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2015 BIG TEN FOOTBALL THOR+ PROJECTIONS: EAST DIVISION

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Ohio State is the clear favorite, yet again, in 2015. Does Michigan State or some other dark horse candidate have what it takes to knock off the Buckeyes?

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Last time we discussed the clearly superior half of the Big Ten (that which houses our beloved Hawkeyes), so that means this time around we get to discuss the part of the conference that houses the red-headed stepchildren of the conference like Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, etc. Pfft. Like, when have any of them ever done anything relevant in college football? Don't you know the Big Ten is slow and bad at football?

For another quick explainer of what THOR+ is, I will just quote what I said from the last post:

For a brief refresher on what THOR+ actually is, it is a model based on schedule-adjusted points per play. A team's offense, defense, and special teams units are rated by how their points per play totals compare to the rest of college football. Each rating is adjusted for strength of schedule and has 100 as the baseline for the FBS average. That means a team with an Offense+ rating of 105 has an offense that would be expected to be 5 percentage points better in schedule-adjusted points per play than the average FBS team. The true talent of a team that has an Offense+ rating of 95 would be expected to be 5 percentage points worse than the national average in points per play. The same goes for defense and special teams ratings. And for special teams, I break them down into "units that score points" vs. "units that prevent points." You only see one special teams rating here though because I average the ratings of the two special teams units together. Based on the Offense+, Defense+, Special Teams+ ratings I calculate the expected points per game and points per game allowed each team would be expected to generate against an average team. Finally, those three ratings are combined to create the overall THOR+ rating for a team. And from there I estimate their expected winning percentage against an average schedule and calculate how many wins that would be based on a twelve-game schedule.

I should also add (because I forgot to do so last time) that the preseason projections are calculated by taking last year's ratings as a baseline and adjusting them up or down based on how many starters are returning, the five year average rating of each team, and the team's five year "improve" rating. The five year average rating of each team just allows the projections to not give too much credence to a traditional non-power that returns a lot of their starters, and not enough credence to a traditional power that tends to reload rather than rebuild. And the five year "improve" rating is supposed to demonstrate the trajectory that the program is on. For instance, the example I've used before is that Florida has been on the decline since Urban Meyer left, while Kansas State has been on the rebound since Bill Snyder returned to Manhattan. Make sense? Good.

And with that brief explainer, here are the preseason projected THOR+ ratings for the Big Ten conference:

National Rank Team Coach Offense+ Defense+ Special Teams+ THOR+ PPG vs. Avg. PPGA vs. Avg. W% vs. Avg. W vs. Avg.
4 Ohio State Urban Meyer 146 127 106 139 39.6 20.1 0.812 9.7
19 Michigan State Mark Dantonio 135 134 97 129 36.9 18.6 0.734 8.8
26 Michigan Jim Harbaugh 112 144 79 124 30.9 16.5 0.698 8.4
55 Penn State James Franklin 68 142 96 104 20.1 16.8 0.547 6.6
60 Maryland Randy Edsall 100 99 114 101 28.3 26.6 0.521 6.3
84 Rutgers Kyle Flood 81 79 117 84 23.6 30.7 0.396 4.8
87 Indiana Kevin Wilson 90 71 102 82 25.7 32.8 0.381 4.6

Again, these numbers are fine and well, but most people want to talk actual wins and losses. So let's converse.

Here are the projected season win totals for the Big Ten East:

National Rank B1G East Season Wins 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
4 Ohio State 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.2% 1.0% 4.8% 15.3% 25.3% 30.8% 18.3% 4.3%
19 Michigan State 0.0% 0.0% 0.1% 0.3% 2.5% 10.0% 21.9% 25.2% 25.6% 10.4% 3.6% 0.4%
26 Michigan 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.3% 3.9% 11.7% 19.9% 28.8% 20.4% 11.3% 3.3% 0.4%
55 Penn State 0.0% 0.1% 0.7% 6.0% 14.4% 22.6% 26.2% 18.7% 8.4% 2.5% 0.4% 0.0%
60 Maryland 0.0% 0.2% 3.0% 10.4% 20.0% 27.7% 24.4% 10.0% 3.7% 0.5% 0.1% 0.0%
84 Rutgers 0.5% 3.1% 9.6% 21.0% 23.7% 23.6% 13.3% 4.1% 1.0% 0.1% 0.0% 0.0%
87 Indiana 0.7% 2.3% 9.6% 22.7% 26.5% 21.7% 11.2% 4.4% 0.7% 0.2% 0.0% 0.0%

Additionally, we should probably also discuss conference wins.

National Rank B1G East Conference Wins 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
4 Ohio State 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 1.2% 4.9% 18.8% 32.4% 31.2% 11.5%
19 Michigan State 0.0% 0.1% 0.9% 7.1% 21.1% 34.2% 25.8% 9.4% 1.4%
26 Michigan 0.0% 0.0% 1.7% 8.5% 20.4% 30.1% 25.8% 11.3% 2.2%
55 Penn State 0.0% 0.7% 7.2% 22.3% 34.1% 23.2% 9.9% 2.5% 0.1%
60 Maryland 1.2% 7.5% 17.9% 34.0% 24.8% 12.1% 2.3% 0.2% 0.0%
84 Rutgers 3.7% 15.7% 27.9% 29.1% 17.8% 4.9% 0.9% 0.0% 0.0%
87 Indiana 3.7% 17.5% 29.6% 27.6% 15.7% 5.1% 0.6% 0.2% 0.0%

With those posted, let's go through each team individually.

Ohio State

National Rank: 4

Average Simulated Wins: 9.5 Total, 6.2 Conference

Schedule:

Date Ohio State Team Rank Projected Win%
9/7 Away Virginia Tech 41 58%
9/12 Home Hawai'i 103 96%
9/19 Home Northern Illinois 56 89%
9/26 Home Western Michigan 52 88%
10/3 Away Indiana 87 79%
10/10 Home Maryland 60 89%
10/17 Home Penn State 55 88%
10/24 Away Rutgers 84 78%
11/7 Home Minnesota 54 88%
11/14 Away Illinois 69 72%
11/21 Home Michigan State 19 78%
11/28 Away Michigan 26 48%

Unsurprisingly, the Buckeyes top the preseason projections and come in at #4 nationally. The defending national champs return an above average number of starters on both sides of the ball, are trending upward, and have a very good coach in Urban Meyer at the helm. And while it's never easy to repeat a national title, Ohio State has a very good chance of at least making the College Football Playoff again this year. Road games at Virginia Tech and Michigan are the only ones in which the Buckeyes aren't favored by 72% or more currently, and they finished the regular season a perfect 12-0 in 4.3% of simulations. Those aren't great odds, but going undefeated is very difficult no matter who you are. Of course, the Buckeyes did it just a couple years ago and this team probably has more talent than that one.

Strengths: Offense, Pass Defense

  • Offense- Ohio State is legitimately good at just about every position on both sides of the ball. That being said, when people think of the Buckeyes under Urban Meyer, the first thing most people associate him and this program with is having a ridiculously good offense. And that's for good reason. In his first three years in Columbus, according to THOR+, his teams have led the conference in offense all three years. His 2012 team was 37 percentage points better than the average FBS team, his 2013 team was 74 percentage points above, and last year's squad was 61 percentage points better. And this 2015 offense is projected to be just as dangerous. Let me end this bullet point by reminding you what I said about Urban Meyer before last season, when I was looking at the best offenses the Big Ten had seen since 2000:

2011 Wisconsin tops the list here by quite a margin. As you all probably remember, that was the year that Wisconsin signed Russell Wilson to a one year free agent deal. #2 is last year's Ohio State Buckeyes, which is really annoying considering this was only Urban Meyer's second year on the job. If you go click through the chart, his 2004 Utah team owns the highest Offense+ rating during this period for the Mountain West Conference. In addition, if you check out the SEC, his 2008 and 2007 Florida Gators were the highest rated offenses in the SEC from 2000-2013. In a conference like the Big Ten, where high-powered offenses haven't historically been as common, don't be surprised if Urban Meyer cranks it up to a level that we haven't seen all that often in this conference.
  • Pass Defense- Losing star cornerback Doran Grant to the NFL is obviously hard to replace, but Ohio State's secondary brings back the other three starters from a very good 2014 secondary. THOR+ graded Ohio State's pass defense last year as the best in the conference (tied with Penn State's) at 40 percentage points above the FBS norm. The safeties are the proven commodities in the secondary. Free safety Vonn Bell is on most people's preseason All-American team, while his partner Tyvis Powell has a knack for making big plays. Then there is Eli Apple, whose strong redshirt freshman season last year was overshadowed only by Grant's outstanding play on the opposite corner. Apple should shine this season. Lastly, on top of the experience and talent in the secondary, Joey Bosa's bull-rushing abilities and Ohio State's affinity for zone-blitzing the hell out of their opponent should create plenty of chaos to throw opposing quarterbacks off their game.

Weaknesses: Rush Defense

  • Rush Defense- If there was one thing to complain about with last season's team, it was their defense against the ground attack. The defense graded out well above average in all other categories, but THOR+ put the rush defense at only 3 percentage points above that threshold. Of course, that's still above average and it didn't keep them from winning everything last year. The (entire) defense had some issues early on in the season, but figured things out as the season went on and ended up shutting down some very potent rushing attacks in Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon to end the year. The Buckeyes are replacing two guys on the defensive line, but they bring back two of their three linebackers. Maybe this could be a lingering issue in 2015, but I think they will still be fine. I probably could have put this in the "question mark" section, but I needed something to put in the "weakness" section for this team.

Biggest Question Mark: Quarterback, Wide Receiver

  • Quarterback- Ohio State's quarterback controversy has been the topic of much conversation this offseason and rightfully so. I mean, most teams would kill just to have one of these signal-callers on their roster, let alone all three. Of course, as I'm sure everyone has heard by now, Urban Meyer is planning on getting all three guys on the field at the same time. Braxton Miller is moving to receiver, while J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones are battling it out under center, but expect some crazy spread option type package with all three guys. And if that wasn't scary enough, the Buckeyes have a potential Heisman candidate in Ezekiel Elliot at running back and a talented group of wide receivers. This offense just isn't fair.
  • Wide Receiver- Michael Thomas and his almost 800 yards and 9 touchdowns are back from last season, but Ohio State loses their big deep threat in Devin Smith, who had an insane 931 yards on just 33 catches last season. As an Iowa fan, those numbers are impossible for me to comprehend. With the departure of such an explosive weapon, the Buckeyes have been spending camp trying to figure out who the number two guy would be at the wideout spot. Noah Brown appeared to be the one who was going to win that spot until he broke his leg recently and will now miss the entire year. With Brown now lost to injury, someone like senior Corey Smith will have to step up. Losing Brown doesn't totally cripple Ohio State's season, though, seeing as they use their running back-type players in the passing game a lot. Guys like Ezekiel Elliot, Jalin Marshall, and Dontre Wilson will continue to be very important catching passes out of the backfield this year. What Brown's injury does do, however, is leave Ohio State's offense somewhat neutered going into the Virginia Tech game where Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson, and Corey Smith will all be serving a suspension. That's still a winnable game for Ohio State, but losing that many offensive players (and Joey Bosa on defense) before the first game against a vaunted Virginia Tech defense leaves this game looking more and more like a huge unknown.

Michigan State

National Rank: 19

Average Simulated Wins: 8.1 Total, 5.1 Conference

Schedule:

Date Michigan State Team Rank Projected Win%
9/4 Away Western Michigan 52 55%
9/12 Home Oregon 2 56%
9/19 Home Air Force 95 91%
9/26 Home Central Michigan 100 92%
10/3 Home Purdue 75 87%
10/10 Away Rutgers 84 70%
10/17 Away Michigan 26 39%
10/24 Home Indiana 87 90%
11/7 Away Nebraska 32 43%
11/14 Home Maryland 60 83%
11/21 Away Ohio State 4 22%
11/28 Home Penn State 55 81%

The first thing I can see people taking issue with Michigan State over is the fact that THOR+ only gives them a 55% chance to beat Western Michigan. About that... Well, if I was a betting man, and I'm actually not (not even remotely close), I would say their odds are much higher. However, Western Michigan could be a team that surprises this season. Bill Connelly has already talked about them in a few places, so I will just quote him here:

The most interesting team on the list, however, might be P.J. Fleck's Western Michigan BroncosFleck is recruiting circles around the rest of the MAC, and WMU broke through earlier than expected last year, improving from 1-11 to 8-5. And now the Broncos have talent and experience (and a September 4 home game against Michigan State). What's the ceiling? High enough to overcome having to play at both Toledo and NIU?

The Broncos are considered the preseason best team in the MAC, according to THOR+, and the fact that Mark Dantonio's Spartans are heading to Kalamazoo for this game makes it more challenging than your average first-of-the-year tune up.

Moving away from Western Michigan, the Spartans have a tough rematch against Oregon in game two of the year. They are currently favored by THOR+ thanks to the home field adjustment, but it's far from a sure thing. Once they get past those first two non-conference games, the rest of the non-Big Ten portion of the schedule is pretty fluffy, as Air Force and Central Michigan are both projected to be pretty horrible this season.

The Big Ten schedule is pretty manageable for Michigan State, as they are 70% favorites in 5 of their 8 conference games. The one issue with their Big Ten schedule is that they have to play road games against Michigan, Nebraska, and Ohio State. That's less than ideal. And that Big Ten road schedule coupled with a trip to Western Michigan for the first game of the season and having to play Oregon, is why Michigan State finished with about 8 total wins and 5 conference wins, on average, in the season simulations. If Michigan State can get out of the non-conference schedule undefeated, then those win projections will go up. Because for as difficult as road games at the three aforementioned Big Ten venues will be, winning two of them would definitely be manageable.

Strengths: Offensive Line, Defensive Front Seven

  • Offensive Line- The Spartans had an outstanding offensive line last season, one of the best in the country by THOR+'s ratings (42 percentage points above the FBS average), and that line is expected to produce again. They return a good chunk of last year's starters, all five projected starters have starting experience, and Dantonio feels he is seven deep with his offensive line rotation. And I can't find the link, but I remember Dantonio saying this could be the best offensive line he's had since coming to Michigan State. Those are some mighty high expectations.
  • Defensive Front Seven- Losing Marcus Rush and Taiwan Jones hurts, but Michigan State is bringing back five of last year's outstanding front seven in 2015. Shillique Calhoun, Ed Davis, Riley Bullough, and many other talented guys still reside in East Lansing and are ready to terrorize opposing offenses. Expect them to be above average again this year when it comes to pressuring quarterbacks and greeting running backs behind the line of scrimmage.

Weaknesses: Pass Defense

  • Pass Defense- Last year Michigan State's secondary (and their pass rush) helped lead the pass defense to grade out 28 percentage points better than the national average. That type of proficiency from talented defensive backs Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond led to the continued use of the nickname the "No Fly Zone." But while that nickname is great, don't get me wrong, 2015 may not be able to live up to that nickname. The Spartan run defense should still be stingy, but opposing teams may be able to exploit them through the air at times. That's if they can handle MSU's various blitz packages, of course.

Biggest Question Mark: Offensive Skill Players, Defensive Coordinator

  • Offensive Skill Players- Connor Cook had a career year last season as a junior, but his senior season finds him surrounded by a much different supporting cast. Gone from last year are his top two wideouts in the amazingly talented Tony Lippett and the dependable Keith Mumphery. Also gone is Cook's rock solid rushing attack from 2014 in Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill. That leaves Delton Williams as the main running back with any real live, meaningful game experience toting the pigskin. The loss of Lippett and Langford leave huge holes for the offense to fill this season. It will be interesting to see who steps up.
  • Defensive Coordinator- Michigan State has been constantly great on defense for as long as Pat Narduzzi was the defensive coordinator. But now that Narduzzi has left East Lansing for Pittsburgh, it should be interesting to see if the Michigan State defense can continue to play at an elite level year after year. We likely won't see a huge difference this season with enough experienced starters coming back, but I'm curious to see where this unit is in a few years. I'm mainly curious because Iowa's defense has been trending downward from elite to something like decent-good depending on the season, since the departure of Norm Parker. Mark Dantonio possesses a defensive background that Kirk Ferentz does not, though, so maybe Michigan State will be just fine without Narduzzi.

Michigan

National Rank: 26

Average Simulated Wins: 8 Total, 5.1 Conference

Schedule:

Date Michigan Team Rank Projected Win%
9/3 Away Utah 30 38%
9/12 Home Oregon State 81 86%
9/19 Home UNLV 124 96%
9/26 Home BYU 45 74%
10/3 Away Maryland 60 55%
10/10 Home Northwestern 67 82%
10/17 Home Michigan State 19 61%
10/31 Away Minnesota 54 52%
11/7 Home Rutgers 84 87%
11/14 Away Indiana 87 68%
11/21 Away Penn State 55 52%
11/28 Home Ohio State 4 52%

Michigan's projections are probably going to be a sore spot for a lot of people who aren't Wolverine fans. That's because, as you can obviously see, there is a lot of green in the win probability column. That's because THOR+ generally thought Michigan was better than they actually performed throughout the Brady Hoke Era. Last year was their worst end-of-year ranking for Hoke at Michigan, when an atrocious offense drug their THOR+ ranking down to 52nd in the nation. But in 2012 and 2013 they finished 12th and 26th in the country, respectively. You can say that Michigan was definitely trending in the wrong direction under Hoke, but that's largely because the offense under Al Borges was holding the team back while the defense more than held its own every year. So in order to explain why THOR+ thinks Michigan could surprise some folks this year, look at their five year THOR+ average, which is actually very good despite underperforming on-the-field results. Michigan also returns 9 starters on offense and 8 on defense. The other variable I include in the projections is the "improve" rating, and while the offense has been trending negatively the defense has been outstanding and that's what THOR+ expects again this season.

With all that being said, Michigan has a very capable schedule this season. Utah on the road isn't an easy first game of the year, and there aren't a lot of guaranteed wins in the conference schedule. However, only three of their games are against opponents who are ranked in the preseason top 40 and both Michigan State and Ohio State have to come to The Big House. There are a lot of projected close games this season for Harbaugh and Co. but with that many highly-recruited players returning on both sides of the ball, it wouldn't be all that shocking to see this team win the 8 games that THOR+ is calling for. As long as the quarterback play isn't absolutely horrific, of course.

Strenths: Defense, Running Back

  • Defense- Even with Brady Hoke as coach, Michigan's defenses were always stout under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Mattison is no longer the defensive coordinator, but he is staying on as the defensive line coach. Jim Harbaugh has instead brought in former Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin to coach the defense in 2015. And Harbaugh picked the coach from the right side of the ball at Florida, as the defense has actually been suffocating in Gainesville in recent years, even with the offense sinking the program. With both Durkin and Mattison, Michigan has a nice couple of coaches overseeing a defense that has 8 guys coming back from a unit that THOR+ ranked 17th in the country last season and has projected at 7th to start the season.
  • Running Back- Michigan returns a bevy of options at the running back spot. Leading rusher De'Veon Smith is back, as Derrick Green, who actually averaged over 5 yards per carry early in the year behind a terrible offensive line before getting injured. Additionally, Drake Johnson is also back, and he also averaged over 6 yards per carry in 2014 behind a bad, bad offensive line. And if those three weren't enough, Michigan added the former 5 star recruit/USC-transfer, Ty Isaac, to the fold. If the offensive line is better this year (they really should be) and the offensive play-calling and scheme isn't Al Borges-esque, then this should be a huge strength for Jim Harbaugh in his first year as head coach.

Weaknesses: Pass Game

  • Pass Game- As Iowa fans, we are all very aware that Michigan has a quarterback competition going on this preseason, as the Hawkeyes' former starter is in competition to be the main signal caller for the Wolverines this year. But outside of whether Jake Rudock or Shane Morris wins the quarterback competition, there is also a question of who will step up and catch the the short 5 yard passes from Rudock or the erratic heat-seeking missiles from Morris. Last year's top receiving threat, Devin Funchess, is gone, so someone really needs to step up in 2015. Amara Darboh (sigh... a former recruit from Dowling Catholic in Des Moines) had a pretty good sophomore season under a really crappy offensive situation last season and virtually everybody else whose job it is to catch the ball returns for the 2015 season. So that's a positive outlook if you're looking for one, but we still don't know how the quarterback position will perform this year and we still aren't sure who will step up to catch the ball.

Biggest Question Mark: Offensive Line

  • Offensive Line- Outside of the quarterback competition, the offensive line is a big question mark. They were awful last year, but most of those guys are back and more seasoned. Logic says they have to be better. But how much better will they be?

Penn State

National Rank: 55

Average Simulated Wins: 6.7 Total, 4.1 Conference

Schedule:

Date Penn State Team Rank Projected Win%
9/5 Away Temple 31 25%
9/12 Home Buffalo 125 92%
9/19 Home Rutgers 84 76%
9/26 Home San Diego State 66 68%
10/3 Home Army 126 93%
10/10 Home Indiana 87 77%
10/17 Away Ohio State 4 12%
10/24 Neutral Maryland 60 53%
10/31 Home Illinois 69 69%
11/7 Away Northwestern 67 43%
11/21 Home Michigan 26 48%
11/28 Away Michigan State 19 19%

Penn State may be another team that folks have an issue with THOR+ regarding, but allow me to explain the projection. Simply put, THOR+ doe not trust Penn State's offense. Over the last five years, the Nittany Lions' Offense+ ratings have been (going from 2010 to 2014) 86, 70, 94, 99, and 59. Remember, anything under 100 is not good. 99 and 94 aren't that bad, but 86, 70 and especially 59 are definitely not good. Now Penn State's offense could definitely be better than last year's and I actually expect them to be better than this projection. But the reason their simulated win total is closer to 7 and not to the 8-10 that a lot of others are projecting is because their offensive track record has not been exactly positive in recent times.

Now, even with the terrible projected offense, it's not difficult to envision Penn State winning more than just those 7 games this season. It won't be easy, but if their defense is as good as it is projected to be and their offense can show improvement from last season, then Temple, Northwestern, and Michigan are all winnable. And, yes, Temple should not be taken lightly. Their defense was 42 percentage points better than the average FBS defense last season and they have basically everyone coming back on that side of the ball. If Penn State's offense isn't much better than last year, Temple could legitimately knock the Nittany Lions off in a defensive slugfest.

Strengths: Defense

  • Defense- Even though they lose their starting defensive ends from last year and their leading tackler at linebacker, Penn State's defense still returns plenty of talent this year. Defensive Tackle and known quarterback and running back-dismemberer, Anthony Zettel, returns for his senior season and the Nittany Lions will have two of their three linebackers from 2014 returning, while the safety position should be in good hands with Jordan Lucas and Marcus Allen (no, not that one). If there was any question mark on this defense, besides at defensive end, the corner back position is young. Honestly, even though this unit is an overall strength, I wouldn't be all that surprised to see the defense regress a bit and see the offense be better than they are projected to be. Of course, those things happening would likely have the effect of canceling each other out and Penn State could still have another middling season.

Weaknesses: Offense

  • Offense- The offense has 9 guys coming back from 2014, but that unit was absolutely terrible. So, how much better can they be in 2015? Well, not much, if you're listening to THOR+. Christian Hackenberg is a talent at quarterback, but the offensive line needs to prove that they can actually, you know, protect him this season. There are some good targets in the passing game returning this season in Daesean and Geno Lewis. But, again, that may not mean much if Hackenberg doesn't have a lot of time to throw. And then we have to address the question of how good can the running game be this year? Half of last year's rushing attack, Akeel Lynch, is back, and maybe he can eclipse the 5 yard per carry mark with a better line this year. But the depth behind him is non-existent and inexperienced. Essentially, the offensive line will play a huge role in how good this offense is this year, but even if they are much improved, I don't know that I see enough weapons for this unit not to be a weakness this season.

Biggest Question Mark: Offensive Line

  • Offensive Line- I pretty much covered that in the last paragraph, but I will just reiterate that the majority of the offensive improvement from last year to this year will hinge on the offensive line.

Maryland

National Rank: 60

Average Simulated Wins: 6.1 Total, 3.2 Conference

Schedule:

Date Maryland Team Rank Projected Win%
9/5 Home Richmond FCS 100%
9/12 Home Bowling Green 96 79%
9/19 Home South Florida 105 83%
9/26 Away West Virginia 35 25%
10/3 Home Michigan 26 45%
10/10 Away Ohio State 4 11%
10/24 Neutral Penn State 55 47%
10/31 Away Iowa 57 36%
11/7 Home Wisconsin 10 36%
11/14 Away Michigan State 19 17%
11/21 Home Indiana 87 75%
11/28 Away Rutgers 84 49.5%

Maryland loses a lot of guys from last year's team and that has some serious consequences for its win projections in 2015. I know Richmond is traditionally at least a decent FCS team (remember THOR+ doesn't keep track of FCS stats, so all FCS opponents are automatically 100% wins, for better or worse), but the Terps have a good chance to start the season 3-0. From there, though, it looks as if things could go downhill fast. Because after game three, Maryland is currently only favored by THOR+ against Indiana in their eleventh game of the year. Being new to the conference isn't paying dividends in the scheduling area for Maryland, as they again have to play Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. And if you think Penn State is going to be legitimately good this season, you can add them to the mix of top conference programs that Maryland doesn't have the good fortune of avoiding. Similar to Tim Beckman at Illinois, you have to wonder if Randy Edsall can survive the 2015 season.

Strengths: Secondary, Special Teams

  • Secondary- Despite losing their entire starting defensive line and all but one starting linebacker from last season's defense, the secondary returns almost everyone. The big name is cornerback Will Likely, who was a big play guy in any way he could touch the ball last season, but his team-leading 6 interceptions helped Maryland's pass defense above average last season. This part of the defense has three three-year starters returning, and the one guy who hasn't been a three-year starter has been in and out of the lineup and has relevant game experience. 2015 will be a test to see if the secondary can hold up their end of the bargain while the rest of the defense is learning as they go.
  • Special Teams- The Terrapins have the 2014 Lou Groza award winner and probably the best kicker in the nation in Brad Craddock returning for his senior season. On top of that, Will Likely not only makes plays on defense, but he returned both a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown last year and should be one of the most dangerous return men in the conference again this season. Special teams was a strength for Maryland in 2014, it should be again in 2015 too.

Weaknesses: Offense, Defensive Front Seven

  • Offense- Randy Edsall's offense loses a lot on the offensive side of the ball this season. Not only is starting quarterback C.J. Brown gone, but so are their two stud receivers, Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. What's left is a quarterback competition, a lot of unproven wide receivers (Marcus Leak could surprise people this year, though), and two experience running backs who haven't done much in the past. The offensive line could be better this year, so maybe that will help at least the running game, but it's hard to have much confidence in this Maryland offense heading into the season.
  • Defensive Front Seven- Andre Monroe and Darius Kilgo are gone from the line along with the other two starters from last year. Meanwhile, the linebcker situation isn't much better with just one starter from 2014 returning. Without getting into the details, I assume you can understand how this could be an issue in the coming months.

Biggest Question Mark: Quarterback

  • Quarterback- If it wasn't bad enough having to replace Diggs and Long at wideout, Maryland also has to replace their longtime starter at quarterback. C.J. Brown wasn't always the most proficient passer, but he was a threat to run the ball. This year the quarterback battle is between Perry Hills, Caleb Rowe, and Daxx Garman. I thought Rowe looked like a capable passer in spurts last season, but it seems that Perry Hills may have the upper hand on the first string spot going into the season. Whoever Edsall chooses for the first game of the season, I'm not sure this battle won't continue to rage on throughout the year.

Rutgers

National Rank: 84

Average Simulated Wins: 5.2 Total, 2.6 Conference

Schedule:

Date Rutgers Team Rank Projected Win%
9/5 Home Norfolk State FCS 100%
9/12 Home Washington State 65 53%
9/19 Away Penn State 55 24%
9/26 Home Kansas 117 82%
10/10 Home Michigan State 19 30%
10/17 Away Indiana 87 38%
10/24 Home Ohio State 4 22%
10/31 Away Wisconsin 10 8%
11/7 Away Michigan 26 13%
11/14 Home Nebraska 32 36%
11/21 Away Army 126 61%
11/28 Home Maryland 60 50.5%

Just like Maryland, Rutgers is also being punished by the Big Ten scheduling gods again, but probably even worse as they get all the conference power teams I mentioned above plus Nebraska this year. The Scarlet Knights do get to play Michigan State, Ohio State, and Nebraska all at home, but that shouldn't matter all that much. No matter which way you slice it, Rutgers has a brutal stretch of schedule starting in October and going halfway through November. Their current highest win probability during that time is 38% against Indiana. That stretch alone is going to make it tough to reach a bowl game this year, but throw in the circus of media scrutiny that Kyle Flood is now bringing to the program and this could be a long season in The Garden State.

Strengths: Offensive Skill Players, Return Game

  • Offensive Skill Players- Rutgers may not be very good this season, but they should still be exciting to watch if not just for the big play potential they have on offense. At running back, the talented, yet oft-injured Paul James returns for his senior year. He's averaged a consistently good 5.7 and 5.8 yards per carry in the last couple of seasons, but hasn't been able to make it through an entire season. Luckily, Kyle Flood has some depth behind him, as sophomore backs, Robert Martin and Josh Hicks, average 5 and 6 yards per carry as freshman last year, respectively. So the running game looks solid, but what about the passing game? Well, the receivers likely don't have as much depth as the running backs, but Leonte Caroo is a huge weapon returning at the number one wide receiver spot. He came up with just about 20 yards per catch last season on his way to a thousand yard, 10 touchdown season. He's legit.
  • Return Game- Janarion Grant did not have any kickoffs or punts returned for touchdowns last year, but he was dangerous, nonetheless. He was especially effective on kickoffs, where he averaged 25 yards per return. Don't be surprised if he takes a one or more to the house this year. Also, he could be a dark horse candidate to figure it out on offense and give Rutgers another weapon on that side of the ball.

Weaknesses: Defense, Offensive Line

  • Defense- Rutgers gets a good chunk of their defensive line and linebacking core back this season, which is a good thing. Of course, last year's defense was bad and this year's defense is breaking in an almost entirely new secondary. If Rutgers can't pressure and confuse the quarterback by blitzing, the floodgates could open through the air this season.
  • Offensive Line- Kyle Flood's offensive line was 10 percentage points better than the FBS average last season, but they lose three starters and metric crap-ton of starts along with them. That leaves a precarious situation with the offensive line this season. The stockpile of offensive weapons may not be all that effective if guys can't hold their blocks.

Biggest Question Mark: Quarterback

  • Quarterback- Gary Nova is gone this year, which leaves Rutgers with a quarterback competition going into this season. A winner has yet to be announced, but I think it's safe to say that most people want/expect Hayden Rettig to win the job. Either way quarterback position is unproven and no one is real sure what to expect this season. They could look great due to all the weapons on offense, or they could struggle thanks to inexperience and a potentially porous offensive line.

Indiana

National Rank: 87

Average Simulated Wins: 5.1 Total, 2.5 Conference

Schedule:

Date Indiana Team Rank Projected Win%
9/5 Home S. Illinois FCS 100%
9/12 Home Florida International 90 65%
9/19 Home Western Kentucky 71 55%
9/26 Away Wake Forest 82 34%
10/3 Home Ohio State 4 21%
10/10 Away Penn State 55 23%
10/17 Home Rutgers 84 62%
10/24 Away Michigan State 19 10%
11/7 Home Iowa 57 47%
11/14 Home Michigan 26 32%
11/21 Away Maryland 60 25%
11/28 Away Purdue 75 31%

With Indiana, we finally reach our last team to preview. And because it's Indiana expectations are not all that high for the 2015 season. The first three games of the season are winnable for Indiana, although I could easily envision them coming out of that stretch 2-1. Then you have Wake Forest, who in theory Indiana should be able to beat, but nothing's a given since they have to go on the road for that game. There is a possibility for a 4-0 non-conference start, but 2-2 with an outside chance at 3-1 is probably the safer bet.

Then we get to the Big Ten portion of the schedule and yikes! Rutgers is the only green in the win probability column, and the Hoosiers only other game that is projected to be close to a toss up right now is when Iowa comes to town on November 7th. They could likely beat Purdue and/or Maryland, but winning both of those away from Bloomington will probably be a tall task. All of this could mean that Kevin Wilson's job security could be in question if his season goes down the drain again, but this time not due to injuries.

Strengths: Quarterback, Kevin Wilson Offense

  • Quarterback- Last year was brutal injury-wise for Indiana. Losing Nate Sudfeld to injury effectively killed the passing game, leaving the only effective offensive weapon in Tevin Coleman to literally carry the entire offense all year. Well, Coleman is gone this year (breathe easy, Iowa fans), but Sudfeld is back and can hopefully steady the passing game after an abysmal 2015. The only setback for Indiana's aerial attack is that they lose all their proven pass-catchers this season, so the youngsters are going to have to step it up.
  • Kevin Wilson Offense- Even if he has yet to fix the Indiana defense during his tenure at Indiana, Kevin Wilson is a good offensive coach. Even last year, when he lost a quarterback he couldn't afford to lose, Indiana's offense wasn't that far below average (only 7 percentage points) because he had Tevin Coleman. This year he has Nate Sudfeld, a proven former-UAB running back in Jordan Howard, and some young, talented receivers. It may not be the explosive Hoosier offense that we've seen in the past, but I think it could definitely be better than last year's offense.

Weaknesses: Defense

  • Defense- Because, of course, right? Without me going into depth on the subject, everyone should just understand that Indiana's defense will be bad again this year. Death, taxes, etc.

Biggest Question Mark: Offense

  • Offense- If Kevin Wilson wants any chance at a semi-successful season, he is going to have to get some production from his offense this year. Quarterback looks good (barring injury) and the Hoosiers look to have found a good running back in transfer Jordan Howard. The main question for the offense this season is will the young wide receivers step up and give Indiana a legitimate passing attack? If they can, Indiana has a chance at making a bowl game. If they can't, the offense likely won't be able to keep up with the opposing team putting points on the board.