- Ohio State
- Michigan St.
- Penn St.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Two things are imperative for success in college football: talent and coaching. The Buckeyes are tops in the conference in both of these, and by most accounts second in the nation behind only Alabama. They are loaded with talent defensively with guys like Noah Spence, Vonn Bell, and stud true freshman Raekwon McMillan. The loss of Ryan Shazier will also likely be felt in the linebacking corps. Offensively, the Buckeyes lose a lot with 4 line starters, Carlos Hyde, and Corey Brown; but the return of QB Braxton Miller should mean the offense would remain potent. The biggest concern would be becoming one-dimensional and relying too much on Miller to carry the offense. On paper, this team should win the conference and make an appearance in the inaugural playoff.
The Spartans won primarily with defense in 2013, especially early in the season. The offense picked up some as the season progressed, but were largely the beneficiaries of great field position provided by their defense. Still, Connor Cook returns to the helm, and most of the skill players are back. Replacing 92 starts on the offensive line won’t be easy though. The defense will drop off some in 2014 with the loss of key players like Denicos Allen and Darqueze Dennard, but will still be among the elite. If this team can beat Ohio State at home, it will likely be enough to earn a spot in the Big 10 title game.
Michigan is unfortunately stuck in a stacked division; otherwise they’d stand a reasonable chance of a Big 10 title game appearance. They are still a little behind their two East division rivals though. Devin Gardner provides an exciting dual threat at Quarterback, but the offense will feel the losses of Jeremy Gallon, Fitz Toussaint, and Taylor Lewan. Defensively, there should be some improvement, with eight starters returning. Particularly, the front seven should improve with guys like DE Frank Clark and LB James Ross III. Also, the return of Jake Ryan from injury should help.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Although ineligible for the postseason, the expectation to perform well will still be there for new coach James Franklin. Christian Hackenberg should be more consistent this year after a year of experience under his belt, and should be helped out by a three-head monster at RB with Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton, and Akeel Lynch all returning. The loss of stud WR Allen Robinson will leave a hole in the receiving corps though. Defensively, it should be similar to last year: strong against the run, but susceptible to the pass. They do have a lot of depth on defense, so room for improvement is possible.
Indiana should at least be exciting to watch in 2014. They are explosive offensively and porous defensively. Tevin Coleman was the most explosive RB in the country last year, and has his whole offensive line returning to plow the way again. QBs Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson will have to find new WRs to throw to though now that Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes have moved on. The defense was one of the worst in the country last year, but with 9 starters returning potential is there for some improvement. If they can just finish in the top 80 on defense, they ought to make a bowl game and threaten to upset a few teams.
One of the Big 10 newcomers, many people have higher expectations for the Terps in 2014 than I do. It is true that they had significant injury problems the last two years, and return a pair of truly spectacular receivers from injury (Stefon Diggs and Deon Long). The move to the Big 10 presents a much more difficult schedule than they are accustomed to playing. They do get Ohio State and Michigan State at home, but I doubt it will matter. They also have some very tricky road games against Syracuse, Indiana, Michigan, Penn State, and Wisconsin that are all potential losses.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Uh oh. Rutgers is in for a rough season in their first in the Big 10. They went 6-7 against a thoroughly unremarkable schedule last year, and the schedule is significantly harder this season. I’m not sure they have the talent to compete in-conference yet. They do return a lot, but they will struggle miserably in 2014.
The Badgers are the biggest beneficiaries of division realignment, maybe in college football history. Wisconsin is far and away the class of the new West division, and should be able to win the division. Melvin Gordon is a monster at RB, and may very well be the best in the country by the season’s end. Joel Stave will need to find new passing targets, but will be protected by virtually the same O-Line. The defense is in rebuilding mode, but a good Wisconsin defense almost seems like an inevitability in college football. They have the talent and most of the secondary returns. If they can beat LSU on opening weekend, they stand an extremely good chance of strolling into the conference championship game at 12-0.
Nebraska is one of the few teams with a real shot at upsetting Wisconsin in the West. Iowa is the other. Lots of turnover up front could be cause for concern for the Husker offense and the fact that two of the three quarterbacks who got legitimate reps last year are now gone. Tommy Armstrong Jr. figures to be the starter there. Good news is leading rushers Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross are back and the only player who needs replacing at receiver is Quincy Enunwa. The linebacking corps remains intact and will need to pull the rest of the defense together as both the line and secondary require serious retooling.
Although I think Iowa has a better record than Nebraska, I believe they tie in conference play and Nebraska finishes second with the tiebreaker. That being said, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Iowa finish anywhere in the top 3 of this division. Kirk Ferentz has been around for a long time, and for good reason. They return most of their offense, having to replace only two linemen and a tight end. On defense, there will be some retooling, but they are filling in mostly with guys who do have legitimate in-game experience. They also have one of the easiest schedules in the conference. They have a legitimate chance at heading into the November 22nd game with Wisconsin 10-0. They also get to play the Badgers and Nebraska at home.
A team returning 18 starters, ten on offense, and a very manageable schedule should mean bowl eligibility for the Wildcats. Unfortunately, Northwestern faces similar problem that schools like Vanderbilt and Wake Forest do, in that they are a prestigious, private school that faces significant recruiting handicaps. They may also be in worse shape than either of these two in that they have to go further to find a pipeline state with legitimate talent than the other two. However, Northwestern has shown in the past that they can do more with less, so a 6-6 finish should be doable.
Illinois Fighting Illini
An experienced line should help Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt in his first year starting for the Illini. The defense will be experienced, although they were so bad last year that’s not necessarily cause for optimism. Expect baby steps forward for Illinois in 2014
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Minnesota is loaded with offensive experience. They return most of their line and offensive production from last season. Defensively, they should be fine, particularly in the secondary. Here’s the problem. The Gophers significantly overachieved in 2013. Probability says they will return to the mean given their talent in 2014. This paired with a tough schedule will make the regression look bigger than it actually is.
They are almost undoubtedly the worst team in the conference. Rutgers is the only other team with a claim. Their non-conference schedule is so bad, except Notre Dame, that they should win three games there, but don’t expect many (read: any) more. They are replacing almost their whole offensive line, which will be blocking for a set of skill players and QB that were among the worst in college football last season. Defensively, they weren’t horrible early on in 2013, but they are facing a fair amount of turnover and the prospect of being demoralized by watching a bumbling offense.