Dugan: Previewing the East

Urban_Meyer_vs_Michigan,_2013With the season fast approaching, it’s time to take a look at schedules and see how each team fares against their opponents. Let’s start with the loaded Big Ten East division.

Ohio State

Anything short of a playoff appearance would be considered a bust for the Buckeyes, with perhaps a Rose Bowl berth as the only acceptable consolation. They have to travel to three of the conference’s toughest environments in Iowa City, Lincoln and Ann Arbor, all in the second half of the season. Before all that, they open the year in Bloomington to face offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson’s former school. The following week, they host Oklahoma. It won’t be an easy start for the Buckeyes, who have defensive holes to fill after losing stars like Malik Hooker and Raekwon McMillan to the NFL. An undefeated season for Ohio State seems more than unlikely with this schedule, but with Urban Meyer at the helm and JT Barrett under center for his final season, anything can happen.

TOUGHEST STRETCH: October 14-November 4–@NEB, Vs. PSU, @Iowa

TRAP GAME: @IND, August 31

BEST CASE: 12-0

PROJECTED RECORD: 10-2

Michigan

The bad news? Jim Harbaugh returns very little production from last season on both sides of the ball. The good news? Those were all Brady Hoke recruits, and now Harbaugh will be able to show off a team that he assembled himself.

They will be put to the test early, as they face Florida in Arlington, Texas on September 2. Fortunately for the Wolverines, two of their three toughest games come in the final two weeks of the season. However, Jim Harbaugh has been prone to fall short of expectations on the biggest stage. At Stanford, he couldn’t beat Oregon and reach the Rose Bowl. In San Francisco, while he was brilliant, he needed an electric malfunction to get back into the Super Bowl before losing. And at Michigan, he put himself behind the 8-ball at Iowa last season, and couldn’t get it done in Columbus, just a year removed from getting blown out by those mighty Buckeyes on his home turf.

You can’t blame him for losing at the Horseshoe; winning in Columbus is no easy task for any road team, which is also the case for those visiting the Big House. Michigan’s season may come down to the final home game against that team down south. The schedule allows growth for this inexperienced team, but if they want to be playing for a Big Ten title, they will need to be ready to play in week 1.

TOUGHEST STRETCH: November 11-November 25–@Maryland, @WISC, vs OSU

TRAP GAME: @Maryland, November 11

BEST CASE: 11-1

PROJECTED RECORD: 9-3

Michigan State

Mark Dantonio has quite a challenge ahead of him. With his two defensive leaders gone and a new quarterback, his Spartans are putting last year’s 3-9 record in the rear view mirror in hopes of getting back into the driver’s seat of the Big Ten. They will need to rely on running back LJ Scott as Brian Lewerke settles into his new role as starting QB.

Without Illinois or Purdue on their schedule, the Spartans face the Big Ten’s best from 2016, with tough road games at Ohio State and Michigan, as well as coin-flips at Minnesota and Northwestern. No one saw last year’s 3-9 season coming, and I certainly can’t tell you exactly how they’ll fare this year with a new look defense, few returning weapons and a change at QB. What I can tell you is that Mark Dantonio’s leadership will be put to the test given everything that’s on the table, and he is one of the best motivators and leaders in college football.

TOUGHEST STRETCH: October 28-November 11–@NU, vs PSU, @OSU

TRAP GAME: @Minnesota, October 14

BEST CASE: 8-4

PROJECTED RECORD: 6-6

Maryland

Head coach DJ Durkin is fresh off a bowl appearance in his first year at the helm for the Terrapins. The Terps have high expectations in terms of their running game, with speedster Lorenzo Harrison and Ty Johnson likely splitting time. Because of a quarterback battle, these two will likely see a lot of touches in the opening weeks.

On the other side of the ball, the defense is in better shape than the offense, returning about half of its starters. This season for Maryland is worth more than just its final record, however. Durkin is off to a red hot start in recruiting, finishing in the top 20 according to 247’s 2017 recruiting rankings, good enough for top 5 in the Big Ten. He reeled in 17 guys from the DMV area, compared to Big Ten Champion and neighbor Penn State’s 6.

The Terps’ growth is a marathon, not a sprint, as their schedule this season is absolutely loaded. They don’t face Illinois or Purdue, two of the conference’s bottom three from last year, and they face Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State, the conference’s four best. Look for them to compete most weeks, even though their record may not reflect that.

TOUGHEST STRETCH: October 7-October 21–@OSU, vs NU, @WISC

TRAP GAME: Vs Indiana, October 28

BEST CASE: 7-5

PROJECTED RECORD: 6-6

Indiana

The Hoosiers open the season at home against former head coach Kevin Wilson and Ohio State. Tom Allen will lead the Hoosiers onto the field in his first regular season game as a head coach after being promoted from defensive coordinator due to a stellar turnaround for the IU defense.

There are a lot of question marks for the Hoosiers offensively, beginning with the basics: what will their identity be? They return quarterback Richard Lagow and wide receivers Simmie Cobbs and Nick Westbrook, but lost all-American Dan Feeney on the offensive line and Devine Redding at running back. Allen brought in Mike DeBord from Tennessee to be the new offensive coordinator, whose Volunteers were top 30 in yards per game in both of his seasons in Knoxville.

Defensively, the Hoosiers will be led by cornerback Rashard Fant and linebacker Tegray Scales, who was first in the entire country in total tackles and tackles for loss last season. Their schedule features games against Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin, but they get three of those at home, only having to travel to Happy Valley in late September.

TOUGHEST STRETCH: September 30-October 21–@PSU, vs Michigan, @MSU

TRAP GAME: @Virginia, September 9

BEST CASE: 8-4

PROJECTED RECORD: 6-6

Rutgers

Chris Ash is entering his second season as head coach for Rutgers, and is looking to rebound after a 2-10 season. The Knights lost 3 games by a touchdown or less last season, all against teams who made bowl games, so there is something to build off. Janarion Grant is back for his final season after suffering a season-ending injury just 4 games into last season. In those four games, Grant scored three touchdowns on the ground, one kick return and one punt return. He is truly a jack of all trades, and can burn anyone whether he’s a running back, receiver, or return man.

The Knights will need him to make plays, as their offense struggled to put points on the board for most of last season. While they do face OSU, Michigan, Penn State and Washington, they have FCS opponent Morgan State and Eastern Michigan as easier matchups.

TOUCHEST STRETCH: October 28-November 11–@Mich, vs Maryland, @PSU

TRAP GAME: @Illinois

BEST CASE: 4-8

PROJECTED RECORD: 3-9

Penn State

All eyes will be on the Nittany Lions following their Rose Bowl campaign in 2016. With Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley returning, their offense is expected to continue the fireworks show it put on display last year. They will have to replace receiver Chris Godwin, who had almost 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns.

They return 7 defensive starters and 9 on the offensive side, so a repeat of last season’s performance is certainly on the minds of Penn State fans and players alike. They play all non-conference games at home, as well as games against Michigan and Nebraska. This will be a chance for James Franklin to put himself in the top tier of Big Ten coaches, if he were to repeat last year’s performance.

TOUGHEST STRETCH: October 7-October 28–@NU, vs Michigan, @OSU

TRAP GAME: @Iowa, September 23

BEST CASE: 11-1

PROJECTED RECORD: 9-3

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