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Gold and Black Illustrated, Vol 26, Digital 6

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Page 84 of 110

GOLD AND BLACK ILLUSTRATED VOLUME 26, ISSUE 6 83 EAST DIVISION 1. OHIO STATE: J.T. Barrett is a great place to start when one considers the Buckeyes only have six starters returning after having sent a dozen players to the NFL. Having Michigan at home and revenge in mind when it travels to East Lansing could put Ohio State over the edge. And if OSU can build some confidence with a strong performance at Oklahoma, the Buckeyes have the talent to make waves. Big waves. 2. MICHIGAN: Jim Harbaugh knows how to draw at- tention to his program, but nothing will draw more atten- tion than winning and winning big. Michigan might have the best offensive and defensive lines in the conference in addition to the best tight end. That can compensate for a shaky start at quarterback. 3. MICHIGAN STATE: Don't count Michigan State out just because it has to replace Connor Cook. The Spar- tans host Michigan and Ohio State and have the best stable of running backs in the league, led by LJ Scott. Their defense at nearly every position has few peers in the league and nationally. 4. PENN STATE: The Lions benefit from not having to face Nebraska, Wisconsin and Northwestern from the West. Despite being back up to 85 scholarships after past sanctions, James Franklin's team may still be a year away from being at full strength, and there has been some doubt cast after successive 7-6 seasons. If quarterback and offensive line issues can be solved, this team could compete. 5. INDIANA: If the Hoosiers can survive a rough October stretch, a return to the postseason is possible. Devine Redding showed late last year that he can put up big yards in the ground game, and if juniors college transfer quarterback Richard Lagow pans out, the Hoo- sier should be fine offensively. But then again, offense is rarely the problem in Bloomington. 6. RUTGERS: New coach Chris Ash has brought some optimism and a defensive mind from Ohio State to New Jersey, but don't expect big things in Year 1. It has been a dysfunctional program of late, but if quarterback Chris Laviano can get the offense to be productive and it can beat the teams it is supposed to beat, four wins (overall) is possible. 7. MARYLAND: Like Ash, new coach D.J. Durkin takes his first head coaching job after serving as defensive coordinator at Michigan. The fact the Terrapins have Rutgers at home could easily get it out of the basement, and things are looking up for the program as Durkin is assembling a nationally relevant recruiting class in his first full season. WEST DIVISION 1. IOWA: This is a dangerous pick, because of late the Hawkeyes have been good when we thought they would be bad and bad when we thought they would be good. Still, having C.J. Beathard at quarterback, and the usual strong offensive line and defense could be enough for a return trip to Indianapolis. And the fact that the Hawkeyes don't play Michigan or Ohio State for the third straight season can't hurt. 2. NEBRASKA: We picked the Cornhuskers to win the division last year and could not have been more wrong. But assuming senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., the league's top returning passer, will be a big asset and more comfortable in his second season in Coach Mike Riley's offense, this season could far exceed 2015. It doesn't hurt that Michigan and Michigan State are off the schedule. 3. NORTHWESTERN: How can you not respect the job Pat Fitzgerald has done at Northwestern? After a two-year swoon, the 'Cats appear to have stabilized, though last year's drubbing at the hands of Tennessee on New Year's Day needs to be erased from their memory. The schedule is tougher this year. Repeating last year's 10-win total will not be easy if the offense and quarterback Clayton Thor- son aren't more productive. 4. WISCONSIN: The primary reason for the Badgers' relatively low preseason placement is a brutal schedule. Coach Paul Chryst must prepare for the likes of LSU, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State in addition to Iowa and Nebraska, all before Halloween. The Badgers still will be able run the ball if they can keep Corey Clement healthy. And the defense has one of the best linebacker units in the league. 5. MINNESOTA: The Gophers escape the East Divi- sion's Big Three on the schedule and that won't hurt as they continue to get used to having Tracy Claeys at the helm. Quarterback Mitch Leidner needs to reach his po- tential in his fifth and final season and help his team navi- gate tough divisional road games at Iowa and Wisconsin. 6. PURDUE: If the Boilermakers can pull an upset in Champaign as they did two years ago, they can move out of seventh place. Depth remains a challenge for Purdue, but if it can remain healthy, and the offense can become a unit that an opponent must prepare for, then some surpris- es are possible, especially with an easier schedule. But that is a lot of 'ifs' for a coaching staff entering a critical fourth season. 7. ILLINOIS: The cupboard is bare in terms of depth for Lovie Smith, but there is lots of optimism in Illini Nation with the hire of the former Bears coach. It is important for Illinois to start the season well and a pair of challenging non-con- ference games (North Carolina and Western Michigan) might not make it easy. With Wes Lunt at quarterback, the Illini should put up numbers, but can they put up enough points against good teams? POWER RANKINGS

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