The Big Ten is set to grow by two teams next year, but a familiar set of programs will lead the way in the conference in 2014.
Ohio State is the early favorite to win the Big Ten next season, but Michigan State and Wisconsin are the next two teams in the mix. The Spartans are the defending Big Ten champions but have a few holes to fill on defense. The Badgers have a favorable slate in the West Division, but similar to Michigan State, Gary Andersen’s team has a few holes concerns on defense.
Penn State made a splash by hiring James Franklin away from Vanderbilt. But the Nittany Lions are still banned from postseason play for 2014. Michigan is one of the conference’s biggest wildcards. The Wolverines have talent. But Brady Hoke’s team underachieved in 2013, and left tackle Taylor Lewan departs from an already questionable offensive line.
The Big Ten welcomes Rutgers and Maryland into the mix next year. The Scarlet Knights finished 6-7 in the American Athletic Conference last season, but there’s some talent returning to Piscataway. The Terrapins are coming off their first bowl appearance under coach Randy Edsall. But with the move to the Big Ten, the expectations (and competition) will be higher starting in 2014.
Early East Division Predictions for 2014
by Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
1. Ohio State
Buckeye Nation received huge news when two-time reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller announced he will return for his senior season. His supporting cast on offense, however, is what will give preseason prognosticators pause when considering this team for playoff contention. Four starters along the line are gone, as is stud workhorse Carlos Hyde, so Urban Meyer will need to rebuild his offensive front and find playmakers to support Miller — a guy who already takes too many hits. Meyer finds himself in much better shape on defense. After losing all four D-Line starters entering last season, Meyer could boast the best defensive line in the nation in 2014. An elite front will help alleviate concerns about the departure of star playmakers like Ryan Shazier. The schedule sets up nicely for Ohio State, with the Bucks missing what could be the top four teams in the West — Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern. Home games with Virginia Tech and Michigan are certainly interesting, but two late-season trips to Happy Valley and East Lansing are likely the toughest two games of the year for Ohio State.
2. Michigan State
For the first time since Kirk Cousins returned for his senior season, the Spartans head into spring practice with a known commodity at quarterback. Connor Cook hasn’t lost a Big Ten game as a starter (9-0) and will get his star tailback Jeremy Langford back, giving this team tremendous balance on offense. Replacing three starters up front on the line and finding a go-to target to replace Bennie Fowler will be key. But having the backfield locked in stone is an excellent starting point. Conversely, for the first time in years, there are major question marks on the defensive side of the ball. Keeping defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi in the fold might have been the biggest piece of offseason news for Spartans fans, as The Broyles Award winner is the architect of the vaunted MSU defense. Narduzzi has his work cut out for him, however. The Spartans have to replace two senior defensive tackles, two senior linebackers, the Thorpe Award winner in Darqueze Dennard and a senior safety in Isaiah Lewis. Never fear, there is plenty of talent in East Lansing, but don’t expect to be ranked No. 1 in the nation in total defense again. The schedule has some major speed bumps — a road trip to Oregon in Week 2, for example — but huge divisional swing games with Ohio State and Michigan will come at home, giving the defending Big Ten champs as much of a claim to the B1G throne as anyone else in the preseason.
Brady Hoke knows the pressure to win is growing in Ann Arbor, as evidenced by firing offensive coordinator Al Borges for Doug Nussmeier nearly two weeks after the season ended. Nussmeier's first order of business is to develop consistency and efficiency from his supposed star quarterback Devin Gardner. The senior-to-be has shown flashes of Heisman brilliance in some games (SEE: Notre Dame, Ohio State) while causing fans to shake their heads in other contests (SEE: Every other game). Improved offensive line play, despite replacing both tackles, and an effective running game would go a long way in helping Gardner iron out his kinks. With Jeremy Gallon gone, someone around him needs to step up and make plays, be it tight end Devin Funchess or rising sophomore Derrick Green. The defense shouldn’t be an issue as seven starters return to a unit that has been ranked in the top half of the Big Ten every year since finishing dead last in defense the season before Hoke arrived. Non-conference games at Notre Dame and Utah at home certainly won't be easy, and both matchups come before a tough start to conference play: Minnesota, at Rutgers, Penn State and at Michigan State. Indiana, Northwestern an open week and Maryland make for a nice build-up, however, to the season-ending trip to Columbus. The schedule isn’t overly difficult considering how tough the East Division should be so Hoke will be expected to make obvious headway in 2014 — or his job could be in jeopardy.
4. Penn State
There are plenty of know commodities for Penn State. The Nittany Lions have a franchise quarterback in Christian Hackenberg and a vibrant new head coach in James Franklin. Penn State also has nine of 11 starters backs on defense as well. Holes need to be plugged along the offensive line where the Lions lose three starters and replacing Allen Robinson, the program’s most prolific pass catcher, won’t be easy. But Franklin and Hackenberg have plenty of weapons to work with at tight end and running back. The key for PSU, as is the case for all teams facing roster sanctions, will be depth throughout the season. Facing UCF in Dublin to start the year won’t be nearly as tough without Blake Bortles, so PSU could be an easy favorite in each of the first five games. The toughest road trip comes at Michigan but is sandwiched between off weekends and Franklin will get two weeks to prepare for Ohio State at home on Oct. 25. The road schedule isn’t daunting at all with key swing home games with Ohio State, Michigan State and Maryland coming in Beaver Stadium. If Franklin can correct some wrongs, like the bizarre performance at Indiana in 2013, then Penn State should easily post a winning record — which would mean a trip to a bowl game should the NCAA lift the sanctions. The Nittany Lions won’t play any of the projected top four teams from the West.
This fall will usher in a brand new era for Maryland football. While there is a lot to like about the overall direction of the program under Randy Edsall, the schedule looks extremely daunting. The non-conference slate includes games with “Big 5” teams West Virginia and Syracuse before Big Ten play begins at Indiana. After that, however, it is hard to find wins until the season finale against Rutgers. The Terps will play arguably the toughest six-game Big Ten schedule in the league next fall: Ohio State, Iowa, at Wisconsin, at Penn State, Michigan State and at Michigan. There is good news for a team that has shown improvement each year of Edsall’s tenure, though. Four starters are back along the offensive line, along with oft-injured quarterback C.J. Brown, and electric superstar Stefon Diggs should be back after missing most of 2013. On defense, 10 of the 11 players who started in the bowl game should be back as well. The roster is finally returning to respectability in College Park, but the move to the Big Ten will likely hurt this team in the short term due to an increased level of competition.
The Hoosiers have improved every year under Kevin Wilson — from one win to four wins to five wins overall. But improvement in Year Four might be a tall order. Wilson’s offenses have taken major strides and should once again be potent behind the leadership of both Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson. But the defense has a long way to go after it finished dead last in the Big Ten at 527.9 yards per game allowed and 6.74 yards per play. The defense does have 10 starters returning but the question remains if that is a good or bad thing? Five of the 10 were freshmen and sophomores, so logic would indicate improvement on this side of the ball. However, the East Division schedule makers didn’t do IU any favors. Over a seven-week span from Oct. 11 to Nov. 22, Indiana will play at Iowa, Michigan State, at Michigan, Penn State, at Rutgers and at Ohio State. The next step for Wilson is a bowl game but that might be too much to ask in 2014.
Kyle Flood will have his work cut out for him as he enters the Big Ten in 2014. The schedule in the East Division is already a significant increase from the American Athletic Conference. However, crossover games with Nebraska and Wisconsin, along with a long non-conference trip to face Washington State on the road, makes a postseason berth a difficult proposition in Piscataway next fall. The good news is Gary Nova returns under center along with eight other offensive starters. The defense only loses four starters and developing front-seven mainstays like Steve Longa, Darius Hamilton, Kevin Snyder and Djwany Mera have loads of upside and each started every game of the season minus one (Hamilton against Cincinnati). There are reasons to be excited about Rutgers football as it moves into the Big Ten, but a winning record in 2014 might not be one of them.
Early West Division Predictions for 2014
by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Gary Andersen’s second year in Madison shouldn’t be much different than the first. The Badgers will continue to rely on one of the conference’s top ground attacks, especially with Melvin Gordon returning for another season instead of leaving for the NFL. James White departs as Gordon’s backfield mate, but Corey Clement is a capable replacement. Wisconsin’s passing attack has to perform better in 2014, and the coaching staff will likely give Tanner McEvoy, Bart Houston and incoming freshman D.J. Gillins a chance to unseat Joel Stave under center. The defense has several new faces stepping into starting roles, as linebackers Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong, end Ethan Hemer and fellow linemen Pat Muldoon and Beau Allen depart. Borland was one of the top defenders in the Big Ten in 2013 and leaves big shoes to fill next year. Wisconsin opens the year with a non-conference matchup against LSU but hosts Nebraska and Minnesota in conference play. The Badgers won’t play Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan in the regular season, and their toughest road game could be at Iowa on Nov. 22.
After a 4-8 mark in 2012, low expectations surrounded Iowa heading into the 2013 season. But the Hawkeyes were one of the top surprise teams in college football, finishing 8-5 with losses to Northern Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and LSU. There’s certainly no shame in any of those five defeats, and with most of its core returning in 2014, Iowa is positioned to contend for the West Division title. Quarterback Jake Rudock, left tackle Brandon Scherff and running back Mark Weisman headline the returnees on offense. The Hawkeyes have room to improve on offense after finishing ninth in the Big Ten (conference games only) in yards per game. The defense returns mostly intact, but all three starters are gone from the linebacking corps. The Hawkeyes have one of the Big Ten’s most favorable schedules next season. There’s no Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State in crossover play, while Nebraska and Wisconsin visit Kinnick Stadium in November.
The Cornhuskers take the third spot in our early Big Ten predictions for 2014, but Bo Pelini’s team isn’t far behind Wisconsin and Iowa. Nebraska ended last year with a little momentum, beating Georgia in the Gator Bowl to earn the sixth season of at least nine wins under Pelini. Can the Cornhuskers build off that momentum next year? With running back Ameer Abdullah returning, the biggest question mark on offense turns to the quarterback situation. Tommy Armstrong has the edge to start entering spring practice, but redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push for the starting spot. The offensive line returns only one starter and will be a focal point for the staff in the spring. Nebraska allowed only 318.5 yards per game in conference action in 2013 and most of the front seven returns intact. End Randy Gregory should be in the mix for All-American honors. The biggest concern on defense is the secondary. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, safety Andrew Green and cornerback Ciante Evans have expired their eligibility.
Minnesota takes the No. 4 spot in our early West Division, but Northwestern should bounce back in 2014. The Golden Gophers dropped their first two Big Ten games last year but rallied to win four in a row, including a 24-10 win over Penn State and a 34-23 victory over Nebraska. Minnesota finished 2013 by losing its last three games, but there’s clear progress under coach Jerry Kill. The Golden Gophers have a tough road slate ahead in 2014, with trips to Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan and TCU on the schedule. Mitch Leidner heads into spring practice with an edge at quarterback after Philip Nelson decided to transfer. Running back David Cobb headlines an offense that should lean on its ground attack in 2014. The defense ranked fourth in the Big Ten by holding opponents to 22.2 points a game last year. This unit will have a few personnel losses to overcome, including tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, linebacker Aaron Hill and cornerback Brock Vereen.
The Wildcats were one of the top disappointments in the Big Ten last year. Northwestern was pegged by some as a preseason top-25 team but finished 5-7 and missed on a bowl for the first time since 2007. Expect the Wildcats to return to the postseason in 2014, especially with a healthy Venric Mark returning at running back. Kain Colter departs at quarterback, but Trevor Siemian has experience and will face competition from Zack Oliver and Matt Alviti. Another reason for optimism on offense is the return of all five starters on the offensive line. Northwestern allowed 423.4 yards per game on defense last season, but most of last year’s starting group returns. End Tyler Scott, linebacker Damien Proby and tackle Will Hampton must be replaced.
The Fighting Illini made a two-game improvement in the win column from 2012 to 2013. Coach Tim Beckman enters 2014 on the hot seat, but he has some help coming in the way of former Oklahoma State quarterback Wes Lunt. The sophomore will be eligible to play in 2014 after sitting out a year due to a transfer. Lunt should provide a seamless transition from Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback. Lunt’s supporting cast is a concern, as the top three statistical receivers from last year are gone, and two starters depart from the offensive line. Despite the personnel losses, the offense should be the strength for this team. But the defense is another story. The Fighting Illini allowed 35.4 points a game in 2013 and ranked 11th in the conference in yards allowed per contest. This unit doesn’t lose much, but does Illinois have enough talent to show drastic improve next season?
Darrell Hazell had a less-than-stellar debut at Purdue, but the Boilermakers didn’t have a wealth of talent on the roster either. After hitting rock bottom last year, Purdue should show signs of improvement in 2014. The Boilermakers have to replace left tackle Kevin Pamphile, receiver Gary Bush and right tackle Justin Kitchens, but the rest of the offense returns intact. Quarterbacks Danny Etling, Austin Appleby and incoming freshman David Blough are talented and will improve with more snaps. Running back Akeem Hunt and receivers DeAngelo Yancey and Cameron Posey will be the top playmakers on offense. While the offense has to improve to escape the cellar in the West Division, the defense is also a concern after finishing 10th in the conference last year. The Boilermakers allowed 459.9 yards and 38 points per game in 2013. There’s a handful of significant losses on defense for Hazell, as end Bruce Gaston, nose guard Ryan Isaac, cornerback Ricardo Allen and end Greg Latta all depart. Purdue misses Ohio State in crossover play, but Michigan State visits Ross-Ade Stadium in early October.