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→
It’s safe to say the pair of young men who shared the Northwestern quarterback duties for the past two seasons do not see eye to eye on the issue of the Wildcat football team unionizing.
While Kain Colter has been the face of the movement since he completed his eligibility after last season, Northwestern senior-to-be Trevor Siemian voiced his opinion against today on a teleconference the Big Ten held for coaches and players from the West division to discuss spring football with the media. Continue reading Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian talks CFB unionization→
You probably have already gathered that Ohio State’s 40-30 victory at Northwestern on Saturday night was closer than the final score, but a look at advanced statistics from Football Outsiders should remove any doubt.
Earlier, I took an overview of the Big Ten and what it needs to bounce back from a very poor 2012 football season. I take a lot more from the regular season than the bowls, but another sub-.500 record in the postseason certainly doesn’t help the cause of the league.
As far as the games themselves, I’m not sure we learned a whole lot.
The 2013 Capital One Bowl was really a quintessential 2012 Nebraska performance as the Cornhuskers gained 443 yards of offense but allowed 146 more than that. They put up 31 points (including an interception returned for a touchdown) but lost by two touchdowns. In short, the offense and defense were both spectacular, one good and one bad. I’d say personnel is the main explanation on both sides – Taylor Martinez progressed significantly (but still has more room to improve even more as a senior) and Nader Abdallah stepped up in the wake of I-back Rex Burkhead’s injury-plagued senior campaign. Aside from Burkhead (whom they’ve shown they can live without), the only real weapons they lose are a pair of talented tight ends, so the offense should continue to hum. Defensively, a bunch of seniors are walking out the door, but I’m not sure that is a bad thing. The talent has steadily dropped on that unit for three consecutive years, and the production has followed. Some new blood could be good, although I would rate Will Compton, Baker Steinkuhler and Eric Martin as players who will be missed. I also think the season and the game demonstrated the double-edged sword that is the multifaceted Bo Pelini (and coordinator John Papuchis) defense. A two-gap defensive line and pattern reading secondary gives the scheme a lot of flexibility, but it also leaves a lot of potential seams that can burst in the case of bad communication. To make matters worse, I don’t think Nebraska had enough guys with the talent to erase mistakes.
Michigan’s defensive numbers were largely a mirage. I like their young linebackers a lot, but the defensive line needs a serious upgrade. The secondary was better than it had been two years ago, but that doesn’t say much. The gaudy numbers they had as a secondary in the regular season were mostly a result of the weakness of Big Ten passing games and the weakness of the Michigan defense of line. Teams were plenty happy to run on the Wolverines until they were stopped. I thought Al Borges bounced back with a better game plan against South Carolina and he did, although it could have used some more Denard Robinson. Devin Gardner has a lot of talent, but he is still raw. Michigan has a playmaking wide receiver in Jeremy Gallon, but it remains to be seen if anyone else will step up to join him. Who knows if they will find a playmaker in the backfield, but the offensive line could be a major liability. It will definitely be young. Getting Taylor Lewan back could be a good start, but he’s not actually as productive as his accolades would indicate. That’s probably why the Michigan coaching staff barely gave him any chances to match up one-on-one with Jadeveon Clowney, who only played about half his team’s snaps anyway.
I suppose we learned Michigan State does not have unending confidence in Andrew Maxwell, but I guess that shouldn’t be a shock after the season he had. Of course he was made a captain before the season started. Are young quarterback in the expected to struggle, but I think the larger issue was with play calling that did not help them out. Of course, it’s hard to call plays when you can’t block anybody. The Spartans just have to get better up front if they want to be good enough to be an upper-echelon team. They should continue to be very good on defense next year even with the loss of William Gholston early to the pros. Depth is very good on the defensive line for MSU.
Northwestern sucked it up and got it done, actually riding a hot start to a postseason victory for a change. The Wildcats’ woeful secondary feasted on Mississippi State for four interceptions and showed some playmaking ability with six tackles for loss, including three sacks. Kain Colter and Venric Mark are wonderful skill players around whom to build an offense, but the offensive line started three seniors who will be missed. The quarterback rotation seems to need some bugs worked out, but a win is a win, especially considering the program’s postseason history.
Minnesota showed that it at least belonged in a bowl (for what that’s worth these days) but giving Texas Tech everything it wanted, but the Gophers couldn’t hang onto a late lead and lost on a last-second field goal. Only seven seniors started for the Gophers, who might have something in freshman quarterback Philip Nelson and sophomore running back Donnell Kirkwood. Leading tackler in the game Brock Vereen is due back at safety next year, as is defensive end Rashede Hageman (six tackles, one sack).
Purdue was kind enough to leave no doubt it made the right move in letting go Danny Hope. My only other thought on that game was that it will be refreshing to evaluate their 2013 roster with the impression any apparent talents won’t be wasted like they were under the Hope regime, which was plagued by injuries and undisciplined play. There are some dangerous skill guys on the roster if they all come back to play for new head coach Darrell Hazell, a former Ohio State assistant.
Rare is the Rose Bowl that feels like an afterthought, but it was hard to take much from Wisconsin’s loss to Stanford. Kudos to the Badgers for hanging tough after falling behind 14-0, but the Cardinal did not exactly lower the boom. Both teams were very conservative, owing to the total of 37 passes thrown and 34 points scored (not that I don’t love a good slugfest and the many varieties of running plays each team came out with). The game did serve as further validation to me of the improvement of the Wisconsin front seven, a group I was not high on at all entering the season but that turned in a really nice campaign. Most of it should be back, so that is a good building block for the new coaching staff in Madison. Nine seniors started on offense or defense for the Badgers, so they will be young and/or unproven at a lot of places in 2013.
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.