The Big Ten has had a rough go of it nationally in recent years. Even as the league’s brand name and marketing cache seem to increase exponentially—the expansion to 14 teams takes effect this year—the results on the football field haven’t followed. At least until last January 1 they didn’t. That’s when Michigan State upset Stanford in the Rose Bowl and finally salvaged some pride for this league in a big non-conference game.
How do things look this year? Our Big Ten football preview outlines the general landscape of the league.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
THE POWER IS IN THE EAST
Ohio State is the even-money favorite to win the conference championship and a top-heavy 2-5 favorite to win the Eastern Division, as the league realigns and puts the Buckeyes in with Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Indiana and newbies Rutgers and Maryland.
But the Buckeyes are not without flaws, which have made their status a subject of curious speculation on ESPN.com’s Big Ten blog. It’s not to say that Ohio State can’t win the East, the conference or make the four-team College Football Playoff. It’s just that some—including me—don’t understand why it’s seen as a foregone conclusion that they will do all of these things.
Urban Meyer’s defense was seriously flawed all of last year and that finally boiled over against Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game and then against Clemson in an Orange Bowl loss. The front seven has back. Meyer needs the experience to make this group tougher and more physical up front, and he needs for his brilliant dual-threat quarterback, Braxton Miller, to carry an offense that’s otherwise being retooled.
The good news for the Buckeyes is they aren’t the only Eastern heavyweight doing rebuilding. Michigan State’s defense, one of the best in college football last year, also has holes. The Spartans do return defensive end Shilique Calhoun, arguably the best player on that great unit of 2013, but there will be new starters in place on the secondary, the defensive front and also on the offensive front.
Michigan State will need to score more this year if they’re going to win big, and to that end the emergence of Connor Cook at quarterback gives reason for hope. Cook showed a big-play capacity that the offense previously lacked, and now he needs to cut back on the mistakes.
Last year, Ohio State and Michigan State formally played for the Big Ten championship when they met in Indianapolis. This year, the early consensus is they will informally play for the same prize in East Lansing on November 8.
WHO’S BEST IN THE WEST?
Wisconsin was the conference’s third-best team in 2013 and they open as a narrow 6-5 favorite to win the Western Division. Nebraska is right behind with odds of 3-2. Both teams have flaws, at least compared to the powers in the East, but they have the advantage of being on the conference’s softer side.
The Badgers, of whom I’m a partisan fan of, have rebuilding to do on defense, with a young front seven. There’s a quarterback decision to make, between returning incumbent Joel Stave and challenger Tanner McEvoy. I’d bet on McEvoy getting the nod. Stave’s erratic arm cost UW a game against Penn State to end the year and head coach Gary Anderson loves the dual-threat quarterbacks like McEvoy. If Stave does win the job, he’ll be on a short leash.
Wisconsin’s strengths are a good secondary, a veteran offensive line and a Heisman-caliber running back in Melvin Gordon.
I don’t see where the affection for Nebraska comes from. They have to replace virtually the entire lineup, with only running back Ameer Abdullah being a significant returning player. Nebraska closed last season on a nice note with a bowl win over Georgia, but that was when the Bulldogs played without starting quarterback Aaron Murray.
Finally, the Cornhusker program seems to be a little unsteady under Bo Pellini right now. He’s won his share of games, but never a conference championship and last year he was caught on tape unleashing a tirade against his own fans. I’m frankly surprised he’s still the head coach, entering his seventh year.
Wisconsin will host Nebraska on November 15.
If you’re looking for teams to upset the applecart, then we’d start with Michigan in the East. The West side has more potential for volatility, with any of Iowa, Minnesota or Northwestern having the ability to make a run.
Michigan: This is a big fourth year for head coach Brady Hoke and he can’t settle for 7-5 or 8-4. Hoke has a veteran defense, but uncertainty on offense.
Devin Gardner is the incumbent at quarterback, but highly touted recruit Shane Morris—a pure dropback passer—has support. How Hoke handles this could determine his future in Ann Arbor.
Iowa: Kirk Ferentz reversed his program’s decline last year with eight wins, including beating Michigan and Nebraska. The Hawks look good in both lines, in the secondary and return quarterback Jake Rudock.
The schedule lines up as well, as Iowa hosts Wisconsin on November 22 and then Nebraska six days later on Black Friday.
Northwestern: The Wildcats endured a miserable seven-game losing streak last year where they seemed to invent a new soul-crushing way to lose a football game every week. The result is they’re being overlooked this year, and my guess is that’s fine with head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
NU has a veteran offensive line, a talented back in Venric Mark and a good defense. If versatile quarterback Trevor Siemian is consistent, the ‘Cats can get to Indianapolis.
Minnesota: Here’s another team not to sleep on. They won eight games last year in a breakout year for Jerry Kill’s program. The defense was tough, and will be so again. The Gophers were particularly tough up front. I also like the fact that there’s a quarterback change here.
I felt Minnesota was more effective with Mitch Leidner, but as a freshman, he often took a big seat to now-departed Philip Nelson. The Gopher offense was a weak point, and while I’m not saying Leidner will suddenly make everyone in the Twin Cities forget the 1998 Minnesota Vikings, this team is going to have more of a spark.
BATTLING FOR A BOWL
Four more teams have plausible hopes of bowl-eligibility…
Indiana: IU has nine defensive starters back and experience better matter, because this unit was awful last year. Indiana knocked on the door of the postseason, and this year the door needs to open—it’s Kevin Wilson’s fourth season.
Maryland: The Terps reached a bowl last year and only Big Ten fans still living in the world of 10-15 years ago are going to dismiss that. There’s no reason to think the Big Ten is going to be tougher than the ACC has been (which is another way of saying each league has lagged well behind the SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12). Maryland’s well-coached with Randy Edsall, they have a veteran defense and a good passing combination in C.J. Brown-to-Stefon Diggs.
Rutgers: Another team that reached a bowl at 6-6 last year, brings a lot of starters back (14 in this case) and hopes the success can translate to the Big Ten. But there are differences between the Scarlet Knights and the Terps. Rutgers played in the American Athletic Conference, which is a step behind the Big Ten and ACC. They have an interception-prone quarterback in Gary Nova. And this is a program that just seems to be slipping under the leadership of Kyle Flood.
Illinois: I’m probably being overly generous in putting Illinois on this list, but they did go 4-8 last year, have eight starters back on defense and bring in an Oklahoma State transfer in Wes Lunt to play quarterback. I suppose seeing that add up to a couple extra wins isn’t out of the question, but color me skeptical.
One thing to note—Indiana, Maryland and Rutgers are all in the East. Not only do they play the elite of the conference, but they’ll have to play each other. All three teams making it is highly unlikely and the schedule will work against all three.
Penn State: Not because they aren’t good enough, but the combination of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes and the NCAA’s PR-driven scapegoating of the entire program still have the Lions ineligible for a bowl. In either case though, this is a very young team under first-year coach James Franklin. This is really the year when the scholarship hit the Nittany Lions took will start to show. But I like the new coach and he can still win six or seven games.
Purdue: In this case, they just aren’t good enough. A 1-11 year showed how much building is still to do and second-year coach Darrell Hazell will play a lot of kids.
THE SPORTSNOTEBOOK’S PICK
I have to lean Ohio State to win the East. I’m just not sold enough on Michigan State’s returning talent and there’s no evidence that their program is at a “just reload” point. In the West, I’ll stick with my heart and pick Wisconsin, though I’m very concerned about Northwestern, Iowa and Minnesota.
Ohio State will win the conference title. Whether they make the four-team College Football Playoff is something that will be predicted here closer to the regular season after we’ve reviewed the rest of the country.