Feldman’s Big Ten picks: Buckeyes will cruise, but East bears watching

For much of 2014, it seemed like the Big Ten was going to get left out of the playoff altogether. Ohio State not only squeezed its way in, but the Buckeyes rolled to the national title.

Now, Urban Meyer’s team is clearly the overwhelming favorite to repeat — my colleague Stewart Mandel also picked them to win the conference. But it’s not far-fetched that the Big Ten could have two teams earn a playoff spot in 2015. That’s how talented Michigan State is. The Spartans are led by a talented senior QB in Connor Cook. They have both an experienced O-line and a fierce group of D-linemen. They can also win big points with the committee if they can knock off defending Pac-12 champ Oregon when the Ducks visit East Lansing in Week Two. The bad news for Mark Dantonio? MSU has to visit Columbus to face the Big Ten’s resident powerhouse, and Ohio State is loaded.

The East also has two proud programs that I think will take big steps forward in 2015: Michigan under Jim Harbaugh and Penn State with James Franklin. Bob Shoop’s Nittany Lions D was superb last fall (PSU did hold Ohio State to under 300 total yards in a game that went into overtime) and should be even better led by its excellent D-line, anchored by DTs Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson. Expect Christian Hackenberg to have a big year with a gifted crop of tight ends and more experience around him.

As for Michigan, the Wolverines have enough talent on D to keep games tight, and my feeling is that Harbaugh will coax them through the games against teams with comparable talent or slightly less. Keep in mind in the past two seasons, the Wolverines lost eight games against unranked opponents. For context, Jerry Kill’s Minnesota squad lost to half that many in the past two seasons — and one of those Ls came early in 2014 against a TCU team that finished the year No. 3 in the country.

The West is a mess, rivaling the ACC Coastal for the weakest division in a Power 5 conference. The two most talented teams, NU and Wisconsin, both have new coaches. I’m picking the ‘Huskers to win the division because they get Wisconsin in Lincoln this fall.

A few other thoughts:

–J.T. Barrett will be the guy who emerges as Ohio State’s starting QB. His command of the Buckeyes offense and leadership skills will be the difference — although OSU will blow out so many teams that Urban Meyer will be able to get Cardale Jones plenty of game action. 

–As much as Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten stepped up big in the postseason to remedy the conference’s rep among the rest of the Power 5s, Week One figures to put that talk back up in the air. Michigan plays at Utah; TCU visits Minnesota; Stanford visits Northwestern; BYU visits Nebraska; Wisconsin plays Alabama; and then on Monday night, Ohio State visits Va. Tech. Except for the latter, I could see the Big Ten dropping five of those six.

–Michigan State will be the only Big Ten team to be within single digits of the Buckeyes in the fourth quarter.

–Most underrated defensive talent in the Big Ten: Illini DL Jihad Ward, a 6-foot-6, 292-pound former JC transfer from New York with the size and athleticism to get some first-round looks next spring.

–Big Ten West team I’m most curious about: Minnesota. Jerry Kill has proved he is a terrific coach. He returns a very good O-line and perhaps the best secondary in the conference with two good corners, Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray. But the Gophers do have to replace the fantastic David Cobb at RB and standout TE Maxx Williams, and I’m not sure they have enough firepower to help Mitch Leidner, their gritty QB.

–Christian Hackenberg will put up numbers that end all the skepticism about whether he’s a first-round talent. He won’t be running for his life so much because the O-line should be more stable, and the receiving corps has come a long way with Gronkesque sophomore TE Mike Gesicki on the brink of stardom.

–Speaking of Hackenberg, for all the talk about how the Big Ten could produce three first-round QBs next spring (after not having produced one in 20 years), there’s a couple of other intriguing quarterback prospects in this conference who should be on the radar: Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld and Illinois’ Wes Lunt, two guys who both need to be very sharp — and stay healthy — if their head coaches are to keep their jobs beyond 2015.

–As stacked as the Buckeyes are at QB, they will also have the nation’s best O-line and probably the best linebacking corps by midseason. Joshua Perry and Darron Lee (the star of the national title game) are already established standouts on the OSU defense. Keep an eye on sophomore Raekwon McMillan, a former five-star recruit and a player everyone around the Buckeyes program is excited about.

–Illinois’ Tim Beckman will be the first coach let go.

Predicted standings: 

Championship: Ohio State over Nebraska

EAST

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)
Ohio State 12-0 (8-0)
Michigan State 11-1 (7-1)
Penn State 9-3 (5-3)
Michigan 8-4 (5-3)
Maryland  6-6 (3-5)
Rutgers  6-6 (2-6)
Indiana 3-9 (0-8)

WEST

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)
Nebraska 9-3 (6-2)
Wisconsin 9-3 (6-2)
Minnesota 7-5 (4-4)
Iowa 7-5 (4-4)
Northwestern  6-6 (4-4)
Illinois  4-8 (1-7)
Purdue  4-8 (1-7)

POWER 5 CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS