2014 NCAA Football Preview: Big Ten Conference

August 15, 2014

I’m not going to hide the fact that this is my favorite preview to write. Not only am I recent graduate of a Big Ten school, but most of my friends are from the Midwest and also went that school as well. As a result, this is one of the few conferences that actually have questions from the readers. So thanks for that, guys.

For those skeptical readers outside of Big Ten country, don’t worry. I have never been one to display favoritism towards the conference over any others when writing these previews. If you don’t believe me, take a look at my national title predictions over the past four seasons.

If you’re still not convinced, then leave. This is my blog. Go complain on a pro-SEC forum.

Let’s take a look at the Big Ten Conference.


No one is happier about the new College Football Playoff than Jim Delany. It’s been eleven years since the Big Ten won a national championship, and after Ohio State disappointed viewers in 2007 and 2008 with underwhelming performances in the title game, respect has been hard to come by for the conference. But adding three more teams to the mix for a national title does wonders for a conference that, despite all the hate, is still one of the top four in the country year in and year out.

Better still is the fact that the Big Ten has made somewhat of a resurgence the past few years, improving on its bowl record and being competitive in the most prestigious bowls. Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State all won a BCS bowl game in the past five seasons. No other conference can claim that type of diversity among its BCS bowl champions in the same time span.

The conference has a great shot at building on the recent success and continuing to earn back the respect that it deserves. Both the East and West divisions, aptly named after a few confusing seasons as the Legends and Leaders, have squads capable of putting together fantastic seasons and securing a spot in Indianapolis. The Heisman hype surrounding studs such as Braxton Miller, Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah will also be interesting for as long as it lasts.

The overall goal is simple, however. At least one representative in the playoff is a must for the season to be considered even a marginal success for the conference. Right now, the Big Ten looks as capable as any league in college football to capitalize on the new system.

Team(s) With the Best Shot at a Playoff Bid

Michigan State

The reigning Rose Bowl champions are coming off of a spectacular season in which the defense led the Big Ten and were among the top five nationally in almost every major statistical category. And although most people outside of East Lansing wouldn’t recognize a returning starter other than free safety Kurtis Drummond, the Spartans are well-prepared to mimic the success of last season. The defense is littered with upperclassmen and is well coached by defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, but will be challenged right out of the gate when Michigan State visits Eugene, Oregon on September 6 to take on the Ducks.

In order for the Spartans to make a run at one of the playoff spots, the offense is going to have to play equally as well as the defense. Some experts have quarterback Connor Cook as a Heisman dark horse, and Michigan State should be able to return to its power run game thanks to senior back Jeremy Langford. Simply put, the weapons are in place to do significant damage. But with Oregon, Ohio State, Nebraska, Michigan and Penn State all on the schedule this year, chances are at some point that the defense is going to need some help. It will be interesting to find out whether Michigan State’s offense is strong enough to lean on in tight games, something that was not required of Cook & Co. very often last season.

Ohio State

Like Michigan State, the Buckeyes will need to replace the bulk of its most productive unit from 2013. For Ohio State, that unit is the offense, where Urban Meyer’s squad led the Big Ten last season by racking up 511.9 yards per game. Similarly to the Spartans, the Buckeyes should be fine replacing the holes that were left thanks in large part to the recruiting efforts of Meyer. And of course, the presence of senior quarterback Braxton Miller, whose ability to change the game with his arm and legs is unmatched by anybody in the country with the departure of Johnny Manziel to the NFL.

With speed and raw talent all over the field on both sides of the ball, chances are that no one is going to engage in a track meet with the Buckeyes and come away feeling good about the decision. But what stands between the Buckeyes and perhaps a third consecutive undefeated regular season is decision making. The skill is there in the defensive secondary with the likes of Armani Reeves, Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell, but none have assumed a starter’s role before and defending the pass was a soft spot of last year’s team. Even Braxton Miller can fall victim to questionable decisions with some of the throws he still tries to force. Clean the rough edges up, and this is a bona fide title contender. Leave them exposed and it wouldn’t be surprising to see things come undone in early December once again.


With no Michigan State or Ohio State and a home date versus Nebraska, the Badgers could benefit greatly from a favorable schedule. Even a close loss against LSU doesn’t necessarily sink Wisconsin because that contest will be played during the first week of the season. The Badgers return a grand total of eight starters from the 2013 squad, so there could be some growing pains early. In addition, head coach Gary Andersen has put a premium on speed and we may be witnessing a shift from the traditional look of Wisconsin football. But the running game should still be strong with Heisman contender Melvin Gordon leading the charge offensively.

The Badgers would be a bit of a surprise if they ended up in the playoff because in order to get there an almost entirely new cast on defense will have played a major role. Seven times last season the Badgers held an opponent to 10 points or fewer and won all of those games. Four times Wisconsin allowed more than 30 points and lost three of those games. Coach Andersen may be looking for a different type of player than we are used to seeing in Madison, but the message is still the same. Defense will win you games and give you the best shot at a playoff bid.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)


Last year’s Season of Expectations in Evansville was marred by the perfect storm of injuries and bad luck. But 2014 could be the Season of Redemption for Northwestern thanks to a favorable schedule and large number of returnees. The Wildcats miss Michigan State and Ohio State and get to face Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan at home, giving them a good opportunity to steal the West Division from the favorites. The offense should be well-balanced with quarterback Trevor Siemian, who as the sole signal-caller for the team gives Northwestern the ability to be a threat in the passing game. As soon as running back Venric Mark returns from a two game suspension, the Wildcats will be highly unpredictable on offense.

Despite losing seven straight games in 2013, Northwestern was painstakingly close to turning a 5-7 season into a respectable 9-3 campaign. Two of its losses came in overtime while two others were by a single field goal. Assuming that the Wildcats stay healthy, talent gives them the opportunity to win at least six games and a bit of good luck could tack two or three more on to that total. Perhaps it’s best that the country doesn’t expect much from Northwestern, because Pat Fitzgerald’s team seems to do pretty well under those conditions.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player to Watch)

Jeremy Langford (Sr.), Michigan State running back

In any league but the Big Ten, Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford would be a unanimous vote for preseason first team All-Conference honors. But Langford’s production has been overshadowed by that of household names such as Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah, which isn’t surprising considering the conference’s reputation as a rough-and-tumble league that values strong rushing attacks. Last season Langford was fifth in the Big Ten with 1,422 rushing yards and led the league in rushing touchdowns with 18. In addition, only Abdullah averaged more than Langford’s 20.86 rushing attempts per game.

Unlike the other big time backs in the conference, Langford has the advantage of playing with a proven quarterback with a strong arm. While guys like Abdullah and Gordon will surely be the focal point of opposing defenses, Langford is but one of many talented offensive skill players for the Spartans. Don’t be surprised if the senior is able to rip off some big runs as a result of teams lying back to play the pass. Langford’s soft hands also make him a threat in the short passing game, giving Coach Dantonio a complete running back that can be the linchpin of the Michigan State offense.

Out-Of-Conference Game to Watch

Michigan State vs. Oregon (September 6th)

One of several high profile early season showdowns featuring a Big Ten team, this is the type of game that would have been an early make-or-break contest during the BCS era. But post-BCS, this is the kind of game that we as fans should start to expect on a regular basis during the first few weeks of the season. Both Michigan State and Oregon have dreams of playing in the inaugural playoff, and why not? The Ducks return a slew of players from one of the more dangerous offenses in the country in 2013 and the Spartans are fresh off of a 13-1 campaign that ended with a Rose Bowl victory.

As we learned last season, Michigan State’s speed on defense should not be underestimated. Teams such as Ohio State thought that the Spartans could be beaten by spreading the defense out, but Coach Dantonio’s squad is a disciplined bunch. It wouldn’t be surprising to see this game resemble an Oregon/Stanford matchup which have been so entertaining over the past several seasons. Like the Cardinal, Michigan State is set up well to give the Ducks trouble. Discipline and good tackling appear can negate the speed that Oregon possesses and the Spartans have speed of their own to boot. This one will be fun to watch.

In-Conference Game to Watch

Ohio State vs. Michigan State (November 8th)

This game is by no means early in the year, but there is still a decent chance that this will be a clash between teams both ranked in the Top 10. The top squads in the Big Ten East Division will likely settle who returns to Indianapolis in this one, whereas in past seasons the Spartans and Buckeyes were in different divisions. The high flying Buckeyes will again look to outclass Michigan State with their seemingly limitless abundance of offensive talent and might have a better go around compared to 2013. But while Ohio State is stacked offensively, the Spartans have a capable signal caller in Connor Cook who can tear apart Ohio State’s secondary if it experiences the same problems as last season.

We’ll have a much better idea of the relative strengths and weaknesses of each team as the season wears on, but at this juncture it appears as though this is a fairly even contest. Michigan State has a slightly tougher schedule, which means that Ohio State may be the team in better position to secure a playoff bid by November, but that’ll just change the role of Sparty to spoiler. Either way, expect both teams’ desire to win this one translate into a classic Big Ten battle that will favor proper team execution over individual flair. A game decided by a field goal or less would be appropriate.

Conference Predictions

East Division

1. Ohio State (12-0, [8-0])

2. Michigan State (10-2, [7-1])

3. Michigan (9-3, [5-3])

4. Penn State (9-3, [5-3])

5. Indiana (5-7, [3-5])

6. Maryland (4-8, [2-6])

7. Rutgers (2-10, [0-8])

West Division

1. Wisconsin (10-2, [7-1])

2. Northwestern (9-3, [6-2])

3. Iowa (8-4, [5-3])

4. Nebraska (8-4, [4-4])

5. Illinois (5-7, [2-6])

6. Minnesota (5-7, [2-6])

7. Purdue (3-9, [0-8])

Championship Game (Ohio State vs. Wisconsin)

Winner: Ohio State

Questions from the Readers

Q. Will Northwestern decide to be the team they ought to be this year or have another mediocre (at best) season? (Submitted by @OtterArfArf)

A. I think they will have a bounce back season, if you’re comparing it to last year’s disappointing 5-7 campaign. The Wildcats have a lot of talent left on both sides of the ball, which you sort of alluded to by saying “will they be the team they ought to be this year”. The schedule is favorable and I believe that there is a lot of natural motivation for this team that stems from last season’s close losses and ultimately its losing record.

I have Northwestern finishing 9-3, which admittedly is on the high end of their potential this year. But eight wins would also be a good season for the Wildcats. Anything below seven wins would be mediocre considering the talent in Evansville.

Q. Which teams do players want to play the most? (Submitted by @OtterArfArf)

A. That’s difficult to say with certainty, because each team has its own rivalries and important games based on a multitude of factors. So I’ll answer it this way: the teams that everyone will be gunning to beat in the Big Ten are Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Spartans are the reigning Big Ten and Rose Bowl champions, so dethroning the current kings is always a goal for the rest of the teams in the conference. Ohio State and Wisconsin are also perennial conference bullies, plus both have a legitimate shot of being in the playoff hunt come early November.

Q. Can Chris Ash really repair the secondary after one offseason? (Submitted by @kfitz8)

A. I think that the verdict is still out on how much Ash really affects the play of the secondary as defensive coordinator. His resume as a defensive coordinator is fairly short, with a couple of years at Wisconsin before following Bret Bielema down to Arkansas last season. The pass defense numbers under his tutelage are fairly inconclusive, suggesting that he has only been able to do so much with the talent at his expense.

That being said, I do believe that there is a lot of raw, young talent on Ohio State’s roster that Ash will be able to mold into a strong unit if he is the real deal. If Ohio State suddenly becomes a lockdown defense against the pass, then give Ash credit. If the Buckeyes are merely average defensively, I think that is a sign that the talent is doing most of the work rather than the coaching.

Q. How will Michigan State look next year after losing so many parts of their stellar defense and will Connor Cook continue to surprise? (Submitted by @ZM247)

A. I’ve been extremely impressed by Mike Dantonio as head coach of Michigan State, and I see a lot of parallels between the way he runs the program with the way his old boss Jim Tressel used to run things at Ohio State. This is especially true on defense, where Michigan State has been solid for several seasons, not just last year. The last time Michigan State wasn’t ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten in total defense was 2010. That being said, if you take a look at the proposed starting lineup for the Spartans, you’ll see the majority of defensive players are juniors and seniors. These are guys that have bought into Dantonio’s system and philosophy and have had the chance to learn from graduated players over the past couple of seasons. I honestly don’t expect a huge drop off in performance despite the leadership that was lost. It’s like a torch in East Lansing; when guys leave, they pass on the responsibility to the younger guys and the new guard really takes that seriously.

As for Cook, I think if he continues to play well to begin the year people will stop categorizing him as a surprise. His touchdown to interception ratio was the best in the Big Ten last season, so if his completion percentage improves I believe he’ll be regarded as one of the top quarterbacks in the conference this year.

Q. Who do you think will end up being the linebackers for the Silver Bullets? Do you think Raekwon will start as a true freshman? (Submitted by @ZM247)

A. Here is my prediction for the first game starters at linebacker for Ohio State:

Walkout – Joshua Perry

Middle – Curtis Grant

Sam – Darron Lee

As far as Raekwon McMillan starting, I think it is a possibility down the road but not to begin the year. Seniority is a nonexistent factor in Urban Meyer’s system, but I don’t think Grant has performed poorly enough to lose the spot to McMillan at this point. In addition, Ohio State’s early schedule is such that putting a true freshman in at middle linebacker could do more harm that good. Navy’s triple option offense is extremely difficult to read for an experienced player, let alone one who has never stepped foot on a college field. Virginia Tech isn’t the type of team you want to mess around with defensively, either.

I think that you have to play the wait-and-see game with McMillan. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a start at some point in 2014, but not for the first couple of games.

– K. Becks

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