So much can happen on the first Wednesday of every February, keeping up can be hard, so here’s a look at some of the things that went down in the Big Ten.
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. Continue reading 2014 Big Ten football picks
Earlier we took a look at the East. Now comes the West, which should have an interesting race.
Iowa and Minnesota both showed great improvement last season while Nebraska and Wisconsin have questions but remain contenders. Continue reading Big Ten West spring football review
A second look at the Buckeyes’ win on Saturday revealed that Ohio State and Iowa staged an interesting chess match Saturday at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State had more answers, both in terms of Xs and Os and Jimmies and Joes.
My preseason power ranking for what we might call the Division Formed To Accommodate Michigan (DFTAM or DFTAUM)*.
I am somewhat torn at the top in both divisions when it comes to measuring pure ability/experience/etc. (We’ll worry about the schedule in a future post.)
How the two pairs of teams differ in what can be viewed at this point as relative strengths and weaknesses is pretty striking.
Michigan State and Nebraska both have the potential to be elite at the quarterback position, but there are questions with both.
MSU’s Kirk Cousins was very good overall last year, but he played his worst game of the regular season against Iowa. Taylor Martinez of Nebraska probably has more upside at this point than Cousins, but he’s got a lot farther to go before he can be relied upon, too. I gave the nod to MSU for now, and that pushed the Spartans to the top of my preseason rankings.
The Spartans look stronger at running back and wide receiver due to depth, but there are young players in Lincoln who have some folks excited, so there is the potential for the scales to tip the other direction by November. Offensive line is probably a wash.
On the other side of the ball, the script is flipped. I rank Nebraska ahead of the Spartans at all three levels, but Michigan State has a chance to be better than expected on that side of the ball if some highly touted sophomores step up in their first chances at extended playing time.
I don’t think there is much separation among the next three in that division. Iowa, Michigan and Northwestern all have some major question marks but are coming off bowl seasons.
Michigan brings back the most starters, but that might not mean a whole lot for reasons that differ on each side of the ball.
On offense, the move from Rich Rodriguez’s spread-option to Al Borges’ pro-style attack figures to come with growing pains. How serious those will be remains to be seen, but they could be significant.
Defensively, the change in schemes has a much higher chance of success if for no other reason that the Wolverines can hardly be worse than last year. Maturity figures to help some of those players who learned on the fly last year, but new blood is going to be necessary at some spots. The defensive line could be a strength if five-star recruit Will Campbell gets it together after two disappointing years. That should help the linebackers, but the secondary may be beyond repair until another recruiting season comes and goes.
Northwestern is, well, Northwestern. If Dan Persa comes back looking like he did last year before an Achilles injury, he could be the conference’s best all-around quarterback. Much of the rest of the offense is back, and while there may be few studs among the group, it looks solid overall. Ditto on the other side of the ball.
Iowa lost a lot of heart-breakers last year and a lot of starters this year, but cameos were positive for the new quarterback, running back, linebackers and defensive linemen, so rebuilding might not be as tough as it first looked.
There’s not much hope for Minnesota in the short term, but new head coach Jerry Kill will undoubtedly hope to squeeze as many big plays out of talented quarterback MarQuies Gray and reciever Da’Jon McKnight as he can while he looks to find reinforcements on the recruiting trail.
The Golden Gophers could be surprisingly competitive as those two talents on offense give them a puncher’s chance to scare a few people, but it will probably be a long year in the Twin Cities.
*Still working on a proper name for the Big Ten’s poorly conceived and even poorly named conferences. Feel free to send suggestions to mhartman [at] buckeyesports [dot] com.
Known commodities: Sophomore running back Marcus Coker is coming off a season that saw him pick up 622 yards in only seven games.
Micah Hyde and Shaun Prater return in the defensive backfield. Hyde is the leading returning tacklers after notching 82 stops last season. Both had four interceptions on the season.
In their first chances to play last season, linebackers Tyler Nielsen and James Morris both flashed the potential to continue the Iowa tradition of excellence at that position. Morris finished fourth on the team with 70 tackles.
Mike Daniels is active and capable of making plays on the defensive line, as is Brodderick Binns.
Major questions: How will James Vandenberg do replacing three-year starter Ricky Stanzi at quarterback? Who will be his targets aside from Marvin McNutt? Who will start at the guards? Can they rebuild a defense that faltered down the stretch last season?
Spring game recap: The Hawkeyes closed out spring practice with an open practice on an unseasonably cool April 16. Reportedly, the top performer of the day was receiver Keenan Davis, a 6-3, 215-pound junior who was a four-star recruit at Cedar Rapids (Iowa) George Washington. He showed good hands and athleticism on the last day, indicating he should be ready to fill the role vacated by Derrell Johnson-Koulianos’ exhausting his eligibility.
“We’ve made strides, but we’ve got a long way to go yet still,” head coach Kirk Ferentz told reporters afterward. “So as long as the guys understand that, I think we’ll be OK.”
Issues addressed: Ferentz entered spring without a three-year starter at quarterback, but he had reason to be more at ease than most coaches in that scenario thanks to the great potential junior Vandenberg has flashed during cameo appearances during two seasons as a backup.
“He’s hardly a grizzled veteran,” Ferentz said in reference to a player who logged two starts at the end of his freshman season in 2009 that included an overtime loss at Ohio State. “That was a great experience and I thought he did a real admirable job in a very challenging circumstance in Columbus. That’s all going to help, but I think the thing I was most impressed with was how James prepared last year. I think all of us had total confidence in him. We looked at the situation as being one good football player stuck behind another good football player. We’re all excited to see him perform this year and what he can bring to our team.”
Meanwhile, running back seems to be a position where the Hawkeyes can never seem to have enough good players.
Marcus Coker is back after a 622-yard freshman campaign, but the Hawkeyes are in need of capable backups to help keep his load from getting too heavy this fall. In the spring, senior Jason White and redshirt freshman De’Andre Johnson put their best feet forward to try to earn that right, but Ferentz told reporters in Iowa City he could envision getting some help from the class of incoming freshmen.
The general consensus is an offensive line that returns starting center James Ferentz – the coach’s son – and tackles Riley Reiff and Markus Zusevics has the potential to be very good, but the head coach sounded like he wants the group to remain grounded.
“The three guys with experience are all capable of getting better,” Ferentz said. “If we’re going to have a good football team, we’re going to need that to happen. I think that group will be fine, but we’re not there yet.”
Defensively, the Hawkeyes need new blood at every level, but hopes are high that veterans such as defensive linemen Daniels and Binns along with linebackers Morris and Nielson can step up.
“There are some younger guys you haven’t heard of and there are some older guys like Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns who have been around and played a bit, they’re going to lead the front and do a good job,” Nielson said. “We expect big things from them in the fall.”
Morris looked like a budding star after injuries pushed him into the lineup as a freshman last season.
Advanced statistical revelations*: The Football Outsiders numbers and I had the same view of the 2010 Hawkeyes: They had 10-win talent. Their adjusted scores gave Iowa wins over Ohio State, Arizona and Wisconsin, all games they had to have felt like they should have had in real life, too.
The advanced stats saw the offense better and the defense worse than the traditional numbers did. The passing game was pretty good on standard downs but terrible on third while the run game was decent overall (Iowa has been surprisingly inefficient running the ball the past two seasons compared to the perception of the Hawkeyes). Also of note: The offense got steadily worse as the game went along.
Defensively, the Hawkeyes were just what you would expect: Teams did not want to mess with the rush defense and had a hard time going deep, but they found some success with ball-control passing.
Pro prospects**: McNutt has everything talent evaluators want in a sold NFL-caliber wide receiver with the exception of great speed. He is a big guy with good hands who can win one-on-one battles and knows how to work a zone. Helpful as a blocker, too.
Though undersized for the next level, Daniels is “a typical overachieving Iowa DT who is going to make a lot of plays this year as a senior.” Strong guy is very active.
Binns is a long, strong-armed guy with a good anchor against the run who is just OK as a pass rusher.
Nielsen is better against the pass than the run. Looks tight when asked to make plays in space and isn’t real physical.
Prater has long arms NFL scouts will like and good speed but could stand to add some bulk.
Issues remaining/other thoughts: This should be an interesting year in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes lost a lot of well-known players to graduation, but they left behind a very disappointing season. On top of that, several of the new guys don’t seem that new, and there are a couple of big-name holdovers.
The biggest question for my money is who will replace playmaker Tyler Sash at safety? That is particularly key in a bend-but-don’t-break defense such as Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker prefers. Prater might have it in him.
Can they ramp up the pass rush?
Will one of their young studs at tight end step up to fill that important place in the Hawkeye ‘O’?*SBNation has spent the summer previewing teams across the country using Football Outsiders’ advanced stats. They’ve started a movement not unlike SABRmetrics in baseball, and while I don’t agree with all of the tenets they are establishing, I find them often informative and always interesting. This is just my takeaway from the lengthy preview for this squad. **These are culled from evaluations published by Wes Bunting of The National Football Post. He goes in-depth on a handful of draft-eligible players on every team, and I have significantly boiled them down, so I recommend you read the whole thing.