Michigan and Penn State are two of the premier programs in the Big Ten, but neither the Wolverines or Nittany Lions have won more than eight games in a season over the last two years.
The lack of success by Michigan and Penn State on a national level is just one reason why the Big Ten has slipped in terms of conference hierarchy among BCS leagues.
And as the 2014 season approaches, both teams have question marks to answer this offseason. Penn State is still dealing with scholarship sanctions, so depth could be an issue. The Nittany Lions also have concerns on the offensive line and in the secondary. Michigan has regressed since an 11-2 record in Brady Hoke’s first season (2011) and finished a disappointing 7-6 last year.
The Wolverines aren’t short on talent, but the offense struggled last season and question marks exist at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and on the offensive line.
With the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, the Big Ten is set to undergo a few alterations for 2014. The Leaders and Legends Divisions are no more, as the Big Ten will split into the East and West alignment. In the East, Penn State and Michigan will be picked behind Ohio State and Michigan State, but the third-place team in this division could finish 9-3 or 10-2 in 2014.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Penn State or Michigan: Who Finishes Higher in the Big Ten East in 2014?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I’m very intrigued by both of these programs going into 2014. Brady Hoke appeared to be the right fit at Michigan after an 11-2 debut in 2011, but the Wolverines are just 15-11 over the last two years. While Michigan lost six games last season, five defeats were by four points or less. With Doug Nussmeier calling the plays, plus a return to full strength by quarterback Devin Gardner, the Wolverines should show improvement in the win column. However, I give a slight edge to Penn State in this debate. New coach James Franklin guided Vanderbilt to back-to-back nine-win seasons and should win big with the Nittany Lions. Penn State also has an advantage at quarterback with rising star Christian Hackenberg, along with depth at running back and plenty of intriguing options at receiver to replace Allen Robinson. Also, new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop should help the Nittany Lions’ defense improve after allowing 32 points a game in Big Ten play last season. The biggest concern for the Nittany Lions could be depth due to scholarship sanctions, along with motivation if the bowl ban isn’t rescinded. One factor in Penn State’s favor is the schedule. The Nittany Lions play at Michigan but host Ohio State and Michigan State. The Wolverines have to play at Northwestern in crossover play and travel to Michigan State and Ohio State in 2014. I think Penn State finishes ahead of Michigan in the East Division, but don't be surprised if both are top-25 teams this year.
Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB), CrystalBallRun.com and CollegeFootballTalk.com
Penn State has an excellent chance to finish the 2014 season ahead of the Wolverines in the Big Ten’s East Division (B1G East?). No team could have as favorable a schedule as the Nittany Lions as far as Big Ten play is concerned. Penn State gets Ohio State and Michigan State at home. The Nittany Lions are not ready to challenge either for the division just yet, but Penn State will not lose 63-14 again and getting the Spartans at home in the regular season finale could be pivotal. Penn State also gets a poor Illinois team that could have it packed in for the year on the road and they make a return trip to Indiana with revenge on the mind after last season’s match-up spun out of control.
Michigan has to play on the road at Ohio State and Michigan State in 2014 and they lack the defense to slow down the Buckeyes and the consistent offense to overcome the Spartans. Penn State has a better chance of at least splitting those games than Michigan seems to. The pivotal game separating these two programs will be the prime time match-up in the Big House. Michigan gets the home field advantage against a Penn State team that could still be putting some pieces together, but Penn State has the all important bye week heading in to the road game. We’ll see what Franklin can have cooked up for that game with a week to prepare.
Overall, Penn State is trending in the right direction while Michigan is looking to reverse their downward trend. Right now, Penn State has the edge.
Listen to our staff discuss every team in the Big Ten as they start to look to 2014.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Coaching, quarterback play and scheduling are three of the most important aspects to predicting where a team will finish in any given season. And in the case of the Wolverines versus the Nittany Lions, all three of those factors fall heavily on one side of the discussion. Christian Hackenberg is one of the top QB prospects in the nation, while Devin Gardner needs to show marked improvement after inconsistency and 17 turnovers a year ago. James Franklin is a bulldog who will recruit and coach unlike anything the Big Ten has seen in years, while Brady Hoke is hearing whispers of uncertainty. And the Nittany Lions play a very manageable schedule that is missing what could be the top four teams from the West (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota). Michigan will be a solid team in the seven- or eight-win range but Penn State could end up with nine or even 10 wins. I'll take the Lions with Franklin, Hackenberg and the easier schedule.
I may be in the minority here, but I think Michigan will finish ahead of Penn State in the Big Ten's new-look East Division. Yes, I think the Nittany Lions made the best hire of the offseason in luring James Franklin away from Vanderbilt, but I also feel that the learning curve for Franklin and his coaching staff will be different in the Big Ten than it was when he was introduced to the SEC in 2011. I won't deny that Franklin has more talent to work with at Penn State than when he started at Vanderbilt, especially when it comes to quarterback Christian Hackenberg, but he also has to replace some key personnel, notably top wide receiver Allen Robinson and two All-Big Ten offensive linemen. Michigan has its own issues, especially on offense, but I think new coordinator Doug Nussmeier will be able to figure out what approach works best for his personnel and find a way to get the most out of quarterback Devin Gardner and the weapons around him. I also think the Wolverines will be better on defense, as they return eight starters from a unit that ranked fifth in total defense in the conference last season. With the new divisions and the addition of Maryland and Rutgers this will be a season of transition to differing degrees for both programs, but Brady Hoke is more familiar with life in the Big Ten than Franklin. So as far as 2014 goes, my pick is for Michigan to finish ahead of Penn State in the standings, but there's no question things are trending in the right direction in Happy Valley.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Michigan should prove it was better than last year’s 7-6 season. The Wolverines have the tools to do that and, if everything breaks right, they can contend in the Big Ten East. Michigan was one of those teams last year that was between to a New Year’s Day bowl appearance (four losses by less than a touchdown) or a complete disaster (wins by less than a touchdown over Akron and UConn). Oddly enough, Michigan had a worse turnover margin (minus-2) in wins than losses (plus-7), mainly due to playing down to Akron and UConn. Altogether, it was just a bizarre season in Ann Arbor. The 2014 season has to be more stable than 2013. The foundation should be the defense, and the offense has potential to be more consistent. Quarterback Devin Gardner limited his turnovers late in the year, and he showed enough flashes to reinforce why he was a budding star before the season. The key is the line and run game. Offensive tackle Taylor Lewan is a big, experienced piece of the puzzle that’s gone, but Michigan recruited quantity and quality across the offensive line. Throw in five-star running back Derrick Green from last year’s class, and Michigan should be expected to field a run game that’s not so dependent on Gardner. That should be enough for Michigan to finish ahead of Penn State.