I’ll just state this up front: Compared to the other Big Five conferences, and despite having the defending national champions as a member, the Big Ten is pretty much a joke in relative terms. Between soft non-conference schedules and a lack of tough inter-divisional matchups, there is very little drama expected this season. Michigan State takes on Oregon, Wisconsin has tot contend with Alabama and Ohio State travels to Va. Tech to avenge their only 2014 defeat, but other than those games there isn't much competition outside the conference for the top teams. Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin are clearly the class of the conference, with very little expectation that someone else can enter that upper echelon. With Jim Harbaugh’s arrival in Ann Arbor, Michigan is probably going to contend in the near future, but it’s unlikely to be this season. Because Wisconsin plays neither of the top teams in the East, the Badgers’ October 10 game at Nebraska may be their only hurdle to a rematch of last year’s championship debacle against Ohio State, a 59 – 0 drubbing in which Wisconsin seemed to quit. If I was a conspiracy theorist or a reader of my own PK Frazer novels, you could make a case that the Big Ten asked Wisconsin to take one for the league so that the Buckeyes could sneak into the playoff picture. But that was last year, so let’s get back to 2015.
Likewise, the East title will be come down to the November 21 clash between Ohio State and Michigan State in Columbus. The Buckeyes could probably play their second team after their September 7 opener at Virginia Tech and still go into that game undefeated. For such a high profile program, their non-conference slate is an embarrassment. I totally disagreed with their inclusion in the playoffs last year and maintain that the committee should leave the Big Ten out of the mix, unless Michigan State can win the league, if they don’t upgrade their non-conference matchups, primarily because the league lacks depth. At least the Spartans host Oregon and Air Force and take on Nebraska from the West. It’s impossible however to argue against Ohio State repeating. They bring back fifteen position starters, have incredible depth at quarterback and possess one of the top two or three coaches in college football. Regardless of whether J.T. Barrett or Cordell Jones emerges as the starting signal caller, the Buckeyes aren’t likely to be tested until Michigan State rolls into town. And even then, there’s a solid chance they could be double-digit favorites.
In the West, as I mentioned, Wisconsin will be looking to bounce back from an embarrassing finish to an otherwise solid season. I don’t think anyone saw the shutout loss to Ohio State coming, especially with the Buckeyes down to their third string QB. The Badgers’ biggest challenge will be to replace RB Melvin Gordon and fill some holes on the offensive line. But defensively, they’ll be tough, returning six starters. In Lincoln, former Oregon State coach Mike Riley inherits an experienced Nebraska team that’s led by QB Tommy Armstrong. The question is whether Armstrong’s passing accuracy can improve enough to be successful in Riley’s pro-style offense. If so, they can challenge for the crown. If not, it might open the door for Iowa or Minnesota to get to the next level. The sad story for the Big Ten is that outside of Wisconsin, there probably isn’t a team in the West that could compete in the SEC West, the Pac-12 or the Big 12. As you can see, I’m not a big fan of this conference.
Prediction: Ohio State by a mile.