2014 Big Ten Conference Preview and Predictions
It’s August, which means another season of college football is shortly upon us. This year, the Big Ten should feature a highly competitive, fun to watch league. While not the SEC in terms of talent, the Big Ten will still be very entertaining and fun to watch. With that said, here is what you can expect to see this year in both the Big Ten East and West.
- Michigan State Spartans – The reigning Big Ten champions will be looking for their second straight trip to Pasadena, but this time as part of the college football 4-team playoff. They definitely have the defense to get there. They have a legit stud at each level of the defense: Shilique Calhoun on the defensive line and Kurtis Drummond in the secondary will each get All-American consideration, and Taiwan Jones should be able to step up and replace the loss of Max Bullough for the linebackers. Their defense was one of the best in the country in 2013, and they should pick up right where they left off. On offense, they return most of their major contributors, including much-improved quarterback Connor Cook. The offense was not elite in 2013, but it didn’t have to be with their defense. This year, the offense could be even better, as they are experienced at every position. With their three toughest conference games (Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska) all at home, and Wisconsin not on the docket, Michigan State has a legit chance to run the table in conference play. If they can get past their September 6th matchup in Eugene against Oregon, 12-0 is not out of the question. Look for another Big Ten Championship, and a trip to the 4-team playoff for the Spartans this season. Anything less would be a disappointment in East Lansing.
- Ohio State Buckeyes – In year 3 of Urban Meyer, Ohio State looks to convert their regular season dominance into postseason success. After two consecutive 12-0 regular seasons, the Buckeyes have nothing to show for it after losing in the Big Ten championship and Orange Bowl last season. This year, they have a legit chance to make it to the playoff. Behind Heisman Trophy hopeful Braxton Miller (shown below) at quarterback, the offense should be one of the best in the country. There is concern as the Buckeyes replace 4 starters on the offensive line, but with the weapons Miller has, they should be fine. On defense, OSU has had its moments in the past two seasons, but they should be much better this year. Their defensive line, headlined by Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washington, Joey Bosa, and Noah Spence (who is serving a 3-game suspension to start the season) should be one of the best in the nation. Their back 7 will have some issues, but it should be better than last season. Ohio State has two difficult road games (Michigan State, Penn State) in conference, and I don’t expect them to win both. An 11-1 Ohio State team would look very appealing to the playoff committee, but if MSU wins the conference, OSU would not make it. Expect a high-end bowl berth for the Buckeyes, but no playoff appearance this season.
- Michigan Wolverines – Going into Brady Hoke’s fourth season, things in Ann Arbor have been a little testy. After a spectacular 11-2 season in Hoke’s first year, the Wolverines have finished 8-5 and 7-6 in the last two years. This will not cut it. Fortunately for Hoke, they should be better this year. Michigan had one of the worst offensive lines in all of the FBS, and despite the losses of Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, the line should be better. Senior QB Devin Gardner should put some of his inconsistencies behind him and lead the offense. WR Devin Funchess has the body and athleticism of a top-10 NFL pick, but needs to improve his issues with drops. On defense, Michigan is rock-solid all around. DE Frank Clark, MLB Jake Ryan, and DB Blake Countess are the best players on this defense, but they have no major weaknesses. Watch for true freshman DB Jabrill Peppers to play, as he will be too good to keep on the sideline. With all that said, Michigan has a difficult schedule, with Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State on the road. Despite that, they should improve on their 7-6 record from last year. If they don’t, Brady Hoke will be looking for a new job after the season.
- Penn State Nittany Lions – One player is totally in control of Penn State’s fortunes this season: sophomore QB Christian Hackeberg. Hackenburg is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the country, and the true sophomore will be leading a relatively unexperienced offense this year, with only two seniors expected to see time (RBs Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton). On defense, they have a very experienced group, led by senior LB Mike Hull and junior CB Jordan Lucas. “Linebacker U” should have one of the top defenses in the Big Ten, and they should be able to keep every game close. However, this team will go as far as Hackenberg takes them. Under first year coach James Franklin, Hackenberg should show strides, but is still one year away from superstardom. As such, Penn State can expect an above-average showing in Big Ten play. With their two toughest games (Ohio State, Michigan State) at home, they have a fighter’s chance to surprise some people, but 5-3 is probably a best-case scenario in conference play this year. One more year, Nittany Lions fans.
- Maryland Terrapins – The Terrapins are a bit of a wild card in their first year in the Big Ten. They don’t have much history with many of the teams they will be playing, so it will be interesting to see what happens. With that said, they simply do not have the talent to compete with the top dogs across the board. They do have one of the best players in the conference, and one of the best playmakers in the country, in junior WR Stefon Diggs (shown below). Diggs is enough to make any offense electric, but they will still struggle to score at times, as they did last season. On defense, they have an incredibly experienced group, with 7 seniors expected to start. Seniors Andre Monroe (DL) and Cole Farrand (LB) should lead a solid front seven, while tackling machine Sean Davis should put up big stats in his second year. Though the defense is experienced, they just aren’t that good. Davis, a safety, was their leading tackler as a freshman, which is a bad sign for any defense. All in all, Maryland should be improved from last year, but it may not show as they will be playing far superior competition.
- Indiana Hoosiers – This year should follow the narrative of Indiana football: great offense, horrific defense, and a below average team overall. On offense, Indiana is poised to yet again put up tons of points every game. Led by the dynamic duo of junior QBs Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson, IU could put up more than 5 touchdowns again. Sure, they lose top receiver Cody Latimer to the NFL, but they will have enough to compensate for that loss. However, for every touchdown they score, there is a reasonable chance that their defense will give up two. They had a bottom ten defense in the entire FBS last season, and don’t expect that to improve much this year. They do have a lot of experience, so there is at least slight hope for improvement, but there is just not enough talent to reasonably expect anything other than an incredibly leaky defense. Overall, they will have more than enough offense to stay out of the basement of the Big Ten East, but their defensive limitations will not allow them to get much higher than 6th.
- Rutgers Scarlet Knights – Well, their defense isn’t as bad as Indiana? I mean, that’s the only positive thing I can say about the Scarlet Knights at this point. They struggled to make a Bowl Game in a weak AAC last year, and would be lucky to be able to say that this year. QB Gary Nova is a solid, albeit unspectacular, player who might be able to keep his team in some games. However, this is a young team on both sides of the ball, and none of its young players are particularly talented either. Rutgers has a brutal schedule, with Michigan State and Ohio State on the road, and its crosser games against the Big Ten West against Wisconsin and Nebraska. With all of that said, Rutgers will struggle to win a game in conference play. Maybe next year.
- Wisconsin Badgers – Gary Andersen is in his second year as the head coach of the Badgers, and he yet again will be in charge of a very good team. As always, Wisconsin will look to run the ball down your throats, and keep games close with their grind-it-out defense. On offense, despite the loss of top RB James White, Melvin Gordon should be able to build off of his fantastic 2013 season, and Wisconsin’s ground game should not suffer much if it all. On offense, their losses will be felt through the air. Their top 4 receivers from last year, including NFL draft pick Jared Abbrederis, are all gone. Their top returning receiver, Alex Erickson, only had 9 catches last season. QB Joel Stave will have his work cut out for him, but he and Gordon are good enough to carry the offense behind an experienced line. On defense, they lose their top 4 linebackers, including Chris Borland, and 4 of their top 6 defensive linemen. They are very young up front, which will show. They have a very experienced secondary, however, which will probably carry the load of the defense. Despite being inexperienced at many different positions across the field, Wisconsin has enough talent to win the Big Ten West. They will be tested right off the bat with a neutral field matchup against LSU, but this will be their hardest game all season. With no Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan, or Penn State from the East, and Nebraska at home, 8-0 isn’t impossible for this young team. With that said, expect a slip-up or two.
- Iowa Hawkeyes – There are probably five teams in the conference that are more talented than Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa Hawkeyes this season. However, no one will have more experience. On offense, their leading passer, rusher, and receiver (QB Jake Rudock, RB Mark Weisman, and WR Kevonte Martin-Manley, respectively) all return. These three should form a formidable trio to move the ball behind a stacked offensive line, including potential All-American LT Brandon Scherff. Scherff is built like former Big Ten tackles Joe Thomas and Jake Long, both of whom would go on to be top-3 NFL Draft picks. Scherff could do the same. On defense, their defensive line and secondary will be very experienced, with only two significant losses, both of which coming from the secondary. However, all three of their starting linebackers from last season are gone, and they will count on Quinton Alston, Travis Perry, and Reggie Spearman to pick up the slack for that group. The trio combined for just 22 tackles last season. With their immense experience overall, and their relatively easy schedule (Wisconsin and Nebraska both at home, MSU/OSU/UM/PSU not on the schedule), Iowa has a golden chance to win the Big Ten West. However, don’t expect them to. A second place finish will have to do for the Hawkeyes.
- Nebraska Cornhuskers – Nebraska will struggle to get here, but they have enough individual talent to do so. Their offense will be a major mystery. On one hand, new full-time starting QB Tommy Armstrong looked very good in some time last year, and he has two of the best skill-players in the conference on his team in RB Ameer Abdullah and WR Kenny Bell. In a typical year, this threesome would be devastating. However, there is one major problem with this offense: all five starters from the offensive line from 2013 are gone, and the Cornhuskers will be breaking in an entirely new line. No matter how good the linemen are, it takes time for a line to mesh, as shown by Michigan last season. With the talented skill players, but inexperienced o-line, the offense is a wild card. We’ll see what wins out. On defense, they have one of the best defensive linemen in the country with Randy Gregory (shown below), who could be a top 10 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Despite an inexperienced line around Gregory, the rest of the defense is steady and returns key contributors across the board. The Huskers will lean heavily on the defense this season. Typically, this team would be good for 6 wins in conference. However, a difficult schedule includes Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Iowa all on the road. With that said, Nebraska will struggle to win any more than 5 conference games, and should finish about 8-4 overall, leaving Bo Pelini’s coaching seat still hot after the season.
- Northwestern Wildcats – This one is a toss-up between the Wildcats and Minnesota, but frankly, Northwestern is just more talented. Northwestern returns most of their roster, and while they struggled mightily in conference play last season, this is a team that still is very talented. Led on offense by two seniors – QB Trevor Siemian and RB Venric Mark – along with three upperclassmen receivers and an offensive line with 94 combined starts, Northwestern should put up a lot of points. Look for Siemian to have his best season yet, now that he will take full control of the offense after the departure of Kain Colter. Also, Mark will make a huge impact in his return from an injury. On defense, they will be led by senior LB Chi Chi Ariguzo (who has an incredible name, by the way). Only two key contributors (DE Tyler Scott and LB Damien Proby) from last season are gone, so this unit will be incredibly experienced as well. They have a difficult schedule that includes road games at Penn State, Iowa, and Notre Dame, and visits from Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Michigan. They seem like a fantastic bounce-back team, but the difficult schedule might prevent that. Nonetheless, they will be much better than in 2013, no question about it.
- Minnesota Golden Gophers – The Gophers just as easily could have gotten the 4th spot in the division, but they just are not as talented or experienced as Northwestern. Nonetheless, expect the Gophers to see more improvement yet again this season. On offense, QB Mitch Leidner will likely have a full season to be the starter, and he will have weapons: all of the top running backs and all but one of the top receivers from 2013 are back. Also, redshirt freshman TE Nate Wozniak will be a matchup nightmare in short yardage situations, as he is 6’10” (not a misprint). Only one offensive line starter is gone as well, so the Gophers will have experience on offense. On defense, they won’t be as experienced, as at least one starter from each level are gone, including 2nd round draft pick Ra’Shede Hageman on the defensive line. This year, another lineman (Thieran Cockran) will be the best player on defense, but he will need help. It remains to be seen how much he will get up front. With that said, Minnesota should have enough on both sides of the ball to build upon last season. Despite a better team, they may not improve their 8-5 record, as a difficult schedule includes trips to Michigan, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, and visits from Ohio State and Iowa. They will be better than last season, it just won’t show this year.
- Illinois Fighting Illini – Tim Beckman’s squad was better in his second year in charge than they were in his first year, but 4-8 still wasn’t good enough. Now, they will have more challenges in his third year. They will have to replace do-it-all QB Nathan Scheelhaase, and that will be a major issue for them. Expect Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt to win the QB job. While he is a solid player, it will still be a step back from Scheelhaase. Lunt will be walking into a difficult situation, as three of their top 4 receivers are gone. Fortunately, 4 of the top 5 offensive linemen are back, as is top RB Josh Ferguson, who will be one of the best players you’ve never heard of this year. The offense will carry the load for the team yet again this season. On defense… well, at least they’re experienced? The defense was pitiful last season, and while they return most of their players, that may not be a great thing, considering they weren’t very good. They should be better, but overall, don’t expect much from this unit. A difficult schedule includes Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Washington all on the road. The Illini should be a better team than last season, but a poor defense will most likely prevent a bowl berth for them this season.
- Purdue Boilermakers – Well, last season was not particularly a good one for Purdue. In Darrell Hazell’s first season as head coach, the Boilermakers went 1-11, with their lone win coming against lowly Indiana State, and it was only by 6 points. The highlight of their season was coming close to beating Notre Dame, before eventually losing by a touchdown. Face it: when the highlight of a season is a loss, it’s a bad season. Fortunately, there is some hope for a better season this year: Purdue had a solid defense last season that returns most of the key contributors, and they only collapsed due to a terrible offense. While the offense loses its top 3 offensive linemen, they return nearly everyone else, including RB/WR hybrid Akeem Hunt and promising sophomore QB Danny Etling. Overall, they should have enough to be better than 1-11, but don’t expect anything other than the Big Ten cellar this year. Sorry Purdue fans, but if it’s any consolation, you still have Drew Brees as an alum, so I guess there’s that?
So there you have it. The Big Ten will be awesome this year, and you can all expect great things.
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