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Big Ten Football 2014 Predictions

Braxton Miller

Braxton Miller

It’s a new era in the Big Ten in 2014. The conference expands by two to become a 14-team league, as Maryland joins from the ACC, while Rutgers was added from the American Athletic Conference.

While Rutgers and Maryland joining the league is a key offseason storyline for the Big Ten, the debate at No. 1 in the East Division will dominate the headlines. Michigan State is the defending conference champion, but the Spartans have key holes to fill. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard and linebacker Max Bullough are big losses, and the defense also has to replace both starting tackles. Even though Michigan State has won two out of the last three games against Ohio State, the Buckeyes are Athlon’s pick to win the Big Ten in 2014. Quarterback Braxton Miller is among the nation’s best players, and coach Urban Meyer has assembled plenty of talent at the skill positions. Ohio State also has the nation’s No. 1 defensive line for 2014. Filling the holes in the back seven of the defense is critical for the Buckeyes’ chances of making an appearance in college football’s four-team playoff.

Penn State and Michigan are the two wildcard teams to watch in the East. New coach James Franklin inherits a solid roster, especially with sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg on the verge of a huge season. The biggest obstacle for the Nittany Lions will be an offensive line that is thin on proven depth. Michigan also has plenty of talent, but the Wolverines underachieved in 2013. Will the hire of Doug Nussmeier as offensive coordinator resurrect an offense that averaged less than 100 rushing yards per game last year? Quarterback Devin Gardner needs to be more consistent and more targets need to emerge at receiver.

Indiana is another team that could easily outperform its projected ranking, but the Hoosiers have a brutal schedule, along with a struggling defense. If Indiana can find answers on defense under new coordinator Brian Knorr, the Hoosiers should make a bowl for the first time under Kevin Wilson.

Big Ten Bowl Tie-Ins for 2014

Big Ten Champ: At-Large Access Bowl*

Orange: Big Ten/ND/SEC vs. ACC No. 1

Capital One: SEC No. 2 vs. Big Ten/ACC

Outback: SEC No. 3-8 vs. Big Ten

Holiday: Big Ten vs. Pac-12 No. 3

San Francisco: Big Ten vs. Pac-12 No. 4

Pinstripe: Big Ten vs. ACC

Gator/Music City: Big Ten/ACC vs. SEC

Detroit: Big Ten vs. ACC

Heart of Dallas: Big Ten vs. C-USA

* If conference champ is not in CFB Playoff

Despite returning only eight starters, Wisconsin is Athlon’s favorite to win the Big Ten’s West Division. The Badgers’ passing attack is a work in progress, but running back Melvin Gordon can carry the offense until new receivers emerge. The defense does not return a starter in its front seven.

Just behind Wisconsin in the West Division is Iowa and Nebraska. There’s not much separating the Hawkeyes and Cornhuskers for the No. 2 spot. Iowa has a favorable schedule and will have a chance to win the division with Nebraska and Wisconsin both visiting Iowa City in late November.

Northwestern and Minnesota are darkhorses to watch, especially as the Wildcats regain the services of standout running back Venric Mark.

Illinois and Purdue round out the West Division predictions for 2014. Both teams are looking for signs of progress after a disappointing 2013, and there are reasons to be optimistic for the Boilermakers and Fighting Illini. However, considerable improvement needs to be made before either team makes a bowl game this year.

Prep for the 2014 season, follow Athlon Sports and its college football editors on Twitter: @AthlonSports, Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), David Fox (@DavidFox615) and Braden Gall (@BradenGall)

Inside the War Room: Key Questions That Shaped Athlon's 2014 Predictions

Michigan State beat Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. Was there much thought to picking the Spartans to win the Big Ten?

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We projected Michigan State and Ohio State to have similar records, but the Buckeyes are one of our picks to reach the College Football Playoff. The Spartans should be in the mix again, and they have the advantage of playing Ohio State at home. Even though Michigan State won head-to-head last season and won the Rose Bowl while Ohio State lost in the Orange, the Buckeyes have won 22 of their first 24 games under Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes could have the top quarterback in the league and the top defensive line in the nation. True, Ohio State’s defense struggled at times last season, especially against the pass, but we like the additions of Larry Johnson and Chris Ash to the coaching staff. It’s tough to see Ohio State’s defense being such a liability once again. Michigan State’s offense rounded into form by the end of the season, but the Spartans are replacing three starters on the offensive line. And while we have faith in the defense, major pieces like two starting linebackers and lockdown corner Darqueze Dennard need to be replaced. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)

Penn State is still short-handed due to NCAA sanctions. Doesn’t third in the division seem a little high?

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The depth concerns will be notable at Penn State for a few more years. Injuries here and there certainly will hinder the Nittany Lions’ ability to move up in the East division. But if we know anything about new Penn State coach James Franklin, it’s that he can thrive in adverse situations. At Vanderbilt, he started without an SEC-caliber roster and no track record of success. At Penn State, he’ll have to overcome having fewer players than his competition. At the same time, though, he’ll have something he never had at Vanderbilt — an elite quarterback. That should be an exciting prospect for Franklin. The main competition for the No. 3 spot in the East is probably Michigan, a team Penn State defeated 43–40 in four overtimes last season. That perhaps indicates that the gap between Penn State and Michigan is narrow, but given the roster circumstances, should it really be that close? – David Fox (@DavidFox615)

Maryland or Rutgers: Which Big Ten newcomer will have a better record in 2014?

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Maryland. Rutgers has played in a bowl in eight of the last nine years, but the Scarlet Knights finished 6-7 in the American Athletic Conference last season and have personnel concerns at quarterback and in the secondary. Maryland is in much better shape as it enters the Big Ten, as receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long return to full strength after season-ending injuries in 2013. The defense also returns nine starters and swing games against Iowa and Rutgers are at home. Both teams will have a challenge transitioning to the Big Ten, but Maryland has the edge in personnel and should edge the Scarlet Knights in the final standings. – Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

Wisconsin lost a lot of key personnel yet is still the pick for No. 1 in the West. Was there much debate?

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Not really. Wisconsin still returns Melvin Gordon and four starters on the offensive line. That’s the perfect recipe for the Badgers to win games. In addition, being the best team in the Big Ten West doesn’t necessarily make Wisconsin one of the best teams in the league. The Badgers are our third-ranked team in the Big Ten overall, behind Ohio State and Michigan State. Simply put, most of the West simply has more obvious flaws than Wisconsin, which ranked in the top 20 nationally in both total offense and total defense a year ago. We’re not quite ready to cast our lot with either Nebraska or Iowa or a sleeper like Minnesota or Northwestern to win the division. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)

Northwestern or Minnesota: Which team has a better chance to win the West in 2014?

Close call, but we like Northwestern over Minnesota. The Wildcats have experienced a lot of bad luck over the last two seasons, and an injury to running back Venric Mark limited the offense in 2013. Mark is expected to return to full strength by the fall, and the offense could benefit from having one quarterback (Trevor Siemian) and not a two-quarterback system. The defense returns seven starters and improvement is expected after finishing near the bottom of the Big Ten in points allowed. Minnesota surprised last year by finishing 8-5 and earning wins over Nebraska and Penn State. The Golden Gophers should be in the mix for another bowl, but developing a consistent passing attack and replacing standout tackle Ra’Shede Hageman are two huge question marks going into 2014. – Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

Michigan and Nebraska are both storied programs picked to finish in the middle of the pack. Which team is more likely to surprise in a good way?

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That’s a tough question and probably a symptom of why these powers have been so infuriating of late. Michigan was actually plus-10 in turnover margin during the last nine games and still finished the season on a 3–6 slide. Clearly, Michigan has its share of holes to fill. Nebraska might be more likely to surprise. For one, we expect the West to be the weaker of the two new Big Ten divisions. 

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Nebraska has the bread-and-butter of its offense in place with Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross running the ball, and the Cornhuskers managed to win nine games despite quarterback injuries and turnover problems (minus-11 margin) a year ago. If things start to go Nebraska’s way, the Cornhuskers may be in a better position to make noise in the Big Ten title race. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)

Is a bowl a reasonable expectations for Illinois?

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It should be. The Fighting Illini averaged 400.8 yards per game on offense last season, but the defense struggled by allowing 6.9 yards per play. Illinois will be dangerous on offense once again in 2014, especially with talented sophomore Wes Lunt stepping into the starting lineup at quarterback. Lunt needs a few receivers to emerge, but running back Josh Ferguson is an All-Big Ten candidate, and four starters are back on the line. While the offense will be deadly, Illinois’ defense is still a huge concern. There’s hope for improvement with eight starters back, but the overall talent is still a concern. The Fighting Illini will be favored in three non-conference games and an early October home date against Purdue. But where will the other two wins come from to make a bowl? Perhaps Nov. 22 versus Penn State or Oct. 25 against Minnesota? A bowl is a reasonable expectation, but the odds are stacked against Illinois to get to six wins. – Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

Eastern Bloc

Many Big Ten fans are glad to see Legends and Leaders go, but the league’s new geographically named divisions create another potential complaint — lack of balance. The East Division appears to be significantly stronger entering 2014 and could stay that way if traditional powers Michigan and Penn State regain form.

Michigan State moves into the East after a breakthrough season that ended with Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships and a No. 3 ranking in the final polls. The Spartans have won 11 or more games in three of the past four seasons and aren’t slowing down under Mark Dantonio. Ohio State also will be in the East after winning the past two Leaders division titles and going 16–0 in regular-season Big Ten contests under Urban Meyer.

Although Michigan comes off of a disappointing 7–6 season and Penn State is midway through a four-year period of severe NCAA sanctions, the Big Ten East, some fear, could tip the scales much like the SEC West, Big 12 South and Pac-12 North have in previous seasons.

Bowl Reset

The Big Ten will feature not only a new bowl lineup in 2014, but also a new method for assigning teams to the postseason.

New additions include both the Holiday Bowl and the Fight Hunger Bowl, which give the Big Ten two more California destinations and two more matchups against the Pac-12. The Big Ten also will appear in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, and a new bowl in Detroit to be managed by the Detroit Lions. Big Ten teams will play in the Orange Bowl, the Music City Bowl and the Armed Forces Bowl on a rotating basis.

The league retains agreements with the Rose, Capital One, Outback, Gator (rotating) and Heart of Dallas (rotating).

The Big Ten also is adopting a tiered system for assigning teams to bowls, designed to keep matchups fresh. Bowl officials will be involved, but the league will have more control over which team goes where. For example, at least five different Big Ten teams will appear in both the Holiday and Fight Hunger bowls during the next six years.

Home Runs

The Big Ten historically has been a running back’s league, and this season should be no different.

The league’s top two rushers return in Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, both of whom spurned the NFL Draft for another year in college. Michigan State returns a 1,400-yard rusher in Jeremy Langford, while Minnesota’s David Cobb, who gained 1,202 yards in his first year as a featured ball-carrier, also is back in the fold. Indiana and Illinois both return explosive backs in Tevin Coleman and Josh Ferguson, respectively, and Venric Mark, an All-Big Ten selection in 2012, is back at Northwestern for a fifth year after missing most of last season with leg injuries.

Depth also should be a strength around the league as both Iowa and Penn State return their top three backs from 2013. Minnesota should have more options with redshirt freshman Berkeley Edwards and decorated recruit Jeff Jones entering the fold. Teams like Maryland, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska look well-stocked in the backfield as well.

Pac-12 Connection 

The Big Ten’s scheduling alliance with the Pac-12 never came to fruition, but the leagues will see plenty of one another in the future, thanks to individual agreements. Michigan State begins a home-and-home series with Oregon this fall. Nebraska will face the Ducks in 2016 and 2017, as well as Colorado four times between 2018-24.

Wisconsin has finalized series with both Washington and Washington State, while Northwestern finishes a series with Cal this fall and is set to play Stanford six times between 2015-22. Rutgers will open two of the next three seasons in Seattle against Pac-12 foes Washington State (2014) and Washington (2016). Michigan faces two Pac-12 teams in 2015 (Utah and Oregon State) and another (Colorado) in 2016.

Illinois wraps up a series this fall against Washington.

Coaching Shuffle 

The Big Ten had only one complete coaching overhaul (Penn State) and fewer total changes (27) than either of the previous two offseasons. But there were several intriguing hires around the conference.

Longtime Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson had a chance to remain on James Franklin’s staff, but after twice being passed over for the top job in Happy Valley, he left for rival Ohio State.

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill lost his first assistant since taking the job, as linebackers coach Bill Miller departed for Florida State. Maryland added former NFL Pro Bowl wide receiver Keenan McCardell to its staff to coach wideouts. Speaking of the Terrapins, the Big Ten now features current Maryland boss, Randy Edsall; his predecessor, Ralph Friedgen, the new offensive coordinator at Rutgers; and Franklin, who had been coach-in-waiting behind Friedgen.

Four programs — Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State and Northwestern — kept all of their coaches from last season.

by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)

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Indiana: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Kevin Johns, Seth Littrell; 

New: Kevin Johns

Littrell left to take the offensive coordinator position at North Carolina. Johns, the co-coordinator last season, has been at Indiana since 2011. He will also coach the quarterbacks and wide receivers. 

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Indiana: Defensive Coordinator

Old: William Inge, Doug Mallory; 

New: William Inge, Brian Knorr

Mallory was fired after the Hoosiers finished last in the Big Ten in total defense for the third straight season. Inge will remain as co-coordinator and linebackers coach. Knorr was the defensive coordinator at Wake Forest last year and served as the head coach at Ohio from 2001-04.

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Michigan: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Al Borges; 

New: Doug Nussmeier

Borges was fired after three seasons at Michigan (five total with Michigan coach Brady Hoke). Nussmeier was the offensive coordinator at Alabama the past two seasons and was previously the coordinator at Washington.

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Ohio State: Defensive Coordinator

Old: Luke Fickell, Everett Withers; 

New: Chris Ash, Luke Fickell

Withers is now the head coach at James Madison. Ash was the defensive coordinator at Arkansas last year and was previously the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin.

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Penn State: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Bill O’Brien; 

New: John Donovan

O’Brien left Penn State after two years and is now the head coach of the Houston Texans. Donovan followed new Penn State head coach James Franklin from Vanderbilt. He was the Commodores’ offensive coordinator the past three seasons.

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Penn State: Defensive Coordinator

Old: John Butler; 

New: Brent Pry, Bob Shoop

Butler is the secondary coach of the Houston Texans, working for Bill O’Brien, his old boss at Penn State. Pry and Shoop were with James Franklin at Vanderbilt the past three seasons. Pry, who also serves as the linebackers coach, has the co-coordinator title, but Shoop is the man who runs the defense.

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Rutgers: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Ron Prince; 

New: Ralph Friedgen

Prince left Rutgers after one season to take a job as the tight ends coach for the Detroit Lions. Friedgen was the head coach at Maryland from 2001-10 and has been out of coaching since.

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Rutgers: Defensive Coordinator

Old: Dave Cohen; 

New: Joe Rossi

Cohen was fired after one season as the defensive coordinator at Rutgers. He was the Scarlet Knights’ defensive line coach in 2012 before becoming the coordinator. He is now the linebackers coach at Wake Forest. Rossi was promoted to coordinator after spending two seasons as Rutgers’ special teams coach.