The Rose Bowls following the ’75 and ’79 seasons, ’96 Michigan, and ’98 Michigan State. These late-season losses derailed perfect Buckeye campaigns, shredded National Title chances, and can be found in the darkest corner of Buckeye fanhood. That same sting was felt in Indianapolis last December, as Tressel-disciple Mark Dantonio’s elite defense stifled the unstoppable Urban Meyer attack. The Big Ten Championship loss joins that list, especially disappointing given that just 7 days prior, the entire state of Ohio was celebrating both the win over “the Team Up North” and the Kick-Six that moved OSU into the coveted Top 2.
When Urban Meyer took over in 2012 he envisioned creating an SEC-type team in the Big Ten; 2 full seasons (and recruiting classes) later, and that dream looks closer to a reality. It all starts under center with Braxton Miller, an explosive dual-threat that has the highlights, experience, national spotlight, and name recognition to make him a Heisman favorite. His passing has improved but he still needs to cut down on the random, errant throws that could kill drives. For what he may lack in accuracy, Miller adds rushing elusiveness and the threat of scoring from anywhere on the field. Gone is RB Carlos Hyde who was the clear workhorse of the ’13 offense. Ezekiel Elliot will take over as the feature back; Bri’onte Dunn and freshman Curtis Samuel will also contribute some carries but Hyde leaves a huge void in the backfield. While Miller will be throwing to one of the deepest receiver corps in the league, his offensive line is quite inexperienced. 4 new guys including Alabama-transfer Chad Lindsey (Center) surround Taylor Decker (LT), the only returning starter. RG Pat Elflein did perform well towards the end of the season and returns with significant game experience. The quicker this unit gels, the better, because breakdowns will force Miller to tuck the ball quicker and take more hits.
The Silver Bullets lose 3 stars in Shazier, Roby, and Barnett, but do return 7 starters and a defensive line that may be the nation’s finest. This unit was criticized heavily, especially down the stretch; over their last 3 games they allowed 38 points per (losing two and almost a third to Michigan), while averaging just 18 per game over the first 11 wins. The linebackers – besides All-American Ryan Shazier - seemed slow and lost at times. With Shazier’s departure this unit must improve drastically, and it looks as though it can. Raekwon McMillan was rated the #1 high school LB in the nation, enrolled early, and looks to join the rotation alongside Curtis Grant (also a former #1 LB). Those two former blue-chip recruits will battle for playing time next to established returning starter Joshua Perry. Darron Lee will also play a key role in the defense as a safety/linebacker hybrid. While the backers attempt to fix some issues, they are aided by a rock solid defensive front headlined by Noah Spence, Michael Bennett and Joey Bosa (each with 7+ sacks in ’13). To fill the coaching vacancy that Mike Vrabel left behind, Meyer brought in Coach Larry Johnson (18 years at Penn State) to coach the D-line, a wise Big Ten football mind. The Buckeyes can make a claim for the unofficial title of “Defensive Back U” over the past few decades; this secondary will be younger but talent abounds.
After opening with a school-record-tying 24 straight wins, these last two losses have left an especially bad taste among the program. You can be sure that a perfectionist such as Meyer will have his team refocused and highly motivated. He has had all offseason to think about his mismanaged 4th quarter against Michigan State, and his bowl game blunder of keeping a banged up Miller in while a fresh Guiton remained parked on the sideline. With a healthy Braxton Miller, a rebuilt defense, and a renewed focus, Ohio State is my selection to not only win the Big Ten East, but win the league and play in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Mark Dantonio brought Michigan State back to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988, much to the surprise of the Big Ten and the rest of the nation. It was no shock to him or his team however, for Dantonio went to Pasadena before the season started and created a video that proved both motivational and prophetic. The defense was expected to be elite, and even exceeded that. The real transformation occurred at quarterback, as Connor Cook grew into the starting role and the Spartans began winning because of their offense, not in spite of it. Coming into 2014, MSU finds itself in unfamiliar territory as the defending league champs with the target on its back.
Since the graduation of school-passing leader Kirk Cousins, the offense had been struggling to get out of its own shadow. Even early last season, the defense was forced to bail out the O (2 defensive TD’s in the 21-6 win over USF). But then something special occurred: Connor Cook evolved into not just a capable starter, but a star (22 TD and 6 INT). Cook played his best ball towards the end of the year and against top 5 ranked Ohio State and Stanford. RB Jeremy Langford returns (1422 yards) and several capable pass catchers provide Cook with options. However, top target Bennie Fowler is gone, along with 3 starting linemen. The talent pipeline on offense is nothing near that of the defense, raising questions about how co-coordinators Jim Bollman and Dave Warner will rebuild the front. All things considered, look for more progress by Cook, and an increase in points per game from last year’s 29 per game.
Dantonio has had great defenses over the past few years, but his 2013 unit was near perfect. Led by the “No Fly Zone” secondary, this unit suffocated opponents and even out-dueled Stanford. Forced to replace All-Americans and team leaders all over the defense, there has to be a step back in terms of production. The linebackers are hit hardest with departures of Denicos Allen and Max Bullough. Strongpoints remain at each level of the defense: up front (Marcus Rush and Shilique Calhoun), in the middle (Taiwan Jones) and in the secondary (Kurtis Drummond and Trae Waynes). Those 5 guys represent the only returning starters – still enough to make it one of the league’s best units. But the collective chemistry and leadership is gone from last year’s dominant force. It is hard to envision the 2014 unit coming close to last year’s pinnacle.
2013 was a special season on the banks of the Red Cedar, and their #4 ranking would have been good enough to place them in the new College Football Playoff. Sadly, MSU missed it by a year, as I see the Spartans taking a small step back. The roadtrip to Oregon in Week 2 could be the best out-of-conference game this season, and will be quite the early test. It comes down to Ohio State and MSU for the league title again, but with the new divisions, they must face off in November instead of December. These two teams are head and shoulders above the rest of the Big Ten, but Meyer isn’t going to lose this one again.
“Those Who Stay Will Be Champions” – the iconic Michigan slogan is becoming hard to stomach, as Michigan Men everywhere are wondering if coach Brady Hoke has run his course and if he must leave to become champions. The win total has declined each year under Hoke, but the way the team collapsed down the stretch is more alarming. At one point, Michigan had a top 3 recruiting class, but that slowly dwindled to the #31 spot. Heading into his 4th season, Hoke needs some positive momentum to cool off his “hot seat.”
Michigan finished 4th in points per game in the Big Ten. Shocking, considering the glaring issues on this side of the ball. Devin Gardner was inconsistent yet again, showing flashes of brilliance (Notre Dame and Ohio State), but also producing absolute dud performances (Michigan State, Nebraska, Iowa). He looked confused at times, and his indecisiveness was crippling. I was in the Big House for the Nebraska game, one of two consecutive games UM was held to negative rush yards. It was this ineptitude that forced out Al Borges and brought in Alabama OC Doug Nussmeier to pick up the pieces. He inherits some talent at the skill positions but must fix the offensive line, whose strongpoint, Taylor Lewan, was drafted in the 1st round. Devin Funchess was a standout at tight end, and now moves over to WR for even more involvement in the pass game. He deserves all the hype he is receiving and will certainly be Gardner’s go-to target. In the backfield, young Derrick Green has improved his build, and will be the feature back in Nussmeier’s new power offense. The unit’s success comes down to two things: Gardner’s consistency, and how quickly Nussmeier can build the offensive line.
Much like the slide in the win/loss column under Hoke, the defense has allowed more points each year, including a touchdown jump from ’12 to ’13 (27 points per). A majority of key pieces return (8 total defensive starters), and they welcome in the most talented high school player in the nation – Jabril Peppers, from talent-rich North Jersey. He will start instantly, and may even receive some snaps on offense and special teams if he can handle the extra responsibility after adjusting to the collegiate level. LB Jake Ryan looks to stay healthy for a full season, and will anchor the middle with James Ross and Desmond Morgan alongside him at OLB. This trio may be the league’s strongest linebacking corps. Up front, Brennen Beyer and Frank Clark will continue to wreak havoc from the ends. This defense has talent all around, and I look for improvements in both stats and playmaking.
The schedule flips this season, and Michigan must face its three biggest rivals (Notre Dame, Michigan State, and “Ohio”) on the road. It will host Penn State in the first ever Big Ten night game in the Big House. But UM must not overlook anyone before the rivalry games start up. That “anyone” I am referring to is none other than APPALACHIAN STATE, a rematch of the greatest upset the sport has seen. Why Michigan would schedule them again is a question for another article, but I see it as a lose-lose all around. Bigger picture, I see Michigan a level below the top 2 in the East, but with a better stockpile of talent and experience than the rest of the division.
Bill O’Brien inherited a once-proud powerhouse that was crumbling amid a dark scandal and crippling NCAA sanctions. He surprisingly brought back-to-back winning seasons despite scholarship reductions and a mass exodus of transfers. His 15-9 record could have been better with a capable Division 1 kicker, as Sam Ficken singlehandedly lost them 3 or 4 games. PSU closed last season with a road upset over #14 Wisconsin in a game they were 24-point underdogs! After two years, B.O.B. heads to the NFL, and left the vacancy for Pennsylvania native James Franklin, who brought Vanderbilt out of the SEC cellar. He looks to work similar magic here with a depleted roster and difficult division.
The good news offensively is that a majority of playmakers return, but the bad news is the departure of both All-American WR Allen Robinson and “Professor” Urschel (OL). Christian Hackenberg had a solid season for a true freshman, but will certainly miss Robinson, as often times he would blindly toss the ball up and Robinson would bail him out. “Hack” surely has great upside, but will not have the same mentoring like he had from QB guru O’Brien. Further, the offensive line may be the worst in the league, by lack of depth and experience alone. 5 key linemen leave, and the other tore his ACL in spring (Dieffenbach). This unit needs answers quickly, but unfortunately they are constricted depth-wise by the sanctions. Hackenberg will undoubtedly have more pressure on him, and will be without his security blanket Robinson. The backfield is loaded though, as the top 3 rushers return – Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton, and Akeel Lynch. Further, the PSU Tight End group might just be the deepest and most talented in America, a Noble unit worthy of praise for its hard-work and dedication to the program.
There are fewer question marks on the defensive side of the ball, as 7 starters return. Playmakers are featured at each level, with DE Deion Barnes, S Adrian Amos, and LB Mike Hull who is the latest leader of “Linebacker U.” The unit must improve its consistency; it held Wisconsin and Nebraska to just 24 and 23 points, yet allowed 63 and 44 to Ohio State and Indiana (first lost ever to the Hoosiers). There is a solid talent base here, but again, the sanctions and transfers have created a huge liability depth-wise. Long-time defensive coach Larry Johnson is gone along with basically the entire staff. Defensive Coordinator Bob Shoop takes over, coming with Franklin from Vanderbilt. Will he be able to install his system quick enough?
The Ireland game vs. Central Florida is intriguing to say the least- don’t write them off simply because of Bortles’ departure, as the defense is strong. Rutgers has had their Week 3 night game circled for a long-time, and I can already sense a regional rivalry forming (at least from the bitter Jersey guys). PSU will play in the first ever Big Ten night game in the Big House, coming off of one of the best games in 2013 (UM-PSU 4 overtimes). Out-of-division, they host Northwestern for Homecoming, and travel to Illinois in Week 13. The Ohio State game (10/25) will be a night game in front of a raucous White Out crowd, and a possible trap game for the conference favorites.
Penn State’s win total has declined each year since the sanctions were handed down. While the mass exodus of transfers surely hurt initially, I predicted that the sanctions would end up hurting further down the road due to severe roster restrictions. So far, that has held true, and I predict either a match of 7 wins or yet another step back to 6-6. Some factors such as the NCAA’s reduction of the penalties, and Franklin’s boom onto the recruiting scene could reverse the trend soon.
Welcome to the Big Ten, Maryland! The Terps join Rutgers in the latest edition of conference realignment, expanding the league to 14 teams. Maryland, a founding member of the ACC, leaves behind east-coast rivals such as Virginia and Duke (basketball) for a Midwest family. The program is now in year 4 of the Randy Edsall era, and he has managed to improve the record despite a devastating string of injuries. Now with his best team yet, Edsall leads the Terps into uncharted waters, or in this case, uncharted plains and cornfields.
Last season Maryland opened up 4-0, and coming off of an impressive 37-0 shutout win over West Virginia, Erin Andrews infamously predicted that they would upset Florida State – in Tallahassee! (63-0 ‘Noles). QB CJ Brown’s injury stifled progress, but they still rallied for 7 wins. With Brown back and fully healthy, the offense has another dimension with his threat to run (12 rushing TD’s). He also has arguably the most talented receiving corps in not only the Big Ten but perhaps the nation. Stefon Diggs was the top WR coming out of high school, while Deon Long was a coveted JUCO prospect. While the production and stats weren’t special last season, the talent is surely there and breakout seasons are coming. Brandon Ross and Wes Brown (back from suspension) provide a duo of RB’s that will complement CJ Brown’s ground attack. The offensive line must replace both guards, but lookout for true freshman Damian Prince (the #2 high school lineman in the nation). Look for this unit to improve upon its 26 points per game in ’13.
The defensive numbers have gotten better each season under Edsall, and he now has his most veteran unit; 9 returning defensive starters is tied for the most in the league (Indiana). While not a single Terp cracks the All-Big Ten two-deep, there are several solid players at each level. The linebackers are most likely the strongpoint, with the deep amounts of experience in the rotation (a rare positive of injuries). DE Andre Monroe looks to match or even build on his 9.5 sacks last season. Meanwhile, the leading tackler Sean Davis (Safety) provides impactful run support from the secondary. The defense better be ready for physical (and talented) rushing attacks, a rarity in the ACC.
Long-term, this was a great move for Maryland. Even further than the national exposure and television revenue, this move unlocks new recruiting areas and may help lock down their own talented area. I expect a regional rivalry to eventually heat up between Maryland, Penn State, and Rutgers – a positive all around. But as they say, “it’s gotta get worse before it gets better.” As a welcoming gift to the league, the Terps were dealt a punishing 6-game stretch: Ohio State, Iowa, at Wisconsin, at Penn State, Michigan State, at Michigan. Their opponent’s talent level is significantly higher than that of the ACC, and it is no simple task to prep for 11 new opponents. Even the physicality will be an adjustment. As we have seen with the transitions at Nebraska (Big Ten), Utah (Pac-12), West Virginia and TCU (Big 12), changing conferences can be a tough process.
Indiana Football has the lowest all-time winning percentage in the Big Ten, and has played in just one bowl game since 1993, the year these seniors were born. Often overshadowed by the Hoosiers on the hardwood, the football program has some optimism heading into 2014, and for good reason. For starters, Coach Kevin Wilson has improved the win total the past two seasons, the program beat (destroyed) Penn State for the first time ever, and returns the most experienced roster in the league (17 starters). With the restructured divisions, Indiana finds itself with an extremely tough schedule and two new conference foes to prep for.
Wilson was planning on having his dynamic quarterback duo return, but recent news has derailed that dream. Nate Sudfield was the pocket passer while Tre Roberson offered the threat of the run (423 yards and 5 TD’s). However, Roberson decided to leave the program in June, taking a significant facet of the offense with him. The lofty 38 points per game mark will most likely not be reached again, especially with that loss coupled with both top receivers moving on to the NFL (Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes). Shane Wynn has the talent to fill the void, but all three benefited from each other, as the defense was spread thin focusing on several threats. RB Tevin Coleman nearly eclipsed the 1000 yard mark last year and benefits from the entire offensive line returning intact.
Most teams that score 38 points a game are not only bowl bound, but probably have 10+ wins. The issue here at Indiana is that the defense allows even more points than that! You know its bad when you finish below 2013 Purdue in a statistical category! Yes, I understand that part of the problem is that the high-powered offense may inflate the overall scoring. That said, entire collapses are unacceptable if the Hoosiers want a bowl season. A whopping NINE defensive starters return, but this is one of those cases where that number is irrelevant without some massive coaching efforts. The time is now for co-defensive coordinators Brian Knoor and William Inge to fix this half of the team. Some names to look out for are CB Tim Bennett, LB David Cooper and S Mark Murphy.
The loss of Roberson surely hurts the outlook, but it would not have jumped them ahead of Maryland. Indiana needs defensive adjustments – and quickly. A roadtrip to Missouri will cause a 3-1 out-of-conference record meaning they must go 3-5 or better in the league for bowl eligibility. I see 4 definite losses, with 3 toss-ups (Penn State, Maryland, and AT Rutgers), and a surefire win over Purdue.
“The Birthplace of College Football” is now Big Ten Country. This long-time member of the Big East accepted the Big Ten’s offer back in November 2012, and is now officially part of the league, joining Maryland in the latest expansion. It is the pinnacle of Rutgers’ resurgence to relevance, after decades of struggles. Greg Schiano brought New Jersey’s team back into the nation’s eye when RU upset #2 Louisville on a Thursday Night ESPN broadcast (2006). Schiano has moved on to the NFL, but laid the foundation for this historic move to the prestigious Big Ten. Kyle Flood leads the tough transition, as the upgrade in opponent strength is coupled with a team that struggled mightily in ’13 and was blown out all too often.
Gary Nova, the Don Bosco Prep alum, has started games since his freshman year, and has had major success early in those seasons, but has struggled down the stretch. If he can maintain his early-season form while cutting down on the turnovers, he can live up to his high potential. Behind him, the backfield is loaded with a trio of experienced runners – Paul James, Savon Huggins, and Justin Goodwin. Each back has had their own shining moments, and look for a “running back by committee” often feeding the ball to whoever has the hot hand. They will be running behind an offensive line that remains intact from ’13 and features Kaleb Johnson, who is receiving All-BigTen praise. With star WR Brandon Coleman’s departure, the main target for Nova will again be the Chester County (PA) product Tyler Kroft. At 6’6”, Kroft presents matchup issues, especially from his spot at tight end. Interestingly, Flood added former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen to his staff as the new offensive coordinator. His return trip to College Park, MD in the final week of the season should be quite a scene.
Rutgers made a name for themselves recently based on their stingy defense, especially in Flood’s first season (2012) allowing just 14 points per game! Khaseem Greene was the heart and soul of the CHOP defense; without him (and 6 other starters), the defense crumbled against any offense with a pulse. 52, 52, 49, 52, 41 … were the points allowed against Fresno State, SMU, Houston, Cincinnati, and UCF. Now replace those team names with RU’s new 2014 foes: Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Michigan (and more). Perhaps the young ’13 defense has grown with experience, and maybe new defensive coordinator Joe Rossi can help turn the unit around. He has some standouts, especially at linebacker, with Steve Longa (the returning tackles leader in the BigTen) and Kevin Snyder. Lorenzo Waters mans the secondary (4 INT in ’13) from his spot at strong safety. The defensive line has two highly touted recruits, both Jersey products. Darius Hamilton, another Bosco Ironman, was a 5-star and could have played anywhere, yet ultimately chose the hometown Scarlet Knights. Meanwhile, Quanzell Lambert was pursued heavily by Big Ten teams (Nebraska, Penn State, Iowa) but stayed home like Hamilton. This duo will face bigger offensive lines than they were used to in the AAC, but could be dangerous.
In our “Welcome to the Big Ten Q&A” with SB Nation’s Kevin Recio, he explained the importance of the game with Penn State. I can sense that this attitude is indicative of the entire fan base – and state for that matter. For it to be a rivalry, RU has to start winning (just 2-22 all-time vs. PSU). Their Week 3 primetime matchup could rival ’06 Louisville for the biggest home game in school history. In addition, RU must face an extremely tough schedule, playing in the talented Big Ten East division, drawing the two strongest BigTen West teams (Nebraska, Wisconsin), plus an August date with “the Pirate” Mike Leach. There will be growing pains for Rutgers, as I only see 2 guaranteed victories, with a probable 5-7 record.