Big Ten

Unpublished

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#32 Michigan Wolverines

NATIONAL FORECAST

#32

Big Ten East PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Brady Hoke , 26-13 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Doug Nussmeier | DEF. COORDINATOR: Greg Mattison

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 32 Michigan. 

Previewing Michigan’s Offense for 2014:

Al Borges is out. Doug Nussmeier is in. And Michigan is hoping that its program under Brady Hoke can be turned around because of it. After the Wolverines finished the 2013 season No. 86 nationally in total offense, Hoke fired Borges and hired Nussmeier away from Alabama. Nussmeier’s job? Fix a leaky offensive line, an up-and-down quarterback and two inexperienced running backs.

The biggest on-field concern for the Wolverines this season is on the offensive line. Michigan allowed a national-worst 114 tackles for a loss a year ago and averaged just 3.28 yards per carry as a team on the season. Michigan loses starting tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield but does return four players (guards Kyle Kalis and Kyle Bosch, tackle Erik Magnuson and center Graham Glasgow) with starting experience from a year ago.

Elsewhere, the Wolverines will rely on sophomore running backs Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith to handle the workload on the ground, while Justice Hayes will likely be the team’s third-down back. Combined, all three rushed for just 393 yards on 111 carries a year ago.

After throwing for 2,960 yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 2013, senior quarterback Devin Gardner is back for his final season — with his third offensive coordinator. Gardner overcame a broken bone in his foot last December and practiced at full speed during the spring, putting himself ahead of sophomore Shane Morris in the quarterback race. 

Previewing Michigan’s Defense for 2014:

Michigan’s defense began 2013 where it left off in ’12 — as a unit that found a way to keep a struggling offense in games. But as the season progressed, the defense began to slip, ultimately finishing No. 41 nationally in yards allowed per game, the worst mark of coordinator Greg Mattison’s current tenure with the Wolverines. 

The good news? Michigan brings back a ton of experience and a ton of depth from that group. All three starting linebackers return (Jake Ryan, James Ross and Desmond Morgan). Ryan, who missed half of last year with a knee injury, will move to middle linebacker this season and will likely be flanked by Ross and Morgan.

Up front, Michigan brings back Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer, as well as 2013 contributors Chris Wormley, Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. In the defensive backfield, starting corners Blake Countess and Ray Taylor are back, as is starting free safety Jarrod Wilson.

The biggest boost here, though, might not arrive until August, when five-star cornerback Jabrill Peppers joins the program. Arguably the most anticipated recruit in Michigan history, Peppers is expected to have an impact right away in the defensive backfield, whether it’s at corner or safety. 

Previewing Michigan’s Specialists for 2014:

Michigan adds the 2012 Big Ten Punter of the Year, Will Hagerup, back to its roster this season. Hagerup missed the entire 2013 season due to a team-enforced suspension. The Wolverines will also have a new kicker this season; look for senior Matt Wile, who served as Brendan Gibbons’ backup over the past three years, to step into that role. 

Final Analysis

After Michigan went 8–5 and 7–6 over the past two seasons, the shine from Hoke’s 11–2 debut campaign is officially gone. The 2014 season is clearly the most important of Hoke’s tenure at Michigan. This is the youngest team Hoke has had during his time in Ann Arbor, but there is plenty of talent on the roster.

Michigan’s defense should be strong enough to keep it in games early in the season, but if the offense doesn’t show significant improvement, it’s hard to envision this team posing too much of a threat in the new Big Ten East Division. 




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#29 Nebraska Cornhuskers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#29

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Bo Pelini, 58-24 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tim Beck | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Papuchis

The Big Ten’s West Division is up for grabs, and Nebraska has the talent and personnel to finish ahead of Wisconsin and Iowa. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong should be better in his second year under center, and he will have the luxury of working with two of the Big Ten’s top skill players in running back Ameer Abdullah and receiver Kenny Bell. Only three starters return on defense, but one of the players is All-America defensive end Randy Gregory. The Cornhuskers have a tough road schedule, which includes trips to Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Bo Pelini’s team has a difficult path to a division title, but this program is positioned for another solid year.

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 29, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. 

Previewing Nebraska’s Offense for 2014:

All-Big Ten running back Ameer Abdullah is back after considering an early exit by way of the NFL Draft. Abdullah rushed for 1,690 yards, fourth-most in Husker history, with 100 or more yards in 11 games. There’s depth at I-back, including big back Imani Cross, who scored 10 touchdowns on just 85 carries. Ball security has been an emphasis for Abdullah and the rest of the offense.

Abdullah caught 26 passes, third-most on the team. But the Huskers ranked next-to-last in the conference in passing. Sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. is a threat on the option but threw almost as many interceptions, eight, as touchdown passes, nine. That has to change.

Kenny Bell, who has more career receptions than the rest of the wide receivers combined, is in position to become the leading receiver, statistically, in school history. Jamal Turner is a game-breaker but has never become the consistent threat expected when he was moved from quarterback as a freshman. He was limited by injury last season.

A key to success will be the development of a rebuilt offensive line. Left guard Jake Cotton is among the team’s emotional leaders. Left tackle Alex Lewis, a transfer from Colorado, is a potential star.

Previewing Nebraska’s Defense for 2014:

Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Big Ten Preview, which includes an in-depth look at every team, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
Even though the Huskers are young on defense, this side of the ball should be the strength of the team, with end Randy Gregory, an All-America candidate, leading the way. He led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks, nine of them in conference play. The Huskers’ marked defensive improvement over the course of last season coincided with his development following a transfer from Arizona Western Community College. Sophomore tackles Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins will anchor the middle of the line. They need to stay healthy, unless some young players develop quickly.

Depth isn’t a problem at linebacker, which has a wealth of returning players, including Trevor Roach, who missed last season because of injury. David Santos was second on the team in tackles but will have to compete for playing time. Sophomores Michael Rose and Josh Banderas are also important pieces.

Safety Corey Cooper and cornerback Josh Mitchell are the most experienced players on defense, with a combined 32 starts. Mitchell is among the team’s vocal leaders.

Previewing Nebraska’s Specialists for 2014:

The Huskers ranked 121st nationally in punt returns; their longest was 19 yards. Incoming freshmen should help, Glenn Irons prominent among them with nine return touchdowns as a high school senior. Bell tied for the Big Ten lead in kickoff-return average. The senior wide receiver returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown against Penn State. Punter Sam Foltz, a walk-on, is back, but placekicker Pat Smith must be replaced. Mauro Bondi, who had 48 touchbacks on kickoffs, will be challenged by freshman Drew Brown. 

Final Analysis

Bo Pelini’s record is 58–24, with at least nine victories in each of his six seasons. But he has yet to coach a conference champion. In fact, Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999, much too long for a program with three national titles in the five years prior to that.

In the aftermath of a 38–17 regular-season-ending loss to Iowa, speculation spread that Pelini’s tenure as coach might be over. But he has since received a contract extension through the 2018 season. Extension or not, however, there’s pressure to win a championship and return to national relevance. The Huskers should have the defense for that. The question is whether the offense can be balanced enough to get the job done against a schedule that sets up very well in a restructured division of the expanded Big Ten.

The Debate

Nebraska or Iowa: Who Finishes Higher in the Big Ten in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#26 Iowa Hawkeyes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#26

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Kirk Ferentz, 120-100 (18 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Greg Davis | DEF. COORDINATOR: Phil Parker

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 26 Iowa. 

Previewing Iowa’s Offense for 2014:

Unlike this time last season, there is reason to be optimistic about the Iowa offense. Six starters return, including quarterback Jake Rudock, leading rusher Mark Weisman, leading receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley and potential All-America left tackle Brandon Scherff.

Rudock passed for 2,383 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, helping Iowa double its win total from the disastrous 2012 season with an 8–5 record. Hardly a dual-threat quarterback, Rudock showed surprising mobility before being hobbled by a knee injury down the stretch. His biggest flaw was the tendency to force passes into coverage, which resulted in 13 interceptions.

Iowa is loaded at running back, and Scherff is among three starters returning on the offensive line, which is traditionally a strength for the Hawkeyes under veteran coach Kirk Ferentz. The 236-pound Weisman led the team with 975 rushing yards last season, using a bruising style that fits nicely in Iowa’s power running scheme. Junior Jordan Canzeri and senior Damon Bullock rushed for 481 and 467 yards, respectively, last season. Both are more elusive than Weisman, while Bullock is also a threat as a receiver. LeShun Daniels, a 6'0", 230-pound sophomore, is also an intriguing option.

There is a void at tight end with C.J. Fiedorowicz having moved on. But much like the offensive line, tight end is traditionally a stable position for the Hawkeyes, and that’s the expectation for this season. Senior Ray Hamilton and junior Jake Duzey are among four tight ends with extensive game experience.

Previewing Iowa’s Defense for 2014:

Six starters have to be replaced, including all three linebackers and an All-Big Ten cornerback. It’ll be a daunting task, made easier by the presence of two standout tackles. Senior Carl Davis was one of the most improved players on the team last season, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors after being a reserve in 2012. Fellow senior tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat also progressed throughout last season, his first as a full-time starter.

However, he and Davis won’t have the luxury of playing with three senior standout linebackers, as was the case last season. Senior Quinton Alston has waited three seasons to replace James Morris at middle linebacker and now finally has that opportunity. Alston made an impact on special teams last season, in addition to being a key part to a new rush package that was installed in 2013.

Replacing All-Big Ten cornerback B.J. Lowery is a priority, but the Hawkeyes also might have a star in the making at that position in sophomore Desmond King. He started every game last season and finished sixth on the team with 69 tackles to go along with eight pass break-ups. Senior strong safety John Lowdermilk also returns after starting all 13 games last season.

Previewing Iowa’s Specialists for 2014:

Martin-Manley is a reliable punt returner, and there plenty of candidates to return kicks. The kicking game, however, is a concern. Mike Meyer has moved on after handling the placekicking duties the past four seasons. Walk-on Marshall Koehn was listed as the starter throughout spring practice, but incoming freshman Mick Ellis will be given a chance to win the job. Junior punter Connor Kornbrath is back, but he struggled with consistency, so the staff signed junior college prospect Dillon Kidd to compete with him. 

Final Analysis

Many of the pieces are in place for Iowa to continue this latest resurgence under Ferentz, especially on offense. Combine that with a schedule that doesn’t include Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan or Penn State, and has Iowa State, Wisconsin and Nebraska coming to Kinnick Stadium, and there is reason to believe Iowa can be a legitimate contender in the new Big Ten West Division.




Unpublished

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#3 Ohio State Buckeyes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#3

Big Ten East Division PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Urban Meyer, 24-2 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tom Herman, Ed Warinner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chris Ash, Luke Fickell

Ohio State opened Urban Meyer’s tenure 24-0, but the Buckeyes finished 2013 on a two-game losing streak. Despite the late-season losses, Ohio State is a slight favorite to win the Big Ten in 2014. Quarterback Braxton Miller returns after earning first-team All-Big Ten honors, and he will be surrounded by a talented group of skill players, including running back Ezekiel Elliott and receiver Devin Smith. The defense boasts the best line in college football, but the back seven is a concern. A trip to East Lansing in early November will play a huge role in determining the Big Ten’s East Division champion.

Follow the top 25 on Twitter @AthlonSports and join the debate at #Athlon25.

Previewing Ohio State's Offense for 2014:  

The Buckeyes went 12–0 in Urban Meyer’s first season in Columbus in 2012 and repeated that mark through the 2013 regular season largely on the exploits of quarterback Braxton Miller, backup Kenny Guiton and running back Carlos Hyde, who rambled for more than 100 yards in all but one Big Ten game.

Even with the defense faltering in postseason losses to Michigan State and Clemson, Ohio State clearly displayed it could rack up yards (511.9 ypg) and points (school-record 637) with regularity. And the offense was especially sharp at the outset of games as the Buckeyes outscored foes 229–69 in the first quarter.

It’s hard to imagine this year’s unit being nearly as efficient, especially considering OSU has to replace Hyde, four starting offensive linemen (including Jack Mewhort) and leading receiver Corey “Philly” Brown.

Still, Miller is back to carry the day, and Meyer continues to surround him with speedsters with game-changing ability. True freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon, for example, figure to mix in at the skill positions with the likes of Ezekiel Elliott, Dontre Wilson, and veteran wideouts Devin Smith and Evan Spencer.

Taylor Decker will have to anchor the line at left tackle, Mewhort’s old spot, while guard Pat Elflein, center  Chad Lindsay (a post-graduate transfer from Alabama) and others try to provide stability. Tight ends Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett are blocking and pass-catching assets.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Ohio State Buckeyes for 2014:


Previewing Ohio 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.
Meyer believes he has one of the premier defensive lines in the country, and a look at the returning personnel supports the theory. Senior Michael Bennett, ticketed to play an interior spot, is wily and tough, and another former end, Adolphus Washington, also is making a successful transition inside. Ends Joey Bosa and Noah Spence are heat-seeking missiles who give tackles fits.

The linebacking corps lost leading tackler Ryan Shazier to the NFL, but Joshua Perry, who clicked during the second half of last season, will take over his weak-side spot. Local product Darron Lee has the lead on the strong side after showing he has the tenacity and speed for the position. Senior Curtis Grant turned in his best spring according to Meyer and could be in for a productive season at middle linebacker. Then again, Grant has to hold off freshman Raekwon McMillan, who enrolled early and stood out during spring drills.

The secondary will feature senior Doran Grant, who is on track to be OSU’s next award-winning corner, while Armani Reeves and Gareon Conley also will check receivers. The safeties — Tyvis Powell and either Vonn Bell or Cam Burrows — are highly athletic and improving tacklers. This unit needs to develop in a hurry, though, as the Buckeyes struggled against the pass last season.

Previewing Ohio State's Specialists for 2014:

The Buckeyes need a new kicker and appear to have found one in rugged freshman Sean Nuernberger. Cameron Johnston made a freshman splash at punter last season and already appears to be the cream of the crop in the Big Ten. Special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs again will put a premium on kick coverage, and the Buckeyes have enough top-flight athletes to make some noise on returns.

Final Analysis 

On one hand, Ohio State has too many unproven players, including several seniors with less-than-inspiring résumés. On the other, the roster is littered with raw athleticism and speed, which can cover up a lot of imperfections. Plus, the defensive line could be dynamite. This would appear to be a transition year if it weren’t for the fiery drive of Meyer and the unique talents of Miller. If the slick QB has a Heisman-like season, OSU likely will compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Ohio State No. 3:

1. Improvement on defense
Despite losing linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby, Ohio State’s defense should improve off a disappointing 2013 season. The Buckeyes allowed 5.4 yards per play in Big Ten games and finished fifth in the league by allowing 24 points per game (Big Ten-only contests). Seven starters return for 2014, and this unit was bolstered by the addition of two new assistants. Larry Johnson Sr. comes to Ohio State from Penn State to tutor the defensive line, and Chris Ash was hired from Arkansas to serve as co-defensive coordinator. Although the Buckeyes didn’t have a vintage Ohio State defense last year, the returning talent and additions on the coaching staff suggest improvement is coming in 2014.

2. Braxton Miller’s development
Kenny Guiton expired his eligibility after the Orange Bowl, leaving a significant void at backup quarterback. While replacing a No. 2 signal-caller may seem like a small issue for Ohio State, Miller missed two games in 2013 and was also injured in 2012. When he’s on the field, the senior is one of the top quarterbacks in the nation and made progress as a passer in 2013. Miller raised his completion percentage to 63.5 after posting a 58.3 mark in 2012. He also recorded 36 passing plays of 20 or more yards in 2013, an increase from 26 in 2012. Miller still has more development ahead, but there were positive signs last season and another step forward is expected in 2014.

3. Emerging talent at the skill positions
Offensive coordinator Tom Herman was busy this spring, as Ohio State started the process of replacing running back Carlos Hyde (1,521 yards) and receiver Corey Brown (10 touchdown catches in 2013). However, the cupboard is far from bare, and there’s hope the 2014 edition of the Buckeyes’ skill players will be even better than the 2013 version. Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball are capable options at running back, with Dontre Wilson a breakout candidate in the hybrid running back/receiver role. The Buckeyes need more consistency at receiver, and there’s veteran experience with Devin Smith and Evan Spencer returning. Urban Meyer is counting on freshmen Curtis Samuel, James Clark and Jalin Marshall, along with sophomore Michael Thomas to emerge in the receiving corps. This unit is unsettled, but there’s also a lot of talent.

4. The nation’s No. 1 defensive line
Urban Meyer is no stranger to elite defensive lines from his tenure at Florida, and the third-year coach at Ohio State has already assembled the nation’s deepest and best defensive lines for 2014. Noah Spence is suspended for the first two games, but Joey Bosa and Steve Miller are capable replacements. The interior is set with Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington – two potential All-Americans – and backups Tommy Schutt and Michael Hill are solid. Ohio State finished ninth nationally against the run and averaged three sacks per game in 2013. Expect this unit to dominate opposing Big Ten offensive lines in 2014.

5. Overall edge in talent and No. 1 coach in the Big Ten
The debate between Ohio State and Michigan State at Athlon Sports for the No. 1 spot in the Big Ten was not an easy one. The Spartans have defeated the Buckeyes in two out of the last three years and lost by one point in 2012. The gap between Michigan State and Ohio State is very small. But if you are looking for an edge, the Buckeyes have an advantage in talent in recruiting rankings. Ohio State has averaged the No. 7 class nationally from the last five years, while Michigan State ranks No. 30. Mark Dantonio and Urban Meyer are two of the nation’s top-10 coaches, but an edge goes to Meyer. The Buckeyes have question marks to address, but the Spartans also must replace several key players from last year’s team. With an advantage in talent, combined with the Big Ten’s top quarterback and head coach, Ohio State is a slight favorite over Michigan State to win the conference in 2014.

The Debate

Is Braxton Miller the Big Ten's Best Quarterback?

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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.

Follow the top 25 on Twitter @AthlonSports and join the debate at #Athlon25.
 

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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