Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, January 13, 2016

It's time to dig into my Mailbag. What are some of the big non-conference football games next season? Could J.T. Barrett win the Heisman? That and more.

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With Ohio State's schedule next year, an early truth-teller will be the Oklahoma game in Norman, Okla. It is OSU?s third game, which may give all of the young Buckeyes a chance to gel before the trip. This will be an early hallmark tilt for the BIG and a chance to show the strength of conference vs. a Sooners squad that has lofty expectations in 2016 after a playoff run in 2015. What other non-conference games in the BIG will be "tells" and indicators of where the BIG stands? – David Delahunty

No doubt, that game at Oklahoma will be a good litmus test for the Buckeyes. It?s in Norman, Oklahoma, on Sept. 17 after Ohio State opens at home vs. Bowling Green and Tulsa. Some other interesting non-league games in the Big Ten:

LSU vs. Wisconsin in Lambeau Field, Sept. 3
BYU at Michigan State, Oct. 8
Penn State at Pitt, Sept. 10
Michigan State at Notre Dame, Sept. 17
Oregon at Nebraska, Sept. 17
North Dakota State at Iowa, Sept. 17

With J.T. Barrett being the full-time starter at quarterback for Ohio State next year, what do you think are his chances to make a run at winning the Heisman Trophy? – David

I think they should be pretty good. Yes, some playmakers must emerge with guys like RB Ezekiel Elliott and WRs Jalin Marshall and Mike Thomas gone. But talent always abounds in Columbus. And the presence of Barrett and his veteran hand should help hasten the development of talent in 2016 for Ohio State. Win the Big Ten, and Barrett figures to be in the Heisman hunt.

What do you see as the most important element in Iowa staying competitive in the Big Ten, as well as being able to stand against power houses like Stanford? It doesn't have the recruiting ability of classic powerhouses like OSU and Alabama. And while the coaching staff at Iowa has a reputation for turning walk-ons into NFL-caliber players, how does Iowa overcome the talent gap facing one of the smaller schools in a Power Five conference? – Andrew Mills

Iowa often is referred to as a ?developmental program.? That means recruits typically don?t arrive ready to play right away. No shame in that. Most programs in the nation are developmental, save for elite schools like Ohio State, Texas, USC, Alabama, Florida and the like. Kirk Ferentz knows what he?s looking for in a player to fit his program. He may land the four- or five-star recruit from time to time, but it will be the exception. Bottom line: The Hawkeyes never will have talent from top to bottom to match a school like Ohio State. But that doesn?t mean Iowa can?t compete with OSU and beat it.

Northwestern put together an unlikely and much-needed 10-win season. The defense was solid. But does the inconsistent offense need a new coordinator? Are the position coaches OK? Is the scheme good? What needs to happen for Pat Fitzgerald?s squad to not just compete with the elite teams, but become one? – Jim

NU?s 10-win season was a bit of a mirage, when you consider the Wildcats? scoring differential was just one point: 19.5 vs. 18.5. NU had an uncanny ability to win close games: 16-6 vs. Stanford; 30-28 at Nebraska; 23-21 vs. Penn State; 24-19 vs. Ball State; 13-7 at Wisconsin; 21-14 vs. Purdue; 19-10 vs. Duke. But I digress. I think Northwestern?s scheme is good. And I like OC Mick McCall. But, fresh ideas are always welcomed. Things in life need to continue to evolve and adapt. Change or perish, right? No doubt, more explosive talent would make McCall?s play calls look better. There is scant big-play ability on offense. And QB Clayton Thorson still has a lot to prove. Will NU ever be an elite program? Probably not. But that?s not the mission of the program at this school, at least I don?t think it is.

Do you think that Indiana's defense will improve in 2016? – MJ

Well, the defense can?t get much worse. Last year, Indiana ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (37.6 ppg) and last in total defense (509.5 ypg). The defense has long been a drag on this program. It predates Kevin Wilson?s arrival in 2011. The talent level is improving, but holes remain. The secondary was a big issue last season, while the front seven had its moments of success. I expect the unit to make some progress in 2016. Seeing end Darius Latham turn pro early hurts, but IU has some talent in the likes of LB Clyde Newton, T.J. Simmons and Marcus Oliver. And corner Rashard Fant is a player.

Wisconsin had one of the best defenses in the country last year but then lost fine defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to LSU. The running game should be improved in 2016 with RB Cory Clement returning healthy. Where do you see the Badgers in 2016? – Bob Jorgensen

This team has a shot to compete for the West title. A big key will be finding a quarterback to replace Joel Stave. Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook are the front-runners. The line battled depth and injury issues last year. It should improve. Who will be the go-to wideout with Alex Erickson gone? Robert Wheelwright? Jazz Peavy? No doubt, losing Aranda is huge. But the new coordinator has talent like linebackers Vince Biegel and T.J. Edwards, linemen Chikwe Obasih and Arthur Goldberg and corner Sojourn Shelton-among others-to build around. This team could win the West, but know this: The schedule gets much tougher with cross-division games at Michigan State, at Michigan and vs. Ohio State. And all of those games come in succession.


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