Big Ten

More Stories:


#68 Illinois Fighting Illini





HEAD COACH: Tim Beckman , 6-18 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bill Cubit | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tim Banks

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. 68 Illinois. 

Previewing Illinois' Offense for 2014:

Second-year offensive coordinator Bill Cubit wasn’t ready to name a starting quarterback in the spring. He wanted to watch the three challengers compete for the job. But it was clear to those who watched the battle that there wasn’t much of one. Barring injury before the opener against Youngstown State, Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt gets the call.

There are big hopes at Illinois for Lunt. He has a rocket arm and a quick release. The coaches also rave about his decision-making.

Lunt will rely plenty on running back Josh Ferguson. The dual-threat back led the team in rushing with 779 yards, averaging a robust 5.5 per carry. He was also second on the team in catches.

By far, receiver was the biggest area of concern for the offensive coaches going into the spring. They have to replace three key departed players. Geronimo Allison, Martize Barr, Justin Hardee and Mike Dudek all pushed for playing time with solid results. Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse are threats at tight end.

With four starters back, the coaches are hoping the offensive line will be a strength. Guard Michael Heitz enters his fourth year as a starter. Tackle Austin Schmidt could turn into a star.

Previewing Illinois' Defense for 2014:

Sacks. Fumbles. Interceptions. Areas in which defensive coordinator Tim Banks wants to see a lot of improvement.

The Illini had just 15 sacks in 2013. This from a school that has twice had individual players (Simeon Rice and Whitney Mercilus) exceed that number by themselves in a season.

Teko Powell and “Chunky” Clements figure to see heavy minutes at tackle. Kenny Nelson and Dawuane Smoot get the first shot at end.

Two players return at linebacker with starting experience, led by two-year regular Mason Monheim. While not in the J Leman mold as a playmaker, Monheim often puts himself in position to make the tackle. In an effort to add speed, the Illini moved Earnest Thomas from safety to outside linebacker.

“We need to be more aggressive,” Banks says. “When the ball is in the air, go attack it. Make them earn everything they get. Make them throw through smaller windows.”

V’Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence patrol at corner.

Overall, the defense returns eight starters and slew of backups from last year. But the unit struggled to make stops, so is that a good thing? “We like to think it’s a good thing,” Banks says. “We expect to be better.”

Previewing Illinois' Specialists for 2014:

Illinois welcomes back both starting punter Justin DuVernois and placekicker Taylor Zalewski. DuVernois finished 59th nationally in punting average with 41.1 yards. Zalewski connected on 12-of-17 field goals but only hit two longer than 40 yards. The return game got a boost from Bentley. He brought back both a punt and kickoff for touchdowns in 2013.

Final Analysis

The third year has usually been the charm for Illinois head coaches. Mike White, John Mackovic, Lou Tepper, Ron Turner and Ron Zook all reached bowls in their third seasons. Now, it’s Tim Beckman’s turn to try to keep the streak going. While the school hasn’t issued an ultimatum, a bowl bid would help secure Beckman’s future. The non-conference schedule is set up for success, with winnable home games against Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State. Take those three, and the Illini are halfway to a postseason berth.

The offense should continue to pile up yards and points, and the defense can’t be much worse. If Banks’ guys climb 20 spots or so in national defensive rankings, it will translate to more wins. Beckman’s short-term goal is to solidify his position as head coach. Competing for a division title is down the road.


#80 Purdue Boilermakers



Big Ten West Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Darrell Hazell, 1-11 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: John Shoop | DEF. COORDINATOR: Greg Hudson

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. 80 Purdue.

Previewing Purdue’s Offense for 2014: 

As goes Danny Etling, so goes Purdue. That’s not much of an overstatement. Etling took over as the starting quarterback midway through last season as a true freshman, and coach Darrell Hazell and his staff know his improvement likely will mirror the Boilermakers’ improvement as well. Austin Appleby is a good backup, but Etling is the man.

Raheem Mostert won the 60- and 200-meter titles at the Big Ten indoor track meet, and the coaches hope he can provide a much-needed big-play threat. Incumbent running back Akeem Hunt will also see time at slot receiver. The coaches are looking to get him and Mostert on the field at the same time. The Boilermakers averaged 6.1 yards per passing attempt, worst in the Big Ten, and had no one who could stretch the field most of the season. DeAngelo Yancey came on as his freshman season progressed. He provide Etling with an inviting target the next three years.

Center Robert Kugler is solid, but the rest of the offensive line is a concern. Some incoming junior college transfers need to contribute in a major way. No one expects this line to blow away the opposition, but Purdue has to do better than 67.1 yards rushing per game — its average last season.

Previewing Purdue’s Defense for 2014:

Purdue has a tradition of strong defensive ends, and Ryan Russell may be the guy to continue it. Hazell says he challenged Russell after a mildly disappointing junior year and was pleased with the way he responded during spring practice. Sophomore Jake Replogle is a likely starter at the other end spot, but Kentucky transfer Langston Newton also is in the mix.

The improved defensive line should lead to a better defense overall, but questions still abound. Seniors Sean Robinson and Joe Gilliam provide experience at linebacker, but youth might also be served. Gelen Robinson, the son of Purdue basketball legend Glenn Robinson, one of the top recruits in the incoming freshman class. It would not be a surprise to see him crack the starting lineup at some point in the season.

Reliable Frankie Williams returns at one corner and Taylor Richards returns at one safety spot. Fellow safety Landon Feichter was Purdue’s defensive MVP in 2012, but had an injury-plagued 2013. His return to form would be a nice boost.

Previewing Purdue’s Specialists for 2014: 

It’s generally not a good sign if a team’s best player is its punter, but that is what Purdue had last year in Cody Webster, a first-team All-Big Ten performer and a finalist for the Ray Guy Award. Thomas Meadows is his likely replacement. Returning kicker Paul Griggs showed a strong leg at times, but not much consistency, going only 6-for-12 on field-goal attempts. Meadows may get a shot there as well. The return game should be a strength. Mostert and Hunt each returned kickoffs for touchdowns last year. Purdue returned only nine punts last fall, a testament to how much it struggled. Williams was effective in limited opportunities, averaging 16.8 yards on five returns.

Final Analysis

Most Purdue fans realized Hazell was inheriting a rebuilding situation, but last season still ended up being a nightmare. The lone victory was over FCS foe Indiana State, and the season ended with the Boilermakers getting thumped by archrival Indiana.

The non-conference schedule is more forgiving this year, and Purdue gets a break in conference play. It doesn’t play Michigan or Ohio State. Wisconsin and defending Big Ten champion Michigan State visit Ross-Ade Stadium. Still, it’s hard to envision this team making a move in the Big Ten in 2014. The talent level simply isn’t good enough at this point.


#73 Rutgers Scarlet Knights



Big Ten East Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Kyle Flood, 15-11 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Ralph Friedgen | DEF. COORDINATOR: Joe Rossi

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. 73 Rutgers.

Previewing Rutgers’ Offense for 2014:

New offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen — the former Maryland head coach — inherits a wealth of experience and one major decision: Should inconsistent senior Gary Nova be the quarterback to lead Rutgers into the Big Ten or should it be an unproven newcomer? Nova made 23 consecutive starts before being benched for the final three games last season. Redshirt freshman Chris Laviano will challenge Nova for the position through the summer and into preseason camp.

Beyond that, the offense is set. All five offensive line starters return, with four-year starter Kaleb Johnson anchoring the unit at left guard after briefly considering entering the NFL Draft.

The running back tandem of Paul James (881 rushing yards in nine games) and Justin Goodwin (521 rushing yards as a true freshman last year) also returns, along with fullback Michael Burton.

Tight end Tyler Kroft, who caught a team-leading 43 passes last season, has All-Big Ten potential. The wide receiver spots will have a new look, but Leonte Carroo (nine TD catches and a team-leading 17.1-yard average) flashed star potential before being injured at the end of last year. Slot receiver Ruhann Peele (28 catches) will concentrate strictly on offense this season after also being forced to start at cornerback a year ago. Andre Patton, a sophomore, has offered hints of being a No. 1 receiver.

Previewing Rutgers’ Defense for 2014:

A year after the team set school records for total yards allowed (5,366) and passing yards allowed (4,056), there’s a new defensive coordinator, Joe Rossi. Philosophically, there won’t be a noticeable change, but Rossi has already left his imprint on the unit with a bold personnel move. Steve Longa, a Freshman All-American last season, and senior Kevin Snyder will switch positions. Longa’s speed is better suited for the weak side, while Snyder’s size makes him an ideal fit at middle linebacker.

The secondary, which was roughed up a year ago, offers Rossi his biggest challenge after seven different players started at corner — including two true freshmen in the same game — during the 2013 season. Most of the young players now have experience after their trial by fire. Chief among them are Anthony Cioffi, expected to handle one starting corner spot, Delon Stephenson and Nadir Barnwell. All three were forced to play as true freshmen last year. Three-year starter Lorenzo Waters will lead the unit from his strong safety spot.

The defensive line will undergo some change, though tackle Darius Hamilton and end Djwany Mera are returning starters. A key to the line will be the play at nose tackle, where senior Kenneth Kirksey will share time with promising redshirt freshman Sebastian Joseph. Julian Pinnix-Odrick is being counted on to provide a pass-rushing presence at the other end spot.

Previewing Rutgers’ Specialists for 2014:

Kyle Federico overcame inconsistency and injuries to establish himself as the starting placekicker, a role the junior will handle again after going 12-of-18 on field goals last season. But there’s uncertainty at punter, where junior Joe Roth appears to have the advantage despite never appearing in a game. The return game is in game-breaking hands once again after Janarion Grant dazzled as a true freshman last year on both punts and kickoffs.

Final Analysis

Rutgers welcomes back a solid group of returning starters, but there is uncertainty at the all-important quarterback position, and the schedule is the most difficult in school history. The defense, torched by teams from the American Athletic Conference in 2013, must show significant improvement. There is a chance Rutgers will be better in 2014 but fail to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2010 and only the second time since ’04.