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Change has come to the world of college football in 2014. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Big Ten, where the conference is welcoming two new members (Maryland and Rutgers) and realigning their divisions.
Gone are the Legends and Leaders divisions, which featured Big Ten powerhouses Ohio State and Michigan in separate divisions, despite the fact it made no sense geographically. The cynic in me believes the entire premise behind the old alignment was so that Michigan and Ohio State would play in the Big Ten championship game. It never happened, though. The game has existed for three years and Ohio State was ineligible for postseason play in one of those seasons, while Michigan has been in the midst of rebuilding their program.
Notwithstanding any recent hiccups, Ohio State and Michigan are two of the greatest programs in the history of college football. Their yearly matchup, which takes place every November, is among the biggest sporting events in amateur athletics. Placing them in opposite divisions -- but making them play yearly -- had the potential to diminish the rivalry. For example, imagine the ‘06 matchup that featured No. 1 Ohio State host No. 2 Michigan, played under last year’s conference structure. It would’ve been a glorified exhibition game, as the two teams would’ve just played each other again the following week for the Big Ten title. In other words, there weren’t any repercussions to losing.
Because of the new alignment, however, the stakes of the rivalry are even higher. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario between Ohio State and Michigan that compares with last year’s SEC West showdown between Auburn and Alabama. Not only was the Iron Bowl for conference bragging rights, but it had conference and national title implications.
Will the same scenario play out with Ohio state and Michigan this year? Let’s breakdown the conference and find out.
1. Wisconsin Badgers (Projected: 10-2, 7-1 in conference)
Key Players: RB Corey Clement, OG Kyle Costigan, RB Melvin Gordon III, OT Rob Havenstein, DT Warren Herring, QB Tanner McEvoy, CB Sojourn Shelton, QB Joel Stave
Schedule Breakdown: An easy schedule makes Wisconsin a trendy pick to win the Big Ten’s west division. The Badgers don’t play Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan in the regular-season. More important, their toughest opponent (Nebraska) comes to Camp Randle Stadium. Wisconsin does face a tough test out of the gate, though, as they open their season against the LSU Tigers.
Analysis: The Badgers have a longstanding tradition of running the football. That’s not going to change in ‘14, especially with Gordon contending for the Heisman Trophy. However, if Wisconsin is going to challenge Ohio State and Michigan State for the Big Ten title, they’ll need a complimentary passing game to develop. All eyes are on the quarterback play, where Stave needs to show more consistency or he could find himself on the bench in favor of McEvoy. If the passing game improves from a year ago and the front seven overachieves, Wisconsin has all the tools to challenge for the Big Ten title.
Bowl Projection: Fiesta
2. Iowa Hawkeyes (9-3, 6-2)
Key Players: DT Carl Davis, CB Desmond King, QB Jake Rudock, OT Brandon Scherff, WR Derek Willies, RB Mark Weisman
Schedule Breakdown: Perhaps no Big Ten team features a more favorable schedule than Iowa does. The Hawkeyes could conceivably start the season 6-0 before they hit the meat of their schedule. Five of their final six games come against Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Wisconsin, with the Badgers and Cornhuskers having to travel to Iowa City. If the Hawkeyes can take four of those final six, then they’ll have a good shot at nine or 10 wins.
Analysis: The typical rugged play of the Hawkeyes won’t be enough if they want to win the Big Ten’s west division. The Hawkeyes need to get more explosive plays from the receiver position. Based on early reports, Willies could be their answer. Led by Scherff, the offensive line should be one of the strengths of the team, opening the door for Weisman to eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark. The defense lost three starters from their linebacker corps. In fact, Kirk Ferentz returns just five defensive starters from last year’s squad.
Bowl Projection: Outback
3. Northwestern Wildcats (8-4, 5-3)
Key Players: LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, S Ibraheim Campbell, DE Dean Lowry, DE Ifeadi Odenigbo, QB Trevor Siemian
Schedule Breakdown: Within a span of one month, Northwestern plays Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. Those four games will determine whether the Wildcats mount a challenge in the west division. Northwestern did fall to all four opponents a year ago. With the exception of Wisconsin, though, the Wildcats were within a touchdown of winning each game.
Analysis: The Wildcats did lose Kain Colter at quarterback, but he split time with Siemian anyways. The job now belongs to Siemian full time. Yesterday, the offense received devastating news, as star running back Venric Mark will transfer. Mark, who rushed for 1,366 yards in ‘12, had a chance to compete with Gordon and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah for All-Big Ten first-team honors. Despite Mark’s transfer, if the defense (returning eight starters) improves from last season, then overlook the Wildcats at your own peril.
Bowl Projection: Holiday
4. Nebraska Cornhuskers (8-4, 5-3)
Key Players: RB Ameer Abdullah, S Tommy Armstrong Jr., DE Kenny Bell, WR Corey Cooper, DE Randy Gregory
Schedule Breakdown: The talent in Lincoln is good enough for Nebraska to compete for a Big Ten title. The schedule is a major roadblock, though. The Cornhuskers have road games against Fresno State, Iowa, Michigan State, Northwestern, and Wisconsin. Winning three of those games would put them in position for a January bowl game.
Analysis: A division that’s better than advertised may cause trouble for Nebraska, particularly if the Cornhuskers don’t develop a passing game. The defense, despite some recent developments, has the potential to do for them what Michigan State’s did a year ago. The secondary is a bit of a wild card, but if it comes together, then the Cornhuskers could certainly exceed eight wins.
Bowl Projection: San Francisco
5. Minnesota Golden Gophers (7-5, 4-4)
Key Players: RB David Cobb, DE Theiren Cockran, OG Zac Epping, QB Mitch Leidner, TE Maxx Williams
Schedule Breakdown: November will make or break Minnesota’s season. The Golden Gophers start the pivotal month with home games against Iowa and Ohio State. They end the month with road trips to Madison and Lincoln.
Analysis: After starting last season 8-2, Minnesota looked like a real threat in the Big Ten. In consecutive weeks, they defeated Northwestern and Nebraska, both of whom were Big Ten preseason favorites. The Golden Gophers were unable to sustain their success, though, losing their final two games to Wisconsin and Michigan State. Minnesota is making progress under head coach Jerry Kill. This year should represent another step. Maybe that’s not good enough for some Minnesota fans, but progress is a slow climb. Just remember the end is rewarding.
Bowl Projection: Pinstripe
6. Illinois Fighting Illini (3-9, 1-7)
Key Players: WR Geronimo Allison, RB Josh Ferguson, QB Wes Lunt, DT Austin Teitsma, S Earnest Thomas III
Schedule Breakdown: There is very little leeway in Illinois’ schedule. The Fighting Illini have tough non-conference games against Washington and Western Kentucky. Their conference schedule features road games against Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. Overall, it’s an uphill climb to a bowl game.
Analysis: Any buzz (if it exists) about Illinois centers around Lunt. The Oklahoma State transfer is taking over an offense that was relatively productive a year ago. If Illinois is to become bowl eligible, they’ll need better production out of their defense. They’ll be a better team than last year’s squad, but it won’t show up in the standings due to the schedule.
Bowl Projection: None
7. Purdue Boilermakers (3-9, 0-8)
Key Players: QB Danny Etling, WR Akeem Hunt, RB Raheem Mostert, LB Sean Robinson, CB Frankie Williams
Schedule Breakdown: A 3-1 start is realistic for Purdue, but it’ll be downhill from there. The Boilermakers get Iowa, Michigan State, and Wisconsin at home, but they lack the talent to compete with those teams. Conference wins against Illinois and Indiana are possible, but they’ll have to overcome the road environment.
Analysis: Coming off a one-win season, Purdue will play better this year, particularly on defense. The offense should receive a spark by having both Hunt and Mostert on the field at the same time. Nevertheless, this program remains a year or two away from competing in a bowl game.
Bowl Projection: None
1. Ohio State Buckeyes (12-0, 8-0)
Key Players: DT Michael Bennett, DE Joey Bosa, RB Ezekiel Elliot, TE Jeff Heuerman, QB Braxton Miller, DE Noah Spence
Schedule Breakdown: Anything less than an 8-0 record when Ohio State travels to East Lansing to play Michigan State would be disappointing. The game against Michigan State is crucial, as it could determine who represents the east in the Big Ten championship.
Analysis: Now in his third season at Ohio State, Urban Meyer has the Buckeyes prime for a run at a national championship. The offense features a standout at quarterback in Miller, who despite missing three games a year ago, still managed to run for 1,000 yards and pass for 2,000 yards. Losing running back Carlos Hyde to the NFL stings, but Elliot could be even better in Meyer’s system. Elliot recently fractured his wrist, but he should be ready for the opener against Navy. His speed gives Miller a nasty compliment in the backfield. Defensively, the Buckeyes feature one of the country’s best defensive lines. All four starters return from last season, with Bennett leading the charge.
Bowl Projection: Sugar
2. Michigan State Spartans (9-3, 6-2)
Key Players: C Jack Allen, DE Shilique Calhoun, QB Connor Cook, S Kurtis Drummond, LB Taiwan Jones, CB Trae Waynes,
Schedule Breakdown: A manageable schedule gives Michigan State a good chance at winning 10 games this year. The Spartans have an intriguing non-conference matchup with Oregon, which could go along ways in determining their potential playoffs odds. However, the biggest game on their schedule is their November 8 tilt against Ohio State, which should determine who represents the east in the Big Ten championship.
Analysis: Coming off their first Rose Bowl win since 1988, Michigan State will again play nasty defense, while bending defenses to their will with a ground and pound attack on offense. In addition, with Cook back under center, the offense should maintain enough balance so that defenses respect the passing game. The return of Pat Narduzzi as the team’s defensive coordinator is a major boon to the defense. Narduzzi most definitely could’ve taken a head-coaching position, but Michigan State enticed him to return. He’ll have the task of replacing two starting linebackers, both defensive tackles, and standout cornerback Darqueze Dennard.
Bowl Projection: Capital One
3. Michigan Wolverines (8-4, 5-3)
Key Players: DE Frank Clark, CB Blake Countess, WR Devin Funchess, QB Devin Gardner, LB Jake Ryan
Schedule Breakdown: Road games against Michigan State, Northwestern, and Ohio State will have a major bearing on whether Michigan can compete with the Buckeyes and Spartans for the division title. The Wolverines came up just short of upsetting Ohio State a year ago, but winning in Columbus is a tall order. In fact, the last time Michigan won in Columbus, Florida was still counting votes in the 2000 presidential election.
Analysis: It’s an important year for head coach Brady Hoke. Michigan has one of college football’s most rabid fan bases, and they’re growing impatient. Plus, there’s no question Ohio State and Michigan State will be good. The Wolverines, particularly Hoke, needs a major win to show recruits that Michigan can compete with their rivals. For that to happen, Gardner will have to show progression as a passer, and the defense will need to play better up front.
Bowl Projection: TaxSlayer
4. Penn State Nittany Lions (7-5, 4-4)
Key Players: DE Deion Barnes, QB Christian Hackenberg, TE Jesse James, DE C.J. Olaniyan, RB Zach Zwinak
Schedule Breakdown: We’ll learn a lot about Penn State out of the gate, as they kickoff their season against Central Florida. Their first three conference opponents are Michigan, Northwestern, and Ohio State.
Analysis: New head coach James Franklin replaces Bill O’Brien, who did an amazing job of stabilizing the program following the disturbing scandal involving the team’s former defensive coordinator. Penn State is in the middle of serving a bowl ban, so Franklin will have to get his players to buy into his philosophy. Hackenberg is the player to watch. He flashed NFL ability as a freshman. Over the next three years, he and Franklin could bring this once proud program back to prominence.
Bowl Projection: None
5. Maryland Terrapins (6-6, 3-5)
Key Players: QB C.J. Brown, S Sean Davis, WR Stefon Diggs, LB Cole Farrand, DE Andre Monroe
Schedule Breakdown: Starting 4-1 or even 5-0 is possible for Maryland, as they enter their first season in the Big Ten. They’ll need a quick start, as their conference schedule is among the toughest in the division. The Terrapins have a six-game stretch that features home contests against Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin. If they can somehow pickoff two wins during that span, it’ll be a pretty good conference debut.
Analysis: Maryland returns nine starters on both sides of the ball, so their experience should aid them well in their Big Ten debut. Nonetheless, the Terrapins simply lack the talent to compete with the top programs in the Big Ten. Diggs could be the equalizer, though. The junior receiver missed six games in ‘13. His return could mean trouble for Big Ten defensive backs.
Bowl Projection: Detroit Lions
6. Indiana Hoosiers (3-5, 2-6)
Key Players: RB Tevin Coleman, LB David Cooper, S Mark Murphy, QB Nate Sudfeld, WR Shane Wynn
Schedule Breakdown: Indiana should closeout the season with a win at home versus Purdue. Their other three conference games at home are against Maryland, Michigan State, and Penn State. They need to win one (possibly two) of those games to put themselves in position to reach a bowl game.
Analysis: The Hoosiers are slowly improving, but they remain several years away from making any serious noise in the conference. The addition of Maryland to the conference could also pick away at their recruiting, so it’s crucial Indiana takes care of business on September 27.
Bowl Projection: None
7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (2-10, 0-8)
Key Players: DE Darius Hamilton, RB Paul James, TE Tyler Kroft, QB Gary Nova, S Lorenzo Waters
Schedule Breakdown: Home games against Indiana, Michigan, Penn State, and Wisconsin will decide the season. If Rutgers is going to surprise in their Big Ten debut, then it’s crucial they win two of those games.
Analysis: Playing in one of the country’s premiere conferences is a big deal for Rutgers. Still, despite the fact they return 16 starters from last year’s squad, it’s going to be a rocky road. Nova is the key to their season. He entered last year with some preseason buzz, but disappointed so badly that he lost his job. He’s back under center this year and needs to play better. Otherwise, Rutgers will go nowhere.
Bowl Projection: None
Big Ten Championship
Ohio State over Wisconsin -- Under Meyer, the Buckeyes won their first 24 games before dropping their last two. You could argue losing their final two games last season humbled them for the upcoming one. The Buckeyes know what they have in front of them. Not only does the fan base expect a Big Ten championship, but they’re also expecting the program’s first national title since the '02 team.
Note: The following article predates the announcement that Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller would miss the entire 2014 season. Click here for an updated preview that takes into account Miller’s injury.