If you assume Ohio State is going to make the College Football Playoff—and for the time being that’s a prudent assumption—that means there’s going to be a Rose Bowl berth available for a Big Ten team. I count no fewer than seven viable contenders, three from the East and four from the West that can harbor legitimate hopes of winning the race to Pasadena as a runner-up…
Michigan State: They’re the favorite, with defensive end Shilique Calhoun being a legit contender for Defensive Player of the Year and senior quarterback Connor Cook having improved every year he’s been a starter in East Lansing.
Sparty returns 13 starters in all, but they have one big loss on the coaching staff—defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi went to Pitt. This may need to be a different kind of Michigan State team, one that relies less on their defense to win games.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions have a ferocious defensive front, where tackle Anthony Zettel will be one of the best interior D-lineman in the country and Austin Johnson isn’t far behind. The other side of the line of scrimmage is where the problems lie.
An inexperienced offensive line was absolutely terrible last year. They’ll have the benefit of experience this year, along with some incoming transfer help. If PSU’s pass protection can even rise to mediocre, the Lions are going to put points on the board, with prolific Christian Hackenberg behind center.
Michigan: Jim Harbaugh has re-energized the program and he’s got 16 returning starters to work with. That figure doesn’t include sophomore strong safety Jabril Peppers, one of the nation’s top recruits that got injured early last season. It would be a stretch to say the Wolverines are loaded, but Harbaugh isn’t inheriting a bare cupboard and we know that it doesn’t take long for him to work his turnaround magic.
Shane Morris is prepared to step in at quarterback. This is a question mark, but it’s fair to say that Morris isn’t as a big a question mark is Alex Smith was at the NFL level when Harbaugh went to the 49ers and the coach made that work out pretty well.
Wisconsin: There’s a new head coach in town with Paul Chryst, who worked here as offensive coordinator before a three-year stop as the Pitt head coach. There’s a lot of replacement to do on the offensive side. The good news is that there’s stability at the quarterback and receiver spots, with Joel Stave throwing to Alex Erickson and tight end Austin Traylor.
Normally a rebuild job on the offensive line is a big red flag, but Wisconsin has shown the ability to churn out offensive lineman, and new running back Corey Clement is already a proven commodity, having rushed for 949 yards as Melvin Gordon’s understudy last year. An experienced secondary returns on defense, and the development of a mostly new defensive interior, both up front and at inside linebacker, will tell the story.
Nebraska: The tumultuous, but usually pretty successful Bo Pellini era is over. Ameer Abdullah is also gone in the backfield. There’s a young offensive line and a young secondary. The defense should be pretty good up front, with playmakers Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine disrupting things from the tackle spot, but it’s going to take a lot to break right for the Cornhuskers to get to Pasadena.
I respect the job Mike Riley did at Oregon State, but I don’t think it qualified him to get this kind of high-profile coaching situation. Either that, or the Nebraska job has fallen a lot further in the esteem of the coaching profession then I thought.
Minnesota: A program that Jerry Kill has had on the rise, nearly made the big breakthrough last year. They played Wisconsin head-to-head for a trip to Indianapolis and the conference championship game and led 17-3 before Gordon took over. The Gophers, once derided as a soft team, have become very physical under Kill and they return seven defensive starters, plus three more on the offensive line.
The two keys will be first finding a replacement for David Cobb, an excellent running back who went for over 1,600 yards and could have been the best back in any league that didn’t have Gordon. The other key will be whether Mitch Leidner, a physical old-style quarterback that undoubtedly reminds many Minnesotans of the Joe Kapp days with the Vikings, can throw the football with consistency.
Iowa: If they were in the more rugged East, I wouldn’t consider the Hawkeyes a contender, but in the West, Iowa has hope of things coming together to steal a division title. They have three seniors on the offensive line for Kirk Ferentz to work with, and the defensive front has experience on the edge, led by pass-rusher Drew Ott.
The secondary is also going to be a strength, so if you combine that with a good pass rush, Iowa has the building blocks of a pretty good defense and that’s the building block of a contender. Now, can C.J. Beathard, take advantage of his opportunity to become the starting quarterback?
So of these seven, who makes it? It seems to me that the East runner-ups have an advantage in that the West champ will be evaluated by the selection committee (who makes placements in the four other “New Year’s Six” bowl games after they slot the playoff semis) coming off a presumed loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. The East runner-ups also have the advantage in that…well, that they’re probably better football teams.
There’s no betting odds on the Rose Bowl race per se, but if you look at the odds to win the conference championship (where Ohio State is a heavy -400 favorite), you can get a sense of the esteem Las Vegas holds these teams in. Michigan State is the favorite, Wisconsin is not far behind. Nebraska and Michigan are considered reasonable contenders, with Penn State, Minnesota and Iowa all longshots.
I’m going to disagree with the wisdom of the betting markets, a strategy that’s never worked well for me in the past, but which I continue on with, undaunted. I like what James Franklin has going on at Penn State and the lifting of NCAA sanctions will mean improved depth. Book the Nittany Lions for the Rose Bowl on January 1.