BIG TEN EAST DIVISION
Last year: 5-7, 2-6 Big Ten, tied for fifth West
Returning starters: 10 (5 offense, 4 offense, punter)
Players to watch: QB Wes Lunt, RB Ke-Shawn Vaughn, WR Malik Turner, DE Dawaune Smoot, DT Chunky Clements, LB Hardy Nickerson Jr.
The big questions: Will former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith be the home run hire Illinois thinks he is? Can Smith make Illinois a recruiting presence in Chicago? Will the progress the Illini made on defense last season continue? Will the offense make strides after failing to score more than 14 points in five of its Big Ten games?
Coach’s quote: “We realize we have to put a better product on the football field. It’s as simple as that.” – Lovie Smith.
Last year: 12-2, 8-0 Big Ten, Conference runner-up
Returning starters: 13 (five offense, eight defense)
Players to watch: QB C.J. Beathard, RB LeShun Daniels, WR Matt VandeBerg, CB Desmond King
The big questions: Is Iowa destined for a return trip to the Big Ten championship game? Can quarterback C.J. Beathard be as good or better than he was last year in his first season as a starter (17 TDs, 5 INTs)? Does anyone in the Big Ten have a better schedule than the Hawkeyes who get Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin at home and don’t play Ohio State and Michigan State?
Coach’s quote: “Basically since 1999, when we got here, our goal has been the same, to be Big Ten champions,” – Kirk Ferentz
Last year: 6-7, 2-6 Big Ten, tie fifth West
Returning starters: 15 (seven offense, seven defense, kicker)
Players to watch: QB Mitch Leidner, RB Shannon Brooks, TE Brandon Lingen, DT Steven Richardson, LB Jacky Lynn, LB Cody Poock
The big questions: Will Tracy Claeys continue the turnaround Jerry Kill started before having to resign for health reasons during the season last year? Who is going to replace K.J. Maye as Leidner’s top receiver? Is having two junior college transfers penciled in as starters on the offensive line a reason to be concerned?
Coach’s quote: “I think that we have to get back to being physical up front and being able to run the ball on a more consistent basis.” – Tracy Claeys
Last year: 6-7, 3-5 Big Ten, fourth in West
Returning starters: 12 (six offense, five defense, kicker)
Players to watch: QB Tommy Armstrong, WR Jordan Westerkamp, TE Cethan Carter, RB Terrell Newby, LB Josh Banderas, SS Nate Gerry
The big questions: Can quarterback Tommy Armstrong improve his 54-percent career completion percentage? Will Armstrong running the ball be a bigger part of the offense? Will the death of punter Sam Foltz inspire the Cornhusker or weigh on them? Will Nebraska fans grow impatient with coach Mike Riley if the record doesn’t improve in a hurry?
Coach’s quote: “We have to run the football. Physically, we want to impose our will. Running the ball is the best way to do that.” – Mike Riley
Last year: 10-3, 6-2 Big Ten, tied second West
Returning starters: 13 (five offense, six defense, kicker, punter)
Players to watch: QB Clayton Thorson, RB Justin Jackson, WR Austin Carr, DT Tyler Lancaster, LB Anthony Walker, S Godwin Igwebuike
The big questions: Will Northwestern have a passing game this season after averaging only 138 yards a game last season in Clayton Thorson’s first year as a starting quarterback with an inexperienced group of receivers? Can the Wildcats be competitive against the big boys, unlike last season, when their losses to Michigan, Iowa and Tennessee were by a combined score of 145-16? Can they reach 10 wins again?
Coach’s quote: “I like our competitive depth. I like the athleticism of the group.” – Pat Fitzgerald
Last year: 2-10, 1-7 Big Ten, seventh West
Returning starters: 17 (eight offense, eight defense, punter)
Players to watch: QB David Blough, RB Markell Jones, WR DeAngelo Yancey, DT Jake Replogle, LB Ja’Whaun Bentley, LB Danny Ezechukwu.
The big questions: How many wins will it take to let coach Darrell Hazell, a former assistant at Ohio State, keep his job? Especially now that there is a new athletic director. Can a defense that gave up 36.5 points a game last year improve with eight returning starters? Will attendance continue to lag for the Boilermakers at Ross-Ade Stadium?
Coach’s quote: “I know we’re in a position right now to go out and win some football games.” – Darrell Hazell
Last year: 10-3, 6-2 Big Ten, tie second West
Returning starters: 10 (five offense, 4 defense, kicker)
Players to watch: RB Corey Clement, WR Robert Wheelwright, DE Chiwe Obasih, LB Vince Biegel, CB Sojourn Shelton
The big questions: Can running back Corey Clement bounce back from a disappointing 2015 season in which he missed eight games because of a sports hernia after being considered a Heisman Trophy candidate in the preseason? Who will replace Joel Stave at quarterback? After several years of coaching instability is Wisconsin’s program headed for a downturn?
Coach’s quote: “it certainly does grab a player’s attention when you know you’re playing against a heck of an opponent (LSU) for your first game.” – Paul Chryst