I think this will be one of the better Big Tens we’ve seen in the past decade or so, but I’m not sure there is an elite team in the league. There should be depth, and that could set things up for a strong 2015, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Ohio State is rebuilding on defense, but that unit could hardly be worse than it was when the ’13 season concluded, so it’s hard to count that as a negative. Michigan State’s offense was a sore spot early last season but finished on a high and returns almost everyone of consequence. They’ll have some new faces on the offensive line, but that unit wasn’t great anyway so they can probably get by with an average front again this season all things considered. Teams may play them differently now that Connor Cook is a known commodity, though. How he responds to that will tell a large part of the tale this season. Recent conference history is littered with quarterbacks who looked good early in their career but plateaued.
Michigan State is, pardon the pun, green in some spots on defense, and it is unlikely the Spartans will be as tough there regardless of how good coaches Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi have proven to be on that side of the ball. The same can be said of Ohio State’s offensive line, though, so it all could be a wash when the teams play Nov. 8.
Originally I thought the massive matchup between the Buckeyes and the Spartans would come down to quarterback play, and it still might even though Braxton Miller won’t play. If the OSU defense is better, as expected, Cook will need to be at his best because I expect Ohio State to head to East Lansing loaded for bear after the Spartans crushed their hopes last season.
I think Ohio State will beat Michigan State and return to the Big Ten Championship Game, but I don’t see the Buckeyes making the first College Football Playoff.
Opening the season against Navy at a neutral site is interesting, but I’m not sure it’s really what this particular squad needed. I think the Buckeyes will be able to out-talent the Midshipmen, but having to spend time preparing for the triple option with a Power Five conference opponent on tap for week two is not ideal at all, particularly considering Ohio State spent the offseason installing a new defensive scheme. That means the Buckeyes could still be prone to breakdowns against Virginia Tech, which is far from an offensive juggernaut but might not need many points to pull out a win under the new Ohio Stadium lights thanks to what is traditionally a great defense, especially against the pass. In the past two years, Ohio State could have relied on a powerful offensive line and Carlos Hyde to overpower VT and worry less about going to the air, but the Buckeyes don’t figure to have that luxury this time around. J.T. Barrett and his receivers need to be clicking from the get-go (although in this sense, Ohio State might be better prepared to face the Hokies than if it had Miller still getting back into the groove after his offseason on the sideline).
Later on, I see major potential for an upset in the Big Ten season thanks to the hangover effect. Since the schedule came out and especially since the OSU-MSU game was set for a prime-time start, I have seen the Nov. 15 trip to Minnesota as daunting. The Buckeyes could be ripe for an upset after the most emotional game of the year (to that point), and the Golden Gophers are a tough, physical defensive-minded team that has steadily improved under head coach Jerry Kill. Playing at night on the road the week before figures to put the Buckeyes behind schedule in getting ready to play Minnesota, too, and that is a big deal considering these teams haven’t met on the football field since 2010 when both teams had different head coaches than they do now.
A loss in the Twin Cities does not figure to preclude a return to Indianapolis, though, as long as long as the Buckeyes take care of business the rest of the year because beating Michigan State would give them a tiebreaker in the final standings.
What about the Wolverines?
The team most likely to have something to say about this is Michigan, although that’s in part because MSU and OSU only play the top three teams from the West division a combined one time. And what about the Wolverines? I am inclined to be bullish on their prospects, though not as much as I thought I would be when last season ended. The vibes out of Ann Arbor have not indicated we are going to see a great improvement on an offensive line mainly held back by youth last year, but a more balanced offensive approach could help avoid that being such a problem when you put everything together this season. Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess are bona fide playmakers, but they will need someone to step up at wide receiver. The running back situation could be improved, too. The Michigan defense has kind of flown under the radar since an inexplicably good 2011 season, but it has a lot of highly recruited players now reaching the age they should be ready to thrive. Will they? I am inclined to say yes, but the reorganization of the coaching staff Brady Hoke performed on that side of the ball had a sense of desperation to it, so that is not a firm affirmative.
And what about the Big Ten West?
Friendly schedules thrust Wisconsin and Iowa to the top of a pileup that could also include Nebraska, Minnesota and Northwestern as contenders.
None of these teams look like juggernauts on the field, but Nebraska is the only one to play Michigan State (none play Ohio State). The Cornhuskers also have to go to Iowa, Wisconsin and Northwestern. Iowa has to to go Minnesota, but the battle for the Floyd of Rosedale is the only challenging trip for the Hawkeyes, who should be pretty good on offense while rebuilding their defense.
Wisconsin’s slate is even easier, though, and the Badgers probably have a better head coach in Gary Andersen, who might change things quite a bit this fall on both sides of the ball. I think a more athletic front seven and a more athletic quarterback will serve the Badgers well, probably leading to as many as 10 wins.
In Indianapolis, Wisconsin might be able to run, but the Badgers won’t be able to hide against Ohio State, which will outclass the Badgers from a talent standpoint and claim the Buckeyes’ first Big Ten title of the Meyer era.
Where they go after that seems to be up for interpretation at this point, though I expect two losses to be too many for a berth in the first College Football Playoff. That would also mean no Rose Bowl since the Grandaddy of Them All will be hosting a national semifinal, but Ohio State would be guaranteed an upper-tier bowl such as the Peach, Fiesta, Orange or Cotton.
The Buckeyes should be one of nine Big Ten teams eligible for a bowl (unless Penn State’s postseason ban is lifted, which would raise that number to 10) as six conference squads finish above .500 in conference play.
Big Ten East
1. (tie) Ohio State, 10-2, 7-1 — Still the most talent in the conference.
Michigan State, 10-2, 7-1 — Here to stay as a contender.
3. (tie) Indiana, 9-3, 5-3 — Kevin Wilson’s program comes of age with his offense ready to go and a defense that can’t be worse than last season.
Michigan, 9-3, 5-3 — A wild card but still one with plenty of questions.
5. (tie) Penn State 6-6, 2-6 — James Franklin’s first season in Happy Valley could be his toughest as the Lions search for playmakers on offense and help in the defensive back seven.
Maryland 6-6, 2-6 — A solid addition to the league if you’re looking for more mediocrity, but a tough schedule to start out. Should be dangerous offensively.
7. Rutgers 2-10, 0-8 — Scarlet Knights played around .500 last season against a bad schedule and will probably be worse against a tougher one this year.
Big Ten West
1. Wisconsin 10-2, 7-1 — Should be fascinating watching Gary Andersen put his stamp more fully on the program. Defense wants to wreak havoc while offense leans on running game.
2. (tie) Iowa 10-2, 6-2 — Lots of weapons on offense, but how good will the defense be
Nebraska 10-2, 6-2 — Some new blood getting more time on defense could be a good thing. Offense should hum.
4. (tie) Northwestern 7-5, 4-4 — An experienced team should bounce back from last year’s debacle, but the schedule is not easy.
Minnesota 7-5, 4-4 — Solid team on both sides of the ball will be tough to play against.
6. Purdue 4-8, 1-7 — Can’t be worse than last year, right? Right? Yeah, I see some potential on offense if the quarterback can take advantage.
7. Illinois 3-9, 0-8 — Cant’ be worse than last year, right? Let’s not rule anything out.
Every year the conference race is shaped by a handful of games that could go either way, either because of evenly match teams or quirks in the schedule. Here is a look at a few not already referenced above that could have a big impact on how the standings ultimately look (but maybe not at the top).
Penn State at Illinois — Nittany Lions will be coming off a state rivalry game with Temple, and by November could be feeling the effects of a long season on a roster with little depth. The Fighting Illini have a puncher’s chance against what figures to be a poor secondary if their transfer QB lives up to the hype.
Northwestern at Iowa — Goofy things always seem to happen when these teams play.
Nebraska at Wisconsin — A better all-around offense could be the difference for Nebraska, which might be the best team in the West but faces the toughest schedule of the three teams who have the best shot at winning the division.
Nebraska at Iowa — Evenly matched teams, but home field advantage and a better secondary figure to be the difference in this one. I picked the Hawkeyes.
Indiana at Michigan — The schedule maker did the Hoosiers a favor, granting them a week off before facing the Wolverines, who will be coming off what is always an emotional game at Michigan State. Could be the difference between Michigan finishing above .500 in league play or not.
Michigan at Northwestern — Wildcats owe the Wolverines for a heartbreaker last year, and Michigan will be coming off consecutive weeks against the Michigan State meat grinder and the Indiana air show. I expect Michigan’s defense to be improved. Will that be the difference?
Indiana at Ohio State — If Minnesota is not a trap game for Ohio State, this one could be a week later as the Buckeyes must avoid looking ahead to The Game a week later. The Hoosiers should be able to score with anyone.