By Eric Colson
AP College Football Writer
The big change in the Big Ten is the move to the nine-game conference schedule. What doesn’t figure to change is the dominance of the East Division.
Ohio State, Michigan and defending champion Michigan State all are positioned to make runs at being national top-10 teams, if not College Football Playoff contenders.
Iowa’s amazing 12-0 regular season in 2015 notwithstanding, this looks like another year when the West will play in the East’s considerable shadow.
The Big Ten attempted to create balance when it split into divisions with Nebraska’s entry in 2011. The Legends and Leaders monikers went by the wayside after three years, replaced by the geographical East-West alignment.
Last season, Michigan State went to the playoff and was joined by fellow East members Ohio State and Michigan among the top 12 teams in the final Top 25. Iowa, at No. 9, was the only West team among the top dozen.
The year before, Ohio State won the national championship and Michigan State was No. 6 in the final AP poll, with Wisconsin the highest West team at No. 13. The East won the last two Big Ten championship games, with the folks in Wisconsin still smarting from the 59-0 beat-down administered by Ohio State in 2014.
Commissioner Jim Delany said shuffling the divisions is not in the plans.
“Things are a little cyclical,” he said. “I mean, if you look at other conferences who have experimented much longer than we have, you had a 10- or 12-year run by the eastern group in the SEC and then a 15- , 10-, 12-year run by the West. It looks like the (SEC) East is getting stronger.
“We have some great programs in the West who have won national championships, that have won big bowls, that have found themselves in the top five and 10 rankings in the country, have great coaches, great resources, great brands. So I suspect over time there would be parity.”
The Big Ten will join the Pac-12 and Big 12 in playing nine-game conference schedules. SEC and ACC teams each play eight league games.
Urban Meyer has a bevy of talented reinforcements ready to step to the fore after the NFL plucked a record number of players from Ohio State.
J.T. Barrett has the quarterback’s job all to himself, finally, and can hurt defenses in a variety of ways and redshirt freshman Mike Weber is ready to step in at running back. The receiving corps and offensive line are retooling. The strength of the defense is at linebacker, where Raekwon McMillan made a team-high 119 tackles.
Michigan continues is rise under Jim Harbaugh, and the Wolverines are contenders to win the Big Ten and figure in the playoff picture if they can end their four-game losing skid to Ohio State. The offensive line and receivers are set. All the Wolverines need to do is settle on a quarterback. New defensive coordinator Don Brown inherits key pieces to what was one of the nation’s best units.
Michigan State won the East and went to the playoff after ending Ohio State’s 30-game conference win streak in Columbus. The inclination would be to expect the Spartans to take a step back because of key departures on offense. Don’t count them out, though. The defense is loaded, and the Ohio State and Michigan games are at home.
Iowa turned into the darling of college football with its 12-0 regular season, and the Hawkeyes have the schedule and returning personnel to win the division again. Quarterback C.J. Beathard, most of the top running backs and several key receivers are back, and All-America cornerback Desmond King is among eight returning starters on defense.
Nebraska had five losses by five points or less, but a bowl win over UCLA left the Cornhuskers with a positive vibe coming out of a 6-7 first season under Mike Riley. If the Huskers can split back-to-back road games against Wisconsin and Ohio State, their Nov. 25 game at Iowa might decide the West.
Northwestern returns workhorse running back Justin Jackson from a team that won 10 games despite averaging fewer than 20 points. Wisconsin gets running back Corey Clement back from injury, but the Badgers are unsettled at quarterback and they play one of the most brutal schedules in the country.
Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers is a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate. He’s listed at linebacker after primarily being a safety in 2015, but he has proved he can play about any position on either side of the ball.
Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett also could get into the Heisman conversation. He won back the starter’s job in the eighth game and is the Buckeyes’ undisputed leader.
Iowa CB Desmond King is among the nation’s top defenders after intercepting eight passes.
Michigan State DL Malik McDowell goes into his junior season with 17 of his 56 career tackles having gone for losses.
Chris Ash, the former Ohio State defensive coordinator, takes over a Rutgers program that has lost 12 of 16 Big Ten games in its two years in the conference.
D.J. Durkin, the former Michigan defensive coordinator, is in charge at Maryland, where facilities improvements and UnderArmour money should enhance the Terrapins’ chances of winning after going 5-11 in the conference through two seasons.
Lovie Smith, the new Illinois coach, hasn’t worked at the college level since 1995, but he brings fresh perspective and NFL cache to a program that has finished above .500 only twice since the 2007 team went to the Rose Bowl.
ON THE HOT SEAT
Purdue coach Darrell Hazell, whose three-year record is 6-30 overall and 2-22 in the Big Ten. He probably kept his job after last season only because the administration didn’t want to pay $6.6 million to buy out a contract that runs to 2018.
East: Ohio State. West: Iowa. League champion: Ohio State.
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