Big Ten

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#11 Michigan State Spartans

NATIONAL FORECAST

#11

Big Ten East Division PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Mark Dantonio, 64-29 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jim Bollman, Dave Warner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Pat Narduzzi

Michigan State is coming off one of the best seasons in school history, winning 13 games and finishing No. 3 in the final Associated Press poll. The Spartans claimed the Big Ten title and return a solid foundation to contend once again in 2014. Quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford led the way for a dangerous offense, while the defense returns five starters from a unit that ranked third nationally in points allowed per game.

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Previewing Michigan State’s Offense for 2014:

Michigan State still plays power football, but the Spartans can also hurt teams with multiple-receiver sets or by running the read-option with quarterback Connor Cook under center. Cook, the MVP of the Big Ten Championship Game and the Rose Bowl, possesses great mobility and a big arm. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio likes Cook’s resiliency, and he has placed great confidence in the junior by granting him the power to audible at the line of scrimmage this upcoming season.

Running back Jeremy Langford is back after a 1,422-yard, 18-touchdown rushing campaign. Dantonio will be looking to get the ball to Langford more via the pass as well as run this season.

Five players with starting experience return to an offensive line that allowed 17 sacks last season, tied for third-fewest in the Big Ten. Sophomore left tackle Jack Conklin, a Freshman All-American in 2013, has yet to allow a sack in his career.

The Spartans have a deep and talented corps of pass-catchers. Senior Tony Lippett is the most consistent in the group, but juniors Aaron Burbridge, DeAnthony Arnett and Macgarrett Kings Jr. possess star power. R.J. Shelton emerged in spring and looks to figure into the mix, and Keith Mumphery is a deep threat. The tight ends, green a season ago, could figure more heavily into the passing game.

It’s an experienced offense that became more multiple as last season progressed, and co-coordinators Dave Warner and Jim Bollman have indicated the Spartans won’t slow down.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Michigan State Spartans for 2014:

Previewing Michigan State’s Defense for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Big Ten Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
The Spartans lost six starters off a defense that ranked in the top three in the nation in all four major statistical categories, but coordinator Pat Narduzzi insists that the losses don’t mean his unit will drop off. “It’s called opportunity,” Narduzzi says. “We’ve got players.”

Michigan State possesses one of the top defensive end duos in the nation in reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Shilique Calhoun and fourth-year starter Marcus Rush. The Spartans have plugged the departures at defensive tackle adequately, and that’s before one of the top-ranked defensive line classes — headlined by Malik McDowell and Craig Evans — reports to camp.

The secondary appears sound, led by captain-in-waiting Kurtis Drummond at free safety and returning junior cornerback Trae Waynes. Sophomore corner Darian Hicks and strong safety RJ Williamson enter fall camp the other projected starters.

The biggest question mark is at linebacker, where Michigan State could have an entirely new look. Senior Taiwan Jones is the only returning starter, and he spent spring trying to transition from outside to middle linebacker. Darien Harris and Ed Davis will likely be the other starters, regardless of how the position shakes out.

Previewing Michigan State’s Specialists for 2014:

All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler is expected to return to form after missing spring drills following knee surgery. Kicker Michael Geiger earned Freshman All-America honors last season, setting a Michigan State single-season record by connecting on 93.8 percent of his field-goal attempts (15-of-16). Shelton is expected back on kick returns and could vie for punt return duties with Kings Jr., who handled the majority of punt returns last season. 

Final Analysis

Michigan State has the potential to make the four-team College Football Playoff with all of the right bounces, but the 2014 schedule appears more challenging than last season’s, starting with a Sept. 6 road trip to play Oregon. The Spartans play Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan at home, but they’ll close the regular season at Penn State.

Michigan State’s defense will be hard-pressed to lead the Big Ten for a fourth consecutive season, so the offense might need to step up and carry the team until six new defensive starters settle in.

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Five Reasons why Athlon Sports is Picking Michigan State No. 11:

1. Development of QB Connor Cook
In his first season as Michigan State’s starting quarterback, Cook threw for 2,755 yards, 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Cook was at his best at key moments for the Spartans, including throwing for 304 yards against Ohio State and 332 yards versus Stanford in the Rose Bowl. With an offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback, expect Cook to take the next step in his development in 2014.

2.  Big losses on defense
With five starters back, Michigan State’s defense has some rebuilding to do this offseason. It’s not a drastic overhaul for coordinator Pat Narduzzi, but there are some key players departing. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard is a huge loss, and the defense must replace linebacker Max Bullough and both starters at defensive tackle. After finishing No. 2 nationally in total defense and No. 3 in scoring defense, the Spartans have work to in order to repeat those totals this year. But…

3. Pat Narduzzi’s should find the right answers on defense
As mentioned above, Michigan State is losing a few key pieces to one of the best defenses in the nation. However, with Narduzzi on the sidelines, it’s hard to see the Spartans suffering too much on defense. With ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush, along with cornerback Trae Waynes, Michigan State’s defense should be dominant once again. It's probably asking too much for the 2014 unit to match last year's totals, but the Spartans will be among the best in the Big Ten.

4. Favorable home slate
Michigan State’s schedule certainly isn’t easy, but the Spartans host Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio State – three of their toughest games for 2014. Road dates against Penn State and Oregon will be a huge challenge and potential games with playoff implications. Considering the Buckeyes and Wolverines visit Spartan Stadium, the path to the Big Ten East Division title should go through East Lansing.

5. Promising skill players and offensive line
If Michigan State is going to knock off Ohio State for the second consecutive season, the skill players and offensive line have to take another step forward in their development. Last year, running back Jeremy Langford ran for 1,422 yards and could top the 1,500-mark in 2014. The receiving corps also emerged as a strength, with Tony Lippett becoming as a go-to target for Connor Cook. But the key to the 2014 season will be the offensive line. The Spartans have to replace three starters, including second-team All-Big Ten performer Blake Treadwell. However, center Jack Allen and tackle Jack Conklin are two potential all-conference performers to build around, and there’s experience returning with Travis Jackson at guard and Donavon Clark at tackle. If the offensive line is able to mesh with three new starters, Michigan State should finish higher than No. 11 in 2014.

The Debate

Who Leads the Big Ten in Rushing in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#15 Wisconsin Badgers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#15

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Gary Andersen, 9-4 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Andy Ludwig | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dave Aranda

The Badgers return only eight starters, but the expectations remain high in Madison. And even with the personnel losses, Wisconsin is still positioned for a run at the Big Ten title. Running back Melvin Gordon headlines an offense that should be one of the best in the nation on the ground. Four starters return on the line, including tackles Rob Havenstein and Tyler Marz. The receiving corps needs to be revamped, and quarterback play is a concern. However, a rebuilt defense and solid rushing attack should be enough to remain a top 25 team in 2014.

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Previewing Wisconsin’s Offense for 2014:

Tanner McEvoy still gets questions about a contingency plan if he isn’t the Wisconsin starting quarterback. Blame that on the junior playing so well at safety last season after getting thrown into the position after the season started. Make no mistake, it’s quarterback or bust for McEvoy, who will compete for the starting job in camp with junior Joel Stave, the returning starter. Stave is 13–6 as a starter, but a costly decision not to slide on a scramble in the Capital One Bowl led to an AC joint injury in his throwing shoulder. That limited him in the spring, opening the door for McEvoy.

Second-year coach Gary Andersen prefers dual-threat quarterbacks, and McEvoy brings the read option to an already potent running game. Melvin Gordon and James White combined to rush for 3,053 yards last season, the most ever at the FBS level by two teammates. White is gone — and many fans believe Gordon should have left, too. Gordon was eligible for the draft as a third-year sophomore and likely would have been the first back taken.

Gordon has averaged 8.1 yards per carry in his career, yet has never been the featured back and has carried the ball more than 20 times in only two games. Sophomore Corey Clement averaged 8.2 yards on 67 carries in his first season and will share the load.
The offensive line is as big and nasty as ever. Five players have started five or more games, led by senior right tackle Rob Havenstein (6'8", 327 pounds), who has 28 career starts.

The question on offense is the passing game. The 336 passes Stave attempted in 2013 were the most in school history, and his 2,494 passing yards ranked fifth. He also threw too many interceptions (13) and frequently missed open receivers.

The three players who caught the most passes last season all departed. At least two of the five receivers signed in February must contribute immediately.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the Wisconsin Badgers for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Big Ten Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Wisconsin’s Defense for 2014:

Get used to seeing undersized, explosive athletes on defense, because the Badgers have put a premium on speed. They have sacrificed size, but the goal is to get more big plays — turnovers, sacks and tackles for a loss.

The defensive front seven is completely new, led by senior nose guard Warren Herring, who will also play end to bolster the pass rush. Redshirt freshman Alec James was involved in one of several position changes, going from outside linebacker to defensive end. James will also help pressure the quarterback, along with outside linebacker Vince Biegel.

Replacing All-America linebacker Chris Borland is a concern. Derek Landisch is a leader and playmaker, but Marcus Trotter doesn’t run well and must prove he can play against spread opponents.

The secondary was a big issue last season, but three starters return in cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary and safety Michael Caputo.

Previewing Wisconsin’s Specialists for 2014:

Incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone was signed to address a shaky field-goal situation. He will have to beat out incumbent Jack Russell. Kenzel Doe, who tied for the Big Ten lead in kickoff returns (26.5 average) last season and had a 91-yard kickoff return for a TD in the bowl game, will be the No. 1 returner.

Final Analysis

Losses in the final two games against Penn State and South Carolina spoiled what could have been a special first season for Andersen. A large senior class departed, but there is enough talent to contend for the Big Ten West title if a quarterback emerges. Opening the season against LSU in Houston ramped up the urgency in spring, but the schedule is favorable after that — the Badgers host Nebraska and do not play the projected top four teams from the Big Ten East.

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Five Reasons why Athlon Sports is Picking Wisconsin No. 15:

1. Significant personnel losses
Wisconsin should be able to effectively reload on both sides of the ball, but there will be a transition period in 2014. With only eight returning starters, concerns at quarterback and receiver, it’s hard to pick the Badgers to challenge Michigan State or Ohio State for the Big Ten title.

2. Question marks under center
Will it be Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy taking the first snap against LSU this year? Stave threw for 2,494 yards last season, but McEvoy was coach Gary Andersen and coordinator Andy Ludwig’s pick to challenge Stave in 2013. McEvoy played safety last year and moved back under center this spring. Stave’s shoulder injury added to the uncertainty.

3. Rushing attack and offensive line
Boasting one of the Big Ten’s best rushing attacks and offensive lines has become an annual tradition in Madison. The Badgers return four starters on the line, while running back Melvin Gordon should be a Heisman contender. Even with quarterback concerns, Wisconsin’s offense should have no trouble moving the ball with a rushing attack that ranks among the best in the nation.

4. Rebuilding on defense
Take a look at Wisconsin’s depth chart for 2014 and it's easy to see there are a ton of new faces stepping into the starting lineup. The Badgers return only three starters on defense, with standouts like Chris Borland, Dezmen Southward and Beau Allen expiring their eligibility. Despite the personnel turnover, there are reasons to be optimistic. Coach Gary Andersen and coordinator Dave Aranda are sharp defensive minds, and there is experience returning at linebacker Vince Biegel and Derek Landisch, underrated nose guard Warren Herring and cornerback Sojourn Shelton. The opener at LSU will be tough, but Wisconsin’s defense should get better as the season progresses.

5. Favorable schedule
While the depth chart has a lot of holes, the schedule is a huge positive for Wisconsin. The Badgers catch Rutgers and Maryland in crossover play, while Nebraska visits Madison. Sure, there’s a road trip to Iowa and a potential swing game at Northwestern, but Wisconsin’s 2014 slate is one of the easiest in the Big Ten.

The Debate

Wisconsin's Defense or Quarterback Play: Which is a Bigger Concern in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#22 Penn State Nittany Lions

NATIONAL FORECAST

#22

Big Ten East PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: James Franklin, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: John Donovan | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bob Shoop

James Franklin takes over at Penn State after a successful three-year stint at Vanderbilt. Franklin raised the bar for the Commodores, guiding the program to three bowl appearances and back-to-back nine-win seasons. The Nittany Lions are still under NCAA sanctions, so depth is an issue and there’s no postseason possibility. However, with a rising star at quarterback, combined with one of the top coaching staffs in the nation, Penn State could push for 10 wins this year.

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Previewing Penn State’s Offense for 2014:

New Lions coach James Franklin has said that he and his staff are going to play to the strengths they inherited rather than asking players to fit into schemes for which they weren’t recruited. And right now, the offense’s primary strength is sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who broke 11 school records and finished third in the Big Ten in passing yards per game (246.3) as a true freshman. Hackenberg added about 15 pounds of muscle during the off-season and now stands 6'4", 234 pounds. He should vie for All-Big Ten honors if the rest of the offense comes together. But that’s no sure thing.

The Lions are thin up front, with junior left tackle Donovan Smith the only healthy returning starter on the line. None of the other first-team hopefuls — tackles Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon, centers Angelo Mangiro and Wendy Laurent, guards Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia — has started a single game. Likewise, the receiver corps is being restocked following Allen Robinson’s decision to forgo his senior year. The key returnee is Geno Lewis, who came on strong at the end of last season, catching seven passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns in the team’s last three games. After Lewis, the depth chart is a jumble.

The one area that survived graduation day unscathed is the backfield. Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch are all back after combining for 2,150 rushing yards last season, led by Zwinak’s 989 yards.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the Penn State Nittany Lions for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Big Ten Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Penn State’s Defense for 2014:

Three defensive linemen with starting experience are back — ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan and tackle Austin Johnson — so the Nittany Lions should be able to withstand the loss of All-Big Ten defensive tackle DaQuan Jones. In fact, this is one of the few position groups at which they appear to have real depth. The Lions also have some experience in the secondary with cornerback Jordan Lucas, safety Ryan Keiser and cornerback-turned-safety Adrian Amos.

The biggest changes on defense are at linebacker, where Mike Hull is moving inside after starting at an outside spot last year. Hull doesn’t have prototypical middle-linebacker size (6'0", 227), but he’s a big hitter with sideline-to-sideline range and enough experience to ensure that the defense is properly aligned. Flanking Hull will be Nyeem Wartman and most likely Brandon Bell. Wartman started eight games last year, while Bell shined at the end of his freshman season.

Previewing Penn State’s Specialists for 2014:

The new coaching staff has talked a lot about making special teams a priority. The Lions finished eighth in the Big Ten in punt returns and dead last in kickoff returns a year ago, but now they have a dedicated special teams coach in Charles Huff. They also have a talented freshman return man in De’Andre Thompkins, who could make an impact. Penn State looks to be solid at kicker, with Sam Ficken back after hitting 15-of-23 field goal attempts as a junior. Ficken also practiced at punter in the spring, but that job will most likely go to walk-on Chris Gulla. 

Final Analysis

Things are looking up at Penn State following the NCAA’s decision last fall to reduce its scholarship penalties. But until they get their numbers back up, the Nittany Lions will have to improvise. They raided their defensive line this spring to patch holes on the offensive front, and even with the extra manpower, the unit looks precariously thin. The Lions also lack experience at wideout and depth at linebacker. The freshman class will help when it arrives this summer, but there’s no quick fix for the problems Penn State is facing this fall. Says Franklin, “I think we’ve got really good football players and great kids here. We just don’t have enough of them. That’s the reality.”

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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Penn State No. 22:

1. James Franklin is one of the top coaching hires for 2014
Bill O’Brien stabilized Penn State’s program through some turmoil, but James Franklin is the right coach to take the Nittany Lions to the next level. Franklin maximized his talent at Vanderbilt and will do the same in Happy Valley. And if you need any evidence about the future of Penn State, take a look at the recruiting rankings for 2015.

2. Christian Hackenberg’s development
As a true freshman in 2013, Hackenberg threw for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns. Top receiver Allen Robinson must be replaced, but Hackenberg should take the next step in his development under Franklin’s watch.

3. Offensive line concerns
Line coach Herb Hand is one of the best in the nation, but he will have his hands full this fall. Guard Miles Dieffenbach suffered a torn ACL in the spring and is expected to miss 2014. With Dieffenbach out, left tackle Donovan Smith is the only returning starter on the line. Depth is also a concern for this unit.

4. Six starters back on defense
2013 was not a vintage year for Penn State’s defense, as the Nittany Lions allowed 5.7 yards per play in conference games. But with six starters back, along with the addition of coordinator Bob Shoop, Penn State is primed for a turnaround on defense. Ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan, linebacker Mike Hull, cornerback Jordan Lucas and safety Adrian Amos could be All-Big Ten performers in 2014.

5. Favorable schedule
Penn State could be favored to win at least nine games in 2014. Road trips to Michigan and home dates against Michigan State and Ohio State are swing contests, but with a favorable schedule, the Nittany Lions could finish 10-2 this year.

The Debate

How Many Games Will Penn State Win in 2014?

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