Big Ten & SEC Season Preview
With another great year of college football on the horizon, we take a at the season ahead for the Big Ten and Southeastern conferences.
Big Ten Preview
The Big Ten is fresh off an Ohio State national championship run that saw the Buckeyes defeat Alabama and Oregon in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Ohio State’s victory was the highlight of a watershed bowl season for the Big Ten with 10 teams appearing in bowl games, a pair of wins in the New Year’s Six games (Ohio State’s win in the Allstate Sugar Bowl and Michigan State’s thrilling comeback in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl) and more wins against ranked opponents in the postseason than any other league. One of those bowl teams was Minnesota, who made their first New Year’s Day bowl appearance since 1962 in the 2015 Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, but fell to Missouri 33-17.
Since the College Football National Championship Game, the Big Ten has been the talk of the college football world. In the race to keep up with their rivals, Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh fresh out of the NFL. Harbaugh headlines a list of four new coaches for 2015, including Nebraska’s Mike Riley, Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst and Illinois interim coach Bill Cubit.
Any discussion of the Big Ten begins with the defending champions, however: just a week ago, Ohio State became the first team to ever be named a unanimous pre-season No. 1 selection.
A few things to look for this season in the Big Ten:
Can Ohio State repeat?
Urban Meyer returns much of the same team that went 14-1 and won 13 straight games last year after falling to Virginia Tech 35-21 at home in the second week of the 2014 season. The Buckeyes’ schedule this year features just five road games but begins in Blacksburg, Virginia with a chance at revenge against Virginia Tech. Late in the year, they also travel up north to play…That Team Up North.
Which other teams can contend for the conference title?
Harbaugh’s public figure and his history of quick turnarounds have led to high expectations for Michigan after their first losing season since 2009. The Stanford Cardinal went 9-15 in his first two years in Palo Alto, then 20-6 in the next two, winning the 2011 Orange Bowl. Meanwhile, all the buzz around Columbus and Ann Arbor has left Michigan State – one year removed from their own Big Ten Championship and 2-2 against Ohio State over the last four seasons – out of the conference spotlight, but the Spartans (#5 AP, #6 Coaches) are poised to challenge for both the Big Ten title and a spot in the College Football Playoff, even without former defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi (now the head coach at Pitt, replacing Wisconsin’s Chryst).
Can Minnesota break through?
The Golden Gophers’ Orlando appearance was a sign of their continued improvement under coach Jerry Kill. Minnesota is 16-10 over the past two seasons after posting a 6-18 record in the two years before that. This year’s schedule includes home games against TCU, Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin. With many of the other Big Ten West division contenders facing question marks, the Gophers could be a sleeper team.
Five games to watch:
TCU at Minnesota, Sept. 3
Michigan at Utah, Sept. 3
Wisconsin at Nebraska, Oct. 10
Michigan State at Ohio State, Nov. 21
Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 28
From 2006 to 2012, the Southeastern Conference ruled the college football landscape, with multiple teams contending for a national title annually, a trend that reached its peak in 2012 when LSU and Alabama met in a rematch with the BCS National Championship on the line. Two years (and two Crimson Tide titles) later, the SEC saw its run of seven-straight national championships snapped when FSU defeated Auburn to cap the 2013-14 season.
Last year, the SEC West was arguably the deepest division in all of football throughout the regular season. All seven SEC West teams made it to a bowl game last season but struggled to a 2-5 record (including New Year’s Six losses by Alabama, Ole Miss and Mississippi State). The East, on the other hand, went a perfect 4-0 in bowls after an up-and-down regular season.
A few things to look for this season in the SEC:
Will Alabama repeat as SEC Champs?
There hasn’t been a back-to-back SEC champion since Tennessee in 1997-98. This year, attendees at SEC Media Days picked Auburn to win the SEC (despite curiously also voting Alabama to win the West division). That could be bad news for Auburn: the SEC media prediction has only been correct five times in the last 23 years. If Alabama is going to defy predictions and history to win a second consecutive league title, they’ll have to earn it against a pretty daunting schedule. They meet Wisconsin to open the year in Arlington, they play at Georgia, at Texas A&M and at Auburn.
What’s going on in the SEC East?
Probably the biggest offseason news in the SEC East was Florida’s hiring of Colorado State coach (and former Alabama assistant) Jim McElwain, who should boost the Gators’ offensive production. The new arrival isn’t expected to return UF to the SEC Championship Game right away, though; media projected Florida finishing fifth in the East behind Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri and South Carolina. After showing improvement in 2014 (including a blowout bowl victory), Tennessee has generated a lot of attention and some, including ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, expect them to win their first division title since 2007. Meanwhile, the 2015 Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl champion Missouri Tigers look to replace a pair of draft picks along their defensive line (Shane Ray and bowl MVP Markus Golden) in pursuit of their third consecutive division title. Mizzou was projected to finish sixth in the East in 2013 and fourth in 2014.
Can Georgia’s Nick Chubb win the Heisman?
Chubb is projected third in ESPN’s “Heisman Watch” behind Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliot and TCU quarter back Trevone Boykin. Chubb had a breakout year in 2014 where he ran for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns averaging a solid 7.1 yards per carry, with most of his snaps coming while Georgia’s Todd Gurley, sat out a suspension. Given Georgia’s pedigree for running backs (see Gurley’s fledgling Heisman campaign through six weeks last year), a full workload could keep Chubb in the conversation for college football’s highest honor throughout the season.
Five games to watch:
Oklahoma at Tennessee, Sept. 12
Tennessee at Florida, Sept. 26
Alabama at Georgia, Oct. 3
Missouri at Georgia, Oct. 17
Alabama at Auburn, Nov. 28