Wis.)
Best case: Corey Clement returns to 2014 form, the offensive line regains its dominance, Bart Houston settles in at QB, and the defense remains potent under new coordinator Justin Wilcox. The Badgers go 2-2 against LSU, Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State — pulling two big upsets — and run the table against the Big Ten West.
Worst case: The schedule exposes Wisconsin’s inexperience at QB. The flaws USC had defensively under Wilcox last year, particularly vs. the pass, show up for the Badgers as they miss a bowl for the first time since 2001.
Early test: Oct. 1 at Penn State
Best case: Mitch Leidner blossoms into the first-round pick some prognosticators envision, Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith each rush for 1,000 yards, and the Gophers defense takes another step, ranking in the top 20 nationally. Tracy Claeys’ squad knocks off Iowa (Oct. 8) and rolls to an 8-1 start, holding on for the division title.
Worst case: The offensive line patches don’t hold, Leidner regresses and the running game stalls. Losses to Penn State and Iowa spoil a 3-0 nonconference start. Wisconsin claims the Axe for a 13th consecutive year, as the Gophers claim another lower-tier bowl bid at 6-6.
Early test: Sept. 17 vs. Duke
Best case: Northwestern somehow won 10 games last year despite the Big Ten’s worst scoring offense. Sophomore QB Clayton Thorson takes a big step, Justin Jackson remains a force at RB, and LB Anthony Walker earns Defensive Player of the Year honors. The Wildcats scratch their way to 10 victories for a year in a row.
Worst case: Northwestern gets worn down by the schedule, losing at Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State. Late-season losses at Minnesota and against Illinois drop the Wildcats to five victories, just as they had in 2013 coming off their previous 10-win season.
Early test: Sept. 10 vs. North Carolina
Best case: Lovie Smith steers an upset over the Tar Heels, and excitement builds, spurring a slew of success on the recruiting trail. His popularity only grows, with QB Wes Lunt slinging TD passes and Hardy Nickerson’s defense leading the way to an 8-4 season.
Worst case: Smith gets daily reminders how different college coaching is from when he was part of Ohio State’s staff in 1995. Illinois falls to 3-5 with a home loss to the Gophers on Oct. 29. The bottom falls out with defeats to Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern.
Early test: Sept. 10 vs. Cincinnati
Best case: Purdue handles Eastern Kentucky, Cincinnati and Nevada to create sorely needed momentum for coach Darrell Hazell, who is 6-30 in three seasons. With 16 returning starters, including sophomore QB David Blough and standout LB Ja’Whaun Bentley, the Boilermakers use a softer schedule to finish 5-7.
Worst case: Hazell could be fired in October if the Boilermakers don’t take advantage of the schedule and drop their first two Big Ten games at Maryland and Illinois. Ross-Ade Stadium, still steeped in tradition, becomes a sea of empty black and gold seats.