Ohio State won the inaugural College Football Playoff national championship last season. With the majority of their team returning, the Buckeyes are prohibitive favorites to repeat.
Ohio State brings back quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, former quarterback Braxton Miller is moving to wide receiver, running back Ezekiel Elliott is back and the defense returns just about everybody – including Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Joey Bosa and the team’s leading tackle Joshua Perry.
Ohio State’s national championship was its first since 2002, which was also the last time the Big Ten claimed a national title.
After the SEC won seven straight BCS national championships, its streak was snapped in 2013 by Florida State. Ohio State then beat SEC powerhouse Alabama last season in the national semifinal before beating Oregon in the championship game.
The Buckeyes are the national preseason No. 1 and their championship has had a ripple effect through the Big Ten. The league has a buzz of confidence following a season that also saw Wisconsin beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl and Michigan State beating Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.
“Our bowl game victory was very, very exciting,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said at the Big Ten Media Days. “It showed that we could be mentally tough and continue to push through tough times and be able to come out on the front end at the end of the game. And I think we just kept playing.
“I think the buzz behind that sort of catapulted the whole Big Ten forward based on other things that happened. You know, not only Ohio State’s victories in bowl games but a lot of the other teams. I think we were — I think we won five bowl games, I believe. So that was very exciting for the league. As far as the national championship, I’ve said all along that great football is played in the Big Ten Conference, as it is played in all these other conferences. Great football. There’s a lot of parity in college football. Things hang by the inches. When people get hot, great things can happen. And I think you saw that last year.”
Although the Badgers were pounded by Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, they rebounded to beat Auburn. Wisconsin, which is coming off an 11-3 season, did lose coach Gary Andersen to Oregon State and Melvin Gordon was a first-round NFL draft pick following a 2,500-yard rushing season.
But there is still a lot of confidence in Madison with Corey Clement expected to be yet another great running back at Wisconsin, which welcomes back Paul Chryst as the new head coach. Chryst, who played football at Wisconsin and was the program’s offensive coordinator for six seasons before spending the last three years as the head coach at Pittsburgh, says he’s thrilled to be back at his alma mater.
“There are players at Wisconsin that know how to win and what it takes to win,” Chryst said last month. “And our challenge and our opportunity is for this year’s team to be able to do that. And we’ve got great leadership from the seniors, juniors, and we’ve got a young group of players that I think are anxious and ready to follow their lead.
“There’s so many great things for me coming back to the University of Wisconsin. But the best part of coaching to me always has been working with the players and helping those individuals be the best they can be, and then getting a group of individuals to be the best team that we can be. And our group, our team right now, I think, knows what it needs to do to be their best. And this summer, I liked watching them. I liked getting to know them and continuing to get to know our players and what they’re doing and how they’ve gone about their business. And couldn’t be more excited to go to camp and to start this journey that is the 2015 season together.”
The Big Ten went 5-5 in bowl games last year, not including Ohio State’s win over Oregon in the national championship game. That was following a season in which the conference was just 2-5 in bowl games. The improved bowl record is just another reason for optimism.
“How your league is perceived really depends on, first of all, who do you play in the nonconference and win? And when you look at the Big Ten, the way that things are structured currently, you’re going to have four weeks worth of an evaluation from a national perspective on where our conference is at based on head-to-head matchup games with Power 5 teams,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said on July 31. “And then we’ll go through the Big Ten gauntlet. And then we’ll have that same evaluation happen then in the postseason.
“If things are going great and you have a great nonconference schedule and those matchups, then you go into the bowl season, then you are the conference to beat in bowl season. And then the narrative changes based on how you do in about three or four or five or six games. And then we go through the whole offseason and say, Wow, look at this conference. They’re up and they’re down. And I’m a little jealous of you guys. It’s kind of fun to watch. I don’t get to watch it unfold. And as a fan first, it’s awesome. That’s what makes college football special.”
There’s also a new coach in the Big Ten that has created some buzz – and it’s not Mike Riley at Nebraska. Michigan hired former Stanford and San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, a former Michigan quarterback who spent 14 seasons playing in the NFL.
Harbaugh said he’s not “striving to be creating any buzz, just striving to coach the football team,” but the buzz is real and has not gone unnoticed.
“I think there’s that old saying there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m pretty sure he’s excited to go coach his team. There’s a lot that’s probably been on his plate in this offseason. And typically as a coach you want to get around your guys and coach your team. And I’m sure he’s handled it incredibly well.
“I told him I was going to get in the back of the media horde and start asking him questions about my talk at his camp and see if he remembered anything I said and put him on the spot a little bit. It is what it is. He had a great playing career. The success he had at all of his stops speaks for itself. And I wish him all the best of luck except for one game, against us.”
The Wolverines and Wildcats play at Michigan Stadium on Oct. 10, but Michigan opens the season at Utah on Sept. 3.
“The energy has been tremendous,” Harbaugh said. “I think everybody involved in Michigan and Michigan football is hungry for the 2015 season, including the fan base.”
The buzz is real.