2014 CFN Preview: The Big Ten
Big Ten Preview
By Pete Fiutak
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It was bad enough when the conference had 11 teams and called itself the Big Ten, and it couldn’t change the name to the Big 12 after rounding things out with Nebraska. The Big 14? It’s too clunky.
And that’s what the Big 14 – or the Big Ten plus Penn State, Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers – has become.
It’s now a big giant league with a big giant reach with a network that brings in big giant dollars, but it’s also becoming a bit too … big and giant. And now, it has become the epitome of the modern world of college athletics on a billion dollar scale.
Granted, that’s sort of the way the corporate conglomeration of college conferences has become, as the leagues have jockeyed and expanded to fill needs in some instances, and stave off extinction in others, but in the case of the Big Ten and its latest round of additions, it just seems so corporate.
Penn State’s addition in 1993 was totally understandable - it was Penn freakin’ State.
It was Joe Paterno, back when he was Joe Paterno, and it was one of the premier programs in college football with national title potential each and every year. Throw in the expansion to move the conference closer to the East Coast, and even the traditionalists had to concede that it was a smart move.
Nebraska couldn’t bolt from the Big 12 fast enough in 2011.
While the program was synonymous with the Big 8, and then as an anchor and star of the Big 12, it was a nearly perfect fit for both sides. The Big Ten brought in one of the greatest football programs in college football history, and it was a perfect instant regional rivalry tie-in for Minnesota and Iowa. Meanwhile, Nebraska was sick of Texas being snooty – The Longhorn Network all but sealed the deal – and being a part of the academic prestige of the Big Ten was a wonderful coup for the university.
But Maryland and Rutgers?
There might be college football history at both programs – Rutgers is the birthplace of college football and Maryland won the 1953 national championship – but unlike the Penn State and Nebraska gets, bringing these two aboard smacks too hard of a naked and shameless money grab.
The Big Ten wanted the TV markets, and bingo. Maryland didn’t really have a burning desire to leave the ACC, but it needed money, and Rutgers’ other main plan was either the ACC or be stuck with the American Athletic, and there you go. Welcome to college athletics in 2014.
But on the plus side, the expansion ditched the bizarre Leaders and Legends, stuck Michigan and Ohio State in the same division, and came up with two really good, really interesting new divisions.
Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State in the East? That’s going to be a fantastic bloodbath of a division each and every week when the Nittany Lions get their stuff back together. With Indiana’s fun offense, and with Maryland and Rutgers adding the novelty factor, it’s about as interesting as a division can get.
The West might appear to be the weaker of the two early on, but there should be a really nice, really nasty rivalry brewing over the next few years with Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin all sort of tied together in one way – Barry Alvarez – or another – geography. Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue might not be superpower programs, but outside of a nine hour haul from West Lafayette to Lincoln, compared to the 15 hour road trip from Columbia, MO to Gainesville or from L.A. to Boulder, all the games are reasonably drivable for a long weekend.
Making matters even better overall is the College Football Playoff, giving the Big 14 a better shot now of being a part of the national championship picture after sitting around and watching the SEC have all the fun since Urban Meyer’s Gators embarrassed the Buckeyes in the 2007 BCS championship. Now there’s more of a reason to hope, and not to guess – it would’ve been fun to see what Michigan State and that defense could’ve done last year in a four-team format.
Okay, Big 14, you’ve got your bigger league, and you’ve got your giant money coming your way. Now the product on the field has be as good as the job done in the corporate offices.
- Yeah, yeah, yeah, Michigan State’s defense was fantastic. It also didn’t play too many offenses with a pulse until late in the year. Even then, it didn’t face a slew of offensive juggernauts other than Ohio State, who gagged away the Big Ten championship by forgetting Carlos Hyde existed. Again, the D really was good, but it would’ve been ripped to shreds by Auburn’s running game and picked apart by Jameis Winston.
- Please politely ignore that last statement if and when the Spartans stuff Marcus Mariota and Oregon cold on September 6th.
- Wisconsin, beat someone with a pulse. Please. LSU on August 30th in Houston. If you’re ready to sit at the adult table, you win this game or come darn close to pulling it off.
- No matter what happens in the opener, everything is set up perfectly for Wisconsin to roll through the next 11 games except for one problem – the Penn State loss at the end of the 2013 regular season. The Badgers were far, far better than the Nittany Lions, but a horrible gameplan that ignored the running game wasn’t adjusted in time. Gary Andersen has to prove there's no braincramp like that lurking around the bend.
- It Wisconsin doesn’t find a replacement for WR Jared Abbrederis, there’s no need to play the rest of the season.
- Random funstat: Wisconsin ran the ball 43 times or fewer just four times. Those were the four losses.
- Ohio State, under Urban, beat someone with a pulse. Please. Besides Wisconsin, who isn’t even on the schedule this season.
- There’s a chance the Ohio State defensive line is the best in college football by a ten-mile wide margin.
- Watch out for ... Iowa. Look at that creampuff of a schedule – no Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska at home, and the toughest road games at Pitt and Maryland. It’s not going to happen, but don’t be stunned if the Hawkeyes are 10-0 on November 22nd and GameDay thinks about rolling into Iowa City for the showdown with the Badgers.
- Watch out for ... Northwestern. Last year was a blip. The 2012 team outkicked its coverage, and the 2013 team had a bizarre string of bad luck losses. This year’s team will be closer to the real Northwestern.
- Maryland will be the type of team that can lose to Indiana one week and tag Ohio State the next.
- Maryland at Indiana will be one of the ten most fun games of the 2014 college football season. The two teams will combine for close to 900 yards passing.
- Rutgers is loaded with experience, but the defense is going to be a punching bag.
- Indiana will lead the Big Ten in total offense.
- Indiana’s Tevin Coleman and Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford – one of those two will end up earning First Team All-Big Ten running back honors despite big seasons from Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah.
- One of the main narratives for the 2015 NFL season will be the race for Christian Hackenberg.
- Michigan will finish the season with nine wins, and yet there will be a big movement to fire Brady Hoke.
- Nebraska will finish the season with nine wins, and yet there will be a big movement to fire Bo Pelini.
- The Big Ten’s biggest problem? Talented wide receivers. Maryland has them, no one else does.
- Illinois will be the working definition of fun-bad.
- Minnesota will be boring, there will be times when the offense goes absolutely nowhere, but it’ll be brutally effective. The running game is going to work.
- Purdue will start the season 3-1, and then lose the remaining eight games by a combined total of at least 150 points.
- Michigan State over Wisconsin for the Big Ten title, earning a spot in your inaugural College Football Playoff.
Team That'll Surprise
Northwestern - Completely ignored after a dud year, the veteran team will have an identity on offense with more passing thanks to Trevor Siemian under center full-time and a loaded receiving corps to play with. The defense will be stronger, and the ugly losses of last year won't happen twice. Last year's team should've had at least seven wins - with bad luck against Nebraska and Michigan easily going the other way. This year it'll come up with at least eight. Illinois is a very, very close second in the surprise race. If QB Wes Lunt stays healthy, the Illini will go bowling.
Team That'll Disappoint
The Big Ten in the massive non-conference games - Wisconsin has a chance to make a huge statement against LSU. It won't. Michigan State can put itself on the national title map with a win at Oregon - it won't. Illinois will lose at Washington, Minnesota will lose to TCU, Indiana will lose at Missouri, Rutgers will lose at Washington State, Michigan will lose at Notre Dame, and Northwestern will lose in South Bend. If Nebraska blows the home game against Miami, or if Ohio State isn't great against Virginia Tech, the national press won't be kind to the conference.
Game of the Year …
Ohio State at Michigan State, Nov. 8 - The Spartans will be 7-1 with a week off to prepare for 8-0 Ohio State coming off a win over Illinois. The winner will end up taking the Big Ten East, the BIg Ten title, and a spot into the College Football Playoff. Nebraska at Wisconsin on November 15th will also be a really, really big deal.
5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight ...
1. RB Tevin Coleman, Jr. Indiana
2. SS Earnest Thomas, Sr. Illinois
3. RB David Cobb, Sr. Minnesota
4. CB Sojourn Shelton, Soph. Wisconsin
5. LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, Sr. Northwestern
Coach on the Hot Seat
Brady Hoke, Michigan - A dud of a season in any way will make life difficult for Bo Pelini, and Illinois head man Tim Beckman could be gone with another losing campaign, but Hoke is the one who needs to win big and win often. Does Michigan really want to undergo another regime change? After the way last year ended in a brutal bowl loss to Kansas State, and with just one win in the final six games - a miracle over Northwestern - anything less than nine wins this year might not cut it.
5 Non-Conference Games the Big Ten had better take very, very seriously
1. Cincinnati at Ohio State, Sept. 27
2. Bowling Green at Wisconsin, Sept. 20
3. Texas State at Illinois, Sept. 20
4. Ball State at Iowa, Sept. 6
5. Rutgers at Navy, Sept. 20
5 Best Pro Prospects
1. QB Christian Hackenberg, So. Penn State
2. DE Randy Gregory, Jr. Nebraska
3. DT Michael Bennett, Sr. Ohio State
4. OT Brandon Scherff, Sr. Iowa
5. DE Shilique Calhoun, Jr. Michigan State
5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. RB Ezekiel Elliott for Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
2. CB Darian Hicks for Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
3. LB Vince Biegel for Chris Borland, Wisconsin
4. WR Geno Lewis for Allen Robinson, Penn State
5. DT Scott Ekpe for Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota
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