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.