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Big Ten football 2015 preview: Predictions, all-conference teams, standings

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Maryland's second year in the Big Ten brings opportunities, challenges.

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to football season.

It's Maryland's second year in the Big Ten, wrought with the challenges associated with a loaded East division but attached to the promise of better days ahead – if the Terrapins can only manage respectability in 2015. They'll start with a warmup against FCS peon Richmond on Sept. 5, then gradually ramp up until they start league play against Jim Harbaugh and Michigan, under the lights at Byrd Stadium on Oct. 3.

Projected standings

We'll get right into it. Based on a game-by-game review of each of the 14 teams' schedules, these are our respective standings predictions for Big Ten football, 2015:

Projections – Alex
East West
1 Ohio State (12-0, 8-0) Wisconsin (10-2, 7-1)
2 Michigan State (10-2, 7-1) Iowa (8-4, 6-2)
3 Penn State (10-2, 6-2) Minnesota (8-4, 5-3)
4 Maryland (6-6, 3-5) Nebraska (8-4, 5-3)
5 Michigan (6-6, 3-5) Northwestern (4-8, 2-6)
6 Indiana (4-8, 1-7) Purdue (5-7, 2-6)
7 Rutgers (3-9, 0-8) Illinois (3-9, 0-8)

Projections – Pete
East West
1 Ohio State (12-0, 8-0) Wisconsin (10-2, 7-1)
2 Michigan State (10-2, 7-1) Nebraska (9-3, 6-2)
3 Penn State (10-2, 6-2) Iowa (8-4, 5-3)
4 Maryland (7-5, 4-4) Minnesota (8-4, 5-3)
5 Michigan (6-6, 3-5) Illinois (5-7, 2-6)
6 Rutgers (5-7, 1-7) Northwestern (3-9, 1-7)
7 Indiana (4-8, 1-7) Purdue (1-11, 0-8)


All-Big Ten preseason teams

Here are our preseason All-Big Ten squads, first and second team:

First-Team All-Big Ten – Alex
Player Team
QB Cardale Jones/J.T. Barrett Ohio State
RB Ezekiel Elliott Ohio State
RB Corey Clement Wisconsin
WR Leonte Carroo Rutgers
WR Michael Thomas Ohio State
TE Jake Butt Michigan
T Taylor Decker Ohio State
G Dan Feeney Indiana
C Jack Allen Michigan State
G Pat Elflein Ohio State
T Jack Conklin Michigan State
DL Joey Bosa Ohio State
DL Shilique Calhoun Michigan State
DL Anthony Zettel Penn State
DL Drew Ott Iowa
LB Darron Lee Ohio State
LB Joshua Perry Ohio State
LB Vince Biegel Wisconsin
CB Will Likely Maryland
CB Eric Murray Minnesota
S Jabrill Peppers Michigan
S Vonn Bell Ohio State
K Brad Craddock Maryland
P Peter Mortell Minnesota
KR/PR De'Mornay Pierson-El Nebraska

Rationale: It's positively dumbfounding that the Buckeyes have the two best quarterbacks in a loaded quarterback division, the Big Ten East. But here we are, and here they do. Either Jones or Barrett will pilot a dominant offense with more weapons than any other team in the country and a brick fortress of an offensive line. You could just stick Ohio State's starters on offense here, and it wouldn't be all that crazy. In the NBD (Non-Buckeye Department), I really like Rutgers receptions behemoth Carroo, and Michigan State's Allen might be the best center in college football. The league is well-endowed with offensive linemen these days.

The first-team defense is stacked, too. Lee is as good an inside linebacker as any team could have, and that defensive line is downright animalistic. Bosa could be the best player in the country, period, except I'm not sure how much better he is than Calhoun or Zettel. All of them will be first-round NFL picks next year. The secondary has a lot of options: You could easily swap Likely for Murray's Golden Gopher tandem partner Briean Boddy-Calhoun, and my pick of Peppers at safety is purely an upside play. Wisconsin's Michael Caputo is more proven and could slot there with no qualms from me

The special teams picks are straightforward. Craddock will be the league's best kicker and Mortell its best punter, and both are likely to get NFL specialist jobs next year. Pierson-El is an electrifying return man and helped make Nebraska's return game one of the most efficient in the country last year. Expect him to do it again.

First-Team All-Big Ten – Pete
Player Team
QB Cardale Jones/J.T. Barrett Ohio State
RB Ezekiel Elliott Ohio State
RB Corey Clement Wisconsin
WR DaeSean Hamilton Penn State
WR Michael Thomas Ohio State
TE Jake Butt Michigan
T Taylor Decker Ohio State
G Donavon Clark Michigan State
C Jack Allen Michigan State
G Pat Elflein Ohio State
T Jack Conklin Michigan State
DL Joey Bosa Ohio State
DL Shilique Calhoun Michigan State
DL Anthony Zettel Penn State
DL Drew Ott Iowa
LB Darron Lee Ohio State
LB Joshua Perry Ohio State
LB Vince Biegel Wisconsin
CB Will Likely Maryland
CB Eric Murray Minnesota
S Jabrill Peppers Michigan
S Vonn Bell Ohio State
K Brad Craddock Maryland
P Peter Mortell Minnesota
KR/PR De'Mornay Pierson-El Nebraska

Rationale: Let me stress one thing: Ohio State is going to be very good this year. I think the Buckeyes have the two best quarterbacks in the league, and that's not even taking into consideration the absurd amount of talent at the skill positions and along the line. Michigan State may have some trouble replacing defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, but the Spartans have the talent along the line (and at quarterback) to help keep them on their current pace.

On the defensive side of things, the Big Ten has some of the best linemen in the nation, but linebacker remains a bit of a question. Will Likely has shown his ability to make explosive plays and shutdown opposing playmakers at corner, while Jabril Peppers and Vonn Bell should terrorize opposing passing attacks.

And of course, no list is complete without Brad Craddock.

Second-Team All-Big Ten – Alex
Player Team
QB Christian Hackenberg Penn State
RB Jordan Howard Indiana
RB Akeel Lynch Penn State
WR DaeSean Hamilton Penn State
WR Shane Wynn Indiana
TE Nick Vannett Ohio State
T Tyler Marz Wisconsin
G Billy Price Ohio State
C Austin Blythe Iowa
G Donavon Clark Michigan State
T Mason Cole Michigan
DL Yannick Ngakoue Maryland
DL Maliek Collins Nebraska
DL Kemoko Turay Rutgers
DL Adolphus Washington Ohio State
LB Raekwon McMilan Ohio State
LB Ja'Whuan Bentley Purdue
LB De'Vondre Campbell Minnesota
CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun Minnesota
CB Frankie Williams Purdue
S Michael Caputo Wisconsin
S Tyvis Powell Ohio State
K Rafael Gaglianone Wisconsin
P Sam Foltz Nebraska
KR/PR Jalin Marshall Ohio State

Rationale: Clearly, I believe in Penn State more than some, but there's a lot of talent kicking around in Happy Valley right now. Hackenberg isn't a safe bet like Michigan State's Connor Cook, but he's preternaturally gifted and should have the right situation to break out this year. Penn State's offensive line was beyond hideous last year, and it's likely to be below average again. But it can't be as garish as it was before, just as Hackenberg can't keep throwing more interceptions than touchdowns and can't keep getting sacked on 8.3 percent of his drop-backs. These things won't happen, and Hackenberg and Hamilton should make magic together.

The defensive line features a few real breakout candidates in Ngakoue and Turay, who both took big steps toward stardom last year. At linebacker, I'm intrigued with Purdue's Bentley, who brings a substantial mix of athleticism and size. The Big Ten has a logjam of fine defensive backs to choose from, and the secondary is accordingly fun.

Second-Team All-Big Ten – Pete
Player Team
QB Connor Cook Michigan State
RB Jordan Howard Indiana
RB Justin Jackson Northwestern
WR Leonte Carroo Rutgers
WR Braxton Miller Ohio State
TE Nick Vannett Ohio State
T Tyler Marz Wisconsin
G Billy Price Ohio State
C Austin Blythe Iowa
G Dan Feeney Indiana
T Mason Cole Michigan
DL Yannick Ngakoue Maryland
DL Maliek Collins Nebraska
DL Kemoko Turay Rutgers
DL Darius Hamilton Rutgers
LB Raekwon McMilan Ohio State
LB Ja'Whuan Bentley Purdue
LB Mason Monheim Illinois
CB Nick VanHoose Northwestern
CB Frankie Williams Purdue
S Nate Gerry Nebraska
S Tyvis Powell Ohio State
K Rafael Gaglianone Wisconsin
P Sam Foltz Nebraska
KR/PR Jalin Marshall Ohio State

Rationale: I'll take Connor Cook over Christian Hackenberg, and I feel quite confident in Braxton Miller's move to a new position. The defensive line talent runs deep once again, while there are plenty of good players in the secondary.

And I can't pass up this:

The two of us, for your reading pleasure, explained some of our reasoning in a conversation produced below:

Alex: So, I felt a little wild for coming up with Penn State at 10-2, but you've done the same. The Nittany Lions are legitimately good, aren't they?

Pete: Yeah, well thankfully we've got good company in that prediction. The offense is definitely a big question mark, but between Hackenberg, Hamilton, Geno Lewis and Akeel Lynch, there's talent there that some improvement should be expected. Couple that with what should be another dominant defense and a light schedule, and 10 wins seems to be within reach for James Franklin. That's if the offensive line improves after losing starters at left tackle (Donovan Smith) and left guard (Miles Dieffenbach).

Sticking in the East, we've got the division lining up in about the same way (with an exception at the bottom). Why do you feel Maryland will finish above Michigan in 2015?

Alex: I went back and forth about Maryland and Michigan. A few weeks ago, our friends at SB Nation's Maize n Brew asked me, and I said I expected the Wolverines to beat Maryland in College Park. I've also espoused that view on this website more than once, based on Michigan's defense always being good and assuming Jim Harbaugh could figure out a decent quarterback situation, one way or another.

But the last few weeks, as I've dug more deeply into the 2015 version of the Terps, I've found myself liking what I've seen. I don't think it's unreasonable to think Maryland will go 4-8, but I think the likeliest overall outcome is 5-7 or 6-6, depending on how the Terps do against Michigan. Ultimately, I'm leaning toward Maryland winning that game and taking a tiebreaker over Michigan to finish a nose ahead. But I'm fairly indecisive about this. It's also possible that Michigan is really good, but I don't see that team beating Ohio State, Michigan State, or Penn State (on the road). The Big Ten East is a tough neighborhood.

Are you any more confident about it than I am?

Pete: I'm in kind of the same boat -- right now, I see Maryland above Michigan for this year in the hierarchy, but it could go either way. Like most, I have an absurd amount of confidence in the Wolverines' long-term prospects under Jim Harbaugh. While his best trait may be coaching quarterbacks, however, I'm not sure how quickly he can find one on that roster. The Wolverines have a lot of talent and Jabrill Peppers is going to be an absolute terror, but I think it'll take a year.

Onto the West. We've both got Wisconsin winning the division, but it's kind of a crowded field. I have Nebraska second, and you have them lagging well behind.

Alex: Man, the West is a crapshoot. This thing is more wide-open than Ezekiel Elliott probably will be on passes out of the backfield against Maryland on Oct. 10. And here's the weird thing: I don't even consider myself "down" on Nebraska. Maliek Collins and De'Mornay Pierson-El are terrific, I like their quarterback, and Mike Riley seems like he's got them on the up and up. Ultimately, I think Nebraska goes 5-3 in the league and only looks like it's lagging because it misses a tiebreaker by losing to Minnesota.

Speaking of Minnesota, I think the Gophers are going to rule. Their starting cornerbacks, Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, are going to enforce a no-fly zone on the edges, and the linebackers between them should be strong, too. Why should I think Nebraska would be better than Minnesota?

Pete: Mostly, because Nebraska isn't Minnesota. Jerry Kill has done impressive things with the Gophers, but the Huskers are more talented, have a potential star at quarterback and could do very well attacking opponents vertically in a division that lacks vertical threats. Wisconsin might be the safest bet for the division each year, but I think Riley has some magic up his sleeve for year one.

On to the all-conference teams. What's your rationale for Hackenberg over Connor Cook? I imagine that's the big question for the conference this year -- who is the best non-Ohio State quarterback out there?

Alex: Hackenberg over Cook is part hunch, part pedigree. Cook has turned himself into an outstanding college quarterback, and he'll be a good pro someday. I like Hackenberg a little more for 2015 for a few reasons. First, Hackenberg was a five-star recruit, and Cook got three stars but developed a ton in East Lansing. There's a talent difference here, and I think James Franklin will eventually (i.e. this season) get more from Hackenberg.

The other big reason I'm in on Hackenberg for this year is continuity. Cook lost Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery at receiver and Jeremy Langford at running back. Hackenberg gets to keep favorite target Hamilton, running back Lynch, and all of his major pass-catchers from last year other than tight end Jesse James. Hackenberg isn't perfect, but I see him settling in and finally letting his natural ability shine. If I'm right, it could be something to see.