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2014 College Football Preview: Big Ten Game Changer
By Matt Horkman

Braxton MillerNews of Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller’s season-ending shoulder injury rocked the world of college football on Tuesday.

By most accounts, the Buckeyes were the preseason favorites to win the Big Ten, and potentially receive a bid to partake in the first ever college football playoff. In fact, in previews coming next week, I was going to pick the Buckeyes as my national championship pick, with Miller being my pick to win the Heisman Trophy.

I hinted as much in my Big Ten preview last week by picking Ohio State to finish a perfect 12-0 in the regular-season, and to defeat the Wisconsin Badgers in the Big Ten championship.

Miller’s injury changes everything, though. The Buckeyes will now start a freshman redshirt at quarterback, leaving them with a significant vulnerability at the most important position on the field. While the Buckeyes are still talented enough to compete for the Big Ten championship, ultimately, I believe Miller’s injury will cost them the Big Ten title.

The entire Big Ten bowl picture changes, as a result. To put this in perspective, this one injury altered 17 of my bowl projections, six of them coming in the Big Ten.

So what does the Big Ten landscape look like without Miller in the picture?

Here is my new breakdown of the Big Ten:

West

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 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: Outback

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: Holiday

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: Detroit Lions

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 (8-4, 5-3)

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. The latter now looks winnable wither Miller sidelined for the Buckeyes. Minnesota ends 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 Wisconsin and Michigan State. The Golden Gophers are 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

East

1. Michigan State Spartans (10-2, 7-1)

Key Players: C Jack Allen, DE Shilique Calhoun, QB Connor Cook, S Kurtis Drummond, LB Taiwan Jones, CB Trae Waynes,

Schedule Breakdown: Now considered the Big Ten favorites, Michigan State’s game against Oregon will play a pivotal role in deciding their postseason fate. A victory over Oregon (plus a Big Ten title) would probably be enough to get them in the college football playoff. The biggest game on their schedule remains their November 8 tilt against Ohio State, which will determine who represents the east in the Big Ten championship.

Analysis: Coming off their first Rose Bowl win since 1989, Michigan State will once 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: Orange

2. Ohio State Buckeyes (10-2, 6-2)

Key Players: QB J.T. Barrett, DT Michael Bennett, DE Joey Bosa, RB Ezekiel Elliot, TE Jeff Heuerman, DE Noah Spence

Schedule Breakdown: Going into East Lansing to play Michigan State with an 8-0 record remains reasonable for Ohio State, even without Miller. The game against Michigan State remains crucial, as it could determine who represents the east in the Big Ten championship. The Buckeyes were probably slight favorites prior to Miller’s injury. Now, look for the Buckeyes to walk into that game as underdogs.

Analysis: All eyes are on Barrett who attempts to replace Miller at quarterback. It won‘t be easy, as Miller has big shoes to fill. He missed three games a year ago, but still managed 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing. Nonetheless, despite Miller’s absence, Ohio State isn’t going to fall of the map. It’s very likely they could still win the Big Ten. Elliot, who recently fractured his wrist, is replacing Carlos Hyde at running back. He’ll probably be ready for the opener against Navy, but living up to his prestigious billing is even more important now. Defensively, the Buckeyes feature one of the country’s best defensive lines. All four starters return from last season, with Bennett leading the charge. Overall, Ohio State figures to slide a game or two in the Big Ten, with one of those games coming against Michigan State. That’s enough to cost the Buckeyes the east division. However, Miller’s injury isn’t going to cost the Buckeyes a major bowl game. If they finish with 10 wins (a scenario still likely), it’s going to be hard for any major bowl to pass on them in favor of some other Big Ten team.

Bowl Projection: Fiesta

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: Heart of Dallas

6. Indiana Hoosiers (5-7, 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

Michigan State over Wisconsin -- Other than Ohio State, Miller’s injury affects Michigan State and Wisconsin the most. The Badgers and Spartans are now the favorites to play in the Big Ten Championship. For this game to have playoff implications, one or both teams will need less than two losses. There’s no way the playoff committee will choose a two-loss Big Ten team over a one-loss Big 12 or SEC school. Because the Rose Bowl is apart of the college football playoff, it’s very likely the Orange Bowl will choose the winner of this game. Per the new bowl procedures, the ACC will then receive the Big Ten’s bid to the Capital One Bowl. This potentially knocks the loser from a potential Orange Bowl appearance to the Outback Bowl.

Also check the ACC and Pac-12 conference previews for updated bowl projections.

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